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Everybody has been so worked up over the Duck Dynasty/Phil Robertson controversy (and, before that, Megyn Kelly’s “white Santa” drama) that it feels like we’ve misplaced our “peace on earth and good will toward men.” I really appreciate Jen Hatmaker’s wise and passionate words on the subject, but frankly I’d prefer not to add any more volume to the cacophony. Instead, I’ve come out of blogging hibernation to offer my reflections on something a little more fitting for the season. A couple days ago, I heard an engaging segment on NPR about sad Christmas songs.

“Bundled up in Christmas is hopefully a lot of joy and a lot of family and a lot of happiness, but that’s always going to be touched with an element of sadness,” said NPR’s Stephen Thompson, and I agree. Whether it’s Nat King Cole’s classic “The Christmas Song” or Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here,” our favorite holiday tunes usually come with a dash of melancholy. It’s what I used to refer to during my teen years as a “happy sadness.”

Every Christmas I have at least one or two songs that wind up defining the holiday for me that year. The last couple of years, the tracks from Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas comprised my go-to holiday playlist. But this year, I can’t seem to get away from the funky “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” by James Brown. The tune has been in heavy rotation on my iPod for the past couple weeks.

As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I was a bit too young to witness James Brown in his original glory. My initial impressions of him were informed more by the mild spoofs of himself that he did in The Blues Brothers or Rocky IV. While those performances were genuine James Brown, they were more riffs on his former greatness than fresh manifestations of his true artistic brilliance. James Brown is remembered as “the Godfather of Soul,” “Soul Brother No. 1,” and “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Signature James Brown hits like “I Feel Good” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” are not just great R&B songs; they’re among the greatest entries in the American songbook. It’s not hyperbole to say James Brown was one of the most influential artists in popular music. Without him, it’s difficult to imagine how any of today’s variations of pop music—rock, R&B, hip-hop—would exist in their fullness.

“Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” was released in 1968 as part of Brown’s A Soulful Christmas album. When I first heard the song  a few years ago, I confess that I listened to it through the filter of the latter-day James Brown caricature. It’s the funky Godfather of Soul talking about Santa Claus going to the ghetto. That’s pure fun and silliness, right? Upon further listens, however, I was struck by how urgent the song is. Not only is it filled with an understated poignancy, at moments it virtually seethes with a biting desperation. This, after all, was 1968—the year that saw Brown moving from being one of America’s most popular entertainers to one of its most vocal activists.

Most notably, 1968 was the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis. All at once, the anger and hopelessness of black people boiled over in the form of riots across American cities. As the nation both figuratively and literally burned, James Brown was called upon to help bring peace to a tenuous situation. On April 5, 1968, the day after King’s murder, Brown had been scheduled to perform a concert at the Boston Garden. In the wake of the Memphis tragedy, however, the performance was initially canceled by Boston Garden management until Boston’s first African American city councilman, Tom Atkins, persuaded Boston mayor Kevin White that the James Brown concert should go on and be televised on local public television as a means of unifying the black community and directing its attention away from the despondency and rage that were hanging in the air. James Brown not only supplied a thrilling performance, he was credited with calming the city’s nerves and keeping Boston residents safely away from the troubled streets.

The full story is chronicled wonderfully in James Sullivan’s book The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America. Indeed, the Boston concert marked something of a turning point in Brown’s career. After that show, President Lyndon Johnson implored the singer to perform a benefit concert in Washington, D.C., to promote a message of nonviolence. And later in the year, Brown would release his groundbreaking hit “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which placed him squarely in the fray of the civil rights movement’s struggle for racial justice in America.

It’s against this backdrop that Brown recorded “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” And once you get past the initial funkiness of the track (check out the quick burst of “Jingle Bells” during the saxophone solo), it’s hard not to hear it as a type of subversive protest song.

Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto

Hitch up your reindeer, uh!

And go straight to the ghetto

Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto

Fill every stocking you find

The kids are gonna love you so, uh!

What’s most striking about the song to me is how Brown acts as the tour guide for Santa, the one man whom you’d suppose knew his way around all parts of the world. But in 1968, Brown understood that Santa Claus, and all he might represent in this context—the government? the church? white America?—needed instructions for navigating their way around the ghetto, a place that was presumably foreign to them.

Leave a toy for Johnny

Leave a doll for Mary

Leave something pretty for Donnie

And don’t forget about Gary

“Tell ’em James Brown sent you,” the singer goes on to say, at once offering himself up as the conduit for connecting with the hidden pain of the black community.

I confess, “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” is an odd candidate for the Christmas canon. It does not receive the acclaim of R&B holiday classics such as Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” or the Temptations’ rendition of “Silent Night.”  It will never be sung by neighborhood carolers or during a church Christmas Eve service. But 45 years after the song’s release, in a 21st-century era that still boasts disturbing social and economic disparities between rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and non-immigrant, it might do us well to take Soul Brother No. 1’s desperate plea to heart. Could it be that he’s calling us to pack up our sleighs and remember the contemporary “ghettos” in our midst?

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Illustration: “Change” by artist Charles Criner at the Museum of Printing History in Houston, Texas. (http://www.printingmuseum.org/crinerprint.php)

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention it was Joel Hunter. At the 2009 presidential inauguration it was Rick Warren. This year it was Louie Giglio. Evangelical pastors who drew criticism for their associations with Barack Obama. The rancor is bipartisan — stones are thrown from both the right and the left. And it’s not just pastors who are targeted: anyone remember the controversies involving magazine publisher Cameron Strang or gospel singer Donnie McClurkin? Regardless of your politics, if you’re a Christian leader who has ever taken your job seriously, becoming yoked with Barack Obama can be public-relations kryptonite.

Giglio, a popular Atlanta-based pastor, was set to offer the benediction at next week’s inauguration ceremony. But he withdrew after coming under fire from gay-rights activists for a 15-year-old sermon in which he was critical of the homosexual lifestyle. For many evangelical Christians, it was just further proof of the rampant political correctness that now pervades society, making it nearly impossible for people of faith to, you know, say and do the stuff that defines them as people of faith. For many gay-rights activists, it was viewed as another victory and a message to the nation that anything smacking of homophobic intolerance will not be tolerated.

This points to the first rule any pastor aspiring to rub shoulders with the president or others in high places should heed in this age of Google and YouTube: your sermons are not just for the ears of churchgoers anymore, and they may be held against you at some future date by those who have no interest in the contextual nuances of your biblical preaching.

But is that it, then? Is the culture war settled? Have all Christians with beliefs that conflict with the agendas of certain political-interest groups been served notice that they are now persona non grata at public ceremonies like the presidential inauguration because their values are considered hateful or out of step with mainstream ideas?

Or is it possible for both Christians and their cultural opponents to extend an olive branch, seek common ground, and in the words of the Lord via the prophet Isaiah, “come and reason together”?

 

Obama the Reconciler

What gets lost in these sad but predictable controversies is the fact that we have a president who perhaps more than any other modern occupant of the White House has befriended a wide range of evangelical leaders. Though evangelical voters generally do not support President Obama, this hasn’t stopped him from seeking commonality with them. The president selected Giglio in part because of the work he’s done to battle child slavery and sex trafficking. In fact, someday when the first real histories are written on such matters, it might be argued that Barack Obama was not just our nation’s “first gay president” but its most evangelical one as well.

The irony of this latest debacle is that it undermines Obama’s intentional efforts to be a president of inclusivity. When you’re the nation’s first African American president, the expectation (or, unfortunately for some, suspicion) is that you’re going to be a president who promotes diversity. For the same reason, President Obama has been obliged to demonstrate that he’s the president of conservative white people too, and not just people of color or those who agree with his policies.

That’s why the lineup for the inauguration was so inspired: it offered a little bit for everyone. President Obama’s civil rights side was represented in the choice of Medgar Evers’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, giving the opening prayer; his support of both Hispanics and the homosexual community was reflected in the choice of having gay Latino poet Richard Blanco recite a poem; and his identification and shared aims with evangelical Christians was reflected in the choice of Louie Giglio closing out the proceedings.

Some might say he’s a calculating politician playing identity politics, and they probably aren’t wrong. But it’s also important to recognize that Barack Obama’s background uniquely prepared him to be a president of many groups and constituencies.

One reason why many Christians have supported this president, even though they’ve disagreed with some of his policies, is because they sense that he gets it, that he’s willing to try to see the world from perspectives other than his own. He wants to understand the other point of view. Even though he might support an opposing position, he demonstrates empathy and a willingness to listen to others. This is an invaluable trait that we’ve rarely seen in other presidents. It seemed to emerge in Lincoln as both his presidency and the Civil War unfolded. FDR appeared able to step outside his privilege and display it. LBJ, for all his defects, had it enough to pass landmark civil rights statutes. Jimmy Carter has shown it more since leaving office. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush demonstrated flashes of it at various times, especially in the early parts of their presidencies. But Obama gets it honest because as a mixed-race kid who grew up in rural, urban, and international settings, he’s lived it. As biographer David Maraniss observed:

Obama … spent ten crucial years of his life, from the time he left Hawaii at age 17 to start college at Occidental in L.A. to the time at age 27 that he drove up to Cambridge to start at Harvard Law, trying to sort out the problems that life presented him, to work out his identity and resolve the contradictions of growing up … a mixed and cross-cultural kid. He worked his way through his problems so thoroughly and effectively that it helped him reach the White House, and once there this fact both helped and hurt him. In some sense, he thought that if he could resolve the contradictions of his own life, people and factions should be able to figure out how to resolve their differences just as he did.

There was no greater evidence of Barack Obama’s intrinsic empathy than his brilliant “race speech” in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign. Though presented in part to do damage control after YouTube videos of his former pastor’s blistering critique of America surfaced, it became Obama’s signature statement on race relations and reconciliation in America — his most eloquent and comprehensive comment on the subject to date. “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” he said. “I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression…. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners…. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

In that speech, Obama revealed the depth of his understanding of race and class in America — his empathy for the “the doctor and the welfare mom … and the former gang-banger” who all occupy pews at black churches like Trinity Christian in Chicago, as well as for “working- and middle-class white Americans” who have “worked hard all their lives … only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.” No other presidential candidate has spoken with more realness and credibility about the modern American condition because he was a product of it all.

Unfortunately, both that speech and President Obama’s gestures to show inclusivity at the inauguration were politicized by warring factions. The cynicism runs so deep that it has become impossible for our nation’s political parties to view their ideological rivals as anything but the enemy.

 

Lincoln, King, and Our House Divided

It was announced last week that for his swearing-in ceremony President Obama will use Bibles that belonged to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. — two leaders who thoroughly understood the importance of dialogue and conciliation with those from “the other side.” President Obama has been symbolically and directly tied to both of these leaders’ legacies from Day One for a variety of reasons. Like Lincoln, the tall and lanky law expert Obama earned his political wings in Illinois and went on to become an unlikely occupant of the White House, where he now presides over a divided nation. And journalists and scholars have written breathlessly about Obama as the human fulfillment of King’s “dream” of racial integration.

But the comparisons are not unwarranted. Lincoln presided over a nation that was ripped in half by a literal culture war whose manifold consequences continue to stymie and divide our nation today. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he presciently said as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, echoing the words of Jesus. He worked boldly, first to keep the Union together but later to eradicate the sin of slavery that enslaved it. Many have compared the state of contemporary American politics to that of a new civil war, with Obama charged with somehow bringing the Union back together.

And King, the southern Baptist preacher trained at northern theological schools, brought a social-gospel vision and evangelistic impulse to the challenge of leading African Americans and eventually the entire nation toward a new understanding of community and citizenship. On segregated battlegrounds such as Montgomery and Birmingham, King was able to work out the ideas of nonviolent resistance that he had studied and witnessed in the activism of Gandhi, the writings of Thoreau, and the New Testament teachings of Christ. Obama likewise has tried to work out his ideas about a multicultural citizenry in the Red State/Blue State context of our current segregated culture.

When President Obama decided upon the symbolism of using Bibles from these two great men, he surely was cognizant of their legacies, as well as the legacy he would like to leave.

 

Our Shrinking Humanity

The historic symbolism of the inauguration — and the tragedy of Louie Giglios’s withdrawal from it — is underscored even more by the fact that the public event falls on January 21, which this year marks the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It has become popular to suppose which positions Dr. King would take on contemporary issues such as affirmative action, immigration, and same-sex marriage. The truth is, conjecture can be fun but no one knows for sure how King would have evolved on specific matters. I am willing, however, to go out on a limb and say King would be supportive of Barack Obama’s efforts to represent and reach out to America in all its complicated and contradictory diversity.

In Stride Toward Freedom, King said that one can only “close the gap in broken community” by meeting conflict with love. “[I]f I meet hate with hate,” he added, “I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.” For King, the systematic depersonalization of other human beings was at the root of our nation’s sins of racism and social inequality. It doesn’t take much effort to realize how we continue to depersonalize other human beings today through sexism and classicism, xenophobia and homophobia, and — yes — through political smear campaigns as were done on Shirley Sherrod and now Pastor Giglio.

Though his organizing committee may be backpedaling now, President Obama knew there would be stark differences in the worldviews of those he invited to participate in his inauguration. At some intrinsic level, I’m betting he saw value in putting those differing ideas on the same platform together.  It’s a shame that our nation’s collective imagination and humanity are no longer big enough to tolerate an America where we can practice loving our neighbors, even as we disagree with their politics.

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A year ago I fancied myself moving the cause of racial reconciliation forward by suggesting that it was time that we phase out Black History Month. Remember that? Well, I return to you in 2011, humbled, chastened, and a little less hopeful than I was 12 months ago.

Here’s the thing: I still think genuine racial reconciliation would mean that we eventually move away from Black History Month as a remedy to cultural ignorance and the lingering effects of America’s racist past and that we’d fold its celebration into the everyday fabric of our national culture. Though I think this has been happening in our society to an extent, in my cognitive slowness it has become clear to me over the past several months that to retire Black History Month (or any other cultural awareness month) at this point would run the risk of wiping out any progress in cross-cultural understanding that we’ve managed over the past 85 years since Carter G. Woodson introduced the concept to the nation. (For some great trivia about the history of Black History Month, check out this article.)

So, why am I repenting and backtracking from my position of a year ago? Well, to put it bluntly, I get the feeling that certain folks have identified our nation’s “inconvenient” parts of history as key hurdles to advancing their own political and ideological agendas, so as a result they’ve decided (whether intentionally or subconsciously) to erase, ignore, or conveniently forget that history.

What am I talking about? Well, last month I blogged about that other Arizona law, the one that targets ethnic studies programs in schools. Proponents of this new law have labeled ethnic awareness programs as “propagandizing and brainwashing” students and stoking resentment against white people. In other words, teaching young Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans about the history of their people in this country runs the risk of stirring up too many unpleasant moments from the past. Better to just not talk about it and focus on those things that the majority culture deems legitimate American history. I apologize if my cynicism is creeping through here, but the point is, the Arizona case is an extreme example of the fear and suspicion that a non-white perspective on history elicits from some white people (another example might be the white vs. black interpretations of the infamous Jermiah Wright sermon).

Then there are the instances of prominent white pundits and polticians playing loose with the basic facts of American history. Glenn Beck’s desire to out Martin Luther King Jr. as a Tea Party sympathizer and “reclaim the civil rights movement” as some sort of conservative political phenomenon was eloquently rebutted by columnist Leonard Pitts. And Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s suggestion during a speech in January that the Founding Fathers worked to end slavery left even some conservatives scratching their heads. And who can forget Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s romanticized memories of the civil rights era during his youth in the Deep South? Then there was that odd bit of political theater with the incoming, Republican-led Congress’ public reading of the U.S. Constitution in January that seemed to be the GOP’s symbolic way of reminding America that they are the true keepers of the Constitution as it was written. However, as columnist Clarence Page pointed out, their decision to leave out certain passages could lead one to wonder how committed to the original document they really are. He wrote:

Making good on a campaign promise, the Republican-dominated 112th House of Representatives opened with a reading of the Constitution. But the leaders copped out of reading some of the most thought-provoking parts.

They decided to read only the Constitution-as-amended. That means they left out parts of which we in today’s America are not so proud — like the clause in Article I that declared slaves would be counted for purposes of reapportionment as only three-fifths of a person.

Seems like a reasonable detail to include if one is determined to stay as true as possible to the Founders’ original intent. But I digress. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we need to hold on to all of this history for purposes of harboring grudges or waving it before white Americans as proof of their enduring racism. While some activists make a good living off of that, I think that’s just as bad as attempting to revise or forget the history that doesn’t line up with the way we think America ought to be viewed. No, the more important reason that we should continue to practice racial and ethnic awareness with all intentionality is that it keeps us accountable.  If we’re honest with it, it will guard us against repeating those previous sins and misdeeds against our brothers and sisters, and perhaps help us, as Dr. King said, “to rise up and live out the full meaning of our nation’s creed: that all men are created equal.” 

Perhaps the most compelling reason for remembering and rehearsing the difficult aspects of our history is because that’s the stuff—the failures and contradictions, along with the courage and compassion—that makes us truly American.     

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,” said James Baldwin in his brilliant 1963 essay, “A Talk to Teachers.” Until we grasp more fully what he meant, I think we’ll continue to need an annual reminder.

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I learned yesterday that my dear friend Dr. Howard O. Jones passed away on Sunday at age 89. Dr. Jones was the first African American evangelist to join Billy Graham’s ministry team back in the 1950s. In my book, Reconciliation Blues, I talk about some of the hostility and discrimination that he encountered from other Christians because of his race. I helped him write his autobiography, which was published by Moody in 2003.

As I worked with Dr. Jones, I was struck primarily by his passion for God and for preaching the Good News. The gospel seemed to naturally exude from him, no matter what he was doing or discussing. He was a preacher to the core, and he sincerely believed that a relationship with Christ would provide the answer to any problem or trial that we face in this life.

I also was struck by Dr. Jones’ devotion to his beloved wife, Wanda, who had been his partner in ministry for more than 50 years. Together they raised five kids and traveled the world to preach the Word of God. When I first met Dr. Jones back in 1997, Wanda had been battling the effects of Alzheimer’s disease for a few years. I recall accompanying Dr. Jones to the Oberlin, Ohio, nursing home where Wanda was a resident for the last few years of her life. I remember the tender way that he fed her and read to her from his Bible. Though she could no longer speak, her eyes seemed to light up as he spoke to her. When Wanda died in 2001, Dr. Jones was devastated. But he held on to his faith in God, and he would tell Wanda’s story (and pass out copies of her book) wherever he went.

Dr. Jones was a great man of God who loved Christ with all is heart. I’m grateful that  I had the chance to know him personally and to help him record his story for posterity. He leaves behind a legacy of faith, courage, and reconciliation that should inspire the church for generations to come.

If you’re interested, you can read my 1998 Christianity Today profile of Dr. Jones. I interviewed him for Decision magazine back in 2002. Also, his autobiography, Gospel Trailblazer, is available through Amazon.

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It was ten years ago that my Christianity Today colleague, Mark Galli, and I moderated a forum based on issues raised by the then-new book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith. That CT forum featured an illustrious panel of pastors and theologians, including Elward Ellis, Robert Franklin, Charles Lyons, John Ortberg, and J. I. Packer. We discussed the book’s central theme (that evangelical theology actually contributes to the race problem in America) and grappled with its implications for the church. It was an important moment and hopefully a helpful article for CT’s readers.

Well, in a stunning reminder of how quickly time flies (and how old I’m getting), we are now looking at the ten-year anniversary of that seminal book’s release. In commemoration of this event, Indiana Wesleyan University is hosting “Divided by Faith: A Decade Retrospective” next weekend (Oct. 15-16). This unique conference will use that 10th anniversary as an occasion to reflect on the progress and missteps made in the arena of racial reconciliation and diversity among evangelicals over the past decade, and will feature a variety of scholars and panel discussions. You can find out more here. I’ll have the honor of interviewing Michael Emerson during the Friday-evening session.

If you’re in the area (or can swing a quick flight to Indiana), please think about attending. I’d love to see you there.

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There’s a great conversation going on at David Swanson’s blog regarding something I said in my commentary on Shirley Sherrod that was published at UrbanFaith.com. At one point in that commentary, I suggest that, to the minds of some white people, being called a “racist” might feel like the equivalent of calling a black person a “nigger.” It was just one of those secondary thoughts that occurred to me while I was writing that I decided to include in the article, but it turned out to be the line that David, and I’m sure many others, got stuck on. So, the discussion at David’s blog revolves around whether that observation is true. Most of the participants over there disagree with my suggestion, but I think their thoughtful responses prove that it’s a worthwhile idea to ponder.

Anyway, my good friend Shlomo chimed in at David’s blog to defend me against some of the mild criticism I was getting there, which I thought was very generous on his part. Thanks, Shlomo. But, as I noted in a comment that I left there, I’m not offended by those who disagree with my statement. In fact, I love it when folks can wrestle honestly with this race stuff.

All that to say, I thought I’d post the response that I left at David’s blog here too, just in case you’d like to read it.

********************************************************************************************

I was a bit reluctant to comment here at first, because I don’t want to come across as sounding defensive. But I do want to thank David for getting this excellent discussion going, and my dear brother Shlomo for coming to my defense.

But, I must say, I was not offended by Tomi’s statement. Part of my purpose in writing the Sherrod post (and most of the race-related commentaries that I write) is to get people thinking about the issue from different perspectives. I’m black, but as I write I try to place myself in the shoes of the white or Asian or Latino or Native American persons whom I hope will read my stuff. With the Sherrod piece, in particular, I was trying to imagine the situation from the perspective of the white conservative who has heard the “racist” label pointed in his direction for too long, even as he observes in our culture what seems to him to be racist and hateful talk coming from the very black folk who would dare accuse him of prejudice and hate.

As I’ve listened to Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and other lesser-known but still outspoken conservatives, it occurred to me that, to their minds, the “racist” tag must hurt in the same way that they believe the n-word hurts black people. How else to explain the fervent expressions of anger and resentment that the r-word elicits from some white conservatives? In making that observation, I was not suggesting that the two words are truly equal in their historical power to hurt and humiliate. But in this current era of racial change and upheaval (some of us might call it progress), where many whites feel threatened by what they sense as a loss of their rights and privileges, that r-word may feel to them like an unassailable weapon that smears and dehumanizes them and, more or less, shuts down the possibility of any further discussion.

So, on the one hand, I agree with Tomi that it was a “ridiculous” comparison for me to make. But I suspect it doesn’t sound as far-fetched to some of our more conservative brothers and sisters.

Last week, after the Sherrod story blew up, NPR’s Tell Me More had playwright Anna Deavere Smith on to discuss how Americans talk about race in politics, media, and personal relationships. As she chatted with host Michel Martin, she said something that really stuck with me. She said:

“Everybody thinks they know about race because everybody has one. But knowing about race has less to do with the race you have; it has to do with the race you don’t have. It has to do with the extent to which you seek out that which is different from you to have knowledge and to create collaborations. And I think that’s what we don’t know enough about right now.”

I thought that was a brilliant assessment of where we are in America with race—and where we need to go.

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I’ve kind of avoided the topic of Black History Month this year until now, almost the end of the month. The reason is, I’ve been kicking around in my mind this notion of “Black History Month Syndrome.” Now, stay with me a minute.

What is Black History Month Syndrome? I’ll define it roughly as “the national, institutional, or personal tendency to reduce the value of racial, ethnic, or cultural awareness and celebration to a designated day, week, or month of the year.” That is, we do our annual observance of the thing for that set period of time, and then we don’t think about it seriously again until that same time next year. This could pertain to our current national Black History Month in general, or any similar type of annual heritage observance. Think of the annual Diversity Sunday at your church, or the great PBS documentaries on race that you have be on the lookout for during that elusive 28-day window in February, or that special issue of Time, Newsweek, or Christianity Today that trots out the usual ethnic or female voices for the annual “special issue” on African Americans or Asians or Hispanics or women.

When I was with Christianity Today, I often felt conflicted about this phenomenon. On the one hand, I rejoiced at the idea of being able to profile a significant nonwhite figure or highlight dynamic things happening in other parts of the church besides the white evangelical majority. However, on the other hand, I disliked the idea that we could only do it in a significant way usually one issue per year. I always felt our ethnic, nonwhite, and female readers could see right through our shtick. They knew we were just paying our annual homage to diversity and that it wasn’t a real living and breathing part of who we were. My argument always was that we should strive to incorporate those diverse voices into the magazine on a more regular basis, not just in annual splashes. We needed to let nonwhite and female readers know that they were a valued part of the evangelical community and not just some exotic oddity that we turned the spotlight on once or twice a year. (To its credit, I think CT does a better job nowadays of being more diverse and multicultural year-round, though I know some critics would still beg to differ.)

Over the years, I’ve struggled mightily with this phenomenon. While I appreciate Black History Month (as well as Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, and Women’s History Month) and value the opportunity to highlight special achievements and honor an important part of our national history, I also long for a time when we’ll no longer have to consign the recognition of that history to a particular week, month, or magazine issue.

That brings me to my main reason for doing this post. I’ve been kicking around this theme of “the myth of post-racial America” for a possible book project, and as part of that I’ve entertained the admittedly outrageous (and possibly heretical) idea that perhaps we should set an actual date in the distant future for the official dissolution of Black History Month, sort of like President Obama setting a withdrawal timetable for our troops in Iraq. For instance, let’s say we resolve that in 2020 we’ll officially discontinue all celebrations of specific heritage months (African American, Hispanic, Polish, etc.) and begin to incorporate a recognition and appreciation of those various heritages into the regular and daily flow of our national calendar and lives. This will mean that we study black history and American Indian history and Hispanic history regularly in our school curricula, that on July 4th we include Native American, black, Hispanic, and Asian historical figures in the mix along with the other great American patriots that we commemorate on Independence Day. (This may also necessitate an immediate abolishment of Kwanzaa and a renewed national effort to remind Americans that Christ did not enter the world as a blonde, blue-eyed European infant.) 

Alright, I know I’m sounding loony now. But my point is, when does it end? Will we always need Black History Month-type observances? Does authentic racial and cultural reconciliation in our country require that we observe our various annual heritage events in perpetuity? Or would true progress in reconciliation suggest that as a church or community or nation we should decide that, at some point down the road, we’ll need to grow out of the necessity of our Black History Months and move on toward a more natural and genuine embrace of the diversity of our nation?

I understand that part of the reasoning behind these various heritage months is that the United States has not always been kind to those on the margins of society. The full benefits of citizenship were not always available to those of a certain race or gender. And to this day, the majority culture still tends to divide the nation based on what it has historically deemed to be the “real Americans.” Therefore, we’ve needed to designate a special time to acknowledge, teach, honor, and celebrate the value and contributions of those groups that have been forgotten, oppressed, or systematically excluded from the national canon of history. But does our nation’s sinful and dysfunctional record on matters of race and diversity mean that we will always need to manufacture these annual days and weeks and months as a reminder of what we’re really supposed to be—as a nation and as human beings?

The apostle Paul said, “For we now know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Cor. 9-12). Might this principle of “growing up” also apply to our annual heritage celebrations and observances?

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me a story that has stuck with me ever since. My friend, who is white, is a strong believer in racial reconciliation and justice ministries. A talented musician, he leads a multiracial community gospel choir. He shared an experience that he had as a seminary student interning at an African American church. Leading special music during a Black History Month program at the church, he introduced a song by saying, “This month we celebrate Black History, but our prayer is that, one day, we will no longer have a need for a special month like this.” His point, of course, was that ideally someday our nation would progress to the place where a special heritage month was no longer the only time that we would acknowledge and value the importance of black history. However, in an awkward moment, the pastor pulled him aside after the service and politely advised him, “Don’t ever say something like that again.” My friend was very apologetic, and after a brief moment he was able to recognize why what he said was problematic. For that black church leader, the suggestion that we should strive toward no longer needing a Black History Month was tantamount to saying we should work to get rid of Christmas or Easter.

That pastor’s reaction leads me back to my original concern. The question again: If Black History Month and our other annual cultural heritage observances are really accomplishing what they’re intended to, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that the day will come when we will no longer need them?

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