Every February, Black History Month, Americans engage in a futile attempt to squeeze into 28 days the history of a people whose tribulations, contributions and successes are on every page of the American narrative. For African Americans, at least, the struggle to tell our story and make sense of our place in the American saga never recedes from view.
Understanding who we are and why we have suffered so much in this country are something like existential questions that wax and wane, coinciding with the peaks and valleys of anti-Black racism. Are we more than the identities and labels people have given us? Is there more to our narrative than the whip and the chain?
Some have tried to find a sense of origin in the remnants of African culture that survived the middle passage and that made their way into the religious and social lives of Black communities. Black history, we think, is there, broken and fragmented, in the spirituals and the blues. Others have pursued a more direct route, taking DNA tests to find their roots. And some African Americans are moving back to the motherland.
Black religious groups, in particular, have struggled with questions of identity and history. That is no surprise given that some theologians and pastors justified our enslavement by evoking the curse of Ham, saying that African people were predestined to servitude.
This has led to the criticism from within our communities that Christianity is a white man’s religion. Resisting this idea is a regular feature of many preachers’ sermons. They argue that the white supremacy practiced by “Christian” enslavers was a corruption of the religion, not the thing itself.
The Black Hebrew Israelite movement gives African peoples a sense of self by claiming the identity of the nation of Israel depicted in the biblical texts common to Jews and Christians. The community is quite diverse in its beliefs and opinions.
In its extremist manifestation, two ideas predominate. First, Black people, Native Americans and Hispanics are the true nation of Israel. Second, Black people suffered the trans-Atlantic slave trade because we disobeyed the Torah, and the Torah says that disobedience leads to slavery in a foreign land. That Black people experienced slavery proves we are the people described in the Book of Deuteronomy as having disobeyed the commandments, and, thus, Black people are the true Israelites.
The wider society may know little of the group, but a recent study found that 4 percent of African Americans describe themselves as Hebrew Israelites. They have become well known in Black religious spaces for assembling outside churches and aggressively evangelizing. Much of the outreach literature created by this group is peppered with antisemitic ideas and disparagements of the Black church.
For many members of these groups the fullness of salvation is only for God’s chosen people: Black people, Native Americans and Hispanics. All other ethnic groups will have a lesser role (if any) in the world to come. For them, white Jews are not the real Jews but, along with Christians and Muslims, are part of a plot to keep Black people from understanding their true identity.
Not all Hebrew Israelites are antisemitic. Some simply believe that African peoples are descendants of the 12 tribes, without attacking other groups.
There is an appeal to their proposal in that it provides Black people with a sacred history, explains our suffering and points toward a triumphant future.
Eric Mason, author and pastor of Epiphany Fellowship Church in Philadelphia, told me: “I know an Irish man who can trace his family’s lineage all the way back to a village in Ireland. Black people in America had our past stolen from us. Seeing yourself as the main characters in the biblical story restores what has been lost.” For Pastor Mason, the solution to that is to affirm that God made our ethnicity as part but not the whole of our identity.
It’s true that the biblical narrative is populated by people of color. Jerome Gay, author and pastor of Vision Church in Raleigh, N.C., notes that “Christianity and Judaism in its art and the popular mind has been whitewashed. Moses didn’t lead a bunch of white folks out of Egypt. Jesus didn’t have blue eyes and blonde hair.” But Pastor Gay argues “the solution to whitewashing isn’t Black washing. Everybody in the Bible wasn’t dark-skinned.”
Daniel Masters is a scholar who has spent 25 years doing archaeological work in Israel including genetics analysis of remains. He told me, “I like to kid that the most powerful deity in the ancient near east was Cupid.” By this he means that everyone intermixed and intermarried. He goes on to say: “Any geneticist will tell you that. We cannot describe anyone, except to see them as mixed. No one is a single thing. We are all combinations.” Ancient Israelites looked like people from that region. They could range in appearance because ancient (and modern) Judaism was a culture and a belief system, not just a skin color.
As to why Black people suffer, Lisa Fields, president of the Jude 3 Project, does not see a conspiracy or the Deuteronomy curses as the cause. It is something much more ordinary: the brokenness and tendency to do wrong that is common to all us. Fields says that “African Americans suffer because other people sinned against us.” Greed and lust for power do not have the lure of being secret knowledge unearthed through deep dives on YouTube, but that does not lessen their explanatory power.
The Black church does the important work of correcting the record and writing Black people back into a story that colonization and white supremacy tried to erase. But that work can be done without displacing anyone else or assuming that the harm we experienced is someone else’s destiny.
But I might press the question of Black history and identity a bit further. I am proud of my connection to the motherland and of the African presence in the biblical narrative.
I am also inspired by the stories that have taken place here. The shame of Black chattel slavery in the United States is not attached to the descendants of the enslaved. The middle passage and the auction block are not things we did; they were evils perpetrated against our ancestors.
There is glory to be found in the struggles of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, James W.C. Pennington, William J Simmons, Jarena Lee and Richard Allen. We come from a people who pulled together a culture and a faith out of the mud. Our music, dress, food and spirituality are a wonder to behold. We do not need another history to have a sense of self or to find religious meaning. According to many abolitionists and later civil rights leaders, God was not just with the ancient Israelites, he has also been with us on our long and winding journey toward the promised land.
Esau McCaulley (@esaumccaulley) is a contributing Opinion writer and an associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois. He is theologian in residence at Progressive Baptist Church, a historically Black congregation in Chicago, and author of the forthcoming memoir “How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South.” He lives in Wheaton with his wife and four children.
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