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Celebrating Black History Month

Family matters to the people of God

By Anita Coleman | Presbyterians Today

Graphic that says Black History MonthFamily is an important and timely topic for faithful followers of Jesus. The church community is often referred to as the “household of God” and the “family of God.” It has been my experience, though, that most people have few positive images of the Black family. The 2021 theme for Black History Month, which is observed in February, is “The Black Family: Its Representation, Identity and Diversity.” The theme is an important one as we remember that we are made in the image of God (imago Dei). There is only one human race, and every member of it has the attributes of the Divine.

Black History Month offers our congregations the opportunity to learn and celebrate the Divine in all, bringing to small group studies and worship a mix of history, current research and faith.

This is what I want to help us do by first providing some historical background and then sharing fun activities for celebrating Black History Month in the church.

Family structures are changing

Celebrating the Black family is timely because family structures are changing, irrespective of ancestry. According to a Pew Report in April 2020, “Cohabitation is on the rise, more adults are delaying or forgoing marriage, a growing share of children are living with an unmarried parent, and same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states.” Other Pew analyses have shown that as millennials approach 40, they are not forming families. Living with a family is defined as living with a spouse, one’s own child (or children) or both a spouse and child.

The 2021 theme for Black History Month is “The Black Family: Its Representation, Identity and Diversity.” The theme is an important one as we remember that we are made in the image of God (imago Dei). There is only one human race, and every member of it has the attributes of the Divine. Getty Images

In 2019, only 55% of millennials lived in one of these types of family units compared with 66% of Generation X in 2003, 69% of baby boomers in 1987 and 85% of members of the Silent Generation in 1968. The millennial generation is larger than the boomers; it’s more diverse and better educated. Single motherhood and new forms of family are on the rise among millennials, something that the Moynihan Report of 1965 highlighted about Black families.

A Black family historical perspective

Some scholars believe that no other document in modern African American history has stimulated more public debate about intimate matters than the Moynihan Report. Written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” was leaked to the press in 1965. It painted a grim and controversial picture of Black families. Using a wide variety of data and the 1960 census, Moynihan argued that the Black family is the fundamental reason for the “deterioration of the fabric of Negro society.” The white family was stable, but the Black family was not. Black motherhood, Black masculinity and single motherhood were the culprits.

The Moynihan Report did a lot of damage. It also created new myths about the Black family that persist today. Among the myths were those found in a 1992 November Ebony magazine article: (1) Black people have loose morals, and (2) “the history of the Black family is a history of fussin’ and fightin’ by hardhearted men and heartless women.” Black History Month is a call to the faithful to engage the myths we hold and find the truth about Black families in particular — and families in general.

How Black History Month began

Black History Month began in 1926 when Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week. Woodson had a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Harvard University, both in history. As a historian and school principal, he lived experiences that demonstrated to him that Black people were underrepresented in the books and scholarly communication that had shaped American history. The few Black people that were included in such publications were barely mentioned by teachers.

To study Black history in a disciplined way and promote the achievements of African Americans, Woodson, along with Jesse E. Moreland, founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), established the “Journal of Negro History” and founded Negro History Week so students could learn about the history and accomplishments of African Americans.

From the beginning, it was decided that there would be a theme each year to focus public attention and study. The 1938 theme, for example, focused on “Special Achievements of the Race: Oratory, Drama, Music, Painting, Sculpture, Science and Inventions.” In 1939, it was “Special Achievements of the Race: Religion, Education, Business, Architecture, Engineering, Innovation and Pioneering.”

Despite these well-planned efforts, it became clear during the civil rights years that the most popular American middle school textbook still mentioned only two African Americans. More education was necessary, and in 1976, the week became extended. President Gerald Ford decreed Black History Month to be a national observance. It was the bicentennial of America and Negro History Week’s 50th anniversary. Since then, America’s presidents have decreed the annual themes established by ASALH. Each year’s theme is at the heart of Black History Month. For a list of all the themes, visit asalh.org/black-history-themes.

How to celebrate this year

According to ASALH’s website: “The black family knows no single location, since family reunions and genetic-ancestry searches testify to the spread of family members across states, nations and continents. Not only are individual black families diasporic, but Africa and the diaspora itself have been long portrayed as the black family at large. While the role of the black family has been described by some as a microcosm of the entire race, its complexity as the ‘foundation’ of African American life and history can be seen in numerous debates over how to represent its meaning and typicality from a historical perspective — as slave or free, as patriarchal or matriarchal/matrifocal, as single-headed or dual-headed household, as extended or nuclear, as fictive kin or blood lineage, as legal or common law, and as black or interracial, etc. Variation appears, as well, in discussions on the nature and impact of parenting, childhood, marriage, gender norms, sexuality and incarceration. The family offers a rich tapestry of images for exploring the African American past and present.”

This description can help us provide tips and ideas for celebrating Black families in authentic Christian ways that will not divide, but rather heal and unite us. I suggest the following:

  • Explore beyond well-known Black families. Don’t simply focus on African American celebrities and popular, well-known figures like former President Barack Obama. Highlight nontraditional families and stories — even poems. Maya Angelou’s “The Black Family Pledge” is a good resource (see sidebar of page 41).
  • Don’t whitewash history or Bible stories. Do present historical people in their cultural context as truthfully as possible. For example, use the month of February to study Jesus’ race as a Middle Eastern Jew.
  • Hold off on the soul food. Don’t make Black History Month an African American “mash-up” of soul food, blues music and other cultural activities without deep learning and self-reflection. Black culture in America is multicultural, and the Black family is a microcosm of humanity.
  • It’s a good time for a pulpit exchange. If your church is predominantly homogenous, do team up with a Black church or a multicultural congregation and plan a pulpit exchange either in person, if COVID-19 safety precautions are followed, or online.
  • Highlight interesting historical facts. For example, did you know the Mexican American celebration of Cinco de Mayo may have actually prevented a Confederate victory during the American Civil War? Explore how other communities have played a role in Black history.
  • Study more than antiracism. When you preach or have a book study during Black History Month, don’t choose a racism study or preach on antiracism. Rather, highlight the stories of how Black love and community sustain our world.
  • Delve into the definition of family. Encourage congregants to consider their ethnicity, ancestry and family experiences. As noted earlier, family structure is changing across all groups. Don’t think that because you’re “white” you cannot speak of racialization or racialized peoples.

Anita Coleman is associate professor of bibliography and research and the director of library services for the Ernst Miller White Library at Louisville Seminary in Kentucky.


The Black Family Pledge

By Maya Angelou

BECAUSE we have forgotten our ancestors,
our children no longer give us honor.

BECAUSE we have lost the path our ancestors cleared
kneeling in perilous undergrowth,
our children cannot find their way.

BECAUSE we have banished the God of our ancestors,
our children cannot pray.

BECAUSE the long wails of our ancestors
have faded beyond our hearing,
our children cannot hear us crying.

BECAUSE we have abandoned our wisdom of mothering and fathering,
our befuddled children give birth to children
they neither want nor understand.

BECAUSE we have forgotten how to love,
the adversary is within our gates
and holds us up to the mirror of the world shouting,
“Regard the loveless.”

Therefore we pledge
to bind ourselves again to one another,
to embrace our lowliest,
to keep company with our loneliest,
to educate our illiterate,
to feed our starving,
to clothe our ragged,
to do all good things,
knowing that we are more than keepers of our brothers and sisters.

We ARE our Brothers and Sisters.

IN HONOR of those who toiled and implored God with golden tongues,
and in gratitude to the same God who brought us out of hopeless desolation,
we make this pledge.

Dr. Maya Angelou wrote “The Black Family Pledge” for the Black Family Reunion Celebration held by the National Council of Negro Women on May 14, 1986.

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