“Do we still need a Black History Month?” Not only was that the query I got from a friend earlier this month, but it was also a question posed on Georgia Public Broadcasting as I drove from my son’s school to work on the first day of February. “I mean, after all these years, don’t you think we celebrate black history every day,” my friend went on to say. “One would hope,” I thought to myself.
But we aren’t there yet, are we? And maybe we never will be. In their 2012 book, “The Color of Christ,” Edward Blum and Paul Harvey write in the Prologue about a comforting stained glass image of Jesus that had lived intact in the window of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for decades. Until that Sunday morning of 1963 when white segregationists who despised the aspirations of African Americans to vote, own homes and receive equal treatment in the courts made the prince of peace a casualty of war. When the bomb went off the face of Jesus burst into hundreds of pieces on the floor.
Much more was shattered than those pieces, though. The lives of four little girls who were in the basement lounge freshening up were stolen. The Sixteenth Street bombing in Birmingham, Alabama is not a story everyone knows. But it’s a story that gets remembered and told during Black History Month. But here’s the thing, it’s not just a part of black history in this country. Rather, it’s our collective history, a horrible part of our history but our history nonetheless. And while this is one reason we need to keep Black History Month on the calendar, it is also the reason why we can’t let ourselves off the hook during the other eleven months of the year. Black history cannot be relegated to just one month. It must be remembered and we must be accountable to it the entire year.
Of course, Black History Month is still necessary, because the stories of black people in the United States have for too long been overlooked and overshadowed. America’s story has been a white one, told and written by white people and too often only acknowledged in white circles. The rich tapestry of races and ethnicities in the United States is what truly makes us a rich country – rich in stories for one thing. But for too long the stories of anyone besides those of us who are white have been marginalized and oppressed, especially black people.
It was especially the stories of the marginalized and oppressed that Jesus brought to light in his ministry. A friend and professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, Dr. Greg Ellison, says that we may not be able to change the world, but we can change the three feet around us. That’s exactly what Jesus did. He lingered with the person who was in front of him and wanted to know that person’s story, all of it, and loved them fully for that story. Christians and, well, human beings are called to this way of life too.
If the person in our three foot sphere consistently looks exactly like us, then it may be time to step beyond our norm and into another three foot sphere. Jesus did this too. He could have stayed in the synagogue and taught, but instead he was an itinerant preacher, teacher and healer. He was on the move, but when he encountered someone he got to know them and their story. It’s time for us to be on the move, and Black History Month helps us do this. The stories and events of this month invite us, no call us, to step into a different sphere. Here are a few of my own suggestions for how to do this right now:
Attend a worship or prayer gathering at a local sacred space that is not like your own
Attend the Black History Month Parade on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 1 p.m., beginning at Hurt Park and ending at Centennial Olympic Park Drive, Atlanta, Georgia
Go see the new movie “Black Panther” with someone who is of a different race/ethnicity than you and grab coffee afterwards to debrief
Visit the National Center for Civil and Human Rights at 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd, NW, Atlanta, Georgia
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University and lives in Oxford with his partner, Ami, and their son, Sam.