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KC experts explore foundations of black spiritual history
By HELEN GRAY
The Kansas City Star
“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou who hast by thy might, led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray.”
Thus begins the last stanza of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which has become known as “The Black National Anthem.”
The lyrics, penned by James Weldon Johnson, were first recited as part of a Lincoln birthday celebration in February 1900. Later set to music, the anthem expresses the faith and hope of black people in America.
As the country celebrates Black History Month, three area scholars discuss what all Americans should know about black spiritual history.
“It has always been about perseverance, that our struggle always had been a long-term one,” said Randal Jelks, American and African-American studies professor at the University of Kansas. “We think about future generations.
“I thought about when President Obama was sworn into office, how many people had hoped and prayed about that long before Obama was born.”
Jelks said he sees people today striving for their careers, forgetting about their role in constructing a world for others.
“They have to find something bigger to live for,” he said. “That is what black spirituality always has pushed us toward.”
“People need to know and remember that Africans who were brought to this country to be enslaved embraced a religion that brought hope,” said Thad Jones, president of Western Baptist Bible College in Kansas City. “It was the Christian faith that allowed those enslaved to endure their circumstances, to persevere the injustices and indwell a hope for a better day.”
Negro spirituals became tools of hope.
For example, “the spiritual ‘Steal Away to Jesus’ alerted enslaved persons about an imminent opportunity to run away while at the same time offering a measure of hope to persons who, for various reasons, were unable to flee a system of human bondage,” said Angela Sims, ethnics and black church studies professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.
Keeping hope alive was not just the message of Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama in their presidential campaigns, it’s part of black spiritual history, Jelks said.
Richard Allen had hoped for a better day, bought his freedom from slavery and later founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“Then he converted the slaveholder who sold his mother and father to another plantation,” Jelks said. “I think of great black women who wanted to preach, like Jarena Lee in the 19th century. Then there’s Mary McLeod Bethune, a poor black woman who founded a school for black women to be socially engaged and engaged in the civil rights struggle.
“These remarkable women and others had depths of faith and hope.”
Malcolm X also was trying to bring hope to African-Americans by helping them see themselves in a positive light, he said.
“What he was spiritually trying to do was to give African-Americans hope, beauty and positivity that God created them black and beautiful,” Jelks said.
He also mentioned Benjamin Mays, a Morehouse College president who in 1936 went to meet Mohandas Gandhi and talk about the African-American movement in the United States.
“He found hope in Gandhi’s movement and hope that such a movement could change the U.S. and the world,” Jelks said.
“After emancipation, the black church became the bedrock and leading institution in newly formed black communities in setting values, behavior and standards,” Jones said. “Biblical morals were established on how persons should treat one another, have respect for property and life and how to respond to harassment.
“Self-respect and hard work to earn a living were promoted. All this came from the pulpit.
“The church, with the minister giving leadership, was the first established black institution in the community. With Jim Crow laws in place, the church became the primary place of gathering in the black community.”
Jones said church and other community leaders pressed for the education of a people with newfound freedom. For example, he said his Bible college was founded in 1890 by African-Americans.
“It is deemed the oldest school west of the Mississippi River exclusively established by Negroes,” he said. “It was in the mind of the founders the importance of education for Negroes and especially to train Christian ministers.
“The United States of America would not be what it is today if it wasn’t for the many black Christian leaders who made great sacrifices and placed their lives and their families’ lives on the line.”
“Like historian of religion Charles H. Long, I contend that an appreciation for the rich diversity of black spiritual history is intricately connected to experiences of blackness in the United States,” Sims said.
Black spiritual history is filled with contributions from persons of various faiths, including Christian, Muslim and Jewish, she said.
“In addition, black spiritual history consists of a variety of resources, such as David Walker’s 1829 publication ‘Appeal,’ Frederick Douglass’ 1894 speech ‘The Lessons of the Hour,’ Ida B. Wells’ 1909 essay ‘Mob Murder in a Christian Nation’ and a plethora of spiritual narratives that offer counter socio-cultural-religious perspectives.
“Black spiritual history, transcending religious denominational affiliations, values the contributions of ancestors who, in spite of dehumanizing conditions, imagined a way to communicate with the divine.”
Such mediums as song, poetry, dance and quilting illustrate that black spiritual history is intricately connected to the realities blacks faced in America, Sims said.
Black spiritual history has been reflected in such vehicles as spirituals, the blues, jazz and hip-hop.
“Black spiritual history, in many regards, is a poignant reminder that we must remain open to the manner in which the divine reveals the divine’s self,” she said.
Jones said many black Christians relate their history and experience to the Jews, identifying with God’s biblical promises to the Israelites.
“Just as God sent deliverers such as Moses and Joshua to win freedom for an enslaved people who were oppressed and looked upon as having no rights and being less than human, many blacks see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the many ministers and their churches in that light,” he said.
And just as Moses and Joshua, with the help of God, went up against the greatest power on Earth at that time, black Christians in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s knew it was only God who enabled them to prevail against a great and established opposition, Jones said.
“The black spiritual history continues to be a reference point and foundation for blacks to understand and remember where they were, how far God has brought them and what God will do for them in the future,” he said.