The news of the burning of the Jordanian pilot, First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, by the Islamic State has caused me to do what I am always reluctant to do, to look again at the pictures of the lynchings and burning of blacks by the KKK and by others. A search of the internet will find those pictures, and in that search we discover that often those pictures appeared on postcards that were widely circulated.
I have had the opportunity as a black United Methodist clergyman, now retired, to be in conversation, discussion groups, and one-on-one conversations with white persons, many of whom have become long time friends. I cannot count the number of times I have heard from many of them something like this, "Gil, I was unaware of, unknowing about, the brutality blacks experienced in our nation." I have heard those words after viewings of the film, SELMA. The depictions of the police brutality of what is now known as "Bloody Sunday" in the film has had an impact upon them that seems to have unleashed within some of these white persons, a new questioning of themselves. "Why," they ask for all to hear, "did I not know" if they were alive at that time, or in their readings of the history of that time?
And, the depiction of the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in the film exacerbates within them their questioning of themselves.
I suggest that the words Ralph Ellison has his character in Invisible Man speak, be paraphrased to address this blindness, dumbness and deafness about Black History. "I (Black History) am invisible understand, simply because people refuse to see me. I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass."
I have in front of me as I write this, an enlarged picture of a black man who has been lynched and his body has been taken down from his hanging and placed on a pile of burning wood. His body shows the signs of what happens to his flesh as it burns; it blisters, it makes his dark skin darker, and it is evident that "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" will soon be descriptive of his body. "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it." (Ecclesiastes 12:7, KJV)
And, in the picture are white men and boys, most of them with ties, some of them smiling, as they look at the camera. How should these pictures of a slice of Black History that some would deny, others would revise, and still others would respond to with amnesia, shape our response to the brutality of the Islamic State militants? In other pictures that I have, there are men in their white robes gathered around burning crosses. If they are not "Christian terrorists," why should we be so certain about speaking/writing of "Islamic terrorists?”
I suggest that Black History Month, 2015, become as never before, American/Black History Month. The best way to begin to understand others and why they do what they do is to begin to understand why some Americans have done what they have done. It is in looking at ourselves, warts and all, that we might begin to be able to understand others, and enable/empower them to join us in the human journey towards equality and justice.
Marcus J. Borg, theologian and biblical scholar, Professor of Religion and Culture, has recently died. His 1995 book, Meeting Jesus AGAIN for the First Time, has had a powerful impact upon my life as it has on others. I suggest in this American/Black History Month writing, we meet Black History, maybe for the first time, if we want to be able to ever sing the Spiritual, "Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world."
There are lessons from American/Black History if embraced and allowed to shape the present and the future, that would re-shape, reform and reconstruct the history being made in these moments. Let us dare to begin!