Rev Ade Eleyae, the Bishop of Chelmsford’s Equalities Adviser, reflects on how we can engage with Black History Month.
Over the summer I received several anxious enquiries about how to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement and the worldwide protests about racial injustice. This new found awareness means that this October, Black History Month (marked in this country since 1987) is bound to attract much more interest than it has in the past and will raise similar questions. So, what can we do across the Diocese?
In the years following its creation Black History Month was largely confined to particular aspects of the black history such as the civil rights movement, and for many years it highlighted a few individuals. Perhaps understandably so, as it was an American import. Even though Black History Month has evolved in recent years and increasingly focuses on black British history, the truth is that a genuine appreciation of the depth, breadth and complexity of black history cannot just be confined to a month. The knowledge that will provide a genuine understanding of the black experience is gained by continual enquiry over time.
There has hardly been an appetite for acquiring this knowledge in the church, and so churches should probably be wary having a sudden flurry of ‘black’-themed activities in light of recent events. Enduring change rarely grows out of tokenism, and the likelihood is that interest in such events will fritter out, never to be repeated once racial injustice is no longer foremost in our minds.
That being said, there is no doubt that this year’s Black History Month is an opportunity to be seized. Many in our churches lack even a basic knowledge of black history, talk less of black history within the church, and putting the basic building blocks in place may for some, be the right place to start.
Questioning and reflection
For Parishes open to questioning and reflection, there is a treasure trove of information available easily accessed through a quick search on the internet.
- The official website of Black History Month has plenty of ideas as well as a good write up on Bishop Wilfred Wood, the first black bishop in the Church of England.
- An informative guide to Black History by Prof. David Olusoga is being serialised in the Times this month.
- There is a timeline to black history on the Guardian webpage
- The BBC has published some interesting background facts.
There are numerous things to read:
- Chinua Achebe’s The Education of a British – Protected Child. The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano.
- Tell Freedom by Peter Abrahams.
- This Island Now by the other Peter Abrahams.
- Those who like hard facts may delve in to the Parliamentary debates on the abolition of slavery which are freely available on Hansard online.
- Serious historians may wish to study the works of Prof, J F Ade Ajayi.
The merely curious will have their needs met by anything from the African Writers’ Series where they can explore authors such as Flora Nwapa, Ngugi wa Thiong’O and Alex La Guma. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie leads a new generation of exciting young black writers such as Emma Dabiri. It goes without saying that these recommendations, which probably betray my age as well as my politics, are all extremely subjective and are just meant to give a taste of what is readily available.
For those who like a challenge and wish to respond to the inevitable ‘What about White History?’ comments, or indeed for those who make them, Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation provides an excellent basis from which to explore the issues of identity and identity conflict.
Other ways of sharing knowledge
Study groups, quizzes, film nights, books clubs, talks: there are endless ways in which knowledge can be shared. USPG, whose painful history makes it particularly sensitive to issues of racism and injustice, have published Living With a World of Difference, a 5-week study course on celebrating diversity within the Anglican Communion. There is no need to try too hard. This merely leads to accusations of virtue signalling or worse, lip service. A genuine desire to learn and discover will open up many imaginative ways in which to gain a real understanding of the issues around race and create spaces in which this can be done. One of the best places is possibly over a shared meal. Hospitality, which is at the core of most black cultures is a most effective way of breaking down barriers. And telling stories that expand the horizons of our knowledge of black people.
The danger of course in simply acquiring knowledge is that it becomes an end in itself and leads to assumptions that this is all that needs to be done. In a way, it is works without faith.
The Rev Robert Graetz
Perhaps the ‘faith’ part of this is to examine our attitudes to the difficult, uncomfortable and divisive issues of race, and explore what our response as Christians should be. Which brings us back to one of the core themes of Black History Month when it began all those years ago, the civil rights movement. The Rev. Robert Graetz, the civil rights pioneer who died last month demonstrated – wholeheartedly, genuinely and successfully – what the Christian response can be.
Graetz was a major supporter of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a landmark event of the Civil Rights Movement (which motivated the less well known Bristol Bus Boycott here in England.).
Graetz’s A White Preacher’s Memoir: The Montgomery Bus Boycott recounts his role and the numerous attacks, including bombings, he was subjected to. According to his obituary in The Times published on 24th September 2020, “Of the stand they took during the boycott, Graetz observed, ‘People said we had courage. There were times I was scared to death.’ (Dr. Martin Luther) King called him “a constant reminder in the trying months of the protest that many white people as well as Negroes were applying the ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ teachings of Christianity in their daily lives’.”
Perhaps that is what we should strive to do as our gaze lingers, albeit briefly, on the history of the Black people with whom we live pray and worship in our Diocese this October. Apply the ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ teachings of Christianity in our daily lives. With courage.
And finally, for those for whom Black History Month is not just an event but their story, it may be time, after a tumultuous year fraught with emotion, not just to recall that story. But to look again with searching eyes at the history of black people in this country in general and in the church in particular. Then, to speak what remains untold, and with the eyes of faith see a different, better story for the future.
A Eleyae, Bishop of Chelmsford’s Equality Adviser.
The national church have also compiled a collection of resources to help people celebrate and learn about black history and culture. These can be downloaded here.