As February gets under way, I celebrate the privilege of recognizing Black History Month at Northwest University. The eminent Black historian Carter Woodson, who pioneered the concept in 1926, orginally intended to inspire and motivate African Americans to a greater sense of purpose and peoplehood.
“If a race has no history,” he wrote, “it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated . . . The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization.” Woodson clearly envisioned the establishment of African Americans as important players in the world’s future.
I believe in that vision.
Although the birth of an African-American race occurred in the cruel wombs of slave ships and cabins, it nevertheless created a people group of greatness and destiny. Although many people groups from around the world would be woven over the past 500 years into the tapestry of America, each one beautifying and enriching the fabric of America’s national identity, African Americans have a unique potential that only time will fully reveal.
Last week I had lunch at The Hamilton in Washington DC with Emmy award-winning African-American journalist Kelly Wright of television’s Fox News Channel. As we talked about America and its future, he told me about his experience of meeting Matthieu Kerekou, the president of Benin—a story he documents in his compelling book, America’s Hope. President Kerekou was moved to apologize to the African-American people for the role his ancestors had in selling many of them into slavery. A devout Christian, his sense of shame over that guilt compelled him to seek reconciliation.
But it also gave him a unique perspective. He sees African Americans as modern-day Josephs. They were cruelly sold into slavery by their own brothers, but he believes that while African brothers and European slave traders intended it for evil, “God intended it for good to accomplish . . . the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Kerekou believes, as Woodson did, that African Americans will become an ever greater “factor in our [worldwide] civilization.”
My own history has often led me to offer a similar apology. Like President Kerekou, my people did great harm to African Americans, and the culture I grew up in did not believe in the greatness of their destiny. But Kerekou’s prophetic insight into God’s design for the African-American people leaves me pondering, “What further wonders may God still work through this people, tempered by the suffering of slavery and Jim Crow, inspired by brilliant leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., empowered by America’s God-given geopolitical and economic advantages, educated for transformational impact?”
The trajectory of African Americans, with its grave suffering and profound contributions, and their possible destiny can only be known, as Woodson believed, through study of their history and the envisioning of their future. As we celebrate Black History Month, I hope everyone at Northwest will prayerfully consider the heroes and hurts of the past, the challenges and contradictions of the present, and the possibilities for the future that every one of our African American friends represents. May this month’s historical explorations inspire us all to greater reflection, greater friendship, and greater hope for what God has yet to do in us all.