Anyone who meets my grandfather for the first time will quickly come to two conclusions; my Grandad is full of wisdom and he loves to talk. It amazes me how, at 92 years old, my Grandad’s mind is still sharp and he can share life experiences from decades ago with clarity, detail, and maybe a few colorful “embellishments.” As Grandad would share things about his life, every now and then, he would mention some guy named Charley that he knew from back in the day. He never said much about Charley other than that he was good friends with Charley’s brother and would visit his home from time to time.It was only a few years ago that I learned that this “Charley” my Grandfather had been referring to all these years was Dr. Charles Drew; as in the first African American to earn a doctorate from Columbia University and went on to revolutionize the usage of blood plasma, Dr. Charles Drew!Needless to say, I was awestruck that my Grandfather had a personal connection with such an icon of African-American history. I had read about Dr. Drew’s accomplishments but, upon learning that my Grandfather knew him personally, that snippet of black history became more meaningful than it had been before.
From that experience, I learned that there is something about being in touch with one’s history that, among other things, plays a role in how one develops identity, meaning, and sense of direction. It seems to me that, among other things, this lack of connectedness to the past is something that plagues the black community in a number of ways. In my previous article, I touched on how the notion that Christianity is the “white man’s religion” presents a very real obstacle to the spreading of the gospel among the African-American community; not to mention a stumbling block for many of us who are in the Faith and happen to be of African descent. Here, we will explore how the issue of identity seems to be at the core of this matter.
Prior to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, people groups on the African continent appealed to a variety of factors in the identifying and development of ethnocultural identity. These would have included family lineage, clan affiliation, tribe, markings on the skin, physical build, language, traditions, religious practices, etc. These factors provided a basis for differentiating between people groups in Africa and afforded individuals a context for their self-concept. Unlike the modern Westernized concept of “race,” skin color was less central as a means of differentiating between people groups. The notion of being “black” or “African” as a sort of unifying characteristic would have been foreign to those who found themselves in chains on their way to the “New World.” Likewise, the indigenous African slave-traders who sold these individuals into that barbarous enterprise would not have seen them as being their “black” or “African” brethren.
For the African, the process of losing oneself would have already begun before they had set one foot on a slave ship. Consider the autobiography of former slave turned abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano. He recalls how, in his youth, the possibility of being stolen by members of another tribe was a very real fear for Equiano and his childhood friends which became an unfortunate reality. It is well documented that some African tribes profited greatly from selling other Africans to the Europeans whom they had taken in war or kidnapped. Equiano speaks of being sold from tribe to tribe a number of times before finally being purchased by European traders. Regardless of how or by whom an African came to be enslaved, I can only imagine how disorienting it must have been to be suddenly and permanently severed from one’s home and kindred. In describing a particular tribe he had been sold to, Equiano reports:
“All the nations and people I had hitherto passed through resembled our own in their manners, customs, and language: but I came at length to a country, the inhabitants of which differed from us in all those particulars. I was very much struck with this difference, especially when I came among a people who did not circumcise, and ate without washing their hands.”
Culture on the continent of Africa was not monotone; there were a number of people groups that distinguished themselves from one another--similar to how Americans would consider themselves different from Canadians, though we share the same land mass. To be forced into the servitude of some other African people group was the first of many fractures from the network of factors by which Africans framed their ethnic identity. We are all, to some degree, extensions of our families and communities so to be ripped from them is to be deprived of a part of who we are.
In some ways the logistics and laws that undergirded the slave economy set the stage for a protracted disruption of ethno-cultural identity development. At slave auctions, for example, a far too frequent occurrence was the separation of families - the preservation of family systems not being a priority for slave traders. Africans were often condemned to live and labor in places where others of the same predicament may have shared little in common aside from their chains and relative hue. Furthermore, the “Slave Codes” that were instituted to, among other things, curtail the possibility of collusion and revolt effectively limited opportunities for slaves to engage in the types of activities that facilitate cultural transmission from generation to generation. Common examples of this were Slave Codes that prohibited gathering, freedom of religious practice, and educating slaves.
In the New World, Africans found themselves in a situation wherein their productivity was valued above their personhood - people were made cattle. Ensnared in a web of economics and conquest, African slaves were stripped of some of the basic elements of humanity. As former slave John Jacobs lamented:
“To be a man, and not to be a man - a father without authority, a husband and no protector - is the darkest of fates.”
We must also consider how, throughout the Transatlantic Slave Era, there were new ideas coming to the forefront related to the re-categorizing and ranking of people groups. Scientists and other academics of European descent advanced a number of racist theories wherein phenotypical traits such as skin color, bone structure, and the size of the head was used as a means of elevating one people group over another; the pinnacle of which, of course, were European. With Africans seen as being at the lowest end of the human totem pole, this concept of ranking people by “race” was used as justification for the continued subjugation of “black” people. African slaves were subjected to the imposition of a racial identity that was foreign to them yet convenient for the oppressive labor system. The centerpiece of this new identity was a skin-deep understanding of identity and value.
Even under non-predatory circumstances, when people groups merge, it is normal for there to be a melding and evolution of languages, customs, conceptions of morality, religions, and so on. African people were certainly not the first to undergo these sorts of changes. Indeed, human history is in one sense an ongoing story of cultural fluidity and adaptation; we are always in flux one way or another. In the formation of the Western World, the power dynamic obviously favored European culture as they set the tone for what is normative, what is moral, what is beautiful, etc. It is in the attempt to adapt to and align with the European way of things that yet another challenge to identity confronted the Africans that were brought here.
African folks have been faced with the task of asserting who they are in the face of a dominant culture that has naturally, and at times intentionally, been opposed to their development of a healthy identity framework. My introduction to the struggle for self-concept came as my parents explained the cultural significance of “lye soap.” When I was about 11 or so, my dad took me to see the movie “Malcolm X” starring Denzel Washington. There is a scene in the movie where, in his “pre-woke” days, Malcolm “Little” was comically shown burning his scalp with lye soap as he attempted to straighten his hair. Apparently, nappiness was not next to godliness in those days as far as fashion was concerned. Following the movie, my mom and dad explained how African-Americans “used to” do things like that to look more like the white folks. My father recalled not being able to get into certain house parties, hosted by black folks, because he was too dark. Eventually, the "black is beautiful" movement took hold and it became acceptable to be black and proud. It seems to me the current natural hair trend going on among African-American women is a reiteration of the black is beautiful movement as people of African descent contend against societal norms that are, for the most part, at odds with our ethnic heritage.
There have also been instances in which Europeans wielded the power of cultural dominance in a much more sinister fashion. As mentioned above, race was used as a means of reducing the African from people to property. The notion that African people were lazy and immoral savages to be subdued for their own good was prominent when slavery began and has rippled forward as time has gone on. For example, following the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, white folks of the American South were fearful of having to strive with freed African Americans for jobs, property, and power. In addition to carrying out the most violent terrorist campaign ever seen on American soil, they utilized a more subtle way to respond to this black threat - white supremacist propaganda.
All sorts of comic strips, commercials, caricatures, and minstrel shows depicting Africans as an ignorant and depraved sub-species were used to shape the narrative through which Africans would be understood. The propaganda war and physical violence against African Americans converged with the release of “Birth of a Nation;” a movie in which the white supremacist imagination ran wild on the big screen. This movie dramatically depicted the KKK as being the saviors of white America, valiantly warring against their African enemies. With expressions of dominant culture weaponized against them, Africans were all the more impeded in creating space for themselves in society. The message to African Americans following Reconstruction was clear: African-Americans were to remain second class - freed but not equal or wanted.
In addition to America being a difficult place for African people to build a healthy collective identity, it seems our people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. I would argue that there are very few things in our lives as powerful as our past. The past carries with it lessons and losses, triumphs and tragedies, our heaviest burdens and sources of strength. History matters. Unfortunately, black folks don’t know their history. In school, we all learn about Harriet Tubman along with champions of the Civil Rights Movement like Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Teachers who go beyond the call of duty may introduce their students to the “honorable mentions” of black history like Garrett Morgan or Frederick Douglass. With that said, I can’t help but observe that our schools only provided the crumbs of what our forefathers left us. I was fortunate to have parents that were pro-active in filling in the gaps of history for my sister and me. The first book I can remember reading, aside from the Bible, was a short biography about Matthew Henson, the first African-American to reach the North Pole. My parents would assign black history books for us to read and then have us report to them what we learned. My parents always emphasized identity in Christ as being the center of who we are. However, they made it clear that they were equipping us with information about black history to combat the stereotypes and racial prejudices we would be faced with in this society. I firmly believe that through history, we have access to lessons and tools that are crucial to how we shape our future, both individually and collectively. If we allow history to remain relatively silent in the black community, we deprive ourselves of a valuable ally.
It is certain that we of the African diaspora have undergone a process of change that worked against the continuance of African identity and culture in the West. Yet, I do not want to overstate my case. I am currently doing a study on aspects of West African culture that persisted in the Americas and it seems that what the Africans brought with them wasn’t erased as fully as most would assume. Still, it seems fair to say we are not who we were and we have struggled mightily in figuring out who we ought to be.
Volumes could be written on the myriad of ways in which the descendants of African slaves have tried to reconstruct or reclaim the facet of their identity that was wrenched away - that lost “Africanicity.” From the black is beautiful movement and blaxploitation movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s to the Afrocentric themes that are prevalent in hip-hop culture, people of African descent in Western society have made fragmented attempts reaching inward and backward to regain what was lost. In doing so, there is often an unspoken sentiment that one must cast off anything that is “European” and take on that which is “African,” the supposed true self.
This brings me to the principal issue. As it pertains to people of African descent engaging in religion/spirituality, the thirst for lost identity often harbors with it a side effect that has proven problematic. In the shedding off of what is perceived to be European, Christianity is often considered to be on the wrong side of the ledger. Far too often it is taken at face value that white slave masters imposed Christianity upon the slaves to keep them in line and on that basis, Christianity is deemed the white man’s religion. The perception that there is some sort of “Uncle Tomness” to being both black and Christian has driven many people of African descent into the arms of other belief systems that are thought to be more in line with African heritage. This sort of thinking is wildly mistaken. There are, without question, a number of Biblical, historical, theological and philosophical reasons to affirm that Christianity and African ethnicity are not in conflict with one another. In 1 Peter 3:15 it says:
“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,”
In order to reach our communities for Christ, we must have rational responses for those who believe that Christianity is at odds with their black skin. My hope is that the reader will join me as we explore these things together and equip ourselves to answer these challenges for the sake of the souls God wants to reach through us.
Strong in the Lord!
1. Smedley, A. (1995) “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity.
2. Equiano, O., & Allison, R. J. (2007). The interesting narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin's.
3. Tadman, M. (1989). Speculators and Slaves: Masters. Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (Madison, 1989), 218.
4. Patterson, Slavery and social death Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters. Traders, and Slaves in the Old South
5. Rugemer, E. B. (2013). The Development of Mastery and Race in the Comprehensive Slave Codes of the Greater Caribbean during the Seventeenth Century. William & Mary Quarterly, 70(3), 429-458.
6. Goveia, E. V. (1960). The West Indian slave laws of the eighteenth century. Colegio de Ciencias Sociale de la Universidad de puerto Rico.
7. Jacobs, J. S. (2003, 1863). A True Tale of Slavery. Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
8. Smedley, “Race” and the Construction of Human Identity.
Adam Coleman is passionate about equipping Christians with evidences for the faith and engaging the culture. He is a husband, father of two busy toddlers, social worker, writer, and public speaker. Upon graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Master's in Social Work Adam Coleman began a career of community development, mentoring youth, and service to our nation's veterans. Currently, Adam is primarily focused on using his "Tru-ID Podcast", writing, and public speaking to promote the gospel of Christ through Christian apologetics.