“What America Must Become”
Rev. Dr. Cornell Edmonds Esq. is Interim Pastor of The Church of the Covenant, E. 42nd St NYC (around the corner from United Nations).
Education and faith were hallmarks of the ministry of the late Rev Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, who served as pastor of the globally renowned Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. As we grieve his passing, my thoughts drift to the timeless essay, Letter to My Nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation, from James Baldwin’s, The Fire Next Time: “They are trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
Black people must not suffer the same fate! While freeing ourselves from the constraints of a history that too often has been less than “great,” we must also free our nation to become a “more perfect union.” Take for example the threatened political disruption of the Advanced Placement (AP) African American History curriculum for students in Florida. Such actions raise two questions: Why would ‘They’ do that? And, who bears the principal responsibility of instructing our children about themselves?
First, why would “They,” do that? In a nutshell, whether or not They are racists, “They are trapped,” in a racist narrative. The Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color in America, later known as the American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in 1816 for clearly “racist” reasons. The ACS united sentiments of whites in The North and whites in The South. They feared the presence of free Black people on American soil. Black freedom and self-determination, which come through self-understanding, were considered then, as now, existential threats to America’s ”manifest destiny.”
ACS’s goal was to disenfranchise Black freedom due to its threat to the economic advances created by Black bondage. Its plan would displace free Blacks through voluntary and/ or involuntary expatriation. Thereby, keeping enslaved Black people uneducated and passive, while creating white wealth through chattel bondage. ACS was not dissolved until 1964, but its legacy lives on. If uncensored, A.P. African American History would teach just that. Furthermore, it would equip young minds with critical thinking skills necessary to connect the dots from before 1619 to beyond 2023.
Second, who bears the principal responsibility of instructing our children about themselves? It is not the “They,” who continue to resist education for people in bondage. Ninety- seven years have passed since Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s creation of Negro History week, now Black History Month. Its intentional illumination of Black history, normalizes our history, while contributing to the positive formation of young minds and moves it from limited celebration into the mainstream of American thought. Furthermore, it reverses the impact of the historical removal of language and culture from peoples displaced from their native lands.
For too long our community has been hampered in learning its history due to limited access to writings of Black authors, mixed messages of the mean streets, and legislative threats to intact, caring Black family. Thereby making development of a sufficiently transformative cultural narrative unachievable for many. This was never more evident than on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee when video captured a cadre of “miseducated” Black officers mercilessly inflicting a mortal beating upon a young, Black father. Were their actions any less insidious than the ACS? Beyond a needless and tragic death, a child will have to grow up without a manin- the-house.
Uncensored A.P. African American History would instruct upon the critical importance of the presence of Black men and women in the home. It would show how the U.S. Supreme Court in King v. Smith, struck down the “man-inthe- house” rules enacted by many states. Such legislative enactments disqualified families with dependent children from receiving essential government assistance, while discouraging necessary social relationships and intact families.
The home must be the principal teacher of Black history. When it succeeds in planting a foundation, then schools, where the children spend most of their day, can and must complement and supplement the narratives and values taught in the home with invaluable classes such as A.P. African American history. I am grateful for my mom. Despite only a sixth-grade education, she brilliantly taught African American history in the home. She understood enough about people in our history such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington to push us to pursue the lofty heights of “somebody-ness.” “They” may forever “be trapped” in ignorance fed by racism, greed, and fear. However, that should not stop us from freeing America to become, in James Baldwin’s words, “what America must become.” Let us strive to live by the vision statement of the great Abyssinian Baptist Church, so eloquently stated by the Rev. Dr. Calvin O Butts: “Education and faith are the Tigris and the Euphrates of our liberation: twin rivers at the source of our redemption.”