I’ve been a Black American all my life; in fact I was born to it. It is a genetic condition that I inherited from my parents both of whom were carriers. In fact my whole family is comprised of Black Americans, including my youngest nephew who, despite his white mother, is also considered to be Black.
Perhaps it seems odd that I would describle myself thusly, but I wonder if such an appelation might not be appropriate given the history of my people in this land. Black-Americans (or African-Americans if you please) are people with a strange relationship with the United States. We are an invented ethnic group with very little live connection to our roots in Africa. We are ethnically mixed; the slaves which were our ancestors came from widely varying peoples with different languages, customs and cultures. We are racially mixed; most Black Americans can count a least a few non-African ancestors (usually European or native American, but sometimes east Asian).
What unites us is our shared history in this country, as minorities who have spent the better part of our history here as slaves, and then as second-class citizens. A four hundred year history in which only 10% has been spent with any significant measure of equal rights. Is it any wonder then that we have our share of social problems?
More to the point of this though, I believe that Black Americans suffer the effects of a socio-historical amnesia that is the result of psychic dislocation. In other words, we are people who know no other land than America, who are uniquely shaped by the American experience, more American than many of the European immigrants who arrived here in only the last 100 years, but yet historically we are homeless. Most of us cannot trace back to a tribe, a language, or a spot on the map. Indeed many of us are taught to disregard or even despise our African roots.
The first time I remember crying at a worship event was at Urbana 1996 when a group of students prayed to God in different languages. I wept openly, and was surprised by my tears. I realized in that moment that I have no language other than the language of my oppressor; I cannot even talk to God but in the tongue of those who slashed the backs of my fathers and raped my mothers. The white man made us. It is his language I speak, his clothes I wear, his customs I practice and his culture I breathe.
This is why I grieve for those who give up so easily that which I never had the opportunity to know: a language, a culture, a people. They do not regard the birthright they have been given, and trade it so easily for the mess of pottage that is the American dream.
The thing I have as a Black American is a God who has carried us through. The church has been one place where our African-ness has carried through: the drums, the dance, the shout, the testimony, the mothers of the church and the rhythm of the stomp are all things that tell me that God belongs to me too. In early days of church, even in the Black church, these things were often rejected as being heathen and unworthy of the worship of the white man’s God. But he’s not a household god who lives in a temple for whites only. He is the God of every nation. And now every church worth it’s contemporary service has drums and guitars and lifts hands and dances — that’s what happens when we did not forget.
I pray that my other brothers and sisters, those whose cultural memory can be refreshed as easily as going home to kimchi or pho, will not forget. That this 2nd generation will remind the world that God is their God too. Let tong-sung ki-do rise again from the lips of a new generation to release the han of those living the bicultural reality of being a stranger in a strange land. Let our Lord Christ be honored as the truong toc (eldest son/head of family) who is the quintessential model of filial piety – the son who perfectly obeys and is the ancestor par excellence. Let the people regain their memories so that the story of God can be told.