Beyoncé, Black Power & the White Church

Preparing a sermon recently as a guest preacher to a white christian congregation, I turned to the African-American lectionary for inspiration. (In Christian tradition, the lectionary assigns readings to Sundays within a calendar of church holidays, from Lent (starting now) to Easter to Christmas.) I was surprised to find that Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday in the season of Ephiphany, was not listed in the lectionary. Instead, listings for early February included “A Celebration of Black History” and “African Heritage Sunday.”

I suppose it makes a certain kind of sense that Black Church and white church do not share the same holidays, even if we ostensibly share the same faith tradition. Black Church celebrates Watch Night, Kwanzaa, Emancipation Proclamation Day & Juneteenth, events of specific importance for African-American communities. Yet, as Joel Christian Williams said recently (while arguing against Black History month because 28 days are not enough), “Black history is American history.”

By not celebrating Watch Night and Juneteenth, white church seems, to me, to uphold the attitudes and values of dominant culture, a culture that says that these events of liberation are primarily or even only for Black people. This presumption is one way that dominant culture maintains and enforces whiteness as a normative identity, erasing not only people of color, but people with pale skin who resist white supremacy.

On the other hand, Black Church continues to serve as a site of resistance and nurture against dominant culture and its myriad oppressions. Whites are quick to appropriate the cultures of marginalized groups (“appropriate” being a polite euphemism for violent, often brutal, theft). There’s another very important sense in which holidays that celebrate the heart of Black pride, beautiful and fierce Blackness, Black identity and belonging are rightly not for, or about, or open to, the white gaze.

I’m reflecting on this while hearing more than a few white folks address their cousins, telling other whites that Beyoncé’s powerful video “Formation” is “not for us” and “not about you” and whites should “shut up about Beyoncé.” While I agree that the video isn’t for whites, I do think it is important that whites celebrate Blackness…not as a model to emulate, not as an object to possess, but as a Force of Liberation and Power that whites both cannot embody and deeply respect.

Given its history and ongoing complicity as a tool of racial oppression, white church has a responsibility to resist being used by white supremacy. (I’d argue that such resistance is the only way white church can demonstrate its right to exist.) That resistance might look like white church lifting up Black liberation and celebrating Black leaders and white resisters…abolitionists, freedom fighters….in historical and contemporary movements.

Whites need to celebrate Blackness as an act of resistance that asserts to other whites: Blackness is valuable, blessed, and worthy of love.

Whites need to celebrate Black Power because white children need to see grown-ups who look like them showing awe and admiration and respect to Black leadership, Black authority. Such celebrations are one way that white Christian churches can push back against white supremacy.

Yes, it will be difficult for whites to do this without making mistakes…whites are good at being racist, after all. They have been successfully trained in ways of upholding and embodying white supremacy. But I also deeply trust that when whites do make mistakes, Black Power will react, and then there’s a chance for whites to practice something they perhaps aren’t as good at: apologies, amends, doing it differently next time.

 

*Black Power logo by Mangokeylime licensed under Creative Commons – ShareAlike

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2 thoughts on “Beyoncé, Black Power & the White Church

  1. Love this, “Given its history and ongoing complicity as a tool of racial oppression, white church has a responsibility to resist being used by white supremacy. (I’d argue that such resistance is the only way white church can demonstrate its right to exist.)”. How do we help people to see that their interest as white people or black people, is entwined with those of other black people or white people? I am not looking to be “saved” from white supremacy, I am looking for allies in the struggle against white supremacy because they see what it does to white people. If one believes “God is Love” why is this an issue?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kathleen, and for your question.

      I really appreciate the work of Rebecca Parker, a white theologian and preacher’s kid who grew up in the Pacific Northwest. In her essay in the anthology “Soul Work,” she says, essentially, that part of how white supremacy works is to carefully, persistently construct an alternate view of reality for whites so that whites can be “innocent.” White kids are taught to swallow/contain their early experiences of participating in racial injustice, to ignore the moral compass that cries out “this isn’t fair” and “I don’t like being separated from others.” Instead, white kids are raised in churches with prayers that simultaneously ask a loving God to “help Black people” (as if the problem is either POC’s fault or some vague societal ill) and prayers that thank God for “making us a chosen people.” In this theology, whites are “blessed by God” because they are good (goodness = whiteness, although no one ever admits that).

      As a white parent who is active in the church, it is a big grief and concern that is always in my mind: how do I stop passing this on to my young daughter? How can I help her develop a sense of self that is deeply invested in resisting the immorality of racism? Are there ways to stop her from internalizing a sense of “chosen-ness” and superiority? There are some groups doing this work and so I’m grateful to be in the early stages of connecting with them. For other folks who parent or care for children who may be interested, check out: http://www.raceconscious.org/.

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