“Slavery had stretched its dark wings of death over the land, the Church stood silently by — the priests prophesied falsely, and the people loved to have it so. Its throne is established, and now it reigns triumphant.” Henry Highland Garnet, “An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America,” 1843
When actor and activist Jesse Williams received the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award Sunday night, his acceptance speech went viral. If you follow Williams on social media — he of Grey’s Anatomy fame — you would know that what he said wasn’t new. Williams has said (er, tweeted) many of these things before, as have many black activists. Williams has long been a vocal supporter of and participant in the Black Lives Matter movement and even executive produced a documentary, Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement, that aired on BET last month. His words resonated deeply with a populace that has suffered for far too long in the United States, particularly and most recently in regard to cases of extrajudicial killings of African-Americans.
“Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people every day,” Williams said in his speech. “So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function in ours.”
Some hailed Williams’ speech as a powerful wake-up call, while others wrote that it was inspiring and real. These things are true. Some parts of the speech may also, however, be viewed as a critique of American Christianity, more specifically African-American Christianity, which had inauspicious beginnings.
Even with its complicated history, Christianity is, by far, the most popular religion among blacks in the United States. That history includes the use of Scripture, such as Ephesians 6:5, to support the centuries-long systematic enslavement of blacks. Even as enslaved Africans had their bodies branded by their masters — their owners — they still found something in the religion of these same masters to worship.
Consider another excerpt from Williams' speech:
Now the thing is, though, all of us in here getting money — that alone isn’t gonna stop this. Alright, now dedicating our lives, dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.
In his book, Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology, Dwight N. Hopkins describes the branding of slaves as a form of punishment for not meeting work expectations or for attempting to escape. Fundamentally, however, branding was an inescapable sign of ownership — a “claiming of the black body through forced desecration.” Here is more from Hopkins:
Branding denoted exact ownership; the white master’s name or initials could be seen clearly on the flesh of the ebony body. A public display of permanent marking for which master owned which slave, branding served as an immediate badge distinguishing the racial, caste and class dynamics in Protestantism and American culture.
The juxtaposition of these two quotes shows the stark comparison. Branding as a sign of ownership; praying while branded as a sign of assimilation; slaves adopting the religion and practices of the same masters who branded and enslaved them. In his speech, Williams is equating this branding of black bodies with the corporate branding of capitalism. It must be noted that slave narratives and historical research show that slaves also took this religion — which they were often not even allowed to practice — and made it their own. And it must be noted that the abolitionists of the era also used Scripture to argue against slavery.
In making Christianity their own, slaves — and later freed blacks who still faced prejudice, racism and state-sanctioned violence — often focused on the freedom that was coming, the promise of freedom. In this Scriptural context, blacks would gain freedom upon their death and would, therefore, “Go home to my Lord, and be free.” In his speech, Williams turns that notion on its head, saying that we cannot wait. Why should we? No one else has to wait. There should be no condition on our freedom here or anywhere. The “hustle,” to use his word, would have us wait until we die:
There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done. There is no tax they haven’t levied against us — and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. …freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.
What is the way forward, then, for Christians? One response is to acknowledge and not ignore the highly problematic history of Christianity in America. Last year, my pastor, who is white, was a guest preacher at a historically black church. He apologized and asked for forgiveness for the ways in which the church propagated racism and oppression and had given cover to racists. That’s a start.
It’s not enough, though, to simply acknowledge the existence of racism and to ask for forgiveness. There must be some action involved, some reconciliation. Too often, the burden for reconciliation and forgiveness falls upon the oppressed. And too often, those who have not been oppressed offer advice and platitudes on overcoming racism and oppression. “Racism is a sin problem, not a skin problem,” we’re often told. Statements like this only work to silence discussion of racism and the systems that created it. That’s a statement that doesn’t invite critique or further discussion.
Here is Williams’ challenge: if you are talking about liberation for black people, come armed with receipts to show you have a record of relationship, evidence of being an ally. And listen first. Listen to Williams:
And let’s get a couple things straight, just a little side note — the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, all right — stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest, if you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.
Branding was a sign of ownership; praying while branded was a sign of assimilation.