The Personal is Historical

by Eric M. Washington

Next Monday is Emancipation Day in most of the Caribbean and in some places in the African Diaspora. Slavery ended in the British West Indies in August 1834 (though four years of an “apprenticeship” period stretched “unfree” labor to 1838). I had planned to write about Frederick Douglass’ Emancipation Day speech from August 1857, and make a case for why African Americans should still observe it in addition to Juneteenth (June 19). However, something unexpected occurred on this past Sunday night that derailed those plans, and this has been a totally conscious re-orienting event. A few weeks ago I purchased a DNA test to trace my heritage. I had been thinking of this for a couple of years, but had been reluctant to undergo the test. Feelings of anxiety over possibly surprising or embarrassing results arrested my steps.

After three wonderful weeks in Ghana this January, I decided it was time to swab my cheeks. I felt at home on the streets of Akropong and Accra, and soaked in all of the rich culture along the sun-drenched coast and in the hot and dry north. I experienced a spiritual connection to the people akin to the connection I know from back home in New Orleans growing up in an African-American neighborhood within a “Chocolate City.” If a person of African descent travels to Africa, especially West Africa without knowledge of his or her specific African origins, the wonderment will occur centered on the question: where am I from? This happened to me. The persistent question that echoed in my heart and mind as I traveled through Ghana was: am I from here?

As of this past Sunday night, I know the answer to that question and others. With this new knowledge of my ancestry, it has already changed how I view myself in this world, and it will change how I teach World, African, and African-American history.

I was totally unprepared to learn of my DNA origins this past Sunday. I had received an email on July 23 stating that the test was in process and that I should expect the results between August 6-August 13. On a whim, I checked my email to see if there was an update. Sure enough, there was. The results were in! I took a deep and heavy sigh. It was time to take the plunge into the deep waters of my ancestral past. I opened the email, clicked on the link to unlock my ethnic composition, held my breath a little, and I clicked one last click to reveal my origins. It was like a reveal party for one! What I found has been the cause of much rejoicing and high-stepping the past few days. When the presentation began, my eyes widened with great satisfaction that my primary ethnicity is “Nigerian” (big country with a couple of hundred of ethnic groups), then my delight increased by viewing that I am generally “West African.” The most surprising element of my African DNA is the Kenyan part. Another surprise was a percentage of my DNA emanates from North Africa. All told 77% of my DNA is African. I was hoping for 60%; so this revelation is beyond my imagination. The remaining 23% can be traced to the British Isles, the Iberian peninsula, and Italy.

Map from "My Heritage DNA", highlighting the regions in Africa where my ancestors were from.

Since this glad discovery, I’ve been analyzing this as a historian. I have questions: is the percentage of Iberian DNA a result of ancestral mixing in North Africa, and then those ancestors migrating into the Sahel? Were some of my ancestors Moors? And what about that small slice of Italian DNA? Was this a result of a remote Italian ancestor or an ancestor who had some Italian ancestry venturing into North Africa in the remote past? Most of my European DNA is from anywhere in Ireland, Wales, or Scotland. It’s fairly immediate. Was this the result of an Irish slaveholder, or plantation manager raping one of my great-great-grandmothers? Or was this a consensual relationship? My mother’s maiden name is Kennedy, and one census record lists her Louisiana-born father as a “mulatto.” And what about that Kenyan DNA? This is either the result of long-distance migration of ancestors from that area to West Africa, or the result of them being captives and transported to an Atlantic slave port rather than an Indian Ocean one. I lean to the former, not the latter. I believe knowing my ancestral origins has opened up many doors of historical investigation.

How will this disclosure help me become a better teacher? It can help me in at least two ways. First, this disclosure will lead me to investigate more of North African history prior to the advent of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. What was the degree of interaction between North Africa and the Iberia peninsula? What was the level of intercourse between the Maghreb and the Western Sudan before the era of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade? I know the rudiments, but now my curiosity has been piqued. I have a stake in entering into more depth in answering these questions. Second, I’m motivated to learn more about the process of creolization that Africans underwent in the New World. How did Igbos, Malinkes, Wolofs, Fantes, etc. become Africans first, and then African Americans? I teach creolization already. I have taught about the resilience of West and West Central African cultures amid enslavement and beyond. Still, my thirst to know more has been increased. Hopefully, my future students will benefit from this new quest of mine for more historical knowledge.

I’m amazed that my African DNA is as diverse as it is. It is conceivable that I have ancestors from at least four different areas in West Africa alone. Because men and women of West African descent came together sexually through the most horrible of life situations in the Western Hemisphere, I am. The majority of their names I will never know. Still, I am. It’s history, but it’s also personal.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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Christianity and Evangelicalism

by Jim Bratt.

As prominent evangelical leaders recently gathered at Wheaton, IL, to discuss how the Trump era “has unleashed [a] ‘grotesque caricature’ of their faith,” historian James Bratt weighs in with some thoughts on Christianity and Evangelicalism, and the death (and resurrection) of a movement. This post originally appeared on The Anxious Bench and is re-published with permission of the author.

I recently attended a conference at Notre Dame honoring the career of Mark Noll. As one of the most accomplished scholars of American religious history, as well as a person of deep faith, consummate integrity, and easy humor—and genuine humility to top it off—Mark is more than worthy of honor, and the participants made sure he received it, with remarks that were by turn analytic, humorous, and touching. Mark being Mark, however, the program was full of robust scholarship and featured rising younger scholars as well as the old lions.

The panelists attended to American religious history in its various eras as well as in the comparative global perspective at which Mark has been a notable pioneer. Things got most interesting for me in the concluding panel, which riffed off of what is probably Mark’s most famous book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). The scandal, Mark famously opined back then, was that there wasn’t much of one—an evangelical mind, that is. The panelists weighed in on the extent to which that situation has since been corrected, but in the process veered off into attempts to define just what is, and what is not, “evangelical.”

To me that inevitable but tiresome digression cost an opportunity to think about what might be the bombshell book equivalent to Mark’s Scandal for our own moment. I’d pick addressing the elephant in the room and asking—in the face of consistent polling that shows white “evangelicals” to be supporting Donald Trump at just about the 80% mark by which they favored him in the 2016 presidential election—what future evangelicalism has in the United States. And, more broadly yet fundamentally, what sort of religion white “evangelicalism” might be.

A number of the younger panelists raised this concern during the conference, and a host of commentators religious and secular have bruited the matter ever since Trump descended his hotel’s golden escalator onto the American political scene three years ago. My historian’s input is to suggest that we not just consult current opinion polls or attend to the evangelical leaders who have either advanced or decried the brand’s association with the man. Instead, let’s return to a foundational text from the evangelical past—indeed, the text which helped define the present-day movement’s Fundamentalist parent in the eyes of its devotees and outside observers alike. I mean J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923).

In that book Machen argued that the “orthodox” and “liberal” parties then warring for the future of American Protestantism were not, as the second party claimed, carrying on a family feud within the big tent of Christianity. Rather, he insisted, they represented two entirely different religions. The orthodox side held to the historic, apostolic faith; the liberals were parading a combination of philosophical naturalism and sentimental humanitarianism behind the garments of Christian terminology. Their pose was dishonest and dishonorable, Machen continued, and the sooner they dropped it, the better for all concerned. At least then the real issues could be discussed more intelligently and profitably.

So, my modest proposal. Let the next bombshell book on the subject take a hint from Machen and be entitled Christianity and Evangelicalism. Its author could be more charitable than Machen (one could hardly be less) and treat white evangelicalism as not a totally different religion contrary to Christianity but as a deeply corrupted version of the faith whose name it claims. A totally depraved version, my Calvinist theology would put it: that is, tainted in every part and as a whole and unable to cleanse itself by its own power, but requiring a supernatural redemption via a miraculous intervention, registering as a conversion. That depravity, in turn, opens the question of whence it arose, of what might be the original sin in which it is rooted. Is it misogyny, racism, militarism, imperialism, materialism, xenophobia, collective narcissism, arrogant entitlement, abject fear, self-righteousness, sacred nationalism? Or something deeper yet that unites all of the above? Certainly, these traits are manifest, proudly and without apology, in the Trumpian White House and policy initiatives. And just as certainly, the 80% of white evangelicals who hold fast to Donald Trump have signed on to them with little—well, sometimes, just a little—embarrassment. Just as certainly still, the list and the behavior of the figurehead who embodies them, are all far, very far, from the kingdom of heaven. The results are toxic to the evangelical brand in particular and to the prospects of religion in public life in general.

Yet the picture is more mixed than this. To repeat, evangelicalism counts as a profoundly corrupted Christianity but not simply, or not yet, a non- or anti-Christian religion as Machen characterized Protestant liberalism a century ago. White evangelicals can point to Jesus’ criteria (in Matthew 25) for deciding who are the sheep and who are the goats at the final assay and say that they do indeed attend to the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, etc. The contradiction, of course, is that these efforts via voluntary charities rub up against public policies that would abandon the sick, deprive the hungry of food, and throw more and more people—people of color especially—into prison. The current situation thus exposes more clearly than ever the fateful political ideology that white evangelicals have come more and more to follow over the 20th century. They have followed now it to the point of paying allegiance, seemingly unbreakable allegiance, to the most egregious goat ever to occupy the Oval Office.

The first task of Christianity and Evangelicalism would thus be to explain how and why the latter has come to be a noxious version of the former. A lot of the empirical work toward that end has been done. I suggest adding some historical comparison by way of another classic text, Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955). Besides appearing about halfway between Machen’s book and Noll’s, its analytic frame and treasury of polling data show a socio-cultural corruption of Christianity in the 1950s’ supposedly halcyon days of a great and pious America, only this time among Catholics and the Protestant “mainline” too. How else could a near majority of self-identified “Christians” not be able to name one of the four gospels? How else—this is my particular favorite—could American Christians, when asked to rate the most important event in world history, put Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in a tie for fourteenth place alongside the invention of the x-ray and the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk? Herberg, Jewish himself, was profoundly worried about this gap between professed and operative religion. We are no less, and can find in his portrait of the idols of the tribe that stood between the two some clear culprits explaining the great gap of our day.

The second, and harder, task of Christianity and Evangelicalism, would be to suggest some steps by which the latter could become Christian again. Here, ironically, the attempt by some evangelicals to sanctify Donald Trump might work well if given a quarter turn: he is no Cyrus, a pagan ordained of God to restore Jews to Israel, but Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan invader of Israel ordained of God to punish them for their unfaithfulness, and banishing the best of them from the promised land in the bargain. As intriguing might be the possibility of seeing that pagan’s later fate play out again—that is, to see the proud trumpet of egotistical greatness reduced to crawling around like a beast in the field, eating grass and growing literal instead of just figurative claws (Daniel 4)—one’s relish at the prospect bespeaks an unsanctified longing of its own.

The better role might be to follow after a truly scandalous prophet, Ezekiel; to describe and survey the scattered dry bones of a once favored people; and to ask by what means they might possibly live again. No mistake: this option entails death, exile, and damnation. Perhaps we’re left just there, right with the founder of Christianity. Perhaps this, and only this, is the path to resurrection and redemption.

Jim Bratt is professor emeritus of history at Calvin College, where he taught courses in world and American history. The focus of his current research is American religion before the Civil War. He recently published a biography of the Dutch theologian and political leader, Abraham Kuyper, who has had an enormous influence on the history of Calvin College. 

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April 4, 50 Years Out

by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.

Fifty years.

Fifty years since the shot rang out. Since Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Over the years there has been a lot of reflection on the legacy of King, our “inconvenient hero.” But 50 years out, how do we confront the legacy not just of his leadership in the movement, but also of his assassination?

What has his death meant for the civil rights movement, for the church, and for subsequent American history?

As we try to grapple with his death, perhaps King himself offers a place to start. It was 1956, and King was only 27 years old, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptists Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He had just started leading the Montgomery bus boycotts, and he was receiving death threats daily—sometimes dozens.

It was on the night of January 27 that he received a call that shook him to the core. With his wife and 10-week-old daughter sleeping nearby, he heard an anonymous caller threaten to blow up his house if he didn’t leave within the week. He felt his courage slip away. He began to search for a way out of the work before him. But then he bowed over the kitchen table, and prayed. He later recalled experiencing in that moment “the presence of the Divine” as he “had never experienced Him before.” He heard an inner voice telling him: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” His fear left him, his uncertainty was gone.

Three days later his house was bombed, but his family escaped injury, and his inner calm and conviction persisted.

He lived in the shadow of death from that point on. He knew it, and his family knew it. And he was not alone. Yet he persisted with a boldness, even a recklessness, that astounds.

There is power in this story, the “power of unearned suffering,” as Mika Edmondsen describes it. But when outsiders—white Christians, for example—find inspiration in King’s courage, his commitment to nonviolence, his martyrdom, is there a danger of overlooking the terror, the evil, that caused this suffering? Is there a temptation to resist the necessary work of interrogating how some of us might be implicated in the cause of this suffering, historically or in the present day?

Finish reading this post at The Anxious Bench 


Kristin Du Mez is associate professor of history at Calvin and teaches courses in recent America, US social and cultural history, and Gender Studies. Her book A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism was recently published with Oxford University Press. Follow her on Twitter @kkdumez.

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