February is over: What does an African-American Historian do in March?

by Eric M. Washington.

For African-American historians, February can be a busy month. For me, I did a podcast for the Reformed African American Network, I give a short presentation to AHANA[1] students here at Calvin about my journey into African-American history, and I gave a short presentation on the history and centrality of Black preaching in the Black Church. All very good things. Since there is such a thing as Black History Month, students and scholars alike may tend to treat African-American history like the Christmas season: there’s the build up and anticipation, then the day arrives, and then all of the sentiment is put aside until next year.

Images of historic women with the title "Women's History Month"Now that it’s March, I’ve been just as busy performing my normal duties as a professor and member of the college faculty. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of Selma, a Christian radio station in Chicago interviewed me on the events and the bearing it has on the Church. I’ve also presented research at the Michigan Academy of the Arts, Sciences, and Letters. I presented at a symposium of African-American Reformed pastors and scholars last week. I am co-writing a booklet on African Americans for the Christian Reformed Church. Now, I’m writing this blog post. March is just as busy for me as February was. There’s more coming next month. All of this is to say that historians are busy people, regardless of their area of specialty.

March is also a special month dedicated to specific persons. March is Women’s History Month. According to womenshistorymonth.gov, in 1981, Congress requested the president to proclaim Women’s History Week to be recognized the week of March 7, 1982. In 1987, the National Women’s History Project petitioned Congress to pass a resolution declaring the month of March to be Women’s History Month.  Since then, March has been the official celebration and observance of Women’s History Month in the US. Every year the president issues an official proclamation that March is Women’s History Month. In his 2015 proclamation President Obama stated:

We know that when women succeed, America succeeds. The strength of our economy rests on whether we make it possible for every citizen to contribute to our growth and prosperity. As we honor the many patriots who have shaped not only the destinies of other women, but also the direction of our history, let us resolve to build on their efforts in our own time. As a Nation, we must join our voices with the chorus of history and push forward with unyielding faith to forge a more equal society for all our daughters and granddaughters — one where a woman’s potential is limited only by the size of her dreams and the power of her imagination.

Image of a young African-American woman writing with a quill
Phillis Wheatley, as illustrated by Scipio Moorhead in the Frontispiece to her book Poems on Various Subjects

In the spirit of women’s equality, inclusion, and flourishing, I highlighted the life and work of Phillis Wheatley at the symposium I presented at just last week. Describing her as an Afro-Puritan poet, I positioned her as a Reformed Puritan Christian who wrote and thought within a Reformed Puritan worldview accented with a New World African perspective. Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa, modern Senegal circa 1753. She arrived in Boston on a slave ship named the Phillis in 1761. She may have been as young as seven years of age. A Boston man, John Wheatley, purchased this “refuse slave” with missing front teeth, as a gift for his wife, Susanna. “Refuse slaves” were called such because either they were too young, or too sickly to be of any value to a potential slave-holder. They named this little African girl, Phillis, the same name as the boat she arrived on. Because she was so young, her purchase by the Wheatleys was considered a luxury purchase.

One of her most famous poems, “On Being brought from Africa to America” written sometime during that 1760s is a piece that focuses on God’s mysterious providence regarding why Phillis was taken from Africa to America (as a slave). Her poem:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

This poem reveals great depth of thought for one so young, but her enslavement definitely caused her to think so deeply upon matters of the soul and eternity. The casual reader may come away thinking that she accepted her enslavement as part of God’s eternal plan. I would argue that Phillis believed in the absolute sovereignty of God, but also, in subversive way, she believed that her enslavement and the enslavement of other Africans was somehow unlawful according to the Laws of God. She recognized the perspective of many British and British Americans who carried disdain for Africans, and argued that their very color was a curse from God. Yet in this poem she revealed that the color of Africans was no curse as it posed no barrier for God’s saving grace.

Darlene Clark Hine with President Obama at the 2013 National Humanities Medals award ceremony.
Dr. Darlene Clark Hine with President Obama at the 2013 National Humanities Medals award ceremony.

It’s been a busy month, and though February is over, Women’s History Month still offers a fresh opportunity to highlight great women in African-American history. As part of Women’s History Month this year, one of the renowned African-American Women’s historians, Dr. Darlene Clark Hine, one of my former professors, is one of nine honorees of the National Women’s History Project. Upon receiving this honor, Hine said, “If I can impress upon the historical profession how important it is to talk to and illuminate the lives of people who did not leave written records, but who also influenced generations of women all over the globe, then I will feel that my career is worthwhile.” Well said, Dr. Hine. Happy Women’s History month!

[1] AHANA stands for African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American.

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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