Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: black people

The value of history

Some folks dream of the coming of a golden age, when the gospel will have created a state of peace and benevolence on earth almost approaching that of heaven. Most of us dismiss such ideas as folly, the pride of man.

What about the good old days? Many folks believe things were better in the past. Such an idyllic view of the past is evidence of a selective memory which chooses to ignore the wars, oppression, violence, immorality and cruelty that have marked the history of mankind. There are sincere Christians who think that is how history should be taught; future generation will be better off if they learn nothing about wars and conflicts of the past. I believe there is a fatal flaw in that line of thought.

Most people consider their own country to be the greatest example of human civilization. China, for example, has called itself the Middle Kingdom since 1,000 BC, the centre of the world around which everything else revolves. There is a similar tendency in the USA. I am a Canadian, but my roots in the USA go deep. When my grandparents came to Canada with their sons in 1908, the Goodnough family had been in the USA for 270 years, going back to before there was a USA.

When we reminisce about a golden era in US history, let us not forget that there has never yet been a golden era for black people, or native people. We put people of the past on pedestals, telling ourselves that they were the very models of Christian public figures. Take the Puritans of New England, for instance. (This includes my ancestors who landed in Massachusetts 18 years after the Mayflower.) They were such kindly, peace-loving people; didn’t they have the wonderful Thanksgiving meal with the native people? That was nice, to be sure; but it didn’t last.

The Puritan settlers believed that they were God’s elect and therefore could take any land they wanted for their growing settlements with no consideration for the original residents. Their attitude eroded the trust of the Indian peoples and finally led to what is called King Philip’s War in which thousands of Indians were killed.

Neither did they tolerate any variation in Christian doctrine. When Roger Williams, one of the Bay Colony (Boston) preachers, advocated believer’s baptism he was forced to flee for his life in the dead of winter, with only the clothes on his back. The few Quakers in the colony talked about non-resistance. They were expelled from the colony, but some came back. Two of them were burned at the stake.

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Roger Williams (right) being sheltered by Native Americans after fleeing Massachusetts Colony to avoid arrest, 1636. Image from Shutterstock 

“I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know,” Thomas Jefferson, 1819. Jefferson considered Jesus to be the greatest moral teacher of all time, but rejected anything that smacked of the supernatural, or the divinity, the miracles or the resurrection of Jesus. He was the main author of the Declaration of Independence, which begins by saying:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Jefferson most definitely did not believe that black people were created equal, nor had they any unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Lafayette urged Jefferson on several occasions to free his slaves. His response always was that black people were not fit for freedom. That did not prevent him from fathering six children by one of his slaves. Four of those children lived to adulthood and were the only slaves that Jefferson ever freed.

Those children were only one eighth black ancestry. Their great-grandmother was an African woman who was made pregnant by a British ship captain. The daughter who resulted grew up as a slave on a Virginia plantation and was in her turn made pregnant by the plantation owner and gave birth to Sally Hemings. When her master’s daughter married Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings went to Monticello. When Jefferson’s wife died, he turned to Sally Hemings to satisfy his carnal lust. She was only 14 at the time, a half-sister to Jefferson’s wife and three quarters white ancestry. As a slave, she had no choice in the matter; this cannot be termed a romantic relationship.

For years people have argued passionately that someone else was the father of Sally Hemings’ children. A few may still hold to that argument, but the evidence seems conclusive that Jefferson was the father.

Slavery was brutal, people were forced to work long and hard, with poor food and whipped savagely if they faltered or dared to ask questions. From the time slavery ended until well into the 20th century, at least 3,000 black people were lynched in the US South. These were not clandestine events, carried out in the dark of night. They were publicised, postcards with photos of lynchings were sold in the stores, in one case an excursion train was arranged for people wanting to witness a lynching. Law enforcement officers looked the other way.

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Anti-slavery poster of 1780

In the “Red Summer” of 1919 there were anti-black riots in more than three dozen cities across the USA. In 1943, with auto plants converted to war production, the Packard plant in Detroit promoted two black workers to supervisory positions. The white workers walked out and a riot ensued as the news spread. In the evening, unemployed white youth traveled to black residential areas, looting and vandalizing homes. The police ignored the white vandals and arrested black men trying to protect their homes and families.

It is good for us to read history, especially those parts of history that jar our illusions of the sweetness and light of our forefathers. We are not better than the people of past generations. The most important lesson of history is that the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. My heart is no different than the heart of any of the villains of the past. It is when I ignore the true nature of my heart that I become a villain, while believing that I am doing some great and noble good. As Blaise Pascal wrote: “Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.”

Solomon said: “Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

Hand in Hand – Book Review

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Canadian author Jean Little wrote over 50 books, mostly for and about children. Many of them featured children who were newcomers to Canada, orphans or in other difficult circumstances. The books all have positive outcomes, often through discovery or rediscovery of the value of family.

She was born in 1932, the daughter of medical missionaries in Taiwan, and died April 6 of this year in Guelph, Ontario at the age of 88.

Almost all her books have a Canadian setting. Her last book, Hand in Hand, illustrated above, is set in the USA and is about the childhood of Helen Keller. It was published in 2016. The photo is obviously of a library copy and will have to go back to the library, whenever it opens again.

The book is fiction, but almost all the people and many of the events in the book are real. The subtitle, partly covered above, says, The real-life story of Helen Keller and Martha Washington. Helen Keller mentions Martha in her autobiography, The Story of My Life, written when she was 21. Martha was the young daughter of the Keller family’s cook and Helen’s only playmate.

All the servants of the Keller family were black. This was after the days of slavery, but conditions for black people in Alabama were not vastly improved. Yet Martha Washington learned to understand Helen Keller’s wishes and signs and played a role in her early years.

Based on the facts available, Jean Little has written a believable story of how it might have been, from the viewpoint of Martha Washington. The book ends at the point when Helen finally grasps that the lines Annie Sullivan is making with her finger on Helen’s palm form the word for the water that is pouring over her hand.

Jean Little herself was blind all her life. Her recounting of interactions between sighted people and a little blind (and deaf) girl have an authenticity that grasps and holds the reader’s attention. The book is written for younger readers, but this old guy found it a fascinating read.

Hand in Hand, The real-life story of Helen Keller and Martha Washington. © 2016 by Jean Little, published by Scholastic Canada

Will Harriet Tubman appear on the Canadian $100 bill?

Earlier this year, the Bank of Canada asked the public for suggestions for a woman to appear on the $100 bill. The woman selected must nor be fictional, must have died at least 25 years ago and must have played a significant role in Canadian history. Harriet Tubman was one of the names proposed.

You see, Harriet Tubman’s main claim to fame was as a conductor on the Underground Railway, leading black people from slavery in the U.S south to freedom in Canada. She once said  “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer, but I brought ’em all clear off to Canada.” St. Catherines, Ontario was her home from 1851 to 1861, the height of her activity as a conductor on the Underground Railway. This covers most of the time between the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which made life risky for black people anywhere in the USA, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Bethel Chapel BME church

This church, the Bethel Chapel British Methodist Episcopal Church, was Harriet Tubman’s home church in St. Catherines. It is considered to be the oldest black church in Canada and is still home to an active congregation. It has been designated a National Historic Site, due to its connection to Harriet Tubman.

York University in Toronto is home to the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diaspora.

It’s unlikely that Harriet Tubman will be selected for the $100 dollar bill. For one thing, I don’t believe she ever became a Canadian citizen. Yet she is well known in Canada and played a prominent role in our history. I suspect it is more likely that she will turn up on a Canadian postage stamp. I’m a little surprised that it hasn’t happened already.

Strange ideas about strangers

“If a white person marries a black person,” my father said to me one day, “their children will be born with one black leg and one white leg, one black arm and one white arm.” I was still in my early teens but I didn’t think such a thing was possible and I told my father so. Then I asked him if he had ever seen anyone like that. He didn’t answer, but he never again brought up the possibility of people having Holstein markings.

Not all strange ideas like this should be labelled prejudice. If someone grows up only hearing thinking like this and never has opportunity to see whether it is true or not, they are just uninformed. In times gone by, when there was less opportunity to meet people who were different from yourself, these ideas might last a lifetime.

My father grew up in the USA around the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th. He absorbed the prevailing attitude toward black people of that era and never encountered anything in his adult travels in the USA or Canada to contradict that attitude.

My mother grew up in a very conservative Plautdietsch speaking home, yet she was much more open minded in her attitude toward other people. It seems that she learned that from her father. Before he was married he had worked in a community where there lived a black man who had been born in slavery and moved north to Canada. Grandpa learned some of the old Negro Spirituals from this man and taught them to his 14 children. While they lived in Manitoba, their home was a place where Indians often stopped for a drink of water, a bite to eat or just a place to rest on their journey. They knew they were welcome at the Henry Letkeman home.

Grandpa was blind, in more ways than one. My mother grew up in that setting and told those stories to me. One of my cousins lives not too far away. Our fathers were brothers, our mothers were sisters. He worked for years with First Nations (Indian) people in housing projects, and in evangelism. I observe his attitude towards people who are different and I know that he did not learn that openness from his father.

We both owe a lot to our mothers – and to Grandpa Letkeman, who we never met. He died before we were born. But, thanks to the attitude he inspired in our mothers, we did not grow up with strange ideas about strangers.

Negro is not a polite term for black people

Back in November the U.S. Army acknowledged that Negro was not an acceptable term and removed it from their regulations, leaving Black or African American as the acceptable terms. Isn’t it about time for Christian people to catch on?

Granted, it was once acceptable for black people to be called Coloured (Canadian spelling — “colored” looks like a washed-out crayon to me, my spell checker doesn’t like it either). But that always was kind of a funny label — we all have some kind of colour in our cheeks don’t we?

Negro was once considered acceptable too. But why should we use a word in English that means black in several of the Latin tongues? Why not just say black if that’s what we mean? And if the word is considered as demeaning by the people we are talking about, why would we insist on using it? This is not political correctness, Coloured and Negro were deliberately chosen as labels for people who were considered inferior.

Thirty years ago, Dorothy Shadd Shreve suggested AfriCanadian as a useful term for black people in Canada. I like it; too bad it hasn’t caught on. (She wrote a history of the black churches of Southwestern Ontario entitled The AfriCanadian Church: A Stabilizer.)

Negro comes from the Latin word Niger, which simply means black. This Latin word also provided a name for the Niger River in Africa and the countries of Niger and Nigeria. In Acts 13:1, we read that the church in Antioch had five spiritual leaders: “Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.” In plain English, Simeon was called “the Black”, no doubt because he was black.

Daniel Whedon, in his commentary, suggests that Simeon who was called Niger was the same as Simon of Cyrene who helped carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon and Simeon are the same name, one being the Greek form and the other the Jewish.) He cites several other scholars on this point and it seems quite plausible. Cyrene was a city in that area of North Africa that is now Libya and appears to have been a crossroads for people of Africa, Europe and Palestine. There were Cyrenians in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and Acts 11:19-20 says that it was men of Cyrene and Cyprus who first brought the gospel to Antioch. Whedon is also of the opinion that Lucius of Cyrene is the same as Luke the writer of the gospel of that name and of the book of Acts (saying that Lucius and Loukas appear to be Roman and Greek versions of the same name.)

Whatever one makes of all this, it is evident that one of the principal leaders of the first Gentile church was a black man. The NIV and ESV still persist in listing him as Simeon called Niger as if that was a name and not a description. Excuse me if I’m missing something, but there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to avoid using the word black, except for some slight possibly of embarrassment over revealing that there were black people in the early church.

Pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction

My personal observations, perhaps not very scientific but still quite realistic I believe, have convinced me that a substantial portion of humanity is afflicted with a strange malady.  This malady manifests itself when a person meets, or even hears of, someone with a different colour of skin.  The symptoms are that this person then seems to become unable to absorb any more information about the person of a different colour.  I have chosen to call this pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction.

This is not really the same thing as prejudice.  Many people afflicted with this disorder would profess nothing but good will for people of another colour.  They just seem unable to understand each other or to relate to each other in any meaningful way.

I know that a great many white people are afflicted with this.  Here in Saskatchewan, when a white person encounters an Indian (or First Nations) person, he tends to instinctively think of all the stories he has heard of Indians with broken homes, a drinking problem and an inability to hold a job.  Of course there are many Indians who are hard-working, responsible and sober.  We tend to identify them as being white people, thus not allowing their example to change our “knowledge” of what Indians are like.  It may take years of acquaintanceship before the white person is able to absorb any other information about what the Indian person is really like.

Many Indian people have their own knee-jerk reflex perceptions of what white people are like, thus both groups face major hurdles in learning to know each other.

No group of people is immune from this malady.  An Indian couple on a reserve in Eastern Canada adopted a black child.  The band council passed a resolution denying this child membership in the band and the privileges that would go with it.  A Christian Indian lady of my acquaintance says that her mother, who is of 1/8 white ancestry, is known as “White Woman” on the reserve.

The same symptoms are manifested, though to a slightly lesser degree in Canada, in the way whites perceive black people and the way black people perceive white people.  I recall an incident while we were living in Montréal and worshipping in a small mission congregation.  One Sunday morning a young black man stepped into church, saw only white people and immediately became very nervous.  I went to speak to him and invited him to join us, but he looked at our literature rack and seized upon that as an excuse, saying he had only come to get some information and he would come back another time.  He never did.  I have often kicked myself for my slow thinking, for there was a black lady seated on the side of the church that was not visible from the doorway.  Would it have made a difference if I had quickly called Esperanza and asked her to help this young man feel at home?

How would I have reacted if the tables were turned and I was the only white person walking into a church full of black people?  I would like to think that while I may not be totally cured of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction (it seems to be a congenital disorder in most of us), I have had enough experience in being around black (and other non-white) people that I would not immediately panic and run for the nearest exit.

We might like to think that a disorder such as pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction could not exist among Christian people.  Yet I observed in Montréal that most evangelical denominations had separate congregations for blacks and whites.  There were only a handful of congregations where black and white people seemed able to worship together.  No one seemed to have a valid reason why it didn’t work in other denominations.  I would suggest that it is due to the undiagnosed presence of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction.

The first step toward being cured of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction is to admit that one has it.  This is pretty hard on our pride, for we like to think of ourselves as warmhearted, magnanimous people without a trace of prejudice.  But how do we react when we meet someone of another skin colour?  What if we meet a whole group of people of that colour?  Or do we perhaps do our best to avoid such a situation?

We can avoid any but the briefest contact with people of another skin colour and convince ourselves that we are entirely free of such a thing as pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction.  That is self-deception.  I don’t know of any other cure but to spend time with people who look different that we are and discover that they really aren’t very different after all.

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