Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: black people

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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