Identity within the Ethical Formulations of the African American Family

[1] We outlined and began writing this article in August 2002. In the ensuing weeks, a number of ethical and moral issues emerged in the United States in general and in the African American context in particular. These issues have implications for both church and society. These issues caused us to pause and reflect as we crafted an article about the Black family and leadership. What issues? We will only cite a few.

[2] September 11, 2002. One year later, how has the African American family and African American leadership been affected by the terrorist attacks on the United States? We have confessed that we too are patriotic Americans because we too have suffered the loss of loved ones in this international tragedy. Yet the controversy over the permanent memorial to be erected at Ground Zero, the site of the annihilated World Trade Center, revived specters and exposed unresolved issues for the African American community and its leaders regarding their acceptability as United States patriots.

[3] In spite of the fact that African Americans have sacrificed their lives in the military throughout the history of the United States, from Buffalo Soldiers to the Gulf War and beyond, these sacrifices have not guaranteed that African Americans as a whole are perceived as full citizens of this republic as yet. Other ethnic groups, particularly Middle Eastern Palestinians, have begun to recite their contemporary experiences of being viewed with the same scrutiny and suspicion under which African Americans and native peoples have lived for hundreds of years. On account of misrepresented religious beliefs and misunderstood family systems, ethnic leaders here in the United States and overseas, are vilified and maligned when they interpret world events through lenses that do not reflect the European American standards of acceptability. Islam is under fire from conservative Christians and Jews. Family systems are criticized if they do not espouse Western values.

[4] In a Chicago Tribune editorial published on 9/22/02, Clarence Page addressed the issue of the three Muslim third-year medical students. They were detained in Florida as suspected terrorists during the first weeks of September because of part of their conversation that a European American woman overheard in a Shoney’s restaurant in Georgia. The three young men are not able to begin their clinical training at Larkin Community Hospital in Miami hospital because of this incident. Mr. Page says:

I heard some of my fellow African Americans express a bitter relief that we are not the only people getting profiled on the highways and, especially in the airways these days. As such, one cannot help but notice ironic similarities between our situations, including the human tendency to presume those who look “different” to be guilty until they prove themselves innocent.1

[5] Following the mid-September release of “Barbershop” the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition issued a resolution regarding the movie. As most African Americans are aware, the subject under discussion is whether or not artistic license (First Amendment rights?) allows the ‘dissing’ of those who have achieved a renowned status on account of their participation in and contributions to the American civil rights movement of the 20th century. In particular the references to Mrs. Rosa Parks and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are perceived as just a little irreverent at best, and sacrilegious, at worst.

If the symbols of African American liberation are diminished and devalued, the status of all who believe in equal opportunity and equal protection under law is reduced. No more so than American youth who, by viewing “Barbershop,” will receive a distorted view of the struggle movement which make their everyday freedoms possible.2

[6] During the week of October 6, 2002 entertainer Harry Belafonte made reference to the historic roles which African Americans have played during the period of slavery, suggesting that Secretary of State Colin Powell might be filling the role of a ‘house negro’ in the Bush administration. A house negro, as most African Americans know, was one who was so loyal to the plantation’s master/mistress that s/he looked the other way when the field negroes were being abused, exploited, raped, tortured, and killed. The response projected by the European American media was that Mr. Belafonte ought to stick to just singing and not become involved in politics. This was said to and of a man, Mr. Belafonte, who participated on the front lines in the political struggle for American civil rights, a struggle that paved the way for Colin Powell to achieve the status which he has attained today.

[7] These issues, and many others not here cited, raise ethical and moral questions regarding the sacredness of African American historical and current leadership. Additional concerns arise concerning the future of the African American community. When does comedy become mockery and not comedy, as we listen to African American comedians on ‘ComicView on BET’ continue to make sport of the Black church experience? How do we address the negative images that put down our community and its members in so many expressions of hip-hop and rap music? Can African American leaders remain silent? How do African American leaders correct and defend the culture? How much integrity does the African American community lose in order that some individuals might be successful? How do we measure success in the arena of the African American agenda of civil rights? In the thinking and reflection of contemporary African American leaders there is an urgent need for serious conversation within the African American community in order to address these questions.

[8] As we reflect on the troubled times within which we are living, we adapt a question that Dr. Pero asked in his doctoral thesis 27 years ago: What has it been like to live in the African American experience? Better yet, what is it like to be an African American?3 This article will attempt to clarify the ecumenical nature of identity as it relates to the symbiotic relationship between leadership and the African American family, because this is the context with which we are most familiar and in which we are called to serve.

[9] From the outset we would like to state the malady: human beings tend to attach their identity to external factors such as nation, vocation, race, economic class, and gender rather than to their character traits given by God. This is to say that as humans beings we tend to understand who we are in terms of the above mentioned factors: what we do for a living, racial classification, where and how we live, sexual orientation, et. al., rather than through the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, etc. (Gal. 5: 22-23).

[10] To correct this malady, we posit that these external factors are our identifications, not our identity. The ethical dilemma becomes obvious in the attachment of one’s humanity to these identifications. Our argument is that these identifications, theologically speaking, are subtle forms of idolatry.

The sin of idolatry simply means worshipping other gods before Yahweh. Our story in the United States, for the most part, is one (subtle forms of) idolatry. We have consistently worshiped the European-American community, to our demise. We have come to dress, speak, eat, and desire what European-Americans have told us, to the point where their issues have become our issues-not realizing that our own African American issues have yet to be resolved.4

[11] It seems appropriate to recall the analysis of Andrew Billingsley in his book Black Families in White America. European Americans receive both their nurturing and their sustaining in the European American community; African American people receive only their nurture from the African American community-their sustaining comes from the European American community! This has led to what W.E.B. Du Bois described as early as the turn of the 19th century as “double-consciousness.”5 In the 21st century racism and its logical consequence, internalized oppression, seem to be passe; economic success, the sustaining environment, has overshadowed familial/community nurturing. Individual success is to be achieved at the expense of the success of the whole community. Identifications have become more important than Christian identity.

[12] The essence of leadership, as it applies to our subject matter in this essay, has everything to do with Christian identity, given to us in baptism, and the significance of baptism as it informs our relationships with the rest of the human family-in other words, whose we are. Our particular focus is on how identity is formed and developed in the African American family as well as how leadership functions in the African American community. There is an illusion in the 21st century church and society that racism has been eliminated because of the economic equality/parity that has been attained by some individual leaders most visible in the African American middle class, sports, and entertainment industries.

[13] Leadership in the African American community normally has emerged within the context of the historic Black church, the venue that has given meaning and direction to the identity and the identifications of the African American family. The historic Black church understands that God is the origin of the family (Gen. 1: 27). All Christians confess one of the historic Christian creeds (Apostles’ or Nicene)6 in which the first article affirms that God has created “me and all creatures”7: we are all children of one heavenly parent. In Christian baptism, we emphasize this identity when we acknowledge that all life issues from God. On Ash Wednesday and during funeral services we affirm our mortality in that we will eventually return to God. “You are dust and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3: 19; Job 10:9; Eccl. 3:20).

[14] If the furnace which fires African American leadership is the African American church, then it is on the potter’s wheel of the African American family that African American leadership is formed and shaped. The normative tradition in the development of African American people is that principle of non-racism that we call the “Black Christian tradition.” This tradition is depicted by the biblical doctrine of the parenthood of God and the kinship of all peoples-which is the contemporary, non-sexist version of the original expression “the fatherhood of God and thebrotherhood of man.”8 The ethical confession and understanding of the African American family and extended community is summed up in this tradition (cf. Rom. 12:5). It is a direct consequence of this tradition, as well as the historical interdependence of the African American church and the African American family, through which African-American leadership has emerged. Upon this tradition African American leadership has been built. Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X are just a few outstanding leaders out of this tradition.

[15] We cannot authentically deal with the African American family without acknowledging and claiming the wisdom of the larger Africans-in-diaspora community. A traditional African proverb states “I am because you are. And because you are, we are.” Instead of being no-body we are some-body (cf. Rom. 9: 25-26; Hosea 1:10). The family is always understood within a dynamic social relationship, e.g., the irreducible minimum of the church is two people (cf. Matt. 18: 20). “Authenticity cannot apply itself to the true function of African American leadership without taking into serious discussion the black person’s disenchantment, the destruction of all family ties, the experiences of dehumanization and rebellion, the struggle for emancipation. . .”9

[16] African Americans within Lutheranism live a duality, a W.E.B. Du Bois “double-consciousness.”10 There are enough of us to be counted in order to fulfill ‘quotas’ but these is an insufficient number of us to be counted as equal partners in contributing our gifts to the ELCA. In this sense, it is important to understand ourselves as black confessional Lutherans. This is our primary identity, for we do not confess the Lutheran Confessions; rather we confess what Lutherans confess, namely that “Jesus is Lord.”11

While there are many similarities between black Lutherans and white Lutherans, the dissimilarities are perhaps of greater importance. The similarities are found at the point of a common Christian identity, the dissimilarities are found between black and white cultures. Whites utilize their culture to dominate others, blacks utilize theirs (empowered by the gospel) to affirm their dignity and seek justice and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). As white Lutheran theology (in the past) ignores (d) the contradictions of oppression, exploitation, and nonrepresentation of black life, black Lutheran theology (in the present) is the thinking of the oppressed, marginalized, exploited black people, whom many white Lutheran theologians regard (ed) as unworthy of serious theological reflection.12

[17] When our confessional identity, our everyday persona, is lodged in Jesus Christ, the African American family can participate with other Christian families, the African American church and African American leaders in proclaiming that God is God in the face of other gods who would demand our allegiance and compliance. We understand that our identifications only describe us; they don’t define us. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (I Peter 2:9).”13

End Notes

1 Clarence Page, “The failings of Arab profiling,” Chicago Tribune, September 22, 2002, Section 2, p. 11.

2 RAINBOW/PUSH. JACKSFAX. Vol. VIII, Issue 18, 9/19/02.

3 Albert P. Pero, Jr., Theologia Propria, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, 1975, 135.

4 Cheryl A. Steward, “Integrity in the Priesthood of All Believers,” in Theology and the Black Experience: The Lutheran Heritage Interpreted by African & African-American Theologians. Edited by Albert Pero and Ambrose Moyo. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988), 186. Italics indicate updated language.

5 Ibid., 192. See this material for a fuller discussion of the interconnectedness of the insights of Billingsley and Du Bois.

6 Hans Kung, The Church (Garden City: NY: Doubledany), 341-348.

7 Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism.

8 Albert Pero, Jr., “The Issue of Power and Authority in the Global Church in the 21st Century,” Currents in Theology and Mission, 24/3 245-251.

9 Pero, Theologia Propria, 134. Italics indicate updated language.

10 Stewart, op. cit.

11 Albert Pero, Jr., “Black, Lutheran and American,” Theology and the Black Experience, 158.

12 Pero, op. cit., 153. Parentheses ours.

13 NRSV (New York: American Bible Society, 1989).

Cheryl Pero

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Pero is past Director of the Rev. Dr. Albert “Pete” Pero, Jr., Multicultural Center at LSTC.