By Angelique Walker-Smith
Contrary to popular approaches to Black History Month, black history did not begin with the transatlantic slave trade. It is important to remember and recognize that black history is ancient.
In 2013, Dion Rabouin wrote the following in a Huffington Post article: “When Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926, his goal was to teach children and adults throughout the African Diaspora about the proud history and tradition that Africans have …. The march from slavery and the civil rights movement clearly demonstrated the struggle and the power that black people are capable of, but it’s not all we have contributed to the world. It’s time we used the month of February to extend the dialogue beyond that banal and onto the tremendous accomplishments of Africans throughout history who have advanced math, music, language, the sciences, and so much more for thousands of years. Then and only then will we truly be celebrating Black History Month.”
One of the best examples of this is the diverse tapestry of sacred texts, experiences, and spiritual disciplines evident throughout black history. The Holy Bible is one of the most ancient examples of this. Dr. Cain Hope Felder, former professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C., has been a leading scholar on this. He is the editor of The Original African Heritage Study Bible and contributor to the African American Jubilee Bible.
The Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church are three of the most ancient churches in the world. They have special significance in Christian history not only for their ancient presence in Africa but because of the significant presence of these Pan African peoples in the Bible. Sadly, they are often left out of church history teachings. Such ahistorical teachings of Christianity have led to the flawed teaching that African peoples were only introduced to Christianity during the periods of colonialism and chattel slavery.
This is another reason why the teaching of black history is important. Black history is global, national, and local—and belongs to all of us. Tragically, racism has sought to diminish these truths.
In February, Pan-African Christian Devotional for Public Policy Engagement seeks to uplift and acknowledge the ancient African Orthodox contributions of our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. The focus is also on the Lenten season, Feb. 14-March 29, during which time we advocate to end hunger and poverty.
It includes special canticles and Lenten hymns from these church families, ancient devotional prayers and Pan-African historical highlights—including the account of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave in the 19th century who became a nun and patron saint of Sudan.
May this year’s Black History Month be inspirational and informative as we welcome the season of Lent.
Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan-African and Orthodox Church Engagement at Bread for the World.