“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana wrote the preceding quote in Reason in Common Sense. Ironically, many who recite his famous line attribute it to Winston Churchill and remember it as, “Those who forget the past (or who don’t know their history) are doomed to repeat it.”
History is easily confused, obscuring what was really said and done. And we are weaker for that.
History properly done is a record of the way things were and the way things were perceived to be. Both actual events and our perception of them need to be known.
It has been said that winners write the history. This is a cynical view that contains a legitimate suggestion. The not-so-subtle suggestion is there are either two histories—one official and one suppressed—or one history with two halves, and both histories or halves need to be known together.
A subtler suggestion is that a partial history allows wrongs to be perpetuated—to the advantage of the winners—while the ending of wrongs comes in knowing the complete history.
If we do not want to repeat the wrongs of the past, we need to deal with all that was wrong in the past.
Black history is about remembering all our history
In 1926, Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History started what they called Negro History Week. Fifty years later in 1976, President Gerald Ford decreed February as Black History Month, also known as African American History Month.
Woodson thought if a people did not have a way to remember its past—good and bad—they stood to become forgettable in the world, even to the point of extermination.
He chose February for Negro History Week because it includes Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays, two prominent figures in Black history.
In recent years, some have called for the end of Black History Month, arguing for what might be called the integration of history. In Morgan Freeman’s words, “Black history is American history.”
Part of Freeman’s argument is that American history is the story of many people, most of whom do not have a designated month for their histories.
Some people focus on the second part of an argument like Freeman’s without realizing the strength of the first part. Focusing on the second part—each people group having a designated month—splinters history and us. However, focusing on the first part—we were all involved in history—brings us together.
I see the value of arguments to end Black History Month, and yet given the past, I don’t know that enough trust has been established for an integrated history to be successful. We first need to acknowledge and own all that is involved in Black history.
Baptist history is about remembering all our history
In our own celebration of Black History Month through our Deep in the Hearts of Texans features and Baptists Preaching sermons this month, the Baptist Standard has sought to create a way for those who come after us to look back at incredible African-American leaders who are making us better now and who are positioning us for a stronger future.
But what we are doing is only part of the story.
Much more of the story is contained in the many hundreds of African-American Baptist churches throughout Texas, each of which has its own important history.
We all gain from knowing the history of these churches, not because knowing it is useful but because knowing makes us whole.
To learn these histories, connect with an African-American congregation. Ask questions about its founding, why the church is located where it is, its traditions. You will find a significant part of the strength of Texas Baptists lies in these congregations.
But be ready. Not all of what you will learn is good.
An example of the bad is the reality that many African-American Baptists in Texas were enslaved by white Baptists. Among white Baptists, there was disagreement about whether or not slaves should have congregations separate from their masters. I’ll leave it to you the reader to research reasons for and against separate congregations.
When slaves were granted their own congregations, they met in places like clearings and older buildings passed down from white congregations. We need to come to grips with why slaves were left to worship in cast-off places.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, freed slaves began to form their own congregations. And the majority of white Baptists then argued in favor of these separate congregations. Again, we need to come to grips with why so many white Baptists were in favor of separation.
As I learn more about African-American Baptist history, I am struck by the significance of historic Baptist principles like local church autonomy. I suspect such a principle may be more celebrated among those who weren’t allowed to know of it before being freed.
When we re-member our history, our future will be stronger
There is great strength in knowing the full history—the way things were and the way things were perceived to be, the actual events and the reasons for them.
Texas Baptists have made important steps toward re-membering our whole history, and we have steps still to take.
What are those steps, you may be asking? We will know when we listen to one another and accept what we hear.