A Chilling Blast from the Past
On history's harrowing rhyming patterns.
This might come as a shock to some of y’all, but I’m a nerd. Specifically when it comes to the intersection of history and religion in the United States and the colonies that preceded them.
One of the things about bein a bit of a history nerd is that you detect rhyming patterns in current events. One of the things about bein a nerd in the sorta history they don’t always cover in the non-elective curricula in schools is that those patterns are often terrifying.
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I’ve been largely silent in public about events that are transpiring in the Middle East. Not because I don’t have thoughts, but because—when I do share thoughts that keep me up at night—I try to also present a path back to hope. And I’m struggling. I haven’t found that path yet.
The closest parallel I can think of in this latest iteration of violence in the Middle East is something that happened in the 19th century, as western powers in Great Britain and the U.S. looked for ways to solve their Black people problem. By this point, both of these empires had been trafficking Africans for centuries.
They were pros in heavy duty trafficking. Across an entire ocean. But they recognized something. The practice of legalized human trafficking, profitable as it may have been for the wealthy people making the rules, was quickly becoming a political and pragmatic liability for a number of reasons. At this point in history, it now becomes prudent for them to find something to do with all of the many African peoples they’d uprooted from their various homelands and sorta integrated into the fabrics of their societies. It was becoming a problem.
Of course, treating them as full, equal citizens was out of the question. Even though that was all a lot of them were asking for. “Treat us like full citizens in the societies we and our ancestors helped build.” That was an option. The whole time. But many westerners, including some abolitionists, were like “lol, full citizens? With equal rights and stuff? You know you’re Black, right?”
And so, the idea of separate colonies for freeborn and freed Africans began to gain steam on a few different fronts.
Many white people decided that an African colony was the best decision. Proslavery white people liked the idea because the existence of free Black people was giving the Black people they were enslaving at the time CRAZY ideas about being free too. Abolitionist white people (including a dude by the name of Abraham Lincoln) supported the idea of an African colony because, sure… the whole slavery thing might be morally abhorrent in an allegedly “free” society, but Black people still weren’t equal after all. That’d be ridiculous.
And many Black people supported the idea of a colony for free Black people, because white people had made it abundantly clear that they would make their lives a living hell as long as they were there.
It’s important to note that many Black people still demanded equality. But many Black people, even those demanding equality, also saw that a separate, Black state might be a viable option.
Do you know who was really excited about this idea of a Black colony though? In Africa to be specific? Christians. Black Christians. White Christians. Christians.
You see, over these centuries, some Africans in the West were reprogrammed with western values (like democracy & Christianity, of course). And if we could get Africans to go back to Africa, maybe they could bring democracy and Christianity to the rest of the Black world.
What was essentially a pragmatic decision about the tenuous future of Black freedom & equality among white people was givin the veneer of divine sanction thru the lens of saving the world for God.
“Sure it might *look* like colonization, but we’re helping Jesus come back!”
So, with the support of an unlikely alliance of racist white westerners, exhausted free Black people, and zealous Christian eschatologists, organizations started sending the descendants of Africans to colonize Africa. Great Britain had a colony called Sierra Leone. The US had Liberia.
Though they encountered many problems establishing these colonies, one major issue stood out:
These places already had people in them. Many peoples. Many nations. Many cultures. None of them eager to just pick up and move to make westerners feel comfortable about their previous sins. And so there was fighting. A lot of it.
Were it not for the backing of Great Britain and the US (diplomatically and militarily) Liberia would not have survived. But the Black colonists didn’t have to worry about that. They did have that backing. Because there’s no way America was tryna take Black people back.
With this backing, the victims of colonization had become effective agents of colonization themselves. That’s what “freedom” looked like in this context. The reprogramming they received across the atlantic made them disciples of something. And Jesus allegedly scored a victory in west Africa as a result of their courageous voyage. All the while, foreign colonizers got to rule native peoples. New governments, elected by and for these “settlers” exercised jurisdiction over places and people that were there before them.
Some histories will paint savage and violent natives as the enemies for trying to protect their land, inheritance, culture, and autonomy. A critical analysis might have you think the Black colonizers bear all of the blame. But that’s not really the whole story here.
The villains in this story are the people who decided that they couldn’t venture to reimagine their own societies in a way that granted safety, equality, and full citizenship to the people who helped build them.
The villains in this story are the people who decided that the only path forward was in the continued reshaping of lands that were not their own to try to mask the stench of their own iniquity. And who did it all in Jesus’ name. Without even the performance of repentance.
I pray that, one day, we will learn a lesson from the past.