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Dear Black People...
A love letter to creativity.
There is power in a name.
My parents took this very seriously. Each of their children were given names that took explaining. My oldest sister bears an Arabic name that means “Beautiful.” The sister that falls second in the birthing order travels the world with a French name that means “Sun.” I was (in part) named after my father and his father before him (which is why most people call me “Trey”). But the name my family calls me is a Zulu word meaning “Power.”
When my parents named us, they were prophesying. Naming their children was an exercise in hope and faith. They named us in love.
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But naming can also be an exercise in exercising dominion and power. When an imperial minded enterprise thinks they have conquered a people, they will often presume to name that people. And so Navajo, Cherokee, Iroquois, Choctaw, Sioux, Seminole, and Creek become “Indian.” Igbo, Yoruba, Fulani, and Edo people become “Nigerian.” Zulu, Xhosa, Maasai, and Sotho people become “South African.” People who bear a darker hue and a coarser hair are presumed to be “African,” a designation given to a continent that contains as much ethnic diversity as any other on the planet. So diverse are the many peoples on the continent now recognized as “Africa” that Arabs and Berbers from places like Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia are also rightly called African, despite bearing little-to-no physical, linguistic, or cultural resemblance to Nguni, Swahili, or Mbuti people.
But the imperial imagination rarely leaves room for such distinctions. Empires demand classification and stratification. Empires demand renaming.
The Bible tells the story of four young Judahite men (named Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) who were exiled and taken into captivity in Babylon, where they were renamed (Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) and raised in the ways of Babylon to serve a new nation that was not their own. This is the way of empire.
As a result of this imperial requirement, many of us have been separated from our ethnic heritage. Even forcefully so. We cannot name the people we’ve come from, nor the languages they spoke or the religious practices they shared.
I have inherited some stories of my origins. I know that my father was Jamaican. But even that belies the fact that the Taíno people that once inhabited the island now known as Jamaica were killed by the imperial agents that sough to colonize their land before the island was repopulated with an enslaved African labor force. DNA tests suggest that my ethnic origins are like Igbo, a people who populate what is now known as Nigeria in West Africa.
However, for the most part, I am simply identified as “Black.” I do not run from my Jamaican heritage. In fact, I celebrate it. Even as I welcome the chance to discover more of my heritage, is difficult to feel much of a kinship with any Igbo origins without having inherited any of the stories, songs, and practices from any close family members. But I know a lot about being Black.
I have heard the stories of what it means to be Black in the United States of America. I have learned how we are expected to carry ourselves. I know much of the various ways we worship. I know many of our dialects. I do not know all of them, as we are a very diverse people. I know that many of my ancestors took scraps that nobody else wanted and made lavish meals out of them. I know where “soul food” comes from. I know how we took instruments made for classical, orchestral performances (like the bass, the piano, and the trumpet) and made new, improvisational music with them—music that touched the soul of America. I know a lot about being Black.
I also know that we didn’t name ourselves Black. After imperialists thought us conquered and then presumed to rename us, we bore many names. We were colored. We were niggers. We were African-Americans. We were Black. People gave us a number of designations to remind themselves that they were in charge. That they had the power to name us.
What they failed to understand was the power of imagination. They did not understand that in trying to force their language on us, we could remake it our own. They did not foresee that in tossing us scraps, we’d create masterpieces. They did not know that in forcing their gods on us, we might reveal a more just Creator.
They did not know that in naming us Black, we would make Black beautiful.
That is what we do. Because we are fully human. We are made in the image of a Divine Creator. We can transform the chaos we’ve inherited.
I’m always fascinated by the way we see this play out in Black Christian spaces. Proudly Black Christians who possess a more “conservative” theology will often point out that many of the church fathers (the Patriarchs) were African. They’ll point out the presence of Africans in the Bible. Many proudly Black Christians who own a more “progressive” theology will look at the ways that imperial conquests shape our understandings of God, the Bible, religion, and morality. Conservative Black Christians will often say that progressive Black Christians are, ironically, using European (German, to be specific) scholarship and hermeneutics to approach Biblical texts. Progressive Black Christians will often say that conservative Black Christians are utilizing an imperial framework to approach Christian history, doctrine, and scripture—as evidenced by the idea of labeling all African presence in the Bible and Church history as “Black,” despite our current understandings of race and “Blackness” not developing until just before the Protestant Reformation.
Both of these critiques have merit. We have inherited paradigms shaped by whiteness all around us. That was the intention when we were renamed.
But we take these paradigms and make them our own. We make them beautiful.
Because that’s what we do.
We take what was handed to us, and we make the most out of it.
We do not have to pretend that we are not being creative. We are walking out our God given identities when we do that. Regardless of what people have tried to name us, this is who we are.
There is an identity we cannot be stripped of. It is stronger than the languages we speak. It is more powerful than the names we carry. It is the image of the Creator.
When they called us Black, we made Black beautiful. When we were given an oppressive god, we saw a God who could lead us to wholeness and abundant life.
Regardless of where you find yourself, remember the power that lies in your name. Conservative. Progressive. Black. African-American. It does not matter. We are a creative people. Because we were made in God’s image.