As a Unitarian Universalist, I draw courage and inspiration from Black History Month.
Fannie Barrier Williams (courtesy of the Rose Archives of the College at Brockport, New York)
In 1866 Frances Ellen W. Harper, a black woman with membership in both African Methodist Episcopal and Unitarian churches in Philadelphia, took the stage at the National Women’s Rights Convention and declared, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”
Harper’s words, delivered one year after the official end of slavery in America, invokes images of a nation chained to slavery’s legacy and to the disenfranchisement of women. We are still bound up in that legacy. When I read Harper’s words, I am reminded that Unitarians and Universalists have a long and complicated history of involvement—or not—in America’s struggle for racial equality.
Black History Month holds great significance in my life. I am a black American and a third-generation Unitarian Universalist. I believe in the month’s importance because, as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it in a cover story for the Atlantic last year, “black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it.” I am drawn to those Americans who see the promise and beauty of this great nation but who are also honest about its shortcomings. Their candor inspires critics to call them America-bashers, but I see them as fierce patriots.
Black History Month affords us an opportunity to be honest with ourselves—as individuals, as Americans, as Unitarian Universalists. It challenges us to ask hard questions, even ones that can never fully be answered. In 1893 the activist Fannie B. Williams, a black woman and member of All Souls Unitarian Church in Chicago, asked churchgoers of all denominations, “What can religion further do to advance the condition of the American Negro?” It was a query not often made in predominately white churches, in 1893 or now.
Williams believed religious people must work actively to combat discrimination; doing anything less perpetuates discrimination. The stories of Black History Month can remind us that those with the courage to challenge the racial status quo were neither superhuman nor otherworldly, neither flawless nor impeccable. But they acted. As the recently released film Selma shows, those courageous souls who struggled needed to eat, called friends late at night for support, and admitted their fears. The first time I encountered Fannie Williams’s question was just weeks after joining the current Black Lives Matter movement. I was unsure how to proceed as a new activist, but Williams’s call to faith-based action helped me feel held by a long tradition of Unitarians and Universalists who have been willing to say and do unpopular, challenging things in the name of justice.
I draw courage and inspiration from Black History Month. I am moved by stories of my fellow black Americans, from Harriet Tubman to Ella Baker, from Rosa Parks to Toni Morrison. I am moved when I read or hear about Unitarian Universalists, of any race or background, who were willing to declare the injustice of slavery and able to decry the insidiousness of Jim Crow, and who proclaim now that black lives matter.
My paternal grandmother, a 96-year-old black woman today, first attended a southern UU church over forty years ago. My parents were married in a Texas congregation. My family, a proud, black American family, is deeply rooted in Unitarian Universalism. Though not always easy to be a part of, the UU faith has done so much for our family, and for this world. This and every Black History Month, I honor the legacy of all who have strived for freedom and justice while lifting up the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
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Kenny Wiley was a UU World senior editor from 2015 to 2018. His writing has also appeared in the Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, and Skyd Magazine.
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