UK Black History Month 2021: Proud To Be

In the United Kingdom, the month of October is dedicated to reflecting, learning – or in some cases re-learning – history that the Black community has always been a part of and contributed to.

This year the theme for Black History Month UK is ‘Proud To Be.’ It is an opportunity not only to celebrate being Black when it is so often not visible in certain spaces, represented incorrectly, politicised, or even penalised, but also to take a holistic approach to history by highlighting contributions to areas of human development which are otherwise omitted from curricula.

The past year has been one of intense discussion of issues related to race in the UK and beyond, with Black Lives Matter protests spreading across much of the world, galvanised by the viral video of the murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, of George Floyd by policeman Derek Chauvin. 

Although the Black Lives Matter movement already existed, 2020 was the year the slogan and the cause went mainstream.  People around the world took to the streets to condemn historic and institutionalised racism, and to reject the exclusion of Black, Indigenous, and Other People of Colour (BIPOC) in different aspects of society.

The Church is also not immune from these issues, which can overlap and intersect with the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), often giving rise to violations that are now codified as crimes against humanity, including enslavement, persecution, rape, murder, torture, and other cruel inhuman and degrading treatment.

Race and FoRB: the intersection

One of the accusations levelled by states or individuals who wish to ignore their international obligations is that the rights detailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) are Western concepts, even though it was drafted by a committee composed of persons from China, Cuba, Lebanon, the former Soviet Union and Chile, among others.  The universality of the right freedom of religion or belief, articulated in article 18 of the UDHR, is particularly contested, and the insistence, or misconception, that Christianity is a Western religion often is behind both restrictions on FoRB and the targeting of Christian communities in several countries across the world.

However, this could not be further from the truth. Christianity’s roots lie in the East. Moreover, it was not initially brought to Africa through colonisation and slavery, but is inherently part of African history – as illustrated, amongst others, by Simon of Cyrene, Augustine of Hippo, Tertullianus, Origen of Alexandria, and Athanasius of Alexandra – each of whom made significant contributions to the Christian faith, including through shaping and establishing its intellectual and doctrinal foundations.

Moreover, the ancient Christian Aksum (Axum) Kingdom, which encompassed parts of modern-day Eritrea and Ethiopia centring on the currently restive Tigray region, is particularly significant, as it provides one of the earliest examples of what would later be termed the right to freedom of religion or belief.  The initially polytheistic kingdom already had a significant Jewish population prior the arrival of Syrian Christians seeking refuge from Roman persecution, who were instrumental in transforming Aksum into a Christian kingdom in the fourth century.  Four centuries later Aksum would also provide sanctuary for followers of the Prophet Mohammed who were fleeing persecution on the Arabian Peninsula.

Africa and its diaspora continued to influence Christian thought and practise in both Eastern and Western Christianity during periods of intra-religious persecution, the Arab Slave Trade and conquests, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and the colonial era.

With regard to enslavement, in the West “one historical myth holds that since the slaves were their masters’ capital, the masters’ economic self-interest dictated kindly treatment of their property. But again, the masters always had to make sure that the property was really theirs, and for this, systematic brutality was needed to turn labor from natural into coerced channels for the benefit of the master.”

Ultimately, a fusion of Christianity, commercial interests, European cultural norms and pseudo-scientific theories emerged to offset any dissonance arising from the enslavement and mistreatment on the basis of skin colour of people who were equally created in the image of God. 

While recognising the need to fulfil the biblical Great Commission of sharing the Gospel, White plantation owners, who mostly identified as Christians, obscured the emancipatory characteristics of a God who made every human being of equal worth, while emphasising the need for obedience to higher authorities. A Slave Bible brought to the Caribbean by British missionaries in the 19th Century, who sought to convert enslaved peoples while also using Christianity as an instrument for social control, was heavily abridged and only contained redacted portions of 14 of its books.

In the American South, enslaved people of African descent who embraced Christianity were punished for organising church services which plantation owners had prohibited from occurring without White supervision, as they were perceived to be a danger to society.

Take the case of the formerly enslaved man, Andrew Bryan, who was arrested and beaten along with his brother and followers for refusing to discontinue his work as a pastor in South Carolina. For the White Christian community, Mr Bryan and his followers were primarily ‘black’; and for this reason they were not permitted to practise their religious beliefs freely. Yet, Mr Bryan stated ‘‘that he rejoiced not only to be whipped, but would freely suffer death for the cause of Jesus Christ.’’

Decades later, and thousands of miles across the world, the missionary Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who was consecrated bishop of West Africa in 1864, faced similar racism after a rise in prejudiced beliefs about the abilities and integrity of African people resulted in him being forced out of the Niger Mission, which he had established with another African reverend.

Much like Andrew Bryan, Reverend Crowther did not allow racism to stop him from making a significant contribution to history. He became the first West African Bishop and,  was the first native speaker to translate the Bible, and later the Anglican Book of Common Prayer into his native Yoruba.

African Christians could also face severe persecution by their own societies. 

On the opposite side of the African continent, in Uganda, there is the story of courageous Charles Lwanga (1860-1886), who was targeted along with his community by King Mwanga of Buganda, who was known for the persecution of Protestants and Roman Catholics.

In the face of this intense persecution, Lwanga emerged as a leader in his community, reportedly shielding the pages from Mwanga’s sexual gestures, preparing them for likely death and baptising five. Lwanga and 26 Christian pages – 16 Catholics and 10 Anglicans – were eventually burnt alive after refusing to renounce their faith.  As his executioner mocked him, Lwanga replied: “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body.”

Charles Lwanga. “St. Charles Lwanga” by Rachel Strohm is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The emergence of Black Churches

In the UK, Black people were initially excluded from churches because of the colour of their skin.

Surviving members of the Windrush generation, who were invited to the UK to assist with the post-war reconstruction of what they were taught was “the Motherland,” or “the Mother Country,” frequently relate that as well as experiencing difficulties in finding accommodation and even employment, they also met with an extremely frosty reception when attempting to attend church.

For instance, when Carmel Jones, a 17-year-old Jamaican, visited an Anglican Church in 1955, he was told by the vicar that he could not come back there again. However, Jones returned to Anglican churches 30 years later, “this time to buy their buildings,” after he had become the founder of the Pentecostal Credit Union (PCU) which offers assistance to the Pentecostal Church community.

The first of the Caribbean Pentecostal Churches founded in the UK was Calvary Church of God in Christ which started in London in 1948. Others soon followed such as the New Testament Church of God (1953), Church of God of Prophecy (1953), Wesleyan Holiness Church (1958) and New Testament Assembly (1961) to mention a few. The first New Testament Church of God in London was founded in the Hammersmith area in 1959.” African majority churches emerged from 1957 onwards.

In the US Andrew Bryan went on to found the first Black Baptist Church. Other denominations followed, including the African American Methodist Episcopal Church, which was established by African Americans who had encountered racism in the Methodist Church.  Before, during and after the American Civil War, “black churches, not just in the North, but throughout the nation, offered African Americans refuge from oppression and focused on the spiritual, secular, and political concerns of the black community. Following emancipation, the church continued to exist at the center of black community life.” 

Church leaders were also at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, most famously, Rev Dr Martin Luther King, whose fight for equality and human rights for African Americans encompassed all victims of injustice and the economically disadvantaged, and whose theology of non-violent resistance revolutionised social protest. 

Race, civil rights and FoRB violations continue to intersect in the US, with Black Churches once again at the forefront of addressing renewed efforts to suppress the African American vote under the guise of combatting unproven allegations of voter fraud. Consequentially, since their creation and right through to the 21st Century, these churches and worshippers have suffered attacks and violence, with some of the most recent occurring in December 2020 amidst the acrimony following the Biden presidential victory.

Thus a review of Black history reveals that racism and over 400 years of some of the most egregious human rights violations – including lynching, which is yet to be made a federal crime (the most recent attempt in 2020 was blocked by a lone Republican senator) – did not and could not silence the voices of the Black Christian community or end their struggle for their rights and freedoms, including FoRB. Instead, it almost appeared to fuel their desire to see an end to discrimination, including in the faith.

But it has come at a price. Dr Joy Degruy has undertaken a study of the survivalist behaviours adopted by Africans in America and the diaspora which have resulted in what she has termed ‘Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome’: “While African Americans managed to emerge from chattel slavery and the oppressive decades that followed with great strength and resiliency, they did not emerge unscathed. Slavery produced centuries of physical, psychological and spiritual injury.”

Reflecting on incidents that can be termed domestic terrorism by supremacist groups and individuals, Pastor Kenneth Robinson of Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, one of several predominantly Black churches attacked during 2015, said: “Trauma is a way of life for us, so we grieve, but we keep pushing forward.”

What next?

In the words of Rev Dr King, “Racism is a philosophy based on a contempt for life. It is the arrogant assertion that one race is the center of value and object of devotion, before which other races must kneel in submission. It is the absurd dogma that one race is responsible for all the progress of history and alone can assure the progress of the future. Racism is total estrangement. It separates not only bodies, but minds and spirits. Inevitably it descends to inflicting spiritual and physical homicide upon the out-group.”

People of African descent have remained remarkably resilient in the face of racism, which has often manifested itself in violence, and which has sought to obscure, or in the case Great Zimbabwe, to destroy and misrepresent their pre-colonial contributions to world heritage, thought and advancement, including in the area of religion and belief.  It is time for a more holistic rendition of history, particularly in countries that featured significantly in colonialism and enslavement, a history which does not obscure the structural and other injustices that secured and ensured their economic growth.

A more holistic rendition of history would also assist in combatting the misperceptions and allegations in the international arena of FoRB being a Western construct designed to advance a Western religion which are often used to justify the denial of FoRB and egregious violations of this fundamental right. 

It is encouraging, however, that the murder of George Floyd appears to have resulted in renewed determination to address racism and its ramifications.  Particularly significant was the adoption by the UN Human Rights Council of two significant resolutions; the first on the “Promotion and protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Africans and of people of African descent against excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officers,” (A/HRC/RES/43/1) and the second on addressing these violations “through transformative change for racial justice and equality” (A/HRC/RES/47/21).

The High Commissioner also released a landmark report on racial justice and equality, containing a four-point agenda to end systemic racism and human rights violations by law enforcement against Africans and people of African descent,  including for states to “confront past legacies, take special measures and deliver reparatory justice.” To assist in taking this agenda forward, Resolution A/HRC/RES/43/1 “invites all treaty bodies, special procedure mandate holders and international and regional human rights mechanisms, within their respective mandates to pay due attention to all forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, including against Africans and people of African descent, and to bring them to the attention of the Human Rights Council.” 

These encouraging developments will hopefully advance efforts to combat racism.  However, it also remains vital for human rights advocates, organisations, governmental and international bodies and UN and regional special mechanisms to consistently recognise the intersection of race and FoRB, and the complex identities of the people falling within it, including with regard to intra-religious affairs in order to render effective assistance to those who continue to experience violations on both racial and religious grounds.

By CSW’s Advocacy Intern Divine Olomo