Seasonal Reflection: Black History Month

David Hyman, OFM Around the Province

A friar who has spent half of his years as a priest in African-American communities reflects on the importance of commemorating Black History Month.

We are already well through Black History Month and, for several years, in five different ministries in which I have found myself, I’ve celebrated it with an event of history and entertainment, drawing on anyone who might like to participate.

This year, children played music and recite poetry, two presenting their own compositions. A music professor from the University of Georgia spoke on “The Spirituals, A National Treasure.” Also at our Feb. 20 celebration, Lioba Moshi shared African folktales and Michael Cahal played some of John Coltrane’s jazz on his saxophone.

These events are, what I term, “a happening.” Nothing is rehearsed prior to the event. With little effort, we come together and allow ourselves to be surprised by what surfaces.

Value of Designated Month
There is some debate among African Americans concerning designating one month as Black History Month. It is said, every month should be Black History Month. In a perfect world, where all our cultures are equally appreciated, I would concur. I don’t believe we’re there yet.

I recently received a stinging e-mail from a church member, accusing Thomas Vigliotta, OFM, and me of too much Hispanic and African American “stuff” in our homilies. He wrote, “I wish you would stick with the gospel.” I wrote back: “Twenty five of my 50 years as a priest has been ministering in the African American community. Many of my stories, therefore, are drawn from my time in said community. If that offends you I am sorry.”

That e-mail, alone, is a reminder to me that we have not yet reached that American dream where all are appreciated equally. Thus, I like to put on stage gems from the Black culture that we may be overlooking and fail to know exists.

hymanNeed to Acknowledge Sin
When the movie “Amistad” was first in our theatres, I attended a remarkable symposium at the University of South Carolina. It was there that I heard this statement that still rings in my head: “Until we go back to the water, we are not going to advance in this race issue.” I understood that to mean, until we really address the three plus centuries of buying slaves in Africa and delivering them to the New World, which was “man’s inhumanity to man” being played out in horrific fashion, with all its ripple effects, we will remain stuck in a progression to a place where all are fully equal.

Germany has built, I am told, a moving memorial commemorating the Holocaust; thus, a national acknowledgement of sin and a step toward healing. We have yet to do anything comparable regarding slavery and its effects.

In the meantime, here I am, holding up a people one Sunday a year, in celebration of giftedness via the American experience. Does it make a difference? Perhaps for a few. I, meanwhile, am having great fun with it.

— Fr. David, who celebrated 50 years as a priest last year, is a campus minister at the Catholic Center of the University of Georgia in Athens.