When I was an instructor at my previous college, a Historically Black College/University, the current Student Services czar invited a well-known African-American Studies Scholar-God to speak on campus. Bedecked in African-inspired robes, he gave a lecture that only an African-American revisionist could love. He explained that he changed his American name and forsook Christianity (for a pan-African spirituality) because they were “shameful signs from our enslavement, given to us from unjust masters, and so we must discard these shameful signs in order to be true to our African heritage. If we do not do this, then we deny who we are, we do not know who we truly are.”
Did I mention that the school I once taught is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a Christian church founded by former slaves who became pastors?
One of my students, a young man with a very *English* first, middle, and last name and a devoted AME church member, came to my office after the lecture. He was so angry, he could hardly talk.
“I KNOW WHO I AM!” he finally sputtered. “WHO’S HE TO TELL *ME* WHO I AM?”
He knew about the injustices America as a country and as a culture did to his African ancestors. He knew that black slavery existed well before the American founding, because it was (among other things) economically expedient over in the New World, politically expedient (among other things) over in the Old World. He knew that his ancestors lost their tribal identity, lost their language, and lost their original culture, as a way for white slaveowners to divide these enslaved human beings. He knew that, unless these white masters believed their rhetoric, they impregnated their female slaves not out of bestiality but out of human lust and greed. He knew that the United States of America at its founding was not ready to emancipate its slaves, even though certain founders, like Thomas Jefferson, certainly tried. He knew about the irony of Jefferson’s position on slavery — in practice a slaveowner, in principle a man of universal human freedom.
He knew the irony of Protestant Christianity, as originating from those white masters and yet, appropriated by their slaves, becoming a religion of the underdog, a religion that those conquered, tribally-mixed, first-language-lost people could rest their spiritual feet, walking in the footpaths of Israel, enslaved in Egypt.
Fast forward into the 21st century, this student, knowing all this, knew where he came from, knew where his family found its strength, phoenix-like, from the ashes of an enslaved, Jim-Crow-riddled, lynched, racial-profiled past. And he stood in my office, the first black man in his family to go to college, and said, “I know who I AM, I KNOW where I’m going, and I ain’t changing my name or giving up my church. Who does HE think he is?”
And then he sat down, and we talked.