Spotlight interview with Jemar Tisby: Why you should celebrate Black History MonthFebruary 10, 2017
The month of February is Black History Month. We have been encouraged by our African American brothers and sisters to take that seriously. To read books that maybe we wouldn’t have otherwise read. To talk about things with our kids that maybe we’ve been uncomfortable to be up. Certainly, to go see great movies, like Hidden Figures, and actually talk through what life was like really not that long ago. It may feel like a long time ago for those of us who were born in the last 50 years, but for anybody that’s older than that, this is not history. This is a part of life. We are trying our best to learn how to talk about and talk with our brown and black brothers and sisters, and so part of that conversation, for me, includes a person who I engage with on Twitter and enjoy following.
His name is Jemar Tisby. He is the President and Co-Founder of the Reformed African American Network, where he blogs about Theology, Race, and Culture, and you can find their website at raanetwork.org.
He serves as the Director of the African American Leadership Initiative, and Special Assistant to the Chancellor at RTS, which is Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. He’s a PhD student in History at the University of Mississippi, studying Race and Religion in the 20th Century. He has a great follow on Twitter, he’s @jemartisby. Jemar, welcome to The Reconnect.
Jemar Tisby: Thank you so much for having me. How are you?
Carmen: Well, I’m well. Thank you. All right, so I read and let me just send everybody to this website, as well. On fathommag.com, you’ve got something posted today called, But I Didn’t Mean to be Racist, and I want to talk with you, if we can start there. I want to talk with you about this. The way you differentiate between intentional and unintentional racism. Just start the conversation there, if you would.
Jemar: Sure, so some of the central theme of that post revolves around intent versus impact, and so anything you’re talking about. Any sort of incident where there’s a conflict, there’s always the perpetrator and, for lack of a better term, the victim, or the one received harm. A lot of times in conversations around racial reconciliation, what we talk about is the intent of the person. Say they said something or did something that was racially offensive, and so when we talk about intent, what did the person actually mean? A lot of times those are efforts to sort of defend our own righteousness. “Well, I didn’t mean to be racist, or say something, or do something racist.” That’s important because motives matter.
It makes a difference whether someone meant to do you harm or it was by accident. At the same time, I think what gets lost often in conversations about race, is the side about impact. Impact focuses on the harm done and what’s fundamental to the intent versus impact conversation, this was at the center. Is it the one who sort of did the harm or is it the one who experienced it? I think we ought to spend more time and attention being very careful that we put the people who experienced harm at the center of those conversations.
Carmen: Okay, so as a person who is white, how do I do that?
Jemar: Well, basically, you can listen to the voices of minorities. In the article, I used a very controversial example of sort of questionable encounters between citizens and law enforcement officers. A lot of these encounters that we’ve seen captured on cell phone video cameras, they involve white officers and black citizens, and a lot of times we get caught up in this conversation and it kind of fizzles before it starts, because one side is focusing on the intent of the officer. He or she didn’t act out of any malice. Didn’t have any racist intent, and then others, particularly minorities who perhaps see themselves in this black or brown person, who has experienced some sort of harm.
They focus on the impact. “Well, this person was falsely arrested. They were assaulted or even killed.” I think we need to focus on both. I’m not saying to ignore one or the other, but I think it would help if people in the majority could understand from the side of impact, because oftentimes it’s minorities who have experienced the impact, the negative impact of racism.
Carmen: Part of that is just me entering into a conversation, or examining a situation, instead of asking the intent question, seeking to ask the impact question or exploring the impact instead of always examining the intent.
Jemar: Right, and it’s sort of a human reflex. Especially if we’re involved in the incident and we’ve hurt someone. We want to defend ourselves. I’ve learned this lesson very well in marriage, where I said or done something that wasn’t helpful towards my wife, and my immediate reaction is to say, “Well, I didn’t mean it that way.” Well, that may be true, but if I’m truly loving her and seeking to serve her and put her first, I’ll focus on how my actions impacted her, regardless of my intent, which may have been even very positive. What I would seek to do in really being selfless and loving and empathetic, is say, is acknowledge, “I caused you harm.” Apologize for it and figure out how I can make it right again.
Carmen: You’ve highlighted something for me there. This is also a month during which we’ve partnered with an organization that’s trying to do something called a 30 Day Kindness Challenge. It occurs to me, that folks as you’re listening, if you haven’t already picked your Kindness Challenge target person, today might be a day to choose somebody that is traditionally outside of what you think of as your sphere of influence. You have brought some thoughts to mind already, Jemar, in terms of folks that I can intentionally focus on in terms of engaging in conversation, seeking to understand the world from their view and their experience, and I think that that’s just the starting point of conversation. That’s basically what I hear you saying.
Jemar: Absolutely. Empathy and solidarity have to start with some level of understanding, and I think that’s what happens often to derail conversations around race, is that people, minorities in particular, don’t even feel heard, let alone understood, because again, the focus is on intent. “Well, I’m not a racist or I didn’t mean that in a racist way.” Rather than, “Hey, this hurt me. Can you at least acknowledge that?” Maybe that could be a starting point for further reconciliation.
Carmen: Absolutely, so let’s dig into that a little bit. This is Black History Month, why and how would we celebrate it?
Jemar: Black History Month, interestingly, the history is important to understanding why we do it. Carter G. Woodson and some others started with Negro History Week, all the way back in 1926. They did it deliberately, because they noticed that the contributions of people of African descent in America had not been highlighted. In fact, in some cases, had been deliberately sort of written out of history. They started to celebrate Negro History Week to say, “Hey, we African Americans have helped build this country, too. As a matter of fact, we’ve been an integral part of the development of some very good things in this nation.”
In 1976, the Bicentennial of the United States, President Gerald Ford, he expanded it into a full month, and I love the quote that Gerald Ford said. He said, “We need to seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” That’s what Black History Month is, in a nutshell. It’s a way to honor the often neglected accomplishments of people of color in this country.
Carmen: All right. If you are in our listening area, in the Washington, DC, area, this is a great month to go by and see the National Museum of African American History and Culture. If you haven’t been there yet, that is some place that you need to visit in this Black History Month. Jemar, I have a person on my staff who shared yesterday that she had the opportunity to be with her son and see Hidden Figures, and it was actually like a surprise to her that he knew so little about what life was really like, just a generation ago. I think that when we think of history, we think a 100 years ago, and in reality, black history has changed a lot in our lifetimes, or certainly in the lifetime, let’s say, of our parents.
We don’t have to reach that far back to find real stories of actual segregation and very, very real oppression, and I think that it’s really helpful for people to know the kinds of stories that are told in the movie Hidden Figures. Because, frankly, our kids they think, “Hey, a black man is President, right.” They don’t see it in the same kind of light, I think, that some of us who are older do.
Jemar: That’s exactly right, and you mentioned in the introduction, I’m working, it’s going to be a very long time, but I’m working my way towards a PhD in History, partly for the reasons you mentioned, is so much of our history, particularly as a group refers to African Americans, or people of different races, we just don’t know it. We have this very simplistic narrative of, say, the Civil Rights Movement. It basically extends to, “One day, a nice lady, Rosa Parks, refused to get up from a bus. There was a march, Martin Luther King gave a speech, and then racism was over.”
Jemar: That’s kind of our understanding and that’s as far as it goes. Maybe it was a chapter in your high school textbook, but it’s so much deeper and so much more involved than that, and I’ll say, William Faulkner, the author from Mississippi, he has a great quote. He says, “The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” It’s so true, because whatever happened in the past, we’re still sort of living in the light of it or the shadow of it, as the case may be.
I go to school in the State of Mississippi, which is the only state, thankfully, but still a state that flies the Confederate emblem on its State flag, and it’s a constant reminder of a past that many people want to progress from. That’s just a visible symbol, there are all kinds of symbols in our laws, or our speech, or even the segregation that persists in the church today, is reminders of where we’ve been, not that long ago.
Carmen: Well, you will be encouraged to know, that driving down the road, this has been a few months ago, but we were having a conversation about the flag in our car, and came around a corner, and on a piece of property set far back from the road, the Confederate flag was flying. Matthew, who’s 11 said, “If our car breaks down, we’re not going there.” I said, “Okay, why?” He said, “Those people don’t love people.”
Carmen: For him, it’s an emblem of a place you don’t go, because those people don’t love people. I do think that the understanding of the impact is changing in the hearts and minds of the next generation. That does give me some hope. I have no, using your language, I have no idea what the intent of those property owners is in flying that flag, but I can tell you that the impact that it has on the child in the backseat of my car is, “Those aren’t people who love people.”
Jemar: Wow. That’s a perfect example and a perfect application of that principle. It sounds like you’re raising him up right.
Carmen: Well, I don’t know if I have anything to do with it. He’s probably learning a lot from other people. Let’s talk about, if we can, let’s talk about race and the church, because this is an intersection where, I think, that for those of us who are churchgoing people, we recognize that Sunday morning is still a really segregated time. I know that, in my own community, particularly as the Black Lives Matter movement rose up, we were very intentional in our congregation to work with a predominantly African American congregation that’s really not very far away from us.
Really, both of the pastors, they are good friends and they recognize, in sort of the midst of that, our congregations don’t know each other. Like we can be friends at a leadership level, but that is not working its way down into the lives of our people. Can you just talk with us a little bit about maybe your network and maybe the kinds of resources that you guys are producing, and how we can amplify those conversations about the diverse church?
Jemar: Absolutely. It’s all been a lot of different endeavors that approach the racial reconciliation priority in different ways, but I’ll focus on the Reformed African American Network. As you mentioned, our website is raanetwork.org, and it’s mainly a blogging site, but what we try to do there is take this rich theology of the Reformers, particularly focusing on the Protestant Reformation, began in 1517. The 500th Anniversary is this year, with Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church doors in Wittenberg, and then all of the rich written theology that has flowed from that in the past half millennium, but that’s been mostly Western European.
If we’re just very blunt, it’s been mostly well-educated middle class or wealthy white males who have come up with this theology and put it to paper. Now it’s good stuff and we want to retain that, but we also want to highlight the fact that the black church tradition has its own theology, which is rich. It has nurtured and birthed the faith of millions of people and continues to do so today. What RAAN network tries to do is put those two theological traditions in conversation to come up with something even more robust and able to handle the challenges of today. In terms of racial reconciliation, what we try to do, particularly for our folks and the majority who are white, is basically be a window into kind of the conversations that African Americans have.
I’m very pleased that a lot of folks visit the website or we have a private group on Facebook, and they come there just to listen, and a lot of times because we are so separate, white people don’t have the opportunity to listen to many black people. If we can do that and create some awareness, then I think that helps the church.
Carmen: Well, we are happy to listen to you and, Jemar, I hope you will come back frequently and we can not only continue this conversation, but have some other conversations. I mean, I have a whole list of things here that I would love to talk with you about. Like I want to talk with you about Sho Baraka, but we don’t have time to do that today, but if we can have that conversation, it would be great, because I think that in terms of like listening, I don’t even know how to listen to what he’s saying and understand. He says he’s presenting himself as this sanctified person, and I’m trying to listen and understand that, and I think we’re just totally speaking different languages.
Jemar: Right, right.
Carmen: If we could have that conversation in the future, I would love to, but thank you so much for being with us today on the Reconnect. Friends, you can follow him on Twitter @jemartisby. You can check out the website, raanetwork.org. Again, that’s raanetwork.org. Jemar, thank you so much.
Jemar: Thank you and happy Black History Month.
Carmen: Happy Black History Month.