This Easter, over two billion Christians around the world will celebrate "the Resurrection of Christ," and a large percentage of them will be Black. According to a 2007 Pew Report, 78% of Blacks in America identify as Protestant while a 2011 report by Pew notes that nearly 24% of Christians live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Christianity’s explosion across Africa led many to call for the Vatican to select a successor to Pope Benedict from the Continent with Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson among the suggested shortlist. This said, many think of Christianity as "the White man's religion."
The Christian faith occupies a complicated, often racialized place in the history of Blacks all over the globe because of how it was abused by White colonists and slave traders to subjugate Blacks. “Christianity was a double-edged sword [for African-Americans],” says Dr. Lawrence H. Mamiya, Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Vassar College and co-author of The Black Church in the African American Experience.
“On the one hand, well, Whites wanted to use Christianity to make slaves docile and obedient. [On the other hand,] the Africans adapted Christianity for their survival and liberation.”
But long before colonialism and slavery, Africans were practicing Christianity. “We know that Christianity has had a long history in Africa itself, pre-dating any kind of European influence,” Mamiya says.
Christianity reportedly arrived in North Africa in the latter part of 1st century AD/early part of the 2nd, while “the adoption of Christianity in Ethiopia dates to the fourth-century,” according to findings by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Bible also documents the conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch as the early church was forming. Likewise, Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta mentions Christians in Nubia (an area that covers present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt) in his 14th century travelogue. But when Europeans penetrated Sub-Saharan Africa in the 16th Century, ultimately mining the region for Africans to enslave, the historical narrative shifts which is perhaps why many associate the religion most with Europeans to this day.
Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, historian, artist, curator and Dean of the Maryland Institute College of Art, observes, “many of the Africans who came to the New World, probably had already had contact with Christianity from missionaries who were stationed on the Continent.” Once in America, many Africans faced a confusing range of options with respect to the religion. While some slaveholders encouraged conversion to Christianity, others did not.
Before 1667, baptism was a legal ticket to freedom. Later, Nat Turner led a bloody slave revolt while Denmark Vesey plotted one, both citing Christian visions as their motivation. Meanwhile, Christian abolitionists argued that slavery defied the teachings of the Bible.
With a new exhibit she has curated called “Ashe to Amen: African Americans and Biblical Imagery”, King-Hammond examines what Black people did with the religion once they were in America.
“They came into the Bible under very arduous conditions. They never had the kind of orientation or interpretation that came from White teachers and White preachers because they were so much involved with pursuing literacy as an act of resistance.” King-Hammond continues, “[The White slaveholders] didn’t want them to learn how to read… However, Africans did learn to read, and they did learn to write, and they did learn how to preach; and they created their own church.”
The Black church has historically doubled as a religious institution and harvest center for social and political activism. Mamiya points out, “Black churches helped to create the first Black banks, the first Black[-owned] life insurance company.”
Mamiya puts the connection the phenomenon of Black clergymen/politicians in historical context. “The leaders of black churches, the clergy, originally came from African priests, and so they were looked upon as leaders of the community.” He adds, “At least in the 19th century, they were the most educated of the community. And so they emerged as political leaders…after the Civil War.
“The first Black senator elected to Congress was the Reverend Hiram Revels of Mississippi, an AME clergyman. And you’ll see that tradition continue.” He cites Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. and Reverend Al Sharpton who both ran for President, Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. who was pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Pennsylvania politician Reverend Bill Gray, and former Congressman Reverend Floyd Flake, as examples.
King-Hammond has been working with theologians, scholars and artists for the last 10 years, researching how artists visualized faith then and now. “They were looking at the Bible and what the Bible meant within the context of the African-American experience,” she says. “What you see in ‘Ashe to Amen’ is a trail of visual artists of African descent who are in the intersection of their African world belief systems, which they brought with them, and the intersection of what happens when they connected with Christianity.”
She reflects, “It is a show that talks about the resiliency, the tenaciousness of people who have prevailed through centuries of time to still stand tall, and proud, and fearless.”
“Ashe to Amen” will be on display through May 26th at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York before traveling to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee.