Given the current state of affairs, the prevalent social injustice and racial inequality in this country, I think it's important to speak up. And so, I would like to share my thoughts to promote and create unity. I stand with Black Lives Matter.
Throughout my studies of such prominent twentieth-century African American thinkers as Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, and Howard Thurman, I have found several themes that run continuously throughout their work; the most prominent of which is the concept of Unity. Looking at themes such as religion, community, nonviolence, and head and heart I will show how synthesis is created and why it is of central importance to these significant African American thinkers.
Religion played a crucial role in the education and liberation of enslaved African Americans. Religion encompassed aspects of faith, nature, music, prayer, and forgiveness as well as education and community. For the most part, the religion practiced by African Americans was Christianity and that will be my focus in this section. However, it is important to note that although the message and words that follow are spoken in a Christian tongue, the concept is universal. The notion of God spans across many religions and encompasses such concepts as creator or life force.
Faith is central to the theme of religion, especially in that of the African American community. Institutional slavery was more than cruel and immoral; it was inhumane. For African Americans to make it through the grueling experience of slavery and to continue to fight for civil rights in the years that followed they needed to have faith in God. When concerned about a potential danger during Howard Thurman’s youth his mother expressed her unflinching faith by professing, “God will take care of us.” We find this affirmation repeated later in Thurman’s life; unsure of what the future would bring and how he would provide for his family Thurman stated with assurance, “God will take care of me.” Without this certainty in God’s ability to carry people through the difficulties that present themselves, it would be next to impossible to make it confidently through life’s hardships. It is important to add that the act of having faith takes effort and is in itself a synthesis, meeting God halfway.
African American Christians found faith in the gospel for it preaches that “Jesus is on the side of the oppressed.” Thurman points out that Jesus was a poor Jew of a minority group under another’s rule. This situation transferred over quite easily to the experience African Americans have been struggling with since they were brought to the United States as slaves. African Americans' faith in the fact that “God is good and just” works to promote transformation from difficult times into times of wellbeing by believing that good will come to those who find their faith in God. Faith is the guiding light at the end of a dark tunnel that provides hope and promotes striving.
Whether we talk about the native African religions such as Yoruba or Vodun, (also known as voodooism) or the way those religions influenced Christianity for African Americans, there are continual references in their teachings and beliefs about nature and the importance of having a connection with it. Howard Thurman learned lessons on strength in flexibility and being grounded from the old Oak tree that grew in his back yard as a youth. This later translated into Thurman’s ability to have a strong sense of identity and individuality while at the same time having the flexibility within his life to do what he was called to do, whether it be to teach, preach, or further to build community and bring awareness to current social issues of concern. Although forced into slavery African Americans have worked the lands of the United States and thus their cultural roots in this country run deep in connection with the earth. Native African religions found God in objects of nature. Therefore, they were able to find strength in nature as well.
Music is also a major theme running throughout native African religions. Rhythms brought from Africa have had a huge influence on American music including jazz, blues, folk, rock, country, bluegrass, and more. Within the context of religion, African Americans used music in and out of the church to express the “sorrow, despair, and hope” of the oppressed African American people. Sorrow Songs of the African American people convey the difficulty of living through troubled and violent times and the steady faith in God that gets them through such challenges. After and during a long hard day of picking cotton in the sun, music provided an escape from the day's hardships and provided African Americans with a vehicle for expression. Music was also a means of communication for African Americans. During slavery when language differences between tribes proved to be an obstacle African Americans would use drums to talk to each other. This ability to talk with drums was considered such a threat to white America that there was an outlaw on having and playing drums; the penalty for which could have meant death. That did not stop African Americans from being rhythmic, however. It spawned what was initially called hoofing and that later developed into what we now know as tap dancing. After the emancipation of slavery, music continued to be a means of communication within the African American community. African words became slang representations for English words making for a general public unaware of the metaphorical intention and true meaning of their songs. Communication is essential in the survival of a community and it is for that reason that African Americans have always found ways of communicating with each other.
Another aspect of African American religion is prayer, which gave African Americans a way within the tradition of Christianity to communicate their hopes and wishes to God or the divine. This was crucial because it was upon these hopes and wishes that African Americans placed their faith. John Lewis speaks of prayer as being “one of the most powerful…tool[s], …instrument[s], …way[s] of reaching out that human kind has.” In times of uncertainty, Martin Luther King Jr. would turn to God for clarity and strength by engaging in the act of prayer. Prayer found its place within the home as well as within the church of the African American; it was a daily act with which African Americans found strength along their long and difficult journey towards freedom and equality.
Considering what African Americans have been through during their time in the United States it is both astonishing and encouraging that many of them were still able to follow the words of the gospel and forgive, but not to forget. It was these teachings of forgiveness that Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Thurman, and others so embraced and admired. The passage from Luke 23:34 “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” perfectly sums up the meaning and importance of forgiveness for African Americans in their relation to the oppressive acts of white Americans. In a chapter titled Love in action Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that Jesus was crucified because some knew not what they did; and that Jesus was still able to forgive them. In Douglas’ My Bondage and My Freedom he concludes in a letter to his former slave master that he is no longer his master’s slave but is his equal; and despite Douglas’ years in bondage he still invites his former master to his home so that Douglas may have the opportunity to show him how to treat another human being with kindness and hospitality. Howard Thurman considered forgiveness an essential step for African Americans to move forward. Forgiveness represents an understanding of humanity and compassion within the forgiver—an acknowledgment of the harm done, without condoning the harmful behavior. Forgiveness gave African Americans a chance to express themselves at a higher level of conduct then how white Americans were treating them.
African American slaves used the bible as a source of education, learning to read from it, and drawing strength from its passages. This, in turn, helped to form a community—the fellowship of the church. Along with faith, nature, music, prayer, and forgiveness, education and community have helped to define the progressive role of religion in the lives of African Americans.
The striving aim of many religions, Christianity included, involves working towards creating the perfect community. In bringing a community to fruition it is helpful to draw from the concepts of fellowship, love, inclusivity, and leadership while taking into account issues of equal rights as well as political and social concerns. Thurman defines community as “the experience in which the potential is being actualized.” In other words, the actualization of a community takes all of us living up to our potential. This is easier said than done partly because the task seems a bit daunting. However, the task of actualizing the community seems more attainable when looking at what promotes unity.
Fellowship involves the coming together of people who share the same interests and goals. Community actualized some of its potential in the inception and maintenance of the Fellowship Church, which strove to “create a religious fellowship worthy of transcending racial, cultural, and social distinctions.” The bringing together of people with varying degrees of differentiation helped to break down barriers and open the eyes of the congregation to alternative viewpoints. Fellowship of man keeps the heart open and is therefore essential in creating unity and community.
Another key element in developing a community is l-o-v-e. Jesus’ love-ethic taught us to love our enemies. Love is unconditional. He did not say like your enemies, which would have been much harder to do. Jesus is teaching us the importance of acceptance and appreciation of what is different. This does not, however, condone morally wrong behavior; it would simply acknowledge its existence. The importance here is in the confirming and validity of the other to open up friendly lines of communication and instigate communion.
Humans tend to complain when they are suffering. In the case of inclusivity, it is usually disenfranchised people that bring up the issue of being excluded. If inclusivity was implemented across the board there would be no more racism, sexism, ableism, prejudice, caste distinctions, and the like. It is no wonder then that many of the civil rights activists turned to governmental roles in politics to make the changes they so desired. John Lewis, a former civil rights activist in the 1960’s “came to Congress with a legacy to uphold, with a commitment to carry on the spirit, the goals and the principles of nonviolence, social action, and a truly interracial democracy.” The role of inclusivity is to keep us from being divided, not to take our individuality away, but to promote the coming together of individuals.
When it comes to leadership it is important to acknowledge the role of youth, education, and courage. The youth are our future leaders, caregivers, and inheritors. It is imperative then that we educate ourselves as well as the youth of today for, as John Lewis put it, “our past is what brought us here, and it can help lead us to where we need to go.” Like the avant-garde artists or the more literal example of the advanced guard of any military, leaders must scout ahead and break new, unfamiliar ground. This takes courage and the support of the community as well as a general concern for the wellbeing of all peoples. Leadership can manifest itself in a myriad of ways whether it be on a grand scale dealing with issues of a social or political nature or be it small scale including issues within the home or community. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as Andrew Young, advocated a non-authoritative, nondirective approach to leadership. This is a bottom-up approach as opposed to top-down. Under this model, leaders represent their constituency and take direction from them, not the other way around. Once clear about the will of their people a leader must stand with them in conviction and not conform to win the support of those with morally detrimental ambitions.
Overall it is easy to see how the aspiration of establishing unity and community helps to strengthen bonds and bring people together. It also helps to bring out the best in all of us, motivating us to work within ourselves as well as with others to create positive change.
Nonviolence has been advocated by many of the most prominent social activists in and around the twentieth century. Be it Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Thurman, Mother Teresa, or those following the teachings of the Buddha, nonviolence has been considered essential in creating peace and wellbeing for all.
Jesus’ love-ethic plays an important role in the application and reason behind the act of nonviolence. When one loves their enemy they work to transform their enemy into a friend. This is beneficial to both parties involved for it empowers the applier of nonviolence and it offers up the opportunity for the receiver of nonviolence to join them and work to reconcile their differences. The desire to treat others nonviolently stems from having compassion for others and the belief that all life is precious.
King considers nonviolence to be “one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” This can be understood when taking into consideration the power of fearlessness. Fear, out of its natural context as a survival tool, when implemented within the role of society, validates acts of violence for it gives over power to the oppressor by conforming to their demands and giving validity to their violent approach. This is to say that fearlessness in the face of violence may not stop the violent act from occurring, but it will keep the integrity of the oppressed intact. Coupled with nonviolence people gain the strength and courage to simultaneously stand up for and promote what they believe in.
In other words, nonviolence will help us all to move in the direction of an enlightened society or a beloved community. It will strengthen the individual while strengthening the whole. It will set a precedent for generations to come. It will open the hearts of the hardened. And it has the potential to save humanity and the world, as we know it.
Head & Heart
Another aspect of unity is the concept and utilization of the synthesis that is created by joining together head and heart. When humans act from a place of joining intellect and passion or reason and emotion the outcome is usually beneficial. Or that is to say that when joining head and heart one embodies the true nature of being human and can do no wrong for she or he is living in unison with all life.
Martin Luther King Jr. goes further to specify that it takes a tough mind and a tender heart to truly bring the synthesis to fruition. A tough mind provides rationality and stability whereas a soft mind falls prey to persuasion. This was important to King’s involvement in civil rights because those with soft minds are often persuaded to engage in destructive behavior like the racial prejudice that has plagued the United States before, during, and after the civil rights movement. A hardened heart is incapable of loving, but a tender heart can lead a soft mind to act on impulse, whereas a tough mind by itself is cold and critical and needs the tenderness of the heart to balance it out.
In the end, we have the brilliance of the mind's intellect balanced with the compassion of the heart working together to steer us all in the right direction. This is crucial in developing community and working together for a common goal, for this internal balance helps to establish balance within the community.
Religion has been a source of strength for African Americans throughout their time in the United States, and of course before in Africa as well. Faith, nature, music, prayer, and forgiveness have all contributed to the flourishing of the African American religion and its involvement in unity and community. Without religion and all its aspects, African Americans' survival may not have been realized. Let us be thankful that such a tool was available and accessible for African Americans during such trying times. Let us not forget that the gospel also helped to show white Americans their hypocrisy, motivating them to change their ways and rethink the current, unethical segregation laws.
Howard Thurman considered unity to be life’s purpose and intent working against dualism. Considering that unity and organization are inherent in life itself, it is not surprising then that humans seek to cultivate a sense of inner and outer community. Howard Thurman believes that building a community is “the basic aspiration of the human spirit.” This belief is strengthened by the fact that humans seem to need to be loved. The community then provides chances to contribute to something bigger than oneself and provides the opportunity for communion. Together, fellowship, love, inclusivity, and leadership combine to strengthen community and those within it, making it essential to the development of all people.
Nonviolence, promoted by Jesus’ love-ethic, the Buddha’s teachings, and the words and actions of countless other enlightened figures throughout time, has promoted a standard for human relation—a standard that uplifts the individual as well as the community and paves the way for universal harmony. Violence breeds violence; it is like an infectious disease. It kills a person from the inside out as well as inflicts harm on others. For us to live in harmony, we will need to heed to the teachings of nonviolence.
Like the joining of the physical world and the spiritual world, the joining of head and heart works to combine two worthy elements thus producing a beautifully applicable synthesis. Synthesis of individuality can be seen across the board, whether it be the joining of Yin and Yang, masculine and feminine, night and day, inner and outer, white and black, or head and heart. This is nature’s way. This is God’s way—a synthesis that, like faith, will bring us through the darkness of the night to greet the dawning of a new day.
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