Perspective: Black History (Still) Matters

words by Rev. Adam Lawrence Dyer

(The following is taken from a sermon delivered February 2nd)

Dear Betsy,

As a Black woman & the Chair of the abortion access task force, I invite you to come by the Hill and say this to my face.

Would welcome the opportunity to educate you.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley

Congresswoman Pressley tweeted these words in response to Betsy Devos, Secretary of Education when the secretary compared being pro-choice to being pro-slavery.  If you want to be utterly sick to your stomach, look up the tweet and read some of the replies. I pray for the congresswoman’s safety and resilience and I pray that we can find ways to support not just her efforts, but the world view that brings her light into our lives.

Comparing slavery and abortion is a disturbingly mis-informed and convoluted argument on its surface, and a deeply troubling pattern of logic-violence that has become normalized in our current political climate.  The Twitter replies to Representative Pressley include threats, graphic images, graphic language and a really sickening flood of abuse that no public legislator should ever be subject to. Not to mention, the replies also include defiant agreement with DeVos’ idiotic and offensive assessment.

But the honorable congresswoman continues boldly and bravely on.

I wanted to begin with her words because Ayanna Pressley is writing Black History every single day.  She is a reminder that Black history is not past…it is present. When we think Black History Month, we tend to go straight for the MLK, maybe followed up with a little Rosa Parks and if we want to get deep we talk about W.E.B. Dubois and possibly Ida B. Wells.

We go out on a limb when we invoke Malcolm X and of course everything was fixed by having Barack Obama as the first Black president.  But Black history is not just about the folks who carved a way out of no way through the wake of slavery and the crime of Jim Crow and Black history is not just about reflecting on the big wins. Black history is about the ways in which today is connected to, continues on and creates anew the ways in which our culture is shaped by Black life.

Congresswoman Pressley’s office in the Longworth Building in Washington DC was once occupied by an earlier icon who still inspires every day. Congresswoman Pressley works in the same space as the late Shirley Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm entered congress as the first Black woman in 1969 and then in another first, sought the Democratic party nomination in 1972 as the first Black woman to do so.  Both women share a great deal in terms of their legislative agenda but markedly different backgrounds. Both excelled in their early education, but Chisholm received her early education in the strict British system in Barbados when her parents sent her there to live with family during the late depression.

Pressley grew up in Chicago and although she had access to an elite education, navigated a childhood with one parent struggling with addiction and incarceration and the other struggling for work.  Chisholm continued in her education ultimately earning an MA in education and was an accomplished teacher. Pressley had to leave school to support her mother, but ultimately finished her BA at Boston University.  Pressley has spoken publicly about being the survivor of sexual violence and Chisholm had a deeply conservative and even sheltered by her own words, early life. They are very different…and inherently connected by the office they share and the bodies and professions they inhabit.

Both Chisholm and Pressley are powerful advocates for women’s access to reproductive care; they are unapologetically supportive of labor movements and they do not suffer fools where racism is concerned.  What I think is important to note however is that there is literally 50 years between their political careers on the national stage. Somehow, they carry the same torch which raises questions about what it means to hold history and also about what it means to learn from it…or not learn from it.

So, I don’t particularly want to talk about the current state of politics and government or the developments of last week and yet, I must, and I must do so particularly in the context of Black history.  You see, the agenda of the Trump white house and the McConnell senate are to intentionally un-write Black history by erasing Barack Obama from the record.

Together they have combined to reverse, delete, overturn and negate hundreds of policies enacted under the 44th president.  Their project is thinly cloaked in party politics but has the full shape of every racist action and inaction taken through the US Government from the 3/5ths clause all the way through gutting the voting rights act. The petty vindictiveness of their agenda is most evident in the recent order to reverse the school lunch requirements that were championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, an action that left everyone, including Republicans asking “why?”  The only beneficiary of this action to allow more potatoes and processed foods back into lunches were a small number of industries with a financial interest in being able to sell their products. Certainly, no children will be better off if their only options for school lunch are frozen pizza with a side of fries, particularly if they are poor or in rural areas.

This obsession with deleting Black history is a reminder of why Black History Matters.  In a twisted way, without Barack Obama I’m not sure we would have seen the degree to which the sickness of bigotry had truly grown and festered and spread silently lurking under the surface.

From the post-Obama perspective where we find ourselves, it is obvious that the entire race project of the United States skates across the delicate, sheer, ice cold surface of the lake of white supremacy; it is clear like glass and fragile as frost; and quick to reform just as soon as the temperature drops enough while the water is still.

It is Black history that time and again drops like a boulder through this crust.  Warmed by the sun, formed by volcanic elements, carved from perseverance, Black history has no choice but to bust through the myths of white supremacy.  And the beauty of this history in the hands of women like Shirley Chisholm and Ayanna Pressley is that not only do they break through white supremacy, but they demolish oppressive poverty, misogyny, ableism, gender and sexuality discrimination and a host of other myths and violences that sit at the heart of dominant culture fear.

We need Black history.  Not just as Black people, not just for Black people, not just from Black people.  We as members of a society that was built on the assumptions of white superiority as a contrast to everything that wasn’t and isn’t white, need Black history in order to create a real history in full color.

We are swinging into gear for an election.  None of the Democratic candidates has really hit a stride, no matter how dedicated a Bernie supporter is or how many plans Warren has.  No 2020 candidate has yet to sound like this:

I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States of America. I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I’m equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political policies or fatcats or special interests. I stand here now, without endorsements from many big name politicians or celebrities or any other kind of prop, I do not intend to offer you the tired clichés that have too long been an accepted part of our political life. I am the candidate of the people of America. (Chisholm, 1972)

These are the words that began Shirley Chisholm’s speech to announce her 1972 candidacy for President of the United States.  She went on to share words that could be shared by any candidate today…

The president has broken his promises to us, and has therefore lost his claim to our trust and confidence in him. I cannot believe — [applause] I cannot believe that this administration would ever have been elected four years ago if we had known then what we know today. What we are entering — we are entering a new era, in which we must, as Americans, demand stature and size from our national leadership — leadership which is fresh, leadership which is open, and leadership which is receptive to the problems of all Americans. (Chisholm, 1972)

She goes on…

Americans all over are demanding a new sensibility, a new philosophy of government from Washington. Instead of sending spies to snoop on participants at Earth Day, I would welcome the efforts of concerned citizens of all ages to stop the abuse of our environment. Instead of watching a football game on television while young people beg for the attention of their president concerning our actions abroad, I would encourage them to speak out, organize for peaceful change, and vote in November. Instead of blocking efforts to control the huge amounts of money given political candidates by the rich and the powerful, I would provide certain limits on such amounts, and encourage all the people of this nation to contribute small sums to the candidates of their choice. Instead of calculating the political costs, this or that policy, and [inaudible] in favor of this or that group, depending on whether that group voted for me in 1968, I would remind all Americans at this hour of the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘a house divided cannot stand.’ (Chisholm, 1972)

I would vote for that.  In fact, I will not vote for less.

I will not ask anyone to ignore the feelings of despair in our political system.  We must be present to our very real feelings of confusion, of fear, of anxiety. But I will encourage you to not get stuck.  I will encourage you to let these words of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm fill your ears and your heart and inspire you to the next new day. This world created a Shirley Chisholm in 1924.  We were only partially prepared to hear her in 1972.

Two years after this speech, this world birthed Ayanna Pressley.  Maybe in 2020 we will be prepared to hear her more than we heard Congresswoman Chisholm and maybe in 2024 we will not only hear them but we will hear President Stacy Abrams.

Regardless, we must recognize the unique ongoing power of Black History.  Do not simply succumb to the sweet gospel soothing sound of the preacher that invokes soul and Black church.  No, I’m talking about the Black history that was and continues to be Black women unbought and unbossed, swinging the sword of justice at every obstacle the defenders of white supremacy and the erasers of Black legacy can dream up.

As long as white supremacy tries to corner us, Black history will matter.  Do not leave it in a book, do not relegate it to classrooms and lecture halls.  Black history is alive. Live Black history, know Black history, trust Black history.  Black history may be our only chance.

Rev. Adam Lawrence Dyer is the Lead Minister at First Parish in Cambridge Unitarian Universalist, Cambridge, MA, the Unitarian Universalist Chaplain at Harvard University and a member of the Cambridge Black Pastor’s Alliance.  He is the author of Love Beyond God a collection of poetry and reflections focused on black identity and liberal religion and recently contributed to the new collection of essays, Body Battlegrounds: Transgressions, Tensions, and Transformations (Chris Bobel, Samantha Kwan, eds.) Rev. Dyer maintains his own blog,, which explores the relationship between bodies, faith and politics.  Previously, Rev. Dyer worked with PolicyLink, the PICO Networks and the UU Justice Ministry of California advocating for racial, economic, gender and health equity as well as speaking about equity and LGBTQ inclusion.  He is a graduate of Princeton University and the Pacific School of Religion.

Featured image: Shirley Chisholm, Congresswoman from New York, looking at list of numbers posted on a wall. (Photo credit: New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress.)