Black people have disappointed me this Black History Month. Specifically black Christians.
It’s been nearly two weeks, and I’m still disappointed and hurt by the hateful rhetoric that “ex-gay” speaker Jackie Hill-Perry spewed at Harvard College Faith and Action’s Doxa meeting. While I’ve heard plenty of pastors, church-goers, and even non-Christian people say that homosexuality is sinful, hearing that message from a black woman who looks like me made it hit a little closer to home. It hurt even more to know that we have similar interests: I was intrigued to learn that she’s also an advocate for racial justice, a cause that I’m extremely passionate about. Initially, I had the smallest glimmer of hope that she might talk about racism within the church instead of how I and the rest of my community are inherently broken. But alas, it was not to be. During her speech, I heard nothing about racial reconciliation and far too much about “loving,” “Biblical” ways to ostracize BGLTQ people.
I can still hear the black women in the audience, sitting just a few feet away from me, shouting out “amen” throughout her speech. I wonder if they would’ve passionately shouted those same “amen”s if her message had been about the inherent inferiority of black people.
This isn’t the first time that religion has been used as an excuse to discriminate against and dehumanize marginalized groups. For centuries now, white Christians have been using twisted Biblical interpretations to justify their own racism.
In the 19th century, pro-slavery Christians frequently cited a Bible verse about Noah cursing the descendants of his son Ham to be “the lowest of slaves.” Though the color of Ham’s skin was never mentioned in the Bible, these Christians became convinced that black people were the descendants of Ham and thus destined to be slaves.
The Bible also features many verses in support of slavery. One of the more explicit ones is this: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves… You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”
Clearly, many white Christians obeyed that verse to the letter. They stole black people from their homes and then set up an international slave trade system to buy and sell said stolen black people. When slave owners died, they “bequeath[ed] them to [their] children.” They couldn’t “rule over [their] fellow” white people “ruthlessly” because white people were entitled to basic human rights. Interestingly, this verse comes from Leviticus, the book which also contains the well-known verse about how I and members of my BGLTQ community are “abominations” who deserve death.
This Biblical racism didn’t end with abolition. In 1963, a few years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was brutally murdered by a white man, he called out the racism in churches, saying, “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation... that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America… Any church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
Another parallel between homophobia and racism is the fact that Bob Jones University, a well-known Christian college, didn’t drop its ban on interracial dating and marriage until the year 2000. Their reluctance came from their belief that God intentionally made different races after humans tried to reach heaven by building the Tower of Babel, and thus interracial couples having multiracial children would derail God’s plan.
For centuries now, white Christians have used the Bible to “prove” that black people are inferior, justify discrimination on the basis of race, and make black people unwelcome in predominantly white spaces. This is nothing new, and you can find plenty of black Christians and black people in general calling that racism out; Jackie Hill-Perry herself has spoken to the issues surrounding police brutality and the problems with claiming to not “see race.” But we must also recognize that, for centuries now as well, cisgender, heterosexual Christians have used the Bible to justify homophobic and transphobic worldviews. And too often, advocates for racial justice like Hill-Perry will either use the Bible to spew hateful rhetoric about BGLTQ people or simply leave us out of conversations altogether.
It’s not enough to be “woke” on race if you’re also homophobic or transphobic. In fact, intersectionality demands that you cannot be “woke” on race and also homophobic or transphobic. Black queer and transgender people exist, and you cannot support black liberation unless you support the liberation of all black people. “Black Lives Matter” includes BGLTQ black people. You can’t pick and choose which members of the black community matter and then throw the rest under the bus, especially when those members you want to ignore have been trailblazers in the movement for black liberation.
This Black History Month, let’s not forget the history of racist, white Christians using the Bible as a weapon against black people. But let’s also not forget the history of homophobic and transphobic Christians using the Bible as a weapon against BGLTQ people, and the ways in which many black Christians feel absolved from this because they’re “woke” on race. And most importantly, let’s not forget that all this seemingly historical bigotry is still present today.
Without active change, these histories will continue to repeat themselves. This Black History Month, we must decide to do and be better, refusing to let injustice snake its way into our history books anymore.
Becina J. Ganther ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a History of Science concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.