Phil Allen, Jr. is a Ph.D. candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary where he is a Pannell Center for Black Church Studies Fellow. He is the founder of the non-profit Racial Solidarity Project and author of Open Wounds: A Story of Racial Tragedy, Trauma, and Redemption (Fortress Press 2021) and The Prophetic Lens: The Camera and Black Moral Agency From MLK to Darnella Frazier (Fortress Press 2022).
I remember well the textbooks in school that informed me and my classmates of American history. If those books and their respective authors and editors were to tell it, American history is one beautiful progression in democracy (with its “flaws” of course) that has been inclusive of all and affords equal opportunity for everyone to the “American Dream.” If those textbooks had their way, Black history was a mere footnote in history with token mentions of figures such as Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was fed a steady educational diet of white paternalism, white benevolence, white innovation, and even white godliness despite the reality of Native genocide by European explorers, 246 years of enslaving Africans, Jim Crow segregation laws along with that era’s record of lynching Black bodies—over 6,700 documented and thousands more undocumented, and Japanese incarceration camps. Like many others, I had internalized this messaging that conflicted with what I had been exposed to at home and at church.
In my home I knew about the great Black poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. I was drawn to the brilliance of Benjamin Banneker, architect of the city design of Washington D.C. I was enamored by how activist Ida B. Wells fought courageously against the lynching of Black people. Even later, I was enamored by the stories (slave narratives) of enslaved Black men and women who used their bodies to set an example for protest and resistance that we witness today. Henry “Box” Brown, a formerly enslaved Black man, who literally mailed himself to freedom by hiding inside of a wooden crate destined for the North. Harriett Jacobs hid herself in a small room in a White woman’s home for seven years until her master stopped looking for her and she could eventually escape to freedom.
These are the stories that are also internalized, but at times their legitimacy was questioned because of the hegemonic hold white-controlled narratives held on my educational journey. The same hegemony is evident in my theological journey. I was taught (even in Black churches) to worship an “ideologically photoshopped” European Jesus who was ethnically Jewish from the region of Palestine and who was ontologically Black (poor, a refugee, from the margins of society, and falsely accused and executed). I have lived between the histories of White and Black folks, between hegemonic and marginalized perspectives, and between assumed superiority and assigned inferiority—neither with any roots in reality.
Recently, I had an intense conversation with a man who had mentored me for sixteen years. He began to share social and political perspectives I did not know he held. They were triggering for me, to say the least. I have never in sixteen years disagreed with him, certainly not passionately. This time I was compelled to share views that differed theologically and politically, as well as historical perspectives than his. Inevitably, race(ism) became a central topic and this was the point of no return. He spent most of his time trying to distance himself from sounding racist but he was unwilling to enter the “in-between” space with me. He was much more comfortable with his binary approach to the historical narratives and political viewpoints. He echoed the lessons taught to me by those textbooks that executed the selective erasure of history from People of Color and he continued to accentuate the Anglo presentation of America (what he called a “sheep nation,” a reference to Matthew 25 and the narrative of God judging and separating nations as a shepherd separates sheep [righteous] from goats [condemned]).
He fought to protect his fragmented understanding of the gospel (personal salvation) while I invited him to visit the integrated gospel (salvation and justice, personal and collective) that I believe Jesus preached. Whether secular or religious, I have had to live in the tension of seemingly conflicting histories that should be in conversation with one another. This liminal space is necessary if for no other reason than to hold hegemonic narratives accountable to the whole truth, including the aspects of history that are incriminating to the group/class in power.
He decided he did not like the “contentious” conversations (two) we had over the weekend. He ended our mentoring relationship. While this saddened me, I found this to be a common response by some “friends” of mine who vigilantly guard their vision and version of American history, to simply cut off the conversation at best or the relationship at worst. Living in-between histories can be a painful reality. Living in-between lies or half-truths and reality is disorienting and lonely. Yet, it is in this space where there can be so much revelation. In between histories one can winnow falsehood from truth and lead individuals and the masses to a more healing and life-giving understanding of where we came from so that where we are headed is not a repetition of the underbelly of history but its glimpses of promise.
Living in this space is not necessarily a perpetual state of tension. This space holds as much of a capacity to reorient one’s vision and worldview as it does to disorient. Unstable terrain, while it is uncertain ground to stand on, has the capacity to strengthen muscles that ironically atrophy because of steady ground. Truth offers steady ground, but in terms of historical narratives, accounts from the margins must be in conversation with, and challenge dominant accounts of history. It has the capacity to draw people into solidaric expressions of community as much as it can divide communities. Through a certain lens, it is the tension of this space and the factors that create it that give opportunities for seeking an alternative consciousness to cross over the threshold into an authentic community unafraid of the good, bad, and the ugly of its own narrative.