June 2012

A Satifying Meger: The African Diaspora, History, and Adventism

One of the most tragic and effectively debilitating lies of the forced African diaspora (as opposed to the voluntary black globability of the post-slave trade era) was that dispersed blacks—wherever they were eventually settled—had no history.  Before the contemporary notion that history is meaningless or entirely fiction became de rigueur among Eurocentric philosophers who  already enjoyed the benefits of a richly documented past, the lie that Africans had no history did not mean that their race magically materialized during the Middle Passage, but that Africans had no past worth speaking of.  On the other hand—and only one hand was said to exist—their white oppressors had a past so compelling that it dominated the life of the displaced captives, from their given names to their religion, which was reworked as a white saga where blacks were demonized and prematurely phased out by a Noachic curse.

The extent to which diasporaed Africans believed the no-history lie is debatable.  But certain post-emancipation developments in the United States and the Caribbean revealed its success.  First, the employment of the fetishization of a glamorous Egyptian culture by black luminaries from Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey to Cheikh Anta Diop for the express purpose of raising racial self-esteem through a knowledge of fabled forbears substantiates that these leaders perceived a void in the black psyche only history could fill.  Second, able black historians such as George Washington Williams, W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson identified as the most pressing of needs to educate African Americans of a lost—however temporarily—heritage.  Finally, certain sociologists and historians identify the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s-1970s as the demand of African Americans for complete acknowledgment of citizenship based on full humanity, a demand which only came to the fore through a collective reawakened appreciation of their past.

Black Adventism arose from the African diaspora, and its history must be viewed through a lens similar to that utilized by Ciro Sepulveda in On the Margins of Empire, which seeks to understand early Adventist history through diaspora—first European then intra-American.  Indeed, the acceptance of Seventh-day Adventism by the first generation of black Adventists was possible because of the transatlantic slave trade, and this is also true of second and third generation black Adventists, whether from the United States or the Caribbean.  Only when Adventism was introduced to blacks in southern Africa at the turn of the century (1895-1905) were there black Adventists with no direct connection to the Atlantic diaspora.

Americans posses numerous heritages—racial, familial, religious, all rarely similar—and this is especially true of African Americans; DuBois “double consciousness”—although carrying a slightly different nuance—springs to mind.  Components of their heritage were a painfully realistic burden for black Adventists, roughly 60% who had to deal with the triple strike of their ever discernible race (black), religion (Seventh-day Adventists) and gender (woman).  Thus African American Seventh-day Adventist women of the pre-Civil Rights era have often been commended for overcoming tremendous odds to achieve success.  

Far from shame, early black Seventh-day Adventists were aware of and even celebratory of these multiple heritages.  From prominent black leaders writing for Message Magazine, to laypeople putting on church programs, black Adventists recognized the great disappointments of both slavery and 1844 as integral and shaping developments in their past.  Both showed God’s leading, despite—indeed, through—the bitterness of heartache and trial. 

Black Adventist ministers from Charles Kinny to Frank Peterson to Earl Cleveland, although proud of the valor of the black response to gross injustice visited upon them, increasingly combined their racial and religious histories by presenting the Adventist message as the only remedy for the trauma and brokenness of the devastation wrought on Africans in America, which incidentally mirrored the devastation of sin on the human race.  In this paradigm, one past speaks to another, and the two merge to produce healing. 

Another wave of black Adventist leaders like Owen Troy, Charles Dudley and Charles Bradford illumined their Adventist heritage with their African past, identifying precursors to Seventh-day Adventists in ancient Ethiopia, a people who valiantly resisted Roman Catholic pressure to adopt a false day of worship, and remained true to the seventh-day sabbath of Scripture.  In this paradigm, one past enables the other, and the two merge to produce continuity. 

Both models proffer a compelling use of history, and a unique kind of historiography forged by an equally unique group of Africans in diaspora. 

-Benjamin Baker