June 2012

Past is Prologue: The African Diaspora, African Past, and Adventism

One of the most effectively debilitating deceptions of the forced African diaspora (as opposed to the voluntary black globability of the post-slave trade era) was that dispersed blacks—wherever they eventually ended up in the Americas—had no history. Long before the postmodern notion that history is meaningless or entirely fiction became de rigueur among European philosophers (who  already enjoyed the benefits of a richly documented past), the lie that Africans had no history did not propound that the race magically materialized during the Middle Passage, but that Africans were subhuman and thus had no past worth researching or adumbrating. Conversely, their white oppressors ostensibly had a tradition so compelling that it was made to dominate the life of the displaced captives, from their given names to their religion.

The extent to which diasplaced Africans believed the no-history bit is debatable. But certain post-emancipation developments in the United States and the Caribbean indicated 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 purpose of raising racial self-esteem through a knowledge of fabled forbears substantiates that these thought leaders perceived a void in the black psyche only a compelling past 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 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; although carrying a slightly different nuance, DuBois' “double consciousness” springs to mind. Roughly 60% of black Adventists had to deal with the triple strike of their heritages, the easily discernible race (black), religion (Seventh-day Adventists) and gender (woman). African American Seventh-day Adventist women of the pre-Civil Rights era, a proverbial mile behind the starting line in the race of life, overcame tremendous odds to survive and thrive.

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 through the bitterness of heartache and trial. 

Black Adventist ministers from Charles Kinny to Frank Peterson to Earl Cleveland combined their racial and religious histories by presenting the gospel (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 are merged 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 are a compelling use of history, and a unique kind of historiography forged by an equally unique group of Africans in diaspora. 

-Benjamin Baker