Introduction

It’s been more than 70 years ago since Carter G. Woodson wrote the classic, The Mis-Education of the Negro. Educational opportunities for Blacks have been transformed probably more than he would have imagined. Having such opportunities have undoubtedly afforded many Blacks passage to unforeseen heights.

Today, we have an unprecedented number of black owned businesses, CEOs, individuals in middle to high-level management in different areas, such as government, education, and religious settings. In fact, we have more trained Black clergy than ever. However, given all the black advancement and achievement in those areas of life, I am afraid in my estimation that we have yet to see the full potential of Blacks, particularly in theology.

Although, there are a growing number of conservative Black seminary students and Black Reformed folks in general, this is an illusion of meaningful progress. The progression I have in mind is not merely an increasing aggregation of Blacks in each field, but rather Blacks advancing their respective field. Even though, we have more Blacks attending seminary (still in disproportionate numbers), we are not producing seminal Black theologians/thinkers, specifically from reformed and/or evangelical seminaries.

Of course, there are a number of reasons that have been offered to explain this phenomenon, such as a lack of scholarships, Black faculty, Black applicants, cultural insensitivity, and so on. There is no question that these factors are important and need serious attention by most reformed and evangelical seminaries. But I want to suggest an alternative explanation to this problem. I want to argue with Woodson, as my conversation partner, that we as Reformed Negroes have been miseducated by these respective institutions and their debilitating ideologies to such a degree that, unless something radically changes, it will continue to retard a healthy production of Black Reformed theologians/thinkers who are self-conscious, socratic and constructive.

The (Mis)Educational Process

Loving Whiteness

Consider the often-quoted words of Woodson: “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”

Unfortunately, Woodson’s concerns are relevant today. The conservative White American religious landscape does not have to worry about the actions of Reformed Negroes because our thinking is usually being controlled by this same landscape. As a Reformed Negro who has been around for a while, we do not have to be told what to read, what type of event to attend or what to say because magically we end up almost exclusively reading their texts, attending their (type of) events, and espousing their rhetoric. If there is no “back door” into their ideologies, events, and institutions, we will cut out our own “back doors,” namely through the repristination of their White ideologies in our blogs, books, conferences, and churches. In other words, one does not have to convince most Reformed Negroes to find her or his ‘proper place’ because one can rest assure they will not stray too far from the back door of the plantation house. Essentially, we have been (mis)educated to believe that the only (or at best, the primary) way to do theology is through White “back doors,” that is, through their sources and methods of organizing, processing and conceptualizing God’s inexhaustible reality. We are then led to behave in such manners because our theological education makes it necessary.

Therefore, we have also been (mis)educated to love whiteness. Reformed Negroes love White ideologies and theologians more than their own. One would be hard pressed to find a Reformed Negro who values and holds in high esteem Black theologians/thinkers and their distinct contributions. In fact, if one found a Reformed Negro halfway conversant with Black theologians/thinkers, they would virtually hold them (and their beliefs) in a White normative contempt. Many Reformed Negroes prefer to learn more from Luther, Calvin, or Edwards than Douglass, King or Cone. They would rather mull over White texts and at best disregard or at worse, maintain complete ignorance of Black texts.

Many Reformed Negroes, for example, make excuses for the immoral character of many White theologians and their reprehensible sins and heresies, especially against Black existence in general (e.g., Jim and Jane Crow and segregation) and Black bodies in particular (e.g., slavery and lynching). Some Reformed Negroes say, “They were sinners just like me.” But this avoids dealing with the main issue. For it is one thing to be a sinner where the effects of one’s sins are usually localized to the individual, yet it is another to be a sinner who creates a particular world system of evil predicated on the non-human status and eradication of the image of God in Black persons. And still others say, “chew up the meat, spit out the bones.” However, this type of inadequate line of reasoning does not consider the following: what if the bones are so finely ingrained into the meat that any consumption of meat will always entail the bones? In other words, more often than not, the meat is indistinguishable from the bone(s). So when some Black people think they are eating meat, they are also inadvertently eating bones or much worse, just bones that look like meat.

Hating Self and Blackness

In compounding the matter, Woodson argues:
The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race.

The difficulty is that the ‘educated Negro’ is compelled to live and move among his people whom he has been taught to despise. As a rule, therefore, the ‘educated Negro’ prefers to buy his food from a white grocer because he has been taught that the Negro is not clean. It does not matter how often a Negro washes his hands, then, he cannot clean them, and it does not matter how often a white man uses his hand he cannot soil them.
The “difficulty” that Woodson points up is that many educated (Reformed) Blacks have been taught to distrust and therefore, hate their own because it is part and parcel of white supremacist ideology in general and White theology in particular. Within a context of such ideologies, a hermeneutic of suspicion almost always develops when the referent is Black. Therefore, this leads many Reformed Negroes to internalize a white supremacist hermeneutic of self-suspicion.

It is no wonder, for example, why we are always having the perennial cultural wars about types of worship that seem to always be tethered to whiteness. With the often unconscious embracing of this hermeneutic of self-suspicion, we are never too sure about whether our (Black) worship styles are “truly reformed.” And this liturgical confusion (and hyper critiques of the Black Church) is symptomatic of the broader struggle for full divine human flourishing, including identity and self-definition because we have been (mis)educated to always question ourselves in order to produce self-doubt and destroy any significant level of confidence in our abilities and conclusions. We have been taught that we are not worth anything and by extension our intellect is not worth anything. So if the Black intellect is to have any value, it is only to the degree that we remain silent and do not interrogate what we are being taught in order to maintain and polish their pseudo-pristine buildings of white supremacy.

However, when we decide to affirm the value of our Black intellect, we almost always feel the need to validate whether we are on the “right track” by determining if a white teacher we value agrees with us. Even when Reformed Negroes try to counter such beliefs and activities by receiving their spiritual food from a Black (Reformed) grocer, instead of White (Reformed) grocer, they nevertheless, as Woodson suggests, fall back into crippling socializations of Black self-hatred because the Reformed Negroes they feel most “comfortable” with are the ones who produce the same spiritual food as the White (Reformed) grocer. We as Reformed Negroes cannot imagine what it would be like to hunger and drink from a bottomless well filled with the rich minerals of Black experiences that God has given us in His sovereignty. But I am getting ahead of myself.

For instance, it is quite the norm to attend or graduate from a reformed and/or evangelical educational institution without having read or deeply interacted with a Black thinker/author. What this type of omission and silence about the lives and gifts of Black people in the world, particularly in the United States, amounts to is not simply an oversight, but a significant level of inhumane disinterestedness in the valuable lives of a particular ethnic group of image bearers who are not White. After being a part of these educational institutions, one, especially a Black person would easily get the impression that not only are Black people unimportant, but they in point of fact, do not exist. This is arguably the most destructive form of self-hatred that has been internalized among many of us as Reformed Negroes. If someone can convince you by virtue of their condemning silence that you do not matter and by extension, do not exist, then why would they ever need to explicitly teach you that your (Black) life has any unique God-given and ordained worth, creativity and genius? But this should not be surprising because if many Whites do not value or even recognize Blacks and our unique gifts, why then would certain Blacks?

The Gifts of Black Folks

The Gift of Self-Consciousness

I am living in a world where Black persons and their core concerns do not matter. In fact, I am living in world where we are invisible. I can remember my first corporate job at a Fortune 500 company. There I met a Black man with a MBA from Harvard who was a senior vice president and on the CEO track (before he left to run his own company). Since I was the only Black man in my department and one of the youngest persons in the entire building of 20+ floors, he later became one of my mentors. After talking with him on many occasions and observing his accolades, I believed I could succeed in this new competitive work environment filled with glass ceilings because I saw his original contributions. I learned from him how to swim in the sea of corporate elites with my “head held high” as the old folks would say because I knew it could be done and I had the potential to do it.

I also met many other Blacks in high-level management. They did not allow me to lose sight of the fact that I am still a Black man and regardless of the prevailing false ideas about Black humanity, I needed to be conscious of my particular humanity through the gift of self-consciousness. For them, this was not a matter of paranoia, but survival, not necessarily because the “white man” is always after you. Rather if you are not conscious about who you are, particularly as a Black person, you will not be able to survive because someone else will always redefine you and probably for their own gain.

Sadly to say my undergraduate experience reinforced this phenomenon. The university’s curriculum and professors never taught me that I had something to contribute to any field based upon the particular existence and experiences I had, especially a Black person. Much worse, the same could be said for my seminary education. One would think a place that teaches how God has used the particular gifts and talents of countless men and women throughout the history of the church, would eventually communicate and teach that you too have such unique gifts and talents. Not that I necessarily needed any seminary to bestow upon me a significant sense of self-worth and giftedness, but strangely I never heard that God has given us unique gifts and talents as a part of the diversity of His image for the maintenance of his polyphonic kingdom in the world through our specific divine contribution. In other words, there are things that Calvin, Turrentin, and Hodge did not say; in fact, they could not say that only we can say based upon our particular historical and cultural setting that God has sovereignly ordained.

Central to why this is not taught and communicated is because these institutions are not designed to educate Blacks in the same way they educate Whites. Although these White educational institutions are now desegregated in terms of politics, they are still segregated ideologically because “the same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race.” Therefore, when the layers of these institutions are peeled back, it appears that they do not intend to educate and raise the consciousness of their students or even themselves (beyond trite diversity events) about the indispensable gifts of Black folks in order to become fully human because they do not value Black humanity or history, which partially explains the trivialization and marginalization of Blacks in America, both past and present.

The Gift of Socratic Force

Based upon this gift of self-consciousness (described above), Blacks had the courage to think for themselves. Historically, we had to investigate the “facts” because if we did not, it would mean the difference between life and death. There was no room for blindly accepting what we were taught just because someone, usually a White “Christian” slave owner, told us it was “right” or “biblical.” In fact, Blacks ended up in slavery because of “biblical” justifications by White "Christians".

Also it was such blind acceptance and lack of interrogation that continued to keep our forefathers and foremothers, not just in physical slavery, but mental slavery. There were many slaves who were afraid to leave the plantation and think for themselves. Harriet Tubman said, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” And this does not trivialize the inhumane and complex decisions and its implications for going against the (White) grain at a cost. Rather such historical examples in our past serve to point up the ongoing complexity and difficulty of being able to be Socratic in a White hegemonic society. As another manifestation of this gift, one could easily cite the Socratic distinction that Fredrick Douglass made, contra to what he was taught, between “Christianity of the land” and “Christianity of Christ.” Tubman, Douglass and others inspired an incalculable number of people, including many Blacks to be truly human in the face of anti-Black terrorism through their gift of Socratic force.

The Gift of “Constructive Force”

If there continues to be an increasing number of Reformed Blacks who are miseducated, then we are doomed to repeat history because “history shows that it does not matter who is in power…those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning.” Therefore, it is imperative that Black Reformed folks continue in the self-conscious and Socratic tradition of our foremothers and forefathers.

For instance, I can remember several occasions where Black reformed/evangelical pastors warned aspiring leaders that if they think creatively or of anything new, it is probably heretical. These pastors often are heard saying, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Basically, if it was not taught in the history of the church for hundreds of years, stay away from it. However, what they did not know is that they were merely parroting (or “imitating” for Woodson) uncritically what they were (mis)educated to believe by their White teachers/professors or Black teachers/professors who were also (mis)educated (or perhaps, brainwashed) just like them. Is it really the case that all that has been said in the history of the church predominately by Europeans is all we need? Does God only work through and endow Europeans with His knowledge through the Holy Spirit at the exclusion of people of color, particularly the African Diaspora? Can nothing good come out of Africa and her descendents?

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no virtue in non-creativity and reprinstation because at its root, it attempts to stifle the value of self-examination and critical reflection that is part and parcel of what it means to be human. To turn off our mind only to accept as “gospel” the parochial perspectives that come from Europe at the exclusion of what God has uniquely birthed in the people of the African Diaspora and beyond is not only nonsensical, but also it is to dehumanize oneself because it fundamentally denies God’s creative image in us.

Again, Woodson incisively explains the deadly consequences of this kind of thinking among Blacks saying:
For the arduous task of serving the race thus handicapped, however, the Negro graduate has had little or no training at all. The people whom he has been ordered to serve have been belittled by his teachers to the extent that he can hardly find delight in undertaking what his education has led him to think is impossible. Considering his race as blank in achievement, then, he sets out to stimulate their imitation of others. The performance is kept up a while; but like any other effort at meaningless imitation, it results in failure.

Facing this undesirable result, the highly educated Negro often grows sour. He becomes too pessimistic to be a constructive force and usually develops into a chronic fault-finder or a complainant at the bar of public opinion. Often when he sees that the fault lies at the door of the white oppressor who he is afraid to attack, he turns upon the pioneering Negro who is at work doing the best he can to extricate himself from an uncomfortable situation.
For Woodson, once these Blacks figure out that what they have been taught does not work, especially when it is applied to their Black context by stimulating other Blacks to imitate Whites, they will then become “too pessimistic to be a constructive force.” To put it plainly, after the “White man” has failed these Negroes through their overreliance of inadequate Western European ideologies, including theologies, they will start hatin’ on pioneering Blacks who have become a “constructive force” by always tryin’ to point out their problems, instead of questioning what the “White man” has taught them and begin to truly appreciate the work of pioneering Black persons.

Therefore, we need more pioneering Blacks who are not afraid of their God-given creativity, particularly in regards to theologizing. We need more pioneering Blacks who are not satisfied with what they have received from Europe and desire to bring forth what they have uniquely received from YHWH based upon their particular historical and cultural context. We, in fact, need more pioneering Blacks to maximize their gift of "constructive force" that can at least speak with a prophetic voice – a voice that cuts through the numbness in our world.

With such a constructive theological vision, we can build upon the gifts of Black folks given to this country and even the world. We can build upon the beautiful Black gifts of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, Harlem Renaissance, and Civil Rights Movement to name a few momentous gifts. However, according to some, Blacks may not have anything to contribute because we have been in a theological recession for at least a hundred years. For them, probably the only way we can get out of this decline is for us to call almost exclusively upon Western European presuppositions and epistemologies, instead of what God has uniquely placed within us as Black image bearers.

God did not give Europe the same creative genius that was inherent to the people of Africa. In other words, if one decides to visit ancient times to view our distinct and constructive insights, you would not find beautiful and complex pyramids in Europe or epoch-making texts, such as The City of God. This type of creative work can be found flowing from Africa to the present and they did not need to be taught European ideologies to maximize true human flourishing.

Therefore, we must trade in the chains of our (mis)education, which teaches us that our blackness is a liability, for a diploma that symbolizes our blackness as an asset, even in the theological enterprise. And in order for this beautiful transaction to take place successfully, these three gifts of self-consciousness, socratic force and constructive force must at least be pneumatically realized in us. If our ancestors through their unique contribution and creativity built pyramids without an European education, how much more are we able to contribute theologically based upon what God has uniquely endowed within us, if we do not exclusively rely upon Western European ideologies? For Woodson, the answer is clear: “The differentness of races, moreover, is no evidence of superiority or of inferiority. This merely indicates that each race has certain gifts which the others do not possess. It is by the development of these gifts that every race must justify its right to exist.”

Co-Founder Xavier Pickett