Black and Beautiful
In one of his lesser known and important speeches Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says:
Somebody told a lie one day They couched it in language. They made everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black. It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word White, it’s always something pure, high and clean. Well, I want to get the language right tonight.
I want to get the language so right that everyone here will cry out: ‘Yes, I’m Black, I’m proud of it. I’m Black and I’m beautiful!
King knew that the fight against racism must be fought on many fronts. Obviously, there were racist laws that needed to be abolished. Also obviously, there were violent racists that needed to be held accountable for hate crimes. There were economic practices that needed to change.
But King also knew that racial violence could do internal damage: that is, that even black people could internalize the wicked ideology of white supremacy. He knew that we could come to feel ashamed of ourselves for the stigma blackness was intended to be. And so he, along with activists of his time, asserted that we did not have to accept the racist’s definition of blackness.
To be black, in the racist imagination, was to be criminal, barbarian, dumb, inferior, ugly, and all manner of other negative stigmas. But we began to define blackness for ourselves. In a society determined to use blackness to humiliate us, black pride is an existential necessity. It is a means to mitigate the risk of internalizing the racial contempt and violence that has been directed at us for generations.
Black pride turns what was supposed to be a cultural stigma into an affirmation.
Getting Egypt Out of the Hebrew
On the other side of the Red Sea, the Hebrews are given instructions, including a rhythm for work and rest.
“You have six days each week for your ordinary work,” God says, “but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may
In the Exodus story, the Sabbath command directly addresses the generational trauma the Hebrews endured in Egypt.
First, and probably most obviously, it is a gift to a people who were once overworked as slaves. In that way, this divine gift of rest is reparative. The Hebrews are not slaves anymore, and they are to rehearse that truth every week. And each time they do, they will remember how they came to be free to rest: The God of the Ghetto rescued them from the dehumanizing institution that treated them as labor machines.
Second, the Sabbath deals with the tacit lie embedded in the experience of enslavement: that Hebrews were inferior to non-Hebrews. Messages like those are often internalized by oppressed people, often outlasting the physical experience of oppression. And the sabbath command subverts that psychological violence.
The reason God gives for this command to rest is profound. God says that they are to rest because God rests. In other words, they are to live — to some degree — as God does. That command recalls the subversive assumption that human beings are created in God’s image: all of them.
In the ancient world, royalty were usually the ones believed to bear the image of any god and to share in the benefits and prerogatives thereof. Rest was a prerogative of the gods and therefore the prerogative of kings. But God shared that prerogative with these former slaves, now homeless wanderers, hebrews.
The gift of sabbath was an affirmation of their humanity, the very thing that had been undermined by generations of oppression.
All of that hints at the next way the sabbath command spoke directly to the trauma the hebrews underwent, is that it turned the stigma of being Hebrew on its head.
God did not require that they become something other than hebrews to deserve the affirmation of their dignity as image bearers. They didn’t need to become kings, build their own empire, or conquer any neighboring peoples. They were still margin-dwellers, still abominable in the imperial imagination, and just as imbued with dignity and worth in God’s eyes as any ruler of the ancient world.
They need not be ashamed of being ‘hebrew’, just because society considered it a stigma. Perhaps they could even be proud that, just as they are, they are God’s people.
In some ways, the practice of sabbath seems to encapsulate that mysterious, contradictory intersection where stigmatization and affirmation meet in the same social indicator — the way that stigmas are often absorbed by the stigmatized and robbed of their power as they’re integrated into a new identity.
The sabbath was a countercultural practice in the ancient world, and a unique marker of the people of Israel. It was criticized by ancient non-Jewish people, as a mark of laziness. But within the community, the sabbath was an essential marker of faithfulness to God, and subsequently the mark of a true hebrew — a good hebrew. The audacity! They were expected by others to be ashamed of that word and of themselves, but there they were, suggesting that they had been invited to enjoy — to some degree — the type of life that God does.
But, even though sabbath invites humans to partake of God’s life, it also puts a check on human pride and ambition.
Sabbath is a boundary. If the hebrews had thought for one second, “We built so much when we worked non-stop for the Egyptians, imagine what we could do if we worked like that for ourselves,” the command to sabbath curbs that inclination. They are not to become like the place that they left, adopting the practices of the empire. They are welcomed to partake of God’s life by following God’s instructions, not by following worldly wisdom.
Sabbath is a reminder that they are only imitating God and not actually gods themselves. They are guests to the divine life, not indigenous to it. So their subversive theology — that they bear God’s image — should not become an oppressive ideology.
It may sound a bit cliche, but it’s nonetheless true: leaving Egypt was just phase one of the Exodus. The next phase would include dealing with the ways that Egypt was still with the Israelites on the other side of the Red Sea.
This kind of identity work, to address the ways that generations of oppression may have shaped their identities, was vital. It still is.
Escaping the ‘Egypt’ Within
People are often indignant to hear black people say, like Dr. King, “I’m black and beautiful!” or “I’m black and I’m proud!” or “Black Lives Matter!”
But critics of affirmations of blackness would do well to consider the context in which these statements are made. As long as we live in a society that is generally hostile to black people — where black is synonymous with danger, stupidity, immorality, uselessness, and crime — black pride will continue to be an existential necessity.
We must continue to aggressively affirm that we are created in the image of God, against a society that has historically insisted that we are not, lest we come to believe that society.
We live in a society where racial categories are an essential feature and where people assign meaning to those categories. We may not be able to make racial terms obsolete anytime soon, but we can reframe them. We can, have been, and will continue to audaciously make the stigma that blackness was supposed to be a badge of honor.
This is not about black superiority, but about undermining generations of continuing racial misrepresentation and humiliation. We are not the savages the colonists said, nor the animals the slavers said, nor the aberrations the segregationist said, nor the super predators and criminals the politicians said. We are human.
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For Further Exploration:
- On Generational Trauma: Trauma From Slavery Can Actually Be Passed Down Through Your Genes
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Black Pride: “I’m Black and I’m Proud”