Don't Secular-Wash Black People This Black History Month

Dr. Joseph Wiebe - 17 February 2023

It's February and once again, Black History Month (BHM) has arrived! The idea for Black History Month originated with historian Carter G. Woodson in the United States who proposed a one week celebration of African-American history and achievements in 1926. He chose February because it was also the birth month of Frederick Douglass, a prominent abolitionist, human rights’ advocate, and formerly enslaved person.  In Canada, the first province to issue a proclamation for BHM was Ontario in 1979 and the month was officially recognized in the House of Commons in 1995 making BHM an annual month-long event. There are plenty of ways to access heritage and historical information, as well as countless events, shows, campaigns, and lectures on the incredible contributions of Black people all over the country. 

One thing I have noticed, however, is what I'd like to call the "secular-washing" of Black people during BHM. That is, the removal or quieting of religion in the stories of everyone from Black artists to civil rights activists and other notable individuals. A glance at the Canadian Heritage website showcasing noteworthy figures in Black Canadian history reveals that religion, in fact, is only mentioned a handful of times in the nearly 70 biographies available there: as a footnote in Measha Brueggergosman’s childhood, similar to that of Portia White; a note about William Edward Hall’s grave monument at a Baptist Church; and a mention about the religious activism of Pearleen (Borden) Oliver in her writing and her founding of the African United Baptist Association (AUBA) Women’s Institute. 

Even Harriet Tubman is secular-washed, along with Viola Desmond and other key figures who were not only proudly religious, but whose social justice work and societal contributions were directly influenced by their religious beliefs and ways of life. Tubman was a devoted Christian and was said by her contemporaries to have experienced trances and visions which she understood as God’s involvement in her life. Viola Desmond—Haligonian entrepreneur turned civil rights activist—famously protested charges brought against her for daring to sit in the white section of a segregated movie theater. Often left out of the story is that, despite Desmond’s husband told her to drop the matter during the tiresome legal ordeal, minister William Pearly Olivier of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church where Desmond attended, encouraged her to keep up the fight. Though Desmond did not receive a pardon until after her death, her fight has been immortalized in Canadian Black history. Tubman and Desmond are just  two examples from Canadian Heritage’s list. Religion is a historical lens that offers an enriched understanding of these leaders’ worldviews and ethical stands.

As a scholar of religion, I find these omissions curious at best, and troubling at worst. Similarly, in the cases of African-American giants like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, religion is often relegated to a footnote, even when they saw it as central. In fact, as Muslim converts, both Malcolm and Muhammad were open and unapologetic about how much their Islam informed their activism. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of the most widely read memoirs in history and is full of clear and unabashed Muslimness, including depictions of Malcolm X’s transformative journey for the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.

So why the reluctance to not only acknowledge the religions of Black people, but also center them in their stories?

Some may chalk such omissions up to Islamophobia in the cases of Ali and X—something which cannot be ignored. Yet the fact that religious identities and histories for important figures who were not Muslim might indicate a tendency to secularize them. Hence, the term secular-washing, or an automatic relegation of that which is religious to the private and personal sphere, even when the leaders themselves brought it to the fore. 

This points to two things in my mind, both of which we should be wrestling with: first, there are social trends that reduce people to their racial identities (itself a problematic entrenchment of racial discourses). Second, there is also a secular anxiety against celebrating heroes and their religions. To do so would acknowledge the multifaceted ways that religious ways of knowing, being, and enacting social justice permeate not only North American society, but the whole globe. Such acknowledgment however, is sorely needed in BHM and beyond. 

Dr. Joseph Wiebe is associate professor of Religion and Ecology at the University of Alberta Augustana, and the interim director of the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life.