A Word from Bob: I’ve taken my thoughts from chapter 10 of my book Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction.
2 Competing Narratives of the American Experience
As I talk to friends about the ongoing racial tensions in the US, many are perplexed. A Caucasian friend recently shared with me:
“It’s like we’re talking a different language when we talk across racial lines.”
Not long after that conversation, an African American friend shared:
“When I talk about race with my White friends, it’s like we’re from two different planets. It’s like we’re aliens to each other in need of a universal translator.”
My friends are onto something. And it’s not just a recent development. From the very founding of America, Blacks and Whites have maintained two drastically different views of the American Experience. In today’s post, I’m hoping to help us understand each other better by helping us to understand our long-standing different perspectives on life in America.
The Free Northern European White Male American Experience: “The Promised Land”
The idea of an American “national narrative” drawn from Scripture is not new. When European Christians immigrated to America, they chose a dominant biblical lens through which to view themselves corporately. They were, according to Puritan John Winthrop:
“A city upon a hill.”
As God’s new chosen people fleeing the religious tyranny of Europe, if they (White Europeans) obeyed God they would:
“Find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies.”[i]
From the earliest period of their migration to the New World, European colonists spoke of their journey as the:
“New Exodus of a New Israel from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land of milk and honey.”[ii]
For these early European Americans, America already was the Promised Land.
White Europeans left Europe in an exodus due to persecution, finding religious and political freedom and likening it to the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea.
Many would be shocked to realize that anyone has ever seen it any differently. Or, perhaps we should say, many free northern European middle-class and upper-class white males would be shocked to realize that anyone has ever seen it any differently.
The Enslaved African American Experience: “Bound for the Promised Land”
Consider contrast #1:
- Europeans freely sailed to the “land of the free.”
- Africans were stolen away from their free lands, stowed in the hideous holds of the slave ships, and brought to the “land of bondage.”
And contrast #2:
- For Europeans the Exodus already occurred.
- For Africans the Exodus was yet future.
And contrast #3:
- Europeans lived in the Promised Land.
- Africans lived in Egypt and were bound for the Promised Land.
“For African-Americans the journey was reversed: whites might claim that America was a new Israel, but blacks knew that it was Egypt, since they, like the children of Israel of old, still toiled in bondage. Unless America freed God’s African children, this nation would suffer the plagues that had afflicted Egypt.”[iii]
“It required no stretch of the imagination to see the trials of the Israelites as paralleling the trials of the slaves, Pharaoh and his army as oppressors, and Egyptland as the South.”[iv]
Could two biblically-based visions of one nation be any more different?
Both shared a common stock of biblical metaphors: Egypt, Exodus, the Promised Land. However, each saw the vision through different lenses.
Acknowledging these contrasting visions can increase our cross-cultural connections.
For instance, at times European Americans think of African Americans as needing to “assimilate” into American culture. This assumes that American culture equals the culture that European Americans supposedly single-handedly birthed.
However, from 1619 to today, there has been tremendous interplay between these two “cultures.” To suggest that African Americans assimilate into European American culture negates the equal contributions that African Americans have made in the creation of American culture.
With cross-cultural awareness, we can perceive the issue more accurately. “Minority cultures” are not required to jettison their cultural heritage and be assimilated into one elite, “dominant culture.” Instead, all cultural groups (Native Americans, Europeans, Africans, Asians, Hispanics, etc.) can cherish their own culture while at the same time co-creating one new multi-cultural nation. They jointly weave together a new mosaic, a shared heritage, a collective narrative.
Join the Conversation
How surprised are you that there have been two such diametrically opposed views of the American experience?
How can understanding these contrasting viewpoints help you to better understand your culturally-different brothers and sisters?
How could understanding these distinct worldviews equip you to minister more effectively cross-culturally?
[i]Warner, American Sermons, p. 42.
[ii]Raboteau, “The Legacy of a Suffering Church,” in Altschul, An Unbroken Circle, p. 81.
[iii]Raboteau, “The Legacy of a Suffering Church,” in Altschul, An Unbroken Circle, p. 81.
[iv]Hughes, The Book of Negro Folklore, p. 286.