“Kin(g)dom Living: ‘Hidden Figures’ of Black History

Scripture: Luke 18: 1 – 8
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
February 19, 2017

Next Sunday is the 89th Academy Awards, aka “The Oscars”.  The movies up for “Best Picture” include La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester by the Sea, Arrival, Hell or High Water,  Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion and Moonlight.  Unlike the Oscars last year that was oh so white, this year’s Oscars include the most nonwhite nominees in over a decade.  In fact, four of the year’s Best Picture nominees are led by nonwhite casts.  My choice for the Best Picture of the 89th Academy Awards is “Hidden Figures”.  To quote John Walsh, “Don’t walk, run to see Hidden Figures.”  This movie is based on the true story of three brilliant African-American women whose scientific and mathematical skills helped NASA launch its space exploration program in the 1960’s at the height of the space race with the Russians.  These women were the intelligence behind one of the greatest operations in history:  the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit.  

Although NASA was strictly segregated with the African American mathematicians occupying their own office, Katherine, a black woman, is the most gifted human computer on site.  She’s sent to work with Al Harrison, a top level official who is white, and is impressed by her impeccable results, but who’s annoyed when she disappears frequently throughout the day.  Finally, Al Harrison blows up at Katherine.  He wants to know where she goes for such long periods during the middle of the day away from her desk.  It turns out she is running a mile and a half in a dress and heels to use the “colored only” bathroom.  It dawns on Al Harrison that this is a waste of precious time and intelligence because of sheer racism.

These “Hidden Figures” were hidden from the public eye and hidden from history books.  The message of “Hidden Figures” is clear.  It is time to shout their names from the rooftops.  And that is what Black History month is all about, to educate and celebrate!

We owe the celebration of Black History month to Dr. Carter G. Woodson.  Born to parents who were former slaves, he went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard.  This scholar was great disturbed to find in his studies that history books ignored the contributions of the black American population and that history books reflected the inferior social position they were assigned at the time.  So, in 1926, Woodson launched Negro History Week, later to become Black History Month.  Woodson chose the second week of February because it marked the birthdays of two men who greatly influenced the black American population, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (Haney, Ellissa, “The History of Black History” internet article).

Despite the hardships suffered through slavery, many African Americans managed to become great inventors, scientists, and thinkers creating such inventions as:  the air conditioning unit, the elevator, the fire extinguisher, the fountain pen, the clothes dryer, the ironing board, the mop, the mail box, the spark plug, the stethoscope, the traffic light, and the tricycle.  In fact, a man by the name of Lewis Latimer was an indispensable partner to Thomas Edison in creating the light bulb and an indispensable partner to Alexander Graham Bell in creating the first telephone.  Not too bad for the son of an escaped slave who had to go underground to protect himself and his family.

The fortitude of the African American community over the centuries reminds me of the tenacious widow in this morning’s scripture passage.  In our series on “Kin(g)dom Living”, we have studied various parables over the last four weeks.  In the first week, the kin(g)dom was portrayed is a political vision where God, and not Caesar or Herod, rule the land.  The last are first.  The least are greatest. The outcasts are welcomed.  The hungry are fed.  In the second week, the kin(g)dom / kin-dom is a field and God is the extravagant sower who wastes seed with wild abandon, throwing grace in every place.  Last week, we looked at the “Parable of the Wedding Feast” and concluded that the kin(g)dom was a party where there was singing, dancing, and celebrating and God was the gracious host who invited everyone to the party.  God said, “I want this place jumping!”  Today, in our scripture passage God is not portrayed as a just and loving earthly ruler; God is not portrayed as an extravagant sower; God is not portrayed as the gracious host.  No, in the “Parable of the Unjust Judge”, we are presented with a figure who is not particularly likable and hopefully not intended to be directly compared to God.

In this parable, we meet a man who is in a position of power who “had no respect for the people”.  And we are asked to contemplate what can be done when such a person holds authority.  In particular, we are invited to walk in the shoes of the widow who had two strikes against her in that day and age.  First, she was a woman.  Secondly, by being a widow, she was without male support that would have given her social prestige and financial stability.  The widow is powerless.  Yet, the very one in power, the unjust judge, does not care for her well-being and looks the other way while she is exploited and mistreated.  But this woman does not give up.  Time and time again, she demands justice.  She makes her voice heard.  She wears him down.  Exhausted, the unjust judge says, “Though I have no love for God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming at me” (18:4-5).  Jesus encourages his listeners to push against the unjust and uncaring system even if the only tool they have is determination.

Determination, resilience, persistence, tenacity – those are words that describe the widow in today’s parable and they are words that describe the African American community:

400 years ago — Africans arrived in America not as freedom-seeking immigrants, but as captives adapting to the harsh reality of slavery.   

229 years ago– African Americans were considered 3/5 of a person.

167 years ago – Harriet Tubman escaped slavery and started the Underground Railroad

153 years ago – the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

116 years ago – Sojourner Truth delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the Women’s Convention.

70 years ago – Negro History Week was created  

60 years ago — Brown v Board of Education ruled that separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional

53 years ago — the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

52 years ago – the signing of the Civil Rights act

50 years ago – Loving v Virginia ruled that prohibiting interracial marriage was unconstitutional

8 years ago – Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States of America.

From the early days of slavery to one holding the highest position in the land, African Americans have exhibited determination, resilience, persistence, and tenacity.

It has not been just one voice, but a multitude of voices through the centuries.  In 1963, Dr. King stood at the Lincoln Memorial and gave voice to a vision nurtured since the days of slavery.  In front of him on the podium lay a speech he had labored on for four long days.   Gripping the podium, he read the text of his prepared speech.  Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, to back to Louisiana.  And then, behind him, Mahalia Jackson cried out:  Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.  Dr. King continued with his prepared speech, Go back to the slums and ghettos of our cities, knowing that this situation can and will be changed.  Mahalia shouted again:  Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.  King continued his prepared speech:  Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.  I say to you today, my friends.  Mahalia:  Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin!

Nobody knows whether he heard her or not, but Dr. King left his carefully prepared speech and began to improvise.  So, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.  I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!  I have a dream that one day… little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.  I have a dream today!

It has not been just one voice but many voices from offstage and the chorus of the ancestors, hidden figures, who resisted, persisted, and dared to dream.  For those of us who are white allies may we join in the dream, too – not just for one month of the year, but for every month of our lives until justice is granted.

In the words of the Black National Anthem:

Lift every voice and sing

‘Til earth and heaven ring

Ring with the harmonies of liberty…

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun

Let us march on ‘til victory is won.