Ever since I was a child, I have known that I was black. Yes, my blackness was partially defined according to a Western construct and I was reminded daily – at school, where we shopped as a family, and in our suburban neighborhood, but not at church.
You see my father was an associate pastor of an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Boston. Later he became a senior pastor of an AME church in the greater Boston area. The AME church is the first black national church and was founded by Richard Allen, a minister, abolitionist and journalist. Allen was disappointed with the limitations the Methodist Episcopal church placed on black people so he and others participated in a mass walkout of a service. Later they formed the AME church to allow blacks to be free to worship.
To be young, gifted and black, Oh what a lovely precious dream To be young, gifted and black, Open your heart to what I mean
In the whole world you know There are billion boys and girls Who are young, gifted and black, And that’s a fact!
Young, gifted and black We must begin to tell our young There’s a world waiting for you This is a quest that’s just begun
When you feel really low Yeah, there’s a great truth you should know When you’re young, gifted and black Your soul’s intact
Young, gifted and black How I long to know the truth There are times when I look back And I am haunted by my youth
Oh but my joy of today Is that we can all be proud to say To be young, gifted and black Is where it’s at
Nina Simone wrote this song, along with poet Weldon Irvine, because she hoped the lyrics “will make black children all over the world feel good about themselves forever.” (songfacts.com) I am a witness that her mission was accomplished. These words spoke to me in some difficult situations, especially in school.
My siblings and I attended predominantly white schools for our elementary, middle and high school years. Often we were misunderstood and spent time explaining our cultural differences to peers and sometimes our teachers. Some of our friends and teachers showed genuine interest and others choose to remain ignorant.
Our weekends at church proved to be a lifeline for us. We looked forward to being in an environment where we did not have to explain our hair type, music choice or food preferences. The AME church was our lighthouse in many ways. There were adults who modeled what a black professional looked like in real time. Many of our Sunday school teachers were educators in the Boston Public School system. Some of the leaders in the church’s ministry were business owners, executives and community activists. Ministry was culturally relevant, exciting and well organized.
Several times throughout the year we gathered for conferences and retreats. Youth from our region and around the country participated in various services in multiple roles developing their leadership muscles. This was my first experience in an intergenerational environment where senior adults were celebrated along side of youth. The wisdom of the elders coupled with the strength of the youth proved to be an excellent combination.
I can still remember the words spoken to me to edify, direct and often correct my thinking. The adults challenged me to keep on reaching for the top and to realize my dreams. It was expected that my generation would build on what they had continued from the foundation of our ancestors. Progression in every area of life – our health, finances, education, stature, etc., was called forth from the youth at an early age.
Regardless of what our circumstances were, the adults constantly stated that we were young, gifted and black. Obstacles were seen as hurdles to be overcome. Roadblocks were temporary setbacks that would by all means come down in God’s time. We were reminded to put our trust in God because we were made in his image and were blessed.
The AME church was pivotal in my life as a young person. The three keys I received are:
1. A validated voice – Youth were members of the church and thereby invited to attend the business meetings. Often there were several youth present and our voices were heard and celebrated before, during and after the meetings. The intergenerational context allowed us to learn in a safe environment with coaches and mentors on every side.
2. A place to lead – Youth were given leadership positions in the ministries to youth. Adults served as advisors and supporters. The youth could make decisions about how money was spent and taught how to access the resources set aside for ministry. My skills were identified and sharpened by leading my peers and gave me confidence to lead in school as well.
3. A safe community – The Boston area was racially polarized in my teen years. The AME church proved to be a safe community for my family and peers. Our identity was affirmed as our faith was strengthened in community. We knew that we were not alone. Our community was present and we knew we served an ever present God. That combination was life giving.
I am so grateful for the foundation stones the AME church placed in my life. My family prospered because of the godly teachings and community strength that was poured into us over time. I found hope in being free to be who God created me to be: young, gifted and black.