I wrote a column for Black History Month in 2001. Every year around this time, longtime readers of this column ask about getting a copy of the column or a recording of the actual sermon described in the piece.
So, once again, for Black History Month 2007, it’s black by popular demand – a remembrance of one of the best sermons I’ve been blessed to hear.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago was the guest preacher at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif. He began by reading a portion of the Samson and Delilah story as recorded in the Book of Judges. He ended his reading with Delilah’s question: What makes you so strong? Then, he flipped the question on his African-American audience: What makes you so strong, black man?
How is it that after 200 years of slavery, in which skin color was the determining factor of your servitude and social status, you could still produce a Frederick Douglass, a Booker T. Washington and a W.E.B. DuBois? What makes you so strong, black man?
How is it that after losing millions of souls crossing the Atlantic on slave ships, losing your name, language and cultural identity, you could still produce a Benjamin Banneker, a Louis Armstrong, a Duke Ellington, a Paul Robeson and a Jackie Robinson? What makes you so strong, black man?
How is it that after two centuries of being someone else’s property and another century of Jim Crow laws, lynchings and daily insults, you could still produce a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, a Malcolm X, a Howard Thurman and a labor leader like A. Philip Randolph? What makes you so strong, black man?
How is it that even though for years they had a law making it illegal to teach blacks how to read, you could still produce a Langston Hughes, a Ralph Ellison, a Richard Wright and a James Baldwin? What makes you so strong?
How is it that after having your intelligence and moral worth devalued and degraded by some of the leading intellectuals of modern scholarship, you could still produce a noted pediatric surgeon like Ben Carson, a mathematician like Bob Moses and an inventor like Lewis Latimer?
How is it that after being considered inferior by leaders of Western civilization, including the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, you could still produce a Joe Louis, a Muhammed Ali, a Hank Aaron, a Michael Jordan and a Jesse Owens, who told Hitler to stick it in his ear by winning four gold medals in Germany?
And what makes you so strong, black woman? How is it that after 300 years of being used – used as a toy for the slave master, as a punching bag by your own men, you could still produce a Harriet Tubman, a Sojourner Truth, a Fannie Lou Hamer, a Rosa Parks and early 20th-century millionaire Madame C.J. Walker? What makes you so strong, black woman?
How is it that after being inculcated with the idea that your skin color is ugly, your hair nappy, your lips too big and your hips too wide, that the less you look like a blonde beauty, the worse off you are, you could still produce a Josephine Baker, an Angela Bassett, a Jane Kennedy and a Pam Grier? What makes you so strong?
How is it that after being walked on and walked out on, after being portrayed as a sexless Aunt Jemima and an oversexed temptress, you could still produce a Toni Morrison, a Zora Neale Hurston, a Maya Angelou and an Oprah Winfrey?
How is it that after men, even your own men, told you were good only for housekeeping and making babies, you could still produce an educator like Mary McLeod Bethune? What makes you so strong, black woman?
How is it that after being cast as lazy welfare queens, you could still produce a sculptor like Meta Warrick Fuller and a Dr. Jane Cooke Wright, whose research led to treating cancer patients with chemotherapy and who later became the first black woman to be named associate dean of a medical school in America?
What is the source of this incredible human strength and resilience that turns victims into victors?
Thank you, black America, for the many marvelous things you have contributed to this great nation, and for reminding us of the paradoxical power of the powerless.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist.