What Black History Month in 2021 Means for a Rising Spiritual and Ethical Movement

February 12, 2021
Pastor, professor, and policy influencer Quardricos Driskell, MTS '08

In February of 1926, Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-education historian, had a very specific goal in mind when he established what was then called Negro History Week. He hoped, as time went along, that Black history would be recognized as so entrenched in American history that calendars wouldn’t indicate when society should celebrate Black history.

Flash forward to 1970, when Black History Month as we know it today was first celebrated at Kent State University, then 16 years later, in 1986, when the U.S. Congress officially recognized Black History Month as the law of the land, some 60 years after Carter Woodson pioneered the celebration.

I’m Jonathan Beasley, and this is another special pop-up episode of the Harvard Religion Beat. Today, I’m speaking with Quardricos Driskell, adjunct professor of religion and politics at George Washington University, as well as a writer, policy influencer, lobbyist, and pastor of the historic Beulah Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

I wanted to speak with Quardricos about whether Black History Month has taken on new significance in 2021. We’ll also chat about avoiding complacency around racial justice issues now that the Trump presidency is over, how the Black Lives Matter movement can continue its momentum by working across generational divides, and why Democrats running for political office should talk more openly about their faith.

Listen to the episode:

Harvard Divinity School: Quardricos, thanks so much for joining me today. In a statement on February 1 to mark the start of Black History Month, President Biden said: “We have never fully lived up to the founding principles of this nation that all people are created equal and have the right to be treated equally throughout their lives. We know that it is long past time to confront deep racial inequities and the systemic racism that continue to plague our nation.”

First, do you see the Biden administration confronting systematic racism in any kind of different and meaningful way as he’s pledged to do, and second, what do you hope the next four years will bring in terms of moving society closer to the equality that President Biden addresses?

Quardricos Driskell: Black voters, and as well as other people of color, Black voter turnout and other people of color turnout, was really the difference maker on election day. As such, there have been those same groups who have been very vocal about their intent to hold Biden to his word.

So President Biden we know took strides towards advancing racial equality. I want to say two weeks ago on Tuesday, with four new executive orders. These directives really came on the heel of a number of executive orders he has passed. And so the equality executive orders, however, focused on better enforcement of federal housing laws, increased communication and support for Native American tribes, criminal justice reform, condemnation of xenophobia.

And so the executive orders, or these EOs for short, were really campaign promises to reverse many of President Trump’s policies. With these executive orders, however, I want to see more of this codified into law that can’t simply be reversed by future administrations.

When we look at his administration in conjunction with Congress, we know the Democrats have a razor-thin margin in both the House and the Senate. And so many of Biden’s proposed reforms are going to need bipartisan support if they’re going to overcome a potential Republican filibuster in the Senate.

So when you think of legislation—legislation like George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, For the People Act, which both passed the House last Congress, or even the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, right, where many states were engaged in efforts to suppress the right to vote—it’s going to need those two pieces of legislation, as well as the number of legislation with regard to health equity and to address the health disparities in access to health care, tech, broadband equity.

And I should also note that there are many in the progressive community, as we are coming off of the month of the day of celebrating the birth and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and now we are in the month of Black History Month, which is American history. And as I think about King's letter to the Birmingham city jail, for some in the more progressive community, President Biden is the epitome of white moderation. So, while I personally am not impressed with his executive orders short of legislation, that is really going to be needed to move the needle forward.

Representative John Conyers, the late representative John Conyers from Detroit, for years he would introduce a piece of legislation really calling just for the study of reparations for African Americans. I would like to see over the next four years—and I'll pause right here to say one of the reasons that Black Lives Matter exists in a more broad or comprehensive way is because we, as a country, have not dealt with 1619, right? We haven't dealt with Brown's Raid or Bacon's Rebellion or the aftermath of the Civil War.

And until we are able to deal with the reckoning and the truth of how we find ourselves here again, that's going to be needed. So what I would even call for this administration to do is to establish a truth commission on racial justice, reconciliation—or a truth commission, I should say, on reconciliation, racial equity, and justice.

And I think that truth commission, one of its first priorities should just be to listen, to listen to both sides, because if this administration is going to have any meaningful impact in this country in terms of bringing it together, this administration, combined with this Congress, is going to have to open the door for a conversation between and among all sides, because if we're listening closely, those who support Trump and the more extreme, the QAnon supporters, have screamed and are screaming liberty, liberty. But then you have Black Lives Matter movement and other progressive people who are screaming freedom, freedom. We agree upon the goals, or if we can agree upon the goals, the challenge is and has always been how do we get there?

HDS: Quardricos, I wanted to read to you a quote from a recent CNN op-ed on Black History Month, written by Roxanne Jones, a former vice president at ESPN and the co-author of Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete. She writes: “After feeling terrorized and traumatized through the Trump era, after witnessing a White supremacist insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, living through a pandemic that continues to ravage Black and brown communities and enduring year after year of police killings of unarmed Black people—try as I might, I'm feeling anything but celebratory this February.”

After this past year of chaos, turmoil, and heartbreak, especially within communities of color, Quardricos, how are you considering Black History Month in 2021? With a “childlike joy” that Jones says she used to feel because of the opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Black Americans, or with sadness and frustration because of how much work clearly still needs to be done for racial justice?

QD: As I noted, Black History Month is American history, right? I am not considering, however, Black History Month in any particularly new light. In fact, for me, it is and has always been a bittersweet celebration for the struggles of yesteryear, of today, and tomorrow. So for me, it's a month that seeks to repair for all of us and with all of us. Yet we know, of course, that Black Americans, and more progressive others, have and continue to call America to its better self. And that has been our prophetic witness.

I think, and I know, that there is perhaps some fatigue from more progressive, younger Blacks, who have moved, and some are seeking to relocate to Africa and other Afro-Latino countries. And I know this personally, as this is the case in my own family. So the protests we are witnessing and have witnessed aren't just reactions to the latest examples of police brutality against unarmed Black and brown people, but more consciously, and I think comprehensively, it really is about the 401 years of oppression on these shores, right, and the centuries of murder, rape, and dis-humanization and redlining and educational inequities and the unjust distribution of resources that continue to this day.

Because when you look at the history of America, what happened on January 6, as HDS Professor Diane Moore gave a lecture to the Harvard Alumni Association where she spoke eloquently on this, is precisely who we are as a country. It's not difficult when you have a critical understanding from a religious, a legal, a civic and a cultural understanding that white mob violence has been a crucial factor in the history of America.

You know, Booker T. Washington in his book, in his narrative Up from Slavery talked about this. And there's a quote I loved and I was conversing with friends about, is where he says, quote, "the white man who begins by cheating a Negro usually ends by cheating a white man. The white man who begins to break the law by lynching a Negro yields to the temptation to lynch a white man."

So juxtaposing Booker T. Washington's quote of what he said and what we saw, which wasn't an organized, trained militia that stormed the Capitol, because violence and terror towards Blacks has been a part of our history. And in this new twenty-first century reiteration of that, it then, that same violence attempted to attack one of our country's most sacred landmarks.

And so this is precisely why good, very good-hearted liberal, progressive whites that I know, and others, don't sort of have the wherewithal to get a handle on this current crisis, because too much of their own identity and humanity unconsciously is bound to their maintaining of power.

HDS: You wrote in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin in 2019 that: “We live in a nation where it is still controversial to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, that women’s rights are human rights, that climate change is real and that LGBTQIP people deserve civil liberties. Clearly, we still have a ways to go!”

Regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, can you talk about what you think will be the long-lasting impact of the unprecedented protests and rallies we saw in summer 2020 for racial justice? And what do you think 2021 will hold?

QD: Right. A very poignant question. What remains to be seen about BLM is how much the protest movement can change the deeper societal situation that we find ourselves, right? Whether it's major police reform will really take place, whether or not there will be some sort of commission to study reparations, or at least have the conversation, whether large racial and economic justice will take shape and move forward. I think most, or should I say there's a segment of the population that can at least breathe a sigh of relief that, for the most part, politics has gone back to being boring and quotidian and uninteresting again, right?

But here's my concern, as that we as a country will return to a state of complacency because the Trump era is now over. But we have to remember how we arrived here from the very beginning. So for those of us who care about justice and equity and equality and empowerment, we put our head in the sand far too long. We knew that racism wasn't over, but we thought perhaps it's only on the fringes of our society.

So protest is certainly needed, but it's not enough. Some of the most impactful work has often taken place inside the systems to which progressive and even BLM are opposing. And again, now I'm coming from this perspective as a lobbyist, as one who works within the power structure, so to speak, right? So protest, as we know, gets the attention of the powerful forces within our society.

But the inside work, the work that shows them the wisdom of change, is often the real source of progress. So when we think about the protests of the '50s and the '60s is what led to the legislation of the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, right, it was seeing children sprayed with water hoses and women beat with billy clubs and German shepherds attacking people that moved President Kennedy and, later, Johnson to act. So, my whole point here is that it is both protest, policy, and legislation.

And then I think, furthermore, if we look at this really comprehensively, we know that our economic system is capitalism. America is controlled by capitalism. And we have seen a large number of CEOs and millionaires and billionaires and corporations making substantial donations to several social justice and racial equity institutions and historically Black colleges and universities, right?

But imagine if those same CEOs, millionaires, billionaires, corporations, put the same amount of pressure on their legislative bodies, both nationally and locally, to advance the cause of justice in regards to technology or health equity or criminal justice reform. Imagine how much more impactful that would move the needle of justice. It's time to move past these symbolic gestures of representation without any real substantial policy or wealth accumulation, and to put pressure on the lawmakers to accompany that.

So I imagine that the same level, and I hope that for Black Lives Matter movement is that I know they've had some policy recommendations, but they actually engaged in the policy conversations and debate more, right? The same sort of energy that they put in the mass protests should be the same or the double energy that they put in the mass protests in the form of writing their members of Congress or writing their local leaders, their district attorneys, and their state general assembly members, right? Using mass protests, but moving towards real economic and political progress, and I think that’s going to be key for the Black Lives Matter movement.

HDS: Even though Black Lives Matter is a secular organization, Quardricos, do you see BLM as having some historical roots within the Black Social Gospel tradition? And, will we see a rise in religious and secular communities coming together to fight for racial justice and to combat white supremacy?

QD: So to the first part of your question, yes, absolutely, certainly the roots of Black Lives Matter are embedded in the Black Social Gospel tradition. Alasdair MacIntyre, a philosopher I learned actually at Harvard Divinity School, talks about the traditions we belong to, and how we are changed by those traditions, as well as changing those traditions, which I think we see, right, the Black Lives Matter people/movement has done. Many I know personally came out of the Black church, the Black Social Gospel tradition, but many of them now don't identify themselves as, say, religious.

And this gets to the age-old debate, spiritual but not religious. But they decided to change it. And so when we begin to really think about leadership and the framing of leadership from a social ethicist, Walter Fluker, it is the appropriation and the sort of critical embodiment of those traditions that have shaped our character and have a shared meaning of people.

And so, yes, absolutely they come out of that tradition from personal integrity, spiritual discipline, intellectual openness, and the moral anchoring of it all. And I hope that there certainly is a rise between those in the more secular space and those who are a part of faith traditions, as we saw, which was a great indication with last summer's protests.

But my concern is that there isn't really enough intergenerational conversation occurring. So you have Black pastors and other people of faith and those who were sympathizers to the Civil Rights movement and who actively participated in the Civil Rights movement generations before, but they aren't in conversation with each other. And I think that is really the sad part, and perhaps the disconnect.

And, so, I foresee that the long-term solution is going to be to re-examine what we mean by democracy, holistically, and to re-interrogate a spiritual and an ethical movement similar to the movements that preceded it—the abolitionist movement, the women's suffrage movement, and the Civil Rights movement, and the other movements. And so it's going to really, again, take that re-interrogation of the spiritual, which is the faith community, and the ethical, which is the more secular community, and how can we then appropriate a fuller movement that move the needle of justice forward by the previous movements that I mentioned.

HDS: You just talked about what you see as the lack of intergenerational connectedness, especially within elders of the church and younger, more secular members of BLM, so what’s the best way to get those voices to connect? Is that a role, potentially, that the universities can play?

QD: Absolutely. I think that is a role that think tanks can play. I think that's a role the academic community can play. And I think that's a role civic and non-profit organizations can play. But I also think there is power within just every average day people.

There is, in my current city that I live in, Alexandria, Virginia, which is, again, a small hamlet, midsized hamlet outside of Washington, D.C., there is a group of local concerned Alexandrians who have gotten together to have that intergenerational conversation, that have gotten together to have interfaith conversations. And so absolutely it can happen. I would like to see it happen on a larger scale, where we have some of our, again, civic organizations or even academic institutions convening people of faith, right, who are saged in their wisdom and have more experience, with more of the younger and perhaps even secular people coming together, having the conversation about what movements look like, and how we can embody them in an ethical and yet in a faith and non-faith way that moves the needle for everyone.

HDS: You’ve highlighted in other writings that the Republican party does not hold a monopoly on faith or Christian values, but that, in the recent past, Democrats have been reluctant to speak publicly about their religion or their personal faith.

Leading into the 2020 election, however, you mention that there was a kind of revival of the religious left, brought into the spotlight in part by the outspokenness of then presidential candidate, and practicing Episcopalian, Pete Buttigieg.

I’m wondering, should Democrats running for office in the future speak more about their personal faith, and if so, how should they do that? In a way that, like Buttigieg often did, directly calls out what he views as Christian hypocrisy, or in a gentler way akin to what President Biden does?

QD: So I would like, absolutely, I would like for Democrats, religious progressives, and even nones to fully establish themselves as the religious left. Right? That does not seem to hit a lot of scholars, both in the religious tradition and even in the political science tradition. And to also take back the term religious liberty, which covers all Americans, regardless of religious or faith traditions.

So there is a real opportunity here for religious moderates, the religious left, nones, to fully utilize this moment, where we are, to have a president of faith who is rooted in the Catholic social teaching and to work strategically within the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, to establish a department, I know they usually have a person who oversees, of course, religious and faith engagement, but to truly begin to asking and encouraging those dems running for office across the country to talk openly about their faith. This is the only way not necessarily to combat, but to really counteract the narrative that only Republicans or the religious are politically right.

So I think there needs to be both the examples to which we mentioned, but I also think there needs to be this call-out of Christian nationalism, which you mentioned earlier, right, and the hypocrisy, and to work with those who are non-faith, the nones, and other minority faith traditions in a, yes, more gentler way, in a more moderate way, as is exemplified by our president, but also in a more aggressive way. And I think that's going to happen.

And the strategy, whether it's in a moderate manner or whether it's in a more aggressive manner to talk openly about their faith I think is really contingent upon certain congressional districts, certain state districts, certain states and certain races, right? But the faith platform of the DNC should continue and, I would argue, desperately needs to be made a priority.

HDS: Finally, Quardricos, you’re pastor of Beulah Baptist Church, located in Old Towne Alexandria, Virginia, and founded in 1863 by freed slaves. You say your work as clergy has centered on “spiritual innovation.” Could you talk a bit more about what that means for you and your congregation, and was this informed at all by your experience at Harvard Divinity School?

QD: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, first I should say I never wanted to pastor a parish, but the universe and God has a sense of humor. What I mean by spiritual innovation, and one of the reasons why I decided to say yes to the calling of taking on this church as its undershepherd, as its pastor, is really reimagining sacred space, and reimagining those traditions that have shaped us, as we talked about earlier, for a more relevant twenty-first century where all are welcome—those who are religious or of faith and those who are not.

So when I became pastor, we implemented some things that, quite frankly, were not a part of our tradition, particularly being American Baptists and progressive Baptists, but also historically Black. A space where atheists and agnostics and Jews and anyone could worship at Beulah. As I mentioned earlier, there were some citizens who took upon themselves to start a sort of local initiative. It's called Tour de Faith. Various, again, interfaith individuals, where they really visit different churches, temples, mosques, synagogues in the community. And Beulah was the first Black historic church to open its doors and to welcome them. In my mind, that's a small effort towards spiritual innovation that we often don't see within a lot of our religious traditions, and particularly in the Christian tradition.

Another aspect that we've undertaken, there are four churches on our same street: two historically white, two historically Black, two Baptist, two Methodist. And for generations and for years, unfortunately, none of those congregations really did a lot of work together. Well, in this moment, in this time, we have very informally combined what we call the Church on South Washington Street, which consists of those four churches, to really come together and to have conversations around faith and around race and around equity. So my spiritual innovation really will continue, and I'll see how far I can push the limits of my congregation to think outside the box. And in fact, one of my parishioners told me, well, you really don't have a box.

But all of this is as a direct result of my learning and my continued conversations with faculty and staff and with friends at HDS. And to be in right and moral community as a faith leader means that you have to know something about your Hindu brother or sister, right? And again, I learned that very distinctly at Harvard Divinity School.

HDS: I want to thank Quardricos Driskell for his time and insight. If you’re on Twitter, you should give him a follow at @q_driskell4. The handle is in the full transcript.

Thanks for tuning in to this special episode of the Harvard Religion Beat. The show is written, hosted, and produced by me, Jonathan Beasley, and edited by the truly fabulous Caroline Cataldo.

We’ll have another episode out in the coming weeks that takes closer look at religion’s role in past pandemics and this current pandemic. You won’t want to miss it, so subscribe to the podcast if you don’t already.

Until next time…