Rev. Dr Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan African and Orthodox Church Engagement at Bread for the World. She also serves on the World Council of Churches (WCC) central committee. She recently participated in a rally and march in Washington, DC, where thousands gathered to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington in 1963 that included Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream" speech. They also gathered to express their resistance to the systemic racism that has existed in the US for more than 400 years.
You look at resistance to racism through the lens of history. How does that help us deepen our perspective?
Dr Walker-Smith: It has been 401 years since Angolans were brought from the continent of Africa to the shores of Virginia in what became the United States in North America. Yet the narrative of that history has often been written from a certain vantage point that has not been inclusive of the communities most affected by the evils of slavery. I urge people to ask: Who writes the stories? Is it his story? Her story? Or all the peoples’ story? White privilege has divided our education system and our politics. But God’s truth is still God’s truth. There are those of us who say: That’s just not the story!
How important is the oral tradition of storytelling from a Pan African perspective?
Dr Walker-Smith: Here is where the oral traditions of people from African descent become very important, and now more of those stories are entering into the mainstream. It’s not that the stories have not been there, it’s that now we have more tools to be able to convey them, and we can put the stories in forms that people will see and hear. In the past, these stories were rarely told by people who had the resources to control the narrative. That’s why we often see a one-sided story in textbooks, controlled by people who have gone as far to essentially say, “Let’s just edit out the enslavement period.” This is an eraser of the oral narratives—but Pan African communities have continued the oral tradition of truth-telling.
Has the “march to resist racism” actually been going on for hundreds of years?
Dr Walker-Smith: The struggle has not changed—the horror has been there and is still here. That’s why there is so much power in the streets now. There is a historic stream of resistance and rebelling against oppression—but we didn’t have an iPhone in 1800! We didn’t have a camera in 1600! We didn’t have the communication tools that are effective to sustain the stories. The laws codified and made normative slavery, racism etc. Today, it’s really important to observe a confluence of some legal reforms especially since 1865 after the Emancipation Proclamation and having communication tools, and some more enlightenment in terms of the public space, all coming together in a way that uplifts us.
In what way is the march a global one?
Dr Walker-Smith: The march has always been global! We know colonialism is a global structure, a global enterprise…and it t still is! When people understand that our story is my story, and my story is your story, we get a global synergy, empathy, sympathy, that encourages and emboldens people. The WCC has historically been able to generate this kind of global energy to combat marginalization and oppression but not without healthy debate within and outside of this church fellowship of how this should be approached. There is important work yet to do together.
What keeps you going personally?
Dr Walker-Smith: I grew up in a household that taught me Christian Pan African values when I was very young. I learned that people in their families and churches can write a constructive counter-narrative. I feel very blessed in my family—since day one. I owe so much to my parents and to my church, to the historic black churches especially the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. which is my church home, for my formation. Today, I’m always looking for the moments where I can be present to the rise with my people. This was built into my formation. I am part of the voices that are lifted up with and for all of God’s people to stand up and be all they are called to be.