The Courage to Show Up: A Response from Brad Braxton

Courageous Living in Calamitous Times

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Ida B. Wells

Black History Month is a fitting time to reflect on courage.  The survival and thriving of black people—amid centuries of state-sponsored brutality and gross social inequity—are monuments to the magnificent power of courage.

A lyric in the sacred songbook of African Americans declares: “Everybody talking about heaven ain’t going there.”  In other words, heaven can be a word on a person’s lips without heaven-worthy living being manifest in a person’s life.  Similarly, we can slightly remix that lyric with respect to courage: “Everybody talking about courage ain’t demonstrating it.”  In order to understand what courage is, we must delineate what courage is not.

Courage is not a reckless rampage like those depicted in certain Hollywood films.  These glamorized rampages leave wide swaths of destruction, even as the supposedly “courageous” character (who is often a white, heterosexual male) escapes amazingly unscathed.  Authentic courage does not recklessly tear down.  It bravely builds up downtrodden people and advocates for inconvenient truths and unorthodox approaches even when embracing such truths and approaches might be costly for those leading the charge.

Here is my simple definition of courage: Courage is the willingness to pursue truth and goodness amid not only inconvenience but also severe persecution.

Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) provides a compelling example of courage from an earlier chapter in United States’ history.  This black female journalist and humanitarian was born when the United States was gripped by a gruesome Civil War concerning the destiny of enslaved Africans.  Although the defeat of the Confederacy brought a brief moment of national reconstruction toward racial justice, the stubborn forces of iniquity did not (and do not) give up easily.

Those forces quickly unleashed a new genocidal energy where “Jim Crow”–inequity sought to desecrate black souls and blood-thirsty lynch mobs sought to annihilate black bodies.  Approximately 5,000 African Americans were lynched with impunity in the United States from 1880-1940.  In the midst of this home-grown terrorism, Wells led a courageous national campaign to overturn laws that made lynching legally possible and morally acceptable.  She galvanized this crusade amid threats on her life and with no guarantee that her efforts would be successful.

Wells offered poignant reflections on courageous leadership in 1891 (before she was even thirty years old):

The main requisites of such leadership are first, devotion to principle or courage of conviction.  No great reform in the world’s history has ever been successful or far-reaching in its influence without an earnest, steadfast devotion which so takes hold of its leaders that they willingly brave the world’s censure—aye, even death itself in its defense….This devotion to principle does not always call for life, but it always means sacrifice of some kind.[1]

Ida B. Wells lived in calamitous times, and so do we.  Her story reminds us that a great calamity demands an even greater courage in response.  Greater courage will facilitate eventually the greatest moral outcome: the emergence of the beloved community—that time and place where diverse groups no longer fight as enemy combatants but instead dwell together peacefully as sacred siblings united by our connection to a Heavenly Father who is Divine Mother of us all.

[1] Quoted in Marcia Y. Riggs, Can I Get a Witness? Prophetic Religious Voices of African American Women: An Anthology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), 64-65.

Dr. Brad R. Braxton is the Director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the founding pastor of the Open Church of Maryland.

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