Passing through two layers of security I emptied my pockets, opened my backpack, and showed a government issued ID just to meet him. His name was William Hayes. He was born in Thomas County, GA in the year 1843 — exactly twenty years before the emancipation proclamation would change his national status from property to citizen. William would meet an untimely death some time between the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census, but not before making six beautiful new lives with his wife, Maria Hayes.
William and Maria are my Great-great-great grandparents, and likely the first of my ancestors to taste freedom on these American shores.
Recently, I’ve been slightly obsessed with making visits to the National Archives and Records Administration here in Washington, DC. Their ancestry, census and military record database has given me a rare peak into a past previously obscured. I’ve been able to meticulously piece together bits of data to build a larger family tree than I ever anticipated.
I discovered that my Great-great-grandfather, also named William Hayes, married Ms. Patty Early on March 31, 1888 and that they decided to name their first-born son Early Hayes, to preserve her family name. Early met Estelle and they decided to pass the name Early down another generation. In an interesting turn of events, however, Baby Early eventually decided that neither his name or his hometown of Thomasville, GA was for him; So he changed the E to a C dropped the Y and began to go by Carl Hayes. Carl Hayes then moved to Atlanta where he met my grandmother and had my dad, who eventually named me Garrison Karl Hayes.
As I discovered this fascinating narrative, I became deeply aware of two things: One, I am who I am because of the decisions of my ancestors. If my grandfather had not made the decision to change his name, and move to a new city, two of my most basic personal identifiers — name and hometown — would be totally different. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a profound power in reclaiming one’s own historical narrative.
In the halls of the National Archive I reclaimed pieces of myself. By reclaiming the story of my ancestors my family’s history ceased to be narrated by our oppressors. Suddenly, the contours of my family’s story were no longer broad and unspecific. Suddenly, it danced in the light of autonomy and agency.
The Need to Reclaim
In January 2019, you may remember the highly scrutinized incident involving a Native American elder, a group of rowdy MAGA-hat wearing high school students, and an inflammatory group known to many as the Black Hebrew Israelites. This incident was picked up by media outlets across the world and sparked a national conversation parsing through the actions of all three parties involved.
The Black Hebrew Israelites, who self-identity as simply Israelites, were introduced to many through this incident for the first time as a racist extremist group with ties to anti-Semitism, homophobia and black nationalist rhetoric. For others, like myself, with prior knowledge of the Israelites, the incident depicted the shallow end of the group’s ideological swimming pool.
Growing up in the West End community of Atlanta, I had the privilege of knowing and interacting with many Israelites, literally all of whom were nice people. They were easy-going with delicious vegetarian food, and a reformation-like message for Black and Brown people. And while Christians could form a laundry list of theological disagreements with the Israelites, specifically fundamentally diverging on topics of hermeneutical process, one must take a moment to ask why the group has picked up so much cultural steam amongst black young people in recent years. With thirteen-time Grammy Award winning rapper Kendrick Lamar, a Christian, providing a platform for some of the Israelite ideologies in his music, it may be time to narrowly apply the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “test all things [and] hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
For all of the things the Israelites have done and believe, some of which I may disagree with, there is one thing they have done well that I see incredible value in — they have reclaimed the Biblical narrative for people of color. They have firmly situated black and brown people at the center of the Bible’s redemptive story, reclaiming a lost history formerly narrated by oppressors. They have told the truth about the ethnicity of some of the most powerful figures in history, the Children of Israel, and in so doing they have empowered the disinherited of America to live with righteous dignity.
A Theology That Reclaims
Perhaps there is a broader lesson to be learned from my anecdotal experience in the National Archives. As I comb through the pages of census documents, old marriage licenses and World War II draft cards, I see a brilliant dignity emerging in my family’s narrative. I see survivors, businessmen, homeowners, opportunity seizers, and an ever-broadening family tree that tells me what’s in the blood that pumps through my veins.
Perhaps tracing a direct link between one’s biological bloodline and the heroes of Scripture is only mildly important, if possible at all. But what is undeniably important, however, is developing a redemptive theological lens that reclaims the experiences of both historical and contemporary people from the white-washed voices that narrate Christianity. You’ve likely heard some of these theological voices today: the ones that ignore the disparities in Black communities in exchange for a theology of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. The theological voices that shout “one nation under God” until it’s time to show compassion to the foreigner. The theological voices that prominently display images of a white Jesus, but choose not to support women in ministry for the sake of so-called “biblical accuracy.”
We desperately need a reclamation theology. A theology that allows the truth of scripture to serve as an experiential family tree, connecting and reclaiming what has been lost through the years of a perverted and oppressive history and present.
Perhaps a reclamation theology would allow Emerald Garner to trace her father, Eric Garner’s, experience to that of John the Baptizer, whose head, too, was ensnared by a crooked government. Perhaps a reclamation theology would allow Rep. Ilhan Omar to trace her maternal lineage back to another woman rejected by society because of issues with her blood. Maybe she, too, could encounter a Christ that was willing to claim her as a daughter even when society sought to send her back to where she came from. Perhaps the AD 36 census might tell the story of Emmett Till’s ancestor, simply known as Stephen, stoned to death by those who hated him for being different. A reclamation theology might reveal the truth that every black man, woman, boy, or girl who has ever been hunted by an angry lynching mob, unlawfully arrested, wrongly convicted, falsely imprisoned, or capitally punished can find a common ancestor in Jesus Christ who, indeed, experienced it all just to reclaim us.
I believe that we desperately need a theology that reclaims. One that combs through the pages of scripture, to unearth the truth of a God who is touched by the feelings of our infirmities, and habitually errs on the side of the oppressed.