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A Musing with a DBQ

Since I fully expect that I may receive questions from the community about what we are teaching in social studies and history classes when school resumes, I have done some reading about what life was indeed like in pre-1960’s America (in addition to reviewing the Georgia Standards of Excellence for K-12 public schools.) I also imagine that whatever I say will be scrutinized and criticized; alas this is just the world we now live in.

However, as I have gone down this path of inquiry, I have enjoyed taking the time to look at first hand sources and documents, also called primary sources. #I am a geek.

I think it is because looking at these documents has taken me back to my days of high school and studying AP United States History—more specifically preparing for end of year AP Exams. These exams have several DBQs or Document Based Questions. Sometimes we called them Dreadfully Bad Questions. For the DBQs students are asked to analyze some historical issue or trend with the aid of several primary sources, or "documents," as evidence to be cited in answering the question. Most students hate them.

However, for me, a self-proclaimed liberal arts nerd, I loved these questions. I loved trying to see how the knowledge I had along with these documents would lead me to analyzing the question the evil test writers placed in front of me.

In some sense it is a bit like creating a sermon or one of these “musings,” except the question is pretty much always the same: “How is God continuing to speak to you and me today and how might we faithfully respond to that call?”

What amazes me is the way God can find to speak to us! For me it can happen in a variety of ways. Sometimes its from a conversation or a piece of music or a memory or a movie or TV show. Sometimes it is even a taste or a smell. Today it was from a primary source—an excerpt from a book by Booker T Washington.

To remind you Booker T. Washington was a leading African American intellectual of the 19th century. Among his many accomplishments he was an educator, author, orator, fundraiser, and advisor to several presidents of the United States. He was also the founder and first president of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (Now Tuskegee University) in 1881 and then the National Negro Business League two decades later. Washington also saw something special in a young scientist named George Washington Carver who he hired to join his faculty and lead the Agriculture Department at Tuskegee.

Washington was one of the first African Americans to be invited to the White House to serve as a Presidential Advisor. He first advised President Theodore Roosevelt and then William Howard Taft. Additionally, he crafted relationships with a diverse group of famous entrepreneurs and philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie, William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Huttleston Rogers, George Eastman, Julius Rosenwald, Robert Curtis Ogden, Collis Potter Huntington, and William Henry Baldwin Jr. These individuals helped fund many of his projects including the rapid growth of Tuskegee. Many historians believe he was the most influential African American of his time.

What folks often forget about (including me) was that Booker T Washington was born into and remembers being a slave. That experience greatly impacted and shaped his life. One event that he recalls taught him the power of caring for others and sacrificing to help alleviate pain and suffering. He shared this in a powerful passage in his book Up From Slavery:

The most trying ordeal that I was forced to endure as a slave boy, however, was the wearing of a flax shirt. In the portion of Virginia where I lived it was common to use flax as part of the clothing for the slaves. That part of the flax from which our clothing was made was largely the refuse, which of course was the cheapest and roughest part. I can scarcely imagine any torture, except, perhaps, the pulling of a tooth, that is equal to that caused by putting on a new flax shirt for the first time. It is almost equal to the feeling that one would experience if he had a dozen or more chestnut burrs, or a hundred small pin-points, in contact with his flesh. Even to this day I can recall accurately the tortures that I underwent when putting on one of these garments. The fact that my flesh was soft and tender added to the pain. But I had no choice. I had to wear the flax shirt or none; and had it been left to me to choose, I should have chosen to wear no covering.

In connection with the flax shirt, my brother John, who is several years older than I am, performed one of the most generous acts that I ever heard of one slave relative doing for another. On several occasions when I was being forced to wear a new flax shirt, he generously agreed to put it on in my stead and wear it for several days, till it was "broken in." Until I had grown to be quite a youth this single garment was all that I wore (Washington 232-233)

While this passage discusses a rarely considered horror of slavery even children were forced to endure, it also shows love given in a very real and tangible way. In Galatians 6:2 Paul writes, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

One of the interesting things about the epistle to the Galatians is that it is not to one church but a group of churches in a region. These churches were made up of both Jews and Gentiles. This letter is one then meant to communicate those things that were concerning not just to one group but to many. Thus, the call to serve one another or bear one another’s burdens is an essential element of followers of the way of Jesus Christ.

Peter expounds on this very sentiment in his 1st letter where he writes: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.”

The truth is we all have gifts we can give, which when we choose to share, can make a difference.

Perhaps you do not think they are as powerful as the story above, but I hope you will reconsider that.

There is so very much hurt and pain and suffering in the world and we all have so many ways to help bring comfort. It can be a simple as a smile or a surprise greeting card or a phone call. Or it can be the giving of time or talents or gifts, including our financial resources.

In fact, I was saddened to learn as I read through the paper today that on Monday a report was released that said in 2020 world hunger and malnutrition increased dramatically.

It stated, “After remaining virtually unchanged for five years, the number of undernourished people rose to around 768 million last year - equivalent to 10% of the world's population and an increase of around 118 million versus 2019, the report said.”

Like the ugly parts of history, we can choose to ignore such reports or others like them, or we can look for opportunities to make a difference… even if it is a small one because these small acts make such a difference.

In fact, as I reflect more on the passage I shared from Booker T. Washington it occurred to me of all the amazing things that had occurred in his life, one of the most important for this man who met Presidents and Captains of Industry was his older brother choosing to wear a shirt for him when he was a child.

So never doubt you can make a difference. Never doubt you can change a life. Never doubt that you can share the way of Christ and the good news of life in him in both big and small ways and that these can both help change lives.

For as Booker T Washington said, “It is far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

May we indeed be the light of Christ in the World.

In the name of Jesus Christ who is the Way, the truth, the life. and the light. Alleluia Amen.


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