Doesn’t Ethelred Brown just look like a Blerd?
The mini-series Blerd History Month starts with a few, randomly selected topics that I wish to cover during Black History Month. In pop culture and in society, black are essentialized as religiously conservative Christians. Sure, black Christians are in the majority in the United States, but that does not mean that we get to ignore those persons on the margins who offer constructive criticism from the outside. One outsider in Blerd History I would like to discuss today is Ethelred Brown, a Jamaican expat who became a minister in Harlem. Right now, Brown’s story is told as a token in the Unitarian Universalists of America diverse pantheon of saints. Fact is, as progressive as the UUA was on the abolition of slavery as a whole [except for that John C Calhoun guy], Ethelred Brown’s ministry was not welcome in white Unitarian circles.
The difference between white humanism and black humanism is not a matter of the amount of melanin in one’s skin, but that, as Juan Floyd-Thomas puts it, “white humanists operate in a realm governed by several key presuppositions, namely that: people of European descent are human beings upon birth.” Frantz Fanon, a black humanist from French Algeria and a number of other black critical thinkers in their work, call into question the notion of humanism all together, and whether or not there is a universal definition of what it means to be human. Once one gets into what makes us generally human, wellllll, then that’s when she has stepped into the realm of religion.
As a Trinitarian and Christian post-colonial writer, I take heart at the story of Reverend Ethelred Brown, how he overcame racial discrimination in the UUA to receive a theological education, as he went on to preach liberation and justice to the downtrodden. An interesting fact about Reverend Brown’s biography that stood out to me was his “conversion” story to Unitarianism, was that he began to disagree with the congregation where he attended. The congregation apparently cited the Athanasian Creed every Sunday, and he became sick of it. After leaving Jamaica and going to seminary, Brown’s Harlem Community Church made a positive impact on the citizenry of Harlem in combatting racial and economic injustice.
What makes me wonder about Brown’s story is the practices he rejected, the recitation of the Creeds, and the Athanasian Creed was all about the Trinity. Just how prominent was this teaching of creedal Christianity, and what were the approaches to social issues in Jamaica at that time? I submit to you that Blerd History Month is not about regurgitating facts, but asking questions related to Blackness and history.
For more on Reverend Ethelred Brown, read The Origins of Black Humanism in America: Reverend Ethelred Brown and the Unitarian Church by Juan Floyd-Thomas