Black History Month (a.k.a. African-American History month in the U.S., though it's also observed in Canada and the U.K.) is an annual celebration of illustrious and inspiring figures of African ancestry who changed their countries, and in many cases the world as well, for the better. Leading abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, leaders in the Civil Rights movement like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, scientists and inventors like George Washington Carver and Yohannes Haile-Selassie, authors like Maya Angelou and Henry Louis Gates, and many, many others have contributed their time, talents, and efforts to making the world a better place. Alex Haley's monumental best-seller Roots awoke in many African Americans a desire to learn about their ancestors, and it also aroused the desire in many people without African ancestry (other than the common African ancestry we all share dating back 50,000 to 100,000 years) to rediscover their own personal histories. The rise of genealogical websites and personalized DNA profiles makes the task of tracing one's ancestry somewhat easier today than in the past, and many people are taking advantage of the available tools. This increased interest in our ancestry raises interesting questions. What difference does it make who our ancestors were? Does knowing our ancestors change our perception of ourselves? In some ways we are all responsible for the people we become, but we are also all indebted, for better or worse, to those who went before us--whether our biological ancestors or not--for who we are today. Most people find it both interesting and beneficial to know something of their own personal history, and for many, identification with a particular historical tradition is an important part of their own self-identity.
Today's reading from Deuteronomy contains an ancient Israelite confession of faith, which begins, "My father was a wandering Aramean." This ancestor--Jacob, also known as Israel, the eponymous ancestor of the nation--is said to have taken his family to Egypt, where they endured hardship and escaped enslavement after several generations to enter into the promised land given them by God, a land flowing with milk and honey. The stories of Jacob and his family have provided Jews over the centuries with inspiration and a sense of identity. Particularly meaningful, in light of the suffering endured by many Jewish communities over the ages, is the memory that God has preserved the people over the course of time and delivered them from difficult circumstances down to the present, in remembrance of which the people bring tokens of thanksgiving to God.
Another important aspect of the passage, and one that is often overlooked, is found in the last verse, which says that when the people celebrate the bounty God has given them, they are to invite the Levites and resident aliens to celebrate with them. The Levites were descendants of Jacob's son Levi who had inherited the priesthood but no territory in the promised land, and the resident aliens were people of non-Israelite ancestry who lived among them. This verse reminds all of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy the blessings of good families, good jobs, and good health to remember the poor, the homeless, and the undocumented who are our neighbors, who live, work, and die in our cities, and who contribute to the blessings we enjoy.
Black History Month tends to focus on famous people who made names for themselves by their contributions, but we need to remember that many other African Americans, whose names are largely or completely forgotten today, built the roads, bridges, schools, and cities we still use; they worked in the fields, shops, and restaurants that provided food for their neighbors; and they worked hard and paid taxes that were used to build the nation. And of course, the same could be said of people from every imaginable background. Remembering our ancestry is important, and it can give us a measure of pride in our identity with the past, but we always need to remember that we are part of a larger community, an international community, which includes people of both shared and diverging ancestries, all working together by the grace of God to build a world we can all live in side by side.