On Sunday, February 5, I was given the honor of interviewing nurse practitioner, author, and my mother, Akila Karanja, MSN, RN, FNP-BC. We took a moment to discuss her book entitled “The Emancipated Gospel: An African American Struggle for Spiritual Liberty.” In the book, she discusses an apparent dichotomy between being a follower of Christ and having a deep-rooted love for Black people and their liberation. She posits that the two, contrary to popular belief, are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they go hand in hand.
As I ring my mom on FaceTime, preparing notes and interview questions, I reflect on the significance of this moment. Simply put, my mother is a wealth of knowledge. From before I can remember, she has continually instilled in me the values that make me who I am today. She has always encouraged me to engage critically with the world around me and to ground myself in the truth that is God’s word. My mind fills with excitement at the thought of sharing her wisdom with those who will read this article. Yet there is so much information that I could not begin to unpack in the following few paragraphs. I encourage you to read the book if you want to know more.
What inspired the book?
I begin the conversation by inquiring about her inspiration behind “The Emancipated Gospel.” Though the current publication was released just this past year, she published the original edition back in 2009. She says that there were a few factors that inspired her to write the book. She reflects on the tension in her upbringing. My mom, like many, grew up conditioned to believe that concepts surrounding the Black struggle and Christianity were at odds. She was raised in a space where conversations about Black liberation were the norm, but she was also a lover of Christ. She wanted to find a sense of reconciliation between the two. “Hence, the irony of being a lover of God’s word and loving Black people [...] in the space of Eurocentric Christianity initiated my journey” (Karanja, 2022). In my conversation with her today, she expounds on this sentiment. She talks about how, within the context of American Christianity, Black people are virtually nowhere to be found in the Biblical narrative. She says, “All the pictures that we saw coming up were of White people. We weren’t anywhere. So I was just searching for my own spiritual Blackness. Or Black spirituality.”
She goes on to discuss a pervasive mindset that many Christians hold. This is the idea that racial discussions should not be held because we have all been saved by Jesus, and “everyone's the same at the foot of the cross.” While this is true, why is it that almost all of the Biblical photos and narratives that we have been taught feature only Caucasians? Should not the picture of the Bible be representative of all ethnicities that would have existed during that time? She says, “That’s not how the world looks. Why is racism injected into the only thing that makes me free? There’s something missing in this story. So I started digging.” She talks about how this affected her sense of belonging in the church. Reflectively she reveals, “When I first came into the church trying to be Christian with all this White Jesus and White people [in the Bible], it was enough to make me feel like leaving. But I know the truth is here [in the church], so I wasn't going to leave. So I started digging. And when I dug, I found out that, Wow, the Bible is full of Black people. It features people of color, and the cultures are Afroasiatic.”
What is the significance of Black folks seeing themselves in the Biblical narrative?
“So now that we know that Black people were very much a part of the Biblical narrative,” I say, “what is the significance of us seeing ourselves within the context of the Bible?” She responds, “Well, everybody must see themselves within the Biblical narrative because Jesus died for everybody. I cannot put on your culture and be saved through personifying your culture. I have to see Jesus in me.” She goes on to recite a quote by American historian John Henrik Clarke. “[If] you are a child of God and God is a part of you, then in your imagination, God suppose to look like you. And when you accept a picture of the deity assigned to you by other people, you become the spiritual prisoners of that other people.”
How do we reconcile our spirituality and Black identity?
As we continue our conversation, I shift focus to the internal dialogue I had while reading the book—a dialogue I could not fully express before reading. I explain, “Sometimes I feel like my love for Black people, Black liberation, and Black joy exists in a different world from Christianity. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the two are mutually exclusive. I find myself having to fight against that train of thought often consciously. In each instance, I feel forced to choose between one or the other. So what would you say to people struggling with this?”
She responds, “First, know that God loves you personally. And if you’re Black, particularly African American, you have been trained through media and public and private education (unless you were in an Afrocentric school). You’ve been taught that you’re less than–that you are a minority. When we think minority, we think less than, and there are a lot of things that go with that.”
In the book, Mom briefly examines the mathematics and science behind relative freedom versus absolute freedom. From the time the first enslaved person was sold by the Portuguese (1441) to the Civil Rights Movement (1954) is 513 years. From the Civil Rights Movement to the present is only approximately 68 years. “That’s how long there’s been freedom, relatively speaking,” she asserts. “So when people start gaslighting us and telling us we don’t see what we see, look at this. The weight of oppression is heavier than the weight of freedom. Now if you put on top of that White privilege, old money, racism, discrimination, campaigns against Critical Race Theory, and anti-wokism laws, that adds weight to the already 513 years of oppression. If somebody is trying to fight that, they only have 68 years of relative freedom on their side. So when you look at a person trying to deal with their Blackness in the midst of Christianity, tell them that. You have a right to feel there is a difference because there is.”
Mom continues with her explanation, making a simple yet profound declaration that many Black Americans and others who look like me can identify with. She continues, “From a Christian standpoint, you keep getting all of these pictures that don’t look like us, and so you always have to say ‘I belong there. I belong on Jesus’ lap. That's me on Jesus’ lap too.’ And you can’t just relax and know that. You always have to tell people that. And you always have to tell yourself that.”
Duality within Spirituality
I want to emphasize the idea that there is a duality within our spirituality as Black individuals. Because we have been historically written out of the narrative, it can be easy to view our Blackness as an identity completely separate from our spiritual lives. We must first keep this in mind: we did not choose our person and, therefore, cannot separate ourselves from the melanin in our skin and the struggle of our people. If we are created in His image, not separate from our skin, it is important to realize that we find our complete selves in Christ—including our Blackness. Shifting our perspective from looking at spirituality through the lens of others to our own lens—whatever that lens may be—is a vital step toward a real, intimate relationship with Christ.
The Student Movement is the official student newspaper of Andrews University. Opinions expressed in the Student Movement are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors, Andrews University or the Seventh-day Adventist church.