Throughout recorded history, African people have employed rites-of-passage practices and rituals to distinguish and celebrate the important non-reoccurring stages of the lives of individuals within their communities. These events include (but are not limited to) birth, naming, marriage, eldership and ancestorship (death). Perhaps the most renowned is the rite of passage into adulthood.
The African adulthood rite of passage is a supervised developmental and educational process whose goal is to assist young people (typically beginning around the age of 12) in attaining the knowledge and accepting the responsibilities, privileges and duties of an adult member of a society. In “The Rites of Passage Movement: A Resurgence of African-Centered Practices for Socializing African American Youth,” Nsenga Warfield-Coppock reminds us that the rite of passage process provides social and cultural “inoculation” and helps to prepare our children to engage the ravages of our racist, sexist, capitalist and oppressive society. Leaders are intentional about preparing youth physically, mentally and spiritually for active resistance and struggle against the seductive lure of “the American Way.”
With other unique intended outcomes, many groups and communities have adopted passage rites and celebrations to recognize youth coming of age. During the early 1900s, Jewish communities formalized the bar or bat mitzvah to publicly mark the time that a person becomes obligated to observe the commandments (of Jewish Law). It is likewise during this ceremony that their right to take part in leading religious services is recognized.
In “The Maroon Within Us: Selected Essays on African American Community Socialization,” Asa Hillard III observed formal education’s concern with both group and individual identity construction and reconstruction. He urged African-Americans to take care not to train young people to equate other cultures with wealth and sophisticated technology while equating African/African-American culture with poverty and the rejection of technology. Moreover, he emphasized how important it is to avoid looking at the religious history of other cultures while negating the religious history of Africa.
The African adulthood rite of passage provides children with statements and songs that point them to their new roles as men and women. These affirmations also help them to better identify with Mother Africa. For
African-American children, the final verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” acts as one of many such affirmations:
Shadowed beneath thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.
Soon after his birth, Jesus’ parents returned with him to Nazareth, their native land. Though his earthly mission would require him to travel hundreds of miles from home, it was important that he have an identity that made him aware of who he was among his own people.
Common translations of Luke 2:40 suggest that Jesus “grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” However, this translation using imperfect tense is not entirely correct. The original text uses the perfect tense πληρούµενον (or pleroumenon). Properly translated, we see that Jesus “was being filled.” In other words, Jesus was engaged in ongoing, structured dialogue with the elders of his native community.
If I use what my 90-year-old aunt, an elder in the Holiness Church, would call my “sanctified imagination,” I see Jesus learning the history of his people, the songs of his people and the God of his people. No doubt, there were catechisms that Jesus learned and recited that assured these elders of his preparation. When they believed that Jesus was ready, he was confirmed. And though the elders were convinced, what was more important was that Jesus was confident within himself.
In our own confirmations, it is good to know that we “know what we know.” But it is even more reassuring to know that, from that moment forward, there is a church, a local assembly, as well as an international denomination that walks with us and welcomes us to walk with them.
CARLTON JOHNSON is the operations officer for Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He also serves as president of the Atlanta chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.