Twenty three years ago during the Christmas season, I stood in amazement in Inglewood and watched thousands of people pass through the area over the course of the holiday season, which began the week of Thanksgiving and ran through the end of the first week of January.
There were homes decorated with lights, nativity scenes, toy trains, and large plastic Santa Claus figures. Many of the displays were spread across lawns, but some sat atop the roofs of homes, garages and/or carports. The trees and light posts in the public right-of-ways were uniformly decked out by the neighborhood decoration committees. These 300 or more homes located in an area referred to as “The Avenues” were part of the display. The area was bordered by Century Boulevard on the south, Manchester Avenue on the north and Crenshaw Boulevard to the west. It began at about 2nd Avenue on the east.
As we walked throughout the neighborhood taking in the wonderful displays by people celebrating the birth of Christ, my niece kept asking me “who is the Black man on the lawn?” Unfortunately, that night I could not remember the name of the “Ancient Black guy” who showed up to greet “Baby Jesus.” All I could say was that he was one of the three Wise Men. She responded with “I know but, what is his name?”
That question teased my mind for weeks.
One of the most memorable incidents in the Bible is the birth of Jesus, and the journey made by the three wise men known as the “Maji” to what was believed to be the town of Bethlehem.
The “Maji,” although not named in the Bible, traditionally have been called Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior, according to a Greek manuscript, called as “Exercerpta Latina Barbari” possibly composed in Alexandria in 500 A.D. For African American children, Balthazar was a Maji who remained a focal point of lawn nativity scenes/ornaments in many Black communities.
Grade school auditoriums also played host to Christmas pageant productions, where this historic nativity event was a signal that the end of the program was near. But although the appearance of the Maji represented the final act of the production, in reality their appearance was the beginning of signifying the birth of Christ.
In most of these productions, young males, usually upper classmen of that particular grade school would appear on stage as the “Wise men,” and would walk majestically towards the manger as the choir sang “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
Each year, elementary school faculty and students worked diligently rehearsing choreographed music and dance in preparation for the pageant. There were many opportunities to see a rendition of the nativity scene as a parent, or student participant in the late 1960s or early 1970s. But, back then, a little girl playing the part of Mary, the mother of Jesus, was always holding an African American girl baby doll wrapped in a blanket because male baby dolls were not manufactured then.
But now with religion in school almost taboo, the nativity depiction is nearly a thing of the past. In fact, most religious plays at public schools that include Baby Jesus and the nativity scene, have become victims of the separation of church and state, according to teaching staff within the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Lawrence Paul Hill, a theologian, music director at Euclid Lutheran Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and collector of Black memorabilia, is a fan of Balthazar. He owns the largest collection of Balthazar figures in the United States and his collection is being displayed this holiday season at the Kirtland Visitor Center in Northern Ohio. Hill believes Christmas plays of the past in public schools were possibly the first time young African American kids were introduced to the presence of Black people in the Bible.
He describes how these renditions of the nativity scene reinforced the fact that people from Africa were close to God.
As a child attending Sunday school, Hill said, “I learned that the first Black man to see the Baby Jesus was Balthazar, one of the wise men. It made me feel great that people like me were close to Jesus. As I studied theology, to my amazement I found other Blacks in the Bible.”
Hill said other Blacks in the Bible included in the Old Testament Moses’ second wife, Zipporah, the Queen of Sheba who was Ethiopian, and Taharqa, a Kushite (Nubian) king who reigned as pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt between 690 and 664 B.C.
An interesting part of the life of young Jesus life was that Balthazar paid him a visit when he was a newborn.
According to the New Testament, Simon of Cyrene, carried the cross for the “kings of kings” prior to his crucifixion to relieve a weakened Jesus, who had been mutilated beyond recognition. Jesus was barely able to stand, let alone bear the weight of the cross, according to Hill.
In researching Simon of Cyrene, the American Bible Society, a nonprofit agency, does describes Simon of Cyrene as a Ethiopian snatched out of a crowd of onlookers who were wondering why was this man (Jesus) was being beaten by Roman guards and forced to carry a heavy cross.
According to an article which appeared in the African American Jubilee Bible, published by the American Bible Society (1999) by Dr. Cain Hope Felder, a professor of New Testament Language and Literature at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C., Simon of Cyrene may have been chosen by the Romans to carry the cross because of his dark skin.
That was because although the Romans were not noted for their benevolence toward those they subjegated, during Jesus crucification, it was Jewish Passover and to have a person of Jewish lineage carry the cross, a torture device of punishment prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, ironically would have been an insult to the Jewish community.
The article described how Jewish people were not allowed to touch anything dead or an item connected to death during Passover. The Jewish people are to remain clean during Passover. To relieve Jesus of the cross would have caused that person to touch Jesus (or death).
The stories of Balthazar and Simon of Cyrene have ignited the imajination of Afro-centric Christians, and African Americans in general for years.
In art, the adoration of the maji with Balthazar as an African appeared first in Germany. The year was 1437, and Balthazar was represented in a work of art as a Black man in Hans Multcher’s “Altarpiece.” Multscher (1400-1467) was a famous figure in German renaissance art, who came from the Bavarian region. A portion of the “Altarpiece” is called “The Adoration of the Maji.”
Another depiction of a Black Balthazar appeared in the television mini-series “Jesus of Nazarath” (1977). That exmaple of the character Balthazar was played by James Earl Jones.
The earliest art depicting Simon of Cyrene as a person of African heritage was done in the late 1950s or early 1960s by African artist Lamidi Olonade Fakeye of Illa-Orangun in the ancient city in Osun State, Nigeria, (1925-2009).
A Black Simon of Cyrene also made it to the big screen. It was initially included in the motion picture “The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965),” with Sidney Poitier playing the cross bearer, and again in 2004 in “The Passion of Christ.” There Simon was played by Jarreth J. Merz.
The Bible says the Maji followed the Star of Bethlehem to Judea in search of the Messiah; today the three wise men are familiar to us because all three kings crossed the desert by camel bearing gifts for the son of God.
However, down through the centuries, the Maji have changed according to the preconceptions of the day. In fact, there may be a strong possibility that it is not quite certain what they look like.
Churches have interpreted the pictures of the Wise Men in different ways depending on what is happening culturally during that time. They have been observed as three different skin colors. They have been depicted as coming from different parts of the globe, and also shown as three different ages—young, middle age and elderly.
Stanley Jones, Ph.D., a Department of Religious Studies Professor at California State University Long Beach, describes one of the oldest paintings of the Maji, which is located in Rome, Italy, and hangs on the walls of the ancient city’s catacombs. This is perhaps the earliest known painting of the “Adoration of the Maji” and was painted around the time of the crucifixion of Christ.
Jones describes the fresco depicting three men: one White, one a darker yellowish and one Black. He believes this painting and validates the legend of the Maji coming from different parts of the globe had already taken root during the time of Jesus. Jones notes that in this painting, the Maji are not dressed like kings. Instead they wear a distinctive type of trouser separate from their tops and tight at the ankle rather than at the upper leg; this style of dress was associated with the great horsemen of Persia.
Consequently, Jones thinks the Maji may have well ridden on horseback as opposed to camels from one of the great Persian cities.They may have been dressed for the rigors of the desert as they watched the skies and once they saw the star they rode for Jerusalem. This painting also depicts the Maji holding objects and walking toward a robed woman seated holding a child.
James E. Bradley, a professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary, describes the Maji as a biblical enigma. He too notes that the names of the three wise Maji are not mentioned in the Bible and were added at a later date by ancient storytellers. The Three Wise Men represent the three major races—Melchior was an old White man with a long white beard, bearing the gift of gold for Christ’s royalty; Gaspar was young and of a darker hue, carrying frankincense incense for Christ’s divinity; and Balthazar was a Black man, offering myrrh for Christ’s birth. The catacomb painting of the dark Maji may have been the first Christian character of African descent painted as a subject of art.
Balthazar is often forgotten by the average African American until the Christmas season when holiday decoration manufacturers produce a limited number of Maji with a Black King Balthazar.
A modern day Black King Balthazar recently stirred up controversy in Spain during the Christmas holiday called “Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos.” This holiday celebrates the Three Wise Men or Three Kings, bringing gifts to Jesus. In Christian tradition this is known as Epiphany.
This day is re-enacted by Spanish males dressed as the Maji bringing gifts to the children during the night on Jan. 6. In many parts of Spain, there are also parades in which men dressed as the Three Wise Men ride on horses and camels passing out treats to children and collecting letters with their wishes (Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos) similar to the tradition in the U.S. of writing a letter to Santa Claus. This parade has been going on for years and one of the most shocking things is that usually the Black king (Balthazar) is represented by a White man in blackface.