Teaching Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”

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On Monday we wrapped-up the “Creation” unit in Created and Called for Community.  I began the class with a review.  Over the last two weeks we read:

  • Genesis 1 and 2
  • Bruce Birch’s theological commentary on Genesis 1-3: “The Image of God.”
  • James Weldon Johnson’s poem on Genesis 1 and 2: “The Creation
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.”

We spent the last day of the Creation unit discussing Alice Walker‘s 1983 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” As is our custom, we began by “sourcing” the text.  Here is a taste of my colleague Kerry Hasler Brooks‘s introduction to Walker:

Alice Walker is a celebrated American writer, intellectual, and activist who has becoming a guiding voice of black feminism.  Drawing on her childhood in a small Georgia town gripped by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow oppression, [Walker is the] author of more than 40 works of poetry, fiction, scholarship, memoir, and children’s literature.  Walker is best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple.  This Pulitzer Prize-winning story celebrates the brave survival of black women assaulted by sexual abuse, racism, and poverty in the American South in the early twentieth century….

Walker’s essay added yet another layer of complexity to our understanding of creation and its implications for how we live. As we have seen, the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth. I was pleased to see how many students made a strong connection between this Christian view of human identity and their critiques of racism, poverty, and patriarchy.

But I wanted my students to take a deeper dive into the text. I encouraged them to consider Walker’s story in the context of what we have learned about the Christian’s call to creativity.  I reminded them of Tolkien’s idea of “sub-creation.” God created the world. We are created in the image of God.  We should thus be engaging in the advancement of God’s creation through our earthly labors.  As Tolkien taught us in “Leaf by Niggle” (with the help of the eschatological reflections of N.T. Wright that I introduced), our creative work, even if incomplete or unfinished, will one day be part of what the New Testament describes as the “new heavens and new earth.”

Walker’s African-American women–including her own mother–showed creativity amid the worst kinds of systemic oppression.  I asked the students to provide examples from the essay of how the creative work of these women revealed their dignity as God’s image bearers.  Racism, poverty, and patriarchy has tried to strip these women of their dignity. But their creative impulses, born of the divine spark within them, could not be squelched so easily.  The creative impulse is resilient within us because it comes from God. I wondered aloud if this impulse might even be a way to prove the existence of God.

Several students wanted to talk more about Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry.  Walker writes about the “contrary instincts” that Wheatley felt as both a writer  and “a slave, who owned not even herself”:

Yet because she did try to use her gift for poetry in a world that made her a slave, she was “so thwarted and hindered by….contrary instincts, that she…lost her health…”  In the last years of her brief life, burdened not only with the need to express her gift but also with a penniless, friendless “freedom” and several small children for whom she was forced to do strenuous work to feed, she lost her health, certainly. Suffering from malnutrition and neglect and who knows what mental agonies, Phillis Wheatley died.  

Wheatley wrote, she created, amidst her frailty and weakness. I asked students to bring Wheatley’s story into conversation with the final pages of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle.” All of my students agreed that the obstacles to Niggle’s creative energies were trivial when compared to Wheatley’s, but there were also some similarities. If Tolkien and Wright are correct, one day her poetry, which brought some light to the darkness of eighteenth-century slavery in America, will contribute to the new heavens and the new earth that creation “groans” for in Romans 8.  And that light will be much, much, brighter.

Other students referenced Walker’s story about the “anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago” who stitched a quilt that now hangs (or at least it did in 1983) in the Smithsonian Institution. Walker writes, “Though it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spiritual feeling.” I have a few history majors in my courses so I asked them to tell us something about what life might have been like for Black woman in Alabama in 1883. They were gave their fellow students a quick lesson about segregation and Jim Crow America. This quilt teaches us, again, that race-based systems of oppression cannot kill the creative impulse. Why? Because such an impulse is part of our DNA as human beings created in the image of God. (Repetition is important in a class like this! 🙂 ).

Another student commented on Walker’s mother as a story-teller.  Here is Walker:

But the telling of these stories, which came from my mother’s lips as naturally as breathing, was not the only way my mother showed herself as an artist.  For these stories, too, were subject to being distracted, to dying without conclusion.  Dinners must be started, and cotton must be gathered before the big rains.  The artist that was and is my mother showed itself to me only after many years.

By this point in the class, several students were making connections between Walker’s essay and previous readings. The stories that Walker’s mother told have not only enriched Walker’s life, but will also enrich all of us in the coming Kingdom.

Walker ends the essay by describing how her mother brightened their “shabby house” with flowers and gardens:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible–except as Creator: hand and eye.  She is involved in her work  her soul must have.  Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty. Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life.  She has handed down respect for the possibilities–and the will to grasp them.  For her, so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life.  This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work black women have done for a very long time.

For Walker, her mother’s gardens left her with a “heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength.” In “search of my mother’s garden,” she writes, “I found my own.” This is a wonderful reflection on how we connect with our personal histories. It should also inspire the work of the historian as she mines the past in search of forgotten stories of human beings–African-American women in Walker’s case–who engaged in acts of creation amid suffering. (And by telling these stories in compelling ways the historian also participates in the work of sub-creation). Walker’s essay should also inspire Christian historians to seek out these untold stories and interpret them as small glimpses of a coming kingdom where shalom will replace the brokenness of the world in which we create.

One day, hopefully soon, we will all get to enjoy the beautiful gardens of Alice Walker’s mother.

Today we move to the “Community” unit. We will begin with Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  Follow along here.

Will Pete Buttigieg Get Any Traction in South Carolina?

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Mayor Pete won Iowa. He finished second in New Hampshire. He finished third in Nevada. But he is not doing very well in South Carolina largely because he does not appeal to African-American voters in the state.  Over at Religion & Politics, Myriam Renaud wonders why.  Here is a taste of her piece:

The majority of black Americans—almost eight in ten, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report—identify as Christian and three out of four say religion is “very important in their lives.” In one sense, Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, should appeal to these voters. Of all the Democratic candidates, he is perhaps the most fluent in the language of faith. He calls climate change a sin, telling Stephen Colbert that, because it harms today’s and tomorrow’s generations, “I don’t imagine that God is going to let us off the hook.” He also told Colbert that Christianity says “that we are obliged to serve the poor and heal the sick and clothe the naked and welcome the stranger.” During a Democratic debate question on immigration and the border, he accused Republicans of hypocrisy because they associate their party with Christianity and yet “suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents.”

Multiple factors affect how Buttigieg is seen by black voters, including religious ones; these include his tense relationship with parts of South Bend’s black community, especially after a black man was killed by a white police officer last June. The now 38-year-old candidate has also stirred controversy with comments he made in 2011 about the lack of role models who value education for low-income minority students, and by comparing his struggles as a gay man with those of African Americans. Also, his campaign’s Douglass Plan for Black America received negative publicity when an accompanying image turned out to be a stock photo of a woman from Kenya and when several African Americans described as endorsing the plan said their views were misrepresented.

The conventional campaign wisdom is also that his identity as a gay, married man is at least partly responsible for his low levels of support among black South Carolinians—a belief that has some merit but that also reinforces racist stereotypes. Most black churches embrace progressive views on a range of issues but many hold conservative attitudes toward same-sex relationships. A 2019 Pew Research Center study shows that only 44 percent of black Protestants are in favor of same-sex marriage. Sociologist Samuel Perry’s research reports that, over the past decade, the majority of twelve sociological studies exploring a possible link between religion and attitudes toward same-sex marriage identified black Protestants, along with white evangelicals, as the least supportive religious group. And yet, Pew also found that the majority (65 percent) of black Protestants support laws “protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and the workplace.”

Read the entire piece here.

Teaching James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation”

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson

Yesterday in my Created and Called for Community (CCC) class at Messiah College we discussed James Weldon Johnson‘s poem “The Creation” (1922). It is one of seven poems in his 1927 collection God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.  Read it here.

My colleague (and Dean) Peter Powers, a scholar of religion and the Harlem Renaissance, writes:

“The Creation”  is found within the collection of God’s Trombones, which Johnson conceived as an interlinked set of sermons modeled on the style of traditional African-American preachers. Johnson thought of these preachers’ voices, with all their power and emotional range, as God’s trombones,” and saw clear links between the preaching, writing, and music-making of African Americans during this time.  All three forms of expression conveyed originality and creativity, and so could serve as wellsprings of African-American aspirations of freedom .

In writing these sermons into poetry, Johnson sought to communicate both authenticity and dignity.  He was troubled by many writers of his time (both white and African American) who used literary conventions and cliched dialect that depicted African American speech as malformed and unintelligent.  Johnson felt such depictions could perpetuate racist stereotypes that African Americans were incapable of significant cultural achievements in written English.  So instead of deliberately using misspellings and outrageous grammatical constructions, Johnson evoked the oral tradition in a more nuanced way through sentence structure, syntax, and word choice.  The aesthetic choice suggests that the oral tradition is high art in and of itself, as well as the basis for producing other great works of art.  This idea–that great art should be rooted in the folk tradition even as it transcends it–became a signature aesthetic of the Harlem Renaissance.                

“The Creation” is a sermon. It is meant to be preached. So I decided to play a reading of the poem by African-American clergyman and vocal artist Wintley Phipps. I asked the students to follow along with the printed text and try not to get caught-up with the images. I wanted this exercise to cultivate the moral imagination.

I asked the students to compare Johnson’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 with the actual Old Testament text they read on Monday.  Several students connected Johnson’s poem to the second creation account (Genesis 2:4-2:25), an account that reveals the personal and compassionate nature of God.

We talked about the poem as a product of Jim Crow America.  I wanted the students to see that James Weldon Johnson’s understanding of humanity was more theologically and biblically sound than the views of the Christian defenders of segregation.  We returned to Bruce Birch’s essay and talked again about the Judeo-Christian belief that all human beings are created in the image of God.  Human dignity and worth has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Johnson knew this.

One student connected Johnson’s poem to Bruce Birch’s distinction between the “ethic of doing” and the “ethic of being.”  In “The Creation,” Johnson writes:

Then God walked around,

And God looked around

On all that he had made.

He looked at the sun,

And he looked at the moon, 

And he looked at the stars; 

He looked at the world

With all  its living things,

And God said, I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down–

On the side of a hill where he could think;

By a deep, wide river he sat down;

With his head in his hands,

God thought and thought ,

Till he thought: I’ll make a man! 

This student noted that before God acted to create humankind, he thought about it.  Johnson says that God “thought and thought” with “his head in his hands.” It was an important reminder that we often need to engage intellectually with the world before we act in the world.

Finally, I told the students that Johnson’s poem serves as a wonderful transition from this week’s focus on the biblical creation story to next week’s conversations about creativity.  Johnson wrote a poem about creation.  But “The Creation” is also a creative work.  Because we are created in God’s image we are called to creativity.  More on this next week.

Follow along here.

Conservative African American Intellectuals Respond to *The New York Times* 1619 Project

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Bob Woodson

The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) is calling attention to Episode 63 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  This is our interview with Kings College (PA) history professor Thomas Mackaman, a critic of The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.  Mackaman is the historian who interviewed several prominent American historians–Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, Richard Cawardine, Clayborne Carson–who criticized the history behind the project.

Last week another source of criticism emerged.  The Woodson Center, a conservative nonprofit that “helps community and faith-based organizations solve issues facing their communities,” has announced the “1776 Project.”  Here is a description:

“1776″ is an assembly of independent voices who uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery. We seek to offer alternative perspectives that celebrate the progress America has made on delivering its promise of equality and opportunity, and highlight the resilience of its people. Our focus is on solving problems. We do this in the spirit of 1776, the date of America’s true founding.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Woodson Center founder and president Bob Woodson said, “Most of the contributors of the 1619 Project purport to speak for all of black America with a false and harmful narrative, one that perpetuates victimhood and ignores successes…Through 1776, we choose to highlight America’s promise and to elevate the inspiring stories of blacks who rose and achieved and thrived–in spite of prejudice.”

Woodson has gathered a group of “top black academics, columnists, social service providers, business leaders, and clergy from across America who are committed to telling the complete history of America and black Americans from 1776 to present with a look to the future in answer to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous question, ‘Where do we go from here.'” The list includes Clarence Page, Shelby Steele, and John McWhorter.  It is worth noting that there are no historians on the list.  This should raise some red flags.

Watch the press conference here.  Check out the 1776 website here.

Clayborne Carson is the Latest to Talk to the World Socialist Web Site About the 1619 Project

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Clayborne Carson and former Black Panther Ericka Huggins at Occupy Oakland Protest, November 2, 2011

Clayborne Carson is professor of history at Stanford University and director of its Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. He is the author and editor of numerous books on King and the civil rights movement, including The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here is a taste of his interview with Tom Mackaman at World Socialist Web Site:

Q. …I think one of the things that is missing in the lead essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones is any appreciation of the power of the contradiction that was introduced in 1776 with the proclamation of human equality, and also the impact of the Revolution itself. I thought in our interview with Gordon Wood he took that question up very effectively, pointing out that slavery became very conspicuous as a result of the Revolution. Also disregarded is the Afro-Caribbean historian Eric Williams, who analyzed the impact of the American Revolution on the demise of slavery. Instead the Revolution is presented as a conspiracy to perpetuate slavery.

A. Yes, and it’s wonderful to concentrate on that contradiction because that to me explains Frederick Douglass, it explains King. What all of these people were united on was to expose that contradiction—and we should always keep exposing it—the contradiction between the self-image of the United States as a free and democratic country and the reality that it’s not. If you are a black leader, your job is to expose that contradiction. If you go through a list of all the great orations in African American history, nearly all of them focus on that. They want to expose that and use that contradiction.

Read the rest here.

Click here to see our previous posts on the 1619 Project.

What White Evangelicals Can Learn About Politics From the Civil Rights Movement

 

MLK GRave

In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour. Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement. We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis, and Nashville

Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement. In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates. In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers.

In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches. In Birmingham we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Denise McNair. McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.

In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton, one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.

As I processed everything that I learned on my colleague Todd Allen’s “Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics. Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.

As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the ground that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House and continues to garner white evangelical support for his presidency. Hope and humility defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement. The movement served, and continues to serve, as an antidote to a politics of fear and power.

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Those who participated in the civil rights movement has much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs—to name a few. They feared for the lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day. For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved. The danger was very real.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew this. When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.

King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions. I sat in the back pew and listened:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m no concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

It was a message of hope. Because of his faith, God had given him—and the women and men of the movement he led—all the strength they would need to continue the struggle. King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward. Was he talking about his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?

No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” An assassin’s bullet took King’s life the next day, April 4, 1968, but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power—not just in his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good? Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it.”

I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip. It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates. Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.

Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity, but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand those purposes—if not in this life, surely in the world to come. The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far. Something deeper was needed.

There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities. I thought of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I saw this kind of hope in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.

I heard this kind of hope in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me ‘Round” from the front of the sanctuary of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.

As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the face of terror on Bloody Sunday. Such audacity requires hope.

But too often fear leads to hopelessness, a state of mind that political scientist Glenn Tinder had described as a “kind of death.” Hopelessness causes us to direct our gaze backward toward worlds we can never recover. It causes us to imagine a future filled with horror. Tyrants focus our attention on the desperate nature of our circumstances and the carnage of the social and cultural landscape that they claim to have the power to heal.

A kernel of truth, however, always informs such a dark view of life. Poverty is a problem. Rusted-out factories often do appear, as Trump once described them, like “tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Crime is real

But demagogues want us to dwell on the carnage and, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “waste our summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.” Hope, on the other hand, draws us into the future, and in this way it engages us in life.

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It is nonsensical to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power. Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight. But when the movement leaders entered the halls of power, they were usually there to speak truth with a prophetic voice. King, for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.

Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble of means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods. Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the great social movement in American history. These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them. They offer us a beautiful illustration of what scholar James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence.”

For Hunter, a theology of faithful presence calls Christians to serve the people and places where they live. The call of faithful presence, Hunter writes in his book To Change the World, “gives priority to what is right in front of us—community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these are constituted. It is in these places, through “the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation—family, neighbors, co-workers, and community—where we find authenticity as a body of believers. It is here, Hunter adds, “where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible with which Christian holiness is forged. This is the context in which shalom is enacted.”

I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to us the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown Chapel AME church. This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches began. For Bland, who was raised in a housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred space.

The humility on display during the civil rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now. This is usually the case with nonviolent protests. Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.

Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old music major at Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959. Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest. Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched, covered with ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.

Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, but he was also the high priest of a spiritual movement, something akin to a religious revival.

The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment. In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love. Many in the movement practiced what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.” They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own.

Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power—the power of the cross and the resurrection. This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness to the world.

The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: “The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate. It wouldn’t have solved any problems for me to hate whites because they hate me. Oh, there’s so much hate! Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

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Where does all this reflection leave us? Where did it leave me as I got off the bus and headed back to my working-class, central Pennsylvania neighborhood. How might hope and humility inform the way we white American evangelicals think about politics and other forms of public engagement?

It is time to take a long hard look at what we have become. We have a lot of work to do.

This essay draws heavily from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, which was recently released in paperback by Eerdmans Publishing

When a Pro-Life Democrat Wins the African-American Vote and Defeats a Pro-Trump Candidate in Louisiana

John Bel Edwards

This weekend Louisiana’s Democratic governor John Bel Edwards was reelected.  He defeated a Trump-supported Republican named Eddie Risponse.  Trump visited Louisiana twice in the last two weeks in the hopes of getting Risponse elected.  It did not help.

It is worth noting that John Bel Edwards greatly expanded Medicaid in Louisiana.  He also signed a bill banning abortion after a heartbeat is detected.  And his victory was largely due to overwhelming support among Louisiana’s African Americans.

Over at First Things, Fordham University moral philosopher Charles Camosy offers some analysis of Edwards’s victory.  Here is a taste:

It would be interesting to know what white, progressive, highly educated Democrats think of all this. After all, they have been primarily responsible for the party’s turn to the kind of abortion extremism that would have doomed an orthodox Democrat in a race like this one. Mother Jones ran a piece a few days before the election with the headline, “Is There Still Room for an Anti-Abortion Hardliner in the Democratic Party?” The answer in the party platform—which claims that abortion should be unrestricted, that it should be paid for by pro-lifers’ tax dollars, and that it is “core to women’s, men’s, and young people’s health and wellbeing”—is obviously in the negative.

But when faced with the prospect of a Trump-supported governor, Democratic activists changed their tune. This kind of change needs to happen more generally throughout the party, especially as we head into 2020. In 2016, Trump over-performed with African Americans and Latinos—populations which tend to be more abortion-skeptical than white Democrats. For the Democrats’ progressive leadership, which at least says all the right things about listening to voices of color, the factors behind Edwards’s reelection should be highly instructive. But the party, at least as currently constituted, is light years away from permitting a pro-life Democratic candidate from running for national office.

And this:

Despite struggling in purple states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, there is, remarkably, increased talk of the Democrats becoming a dominant party by turning big states like Texas from red to blue. But it is nearly impossible to see how this would work given their current abortion platform—which, in addition to just being politically bananas, is made-to-order for devastating pro-life messaging.

Indeed, recent studies of pro-life political advertisements in Texas found that they had the biggest impact on—wait for it—Democratic-leaning women, young voters, and Latino voters. Such ads moved them 10, 8, and 13 points, respectively. And they had real political results—pushing Governor Abbott to a whopping 44 percent approval rating with Latinos, for instance. Is it possible that the progressive, white abortion rights activists who dominate the Democratic party leadership could be marginalized in favor of those genuinely committed to listening to black and Latino voices on abortion?

One might think that Trump’s 2016 victory, coupled with the Edwards reelection, would be enough to push the party to change course. But the bubble of coastal elites (on both right and left) is a difficult one to burst. I fear that only something totally devastating—like a 2020 Trump victory—could shake up the current leadership.

Read the entire piece here.

Abdul-Jabbar: Are Slavery Movies Good for African Americans?

hero_harriet-movie-review-2019

NBA Hall of Famer and public intellectual Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wonders if movies like Harrietthe new movie about Harriet Tubman–“risk defining African American participation in U.S. history primarily as victims.”  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Hollywood Reporter:

On the one hand, these films are necessary to correct the misperceptions many Americans have about slavery as a result of inaccurate school textbooks, ill-informed teachers and conservative propaganda. Because many of them are prestigious enough to garner critical acclaim (12 Years a Slavealone won 32 awards, including three Oscars), they bring a gravitas to their message that people are more likely to take seriously. Such movies have the potential of raising awareness among white audiences about the horrific past so that they’re more sympathetic to the current economic and social plight of marginalized minorities, the cause of which is the domino effect directly from slavery.

On the other hand, some may see these films as snowflake overkill that desensitizes white audiences, putting them on the defensive about being blamed for something in which they had no part. That resentment could cause them to turn a blind eye to the current state of racial inequity.

I also worry that so many movies about slavery risk defining African Americans’ participation in American history primarily as victims rather than as victors in a continuous battle for economic and social freedom. The thousands of black soldiers who died fighting on behalf of the country, the martyred civil rights leaders, even our many scientific innovations and inventions that transformed American society — from refrigeration to blood banks — get dismissed, diminished or ignored because all that some white Americans remember are angry black faces crying “Unfair!” This puts a heavy burden on blacks to continually have to prove how vigorously they support the country that once enslaved them. They are expected to ignore the current inequities and just be grateful the country unlocked the chains. We stopped beating, branding, raping and lynching you — isn’t that enough?

Read the entire piece here.

This is the Best You Will Get from the *National Review* on “The 1619 Project”

1619

Jim Geraghty writes about everything that is missing from the story of African-American history told in The New York Times 1619 Project.  The National Review writer seems to think that the project is an African-American history textbook that must cover everything.

But David French sees some merit in the project:

The black American argument for liberty is achieving new prominence in part because of the New York Times’s “ 1619 Project” — an ambitious effort to reframe the arrival of the first slaves on America’s shores as our nation’s “true founding.” Many of the accompanying essays are interesting and provocative, though they don’t truly make the case that America came into being as a result of slavery rather than through the ratification of one of the most stirring and aspirational documents in human history. The true founding of our nation resulted in the creation of a series of painful conflicts between the promise of liberty and the reality of oppression, and the promise of liberty has prevailed time and again. But the focus on 1619 should provide modern Evangelicals — many of whom are in a state of near-panic — with a healthy dose of perspective.

I like French’s piece because he draws upon African-American history as an antidote to evangelical political pessimism.  A lot of his thoughts here echo the last chapter of Believe Me in which I suggested that the Civil Rights Movement could serve as a model for white evangelical political engagement today.

The Bible: Whites Used It to Justify Slavery and Africans Used It to Promote Freedom

Slave Bible 2

Check out Julie Zauzmer’s nice piece on the Bible and slavery at The Washington Post.  It draws from some of the best scholars on slavery, American religion, and the Bible, including Mark Noll and Yolanda Pierce.  Here is a taste:

As America commemorates the 400th anniversary of the creation of representative government in what would become the United States, and the first documented recording of captive Africans being brought to its shores, it is also grappling with the ways the country justified slavery. Nowhere is that discussion more fraught than in its churches.

“Christianity was proslavery,” said Yolanda Pierce, the dean of the divinity school at Howard University. “So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a proslavery theology. From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of these journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined . . . with slaveholding: It is proslavery.” Some Christian institutions, notably Georgetown University in the District, are engaged in a reckoning about what it means that their past was rooted in slaveholding. But others have not confronted the topic. “In a certain sense, we’ve never completely come to terms with that in this nation,” Pierce said.

The Africans who were brought to America from 1619 onward carried with them diverse religious traditions. About 20 to 30 percent were Muslim, Pierce said. Some had learned of Christianity before coming to America, but many practiced African spiritual traditions.

Early on, many slaveholders were not concerned with the spiritual well-being of Africans. But few had qualms about using Christianity to justify slavery.

Some theologians said it was providence that had brought Africans to America as slaves, since their enslavement would allow them to encounter the Christian message and thus their eternal souls would be saved, said Mark Noll, a historian of American Christianity.

Read the entire piece here.

Mormon Church Donates $2 Million to Help African Americans Trace Family History

IAAM

Read all about it at the Atlanta Black Star.  Here is a taste of Tanasia Kenney’s report:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced this week that it’s donating $2 million to the International African-American Museum in Charleston, S.C., to create a Center for Family History aimed at helping Black Americans trace their genealogy.

The church made the announcement on Feb. 27 during the annual RootTech genealogy summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, local station KUTV reported.

More than half of the enslaved Africans brought to America came through Charleston and the majority of them disembarked at Gadsden’s Wharf, “taking their first steps into this country at the future site of the IAAM,” according to the museum.

“We want to support the museum and the Center for Family History because we both value the strength that comes from learning about our families,” said Elder David Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, who presented the donation.

“The museum will not only educate its patrons on the important contributions of Africans who came through Gadsden’s Wharf and Charleston,” he added, “it also will help all who visit to discover and connect with ancestors whose stories previously may not have been known.” 

Read the rest here.

 

African-Americans at Colonial Williamsburg

CW

The Virginia Gazette is running an informative piece on interpreting the African-American experience at Colonial Williamsburg.  Here is a taste:

Established in 1926, Colonial Williamsburg opened its first public site in 1932. Though African-American interpretation wouldn’t start in earnest as a fleshed out component of the living history museum until 1979, there had long been an African American presence at Colonial Williamsburg.

“Despite being here for 91 years, we’ve pretty much always had black interpreters,” Seals said.

Black Americans portrayed anonymous servants or costumed guides.

It took a few decades before they were seen as potential points of focus rather than background players in programming, said Seals.

In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers started to discover more information about African Americans in Revolutionary-era Williamsburg. They learned half of the city’s inhabitants were enslaved black people in the 18th century.

That prompted some questions: How were African Americans half the city’s population, yet their stories were essentially untold? Colonial Williamsburg embarked on an effort to determine how to tell those stories, hitting on the idea that a social-history perspective would be the best way to do it.

“When they made that choice, that started everything,” Seals said. “That’s when programming really changed.”

Forty years ago, a group of Hampton University students were recruited to work as first-person interpreters portraying African Americans known to live and work in Williamsburg during the late 1700s.

Read the entire piece here. (HT: Ed O’Donnell via Twitter)

William & Mary Will Honor Black Americans Enslaved by the School

William and Mary

William & Mary is the latest college to face-up to its legacy of slavery.  Here is a taste of Joe Heim’s article at The Washington Post:

The College of William & Mary is seeking ideas for a memorial to black Americans who were enslaved by the school or whose work as slaves enriched it.

The public university in Williamsburg, Va., 150 miles south of Washington, announced an open competition for memorial concepts as part of the school’s ongoing effort to address its historical reliance on slavery.

“This memorial is such an important project for our community,” President Katherine A. Rowe said in a statement. “African-Americans have been vital to William & Mary since its earliest days. Even as they suffered under slavery, African-Americans helped establish the university and subsequently maintained it.”

Founded in 1693, William & Mary is the country’s second-oldest university — only Harvard is older — and for more than half of its existence, it relied on slave labor and participated in the buying and selling of enslaved people, according to university documents.

The memorial project continues work that began in 2007 when a student assembly resolution called on the university to research its history of slavery and make the information public, said Jody L. Allen, an assistant professor of history at the university and director of the Lemon Project, which explores William & Mary’s role as a slaveholder and, later, a supporter of Jim Crow laws.

Read the rest here.

The “First Africans Tour” at Historic Jamestowne

jamestown

2019 is the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to arrive in the Jamestown colony.  The Historic Jamestowne historical site is commemorating the arrival of these Africans and the legacy of slavery in the settlement with its “First Africans” tour.  Learn more in this Associated Press article.

A taste:

On a recent afternoon, tour guide Justin Bates pointed to the spot where historic Jamestown’s legislature first convened in July 1619. He then gestured toward a spot nearby where some of the first slaves in English North America arrived a few weeks later.

“Freedom over there,” Bates told visitors near the banks of Virginia’s James River. “Slavery over here.”

Jamestown has long been associated with the legend of Pocahontas and more recently as a place where a harsh winter turned some colonists into cannibals. But the historic site is now offering a regular tour that encourages visitors to consider the beginnings of American slavery.

The “First Africans” tour is the first of its kind at Historic Jamestowne, a heritage site at the location of the 1607 James Fort. But it’s part of a much larger reckoning over slavery, an institution that took root in England’s first permanent colony 12 years after its founding.

In January, President Donald Trump signed into a law the “400 Years of African-American History Commission Act.” It requires a commission to develop programs that acknowledge the Africans arrival in 1619 and slavery’s impact.

Meanwhile, Virginia has launched its 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution. It recognizes the first English-style legislature in North America in Jamestown and other historical milestones from four centuries ago, including the Africans’ arrival.

In 1619, the Africans came on two ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer, that had recently raided what’s believed to have been a Spanish slave vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. Sailing into the Chesapeake Bay to what is now Hampton, Virginia, the ships traded more than 30 Africans for food and supplies.

Read the rest here.

An African-American Evangelical on the Brett Kavanaugh Nomination

 

Kavanaugh

President Donald Trump announces xxxxx as his Supreme Court nominee, in the East Room of the White House, Monday, July 9, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

John C. Richards, the Managing Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, is not overjoyed about Donald Trump’s pick of Brett Kavanaugh to replace the retired Anthony Kennedy.  Here is a taste of his piece at Christianity Today:

This tenuous relationship between judicial appointments and partisanship is why I am less excited about Kavanaugh’s nomination—especially when couched in terms of conservatism. While a more conservative court may be good for America, it hasn’t always been good for Blacks in America.

For many Black Christians, conservative strategies have historically had a disparate impact on our communities.

In Dred Scott vs. Sandford, a conservative court previously held that people of African descent could not be U.S. citizens. For the record, in the history of the Supreme Court, the Dred Scott case is regarded as the court’s worst decision.

Conservative strategies created the War on Drugs in the 1990s that has led to the U.S. far outpacing any other nation in the world in mass incarceration rates—which has resulted in a disproportionate amount of people of color in prisons across our country.

The truth is that many Black Christians aren’t so much looking for a more conservative court as they are looking for a more fair and neutral court—devoid of political influence.

Tempered Celebration

Ultimately, I want to encourage my White brothers and sisters in Christ to temper their celebration a bit. To be fair, many Black Christians would render a hearty amen to right to life and religious freedom issues that led many White Evangelicals to vote the way they voted in November 2016.

But let me be clear here. If there’s any concern about the Black exodus from Evangelicalism, we need to be sure that right to life is a womb-to-tomb issue—valuing human life and rights from conception to death.

We need to be sure that religious freedom and free speech extends to athletes who silently protest social issues in public spaces. We need to call out the hypocrisy of NFL owners who ask athletes to “just play football” and turn around and endorse federal judicial nominations on team Twitter accounts.

To make this nomination about Roe and dough (i.e. the religious freedom highlighted in the Christian baker case) ignores other essential issues Christians should care about—including immigration, health care, and labor laws.

Read the entire piece here.

Black Evangelicals and the Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision

Cake baker

We have done a few posts already on Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

According to a recent piece by Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today, a 2016 Pew survey found that 35% of white evangelicals support same-sex marriage, while 44% of black Protestants support same-sex marriage.

Only 22% of white evangelicals favor requiring businesses to serve same-sex weddings.  46% of black Protestants favor this.

Notice that the survey compares white EVANGELICALS with black PROTESTANTSso the comparison does not tell us as much as we think it does.  (Although it is also fair to say that a large number of black Protestants are evangelical in theology).  Nevertheless, it is clear that African-Americans are more than open to same sex marriage than are white evangelicals.

Shellnut asked four African-American Christian leaders to reflect on the Masterpiece case.  They are:

Charles Watson of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

Lisa Robinson, editor of Kaleoscope blog

Kathryn Freeman, director of public policy for the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas

Justin Giboney, founder of the AND Campaign

Here is Robinson:

As an African American woman, it might seem reasonable for me to have qualms about the recent ruling the Supreme Court delivered in support of a Christian baker. Jack Phillips’s refusal to serve these individuals smacks of the same kind of infringement that African Americans in this country experienced. However, three factors give me pause in this line of thinking and lead me to applaud the Supreme Court’s decision.

First, the case is not about discrimination, but religious conscience. The civil rights movement was started because a whole class of people were pervasively denied acceptance based on who they were biologically. Discrimination ensued because they weren’t deemed to be fit to share the same services, space, or civic obligations in a white society.

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case wasn’t about the people, but the ceremony. I think likening the two cases—discrimination against blacks and denial of cake-baking for a ceremony—undermines the cause of the civil rights movement, which was about affirming the dignity of personhood irrespective of lifestyle choices.

I can appreciate arguments that say whites believed upholding the purity of races was rooted in their Christian convictions; however, the racist line of thinking that prevailed for so long has no basis in Scripture (consider the marriages of Solomon and Moses), whereas endorsing same-sex marriage is explicitly prohibited.

Second, reliance on state-sanctioned intervention can have negative implications for how we value fellow image bearers apart from their choices. I confess that I have a love-hate perspective toward the governmental intervention needed to address discrimination against African Americans. Unfortunately, we ultimately had to rely the state to define discrimination rather than God himself and his requirements for what kind of activity his people should or should not support.

Lastly, equating refusal to participate in same-sex ceremonies with active discrimination against a class of people puts us in a precarious position of lending support to same-sex marriage because we don’t want to reject people. We ought to be free to distinguish between the value of persons and the values they espouse. At the end of the day, commitment to Christian convictions matters most.

Read the entire piece here.

“The born-again/evangelical population in this country is highest among blacks…”

latin evangelicals

According to a recent Gallup survey, the born-again/evangelical population in this country is highest among blacks, “who are overall the most religious racial and ethnic group in the United States.”  Gallup reports that 61% of blacks identify as “evangelical” or “born-again.”  38% of “non-Hispanic whites” claim the labels and 44% of Hispanics identify with the labels.

There is a lot more to unpack in this study.  Read it here.

The Blues Is Not “Slave Music”

charley-patton-large

Bluesman Charlie Patton

I learned a lot from Lamont Pearley Jr.’s piece at Black Perspectives on the historical roots of blues music.  Here is a taste:

Contrary to what some people believe, the blues is not “slave music.” Although it was cultivated by the descendants of slaves, the blues was the expression of freed African Americans. The Great Migration directly influenced the blues’ many evolutions. As Black people moved from the South to northern cities, the music reflected the new urban terrain in which the people set up communities. However, the general belief that the blues comes out of slavery lasts to this day, passed down from its predecessors, including the Black SpiritualsSlave SecularsCorn Ditties (also known as “Field Hollers” and “Corn-Field Ditties”), and String music. As a folklorist who performs the traditional style of blues music, I have had the opportunity to speak with and interview many who revere the blues, yet are misinformed about the culture and experience of the blues people who created the musical expression.

The beginnings of the blues can be traced to the late 1860s, arguably the most vicious and violent period in the United States. Vigilante justice was at an all-time high, and by 1889, the lynching of African Americans surged dramatically. The bluesman and blueswoman emerged in this difficult period, along with the stories of folk heroes translated to song and the new venues in which the music would be performed. The blues did not speak of the life of the enslaved but of the experiences of freed men and women during the periods of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. It spoke of cotton bales/gins, boll weevil, juke houses, and sharecropping. Farming and sharecropping were the starting places for most of the legendary blues musicians celebrated today, including Charlie PattonRubin LaceySon HouseHowling WolfMuddy Waters and the most famous in recent generations, B.B. King.

Read the rest here.

Two New Sites Dedicated to the History of Lynching Open in Montgomery, Alabama

Lynching

April 26, 2018 marks the opening of two public history sites in Montgomery, Alabama:  The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  Both sites are operated by the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson’s non-profit organization dedicated to providing legal services to prisoners who may have been wrongfully convicted of crimes.  You can learn more about Stevenson here.  He is perhaps best known for his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Here is a round-up of articles devoted to the grand openings of these two sites:

NPR

Washington Post

New York Times

Los Angeles Times

The Conversation

VOX

Time

Montgomery Advertiser

CBS News