The Best Black History Books of 2018

Jones BlackAs picked by the editors of Black Perspectives.

Authors include Martha Jones, Julius Scott, David Blight, Lillian Barger, Daina Ramey Berry, Keisha Berry, Gerald Horne, and Imani Perry.

Subjects include: slavery in antebellum America, the Haitian Revolution, Frederick Douglass, liberation theology, the slave trade, black nationalism, African Americans in the military, Black Lives Matter, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

See the list here.

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 8

For previous posts in this series click here.

Last night the bus pulled into the Drury Inn in Middletown, Ohio.  We have officially left the South, but it also feels like we have traveled forward in time.  Eight days ago we entered the world of the Civil Rights Movement in the years between 1954 and 1968. Time travel, of course, is impossible, but this week we have come as close as possible to the kind of historical empathy I demand of all of my students.  The world we entered eight days ago was a world of segregation, Jim Crow, and brutal violence against African Americans.  It was also a world of hope, resistance, non-violence, and Christian faith.

Yesterday afternoon our tour leaders popped Raoul Peck’s powerful James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro into the bus DVD player.  As I listened and watched I was keenly aware of the distance between the movement in Greensboro, Selma, Montgomery, Albany, and Birmingham and the more radical civil rights voices of the latter and post-King years. In some cases nonviolence  gave way to violence; hope gave way to bitterness; and Christian faith gave way to skepticism.  Historians can debate the degree to which these changes took place, but they definitely took place.  Baldwin complicates the narrative in ways that make white people uncomfortable.

On Saturday we spent most of the day in Nashville, Tennessee.  When white Americans think about Nashville they think about country music, but the Civil Rights Movement has a very rich history in the Music City.

We began the day at the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library—the only place in the city where the Civil Rights Movement is interpreted.  When we walked into this amazing room we met Rip Patton, a Nashville resident who participated in the city’s lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides during the Winter and Spring of 1960.  Patton walked us through the history of the movement as he experienced it.  He was involved in integrating lunch counters throughout the city and was jailed as part of the second wave of freedom riders in May 1960.  Here is Patton on The Oprah Winfrey Show:

The Civil Rights Movement in Nashville was split evenly between white and black activists.  The African-American part of the movement was led by a group of students and ministers associated with American Baptist Theological Seminary. As Patton described how James Lawson, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and James Bevel ended up in Nashville he spoke in terms that could only be described as providential. These men came to Nashville, with a recommendation from Martin Luther King, to train for the Christian ministry.  Patton continued his providential language when he described how Diane Nash left Howard University after her freshman year and came to Fisk University.

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With Rip Patton at the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room

Training in non-violent resistance began in Nashville in 1959. Since the movement was led by clergymen and clergymen-in-training, it took on a spiritual character.  Patton said that the students were trained to ask “what would Jesus do?” when faced with difficult choices.  During severe moments of violence and discrimination they were taught to “remove” themselves from the situation through prayer and singing. Patton’s Civil Rights Movement was a spiritual movement, affirming the argument made by historian David Chappell in his excellent Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow. Since so many ministers were in jail during the Freedom Rides, Patton said, “we always had church.”  He added, “We read the Bible a lot and prayed.” Patton appealed to three Bible verses to explain why he participated in the movement.  They were Romans 12:2 (“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind…); Isaiah 6:8 (“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”); and Psalm 23.

After Patton spoke and answered questions, Kwame Lillard, another Nashville participant in the movement, led us on a walking tour of Civil Rights sites in Nashville. Lillard trained students in non-violent methods of protest and handled much of the administrative tasks for the sit-ins and freedom rides.  In recent years he has served as a Nashville city councilman.

Lillard’s civil rights journey was a little different than the one experienced by his friend Rip Patton.  Lillard was more open about discussing structural racism, telling us several times that “We took down the ‘white only sign,’ but we didn’t take down the ‘white only mind.'”  He was more willing to talk about violence and describe the battle for civil rights as a  “war.”  (At Fisk University, Lillard spoke somewhat approvingly of an incident in which African-American students dragged a member of the white administration down the stairs in order to remove him from power and secure African-American leadership at the university.  I have been trying to find this story online, but have come-up empty so far.  If anyone can point me to a source I would appreciate it).  Lillard was the first person we met on this tour to talk extensively about Black Lives Matter and mention Malcolm X.

At lunch I invited Lillard to sit with my family in a booth at Swetts, one of Nashville’s great soul food restaurants and a place often frequented by those in the movement.  Here I got to learn more about his story.  After playing his pivotal role in the Nashville movement in 1959-1960, Lillard moved to New York City to pursue graduate work at Hunter College.  While in New York he was influenced by the militant teachings of Malcolm X.  He described the shift from the non-violent approach of the Nashville movement to the more militant approach of Malcolm X as “difficult,” but he appreciated Malcolm X’s efforts at connecting his vision to similar fights for racial justice around the world.  “I learned a lot,” Lillard told me, “and realized that there was a lot going on in Africa and other places.”  Lillard even had a chance to meet Malcolm X at his New York apartment.  Though he did not say it, I imagine that Lillard returned to Nashville in the mid-1970s with a different take on how to deal with race issues in the city. It was fascinating to listen to him describe his intellectual journey.

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With Kwame Lillard at Swetts in Nashville.  He held up his fist for the picture and said “Mandela.”

During our tour Lillard took us to the Walgreen’s Drug Store on 5th Avenue North.  It was the site of student sit-ins in 1960 and is the oldest Walgreen’s store still operating in its original location.  (The lunch counter was removed).  We also visited Fisk University and Nashville National Cemetery where we saw the grave markers of the “colored troops” who fought for the Union at the Civil War Battle of Nashville.  On our final stop, Lillard took us to meet Vernon Winfrey at the barber shop he has owned for over fifty years.  Oh yeah, did I mention Vernon is Oprah’s father?

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Kwame Lillard telling us about the Nashville Walgreens sit-in

As the tour winds down I am left wondering again about usable pasts. Using the past to promote present-day agendas is always problematic, but I wonder if the Civil Rights Movement of Juanita Jones Abernathy, Rutha Mae Harris, Carol McKinstry, and Rip Patton provide the best way forward.  Or does a more militant and radical approach, like the one associated with Malcolm X, James Baldwin, or Kwame Lillard offer the best way forward as we seek to foster racial reconciliation in our communities. Perhaps a little bit of both.

As I have written before, I am taking this tour with several colleagues from Messiah College.  The Provost’s Office and Office of Diversity Affairs funded our trip as part of the college’s commitment to racial reconciliation.  At various points during the trip we were asked to appear on camera and reflect on “what we were feeling” or “describe our emotions.” The assumption, of course, is that we will be moved to make contributions to race relations on our campus.

I am not a big fan of expressing my feelings or talking about emotions as it relates to the way I approach the past, but I think it is fair to say that I am leaving this trip inspired by the Christian and non-violent approach to Civil Rights promoted by Martin Luther King, James Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, the Greensboro Four, and many, many others.  As some you know, Messiah College is a Christian college with Anabaptist roots.  Like Rip Patton, we try to approach social issues from the perspective of Christian faith.  As an Anabaptist school we privilege non-violence.  Frankly, I can’t think of a more usable past than the one provided for us by these Civil Rights leaders.  So I continue to wonder: is there is a place for a religiously skeptical, militant, and angry approach to race relations at a Christian college?  Something to think about.  I need to keep reading,

Today is our last stop.  It is in Canton, Ohio.  Stay tuned.  Here are a couple more pics:

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Another shot of the Nashville Walgreens

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When we got to Fisk University, Phyllis Brown (pictured above) told us all to kneel down and touch the “sacred ground.”  Phyllis traveled with us from Memphis to Nashville.  She is the sister of  Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the “Little Rock Nine” who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957.

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Vernon Winfrey shares some words of wisdom with us from the floor of his barber shop in Nashville.

Yale Philosopher Brings Some Intellectual and Historical Weight to #BlackLivesMatter”

lebronChristopher J. Lebron, a political philosopher at Yale University, is concerned about the future of #BlackLivesMatter.  He believes that the movement lacks an intellectual foundation in black social and political thought.  His book, The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (Oxford University Press), tries to remedy this problem.

Lebron’s work is the subject of Marc Parry’s recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here is a taste:

To appreciate what distinguishes Lebron’s approach, start with the speech that first exposed his writing to a mass audience. It was January of 2015, and Lebron was invited to commemorate Martin Luther King Day at a YWCA in the affluent New York City suburb of Greenwich, Conn. Michael Brown had been shot dead in Ferguson, Mo., the previous August. In subsequent testimony, the police officer who killed Brown, Darren Wilson, portrayed the 18-year-old in quasi-bestial terms as a hulking, wild-eyed “demon.” The month before Lebron’s talk, a New York City grand jury declined to indict the police officer who had choked to death another unarmed black man, Eric Garner.

Lebron decided that the best way to honor King was to question the character of his mostly white audience. He did so by borrowing a page from Frederick Douglass. In one of Douglass’s most famous speeches, “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” the slave-turned-abolitionist shamed whites for celebrating their freedoms while sustaining slavery. Lebron, like Douglass, opened his remarks by stressing the distance between the world of his audience and his own origins in a Puerto Rican family from the Lower East Side of Manhattan — a personal trajectory that, at various points, exposed him to welfare, food stamps, and unemployment. And, again like Douglass, he shamed his listeners for celebrating King’s achievements while blacks continued to suffer police brutality, job discrimination, and the segregation of schools and neighborhoods.

The persistence of these ills “indicates the eagerness with which white Americans have adopted the idea that securing racial justice was a matter of the passing of a law and the martyrdom of a great man,” he later wrote in a column based on the speech that appeared in The Stone, a philosophy series in The New York Times. “But this clearly will not do.”

That Times piece whetted the publisher interest that led to Lebron’s slim but ambitious new book. The study’s premise is that the sentiment “Black Lives Matter” represents a desire for civic equality and human respect as old as the push to end slavery. It pivots around a question: How can earlier black struggles for acknowledgment inform that same fight today?

Lebron answers that by extracting a collection of “radical lessons” from eight black thinkers. Through Douglass and Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching crusader, he highlights the power of forcing Americans to face the gulf between their stated ideals and their brutal treatment of blacks (lesson: shameful publicity). He analyzes how Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston changed perceptions of African-Americans through literature that revealed the richness of black culture (lesson: countercolonization of the white imagination). To get at issues of gender and sexuality, he focuses on Anna Julia Cooper, a civic and educational leader who saw the improved position of black women as central to the betterment of her race, and Audre Lorde, a lesbian poet who stressed the importance of embracing one’s full identity (lesson: unconditional self-possession).

Lebron pits the thinkers he admires against four black public intellectuals whose ideas he opposes: Thomas Sowell, Randall Kennedy, Glenn Loury, and John McWhorter. In Lebron’s view, they have absorbed the wrong lessons of “white liberalism,” by which he means the idea of rugged individualism. They have perverted that notion into an insidious black conservatism that says African-Americans need to look for the source of their woes apart from whites.

Read the entire piece here.

Glenn Beck Has a Change of Heart

beckI am glad to see this.  Some combination of Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Donald Trump’s craziness, and Black Lives Matter has apparently changed Glenn Beck for the better.  Or at least that is what The New Yorker is reporting.

Here is a taste:

One recent morning, after the release of Donald Trump’s Tic Tac tape and his subsequent mansplanation about locker-room talk, Glenn Beck clicked on a video of Michelle Obama campaigning for Hillary Clinton in a New Hampshire gymnasium. The First Lady ripped into Trump’s comments, calling them “disgraceful” and “intolerable,” and adding, “It doesn’t matter what party you belong to—Democrat, Republican, Independent—no woman deserves to be treated this way.” Beck was mesmerized. On his radio program that day, he heralded Obama’s remarks as “the most effective political speech I have heard since Ronald Reagan.”

“Those words hit me where I live,” Beck said the other day. He was speedwalking up Eighth Avenue with his wife, son, and daughter, all in from Toronto. “If you’re a decent human being, those words were dead on.”

Decency is a fresh palette for Beck, who, at Fox, used to scribble on a chalkboard while launching into conspiratorial rants about looming Weimar-esque hyperinflation, Barack Obama’s ties to radicals with population-cleansing schemes, and a Marxist-Islamist cabal itching to take over America. He once described Clinton as “a stereotypical bitch” and accused Obama of being a racist with a “deep-seated hatred for white people.”

That was the old Beck, he insists: “I did a lot of freaking out about Barack Obama.” But, he said, “Obama made me a better man.” He regrets calling the President a racist and counts himself a Black Lives Matter supporter. “There are things unique to the African-American experience that I cannot relate to,” he said. “I had to listen to them.”

Beck’s interactions with Donald Trump helped, too. He told a story of Trump summoning him to a guest room at Mar-a-Lago; Trump then telephoned him from an adjacent room. “We had this weird, almost Howard Hughes-like conversation,” Beck said. He left convinced that Trump was nuts. “This guy is dangerously unhinged,” he said. “And, for all the things people have said about me over the years, I should be able to spot Dangerously Unhinged.”

Read the rest here.

I wonder if he will rethink his love of David Barton.

 Also, as some of you may recall, I have had some experience with Glenn Beck as it relates to Barack Obama.