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Ida B. Wells

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Ida B. Wells, in her late 19th century anti-lynching campaign, laid the groundwork for newly organized civil rights activities.  Which is why she is the second "Apostle of the New Abolition" in Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition about the black social gospel movement (Henry McNeal Turner was the first, and here is my blog post about him).

Wells' family was devastated by an epidemic, leaving her as a young woman to care for her siblings.  She became the first African-American woman to own and run a newspaper, in Memphis.  She eventually had to flee the South for safe haven because of her focus on lynching.  

Lynching was "justified" by white citizens as a defense of white women from rape. Wells called attention to why that was not true, but directly addressed the sexual thesis, which most people ignored.  Writes Dorrien,

On her sexual thesis, Wells was simultaneously emphatic, ambivalent, and repulsed.  The leading citizens that burned Coy and show Fowler were "notorious" for preferring black women as sexual partners, Wells contended.  They mythologized southern belles as pure-minded Christian ladies lacking sexual desire, and they vengefully punished the black men who dared to treat white women as sexual beings.  They prated about defending the honor of white women while betraying them as partners, preferring black women for sex, as they had during slavery.  White men were the barbarians in this picture; white women were more sexual than their husbands dared to imagine; black women were victimized by the predatory sexuality of white men; and black men caught hell for all of it, especially if they were not careful.

Dorrien concludes that "Everything about her argument was incendiary, or revelatory, depending on the reader."  Her opponents chose to attack her character and compelled her to flee Memphis.  

She went on the national and international lecture circuit and became a key organizer, though she often clashed with others in the black and progressive communities.  She in particular called out the latter for their hypocrisies.  "So many Christian leaders of her time were admired for their social virtue despite demonstrating little or none in the area of racial justice."  He write at length about her feud with Frances Willard.  Willard and, to my surprise Elizabeth Cady Stanton even, used racist tropes in their arguments for white women's rights (Anthony did not; she was a friend of Wells).  "Wells  was starting to become famous for saying harsh things about people who were renowned for their liberality and goodwill."

The end of her organizing career got caught up in what became the feud between Booker T. Washington and his allies and W. E. B. DuBois and his as to whether to accommodate or agitate (to put it too simply).  Wells lived till 1931, but was long forgotten before her death, being left out of memoirs and histories of the era.  In the 1960's she was rediscovered and her autobiography finally published in 1970, lifting her into the canon of civil rights history.


Henry McNeal Turner

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The first person that Gary Dorrien focuses on his book The New Abolition is Henry McNeal Turner, a leading figure in the AME Church and an outspoken voice of black nationalism.  Turner was a pioneer of the blackness of God.  He argued that African-Americans could not be self-respecting and not believe in a black God.  Better to be atheists.

He had been a legislator in the early days of Reconstruction but lost hope in America as Reconstruction was abandoned.  He wrote, defending the contributions of African-Americans to American culture:

We have pioneered civilization here; we have built up your country; we have worked in your fields, and garnered your harvests, for two hundred and fifty years!  And what do we ask of you in return?  Do we ask you for compensation for the sweat our fathers bore for you--for the tears you have caused, and the hearts you have broken, and the lives you have curtailed, and the blood you have spilled?  Do we ask retaliation?  We ask it not.  We are willing to let the dead past bury its dead; but we ask you, now, for our RIGHTS.

 Gives us some perspective to note that Turner wrote the obituary for the Republican party of abolition and civil rights in 1877, saying it was "slaughtered in the house of its friends" when it abandoned Reconstruction.  Though Turner gave up hope that America do anything but get worse for African Americans, so he advocated that people should disrupt the system "Vote any way in your power to overthrow, destroy, ruin, blot out, divide, crush, dissolve, wreck, consume, demolish, disorganize, suppress, subvert, smash, shipwreck, crumble, nullify, upset, uproot, expunge, and fragmentize this nation, until it learns to deal justly with the black man.  This is all the advice I have to give."


Recovering the Black Social Gospel

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Having read the very white Religion of Democracy, my next theology book is The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel by Gary Dorrien.  The covers the development of African-American theology after the Civil War and before the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.  Dorrien feels that this movement has been overlooked and that it should be recovered.  One reason is that these are the historical and theological influences on King and leaders of that generation.  Here is a good summary from the opening chapter:

The black social gospel arose during the trauma and abandonment of Reconstruction, resuming the struggle for black freedom in America.  Like the white social gospel and Progressive movements, it espoused principles of social justice, conceived the federal government as an indispensable guarantor of constitutional rights, struggled with industrialization and economic injustice, and grappled with the Great Migration.  Like the white social gospel, it also wrestled with modern challenges to religious belief. But the black social gospel addressed these things very differently than white progressives did, for racial oppression trumped everything in the African American context and refigured how other problems were experienced.

The black social gospel affirmed the dignity, sacred personhood, creativity, and moral agency of African Americans and responded to racial oppression.  It asked what a new abolitionism should be and what role the churches should play within it.  Like the white social gospel, it had numerous ideologies and theologies, but here the trump concern was distinctly given, obvious, and a survival issue: upholding black dignity in the face of racial tyranny.  Here the belief in a divine ground of human selfhood powered struggles for black self-determination and campaigns of resistance to white oppression.

Dorrien details four versions of the black social gospel.  First was the Booker T. Washington group that sought "a season of peace and economic opportunity for blacks."  The second was the "path of nationalist separation and/or African emigration."  The third group engaged in protest action and called for "a new abolitionist politics of racial and social justice."  The final group "advocated civil rights activism while relating more diplomatically to Booker Washington and Bookerism."


Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of GodStand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A searing read, this theological response to the murder of Trayvon Martin with an analysis of America's founding myth of Angl0-Saxon exceptionalism and supremacy and how the black faith tradition points to a future beyond this violent myth.

There were times in part one, the analysis of the myth, that I disagreed with nuances of the historical interpretation, but the book soars in the second part as it engages the black faith tradition both as critique and as hope.

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The Freedom of God

An excerpt from Kelly Brown Douglas' Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, a theological response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and other young African-Americans.

The transcendent freedom of God is essential for a black faith born on the soil of the oppressor's faith, directed presumably to the same God.  It was an awareness of God's transcendent freedom that enabled enslaved men and women to know that the God their enslavers spoke of was not truly God.  They recognized that their enslaver's God was as bound to the whips and chains of slavery as were their own black bodies.  Their enslaver's God was for all intents and purposes a white slave master sitting on a throne in heaven keeping black people in their place as chattel.  The black enslaved knew that this was not the God who encountered them in their free African lives.  They were certain, furthermore, that this was not the God they encountered in the Bible.  The God of their enslavers simply was not free.  The God of the enslaved, which they soon understood to be the God of the Bible, was free.  Doubtless, it was the African religious heritage of the enslaved that facilitated their profound understanding of God's freedom and transcendence.


Parting the Waters

Parting the WatersParting the Waters by Taylor Branch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Among the greatest books I've ever read. I don't think I've ever been so moved reading a work of history. Branch is a marvelous writer. I felt as if I was reading the story of the founding of the country and that this story and these leaders should be as familiar to us as our abiding fascination with the 18th century founders. He doesn't appear to pull any punches in describing the scenes of horror. The sequence of the first Freedom Ride bus is tense and harrowing, even when you already know the basic contours of the story. Everyone should read this volume.

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Caputo on Whiteness

Philosopher John Caputo discussses whiteness, the value of postmodern philosophy, and the role of prophets in this fascinating interview.

That is the attraction of postmodern philosophy to me, which is a philosophy of radical pluralism. It theorizes alterity, calls for unrelenting sensitivity to difference, and teaches us about the danger of our own power, our freedom, our “we.” I think that philosophy is not only a work of the mind but also of the heart, and it deals with ultimate matters about which we cannot be disinterested observers. So at a certain point in my career I decided to let my heart have a word, to write in a more heartfelt way


More on Coates

I read two good pieces responding to Ta-Nehisi Coates' book, of which I blogged over the weekend.

The first, by John McWorther on Daily Beast, discussed Antiracism as a religion.  The main premise is that educated white elites are part of an antiracist religion that has some benefits but also disallows certain questions and criticisms.  He takes Coates to be a prophet and writer of scripture in this religion.  McWorther's essay itself raises some provocative questions that should critique the way some progressive handle conversations about race.  "Real people are having real problems, and educated white America has been taught that what we need from them is willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history."

That essay directed me to a David Brooks column on Coates' book.  Brooks respects the book and encourages everyone to read it.  But he wonders if, as a privileged white man, he can criticize or question anything.  I did like the acute analysis Brooks brought to the book, demonstrating that a determinism burdens it:

In your book the dream of the comfortable suburban life is a “fairy tale.” For you, slavery is the original American sin, from which there is no redemption. America is Egypt without the possibility of the Exodus. African-American men are caught in a crushing logic, determined by the past, from which there is no escape.