AMERICA’S FIRST LADY: Michelle Obama dancing with her husband at President Obama’s inaugural gala on January 20, 2009. A new book shares the history of her multiracial family tree.
While Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, may have not been the first attempt to bridge history from the coasts of Africa to American slavery to modern-day life in America, it certainly galvanized widespread interest in African Americans tracing their roots back to their enslaved ancestors and beyond. Since then, scholar and educator Henry Louis Gates Jr. has become Haley’s heir apparent, generating new interest in tracing roots with the additional tool of DNA testing with his PBS show African American Lives and most recently Finding Your Roots. Finally, the proliferation of genealogical research websites such as Africanancestry.com has also made genealogical research more accessible than ever before.
With the scrutiny of the lineage of the nation’s first black president who has more of a direct connection to Africa than many African Americans, very little attention was paid initially to the lineage of Michelle Obama. However, Mrs. Obama’s lineage is likely more representative of average African Americans who may know some of the history of their grandparents in America but have little knowledge of their connection to their enslaved roots or African beginnings. In 2009, a genealogist discovered that Michelle Obama was the great-great-great granddaughter of Melvinia Shields (a former slave) and a white man. New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns wrote about the discovery and was later convinced to expand the article into her new book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama. Swarns traces the ancestry of Mrs. Obama all the way to Clayton County, Georgia, where I have lived for several years.
Earlier this summer, Clayton County officials unveiled a monument dedicated to Melvinia Shields in Rex, Georgia, where Melvinia lived when she gave birth to Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandfather Dolphus Shields. Both black and white family members took part in the ceremony, although Mrs. Obama was not present. While Mrs. Obama declined to be interviewed for the book (as a policy, she is not interviewed for any books, Swarnes said), Swarnes interviewed Mrs. Obama’s family members including her aunt, uncle and others and explained just how all of these people, both black and white, spanning several states, are related. In fact, she traced Mrs. Obama’s maternal and paternal roots, spinning a rich history that is surprisingly relevant today.
One of the book’s recurring themes is how tenuous civil rights can be, particularly for American black people. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, during the era of Reconstruction, blacks were given unprecedented freedom and access to representation in government, both locally and nationally. Jefferson Long became the first black man to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served less than three months before leaving his seat in 1871. Swarnes noted that it would be over a century before another African American represented Georgia again as segregationists and Ku Klux Klan members began implementing schemes and laws rescinding the rights of African Americans. In 1908, “blacks were effectively barred from the ballot box altogether when whites amended the state constitution to require voters to pass a literacy test and own property. … They also had to own forty acres of land or property valued at $500.” As I read example after example of civil rights reversals, I was reminded of the contemporary controversy surrounding the recent implementation of voter ID laws throughout the country that many believe will effectively disenfranchise black voters. In fact, Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network launched a “Voter Engagement Tour” this summer to travel to various states where new voter ID laws have been enacted to educate voters about their full rights.
With all the debate about marriage, whether it’s for white people or gay people or any people, I was interested in how marriage was presented Swarnes’ book. A successful marriage has always been a difficult feat, though there is a tendency to romanticize the marriages of yesteryear. Dolphus Shields was married four times. Fraser Robinson II, Mrs. Obama’s paternal grandfather, left his wife and children in Chicago after nearly seven years of marriage around 1941. In fact, when he enlisted in the Army on March 26, 1941 at 28 years old, he was described as “separated without dependants.” He did, however, ultimately reconcile with his wife around 1950. Mrs. Obama’s maternal grandparents Purnell Shields and Rebecca Jumper Coleman separated after having seven children. The couple lived separately, blocks away from one another in Chicago, although they never divorced.
The black church and the historical impact of religion were also apparent in this work. What has been deemed as “Christian” has certainly changed throughout history. In the 1800s, “one Methodist minister told his congregation that ‘catching and returning runaway slaves to their masters is a Christian duty binding upon any church members.’” I wonder if the church (First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs in Mississippi) that recently refused to allow a black couple to get married at their church would have supported such a stance had it been in existence then. Dolphus Shields, who was a deacon, helped to found Trinity Baptist Church and another church in Birmingham, Alabama, that still exists today. Lavaughn Johnson, for whom the First Lady is named (her full name being Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama), was deeply religious, becoming the first African American woman to manage a Moody Bible bookstore.
As I read American Tapestry, I considered how genealogy is also a persistent theme in the Bible. The lineage of Jesus included Rahab the prostitute, King David the adulterer, the less-than-supermodel Leah, the wise King Solomon, Joseph the dreamer and many other interesting people. Slavery, wars, famine, government takeovers, and more served as backdrops. I believe genealogy in the Bible, as it does in American Tapestry, demonstrates that human beings are essentially the same from generation to generation despite modern innovations, shifting cultural sensibilities and evolving laws through the years. As there is nothing new under the sun, we will always need a Savior to help us resist temptation to be inhumane toward each other and achieve our highest human good. Remembering from whence we came as individuals, families, and nations can help remind us that we’re all part of an evolving legacy of human struggle, hope, and redemption.
KEEPING IT REAL: Tina Campbell and Erica Campbell attending last month's New York City premiere of their new WE tv reality series, "Mary Mary." (Photo: Newscom)
Since gospel duo Mary Mary burst on the music scene with their crossover hit “Shackles (Praise You)” in 2000, sisters Erica and Tina Campbell, who named themselves after Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, have defied what it means to be gospel artists. And now with the arrival of Mary Mary, their new reality television show, the duo have another vehicle to appeal to audiences outside of the traditional gospel realm. The show recently debuted on WE tv, the same network that brought us the runaway reality TV hit Braxton Family Values.
However, outside of being network mates and powerhouse vocalists who happen to be sisters, that is where the similarities end. There are no dead-beat husbands, sisters on the verge of alcoholism, or sisters vying for breakout status by creating catchy one-liners which all end in “dot-com.” Their show is decidedly tame in comparison — which may be both good and bad. In the first episode, we get to see what goes into being a three-time Grammy Award-winning gospel act. For Erica and Tina (who happen to be married to unrelated men with the last name Campbell — now that’s some reality TV for ya), this means balancing their career ambition while being mothers to almost eight children between them (as Tina is pregnant with her fourth child) and wives to men who also have thriving careers. Warryn Campbell, married to Erica, is Mary Mary’s producer. Teddy Campbell, Tina’s hubby, is the drummer for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show band.
The duo is invited to perform at Macy’s “Great Christmas Tree Lighting” concert (a signature event for true ATLiens) on Thanksgiving Day in Atlanta. Their high-strung manager, Mitchell Solarek, appropriately frames this invitation as a good decision professionally and bad decision personally. Nevertheless, Solarek urges them to miss spending Thanksgiving with their families in Los Angeles because the Atlanta concert would give them exposure to 100,000 people and potentially garner new fans. And Atlanta is already Mary Mary’s number one sales and media market, Solarek points out.
Erica is excited about the concert and convinces her husband to forego their traditional Thanksgiving plans with extended family and pack up their kids and head to the A on Thanksgiving. Tina, who seems to be the more outspoken sister, is not as sold on the idea because her oldest daughter, Laiah, will be performing at a glee concert during that time and her husband’s work schedule may not allow him to travel with her.
In spite of her misgivings, Tina decides to perform in Atlanta and tries to explain her decision to 8-year-old Laiah. Their conversation yields the most real and tender moment of the show, as Laiah weeps on her mother’s shoulder and chides her for missing out on important family events. In the commentary, Tina admits feeling “guilt for having this lifestyle that I have.” Still, she also admits to loving her lifestyle and wanting to find a successful balance between career and family. She takes red-eye flights to her gigs to be able to tuck her children in at night, saying, “I can function on no sleep but them kids can’t function on no love.” I found it interesting that the sisters referred to themselves as Mary Mary when it came to career and Erica and Tina when they discussed their families. They appear to understand the difference.
Another opportunity for drama presents itself in the introduction of Goo Goo, Erica and Tina’s younger sister and the group stylist. Solarek readily admits that Goo Goo would not be his first choice as stylist but is forced to accept her anyway. Styling gospel artists is a tricky endeavor, he explains, as female gospel artists are either criticized for dressing like a church lady or like Jezebel. And Solarek’s confidence in Goo Goo getting it right — not to mention her reliability — is severely tested. We also get to meet Honey, Erica and Tina’s mom, who was their first choir director at their childhood church, Evangelistic Church of God in Christ in California.
By the time they arrive in Atlanta for the concert, Tina is in funky mood and reveals her resentment at being alone in a hotel room on Thanksgiving, particularly since her family seems to be having fun without her and Erica’s family are in a hotel room down the hall. “This freaking sucks,” Tina declares. I won’t reveal what happens next, in case you still have the episode on DVR, but let’s just say the show is clearly interested in affirming the positive.
What I like about Mary Mary is that it’s a real-life depiction of successful black women, who are married to good men and trying to do right by their families. It also helps that, though we see their faith expressed, the show — like Mary Mary’s music — isn’t too churchy or preachy.
A potential problem for future episodes? I fear the show may not have enough mayhem and dysfunction to satisfy today’s reality show audiences, who have been fed a steady diet of the raucous dealings of Braxtons, Kardashians, and Real Housewives. In fact, I checked my social media sites during the airing of the premiere and was dismayed to see little to no chatter. But, then again, Mary Mary’s signature hit “Shackles (Praise You)” broke the traditional gospel mold, so maybe their show will catch fire by flipping the script on the typical reality TV formula.
New episodes will air in the show’s regular timeslot, Thursdays at 9 p.m. Eastern Time, beginning April 5. If you’ve watched the show already, what do you think?
GOOD GIRL GONE BAD BOY: Rihanna and Chris Brown perform during a 2008 concert. In 2009 Brown brutally assaulted Rihanna, his then girlfriend, on the eve of the Grammy Awards. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Newscom).
As a woman who is closer to 40 than to 30, I’m a bit annoyed at myself that I’m writing about R&B and pop sensations Chris Breezy, aka Chris Brown, and his kinda former girlfriend RiRi, aka Rihanna, who just celebrated her 24th birthday.
But as a woman who has loved wrong more than once and has lived to tell about it, I feel I ought to offer my thoughts in the frenzied Internet discourse that has erupted following the recent musical collaborations of the abuser and the victim of his abuse. In case you are not an Internet fiend as I am or don’t have the music of Chris Brown and Rihanna on your iPod playlist, let me update you.
On Monday, Rihanna’s birthday, she, without the official backing of her music label, released via Twitter a remix to her sadomasochistic song “Birthday Cake” which features Chris Brown on the vocals. On the very same day, Chris Brown tweeted his remix to his song “Turn Up the Music,” featuring Rihanna without the official backing of his label. This would be oh-so twenty-something cute if Chris Brown would have not have assaulted Rihanna right around this time of the year three years ago on the eve of the Grammy Awards. And if their music reunion is not enough, it has been reported that the two are seeing secretly seeing each other again and have been for some time.
But for Chris Brown and Rihanna fans, their reunion, whether in public or private or both, is probably not a complete surprise. Although a restraining order was filed against Brown following the assault, last year the restraining order was reduced per her request, and the two began following each other on Twitter as well. And in her 2010 collaboration with rapper Eminem in “Love the Way You Lie” Rihanna co-signs on the dichotomy of pleasure and pain in an abusive relationship.
So what does a woman hopefully old enough to know better make of all us? The sometimes repentant celebrity gossipmonger in me is like, “That’s so juicy!” And to get people talking (and buying) may be their ultimate goal in these collaborations. But I don’t think that is all there is to it.
The woman who knows what is it like to choose someone who is not good for you is dismayed to see a young girl go through this life lesson so very publicly. To be clear, lest my parents read this somehow, no man has never, evah, evah laid his hands on me. But I have dated men that I knew were not the best choices — in spite of what others may have thought.
I’m not a star and so I’m not obligated to spill all of the details of my missteps, but I will reveal this: until the pain is greater than the pleasure of dating the bad boy, there is very little that can be done. I just hope that those who love Rihanna will pray that she be released from the seemingly magnetic force that is attracting her to Chris Brown before he shows his bad side again.
And it is not the first time that Rihanna reunited with Chris Brown. In an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Rihanna revealed why she went back to him AFTER the incident in February 2009. “It’s completely normal to go back. It’s not right. I learned the hard way, but again, this is what I want people to know,” she said. “When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result in some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that part. I couldn’t be held responsible for going back.”
And it’s not that I think Chris Brown is the devil or anything, but he was wrong and more plainly horrifically abusive. And while three years have gone by since the altercation, I’m not sufficiently convinced that Brown is truly repentant for his actions or even fully aware of the gravity of those actions. In spite of the incident, I wanted to root for Chris Brown because he’s cute, can sing, and can dance like Michael Jackson. But his meltdown on Good Morning America, where he reportedly broke a window at the television studio, ripped off his shirt and walked the streets of New York like some escaped animal after being asked a question about the Rihanna incident did not convey maturity or anger management. (He was ordered to take anger management classes following the incident.)
The truth of the matter is sometimes it takes a few bumps on the head — literally and figuratively — and counseling before you finally and truly understand that love does not inflict harm. A thorough examination of 1 Corinthians 13 wouldn’t hurt either. Hopefully, Rihanna and other women — both young and old — will learn this lesson soon enough to celebrate more birthdays.
For those who didn’t know, the start to this article is my tribute to my favorite Sophia (portrayed by Oprah Winfrey) line in the movie The Color Purple. Here is the line in case you did not see the movie: “I loves Harpo, God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead ‘fo I let him beat me.” And if you did not know, Oprah’s name spelled backward is Harpo and was the name of her husband in the movie and the name she chose for her company (read: empire).
So on to my topic of the day. Oprah is a skilled interviewer and a master of ingratiating herself with those she chooses to interview, two of many qualities enabling her to be queen of talk with very little competition for a quarter of a century. And undoubtedly, Oprah has earned her place in history as a girl who was born in the backwoods of Mississippi but ultimately has become the first black woman billionaire, a world-class philanthropist, and a beloved global icon. And most recently, the owner of her own cable television network — OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network).
And yet as I watched Oprah interview author and megachurch pastor Joel Osteen on her new OWN show Oprah’s Next Chapter on Sunday, I did not feel the same energy that I felt when I would watch The Oprah Winfrey Show. And I’m a member of the target audience of her new show, which debuted on Jan. 1, because I’m a woman who love all things religious and spiritual!
According to the Chicago Tribune, her new show, which will feature weekly one-hour interviews, will essentially be Oprah on a “spiritual quest” with various celebrities, politicians, religious and or spiritual gurus and more. Unlike her talk show, there is no audience, and she is interviewing her guests in their natural habitats wherever that may be.
The premiere episode featured a two-hour interview with eccentric Aerosmith rocker Steven Tyler who is now an American Idol judge. This interview took Oprah to Tyler’s home in Sunapee, New Hampshire. For part of the interview, Oprah and Tyler explored a forest which kind of felt like an answer to a Jeopardy question. Who are the two unlikeliest people you will see in the forest together? Media mogul Oprah Winfrey and aged rock star Steven Tyler. About 1.1 million viewers tuned in, which is the second highest rating of an OWN show, according to the Chicago Tribune. The highest rating goes to Oprah Behind the Scenes, which chronicled the last season of her talk show.
In her interview with Osteen, Oprah was accompanied by another Tyler — her good friend (O, to be so lucky) Tyler Perry. The pair visited the Lakewood Church, reportedly the largest church in America, before sitting down with Osteen in his home to interview him. Although everyone knows that Oprah is a spiritual person, I have not associated her with any one religion although she has spoken about Jesus Christ and often fondly recalls giving Easter speeches in church as a child. So it was kind of cool to see Oprah raising her hands giving praises and singing along during the church service/gospel concert.
Oprah began by listing Osteen’s impressive stats: His show reaches 10 million people in nearly 100 countries, he has written 20 books and six of them are New York Times bestsellers, his church has 16,000 seats (it used to be the stadium for the Houston Rockets), two 25-foot tall waterfalls, and a 450-member choir backed by a full band. She rightfully concluded that Osteen’s church is “big business.”
In spite of all of that, Oprah did not shy away from the tough questions, asking him about how he keeps his ego in check, his reputation as a prosperity gospel proponent, the shady reputation of some televangelists down through the years, and his stance on homosexuality. The only question that threw him a little was about homosexuality: “Is it a sin?” After offering a more cryptic response, he finally declared that he believes it is a sin.
“It’s a hard thing in a sense, because I’m for everybody,” Osteen said. “I’m not against anybody. I don’t think that anybody is second-class. But when I read the Scripture in good faith, I can’t see that it doesn’t show that as being a sin.”
Watch the clip below to see Oprah ask Osteen about homosexuality, sin, and whether there’s more than one path to God.
The fact that Osteen affirmed his commitment to the Bible on such a thorny issue as homosexuality was somewhat surprising since he also readily admitted that he does not use a lot of scripture in his sermons, which he has been criticized for. But you have to appreciate the guy’s honesty.
It was a good interview and demonstrates that Oprah will always be Oprah: a seeker on a journey toward truth. But as I said earlier, I didn’t feel drawn into the show. And I’m not sure why.
I watched Oprah’s Lifeclass show some months ago and wrote about how much I enjoyed it on my personal blog. One person commented that while she loved Oprah, she was “Oprahed-out” and was experiencing déjà vu as she watched the show. Maybe her comment expresses some of what I’m feeling now. I’ve been on a journey with Oprah before, from the time she was Sophia in The Color Purple until her talk show ended last May. And I’m just not sure how much further I can go. I’m not saying that she is no longer relevant, but we have seen Oprah every weekday for 25 years and it’s not clear whether her spiritual quest has landed her any closer to genuine truth. I certainly hope her circuitous path will ultimately take her there.
And as far as Oprah’s cable network is concerned, I’m just not that into it. I’ve not been a fan of Rosie O’Donnell since her mean-spirited (and mercifully short-lived) stint on The View some years ago, and the rest of the network lineup doesn’t look too exciting either. I do like Suze Orman though, and I will probably tune in to watch her show, America’s Money Class with Suze Orman, which debuted on Monday. And others seem to share my sentiments. According to an article in the International Business Times, OWN is struggling, averaging “just 136,000 viewers per day, a decline of 8 percent compared to Discovery Health, the channel it replaced.” And “Oprah’s OWN Network is apparently losing money monthly at a healthy clip. Media reports suggest Discovery has pumped in $254 million above a $189 commitment.”
Like I said, I loves Oprah, God knows I do, but Oprah has a challenge on her hands. Still, it’s not as though she hasn’t beat the odds before. If a poor black girl from the country can become a billionaire media mogul, then only God knows what the future of OWN — and Oprah — may be.
As Riess writes in the introduction to her book, “this project originated as a lighthearted effort to read spiritual classics while attempting a year of faith-related disciplines like fasting, Sabbath keeping, chanting and the Jesus Prayer.” Each month, Riess endeavored to read a new spiritual classic such as writings from the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers (some of the first hermits of the Christian tradition) while incorporating a spiritual discipline such as fasting. (She even reveals how to eat Girl Scout Cookies while losing weight! Read for the skinny!)
However, by year’s end, Riess was reminded why Jesus had to die on the cross: she failed at keeping even her own rules and regulations for the project. From reciting the 12-word Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” — to keeping the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath (which included pre-shedding her toilet paper prior to her Sabbath observance), Riess concludes that sainthood is not a do-it-yourself project for the light of heart. Still, though she flunked sainthood, she gained valuable insights into herself that translated into her irreverent yet poignant book.
Riess, who blogs at Beliefnet.com and is the author or editor of nine other books, spoke to UrbanFaith about Flunking Sainthood.
URBAN FAITH: You mentioned that your year of DIY Holiness was your effort to “pop a little zing back” into your relationship with God or the “spiritual equivalent of greeting Jesus at the door wrapped in cellophane.” Did it do that for you?
JANA RIESS: Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. There were certain practices that were more resonant with me than others. For example, the Jesus Prayer definitely had that effect.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT? Jana Riess learned that the quest to become a mature Christian is more about the journey than the end result.
You write about how difficult it was for you to implement these new disciplines and read these Christian classics each month. Did you expect it to be that hard?
I think I was naïve going into the project. There were some practices that I expected to be difficult like fasting which is why I wanted to get that out of the way quickly, so I chose to fast in February, the shortest month of the year.
But there were other practices that I was expecting, frankly, to be much easier than they were … like gratitude. I was very surprised by how difficult it can be to sustain genuine gratitude. We talk a lot about being thankful and what that means, especially at this time of year with the holidays. With being thankful, one thing that I discovered is that it is difficult to sustain gratitude over the long term for things that are fleeting — even things like health. We’re always most grateful for our health when we’re just getting over an illness rather than if we have a long period where we’re feeling just great.
What was your favorite spiritual practice and why?
My favorite spiritual practice was the Jesus Prayer, and that’s the only one that I’m still doing every day, because its only 12 words long. It is something I’m able to incorporate into daily life very easily. It’s also not showy. Other people don’t even have to know if I’m saying the Jesus Prayer in my mind. Some of the practices that I tried were very obvious, like fasting or practicing financial generosity, because they involved other people. Because the Jesus Prayer has an emphasis on the fact that I’m a sinner, it reminded me that I’m not in the position to judge other people, which is something I need to be reminded of every day.
Although you earnestly attempt to implement these spiritual disciplines from month to month, your sense of humor makes it clear that you don’t take yourself too seriously. Do you think that Christians should inject humor into their spiritual lives, or is this just a part of your personality?
Both. I think that it’s essential for me to have humor in every aspect in my life. Humor is a wonderful way of helping us to not take ourselves too seriously and to deal with hard times. I think also many Christians could try to inject a little levity in their lives and in their relationships. We need more joy frankly, many of us.
There’s a wonderful book that just came out by Father James Martin. He’s the resident priest on The Colbert Report. He’s very funny. The book is called Between Heaven and Mirth, and it’s about humor and the Christian faith. One of the things that I took away from that book is that instead of trivializing deep religious faith, humor can actually enhance deep religious faith and make it stronger. He points out places in the Bible where humor is used intentionally and places in religious history where humor is important. It’s a good book.
Do you feel that many Christians are unaware of the spiritual classics, or even some of the spiritual practices that you mention in the book?
Yes, I think that’s true. It’s certainly true in my religious tradition. It is difficult to try to make some of these texts more relevant for today. Some of them may be off-putting. I mention in Chapter 3 that Brother Lawrence’s book rubbed me the wrong way in some instances, even though it was very spiritually enriching. Just the style of it is so different — the author referring to himself in the third person. It’s just a very different kind of book than what we would read today. So sometimes I think the spiritual classics get ignored simply because they are not written how we would write now.
Do you think that God requires that we implement all of these practices or read all of the spiritual classics?
No. And thank goodness! I think that are many different kinds of spiritual practices precisely because there are so many different kinds of people. And when we beat ourselves up for not being able to do all of them perfectly, we are not even honoring who we are in all of our diversity. Some people are more active. They are doers in the world. They are into social justice. Other people could think of nothing better than to sit for two hours a day in deep prayer. People are so different.
What advice do you have for other aspiring saints, other than reading your book?
Although I flunked sainthood and often felt that I was doing these practices far from perfectly, there was tremendous value in doing them. We don’t expect that we’re going to read a book about soccer and then suddenly be able to play it the very next day like Pelé. We practice if we’re in a sport or trying to learn to play an instrument, and the practice in itself is the journey rather than the destination. Not every athlete is going to make it into the Olympics, and not every Christian is going to be able to fit into contemplative prayer. But we learn from the doing.
Oldies but Goodies
If you’d like to follow Jana Riess’s lead and add some Christian classics to your reading list, here are a few that Jana recommends:
The Rule of Saint Benedict by Saint Benedict, the 6th-century Italian monk considered the father of Western monasticism; his “rule” were spiritual precepts distinguished by a unique spirit of balance, reasonableness, and moderation.
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a 17th-century French monk; known as “Lawrence of the Resurrection,” his primary message was focused on being aware of God’s presence in daily life.