Marcus Garvey’s Dark Mirror

Marcus Garvey’s Dark Mirror

Marcus Garvey’s Dark Mirror

In NPR’s February 17th episode of Throughline, Marcus Garvey takes center stage as an enigmatic, underrated, revolutionary figure on a mad quest to reconnect former American slaves to their motherland via the Black Star Line. Marcus Garvey is not a widely discussed figure for a few reasons, chiefly the fact that he is a revolutionary. He possessed a vision on Blackness that transcended culture and context, a nation of people bound impregnably by race alone. However, this grand ideal for the freed children of the African Diaspora would never come to fruition, much like the fated black star line. 

There is a great metaphor in the Black Star Line, it encapsulates everything about Garveyism. As mentioned in the podcast, it would eventually be Garvey’s ruin when it proved to be much less profitable than expected, causing Garvey to begin selling bad stock in a bankrupt company. However, the Black Star Line persists in the cultural imagination, through television shows and in literature. There is something common in the motivations that built the Black Star Line, in the dream the line came to represent. However, our lives as Black people have only grown increasingly complex since Garvey’s death in 1940. Even the dream of sailing back to Africa seems to have lost its allure through the maelstrom of time. And yet, Garvey and his ideas seem undying, like embers on dry grass that refuse to dim. Instead, they splinter off into wild emanations like Pan-Africanism and Rastafarianism. In this way, Garveyism still affects our lives especially within the Black church. In some sense, Garvey’s view of the Black church became realized decades later during the civil rights movement. One the other hand, his worldview would birth forth Rastafarianism, a derivative distillation of his beliefs. Like two sides of the same coin, these two forces fight for Garvey’s legacy and so too are we placed between them as people affected by these very ideas. By finding our place within this conflict, we are able to live more nuanced, more freelives by choosing what ideas we allow to influence our decision on a daily basis. But in order to develop in this area, we first need to understand what Garveyism is and how it differs from its Rastafarian cousin. 

The following quote is from an article written 1962 edition of the Journal of Negro Education by John L. Graves. He quotes Garvey as saying, “ If the white man has the idea of a white God, let him worship his God as he desires. Since the white people have seen their God through white spectacles, we have only now started out to see our God through our own spectacles[…] we shall worship Him through the spectacles of Ethiopia.”  

In a sense, this sentence tells you everything one needs to know about Marcus Garvey’s relationship with Christianity. The tenants, cultural additions, and governing philosophy of a religious belief is not so important as the Black authenticity expressed throughout said belief. This authenticity is not expressly depicted through art or skin color but specifically nationalism. Garvey presents Ethiopia as the heart of Black culture, an imagined ancestral motherland whose culture presents some sort of refuge for the vision of a unified black identity. This view of religion is quite utilitarian. It removes the supernatural element of belief from religion and places the culture and ambition of men above the will of God. While this might seem like a bold claim, it is actually pretty common. For instance, the rise of the Anglican church only occurred due to the fact that King George the 3rd wanted to divorce his wives so he created a national religion with himself at the head. To a degree, origins of African-American churches during enslavement had similar roots. For some slavemasters, allowing slaves to practice Christianity became simply another method of control. There were slave bibles specifically edited to remove any part concerning fair treatment and release of slaves. Even Mormonism coincided with the rising national pride of a newly independent America and the buzzing fervor of manifest destiny. In all of these cases, the man-made objective that causes the schism (in these scenarios) became central to the movement for the remainder of its existence. For the Anglican Church, a national church would give rise to a new sense of national identity during an age where such ideas were novel. For Slave Churches, obedience and patience in the face of oppression became the objective. In the heights of the Civil Rights era, Martin Luther King Jr. took these same tenants and used them against those same oppressive forces through peaceful resistance. Even the Mormons today are one of the fastest growing religions both at home and abroad due in part to their potent evangelicalism and motivating sense of divinity. When viewed through this context, it is no wonder that Garvey’s ethnocentric view or religion would spawn a belief system for the diaspora, by the diaspora. However, before I begin to describe how Rastafarianism and Garveyism intersect, there are a few more ideas Garvey espoused that are important to understand. 

For Marcus Garvey, assimilation was never an option. In my own words, Garveyism is an attempt to create a western system of culture for the African Diaspora. However, instead of creating a wholly organic culture, a lot of Garvey’s ideas are copied directly from the governing political ideologies of the time. A good example of this is racism in and of itself. Garvey firmly believed in the separation of the races, hence why the Black Star Line became such an important part of his life. He was so committed to this idea that he would go on to give several speeches at KKK rallies extolling the virtues of Jim Crow. For Garvey, the oppression of his life was not so much that racism existed. This, to him, was the natural order. Instead, the real oppression was that Africa and the people from there were shattered and divided in a world that was becoming increasingly connected and organized along racial lines.

In this sense, he was a Black nationalist. He believed that people could be categorized along racial lines and that these groups deserved autonomy. Garvey sought to center the Black world around Ethiopia, one of the oldest centralized states on the African continent. He hoped to foster a national sense of unity across the entire African Diaspora in order to resist the colonial powers threatening Black people at home and abroad. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a Black supremacist, in a way, he had a keen sense of equality. He believed that given a fair hand, people will work to increase their own quality of life and legacy. This idea of self-determination is common today, however, we tend to apply it on an individual basis. To Garvey, personal advancement is the responsibility of the race as a whole and only when the races are unified will there be social harmony. In the March 1st, 2003 edition of the Journal of Black Studies, Otis B. Grant quotes Garvey as saying,

 “African Americans should stop making[…] noise about social equality, giving the White people the idea that we are hankering after their company, and get down to business and build up a strong race, industrially, commercially, educationally and politically, everything social will come afterwards.”

To me, this is an excellent encapsulation of Garvey’s beliefs. Garveyism’s goal is racial unity, but the means of reaching that point seems to be copying the popular institutions of one’s society and creating replicas exclusively for the profit and benefit of your own race. While publicly, Garvey might have downplayed his relationship to the church, he was very interested in continuing his Garveyite project within the Black Christian community. In 1921, he attended the foundational ceremony of the African Orthodox Church in Chicago. I find this very interesting because instead of trying to revive traditional African belief systems, Garvey endorsed a specifically Christian, ethnic worldview for his ideal vision of society. This process of replication then assimilation of western ideas is the heart of Garveyism. Instead of trying to find something authentic and new from the black perspective, he sought to create a mirror of the world around him. Viewed in this way, the fate of the Black Star Line and the rise of Rastafarianism seem soaked in bitter irony. 

  There was a lot of hype around the Black Star Line from both its proponents and its detractors. For Black people, it represented something of their own. However, by this time in his career, Garvey was a bit of a social pariah for giving a series of speeches at KKK meetings. Today, we would just say he was canceled. He ended up getting cheated out of ships of good quality and then was forced to hire an incompetent crew for those ships. In order to keep his operation running, he essentially committed mail fraud and was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment in 1925. The reason that I find this so ironic is because this venture inflamed every contradiction within his ideology. In a world where races must compete as unified blocks, when one race controls a majority of the resources in an area, they are not inclined to extend those resources fairly across racial lines. So instead of getting the quality ship that you pay for, you get cheated and nobody cares and then they throw you in jail. Had there been more racial equity between Garvey and his business associates, perhaps they would have been inclined to see him as a human being and not as someone unworthy of the decency of fair trade. 

Matthew 6:24 says plainly that man cannot serve two masters. To me, Garvey’s vision of Christianity attempts to do just this. By using Christianity as the catalyst for Pam-African, nationalist sentiment, Garvey positions Ethiopia as the new chosen land for Black people. Salvation, then, becomes less an exercise in humanity but a right of birth and race. Much like the Black Star Line that came before, Garvey’s vision for Christianity would ultimately collapse and give rise to something much more potent and sincere. In a follow up piece, we will discuss Marcus Garvey, his view of Christianity, and his relationship with Rastafarianism. 

Mary Lou’s Sacred Jazz

Mary Lou’s Sacred Jazz

Mary Lou's Sacred Jazz for Urban FaithMary Lou Williams inspired Duke Ellington and a generation of future jazz legends. But it’s her sacred jazz, and journey of faith, that captivated my spirit. 

The brilliant jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, who died in 1981 at age 71, was a prolific artist, writing and arranging hundreds of compositions and released dozens of recordings. Along the way, she worked with jazz giants such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and served as a mentor to other seminal figures, including Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

Williams, who often stated that she wanted to be a force for emotional healing through her music, began focusing on faith-based compositions during the 1960s. From 1963 until 1970, she composed a number of hymns and three Mass settings that garnered attention within the American Catholic church as well as from the Vatican. Her liturgical music even inspired Ellington to write his own Sacred Concerts.

As I sit in my Manhattan apartment, I am surrounded by the spirit of Mary Lou Williams: the record cover photo from her 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival solo concert looks out from above my computer; recordings dating back to 1938 sit on a CD shelf devoted strictly to Williams’ music; and my own sheet music scores are all over the living room futon as I finish putting together a songbook to accompany my own sacred jazz recording, From This Place.

Even more important than these physical items is the recognition in my own spirit of an affinity, a sense that I am continuing in Williams’ legacy of bringing together jazz and liturgy, whether I am literally playing her compositions with my trio or playing my own pieces in a local or faraway church. Why does Mary Lou Williams matter, and how has she given so much inspiration to me?

Rather than give a complete chronological overview of Williams’ work (which has been done with great aplomb elsewhere), I’d like to briefly recount Williams’ journey of faith — her conversion to Catholicism, her liturgical music — and how my own personal journey has been influenced by this bold woman’s inspiring path.

The Roots of Conversion

Mary Lou's Sacred Jazz Second picture for Urban FaithIn 1952, after a career that had included being principal arranger, composer, and pianist for bassist Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy in the late 1920s and 30s, writing big band arrangements for Goodman and Ellington, orchestral arrangements of her original pieces, and playing extended trio engagements at respected New York jazz venues, Mary Lou Williams set sail for a nine-day performance tour in England. Her nine-day tour turned into a two-year European sojourn.

Williams’ conversion to Christianity had its roots in Paris. While she had experienced many successes in her career, she also had many disappointments, both in business affairs and in her desire to take care of those less fortunate than herself (often members of her extended family). Her brilliance as a forward-thinking composer and performer belied the lack of opportunities she was afforded to record as a bandleader. Her family in Pittsburgh had the impression that Williams was a wealthy woman (and she indeed often sent money home to aid her relatives); however, Williams struggled all her life to survive financially as a jazz musician. During her sojourn in Paris, she began to feel a growing depression, a sense that music held little meaning for her.

While in Europe, one of Williams’ patrons, an American expatriate and practicing Catholic named Colonel Edward L. Brennan, introduced her to a church with a garden. It was of this place that Williams later remarked that she had “found God in a little garden in Paris.” Around this same time, she began seeking solace in prayer and in reading the Psalms. She also grew more reclusive as she questioned her career as a musician and attempted to find a way to get close to God.

Returning to the States in late 1954, Williams began withdrawing from the performing world. She did several radio and television appearances, and also recorded the important chronicle of jazz music, A Keyboard History, but turned down offers to perform in nightclubs, feeling that their environments were sinful. She continued her inward spiritual search, briefly attending Harlem’s historic Abyssinian Baptist Church before embarking on an austere diet of prayer and service that began at Our Lady of Lourdes, a Catholic church in her Harlem neighborhood. Williams reportedly made lists of up to 900 names of people she would pray for every day: she would spend hours in the church in prayer, then return home to attend to family members (who had moved in with her from Pittsburgh), some of whom had addictions to drugs. Even though she needed money, she continued to turn down performance offers.

In 1956 and ’57, Williams met two priests who proved influential in her spiritual formation and her return to public performance. Father John Crowley met Williams’ close friends Dizzy and Lorraine Gillespie while working as a missionary in Paraguay. Crowley, a jazz lover, met with Williams when he returned to the East Coast. He urged her to stop taking in musicians and family with addiction issues. He also suggested that she offer her music as a prayer for others, nudging her towards her eventual decision to re-enter the jazz scene as an active performer.

A Jesuit priest, Father Anthony Woods, was introduced to Williams by Barry Ulanov, the great jazz writer who had himself converted to Catholicism from Judaism. Woods, who was based at the large St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue, gave catechism classes that Williams attended with Lorraine Gillespie. Woods helped Williams learn how to pray for others without writing out each name on her lengthy prayer lists. Perhaps most important, he encouraged her to return to her music. In 1957 both Williams and Gillespie were baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church.

A Marriage of Jazz and Faith

Williams’ conversion began a ten-year period of bringing together jazz and liturgy, from 1962 to 1972. In ’62 Williams composed “Hymn for St. Martin de Porres” for the Dominican lay brother who was the first person of color to be canonized in the Catholic Church. The piece appears on the 1964 recording Black Christ of the Andes, released on Williams’ own record label, Mary Records.

In 1964 Williams convinced the Pittsburgh bishop, John J. Wright, to help sponsor the first Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. At that festival, which included Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Ben Webster, and others, Melba Liston arranged much of Williams’ original material (including “St. Martin de Porres” and “Praise the Lord”) for a 25-piece band.

Pittsburgh was also where Williams composed the first of her three Masses. In 1967 she was hired by Bishop Wright to teach music at Seton High School, a Catholic girls’ school in the city. Williams began writing her first Mass (simply entitled Mass) during her teaching: according to Williams, she would write eight bars at a time and then teach the new material to the students. In July of the same year, her complete Mass was performed in Pittsburgh’s St. Paul’s Cathedral with a small choir of thirteen voices and piano.

In 1968 Williams was commissioned by the New York Catholic Diocese to compose a Mass for Lent. Mass for Lenten Season was performed for six Sundays at the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle in New York in 1968. The instrumentation included saxophone, flute, guitar, piano, bass and drums (or bongos). These first two Masses have never been recorded in their entirety.

That April, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Williams composed two tribute pieces for the civil rights leader. “If You’re Around When I Meet My Day” and “I Have a Dream” were both performed by a children’s choir on Palm Sunday of 1968.

In March 1969 the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace commissioned Williams to write the Mass for Peace. This papal commission was an opportunity that Williams had dreamed about for years.

This third Mass, which combined jazz-rock and gospel, is the best known of the three Masses. Williams self-released the work on Mary Records and premiered Music for Peace in concert at Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel in April 1970. She presented the piece in churches and schools for several years before it was performed as part of a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in 1975. She also expanded the Mass for Alvin Ailey, who choreographed and performed the work, now known as Mary Lou’s Mass. (See the video above to hear my interpretation of “Gloria” from Mary Lou’s Mass).

From 1977 to 1981, Williams was artist-in-residence at Duke University, where her history of jazz classes had long waiting lists — Williams’ love of educating young people made her an extremely popular teacher. She formed the Mary Lou Williams Foundation just prior to her death on May 28, 1981.

Traveling with Mary Lou

My own journey with Mary Lou Williams began two decades ago.

In 2000, Dr. Billy Taylor asked me to lead my group at the Mary Lou Williams Festival at the Kennedy Center. I was excited and felt a huge responsibility to learn about Williams — at that time, I did not yet know any of her work. I had heard Williams’ name, and knew that she had been a pioneering jazz musician who had mentored Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk — but I had not yet listened to that much of her music.

Fortunately, I found ample resources with which to begin my research: trumpeter Dave Douglas had recently released the recording Soul on Soul, a tribute to Williams; author Linda Dahl had recently released her biography of Williams, Morning Glory; and I visited the wonderful Mary Lou Williams Collection at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.

The revelation about Williams’ sacred output was especially of interest to me, as I had moved from Chicago to New York in 1997 to accept a position as music director at All Angels’ Church, an Episcopal parish on the Upper West Side. While at All Angels’, I composed the beginnings of two Mass settings, Psalm settings, and new music for old hymn texts. After leaving that position in 2000 (right around the time of my Kennedy Center performance). Inspired by Williams, I realized that I had a book of music that might have a life outside of one congregation.

Like Mary Lou Williams, I began making contacts with churches when I would travel, and started presenting my sacred music in the context of worship services, something I do to this day. Like Williams, I feel passionately that jazz has much to offer the church: its life, richness, and ability to move hearts is sorely needed as part of the musical palette offered in worship music today. Like Williams, I converted to Catholicism. (I was received into the church in 2009.) While my decision to convert was not because of Williams, her courage to follow the leading of God’s Spirit — both in music and in faith — provided me with constant encouragement, comfort, and sometimes a kick in the pants to move forward.

Going back and rereading portions of Morning Glory, I resonate even more deeply with Williams’ struggles as a bandleader and composer. At times, I have felt discouragement, confusion, and loneliness as I have wrestled with where God is leading me. I have wondered why my path does not seem to be conventional. But then I look at the photo of Williams above my computer, and I’m reminded that I’m not alone. This strong, talented, sensitive, passionate woman has laid the groundwork for me and many others who follow in her wake. How could we not be emboldened by her remarkable example?

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More Mary Lou

For additional information on the life and music of Mary Lou Williams, check out these selected resources.

Online:

The Mary Lou Williams Collection at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University has an online exhibit dedicated to Williams.

The Mary Lou Williams Foundation is managed by Father Peter O’Brien, Williams’ former manager.

Deanna Witkowski’s website features video clips of her musical seminar Moving With the Spirit: The Sacred Jazz of Mary Lou Williams.

In Print:

Historian Tammy Kernodle’s biography Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams gives ample attention to Williams’ spiritual conversion and liturgical music. And the aforementioned Morning Glory, by Linda Dahl, is another significant biography of Williams:

On CD:

Both Mary Lou’s Mass and Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes have been reissued in the last several years by Smithsonian Folkways, and are available on iTunes as well as at Amazon.

Williams’ non-liturgical recordings are also noteworthy and substantial. Two of Deanna Witkowski’s personal favorites are Live at the Cookery and Zodiac Suite. In addition, Nite Life includes a half-hour spoken commentary by Williams.
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Related Article: A Chanteuse of Sacred Jazz

Photos from the Mary Lou Williams Foundation website.

Why Christians Should Celebrate Black History Month

Why Christians Should Celebrate Black History Month

February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month.  Each year U.S. residents set aside a few weeks to focus their historical hindsight on the particular contributions that people of African descent have made to this country.  While not everyone agrees Black History Month is a good thing, here are several reasons why I think it’s appropriate to celebrate this occasion.

The History of Black History Month

First, let’s briefly recount the advent of Black History Month.  Also called African American History Month, this event originally began as Negro History Week in 1926. It took place during the second week of February because it coincided with the birthdates of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.  Harvard-trained historian, Carter G. Woodson, is credited with the creation of Negro History Week.

In 1976, the bicentennial of the United States, President Gerald R. Ford expanded the week into a full month.  He said the country needed to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Objections to Black History Month

Black History Month has been the subject of criticism from both Blacks and people of other races.  Some argue that it is unjust and unfair to devote an entire month to a single people group.  Others contend that we should celebrate Black history throughout the entire year.  Setting aside only one month, they say, gives people license to neglect this past for the remaining eleven months.

Despite the objections, though, I believe some good can come from devoting a season to remembering a people who have made priceless deposits into the account of our nation’s history.  Here are five reasons why we should celebrate Black History Month.

1. Celebrating Black History Months Honors the Historic Leaders of the Black Community

I have the privilege of living in Jackson, Mississippi which is the site of many significant events in Black History.  I’ve heard Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, speak at local and state events.  It’s common to see James Meredith, the first African American student at Ole Miss, in local churches or at community events.

Heroes like these and many more deserve honor for the sacrifice and suffering they endured for the sake of racial equality.  Celebrating Black History Month allows us to pause and remember their stories so that we can commemorate their achievements.

2. Celebrating Black History Month Helps Us to Be Better Stewards of the Privileges We’ve Gained 

Several years spent teaching middle school students impaled me with the reality that if we don’t tell the old, old stories the next generation, and we ourselves, will forget them.  It pained me to have to explain the significance of the Harlem Renaissance and the Tuskegee Airmen to children who had never learned of such events and the men and women who took part in them.

To what would surely be the lament of many historic African American leaders, my students and so many others (including me) take for granted the rights that many people before them sweated, bled, and died to secure.   Apart from an awareness of the past we can never appreciate the blessings we enjoy in the present.

3. Celebrating Black History Month Provides an Opportunity to Highlight the Best of Black History & Culture 

All too often only the most negative aspects of African American culture and communities get highlighted.  We hear about the poverty rates, incarceration rates, and high school drop out rates.  We are inundated with images of unruly athletes and raunchy reality TV stars as paradigms of success for Black people.  And we are daily subject to unfair stereotypes and assumptions from a culture that is, in some aspects, still learning to accept us.

Black History Month provides the chance to focus on different aspects of our narrative as African Americans.  We can applaud Madam C.J. Walker as the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S.  We can let our eyes flit across the verses of poetry Phyllis Wheatley, the first African American poet and first African American female to publish a book.  And we can groove to soulful jazz and somber blues music composed by the likes of Miles Davis and Robert Johnson.  Black History Month spurs us to seek out and lift up the best in African American accomplishments.

4. Celebrating Black History Month Creates Awareness for All People

I recall my 8th grade history textbook where little more than a page was devoted to the Civil Rights Movement.  I remember my shock as a Christian to learn about the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church because in all my years in churches and Christian schools no one had ever mentioned it.

Unfortunately it seems that, apart from intentional effort, Black history is often lost in the mists of time.  When we observe Black History Month we give citizens of all races the opportunity to learn about a past and a people of which they may have little awareness.

5. Celebrating Black History Month Reminds Us All that Black History Is Our History 

It pains me to see people overlooking Black History Month because Black history—just like Latino, Asian, European, and Native American history—belongs to all of us. Black and White, men and women, young and old.  The impact African Americans have made on this country is part of our collective consciousness.  Contemplating Black history draws people of every race into the grand and diverse story of this nation.

Why Christians Should Celebrate Black History Month

As a believer, I see racial and ethnic diversity as an expression of God’s manifold beauty.  No single race or its culture can comprehensively display the infinite glory of God’s image, so He gave us our differences to help us appreciate His splendor from various perspectives.

God’s common and special grace even work themselves out in the providential movement of a particular race’s culture and history.  We can look back on the brightest and darkest moments of our past and see God at work.  He’s weaving an intricate tapestry of events that climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And one day Christ will return. On that day we will all look back at the history–not just of a single race but of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue–and see that our Creator had a plan all along.  He is writing a story that points to His glory, and in the new creation, His people won’t have a month set aside to remember His greatness. We’ll have all eternity.

Originally published in February 2020

How 18th-century Quakers led a boycott of sugar to protest against slavery

How 18th-century Quakers led a boycott of sugar to protest against slavery

English Quakers on a Barbados plantation. Image courtesy of New York Public Library
Julie L. Holcomb, Baylor University

Buying items that are fair trade, organic, locally made or cruelty-free are some of the ways in which consumers today seek to align their economic habits with their spiritual and ethical views. For 18th-century Quakers, it led them to abstain from sugar and other goods produced by enslaved people.

Quaker Benjamin Lay, a former sailor who had settled in Philadelphia in 1731 after living in the British sugar colony of Barbados, is known to have smashed his wife’s china in 1742 during the annual gathering of Quakers in the city. Although Lay’s actions were described by one newspaper as a “publick Testimony against the Vanity of Tea-drinking,” Lay also protested the consumption of slave-grown sugar, which was produced under horrific conditions in sugar colonies like Barbados.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, only a few Quakers protested African slavery. Indeed, individual Quakers who did protest, like Lay, were often disowned for their actions because their activism disrupted the unity of the Quaker community. Beginning in the 1750s, Quakers’ support for slavery and the products of slave labor started to erode, as reformers like Quaker John Woolman urged their co-religionists in the North American Colonies and England to bring about change.

In the 1780s, British and American Quakers launched an extensive and unprecedented propaganda campaign against slavery and slave-labor products. Their goal of creating a broad nondenominational antislavery movement culminated in a boycott of slave-grown sugar in 1791 supported by nearly a half-million Britons.

How did the movement against slave-grown sugar go from the actions of a few to a protest of the masses? As a scholar of Quakers and the antislavery movement, I argue in my book “Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy” that the boycott of slave-grown sugar originated in the actions of ordinary Quakers seeking to draw closer to God by aligning their Christian principles with their economic practices.

The golden rule

Quakerism originated in the political turmoil of the English civil war and the disruption of monarchical rule in the mid-17th century. In the 1640s, George Fox, the son of a weaver, began an extended period of spiritual wandering, which led him to conclude the answers he sought came not from church teaching or the Scriptures but rather from his direct experience of God.

In his travels, Fox encountered others who also sought a more direct experience of God. With the support of Margaret Fell, the wife of a wealthy and prominent judge, Fox organized his followers into the Society of Friends in 1652. Quaker itinerant ministers embarked on an ambitious program of mission work traveling throughout England, the North American Colonies and the Caribbean.

The restoration of the British monarchy in 1660 and the passage of the Quaker Act in 1662 brought religious persecution, physical punishment and imprisonment but did not dampen the religious enthusiasm of Quakers like Fox and Fell.

Quakers believe that God speaks to individuals personally and directly through the “inward light” – that the light of Christ exists within all individuals, even those who have not been exposed to Christianity. As Quaker historian and theologian Ben Pink Dandelion notes, “This intimacy with Christ, this relationship of direct revelation, is alone foundational and definitional of [Quakerism]. … Quakerism has had its identity constructed around this experience and insight.”

This experience of intimacy with Christ led Friends to develop distinct spiritual beliefs and practices, such as an emphasis on the golden rule – “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” – as a fundamental guiding principle.

Quakers were to avoid violence and war-making and to reject social customs that reinforced superficial distinctions of social class. Quakers were to adopt “plain dress, plain speech and plain living” and to tell the truth at all times. These beliefs and practices allow Quakers to emphasize the experience of God and to reject the temptations of worldly pleasures.

Stolen goods

In slave traders’ and slave holders’ minds, racial inferiority justified the enslavement of Africans. By the 18th century, the slave trade and the use of slave labor were integral parts of the global economy.

Many Quakers owned slaves and participated in the slave trade. For them, the slave trade and slavery were simply standard business practice: “God-fearing men going about their godless business,” as historian James Walvin observed.

Still, Quakers were far from united in their views about slavery. Beginning in the late 17th century, individual Quakers began to question the practice. Under slavery, Africans were captured, forced to work and subjected to violent punishment, even death, all contrary to Quakers’ belief in the golden rule and nonviolence.

Individual Quakers began to speak out, often linking the enslavement of Africans to the consumption of consumer goods.

John Hepburn, a Quaker from Middletown, New Jersey, was one of the first Quakers to protest against slavery. In 1714, he published “The American Defence of the Christian Golden Rule,” which cataloged, as no other Quaker had done, the evils of slavery.

Although the publication of Hepburn’s book coincided with statements issued by the London Yearly Meeting, the primary Quaker body in this period, warning of the effects of luxury goods on Quakers’ relationship with God, “The American Defence” did not result in any significant outcry among Quakers against slavery.

A portrait of man with a white beard, wearing a hat and a long coat.
Portrait of Benjamin Lay. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; this acquisition was made possible by a generous contribution from the James Smithson Society

Quaker Benjamin Lay also published his thoughts about slavery. He also refused to dine with slaveholders, to be served by slaves or to eat sugar. Lay also dressed in coarse clothes. When smashing his wife’s dishware, he claimed that fine clothes and china were luxury goods that separated Quakers from God. Lay’s actions proved too much for Philadelphia Quakers, who disowned him in the late 1730s.

Quaker antislavery and sugar

Like Lay, Woolman too was shocked when he saw the conditions of enslaved people. For Woolman, the slave trade, the enslavement of Africans and the use of the products of their labor, such as sugar, were the most visible signs of the growth of an oppressive, global economy driven by greed, an evil that threatened the spiritual welfare of all. Consumed most often in tea, sugar symbolized for Woolman the corrupting influence of consumer goods. Soon after his travels through the South, Woolman, who was a merchant, stopped selling and consuming sugar and sugar products such as rum and molasses.

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The sweetness of sugar hid the violence of its production. Caribbean sugar plantations were infamous for their high rate of mortality and deficiencies in diet, shelter and clothing. The working conditions were brutal, and tropical disease contributed to a death toll that was 50% higher on sugar plantations than on coffee plantations.

Until his death in 1772, Woolman worked within the structure of the Society of Friends, urging Quakers to abstain from slave-grown sugar and other slave-labor products. In his writings, Woolman envisioned a just and simple economy that benefited everyone, freeing men and women to “walk in that pure light in which all their works are wrought in God.” If Quakers allowed their spiritual beliefs to guide their economic habits, Woolman believed, the “true harmony of life” could be restored to all.

Eighteenth-century Quakers’ attempts to align religious beliefs and economic habits continued into the 19th century. Woolman, in particular, influenced many who believed it possible to create a moral economy. His journal, published in 1774, is an important text about religiously informed consumer habits.

In the 1790s and again in the 1820s, British consumers, Quaker and non-Quaker alike, organized popular boycotts of slave-grown sugar. Although the boycott of sugar and other products of slave labor did not bring about the abolition of slavery on its own, the boycott did raise awareness of the connections between an individual’s relationship with God and the choices they made in the marketplace.


This article is part of a series examining sugar’s effects on human health and culture. Click here to read the articles on TheConversation.com.The Conversation

Julie L. Holcomb, Associate Professor of Museum Studies, Baylor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sidney Poitier – Hollywood’s first Black leading man reflected the civil rights movement on screen

Sidney Poitier – Hollywood’s first Black leading man reflected the civil rights movement on screen

Sidney Poitier, seen here in a 1980 photograph. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images
Aram Goudsouzian, University of Memphis

In the summer of 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. introduced the keynote speaker for the 10th-anniversary convention banquet of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Their guest, he said, was his “soul brother.”

“He has carved for himself an imperishable niche in the annals of our nation’s history,” King told the audience of 2,000 delegates. “I consider him a friend. I consider him a great friend of humanity.”

That man was Sidney Poitier.

Poitier, who died at 94 on Jan. 7, 2022, broke the mold of what a Black actor could be in Hollywood. Before the 1950s, Black movie characters generally reflected racist stereotypes such as lazy servants and beefy mammies. Then came Poitier, the only Black man to consistently win leading roles in major films from the late 1950s through the late 1960s. Like King, Poitier projected ideals of respectability and integrity. He attracted not only the loyalty of African Americans, but also the goodwill of white liberals.

In my biography of him, titled “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon,” I sought to capture his whole life, including his incredible rags-to-riches arc, his sizzling vitality on screen, his personal triumphs and foibles and his quest to live up to the values set forth by his Bahamian parents. But the most fascinating aspect of Poitier’s career, to me, was his political and racial symbolism. In many ways, his screen life intertwined with that of the civil rights movement – and King himself.

Actor Sidney Poitier marches during a civil rights protest in 1968.
Sidney Poitier, center, marches during the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., in May 1968. Photo by Chester Sheard/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An age of protests

In three separate columns in 1957, 1961 and 1962, a New York Daily News columnist named Dorothy Masters marveled that Poitier had the warmth and charisma of a minister. Poitier lent his name and resources to King’s causes, and he participated in demonstrations such as the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage and the 1963 March on Washington. In this era of sit-ins, Freedom Rides and mass marches, activists engaged in nonviolent sacrifice not only to highlight racist oppression, but also to win broader sympathy for the cause of civil rights.

In that same vein, Poitier deliberately chose to portray characters who radiated goodness. They had decent values and helped white characters, and they often sacrificed themselves. He earned his first star billing in 1958, in “The Defiant Ones,” in which he played an escaped prisoner handcuffed to a racist played by Tony Curtis. At the end, with the chain unbound, Poitier jumps off a train to stick with his new white friend. Writer James Baldwin reported seeing the film on Broadway, where white audiences clapped with reassurance, their racial guilt alleviated. When he saw it again in Harlem, members of the predominantly Black audience yelled “Get back on the train, you fool!”

King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In that same year, Poitier won the Oscar for Best Actor for “Lilies of the Field,” in which he played Homer Smith, a traveling handyman who builds a chapel for German nuns out of the goodness of his heart. The sweet, low-budget movie was a surprise hit. In its own way, like the horrifying footage of water hoses and police dogs attacking civil rights activists, it fostered swelling support for racial integration.

Sidney Poitier performs in the film 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.'
Sidney Poitier, Katherine Houghton and Spencer Tracy in the 1967 film ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ Photo by RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images

A better man

By the time of the actor’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference speech, both King and Poitier seemed to have a slipping grip on the American public. Bloody and destructive riots plagued the nation’s cities, reflecting the enduring discontent of many poor African Americans. The swelling calls for “Black Power” challenged the ideals of nonviolence and racial brotherhood – ideals associated with both King and Poitier.

When Poitier stepped to the lectern that evening, he lamented the “greed, selfishness, indifference to the suffering of others, corruption of our value system, and a moral deterioration that has already scarred our souls irrevocably.” “On my bad days,” he said, “I am guilty of suspecting that there is a national death wish.”

By the late 1960s, both King and Poitier had reached a crossroads. Federal legislation was dismantling Jim Crow in the South, but African Americans still suffered from limited opportunity. King prescribed a “revolution of values,” denounced the Vietnam War, and launched a Poor People’s Campaign. Poitier, in his 1967 speech for the SCLC, said that King, by adhering to his convictions for social justice and human dignity, “has made a better man of me.”

Exceptional characters

Poitier tried to adhere to his own convictions. As long as he was the only Black leading man, he insisted on playing the same kind of hero. But in the era of Black Power, had Poitier’s saintly hero become another stereotype? His rage was repressed, his sexuality stifled. A Black critic, writing in The New York Times, asked “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?”

Sidney Poitier receives Medal of Freedom in 2009.
President Barack Obama presents Academy Award-winning actor Sidney Poitier with the Medal of Freedom in 2009. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

That critic had a point: As Poitier himself knew, his films created too-perfect characters. Although the films allowed white audiences to appreciate a Black man, they also implied that racial equality depends on such exceptional characters, stripped of any racial baggage. From late 1967 into early 1968, three of Poitier’s movies owned the top spot at the box office, and a poll ranked him the most bankable star in Hollywood.

Each film provided a hero who soothed the liberal center. His mannered schoolteacher in “To Sir, With Love” tames a class of teenage ruffians in London’s East End. His razor-sharp detective in “In the Heat of the Night” helps a crotchety white Southern sheriff solve a murder. His world-renowned doctor in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” marries a white woman, but only after winning the blessing of her parents.

“I try to make movies about the dignity, nobility, the magnificence of human life,” he insisted. Audiences flocked to his films, in part, because he transcended racial division and social despair – even as more African Americans, baby boomers and film critics tired of the old-fashioned do-gooder spirit of these movies.

Intertwined lives

And then, the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sidney Poitier intersected one final time. After King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Poitier was a stand-in for the ideal that King embodied. When he presented at the Academy Awards, Poitier won a massive ovation. “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” captured most of the major awards. Hollywood again dealt with the nation’s racial upheaval through Poitier movies.

But after King’s violent murder, the Poitier icon no longer captured the national mood. In the 1970s, a generation of “Blaxploitation” films featured violent, sexually charged heroes. They were a reaction against the image of a Black leading man associated with Poitier. Although his career evolved, Poitier was no longer a superstar, and he no longer bore the burden of representing the Black freedom movement. Yet for a generation, he had served as popular culture’s preeminent expression of the ideals of Martin Luther King.

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Aram Goudsouzian, Bizot Family Professor of History, University of Memphis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.

Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.

Video, courtesy of TIME

In celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., we’ve compiled several of the stories we’ve published over the years about his life and ministry.

Two-Minute Podcast Shorts on Martin Luther King, Jr.

In celebration of the late Dr. Melvin E. Banks, Sr., our founder, and Black History Month, we are featuring his podcast shorts that draw Biblical connections and insight into the life and leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. Amid so much turmoil, take a few minutes and listen to these two-minute podcast shorts.

Podcast Shorts: How Do People of Faith Address Violence?

The constant drumbeat of negative news stories about violence, from the rioters who stormed the Capitol to the latest neighborhood or school shooting, is all so unnerving. Dr. Melvin E. Banks offers biblically based, two-minute podcast shorts that cover injustice, gang violence, drug dealers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK: Remembering the Dream

We’re honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with engaging articles, podcast shorts, video, and useful resources.

Pealing Bells to Mark 50 Years Since MLK’s Rousing Speech

By Larry Copeland c. 2013 USA Today ATLANTA (RNS) The King Center is urging communities around the world to participate in a bell-ringing ceremony next month to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King Center...

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The Power of a Praying King

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Faith and Politics at King Dedication

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King Memorial Controversy Continues

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Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Opens

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Stranded on MLK Blvd.

Our nation’s political divisions, economic struggles, and violent communities should remind us that symbolism without substance is a dead-end street.

MLK: A Life

  Remembering the life, work, and message of Martin Luther King Jr. -- preacher, peacemaker, prophet. UrbanFaith celebrates the Martin Luther King Jr. Day with this special photo gallery from Life.com. King, the champion of justice and civil rights, said this upon the...

The Day MLK Died

Life.com’s never-before-published photos chronicle the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s murder.