More than 100 years later, Woodson’s goal and his work detailing the struggle of Black Americans to obtain full citizenship after centuries of systemic racism is still relevant today.
As dozens of GOP-controlled state legislatures across the U.S. have either considered or enacted laws restricting how race is taught in public schools, The Conversation U.S. has published numerous stories over the years exploring the rich terrain of Black history – and the never-ending quest to form what the Founding Fathers called a more perfect union.
1. From the Underground Railroad to Civil War battlefields
Armed with a deep faith, Harriet Tubman is most famous for her successes along the Underground Railroad, the interracial network of abolitionists who enabled Black people to escape from slavery along secret routes in the South to freedom in the North and Canada.
As historian and Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson wrote, Tubman’s devotion to America’s promise of freedom endured, despite suffering decades of enslavement and second-class citizenship.
“I had reasoned this out in my mind,” Tubman once said. “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive.”
“Emancipations did not remove all the shackles that prevented Black people from obtaining full citizenship rights,” Manjapra noted. “Nor did emancipations prevent states from enacting their own laws that prohibited Black people from voting or living in white neighborhoods.”
Between the 1780s and 1930s, over 80 emancipations from slavery occurred, from Pennsylvania in 1780 to Sierra Leone in 1936.
In fact, there were 20 separate emancipations in the United States alone from 1780 to 1865.
3. An image of a lynching found in a family photo album
Among the many documents and relics Littlejohn has received, one package stood out. Inside was a family album of photographs filled with the usual images of memories – a vacation, a wedding anniversary dinner – but also, one of the lynching of a Black man.
But in 2021, the GOP-controlled state Legislature in Texas enacted a law prohibiting K-12 educators from teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from … the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”
In other words, as Littlejohn wrote, “this interpretation holds that slavery, racism and racism’s deadly manifestation, lynching, did not serve as systemic forces that shaped Texas history but were instead aberrations.”
The photo album serves as a direct challenge to that interpretation.
4. Black soldiers fight racism and Nazis during World War II
In his book “Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad,” historian Matthew Delmont explored the idea of Black patriotism and how many Black soldiers saw their service as a way to demonstrate the capabilities of their race.
Prompted by the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential Black newspaper during the 1940s, Delmont wrote that Black Americans rallied behind the Double V campaign during the war – victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home.
During the war, the Red Ball Express, the Allied forces’ transportation unit that delivered supplies to the front lines, was one example of such exceptional performance.
From August through November 1944, the mostly Black force moved more than 400,000 tons of ammunition, gasoline, medical supplies and rations to battlefronts in France, Belgium and Germany.
5. An NBA champion’s cerebral fight for equal rights
In his biography of Bill Russell, “King of the Court,” Aram Goudsouzian wrote that the NBA champion sought to find worth in basketball amid the racial tumult of the civil rights movement.
He emerged from that crucible by crafting a persona that one teammate called “a kingly arrogance.”
Russell, who died July, 31, 2022, was the NBA’s first Black superstar, its first Black champion and its first Black coach.
As a civil rights activist, Russell questioned the nonviolence philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. and defended the militant ideas of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. He refused to accept segregated accommodations in the Deep South and recalled instances of police brutality during his childhood in Oakland, California.
“It’s a thing you want to scream,” Russell wrote. “I MUST HAVE MY MANHOOD.”
Editor’s note: This story is a roundup of articles from The Conversation’s archives.
When Marvel Studios released “Black Panther” in February 2018, it marked the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to feature a Black superhero and star a predominantly Black cast.
Its estimated production budget was US$200 million, making it the first Black film – conventionally defined as a film that is directed by a Black director, features a Black cast, and focuses on some aspect of the Black experience – ever to receive that level of financial support.
As a scholar of media and Black popular culture, I was often asked to respond to the resounding success of that first “Black Panther” film, which had shattered expectations of its box office performance.
Would it lead to more big-budget Black films? Was its popularity an indication that the global marketplace – the real source of trepidation about the film’s potential – was finally ready to embrace Black-cast films?
Yet as I review the cinematic landscape between the original and its sequel, I am inclined to restate the answer I gave back in 2018: Assumptions should not be made about the state of Black film based on the success of the “Black Panther” franchise.
Reason for optimism
Prior to its release, the producers of “Black Panther” faced questions about whether there was a market for a Black blockbuster film, even one ensconced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
After all, since the Wesley Snipes-led “Blade” trilogy, which came out in the late-1990s and early 2000s, Black superhero films had experienced diminishing returns. There was one notable exception: the commercially successful, though heavily panned “Hancock” (2008), starring Will Smith.
Otherwise, Black superhero films such as “Catwoman” (2004) and “Sleight” (2016) either flopped or had a limited release.
Furthermore, until “Black Panther,” no Black film exceeded a $100 million budget, the average benchmark for modern Hollywood blockbusters.
Nonetheless, despite these early concerns, “Black Panther” earned the highest domestic gross, $700 million, of all films released in 2018, while earning $1.3 billion in worldwide gross, second only to “Avengers: Infinity War.”
“Black Panther” emerged at the tail end of what many industry experts considered to be a surprisingly successful run of Black films, which included the biopic “Hidden Figures” (2016) and the raunchy comedy “Girls Trip” (2017). Despite their modest budgets, they earned over $100 million apiece at the box office – $235 million and $140 million, respectively.
However, both films were mostly reliant on the domestic box office, especially the R-rated “Girls Trip,” which was only released in a handful of foreign markets. Conventional wisdom has long held that Black films will fail abroad. International distributors and studios typically ignore them during the presale process or at film festivals and markets, reasoning that Black films are too culturally specific – not only in terms of their Blackness, but also their Americanness.
What do those Black films released in theaters in the nearly five years between “Black Panther” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” tell us about the former’s impact?
The simple answer is that the original “Black Panther” has had no discernible influence on industry practices whatsoever.
Since 2018, no other Black blockbuster has emerged, save for the sequel itself. Granted, Black filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s remake of “A Wrinkle in Time” (2018) reportedly cost an estimated $100 million; however, while Black actors portrayed the protagonist and a few other characters, the film features a multicultural ensemble cast – which, as scholars such as Mary Beltran have pointed out, has become the primary strategy for achieving diversity in film.
Even if one were to include “A Wrinkle in Time,” the grand total of Black films with budgets exceeding $100 million is three, with the two “Black Panther” films being the others – all during an era in which there have been hundreds of mainstream films with budgets exceeding $100 million.
Otherwise, most of the Black films released in theaters between 2018 and 2022 typically were low budget by Hollywood standards – $3 million to $20 million in most cases – with only a handful, such as the 2021 Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” costing $50 million to 60 million.
Perhaps the most notable change has been the medium. Many Black films now appear on either cable networks that cater to a Black audience – namely Black Entertainment Television and, more recently, Lifetime – or on streaming services such as Netflix. Tyler Perry, the most popular and prolific Black filmmaker of the modern era, has released his latest films – “A Jazzman’s Blues” (2022), “A Madea Homecoming” (2022) and “A Fall from Grace” (2020) – directly to Netflix.
Furthermore, no other Black film has approached the financial success of “Black Panther.” Granted, several Black films have fared well at the box office, especially relative to their production costs. Foremost among them is Jordan Peele’s “Us” (2019), which cost an estimated $20 million, yet earned approximately $256 million worldwide despite its R rating and the fact that it was never released in China.
Whither Black film
Without question, large budgets and commercial success are not the only measures of a film’s value and significance.
As has historically been the case, Black film has managed to do more with less. The critical acclaim afforded to films such as “BlackKlansman” (2018), “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2019) and “King Richard” (2021) reflect this fact. All reflect trends in contemporary Black filmmaking – comedies, historical dramas and biopics abound, for instance – and were made for a fraction of the cost of both “Black Panther” films.
In truth, the zeal with which some cast “Black Panther” as a bellwether for Black films is part of continued haranguing over their viability, particularly after the #OscarsSoWhite movement that drew attention to the lack of diversity at the 2016 Academy Awards.
However, its positioning as a Disney property within Marvel’s transmedia storytelling effort makes it so atypical that its success — and that of its sequel — portends little about Black film.
Every Black History Month we see a million memes, quotes, and images of Black people who have played an important role in shaping the story and lives of black people in America. We have heard about Martin Luther King Jr., Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Rosa Parks more times than we can count. If we’ve grown up with good black history education which is rare in these yet to be United States of America, then we might know Booker T. Washington or Maya Angelou. We know there is an active attempt to publicly whitewash black history as though the systemic destruction, repression, and marginalization of our history wasn’t enough. As a result it becomes more important than ever to teach and tell Black History.
But in an attempt to reclaim our history, let us not forget the key role faith played in the lives of so many of our black leaders. There is a reason why belief in God and practice of faith were so key in the lives of many (but not all) people we talk about during Black History Month. So let’s lift up the faith of our black heroines and heroes this month as we continue to live out our own faith. Below are just some notable examples of historical moments and key black leaders who were influenced by their faith.
Denmark Vesey was an abolitionist and former slave who planned and organized an armed slave rebellion to free the slaves in Charleston, SC. Charleston was the largest slave trading port in the United States during the early 1800s. He was the slave of a ship captain who won the lottery and paid for his own freedom with his earnings, but was not able to pay for his family’s freedom. As a result he became intent on ending the institution of slavery itself. Vesey was a worshipper and small group teacher at the African Church which became Mother Emmanuel AME Church, and his faith informed his advocacy for abolition.
He was inspired by the Haitian revolution and planned to flee to Haiti with the freed slaves after the rebellion. He inspired other abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, David Walker, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It is well noted that the abolition of slavery was a result of the work of Christian abolitionists.
The Christianity of Vesey and David Walker after him did not advocate for passive waiting to slavery to end. As he read Isaiah, Amos, and especially Exodus he were convinced that armed rebellion could be used by God to bring freedom to enslaved Africans. He began to preach a radical liberation theology from the Old Testament almost exclusively as he prepared for rebellion. Denmark Vesey resurfaced as a popular figure in recent years in the aftermath of the horrendous shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in 2016.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer was the founder and vice-chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which successfully unseated the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Party’s convention in 1968. This and other efforts earned her the title “First Lady of Civil Rights.”
In 1962, Fannie Lou became involved with the Civil Rights Movement when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee held a meeting in Ruleville, Mississippi. She and 17 others went to the county courthouse and tried to register to vote. Because they were African American, they were given an impossible registration test which they all failed. Fannie Lou’s life became a living hell. She was threatened, shot at, cursed and abused by angry mobs of white men including being beat almost to death by the police and imprisoned in Mississippi in 1963 for registering to vote.
Fannie Lou Hamer often sang spirituals at rallies, protests, and even in jail. Her faith in God is what she felt carried her through those difficult experiences. She quoted the Bible to shame her oppressors, encourage her followers, and hold her ministerial colleagues in the SCLC and SNCC accountable. She was a devout member of William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, and let her faith permeate everything she did.
Michelle Alexander, JD is a civil rights lawyer and advocate, a legal scholar and the author of the New York Times best seller “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” The book helped to start a national debate about the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States and inspired racial-justice organizing and advocacy efforts nationwide.
Alexander performed extensive research on mass incarceration, racism in law and public policy, and racial justice to write her book published in 2010. She has lectured and taught widely on her work as a professor of law and religion at Stanford University, The Ohio State University, and Union Theological Seminary. The New Jim Crow became a foundational text for many of the reforms being advocate for by various organizations involved in the recent push for criminal justice reform and the movement for black lives.
Alexander was driven by her faith to advocate for justice system reforms, believing that God called her to it and seeing it as her reasonable service. Her faith drives her advocacy for justice for the marginalized, care and compassion for all people, and teaching. She feels as though her work in law and faith are inextricably linked, and that people of faith are poised to serve one of the most important roles in changing the system. She is currently a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York exploring the spiritual and ethical dimensions of the fight against mass incarceration.
For African-Americans who grew up with the legacy of segregation, disfranchisement, lynching, and violence, retreat from social struggle was unthinkable. Martin Luther King Jr., however, learned from some important mentors how to integrate spiritual growth and social transformation.
Born in 1899, Thurman was 30 years older than King, the same age, in fact, as King’s father. Through his sermons and teaching at Howard University and Boston University, he influenced intellectually and spiritually an entire generation that became the leadership of the civil rights movement.
Among his most significant contributions was bringing the ideas of nonviolence to the movement. It was Thurman’s trip to India in 1935, where he met Mahatma Gandhi, that was greatly influential in incorporating the principles of nonviolence in the African-American freedom struggle.
At the close of the meeting, which was long highlighted by Thurman as a central event of his life, Gandhi reportedly told Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” King and others remembered and repeated that phrase during the early years of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
Thurman and King were both steeped in the black Baptist tradition. Both thought long about how to apply their church experiences and theological training into challenging the white supremacist ideology of segregation. However, initially their encounters were brief.
Thurman had served as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1965. King was a student there when Thurman first assumed his position in Boston and heard the renowned minister deliver some addresses. A few years later, King invited Thurman to speak at his first pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Their most serious personal encounter – the one that gave Thurman his opportunity to influence King personally, and help prepare him for struggles to come – came as a result of a tragedy.
A crucial meeting in hospital
On Sept. 20, 1958, a mentally disturbed African-American woman named Izola Ware Curry came to a book signing in upper Manhattan. There, King was signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” Curry moved to the front of the signing line, took out a sharp-edged letter opener and stabbed the 29-year-old minister, who had just vaulted to national prominence through his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott.
King barely survived. Doctors later told King that, if he had sneezed, he easily could have died. Of course, King later received a fatal gunshot wound in April 1968. Curry lived her days in a mental institution, to the age of 97.
It was while recuperating in the hospital afterward, that King received a visit from Thurman. While there, Thurman gave the same advice he gave to countless others over decades: that King should take the unexpected, if tragic, opportunity, to meditate on his life and its purposes, and only then move forward.
Thurman urged King to extend his rest period by two weeks. It would, as he said, give King “time away from the immediate pressure of the movement” and to “rest his body and mind with healing detachment.” Thurman worried that “the movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own,” which potentially could swallow up King.
King and Thurman were never personally close. But Thurman left a profound intellectual and spiritual influence on King. King, for example, reportedly carried his own well-thumbed copy of Thurman’s best-known book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” in his pocket during the long and epic struggle of the Montgomery bus boycott.
In his sermons during the 1950s and 1960s, King quoted and paraphrased Thurman extensively. Drawing from Thurman’s views, King understood Jesus as friend and ally of the dispossessed – to a group of Jewish followers in ancient Palestine, and to African-Americans under slavery and segregation. That was precisely why Jesus was so central to African-American religious history.
Thurman was not an activist, as King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism.
As Walter Fluker, editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, has explained, the private mystic and the public activist found common ground in understanding that spirituality is necessarily linked to social transformation. Private spiritual cultivation could prepare the way for deeper public commitments for social change. King himself, according to one biographer, came to feel that the stabbing and enforced convalescence was “part of God’s plan to prepare him for some larger work” in the struggle against southern segregation and American white supremacy.
In a larger sense, the discipline of nonviolence required a spiritual commitment and discipline that came, for many, through self-examination, meditation and prayer. This was the message Thurman transmitted to the larger civil rights movement. Thurman combined, in the words of historian Martin Marty, the “inner life, the life of passion, the life of fire, with the external life, the life of politics.”
Spiritual retreat and activism
King’s stabbing was a bizarre and tragic event, but in some sense it gave him the period of reflection and inner cultivation needed for the chaotic coming days of the civil rights struggle. The prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where in mid-1963 King penned his classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” also accidentally but critically provided much the same spiritual retreat for reflections that helped transform America.
The relationship of Thurman’s mysticism and King’s activism provides a fascinating model for how spiritual and social transformation can work together in a person’s life. And in society more generally.
When we are in times of transition, it can be easy to fall into fear. Many of us do not like change. We would rather be settled and know the ground we stand on. We like our second year at the new company. Our junior year of school. Year two of our relationship. When our organization or project is fully funded. Many of us thrive when we feel we’re on a firm foundation, and we’re nervous when we are launching into the unknown. Yet many of us find ourselves at a crossroads and long for clarity about how to move forward.
In Matthew 14:22, we read about the disciples in transition as they launched across the Sea of Galilee once again, headed from one miracle with Jesus to another. They had learned that whenever Jesus showed up in a new town, He created a stir. His presence led to crowds ready to run him out of town, plead with him for healing, press to hear him teach, or follow Him in curiosity.
But things felt uncertain on the sea that day. The Sea of Galilee was not an unfamiliar place–some of them were fishermen, and all of them lived near the sea their entire lives. The feelings of difficulty didn’t come with the place, but from the circumstances. The last time they were on the sea together, a storm almost destroyed their ship, but Jesus was there to save them. But this time they were back on the Sea of Galilee, sailing late at night without Jesus. His absence meant that anything could happen. They found their peace in His presence. Without Him, they felt a little more uneasy about everything. They knew where they were going and where they were coming from. But they were in transition without the presence of the Lord.
And then they saw a figure walking across the lake. They became terrified, and their place of transition became a place of fear. A figure out on the water with no boat walking above the waves was not a pleasant sight–it looked like a ghost. They had every reason to be afraid. We can relate to their fear of the unexpected showing up in the midst of the unknown.
Then Jesus called out to them, and they understood that what they were seeing was not a ghost. It was the Lord. In the space between the last and the next, God showed up for them in an unexpected way. Their place of uncertainty became a place of the miraculous.
Similarly, God is able to show up for us in unexpected ways when our circumstances change. It may look like we are alone as we move to new cities, start new jobs, or find new relationships. The water can seem unstable beneath us as it flows without clarity, especially when the night surrounds us. But if we remember that God is with us always and can meet us right where we are, we may find ourselves walking on the water with Jesus on the way to our destinations.
Yet, 80% of people agree that most people won’t stick to their resolutions. This pessimism is somewhat justified. Only 4% of people report following through on all of the resolutions they personally set.
Based on our research, we propose a potential solution to the problem of New Year’s resolutions that people can’t keep: encouraging people to reframe their resolutions to emphasize purpose-based performance.
Why the failures?
What leads to so many abandoned New Year’s resolutions?
A large body of research on goal-setting and habits provides insight into the various reasons for failed resolutions.
Many people are not framing their resolutions in ways that will motivate them over time. For example, “exercise more” is a fairly clear directive, but it lacks depth and personal meaning that could help promote follow through. Overly simplified resolutions, such as “exercise more” and “eat healthier” contribute to the ongoing problem that emerges as early as mid-January each year: unintentional neglect of important self-improvement goals.
In the context of goal-setting for the new year, the concept of purpose-based performance becomes especially relevant. In our research, we have found that purpose-based performance is much healthier and more sustainable than outcome-driven performance.
The first thing to consider is your long-term goals, and how each resolution fits with those goals. Purpose-based performance includes goal orientation, or an internal compass that directs people toward some long-term aim. This orientation helps people organize and prioritize more immediate actions to make progress toward that aim. People who are goal-oriented and remind themselves of their “end game” live consistently with their beliefs and values and perform better on the immediate goals they set.
When setting New Year’s resolutions, many people end up with a long list of simple resolutions without thinking deeply about their rationale for each resolution, or where each resolution will take them. Linking an immediate goal with a longer-term aim can sustain progress. Thinking about who you want to become can help you decide which resolution(s) to take on.
Why is this personally important?
The next step to consider is why each resolution is personally meaningful for you. When people pursue personally meaningful goals, they are not only more intrinsically motivated but also find more joy in the process of goal pursuit. They are able to reframe challenges as opportunities for personal growth. In one study with elite athletes, we found that personal meaning helped them regulate their emotions when things didn’t go their way and display more patience as they pursued their goals.
Someone who pursues a goal for external rewards that are contingent on a particular end result – for example, validation that comes from winning – is likely to experience shame when they fall short of their goal. Even when they win, they may feel disappointed because the end result does not bring meaning to their life. This is exemplified by the “post-Olympic blues,” when Olympians experience depression after such a significant accomplishment.
Spend time thinking about your motivation for each resolution. Ask yourself, are you focused on a particular outcome because it will give you self-esteem, status or something else? It can be helpful to think about the potential meaning found in the process of pursuing a goal, regardless of whether you attain the desired outcome.
Who will be positively affected by this?
The final step is to consider who or what, beyond yourself, will be positively affected by your resolution(s). Desire to be a part of something greater than the self, or transcendent motivation, is beneficial for performance for several reasons.
Linking a resolution to transcendent motivation can be a powerful source of inspiration. Someone may link exercise goals to a charitable cause they care about, or they may think about how improving their health will make them a better partner, friend or parent. Research shows transcendent motivation improves self-regulation when things get dull or repetitive during goal pursuit, and it strengthens character virtues like patience and generosity. When someone’s transcendent motivation is prosocial in nature, they are willing to accept feedback about performance and receive increased social support in the workplace.
Think about the bigger picture. Consider whom you are helping with each goal. Potential impact beyond yourself is added fuel for your goal pursuit.
Reframing your resolutions
What might New Year’s resolutions that incorporate purpose-based performance look like? Using the three questions above, we have reworked three common resolutions to reflect purpose-based performance:
“Exercise more” becomes “I commit to working out two times per week so I can be more present and energized with my children, so they feel more loved and inspired by me.”
“Save money” becomes “I commit to saving US$100 per paycheck so I feel more secure in my role as a husband and father, which will ultimately benefit my family.”
“Lose weight” becomes “I commit to losing ten pounds so I feel more confident at work, and my coworkers will experience a more positive version of me.”