Growing up in the North, it can be puzzling to hear of Southern whites who insist on celebrating their racist past.
Whether it comes up in the hoisting of the rebel flag at a state capitol, or opposing the stripping of a Confederate soldier’s name from an elementary school, my simplistic, New York Yankee, public school education teaches that those folks are just clueless rednecks. The South was violent and intolerant compared to the North, we learned. During the Civil War, the bad guys wore gray and wanted to keep blacks enslaved. President “Honest Abe” Lincoln freed all of the slaves and kept America unified. During the civil rights movement, the good whites from up North went down South and helped black folks bear the dogs, water hoses, and end the lynchings. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached about his dream during the March on Washington and segregation finally ended.
But a good college education, deeper history books, and wisdom born of life experiences have taught me that America’s racial heritage is much more complex than that. Besides, living several years now in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area, the epicenter of America’s birth and the “War Between the States,” I understand the different sides of racial tension a lot better. While most blacks saw the war as a tragic but necessary event that led to their people’s freedom from slavery, many whites in Southern states saw it as an assault by the north on their heritage and sovereign rights. Both are true.
This year, as the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War nears (April 12, 1861, is recognized as the date of the war’s first shot), yet another firebomb from the past is flaming racial tensions in the Deep South. The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans has proposed a specialty license plate to honor Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. This “war hero” also led the 1864 Fort Pillow Massacre, where several disarmed black Union soldiers were killed while surrendering. Forrest was also a founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Confederate veterans say Forrest and other soldiers were brave men who “put it all on the line” for a cause they strongly believed in. They were protecting their families, land, and livelihood. As for his Klan ties, Forrest renounced his membership later in life, in the same way that Supreme Court Judge Hugo Black and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia had.
According to published reports, the state’s NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the license plate idea is offensive, mainly to black Mississippians who comprise 40 percent of the state. The Klan is “a domestic terrorist organization,” he said adding that the NAACP planned to insist Gov. Haley Barbour denounce the license plate.
Meanwhile, Barbour, who has GOP presidential nomination aspirations, has said he’s sure the proposal won’t pass in the state legislature and that if it does he won’t sign it; however, he refuses to denounce the license plate proposal outright. For Barbour, 63, it has been another misstep on race. Last year he claimed to have gone to integrated schools and that during the civil rights movement he just didn’t “remember it being that bad.” After Gov. Bob McDonald of Virginia, apologized for failing to mention slavery when he proclaimed April as “Confederate History Month,” Barbour said the controversy “doesn’t amount to diddly.”
Barbour is obviously pandering to the far right-white vote, but both he and the NAACP’s Johnson represent a deeper problem. When leadership is unwilling to have an honest open dialogue on race and retrench instead, it’s more likely the rest of us will follow to our predictable, polarizing positions behind the color lines.
In 1998, President Clinton, a Southerner, vowed to lead the country in an “unprecedented conversation about race.” It fizzled out, but at least he tried.
Now in 2011, with ironically, the first black president in office, we are perhaps even more polarized. After hearing Obama’s profound speech on race during the 2008 campaign, it seemed he might be the one to lead us to a more substantive conversation. But President Obama, a Northerner by way of Hawaii, and his administration are spooked by race. They avoid the discussion by any means necessary.
It’s sad, but maybe it’s best that the leadership on race come from the state, local, and personal level.
Gov. Barbour and Johnson of the NAACP could better serve Mississippians by flipping the predictable race conversation. Lead an open and honest discussion about race, instead. Use the opportunity of Confederate History Month to build a sense of respect and understanding of Mississippi’s black and white histories that are both true and inseparable. It could lead to healing and even racial reconciliation.
It could become a model for how we together acknowledge the dark and bright sides of America’s history.
As far as African American history books go, Heroes in Black History is unique. First of all, it was written by a white couple whose passion for their subject matter leaps off the page. Second, the book places the spiritual lives of its subjects front and center and shows how vital their Christian faith was to their historic accomplishments.
Authors Dave and Neta Jackson may be best known for their 40-title series of Trailblazer Books, novels for young readers about great Christian heroes that have sold over 1.7 million. But their prolific catalog features both fiction and nonfiction works that extend across genres and age groups. Neta’s bestselling series for women, The Yada Yada Prayer Group, features a multiethnic cast of women. Dave’s novels, Forty to Life, and his more recent, Harry Bentley’s Second Chance, show God’s dramatic redemption in the rough world of gangs, prison, and the Chicago streets. UrbanFaith spoke to Dave and Neta about their hopes for Heroes and why black history is so important to them personally.
URBANFAITH: A lot of people may be surprised to learn that this book on African American history was written by a white couple. Why did you write it?
DAVE: Several times we’ve shown up for a book signing or media interview and we get, “Wait a minute! You’re the wrong color!” We just laugh and say, “No, we’re the right color. It’s us white folks who need to learn more about these saints from different cultures!” Actually, we’ve written four Hero Tales volumes similar to this that included the stories of white and black saints as well as some from other ethnic groups, but we gathered these stories about black heroes and added a few more for Heroes in Black History because of our own desire to know more about them and share their stories with everyone. It’s especially important for white folks to hear these stories since they have usually been untold for too long in our isolated circles. It’s a way to bring us together in celebration of God’s work all across His body, the church. In some ways, this book shares the essence of what we have enjoyed learning with our African American brothers and sisters in church and small groups for years.
How did you select the individuals profiled in the book?
NETA: Several of the stories feature well-known heroes like Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but we wanted to mix in those heroes that many of us know little about, like William Seymour, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Festo Kevengere. There are also more recent heroes we’ve been privileged to know personally, like John Perkins and Ricky and Sherialyn Byrdsong.
Who were the most interesting historical figures to you, and what was the most surprising thing you learned as you worked on the book?
NETA: I loved learning about Mary McLeod Bethune, a teacher who followed the railroad workers into Florida and established a school for their children. She began with just five little girls–but her school grew to become Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Her philosophy was to educate the “head, the hands, and the heart”–meaning classical studies, practical skills, and spiritual values. We visited her school recently, and there over the door was the very motto she drilled into her students: On the outside of the door it says, “ENTER TO LEARN,” and on the inside of the door it says, “DEPART TO SERVE.” Wow, what a woman!
DAVE: I think learning about William Seymour was most interesting to me because of his pivotal role in founding the modern Pentecostal movement, to which almost every Pentecostal or charismatic church in the world can trace its roots. And to me, the most interesting discovery was that Seymour believed Jesus died to forgive our sins and wash away all divisions, including the “color line.” To him, this–above speaking in tongues or performing miracles–was the true proof of conversion and being filled with the Holy Spirit. It was a fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that we all might be one.
The subtitle is “True Stories from the Lives of Christian Heroes.” One thing your book shows is just how integral Christian faith is in the history of African Americans. Your book suggests that it’s impossible to talk about Black history without also addressing the role of religion and faith.
DAVE: Definitely, and this was another reason for writing this book. Even those more well-known heroes in black history are seldom described as being primarily motivated and sustained by their faith. But most were. True faith was essential for many African Americans to endure slavery and discrimination over the centuries. Want to know how to “get through” when you are facing a heavy trial and feeling that you can’t take another step? Let an African American saint be your teacher, hold your hand, and show you how to focus on Jesus, the only One who can see you through!
NETA: We hope the book has a long and wide life, encouraging individuals and families and Sunday school classes with the godly character qualities of heroes. That’s what many people appreciate about this book–especially families trying something new for their family devotions–since it focuses on character qualities and provides questions for discussion. And we just hope it spreads.
Many today suggest that we’re in a post-racial era, and that things like Black History Month may no longer be necessary, especially with the election of an African American president. How do you respond to those types of arguments?
DAVE: We are grateful for the progress that has been made. There is a new generation rising up, and that’s hopeful. No doubt about it. However, there is a great deal more work to do, and racism still raises its ugly head all too often, usually in subtle ways we white people don’t even recognize. Even what we might think is in the past is not that far in the past for some of us.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the murder of our dear and close friend, [college basketball coach] Ricky Byrdsong, who was slain by a white supremacist. Ricky was walking with his children just a block from his home, not far from us, when he was gunned down. That was only ten years ago. But God is still working, and the place where we should all desire and work to showcase God’s reconciliation is in the church. Let the world see what He can do, and let it begin in me.
The children of America’s greatest peacemaker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are once again squabbling over the rights to their parents’ estate. Following DreamWork’s announcement that Steven Spielberg would produce a biopic of King’s life, it came to light that only one of the three surviving siblings, Dexter King, actually gave permission to the studio. The others now say the sale of these rights is invalid. What a shame. As of now, DreamWorks says it will not move ahead with the project until all the King siblings are on the same page.
If the film does actually make it into production, we’re curious about who Spielberg will get to play the starring role. Sean Smith at Entertainment Weekly is throwing Jeffrey Wright’s name in the ring. You’ll remember him from Casino Royale (Felix Leiter), Cadillac Records (Muddy Waters), and W (Colin Powell). He delivers strong performances in all of his flicks and even played King in the 2001 HBO movie Boycott. He could be a great choice, but to be honest, the pickings are slim. All of the standby black male leads like Denzel Washington, Will Smith, or Forrest Whitaker aren’t right for the role, either due to age or body type. Perhaps this will be the career-making breakout role for an emerging black actor with little notoriety. We want someone who can allow us to sink into King’s life, evoking the aura of the great preacher, without the ghosts of his previous roles haunting the screen.
By now, you’ve probably heard about 23-years-old church worship leader Kris Allen’s win on American Idol. Though he clearly lacked the crowd appeal of competitor Adam Lambert, past crowd-pleasing winners have taught us an important lesson: American Idol viewers don’t always translate into CD buyers. Last year’s winner David Cook has experienced only minor success despite his popularity and talent. The question now is what kind of album will Kris Allen make? Will the support of Christians that likely pushed him to the top on Idol ultimately help or handicap Allen artistically as he goes to work on debut album? Time will tell.
In case you’d forgotten how old you’re getting, this past week marked the 25th anniversary of The Cosby Show. Most of the cast celebrated with a reunion on the Today Show on Tuesday. However, celebration over the inroads African Americans have made on television was short-lived for some fans as news surfaced Thursday of the CW network’s cancellation of The Game and Everybody Hates Chris. While the content of both shows lacked the strong moral character of The Cosby Show, sometimes reinforcing negative stereotypes of the black community — The Game‘s Wendy Raquel Robinson’s colorful “ghetto hustler” persona and the ongoing baby mama drama storyline between Tia Mowery (Melanie Barnett) and Pooch Hall (Derwin Davis) are examples — many African Americans were just happy to see black actors on television in lead roles that offered realistic portrayals of African American life. UrbanFaith’s own Nicole Symmonds broke down the lack of multi-dimensional black characters on television for us at her Loudmouth Protestant blog, saying she doesn’t think the CW is prejudiced, just shortsighted. The network “does well at depicting the many faces of white America while giving black America short shrift. We exist!” Is there any positive urban programming left on television? What are you watching these days?
Ciara’s ‘Mama’ Drama
The drama surrounding pop and R&B singer Ciara’s controversial change in management has extended to the release of her film debut in the gospel movie Mama, I Want to Sing! Back in 2007, websites like BlackVoices were buzzing about Ciara’s starring role opposite Patti LaBelle and Lynn Whitfield. But since the studios originally had hoped to piggyback off of Ciara’s album promotion, when the record label delayed Fantasy Ride‘s release the studios were forced to push back the film as well. Now FoxFaith and CodeBlack have scrapped plans for a movie theater release, sending the film straight to DVD this August or September. We sure hope the movie’s worth all the trouble. Mama, I Want to Sing! is the longest-running off-Broadway black theater musical in history, about a preacher’s daughter who leaves the church choir to become an international pop star. The original stage play was written by Vy Higginsen and loosely based on her sister Doris Troy’s rise to fame.
From Beyoncé to Smokie
BET has released the nominees for the 2009 BET Awards, set to air live on June 28th at 8 p.m. ET/PT. We’re sure all the usual suspects will appear, like Beyoncé and Kanye West who are both scheduled to perform. But we’re more interested in the gospel music category, as its always telling to find out who’s garnering the most attention in the secular music arena. Nominees for Best Gospel Artist include Regina Belle, Smokie Norful, Shirley Caesar, Trin-I-Tee 5:7, and Mary Mary. It’s nice to see Smokie Norful and Trin-I-Tee 5:7 getting some love, as both were passed over for Dove Award nominations. Who do you think should win the category?
DMX the Televangelist?
While finishing up a 90-day jail sentence for drugs, fraud, and animal cruelty, rapper DMX told reporters about plans to start his own Christian TV show called Pain and Perseverance. He said, “It’s about how I can reach people that the average person can’t reach because I’m grounded. I’m going to give my first sermon, in the church. That’s going to be incredible for me and hopefully the congregation of that church.” This isn’t the first time DMX has talked about going into ministry. Back in March 2003, he toyed with the idea of retiring from rap, but eventually decided to continue his career after seeking advice from born-again rapper Mase. “I talked to Mase. I said, ‘Dog! I’m fed up with this rap sh–. I know the Lord. I know my true calling is to preach the Word, where do I go from here?’ He was like, ‘As long as the Lord gives you the talent to do what you do, do it. He’ll call you when he’s ready.'” Fast forward a few years and X was back to battling the demons of drug use and other criminal activity from his past. But maybe now DMX is ready. God’s clearly had a hold on his life for some time, as X often talks about his strong desire for a deeper relationship with Christ and a hunger for his Bible. We want to give him grace and trust that he’s serious this time. But we’ll believe it when we see it.
As far as African American history books go, Heroes in Black History is unique. First of all, it was written by a white couple whose passion for their subject matter leaps off the page. Second, the book places the spiritual lives of its subjects front and center and shows how vital their Christian faith was to their historic accomplishments. (more…)