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Between the world of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity

Between the world of Ta-Nehisi Coates and ChristianitySummary: Seven essays on Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity. 

I appreciate Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I was intrigued when I saw this book because Coates is a vocal atheist. I think he is respectful of Christianity, but he rejects Christianity largely because of its followers. It is a position that I easily understand, even if I do not reject Christianity for the same reason.

Books that are collections of essays are hard to do well. They are almost always uneven in their writing quality. And rarely hold together and build on one another well. And most of the time the sum is less than the individual parts.

I think there were two or may be three essays here that were pretty good. None of them were awful. But in general, while there was thoughtful aspects of to Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity, I would recommend just reading Coates directly.

One of the aspects that I know has irritated Coates and because it keeps coming up, has begun to irritate me as well, is the issues of Coates’ ‘hopelessness’. There were two essays directly about this and two more mentioned it. (Spread the essays out, two essays, both about Coates and Hope right at the end was odd.) Coates has said that he doesn’t believe he is hopeless, he believes that he is a realist. Reinhold Niebuhr led a movement of ‘Christian Realism’ that to me feels more like what Coates is trying to communicate.

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi CoatesSummary: A reflection on eight years of Atlantic Essays during the time of Obama.

When I first heard about We Were Eight Years in Power, I was excited for a book from Ta-Nehisi Coates about the Obama years. Coates both is a serious critic of Obama and someone that has strongly defended him. I am going to continue to look for a book like that in the future.

We Were Eight Years in Power is not really that. Instead it is a repackaging of a number of essays by Coates from the Atlantic. Coates first essay for the Atlantic was about Bill Cosby and his conservative lectures to the black community to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That initial essay eventually led to Coates becoming a staff writer for the Atlantic and a number of cover stories that many will have already read.

The three most famous are his Reparations article, his article on Mass Incarceration and his essay earlier this year on Trump as the first consciously White (post Obama) president.

Previously to reading We Were Eight Years in Power, I had read most of the essays. It was still worth re-reading the essays. But what I found most interesting was Coates introductions to each essay. These were sometimes biographical or historical, telling the reader about his life or the country when he originally published the essay. Almost all of them included an evaluation of the content, usually pointing out weaknesses in his approach or places where he wishes he had expanded the analysis or where he got part of the essay wrong.

That analysis was helpful both to give context to why he wrote the individual essay, but also to give context to his larger project and how, for good and ill, racial issues were important during the Obama years.

Coates talks quite candidly about his discomfort with being the main or only writer on race issues that many Whites have read. He has a clear perspective. One that is famously not particularly hopeful. But it is realistic to the current age and to the data as he sees it.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Summary: An impassioned letter from an African American father to his 15 year old son.

Between the World and Me deserves all of its praise. It will be on virtually every ‘Best of 2015′ book list. I need some space, but I would like to read it again before the end of the year.

This is not an easy book to read. I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by Coates. All of the passion and pain of the book carries through. However, this book of passion and pain and not easy to take.

Coates formats the book as a letter to his 15 year old son on the occasion of his disappointment that Darren Wilson would not be indited or face trial for the shooting of Michael Brown. The book recounts Coates’ life and place in the world as an African American man.

Overwhelmingly it is about his concern for how his son will live, how Coates will not be able to protect him from the pain of life that is unfairly biased against him.

The book is roughly divided into three sections. The first is about the ‘plunder’. The systemic loss of safety and autonomy that Coates, and all African Americans, face because of results of racist institutions. This section also tells the story of Coates own growing up years where he learned to navigate his way through his isolating urban streets.

The second section is about his coming of age at Howard University and how he was ‘made for the library and not the classroom’. His eyes were widened as he learned about others and their different backgrounds and world. He met his wife and they married and had their son and moved to New York. But also how he was frustrated with what his learning revealed.

The third section was about the killing of his friend from Howard University, Prince Carmen Jones, by a cop in 2000. Jones was an engineering student, the son of a highly respected doctor. The cop, who was black, was undercover, and pursuing a 5 ft 4, 250 lb suspect. He mistakenly identified Jones, a 6 ft 3, 210 lbs, as the suspect. He and his partner, in separate unmarked cars followed Jones across two state lines for 16 miles without pulling him over.

Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul by Eddie Glaude Jr

Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul by Eddie Glaude JrSummary: Democracy in Black addresses the ‘values gap’ between the claimed idealism of equity and democracy and the reality of history.

One of the problems with many White people in thinking about issues of race is that Black and other racial groups are still ‘other’. That ‘other’-ness is otherness in part because of the assumption of monolithic thinking. As with every topic, the more you know about an issue, the more nuance that you can see. The more comprehensive your approach to an item, the more variance within the subject that you can identify.

If you discuss Christianity, you have to ask what about Christianity is universal and what is particular to a subgroup. Catholic and Southern Baptist responses to one issue may be virtually identical, but nearly unrecognizably different in another. The very nature of worship and what the centerpiece of worship service of oriented around is different between Southern Baptist and Catholics, but they do still both worship the same God.

Democracy in Black is a political philosophy of societal change. Glaude is the Chair of the African American Studies Department at Princeton. He is the current president of the American Academy of Religion. His Ph.D. is in religious studies, and this is a book informed by Christianity. However, it is more focused on the methods and theory of cultural interaction and politics. In some ways, I think this is probably a book written a couple of years too early. It is rooted in a discussion of the role of race in the Obama era, and that is a critical discussion. But it does not fully engage with the racial backlash that gave rise to Trump.

Glaude wants to talk about values more than racism. It is not that racism is not shaping our values, but that the gap in our values is more extensive than mere racism, at least as many conceive of the meaning of racism.

“We talk about the achievement gap in education or the wealth gap between white Americans and other groups, but the value gap reflects something more basic: that no matter our stated principles or how much progress we think we’ve made, white people are valued more than others in this country, and that fact continues to shape the life chances of millions of Americans. The value gap is in our national DNA.”

Merely discussing racial gaps in wealth, education, health, or other areas often reveals how we think about race. There are those that continue to deny that actual disparities exist. Some admit the variations but place most of the blame on individuals. Others suggest that racial differences are rooted in history, culture, systems, resources, or some mix of many different causes. But Glaude, while not glossing over the complexity, wants to ensure that we see that these disparities are not abnormal, but ‘who we are’.

James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era by Joseph Vogel

James Baldwin and the 1980s: Withnessing the Reagan Era by Joseph VogelSummary: Baldwin continued to grow and think keeping into the 1980s. 

As someone born in the early 1970s, I am aware of the 1980s, I lived the 1980s, but I have not studied well the 1980s. James Baldwin and the 1980s was helpful, not just in better understanding James Baldwin, but helping me think about the 1980s as history.

Baldwin has become the historic voice of the Black Lives Matters moment. The new documentary I am Not Your Negro and the rise of Ta’Nehisi Coates means that book on Baldwin will get attention that they may not have previously. James Baldwin is mostly known for his earlier work. But he continued to write and teach and create into the 1980s.

James Baldwin and the 1980s has five main chapters, each mostly focused on exploring one of the works that Baldwin created in the 1980s.

The most interesting part for me was the cultural/religious history of the 1980s in the 4th chapter. As someone that identifies as Christian and has been through seminary and reads about theology for fun, I am not sure that I agree with all of the assertions about the Religious Right and James Baldwin. But the important, and interesting part, is that this was written at all. I think that part of what is interesting to me is that the religious right got a significant amount of Christianity wrong. And I think that James Baldwin misunderstood Christianity, in a similar way, as many in the religious right.

His critique of televangelists and the moral majority I think has sway, not because it is wrong, but because it is at least partially right theologically. But I also think it is wrong in significant ways. As a Christian, I agree that the implicit racism of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority was contrary to Christ’s teachings. But I also think the his misunderstands part of the church’s teaching. Confining sex to marriage and monogamous relationships is not denying the body as the book, and Baldwin asserts, but a part of what it means to hold sexuality as sacred.

One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race by John Perkins

One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race by John PerkinsSummary: At 87 years old, the message John Perkins will be focusing on the rest of his life is the importance of racial reconciliation within the church.

One Blood is John Perkins’ last book. So I read it conscious of several of several others books that I have read that were consciously the last books written. John Stott’s last book was about discipleship. Johnny Cash’s last album was about death and regret. This book is about racial issues within the church.

I wish that everyone was familiar with John Perkins. (If you are familiar with him you can skip to the second half where I actually get to the book.) He grew up the son of a sharecropper. His mother died when he was two years old of Pellagra, which is a disease that is most often caused by such a poor diet that the person is essentially starving to death. When he was 16 his older brother, after returning from serving in the military during World War II was killed by a local police officer. Perkins was sent to California because his family feared that he would be killed as well.

When John Perkins was 27, his son Spencer invited him to church and he first became a Christian. Three years later (in 1960) he and his family moved back to Mendenhall, Mississippi to start Voice of Calvary. That ministry expanded to include an early Head Start program, social services and bible training program. In 1965, John Perkins started registering African Americans to vote and helped form a food cooperative to care for people that were blocked out of their jobs as a result of registering to vote. In 1967, his children were the first to desegregate the local high school. In 1969, he lead an economic boycott of White owned businesses, which directly lead to his false arrest and torture at the hands of local police officers. That torture required the removal of part of his stomach and life long health problems.

Later John Perkins and his wife Vera Mae started similar ministries in Jackson, Mississippi and then in Pasadena California. In 1989, he co-founded the Christian Community Development Association which gathered together similar organizations around the country that were mostly evangelical leaning theologically and agreed on the basic principles of the 3 Rs (relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution). Most recently the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation was created as a training center for Christian community development and leadership.

Although Perkins only formally completed third grade, One Blood is his 11th book that he wrote or co-wrote. I recommend his Let Justice Roll Down, a 2006 memoir as the best place to start with his books.

John Perkins is an elder statesman of both Christian Community Development and the Civil Rights era. We should listen to what he has to say because he has earned the right to say it through his life’s work. This is not an abstract theorizing about racial issues. We do not have many civil rights icons left.

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas BlackmonSummary: Approximately 70 years of slavery from the 1870s to the 1940s have largely been unknown or ignored.

Part of what has been important for me to recognize as I read history is earlier examples of current problems. There may not be a direct connection with those similar issues, but we need to acknowledge that there may be connection. For example, one of the issues brought up in this book is local control of school funding. Many small government advocates today advocate local school control, which in itself is not bad. But local control was used to get around rules for disproportionate funding of White and Black schools during Jim Crow era and beyond. And today, local control is the root of school funding and quality disparities.

Another example is different sentencing levels of Whites and Blacks (including higher likelihood of being arrested and charged, more severe charges when charged, and more severe sentences for the same charges when sentenced). And then there is the example of Ferguson, Missouri using fees, largely enforced against Black residents for funding of city services to keep tax rates lower.

It is not that there are direction connections between today and earlier in the three examples above, but when there are similar examples, we should investigate whether the issues that gave rise to those similar examples really are similar.

Slavery By Another Name is primarily about the system of convict leasing. Convict leasing was the practice of leasing convicts to private businesses or individuals as laborers. The local or state government then was relieved of the requirements for housing and feeding convicts, made money from those convicts and was able privately fund much of the salaries of law enforcement and the courts through fees instead of taxes.

Much of the work done by convict leasing was dangerous or excessive work. Records were often poor, but in some cases there was as much as a 30% annual death rate among convicts. Convicts were purchased for $30 to $75, roughly $1000 today, compared to the approximately $1000 purchase cost of slaves a generation earlier (what would be today roughly $30,000). There was little interest in moderating the effects of work or punishment because of the low cost of investment. Working convicts for 20 hours a day 7 days a week with low rations and high rates of punishment with lash or waterboarding or hanging by thumbs was common.

The crimes were often minor, swearing in front of a woman, disrespect, leaving an employer without permission, selling goods at night, etc. It was commonly thought at the time that African Americans would only work with the threat and reality of lash and other beating. (The idea of the lazy Black worker continues today, but is a derivative of this earlier era.) The descriptions of beatings throughout the book is one of the hardest parts of reading/listening to the book.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Summary: Two essays from 1963.

Since I saw the documentary I am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin, I have been wanting to read more of him. This is my second book this year and I am planning on reading at least one of his novels before the end of the year.

I knew that many people compare Ta-Nehasi Coates to James Baldwin. But it was not until I read We Were Eight Years in Power that I realized that Coates’ Between the World and Me was a conscious effort to write a modern version of The Fire Next Time. Coates wanted something that was short, powerful and personal. And that is what The Fire Next Time is.

There are two essays here. Between the World and Me is more consciously emulated after the first, a short letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Declaration. (Coates writes Between the World and Me as a letter to his son.)

The much longer (roughly 80% of The Fire Next Time) section is Down at the Cross. This is an essay about Baldwin’s understanding of the implications of historic racism for him personally. Much of it is about his grappling with faith. Christianity, which is where Baldwin started as a boy preacher, gets a lot of credit for saving Baldwin so that he could become a writer. But Baldwin eventually moves on because the Christianity of his world is not Christian enough to actually address the problems of race either by focusing on the radical repentance or the radical forgiveness that would be necessary to deal with the sin and result of racism.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric DysonSummary: Loosely structured as a sermon which calls White Christian America to repentance and change.

After reading James Baldwin’s Notes on a Native Son I decided to look for a modern author’s take and found Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. I was so impressed that I immediately picked up The Black Presidency (which I think may be even better than this one.)

Dyson rose to prominence as a cultural critic when I was in grad school. He was friends with my Systematic Theology Professor, Dwight Hopkins, so I had a positive impression of him. But in the 20 years of being aware of him, I have not actually read anything that he has written. Part of that was that Dyson became well known for his cultural criticism of hip hop and rap music. Something that I have only recently started to listen to.

Over the past year or so, I have been a regular listener to the podcast, Pass the Mic, from the Reformed African American Network and more recently their second podcast, Truth’s Table, that highlights three African American Women. Those two podcasts, and the private Facebook groups associated with RAAN, has been helpful places to hear perspectives about the world from theologically conservative (more theologically conservative than I am most of the time) African Americans. I already lean socially fairly liberal. However, their voices help me to see how much my theology and politics is informed by the lack of diverse voices in my life. (And my own racist attitudes and sin.)

Dyson structures this Tears We Cannot Stop as an extended sermon. The structure is fine, but probably makes more sense in audiobook form (with Dyson narrating) than in print. Initially, this felt like a Christian version of Ta’Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. It had a similar critique of White America and had some of Dyson’s personal history as well.

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Notes of a Native Son by James BaldwinSummary: A collection of literary and personal essays written in the mid 1950s by James Baldwin.

I recently went to see the documentary I am Not Your Negro. After watching that very good documentary I finally picked up Notes of a Native Son, which I purchased a while ago but I have not read.

The first section are literally and film criticism essays (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, A Native Son and Carmen Jones.) I have not read or watched any of these, although I knew the basic outline of the story of the first two. This section would likely have been much better if I was familiar with the works being talked about.

Section two and three were some of the best essays I have ever read and I want to go back and read them again.

The three essays in section two are about growing up and living in Harlem, his brother’s musical group’s ill fated trip to the South as entertainment for a political campaign and a eulogy for his father. The eulogy essay is the best essay of the book I think. Eulogies often gloss over the negatives of a person and highlight what will be missed. Baldwin’s father was not going to be missed much, although once he was gone, Baldwin was able to deal with his love for him. Baldwin’s father died on Baldwin’s 19th birthday and Baldwin left soon after to move to Paris.