What Can We Learn From Three Generations of Black Evangelical Protest Books?

In the world of evangelical publishing, there have been three distinct waves of books about race and/or racism written or co-authored by black evangelicals.

The first wave came in the civil rights and black power era from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. There was Howard Jones’ Shall We Overcome? in 1967; 1968 brought Bill Pannell’s My Friend, The Enemy and Tom Skinner’s Black and Free; in 1970 there was Columbus Salley and Ronald Behm’s Your God Is Too White and Skinner was back with How Black Is The Gospel?; in 1971 there was Bob Harrison’s When God Was Black.

The second wave came on the heels of the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. The following year, 1993, brought a flood of evangelical race books with black authors or co-authors, including: Raleigh Washington and Glen Kehrein, Breaking Down Walls; Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More Than Equals; Bill Pannell, The Coming Race Wars?; and John Perkins, Beyond Charity.

The third wave is happening now, in the era of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump. It includes books like Bryan Loritts’ Insider Outsider; Eric Mason’s Woke Church (both 2018), and Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise (published earlier this year).

This is not to say that similar books haven’t been published at other times. John Perkins’ With Justice for All originally came out in 1982. Ed Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues appeared in 2006. But if you survey the the landscape across time, it seems clear that there are three distinctive peaks when books like these become more prominent. What’s going on here?

Before I suggest a few possibilities, let me add a caveat or two. These books are very different from one another. Pannell’s caustic commentary in 1968 is an entirely different approach from Spencer Perkins’ wooing of white evangelical audiences in 1993. They’re separated by time and context. And in a field of books that lean heavily toward blends of theology and memoir, you could argue that Tisby’s book doesn’t belong at all.

With that said, here are a few things that seem of interest to me:

Irony: the content of the books is misaligned with the circumstances of their publication. These books, almost invariably, express a great deal of hope–or disappointment, or both–in the church. They call upon the church to demonstrate unity across lines of race and thereby lead society toward racial “reconciliation” (or justice, or understanding, as the case may be). Many of them express the firm belief that only the church can ultimately solve racial problems. And yet, the circumstances of their production make it clear that these books are overwhelmingly a product of changes in American society. Whether they’re responding to the rise of black power, or the LA Riots, or Black Lives Matter, there is clearly a sense in which these books are following society.

To some extent, this is a publishing story. It’s not as though Howard Jones needed someone to tell him that racism in the church was a problem. But by the later 1960s, publishers began to see a market for evangelical commentary on what had become an explosive issue in society. Likewise, when unsettling evidence of ongoing racial division and injustice became harder to ignore in the 1990s, evangelical publishers again responded with what was purported to be a distinctly evangelical (and superior) approach to dealing with racial problems. Now, in a new era of racial tension, we’re seeing another opening for black evangelical voices among the big evangelical publishing companies. Black evangelicals who might not have had a platform at other times are more likely to find one in these moments.

But it’s not just a publishing story. It is also a story of successive generations of black evangelicals becoming more race-conscious under the pressure of social transformations. For Pannell, the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing made him realize he couldn’t be a regular evangelical anymore. When he defended black power in 1968, he wasn’t stating longstanding views that publishing gatekeepers now allowed to be aired. Events had radicalized him.

In other cases, outside events may provide the occasion for black evangelical critiques more than the cause. When Christianity Today did its “Myth of Racial Progress” issue in 1993 and asked dozens of black evangelical leaders for comments, they responded with scathing reviews of the white evangelical movement. For many, their pessimism was earned through decades of hard experience trying to navigate white evangelical spaces. The Los Angeles Riots set the context for the discussion, but it certainly wasn’t the basis of black evangelical criticism.

Our own era seems more analogous to the 1970s than the 1990s. The palpable influence of black power and the new black theology on younger black evangelicals in the early 1970s has strong echoes today in the way black evangelicals, from Lecrae to Tisby and Loritts and many others, have become disenchanted with white evangelicalism. Crucially, it was not primarily events within the church that drove this transformation. Rather, events on the outside, especially police shootings, combined with white evangelicals’ response to these events, heightened black evangelicals’ sense of themselves as black people in a white movement that was indifferent to their identities and concerns. They began to see with new eyes some of the pathologies of the movement that may not have seemed as obvious a decade ago.

This is especially poignant because it so exactly rhymes with the experiences of generations of black evangelicals. One of the most common refrains describes an initial honeymoon period in white evangelicalism followed by disillusionment. Many black evangelicals were enamored with the supposed theological rigor of white evangelical institutions. Many also imagined that racism wouldn’t be a problem precisely because they were in an evangelical space. The theological assumptions invested in these hopes (after all, isn’t the church called to be united in Christ? Aren’t evangelicals the ones upholding the true gospel?) made it all the more wrenching when they were revealed as illusory.

We have to be careful here. It’s not as though the current generation of black evangelicals thought everything was fine in evangelicalism until Ferguson. But the shift from innocence to alienation is real. What are we to make of the fact that every generation of black evangelicals since the civil rights movement seems to have experienced this rude awakening?

White Evangelicals Don’t Know Their Inheritance

Pentecostal leaders, 1911. credit:https://iphc.org/gso/2016/03/10/unity-made-visible/

Though not the largest or most well-known of the Pentecostal denominations, the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC) is thoroughly in the evangelical mainstream. It is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and is resolutely conservative in its doctrine. The denomination supports an institution of higher education, Emmanuel College, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Among the most important early leaders of the Pentecostal Holiness Church was G.F. Taylor. He was the editor of the denomination’s official organ, The Pentecostal Holiness Advocate. Late in 1918, he added an additional job to his portfolio, accepting the position of superintendent of the new Franklin Springs Institute in Franklin Springs, Georgia, the school that would eventually become Emmanuel College.

In a recent piece celebrating the centennial, the general superintendent of the IPHC described how Taylor’s trust in God brought him to Franklin Springs and established the area as a center of the young IPHC movement. “I know not where I shall go,” Taylor wrote, “neither am I concerned about that part of it; I have such an assurance that I am in the will of God for me, that I know God will provide a place for me.”

Indeed, it appeared that God blessed Taylor’s work. According to a recent article on the denomination’s site, Taylor wanted Franklin Springs to be “a place where people could come for spiritual renewal, biblical training, and a deeper understanding of God’s Word. By 1923, the campus comprised a publishing house and post office and had become a central hub for the Pentecostal Holiness Church.”

Taylor also helped to lead yearly camp meetings, a kind of extended series of revival services then common in many Pentecostal and fundamentalist circles. In the late summer of 1923 Taylor presided over the sixth annual Franklin Springs camp meeting. After the camp meeting was over Taylor picked up his pen to report on what had happened.

The meetings had gone really well, in part because the Lord had blessed them with two tents that year. With more seating capacity than ever before, Taylor estimated that they had as many as 1,500 people in attendance at one time. But what most stood out to Taylor was “the spirit that prevailed” throughout the camp meeting. The workers got along with each other. The “singing was by far the best we have ever had,” and the “preaching was certainly of a high order.” Taylor felt that “the power of the Spirit” was evident in the sermons.

Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, “dozens and scores of people” responded to the altar calls. “Some were saved, some sanctified, some filled with the Spirit, and some healed.” The Lord did a mighty work. Taylor only wished that more people had responded, lamenting that “great multitudes stood back from the altar.” Nonetheless, Taylor trusted that the “seed sown” in hearts would “bring forth fruit” in due time.

One night of the camp meeting, they raised an offering for Taylor’s school. They were blessed by “representatives from the Ku Klux Klan” who “came forward in their robes and presented an offering of $50.00” and a letter that was read aloud to the camp meeting.

Taylor explained that he was not a member of the Klan, and indeed could not be because he did not believe in secret societies. But “So far as I know,” he explained, “The Klan’s one great purpose is to prevent the Catholic Church from taking control of our government, and in this they certainly have my prayers and best wishes.”

In any case, he went on, “I highly appreciate the offering they gave us, and the expression of sympathy and cooperation in the letter written us.” Because the letter seemed to have generated considerable enthusiasm and interest, Taylor decided to print it in its entirety. After all, he said, “We do not believe in secret orders, but I see no objections to the other principles expressed in the letter below.” Here is that letter:

Praise the Lord for his wondrous work!

“They’re People Just Like Us”

In 1993, Christianity Today reported that a wealthy all-white suburban Atlanta church was committing half a million dollars and 600 volunteers to help “revitalize the low-income African American neighborhood” of Summerville. As part of the effort, one Sunday morning a busload of wealthy white suburbanites attended an African American church service.

“When the service is dismissed,” CT reported, “a question hangs over everyone: Will people connect over cookies and coffee in Fellowship Hall?” (Yes, it’s ok to laugh at how CT frames this drama; it’s funny!) As the bus headed back to the suburbs, there was unanimous agreement among its occupants that a connection had indeed been made (how the ordinary members of the black church felt about it is left to our imagination). Here’s how one of the white visitors put it:

I was surprised at how much we had in common. They’re people just like us. They seem to have the same concerns we do, such as wanting their kids to be the best they can be or wanting to learn more about God.

Your mileage may vary, but I found this passage chilling. A white person took a field trip to a black church and discovered that African Americans are ordinary people. This persistent and recurring need for white people (it’s not just evangelicals) to learn, discover, and state the obvious is one of the most chilling evidences of how white supremacy distorts the imagination and places an experiential and moral gulf between human beings.

It reminds me, of all things, of Gunnar Myrdal’s groundbreaking 1941 study of American race relations, An American Dilemma. I hope I’m being fair to Myrdal, but basically he believed white and black Americans inhabited the same ideological world, sharing a belief in what he called “The American Creed.” He thought if white Americans better understood how African Americans were really treated, and how that treatment violated the creed of equality and opportunity for all, they would favor “a better deal” for black Americans.

The black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier found much to like in Myrdal’s work, but he doubted whether “the problem is on the conscience of white people to the extent” Myrdal implied. Had not history shown that white Americans were content with the status quo as long as black discontent did not spill into the open? While Myrdal imagined an American Creed that everyone shared, Frazier was more pessimistic: “for many whites the Negro lives in an entirely different social world or is not a part of the same moral order.”

Frazier’s insight is a profound one. It still stands. White Americans live with the devastating consequences of racial discrimination by imagining that it happens to people who are in some fundamental way different from ourselves. Discarding this lie can disrupt our whole lives. When we see others as human and as part of our moral order, our view of ourselves and our country changes. Many of us are not willing to take that risk.

Previewing My Summer of Learning about Early Christianity

On a bit of a whim I’m hoping to delve into the history of early Christianity this summer. In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in learning about my faith beyond the fundamentalist roots in which I grew up. In the old days, learning about social contexts, historical developments, and critical scholarship on the Bible would have been scary. In more recent times it’s not only fascinating to me, it’s devotional. God is unlikely to be particularly impressed by my knowledge, nor shaken by my doubts. So it’s fun to learn more.

The following list reflects what happened to be on Temple’s shelves on the last day before Paley Library’s permanent closing. So this is not a recommended way to build a reading list. But I’m going to start with this:

It’s pitched as an accessible book for students and laypeople, which is probably exactly what I need to orient myself to the historical context and the field.

This one looks like a fun follow-up:

I’m also kind of excited about this comparative collection surveying the rise of Christianity and Buddhism, respectively:

I imagine these two books will speak to each other:

And then there’s kind of a grab bag of random stuff:

Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity
Image result for The Last Pagan Emperor: Julian the Apostate and the War against Christianity
Being Christian in Vandal Africa by Robin Whelan

If all goes well, I’ll know a lot more about Christianity by the end of the summer! And I figure previewing my study marginally raises the chances that I’ll actually follow through.

Historians: prophetic preachers of an American civil religion?

https://washington-org.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/pixels.sh_visitors-to-the-lincoln-memorial-at-night_mydccool-via-crowdriff.jpg

That phrase comes from Rachel Wheeler’s piece in the latest issue of Perspectives. Wheeler writes:

The ideological and religious right have been phenomenally successful in laying claim to the myths and symbols of America, distorting them to the point of caricature. Historical scholarship now draws vicious fire from pundits on the right who see campuses as hotbeds of anti-American, liberal orthodoxy, even as it has achieved wide dissemination among the cultural left. But, informed by historians’ efforts at deconstructing American myths, some quarters of the left veer into a dystopian iconoclasm. This first crystalized for me as I followed reactions to the immigrant family separation crisis on social media last summer. Proclamations of “This is not who we are” from one quarter of the left were quickly met with reminders of slavery, Indian boarding schools, Japanese concentration camps: “This is exactly who we’ve always been!”

Here is the problem: meeting MAGA fundamentalism with dystopian iconoclasm only affirms the central claim of today’s right wing: that America’s soul is white and Christian, disagreeing only over whether that is cause for celebration or lament. Yet iconoclasts rarely persuade the iconophiles. Pathologists do not cure cancer, and prosecuting attorneys do not rehabilitate the criminal. It is not their job. Which brings me back to the question, in the context of American civic life: What are we history professors for?

This is a real problem. Imagine if leftist-historian twitter had existed when Martin Luther King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail. When King dared to write,

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

There would have been a bunch of us screaming from the sidelines, “Don’t you know the founding fathers were scared of democracy? Don’t you know the Declaration of Independence was hypocritical propaganda? Don’t you know Judeo-Christian is problematic?” Seriously though, it’s precisely because of stuff like this that some of the historiography downplays King as patriot and Christian in preference of King as radical. (Of course, he could be all three, and more).

Much like Jill Lepore at the OAH meeting last month, Wheeler believes we must take it upon ourselves to supply national myths for a public that is hungry for them. And so she asks:

What if we envision our work as prophetic preachers of an American civil religion? This doesn’t require dramatic change, but simply a reframing of our thinking about what we’re already doing. Our lecterns are our pulpit and our lectures sermons, with the power to make congregants squirm in their pews at our country’s many sins, while also inspiring them with a vision of a better, more American America. Students are hungry, I believe, for exactly this sense of possibility. As the would-be keepers of America’s past, we owe it to our parishioners—our students—to help them imagine a future. Right now, I fear we often leave them straitjacketed by history. We dangle them over the pit of an American hellscape like Jonathan Edwards’s spider and preach of the indelible mark of our nation’s original sins, but we fail to offer the accompanying sermon that holds out hope of salvation.

To that I say…yikes! Can I stand in the mushy middle and say Wheeler has identified a significant problem but I’m not sure I like her solution?

Wheeler thinks the way forward is to see the oppressed and persecuted in the American story as essentially and fully American. They are not victims at the hands of “real America” (i.e., white supremacy or some such). They are constitutive of the nation. This is fine as far as it goes, but it seems like it’d be hard to find a historian working today who disagrees with it. In any case, it’s not clear to me that national histories, whatever their frame, can ever adequately get us out of this myopic trap where students move between the poles of America is awesome! andAmerica is awful!

One way out of that trap is to use transnational and global history. The wider our lens, the harder it becomes to sustain a sense that the United States is uniquely good or bad. I don’t know; maybe Wheeler thinks this is part of the problem. But I think it has to be part of the solution.

In all kinds of ways, these broader frames upset those who seek to cast the United States as an angel or devil. For example, the immigration story on which so much of American identity is built looks considerably less special when one realizes how many millions of people were moving to other places at the same time. On the other hand, American capital’s oppressions in the twentieth century look considerably less villainous when one realizes that other societies were murdering millions of their citizens in the name of class liberation.

Though I’m somewhat skeptical of Wheeler’s approach, thinking through the issues she (and Lepore) are raising can help historians to realize how thoroughly ideological our deconstructing work already is. My impression is that many of us approach our country’s history with the disillusionment of an adult who’s lost their childhood faith. We can’t get it back, and we don’t even want to at this point, but we sure as hell are angry about it.

Such an attitude shows how little we’ve learned from our own lessons. If in our classrooms students learn that the United States has not been the moral exemplar to the world they may have imagined, we ourselves ought to have learned by now that it has been a place of hope, opportunity, and inspiration for many. If such a diversity of stories make us uncomfortable, then we really are just angry deconstructionists with nothing to offer the public.

In Appreciation of David Brion Davis

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/515Pj0NzGIL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

David Brion Davis has passed away. I first encountered his books some ten years ago, well before I decided to become a historian. When I read Inhuman Bondage, I was mesmerized. It wasn’t just his command of facts or the clarity of his interpretations. It was the sense that he wrote with a nuance and understanding of humanity that was as much philosophical and theological as historical. I’m sure it was because of books like this that I began to contemplate the possibilities of history as a profession.

Read the first chapter of Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s a discussion of the meaning of dehumanization and animalization in American slavery that ranges across history, psychology, and theology to draw a portrait not merely of a particular moment in time, but of the human condition we all share. Davis was interested in whether humans who were treated and spoken of as animals “were ever literally seen as ‘only animals.'” He joins Kwame Anthony Appiah in arguing that the answer is no, that indeed, the excesses of cruelty humans inflict on each other while calling them lice or cockroaches and the like suggests a recognition of their humanity. You don’t bother trying to humiliate a cockroach. Thus we have the invention of “animalized humans” as seen in the Americas, in Germany, in Rwanda. Davis writes,

Given the Nazi example, it is worth noting that the antipode of this animalizing can be seen in a universal tendency to project our potentiality for self-transcendence, freedom, and striving for perfection onto images of kings, dictators, demagogues, and cultural heroes of various kinds. This form of idolatry, which ancient Judaism fortunately singled out as the most dangerous sin facing humanity, can also appear in various kinds of narcissism and egocentrism, as when an individual imagines that he is godlike and free from all taint of finitude and corruption…

This is a history book? Yes! And it’s great.

In any event, the creation of “animalized humans” can produce a mental state in the victimizers and spectators that disconnects the neural sources of human identification, empathy, and compassion, the very basis for the Golden Rule and all human ethics. In extreme cases, this means the ability to engage in torture or extermination without a qualm. But the focus on extreme cases can obscure the fact, emphasized by David Livingstone Smith, that “we are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are potential objects of dehumanization.” No doubt many situations arise, especially in war, where people kill or inflict pain without misgivings and without any explicit animalization. But the victims must still be dehumanized in similar ways. And animalization, which also appears in such group differentiations as class, caste, and ethnicity, as well as race, clearly makes the process easier for large collective groups.

Davis was always interested in the universal human condition. But he gave no reprieve to the specific pathologies of America:

The psychological mechanism of animalization has been so deeply implanted in white culture, with respect to African Americans, that most white Americans have been unaware of their usually unconscious complicity as well as the significant benefits they have reaped from their ‘transcendent whiteness.’

I don’t want to derail an appreciation of a great historian, but I will note at this point that understanding Davis helps us to see more clearly how the current administration is not merely misguided or incompetent, but is in fact a profoundly evil enterprise playing with the worst of our human impulses.

Davis lived an extraordinary life. He was a World War Two veteran! He has written humbly about his awakening to racism through his own very uncomfortable experiences with black troops as a young soldier. His life bridged very different social and historiographical eras, from Jim Crow and a history of slavery encrusted in myth and racism, to a flourishing post-civil rights era historiography bursting with new insights and anti-racist perspectives. He did more than his share in bringing about this momentous change.

It is fitting that the great historian of abolition, Manisha Sinha, just published a long and respectful reappraisal of Davis’s career in the February issue of the American Historical Review. In the conclusion of that piece Sinha wrote, “nearly all historians of abolition must still begin with Davis’s initial attempt to delineate it.” Not a bad legacy.

Tom Skinner Was Not The Evangelical Radical You’re Looking For

https://pictures.abebooks.com/isbn/9780853640912-us-300.jpg

The black evangelist Tom Skinner has often been portrayed as a kind of radical figure who challenged white evangelicals to confront racism. His speech at the 1970 Urbana Conference is particularly famous (that is, famous in the small world of black evangelical history).

It seems to me this reputation glosses over significant changes over time and evolution in Skinner’s thought. When he burst on the scene in 1966, he was a more complicated figure than the radical image implies. His views in 1970 should not be retroactively applied to the 1966-1968 period. Here’s an excerpt from an in-progress draft of a dissertation chapter:

Skinner represented a new kind of bridge figure between white evangelicalism and African Americans. It had long been the case, as Bob Harrison complained, that black Christians were encouraged to minister among their own people and steer clear of challenging white entitlement to spiritual authority. But white evangelicals did not imagine Skinner’s evangelistic crusades through the traditional parameters of segregated ministries. In fact, when Skinner came to town for a crusade, local white evangelical college students were encouraged to help out. Simply by supporting Skinner they were doing something meaningful about the nation’s racial troubles. He was less an outcast from white evangelicalism, as Harrison had sometimes felt himself to be in the 40s and 50s, and more an ambassador. Said Christianity Today, “Skinner has created a great deal of interest among evangelicals who worry vaguely that they might be missing the boat.”[1] In this project Skinner’s blackness was crucial and revealing of the ways the civil rights movement had upset racial norms in evangelicalism. Bob Harrison’s blackness had made him an outsider. Skinner’s blackness enabled him to act as a liminal figure, a provisional insider in two religio-racial communities at once. By the summer of 1967, Christianity Today was telling its readers that Skinner deserved their “fullest support.”[2]

Skinner was not afraid to make white evangelicals uncomfortable. They were “almost totally irresponsible” in their avoidance of their black brethren, and it was only the pressures of the civil rights movement that had belatedly stirred them from their complacency. He blasted white evangelicals who piously intoned that “Jesus was the answer” while refusing to get involved in the problem. Skinner believed Jesus was the answer too. But he had skin in the game, and he expected other evangelicals to join him. Yet it was precisely this supplicatory undertone that made Skinner’s criticisms manageable. For all the discomfort his words could cause, he did not doubt that white evangelicals had the correct theology on the point that mattered most, and he asked them to help him bring their theology to the ghetto. Christianity Today approvingly noted that Skinner “plays down social insurgence in his sermons because he feels that reform may take ‘sixty years’ but that regeneration through Christ can help now.”[3] To put it baldly, converted Negroes were not rioting Negroes.

Remarkably, Skinner’s criticisms of white evangelicals were tame compared to his open contempt for the black church. He described most black churches as bastions of excessive emotionalism and spiritual immaturity, led by ministers given over to sexual immorality and hypocrisy.[4] As a result, he claimed, “There is hardly any Christian witness in the ghetto.”[5] There’s little reason to suppose Skinner’s hostility toward the black church was anything but sincere, but it also proved useful. It flattered white evangelical assumptions of religio-racial superiority….

I’m still working out where I’m going with this.


[1] “The Gospel with Candor,” Christianity Today, October 14, 1966, 53-54.

[2] “Summer of Racial Discontent,” Christianity Today, July 21, 1967, 27

[3] “The Gospel with Candor,” Christianity Today, October 14, 1966, 53-54.

[4] Skinner, Black and Free, 45-53.

[5] Skinner, Black and Free, 32.


Highlights from the OAH

The Octavius Catto Memorial outside Philadelphia’s City Hall (I took this picture!)

Last week I was at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. It was great to be in such an intellectually stimulating environment. Writing a dissertation is for many of us a long and isolating slog. It was refreshing to think and talk about big ideas with great historians. It was also nice to see the wide range of opinion stretching from left all the way to center left (I kid, but only a little). Here are some idiosyncratic highlights.

I think there remains a lot of angst about the place of historians in an era of declining support for humanities and the flourishing of anti-reality politics. At one panel, a historian in the audience plaintively asked how we could convince people what we do is important. Well, good luck with that.

Someone who I think feels this angst, and has tried to respond decisively to it, is Jill Lepore. I thoroughly enjoyed a roundtable gathered to discuss Lepore’s new history of the United States, These Truths. For all her intellectual brilliance and sterling prose, at bottom Lepore seems to have an idealistic—I fear naive—hope in the power of truth and reason to overcome falsehood and fear. Can books like These Truths provide the American public an antidote to the alluring racist mythologies of Trumpism? Lepore thinks we’ve at least got to try.

At the end of the roundtable, after hearing her colleagues’ praise and criticism (more on that below) she concluded with an impassioned call for historians to do the hard work of constructing stories of national identity that the American public can grab onto. One of the criticisms of grand syntheses is that they seem inevitably to simplify, and worse, exclude. But Lepore believes we must be willing to take these risks. Nationalism is not going away. Publics will not do without stories that anchor identity. If historians do not engage the public and provide responsible stories based in fact and a vision of the common good, racist nationalism stands waiting in the wings.

I find Lepore’s vision convincing in spite of the problems with her book. (I should clarify that I haven’t read it! But I will.) Randall Kennedy said he would like to see more about the 1875 Civil Rights Act and the Supreme Court’s striking down of it in 1883. Everyone, of course, has their pet causes, but this one seems especially worthy of more attention. It is striking to read the public debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and see the extent to which the legal history of Reconstruction had completely vanished from the public mind. Though Southern senators were well aware of the 1880s Supreme Court precedents in their favor, I don’t think the American public knew (or knows now) that the federal government enacted the principle of nondiscrimination in public accommodations in 1875. Understanding this makes the struggle for equality appear so much more contingent and open-ended than facile “time has come” stories.

David Hollinger did not hide his admiration, saying “This is a great book.” He encouraged critics to imagine going page by page, thinking about how they might present the story better. Of course they might be able to in a few areas of their expertise. But then, Hollinger said, do that 700 times. Still, Hollinger thought Lepore gives short shrift to religion and immigration in the 20th century.

Jeff Pasley seemed to think Lepore was too nostalgic about the possibilities of truth winning out over lies. In Lepore’s vision, Murrow and Cronkite preside over the midcentury scene with responsibly furrowed eyebrows.

But the most interesting response came from Malinda Lowery, who blasted the book for its exclusion of American Indians. It’s not that tales of atrocity and resistance are literally absent; it’s that Lepore’s vision of national identity and expanding civil rights is notably misaligned with the realities of Indian sovereignty claims and treaty rights. To put it simply, how do you construct a national story when there are so many nations within the borders of the American state? This question, informed by settler colonial studies, has not entered the public consciousness in the way the African American experience has. As much as slavery and Jim Crow trouble the American conscience, writing these experiences into a national story of rights-expansion is not so difficult. American Indian experiences burst out of this framework and upset grand narratives. Lepore said, with I think evident sincerity, that this critique has kept her up at night.

Ok, I said this was going to be OAH highlights but that was all about one panel. Continuing the theme of angst about historians’ role in this moment, a plenary session brought together a panel of journalists and historians to discuss how they can learn from each other and work together (I think this is the nice way of putting it). Tom Gjelten of NPR bluntly said that some historians do a good job of engaging the public, but many don’t. This didn’t sit particularly well with a roomful of historians, nor with panelist Danielle McGuire. There ensued an in-the-room version of the digital uproar of a few weeks ago when Max Boot dared to criticize historians for failing the public.

There are lots of reasons to think that the picture is not as clear as Gjelten painted it, but I’m less interested in those than in the opportunity critiques like Gjelten’s and Boot’s give us to be self-critical as a community of scholars. Obviously it would have been very foolish for Gjelten (while sitting two chairs down from Danielle McGuire of all people!) to say categorically that historians do not engage the public. But that’s not what he said. He said some are good at this and some aren’t. Instead of firing back with all the reasons it’s harder for us to access mainstream popular spaces than he realizes, why don’t we pause and see if the shoe fits?

Let’s be honest. Our training and incentive structure in the academy do not reward the quick-on-your-feet writing and thinking that popular engagement may require. And if you’ve sat through graduate seminars, you can’t tell me that you haven’t seen colleagues slip into the safety and allure of specialized impenetrable jargon. Some of us never recover! Some of us couldn’t write for the public to save our lives. This isn’t to say that all historians all the time should be trying to reach the public. That would be disastrous for the work of scholarship. But it is to say that maybe we as a collective community of scholars can ponder whether we have created an environment that is really good at churning out specialized monographs, but produces too few Lepores and McGuires. The high appreciation Ta-Nehisi Coates has received from historians in recent years is due to his open reliance on their work. But doesn’t this praise carry with it the admission that we needed a translator?

I think what is interesting about this debate is how emotional it is. Historians feel threatened in this moment. We must be willing to turn our practiced critical eye not only toward our historical subjects, but ourselves. There is more to be said (I only mentioned two panels!) but I’ll leave it there for now.

Tom Skinner and Evangelical Conversion Narratives

Tom Skinner’s story is a classic evangelical conversion narrative. A boy coming up in Harlem becomes the hardened leader of a notorious street gang. With his mixture of toughness and strategic thinking, the gang never loses a fight while he’s in charge, and all 129 members, are, as Skinner put it, “eating out of my hand.” Skinner claimed he enforced discipline in the gang with brutal efficiency. He “had personally broken the arms and legs” of two would-be quitters, and claimed to have 22 notches on his knife, one for each of the people his blade had cut. Then, the night before the biggest “rumble” of them all, he hears a radio broadcast and is miraculously converted to Christianity, becoming a “new creation in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Tom Skinner’s story is compelling. But is it true? Or is that the wrong question?

Exaggerated or not, white evangelicals ate Skinner’s tale of redemption up. It fit a pattern of evangelical conversion narratives in which the more gratuitously sinful one’s former life could be shown to be, the more glory abounded to the grace of God. Skinner used his experiences in Harlem, real or imagined, to connect with black audiences and claim understanding of their struggles. For white evangelicals, Skinner’s evil escapades testified to the power of the gospel and signaled that when they supported Skinner they were supporting someone who really understood the ghetto and could speak its language.

I have read many authors, from white evangelicals to professional historians, uncritically repeat the claim that Skinner was a former gang leader. I never questioned the claim until just this week when I finally got around to reading Skinner’s first book, Black and Free. The tone of the book and the extraordinary nature of some of the details strained my credulity.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Skinner was not a former gang leader. But it’s also not clear to me that anyone has ever independently confirmed this. The only hint I could find of someone questioning Skinner’s claims is this obscure interview with a man who claims to be a former Harlem Lord’s member and says Skinner was lying. There is no particular reason to take his word over Skinner’s, however.

Skinner’s first book does not date his conversion, but a 1964 New York Times article quotes him saying, “I myself belonged to the Harlem Lords before I was converted, and I was mugging people in back alleys. But in 1956 I invited Jesus Christ into my life, when I heard a man tell about Him on the radio, and I became a new person.” It may be suggestive that he says he “belonged” and does not say, as he did in his book four years later, that he was the leader for 2 years. It’s also worth noting that a conversion date of 1956 would make Skinner all of 13 or 14 years old at the time he left the gang. It is possible for a 13 or 14 year old to break both the arms and legs of two other youths, but I find it hard to believe. The comic book story of Skinner’s life (which is a wild document by the way!) later produced by Tom Skinner Associates claims he joined the Harlem Lords when he was 14. This seems to be a discrepancy. Perhaps the Times misquoted him and his conversion was in 1958, at the age of 16?

I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on this. I’m interested in hearing from anyone who may have looked into sources I have not. Unfortunately, I haven’t looked at Skinner’s papers at Wheaton. But my point is a larger one: For those of us in the historical profession, we can’t take autobiographical claims at face value, even when we admire the person we’re writing about. For the historian, what really happened in Tom Skinner’s Harlem childhood is less consequential than the fact that what was said to have happened to him became so important for his ministry.

God with Us: A Conversation with Ansley Quiros

Ansley L. Quiros is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Alabama. Her new book, God with Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976, is available now.

Curtis: What is the main argument of God with Us?

Quiros: The struggle over civil rights was not, for many, just about lunch counters and waiting rooms or even access to the vote; it was also about Christian orthodoxy. God with Us examines this theological struggle through the story of one southern town–Americus, Georgia–where ordinary Americans both sought and confronted racial change in the twentieth century.

Curtis: What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?

Quiros: For me, the most challenging aspect of actually writing the book was balancing the narrative and the historical argument. I found myself, at moments, getting swept up in the story and momentarily abandoning the analysis, and then at others interrupting the sweep of events with more abstract historical musings. Balancing those impulses– presenting a swift narrative while also making a real argument—proved difficult but I’m thankful to great editors and readers who helped smooth the whole thing out. One thing that was delightful to realize was how even one careful word can hold the thread of analysis, one name drop can keep a story in mind.

Curtis: Your book is very theological and it wears that on its sleeve. Did you get pushback from other historians? It seems to me that historians, theologians, and religious studies scholars are often talking past each other even if we’re writing about similar things. Was it difficult for you to situate your book disciplinarily?

Quiros: It was, but just a bit. After an initial explainer of my choice to foreground theology, I found most historians to be quite supportive. Most know instinctively that historical research has tended to diminish the role of faith in people’s lives, not the institutions so much, but the content and effects of belief in the past. This is partly because these things are obviously difficult to get at, but also because the academy can skew secular. The religious studies/theology folks I spoke to occasionally wanted more theologizing, but most understood this was primarily a history book and appreciated the effort to bring lived theology into the conversation.

Curtis: You make a point of showing that white southern Protestants had theologies of segregation that were robust, sincerely held, and internally consistent. In doing so, I think you make a convincing argument against the cultural captivity thesis. Was that something you knew early on in the project you wanted to do, or did it take shape as your research developed?

Quiros: This actually developed as I read David Chappell’s work and the responses from Charles Marsh and Jane Dailey in particular. Truly, this question of theology and culture/politics —the chicken and the egg in some senses—is a perplexing one. On different days, especially in our current political moment, I find myself wondering about it. (I did so here, in fact!)

Curtis: Where do you see the field going from here? What is next for you?

Quiros: I don’t know where the field will go from here, but I think broad evangelical support for the Trump Administration and what I see as consistently racist policies will provide a lot of fodder! As for me, I have two projects in the works. One is an exploration of the Atlanta street party known as Freaknik. It’s a wild story, but one that reveals much about the city of Atlanta, the rise of the black new South, and the limits of black governance in the multicultural 1990s. The other project is spiritual biography of Charles and Shirley Sherrod, racial justice activists who have spent their lives in Southwest Georgia. I guess I’m not done with Georgia yet!