Christianity Teaches That Whiteness Loses

I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord In the land of the living.

Psalm 27:13

We’re caught in a pandemic that is disproportionally killing black people. The violent and racist American policing system continues its rampage. New videos emerge, exclamation points on the sentences most of us haven’t bothered to read.

In our age of existential and eschatological confusion, where anything might be true, it is a challenge to cling to a hope rigorous enough to sustain action.

White Christianity can’t help us here. Indeed, if I thought for a minute that white Christianity represented God’s goodness I would not be a Christian. If I thought the passivity and silence of white Christians embodied Christian teaching I would know for certain that the invention of Christianity was a historic calamity.

But if the Christian story isn’t true, there are other bleak possibilities ahead. After all, whose to say so-called white people won’t win in the end? If the nation is all we have, whose to say the end of the story won’t be: we tried to establish an interracial democracy and failed. If humanity is all we have, whose to say the end of the story isn’t: we bounced around for a while, killing each other here and healing each other there, before finally destroying ourselves.

One reason I cling to Christian hope is because Christianity promises that whiteness will be overthrown. And that’s where James Baldwin comes in. Yes, Baldwin. Even though he eventually discarded the Christianity of his youth, he understood the subversive possibilities of Christianity far better than most Christians.

Baldwin’s first novel is a haunting coming of age story and a vivid picture of black Pentecostalism in 1930s Harlem. The main character is John Grimes, a black teenager wrestling with his sexuality and spirituality. In one astonishing passage describing John’s grandmother, a woman born into slavery, Baldwin shows his deep understanding of the black theological tradition. Against the theological heresies and social dehumanization practiced by most white Americans, John’s grandmother steadied herself with the truths of the Christian scriptures.

Take a moment to read this slowly. Let it wash over you:

I choose to believe this is true, and I could not possibly be more bored with the “god” of all the white Christians who tell us to calm down and stop talking about white supremacy. Sometimes people are most reluctant to talk about precisely those things that are most precious and holy to them. Think about that.

Baldwin was doing here what every good white evangelical claims to do with the scripture: applying it. There is a big gap in context and experience between the first century and twenty-first, and white Christians tend to be terrified of making that leap. So they keep the scriptures safely in an irrelevant time and place.

In recent weeks we’ve seen white people using guns to threaten legislators and pressure elected officials to end lockdowns. In large swaths of white America, it makes more intuitive sense to protest life-saving public health measures than to protest the death of a black person. This kind of moral illness is always a feature of the top of a social hierarchy. The struggle to dominate comes with costs to one’s own soul.

I have come to believe that the dark heart of socialization into whiteness is learning to devalue human life. You might think this would be a difficult lesson to learn, but learn it we do. It shows up in our materialism, our frenetic pursuit of accomplishment, our passivity in the face of injustice, our trust in racist institutions, and on and on. It shows up, too, in the way we enforce ignorance and callousness through social stigma. Go against the grain, defend black people without equivocation, and watch how quickly white Christians try to slap you down and make you bow to their god.

But folks, the people who here and now are white are on the edge of a steep place, with sightless eyes and stumbling feet. Whiteness loses, in the end.

A Scathing Review of Birth of A Nation from an Unlikely Source

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NAACP members protest the showing of Birth of A Nation in 1947. Theatrical re-releases for decades after 1915 helped make Birth of A Nation one of the most watched and influential films in American history.

D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation, a historical epic of the reconstructed then redeemed South, debuted in the Spring of 1915. You may have heard of President Wilson’s probably-apocryphal remark that the film was like writing history with lightning.

The emotional core of the film, the part that grabbed audience’s hearts and left them stumbling out of the theater in ecstasies of white solidarity, was the lynching of a black man. In the climax of the film, a grim band of terrorists ride to the rescue of their absurd civilization, ready to do what they must to save themselves and their womenfolk from the horrors of freedom and democracy.

I’ve watched it so you don’t have to. While the NAACP boycotted and protested and successfully lobbied to ban the film in some cities, most people who saw it (and a lot of people saw it) seem to have thought the movie succeeded both as entertainment and as history.

The Chicago Tribune called Birth of A Nation “the greatest piece of work” ever done by an American filmmaker, and “in all essential episodes grounded on historical fact.” In London, the Observer enthused, “from first to last the story captivates with thrilling exploit,” and “remarkable realism.” Life magazine declared, “No one who cares for the history of our country should miss seeing this stirring exhibition.”

A 1921 retrospective in Life said that “movie history may be said to date from the day when The Birth of a Nation was first disclosed before the startled eyes of the multitude. It was so immeasurably finer than anything that had been done before that there was no possible standard by which to gauge its quality.”

As a technical filmmaking achievement, this judgment may not be far from the truth. But Life did not stop to ask what sort of country censored sex and profanity in movies while making an ode to terrorism its highest-grossing film to date.

But how did white conservative Protestants react to the film? My expectation would be that most objected to the theater in general, but not the film in particular. So I was surprised to discover yesterday a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church who saw clearly what most mainstream reviewers did not.

Writing in The Christian Nation, the denomination’s news magazine, W.J. McKnight noted that “The colored population of Boston is greatly agitated” about the movie. I expected him to condescendingly explain why their agitation was unjustified. Instead, he pointed out that the film was based on Thomas Dixon’s popular novel, The Clansman, and that Dixon, “as everybody knows, hates the negro with all his heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, and would like to get all his neighbors, except, perhaps, the negroes, to do the same.” In other words, the black people of Boston had every right and reason to be agitated.

Well now, this was fascinating! Why did McKnight come to have these views, and how common were they in his circles? Certainly it has something to do with him being part of the slightly quirky Reformed Presbyterian Church. But why did he say “everybody knows” Dixon hated black people, when it was obvious most people did not know that (least of all Dixon himself)?

In contrast to mainstream reviews, McKnight called the film “a caricature of history.” How did he come to know this? How common was this knowledge among conservative Protestants? I’d really like to know!

While D.W. Griffith basked in the success of his film and declared that he “loved Negroes” (you know, some of my best friends are black) McKnight called the director “venomous.” McKnight had attended an interracial “indignation meeting” at an African Methodist Church where he learned that the film’s real message was “BACK TO SLAVERY.”

McKnight had apparently already been working among the black residents of Boston, though in what fashion I’m not sure. He mentioned that he had already given some lectures to crowds of hundreds and had more lectures scheduled. It is easy to assume that this ministry was carried on in a paternalistic fashion typical of the day. But that’s the thing about paternalistic ministry: it can’t control its effects in the way it purports to do. Sometimes the paternalist finds himself changing. McKight’s contact with African Americans may have given him insight to see the truth that most white Americans refused to see.

Notes from the Classroom: First Day

Well, that’s a wrap for day one of The Historian’s Craft at Temple University.

I’ve tried more ambitious first day’s in the past and perhaps will again in the future, but today I had just two main goals: get students talking to each other and get them oriented to the class.

I admit it: for an ice-breaker I had them travel to the spring of 1889, to a certain town on the Austrian-German border, to a certain house in which resided a couple by the names of Klara and Alois. This couple trustingly asked them to babysit their infant son Adolphus.

What would you do with baby Hitler? (This thought experiment was an unnecessary risk for opening day, potentially offensive on a number of levels, and I don’t recommend it!)

Some students indeed wanted to kill baby Hitler. Some wanted to kidnap him and take him as far from Germany as possible. Some decided to babysit him like any other baby and dutifully return him to his parents. Some wanted to surround him with good art and art instruction.

Seriously, though, some students framed their answers from the get-go in terms of real historical questions of contingency and causation. Some believed killing Hitler wouldn’t make a difference, which suggests a certain perspective on the relationship between the individual and larger forces. Those who wanted to expose Hitler to a lot of art seem to have confidence in the pliability of human personality. And so on.

Really, it was just a chance for them to talk to each other. But we could claim some historical thinking took place as well.

The more substantive exercise concerned how they have learned history. What has influenced their view of the past? Here are their responses (lots of these were cited by more than one person):

Independent research

Wikipedia

School

Magic Tree House

Tv

Historical fiction

Museums

Music (Billy Joel – we didn’t start the fire)

Video games (Call of duty)

Family (history phd in the family!)

Oral history

Listening to others

History channel

Weather channel

NPR

Social media

Traveling

Pop culture (comics)

Memes

Word of mouth

Talking with family; family stories

Dad [interesting to note that some people nearly always say Dad but rarely say Mom]

Documentaries

Festivals

High school teacher

American girl doll

Colonial Williamsburg

Museums and monuments

Dance

History textbooks

Historic sites (one room school house)

Landscapes

Quaker meeting houses

Battlefields

Traveling and seeing other country’s point of view

I asked them what we might infer from this list. They said things like:

–History is all around us.

–We learn it in popular forms.

–It’s hard to know where the information is coming from or whether it’s reliable.

Most academic historians are likely to immediately note that nearly all the items on this list are “public history” or not even a direct form of history at all. Not surprisingly, not a single student said that academic monographs were important to how they have learned history. This need not be depressing to us, but it’s definitely important!

My example of how I learned history was church attendance as a child. There I received very powerful (though often implicit) lessons about what history was and what it meant.

My takeaway was that we are all engaging with the past constantly, and often unconsciously. Part of the point of this semester is to become conscious. If we are fated to remember, why not endeavor to do so consciously, and do it well?

A 9-Year-Old’s Poem

This is a poem my 9-year-old son wrote this afternoon. Seriously, he wrote it really fast:

The fire burned

They were too late

We never knew it would

cross the river

People fled

but one stood up

Raised everybody’s spirits

as we rose

we scratched the sky

But two stood out

You could barely tell the

difference of height

The great city of Chicago

Checking In On Temple’s New Library

I have an ignorant layperson’s interest in architecture. I know just enough to make myself dangerous. I can throw around a few words—cantilever! curtain wall!—while remaining blissfully ignorant of the actual mechanics of the things they describe.

So my take on this library is not to be taken seriously. I’m just interested in it. There’s lots of gray stone (is it real though?). There’s glass on top. The roof curves. These are my insights. Here’s what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done:

Looking into the atrium at night.
The plaza in front of the main entrance.

And here’s what it looks like now:

It is no coincidence that the renderings highlight the library in the evening. Much will depend on how the light plays off the wood that extends from inside the atrium to the curving roofs above the East and West entrances. How will it look at noon on a sunny day? Hopefully it feels warm and inviting at all times. It seems to me there’s a risk of it feeling like a gray monolith, as you see here on the West side:

That’s…kinda bleak! And a little too much like a forbidding wall. So, the entrances will make or break the exterior. Here’s how the smaller Southeast entrance looks now:

You can’t really see it in this photo, but that wood paneling will extend right through the atrium and out to the larger entrance on the other side. It might end up looking really good. And here’s the entrance on the East side:

Of course, all of this has little to do with how students and the public will actually experience the new library. In keeping with the times, Temple is going to put the vast majority of its circulating collection in an “Automated Storage and Retrieval System.” Though there will be traditional shelves on the top floor of the new library, most of the books will be hidden away. If you want to check something out, you’ll have to find it in the catalogue and ask the robot to get it for you. So much for serendipity in the stacks.

There have been so many times that I have found useful books simply by browsing a subject area in person, books that I failed to locate when doing keyword and subject searches in the catalogue. Maybe I’m just bad at this digital stuff, but I lament the passing of large physically accessible collections.* The exterior of this building will be a centerpiece of Temple’s campus for decades to come, but it’s even more important that its insides accomplish what libraries ought to do. In this digital era, the traditional “oughts” are up for negotiation, and I’m grumpy about it! Another sign of the times? The forthcoming Obama Presidential Library isn’t actually going to have papers on site. Don’t get me started on how stupid this is.

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*This guy tells me my feeling of serendipity is actually a problem, so who knows.)

Recent Fiction Roundup

In the past couple months I’ve been on a bit of a fiction binge. This isn’t normal for me but I’ve needed an escape from my work and TV doesn’t seem to work anymore. My approach to fiction-reading is not particularly sophisticated. I browse the prizewinner lists and go from there.

Here’s a roundup of my reading binge. As is always the case when people share what they are reading, this is partly an exercise in vanity. But it also reflects my curious impulse to see the book covers gathered in one place.

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The full title of this book might as well be Union Atlantic: This is America (and It’s as Bad as You Feared). Some of the themes in Adam Haslett’s more recent book are evident here, but without the redeeming factor of being truly interesting. A depressing book with a revolting character who, as so often in our time (or every time?), never really receives the comeuppance you wish for him.

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A slow-burning, small story that didn’t grab me. At the end Maud finally seems poised to escape her suffocating existence. But getting there is a dreary catalogue punctuated by sex. Lots of sex. The picture painted of Indian life in 1920s Oklahoma is fascinating even if it doesn’t seem to burst into full color.

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A beautiful book. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The two women at the center of the story seem almost like archetypes, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

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The first half of this book expertly carried a sense of looming calamity. But after the cathartic event, the second half of the book flagged. I also got tired of everyone stumbling around drunk all night and sleeping all day. Lots of people go to college without living like this! I enjoyed The Goldfinch more (but that one was strange too!)

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A weird and wonderful book. With Franzen, it may be strange and obnoxious, but you don’t want to put it down. Definitely better than his first one, and I think on the level of his later more highly-regarded books.

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This is the one I’m getting into now. So far it has a really appealing tone: light, unassuming, very accessible.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Describes Depression

Chimamanda

In a recent profile in the New Yorker, Adichie discussed her battle with depression:

As a child, she had a kind of natural authority. Many girls wanted to be her friend, and in an effort to win her they would present her with their lunches, and she would eat them. At the same time, she had episodes of depression—the beginnings of a disease that continues to afflict her—though she did not yet have a name for them. “I was a popular child who had tons of friends and did well in school,” she says, “but then I would have moments where I didn’t want to see anybody, didn’t want to talk to anybody, cried for no reason, felt that I was bad and terrible, isolated myself.”….

She dreaded falling into that pit again. She knew that some people thought there was a link between depression and art, that it gave you insight or depth or something, but the idea that someone could write while depressed made no sense to her. “I can’t even read. It’s a horrible, horrible thing. I can’t see my life, I’m blind. I feel myself sinking—that’s the word I use with my family and friends. Well, actually, I don’t talk about it with my family much, as lovely as they are, because they don’t really understand depression. They expect a reason, but I don’t have a reason.”

This rings true. There is no reason. It just is. “I can’t see my life” is especially evocative and apt. That’s exactly how it feels. I admire Adichie’s work and assigned Americanah in one of my classes. It’s nice to know even globally famous writers are human!

On the Futility of Car Horns

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Car horns can be useful sometimes. I use them on occasion. They can even enhance safety. But most commonly, they are a device used by bullies who ought to be in anger management class. This is one of the axioms by which I live: if someone is beeping at you, it is possible you’ve done something dangerous; but usually they’re beeping at you because they’re doing something dangerous.

I seem to have encountered a lot of horn honkers lately. There are two especially interesting circumstances that have occurred on more than one recent occasion. One is when a driver behind me would like me to run over a pedestrian in a crosswalk. I have old-fashioned scruples about not doing that. The other is when a driver is upset at me for using a left-turn lane for, you know, turning—when I ought to know that they were in the process of appropriating it for a passing lane. There, too, I’m hopelessly out of step with the exciting possibilities of the post-modern roadway.

I am looking forward to driverless cars.

Thoughts on “This is America”

Here is the music video for Childish Gambino’s (aka Donald Glover’s) new song, “This Is America”:

The great thing about a provocative music video is that it’s open to multiple interpretations. At a glance, I’ve seen a few takes that describe this as a video about guns, riots, policing, and the like. Here’s my two cents: this is a video about black men in the American imagination on the one hand, and the experience of being a black man in America on the other.

In both of those dimensions, it is a video about fear.

In the opening minute or so, Glover alternately embodies the primary ways we have of seeing black men. He is an entertainer one moment, and a threat the next. But when he embodies the entertainer he is not empowered. He is a minstrel character; he is Jim Crow himself:

Jimcrow

And then suddenly he transforms into a hyper-masculine, violent, threatening other.

In the final moments of the video, we glimpse the irony in all of this. Black men, objects of fear in the American imagination, have ample reason to be afraid. The theme that most stood out to me in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me was fear. White Americans spend a lot of time being afraid of black people. We’re left with little room in our imaginations for how fearful the experience of being black in America can be.

When I think about the fears I have for my children—how I get angry at even the suspicion that they are being mistreated, that an adult might not be judging them as individuals—and then consider what it means to be a black parent…I am overwhelmed by all the extra work every black parent is doing to keep themselves and their children on an even keel.

I’ve now strayed a bit away from the song. But these are some rough thoughts inspired by it.