On The Origins of a Dumb Meme

warren

Have you ever heard a Christian say that racism is a sin problem not a skin problem? Cute, right? This phrase has some nifty alliteration going for it, but that’s about all. I still can’t figure out what it’s supposed to mean. As soon as you generalize the idea to other topics its emptiness seems apparent. “Greed is a sin problem not a money problem.” Yeah ok, but the money thing seems kind of important.

(My best theory for what the “sin not skin” statement actually does comes from my wife Alicia. Her idea is that the phrase removes the power dynamic of white supremacy by labeling it generic sin. It makes us all sinners in the same colorblind boat. The phrase allows us to speak against racism while absolving white people of any particular responsibility.)

Yesterday it occurred to me that I had seen this phrase before. Like way before. So I went back to try to find it, and here it is in a letter from 1968:

1968 sin not skin
Wheaton College Archives

The context: it was the Spring of 1968. After Dr. King’s death Wheaton College hosted a memorial service. When word got out, a lot of alumni and friends of the college were upset, including this particular woman in Landsdale, Pennsylvania. She had sent two of her children to Wheaton, and her pastor was also a graduate. She loved the school and did not want to see it leave the straight and narrow. She wrote to Wheaton’s President to see if the rumor about the King memorial service was true. She also wanted to emphasize that she knew black Christians who didn’t support all the marching and agitating and rabble-rousing of people like King. Here’s the larger quote in which the sin not skin phrase appears:

As a church we have been working with an inter racial organization known as CURE — Christians United Reaching Everyone. I had the opportunity to ask one of the Colored brothers Rev Andrew Bluford what he thought of Dr King and he said, “humanly Dr. King was doing a job.” He went on to say that Dr King never tried to reach his people thru a Crusade or mentioned Sin. And he said you leave Christ and Sin out of your program and you have nothing but a social organization. Rev King was not held in esteem by this group of Colored brethren. Rev Bluford said the problem is not skin but sin and Christ is the Cure.”

I have little reason to doubt the basic veracity of this woman’s testimony. There certainly were black Christians who did not approve of the civil rights movement, or at least its tactics. And CURE really was an interracial Christian organization that existed in Philadelphia at that time, and its public statements tended to fit with the sensibility we see in this letter: that racial progress will come through spiritual regeneration more than through social reform.

So I suspect that Reverend Bluford, in about 1967 or 68, really did tell this woman that racism was a sin problem not a skin problem.

Then I got to thinking. If a black pastor in Philly was using this phrase in the 1960s, where did it come from and how long has it been around? I did some more searching and couldn’t come up with anything else. I can’t find the phrase or even a derivative of it anywhere before 1968. But I bet it’s out there. There are lot of old fundamentalist magazines and denominational publications I’ve never looked at.

Can anyone find an earlier usage of this phrase? I can’t offer you a large cash prize but you can buy yourself a cookie or something, ok? Besides, the joy of historical exploration is its own reward.

Notes from the Classroom: Using Fiction to Teach History

baldwin

This is a help wanted post! As a new teacher I want to experiment and try different strategies to reach my students. This fall I’m going to assign two works of fiction for my course The Making of American Society. I’ve never really taught fiction aside from leading TA discussions on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so I frankly don’t know what I’m doing.

Got any tips? Suggestions? Things you wish you knew before you tried to teach a novel?

That I don’t know what I’m doing doesn’t mean I don’t have reasons for turning to fiction for this course. As I mentioned before, nearly a third of this class will be a study of evangelicalism. Most of the students will probably know evangelicalism, if at all, as a political phenomenon. The textures and nuances of evangelicalism are likely to be opaque to many of them.

I really want to give students a window into the interior lives of evangelicals, and that seems to warrant using fiction. I want students to grapple with people who really believe in their bones that Jesus is coming back, that there’s a final judgment, that there really is a lake of fire to which they might go in the end. It would be easy enough for many students to see such people as objects of curiosity or ridicule. I want to confront them with a view from the inside. I want to give them an experience of stepping into a world where these beliefs are not propositions to accept or reject, but simply what is so—“Thus saith the Lord”—the ground of reality itself.

At the same time, it’s important that the text have artistic merit and historical significance. Unfortunately, these considerations probably eliminate the vast majority of fiction written by evangelicals. And a lot of books written about evangelicals don’t capture their interior life. I read The Damnation of Theron Ware, which nicely captures some of the challenges to evangelical faith—like higher criticism—arising in the late nineteenth century. But I felt like I was still only seeing evangelicals second-hand. The central character, the young pastor Theron Ware, seems to be going through the motions from the start. The animating impulses of evangelicalism may be present in his congregation, but they don’t move him.

I haven’t even read Elmer Gantry yet, which seems to be another obvious candidate. But my sense is that its scathing and satirical tone would work against what I’m trying to accomplish.

All of this leads me to James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. More than any other serious work of literature I can think of, Baldwin’s story allows the reader to glimpse the inside of this religious world. And since it’s about black Pentecostals, it also raises interesting teaching questions about how we think about evangelicalism and define its boundaries.

Though Baldwin had some scathing words for religion during his life, the text of Go Tell It On The Mountain is, as I read it, wonderfully ambivalent. Baldwin writes from the inside as one who has experienced the all-consuming religious world that he portrays. The result, I think, is open to a lot of interpretations. The book is full of guilt, shame, and repressed sexuality. One might conclude that this religion is an oppressive force. On the other hand, there are notes of longing and understanding and hope that might lead one to conclude that this religion is liberating, especially for poor black southerners caught up in the Great Migration. Whether Baldwin describes the religion of his youth as a force for good or evil, he undoubtedly describes it with extraordinary understanding and without condescension. That makes it worthwhile.

I can remember being taught two novels outside of english/literature classes in my undergraduate years: The Jungle and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland. In both cases it was a really positive experience. The books gave me characters and ideas to latch on to and connect to broader themes about feminism, muckraking, progressivisim, immigration, and so on. Long after I had forgotten lecture content, the immersive world of the novels gave me some (hopefully accurate) sense of what American society was like in the early twentieth century. Hopefully my students will be able to say the same!

From the Archives: Invoking Christian Unity To Silence Black Students

I’m in the archives today and have an interesting find to share.

White evangelical colleges were not entirely immune from black radicalism sweeping college campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At one white evangelical college* in the fall of 1970, the new black student organization observed Black Solidarity Day and had blunt words of criticism for their college. In a public panel discussion, black students critiqued white missionaries, the college administration (why no black faculty?) and the white-centric curriculum. As if anticipating the response they would get for speaking so honestly, one black student wrote, “we are loved for being ignorant and hated for being militant.”

One white student responded with a ringing defense of Christian colorblindness:

A few things to notice from this letter:

–The basis of colorblindness is not the Constitution or the American Way as it would be in mainstream conservative rhetoric. Here, it’s grounded in what Jesus has done. Rejecting racial distinctions is not just what good Americans do; it’s what good Christians do.

–In this framework, the explicit discussion of race is not seen as a threat to white advantage (at least, not consciously) or a danger to the American system. The stakes are actually higher than that. Racial consciousness is seen as a threat to the unity of the body of Christ, an assault on the very meaning of Christian community.

–Material conditions and power relations are completely ignored. The writer has nothing to say about whether or not there should be black faculty or a more balanced curriculum. There isn’t any space for that conversation to even occur for this writer, because it would mean grappling explicitly with racial identities.

–The writer comes awfully close to calling into question whether the black students are even Christians. A true believer, he implies, would not talk as they had done. In the name of Christian brotherhood, this writer would have black students be quiet about the realities of their experience and conform to his standards.

The rhetoric of Christian colorblindness often sounded good. It still does. Christians do believe that Jesus died for us all and has broken down barriers of hostility. But pay careful attention to the purposes for which this rhetoric is deployed. Does it liberate, or silence?


*Since I just found this in the archives today and have a lot more to learn about this institution I’m not revealing individual or institutional identities here. I do know that this particular institution has been unusually aggressive in seeking change in recent decades. In any case, the point is not to disparage a specific institution but to suggest that this document is representative of broader dynamics in white evangelicalism in the 1970s.

Thoughts for Sunday

baldwin
A young James Baldwin

In the following excerpt from James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, Florence, suffering from a terminal illness, has entered her brother Gabriel’s storefront black Pentecostal church in Harlem. As Florence tries to pray, she vividly recalls her mother’s faith:

‘Dear Father’—it was her mother praying—‘we come before You on our knees this evening to ask You to watch over us and hold back the hand of the destroying angel. Lord, sprinkle the doorpost of this house with the blood of the Lamb to keep all the wicked men away, Lord, we praying for every mother’s son and daughter everywhere in the world but we want You to take special care of this girl here to-night, Lord, and don’t let no evil come nigh her. We know you’s able to do it, Lord, in Jesus’ name, Amen.’

This was the first prayer Florence heard, the only prayer she was ever to hear in which her mother demanded the protection of God more passionately for her daughter than she demanded it for her son. It was night, the windows were shut tightly with the shades drawn, and the great table was pushed against the door. The kerosene lamps burned low and made great shadows on the newspaper-covered wall. Her mother, dressed in the long, shapeless, colorless dress that she bore every day but Sunday, when she wore white, and with her head tied up in a scarlet cloth, knelt in the center of the room, her hands hanging loosely folded before her, her black face lifted, her eyes shut. The weak, unsteady light placed shadows under her mouth and in the sockets of her eyes, making the face impersonal with majesty, like the face of a prophetess, or like a mask. Silence filled the room after her ‘Amen,’ and in the silence they heard, far up the road, the sound of a horse’s hoofs. No one moved. Gabriel, from his corner near the stove, looked up and watched his mother.

‘I ain’t afraid,’ said Gabriel.

His mother turned, one hand raised. ‘You hush, now!’

Trouble had taken place in town today. Their neighbor Deborah, who was sixteen, three years older than Florence, had been taken away into the fields the night before by many white men, where they did things to her to make her cry and bleed. Today, Deborah’s father had gone to one of the white men’s house, and said that he would kill him and all the other white men he could find. They had beaten him and left him for dead. Now, everyone had shut their doors, praying and waiting, for it was said that the white folks would come tonight and set fire to all the houses, as they had done before.

In the night that pressed outside they heard only the horse’s hoofs, which did not stop; there was not the laughter they would have heard had there been many coming on this road, and no calling out of curses, and no one crying for mercy to white men, or to God. The hoofbeats came to the door and passed, and rang, while they listened, ever more faintly away. Then Florence realized how frightened she had been. She watched her mother rise and walk to the window. She peered out through a corner of the blanket that covered it.

‘They’s gone,’ she said, ‘whoever they was.’ Then: ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord,’ she said.

Thus had her mother lived and died; and she had often been brought lo, but she had never been forsaken. She had always seemed to Florence the oldest woman in the world, for she often spoke of Florence and Gabriel as the children of her old age, and she had been born, innumerable years ago, during slavery, on a plantation in another state. On this plantation she had grown up as one of the field-workers, for she was very tall and strong; and by and by she had married and raised children, all of whom had been taken from her, one by sickness and two by auction; and one, whom she had not been allowed to call her own, had been raised in the master’s house. When she was a woman grown, well past thirty as she reckoned it, with one husband buried—but the master had given her another—armies, plundering and burning, had come from the North to set them free. This was in answer to the prayers of the faithful, who had never ceased, both day and night, to cry out for deliverance.

For it had been the will of God that they should hear, and pass thereafter, one to another, the story of the Hebrew children who had been held in bondage in the land of Egypt; and how the Lord had heard their groaning, and how His heart was moved; and how He bid them wait but a little season till He should send deliverance. Florence’s mother had known this story, so it seemed, from the day she was born. And while she lived—rising in the morning before the sun came up, standing and bending in the fields when the sun was high, crossing the fields homeward when the sun went down at the gates of Heaven far away, hearing the whistle of the foreman and his eerie cry across the fields; in the whiteness of winter when hogs and turkeys and geese were slaughtered, and lights burned bright in the big house, and Bathsheba, the cook, sent over in a napkin bits of ham and chicken and cakes left over by the white folks—in all that befell: in her joys, her pipe in the evening, her man at night, the children she suckled, and guided on their first short steps; and in her tribulations, death, and parting, and the lash, she did not forget that deliverance was promised and would surely come. She had only to endure and trust in God. She knew that the big house, the house of pride where the white folks lived, would come down; it was written in the Word of God. They, who walked so proudly now, had not fashioned for themselves or their children so sure a foundation as was hers. They walked on the edge of a steep place and their eyes were sightless—God would cause them to rush down, as the herd of swine had once rushed down, into the sea. For all that they were so beautiful, and took their ease, she knew them, and she pitied them, who would have no covering in the great day of His wrath.

Do Historians of Evangelicalism Promote Racial Exclusion?

the evangelicals

I’ve started reading Frances FitzGerald’s new synthesis, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. It’s highly readable, engaging, and seems like it will serve as a useful overview for students or for people with a general interest in the topic. I’m not even half-way through, so consider what follows not so much a criticism of the book, but a broader commentary on the state of the field and our discourse. Perhaps it’s unfair to FitzGerald to use The Evangelicals as an occasion to do this, but her book repeats patterns we’ve seen in other work.

It begins with the publisher, which most likely has nothing to do with Fitzgerald. Open up the book jacket and you see this:

In this major work of American history, distinguished historian Frances FitzGerald describes the profound ways in which evangelicals have shaped our nation, our culture, and our politics. Her sweeping and authoritative account gives us the whole story for the first time.

You might say this is typical publisher overselling that doesn’t matter much. But why should we settle for misleading and exclusionary statements? Then turn to the end of the book, before the notes. FitzGerald has included a short glossary of theological terms. I don’t know if this was her idea or the publisher’s, but it’s a good idea. The first word FitzGerald defines is evangelical, using David Bebbington’s theological definition. There is no social definition; the theology does all the work here.

So, in sum we have:

  1. A book called The Evangelicals
  2. A publisher boasting it is “the whole story.”
  3. A definition of evangelicals that includes all Protestants who believe the theology Bebbington describes.

A book that did this would be really exciting. But it’s certainly not this book, which we learn pretty quickly when we turn to the introduction. FitzGerald writes,

This book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life,  but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years. It purposely omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation, but also of the creation of centers for self-help and community in a hostile world. Some African American denominations identify as evangelical, but because of their history, their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals. Only long after the success of the civil rights movement did some black churchmen begin to enter the story of white evangelicals and their internal conflicts.

In other words, this is another book about white evangelicals and the Christian right, making the very title of the book misleading. I’d be curious to hear what scholars of African American Christianity think of FitzGerald’s words here. I’m curious to know what I’ll think by the time I finish this book and the other one on the docket, Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews’ Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars.

I don’t mean to pick on FitzGerald. After all, this is a synthesis that is in many ways only repeating the treatment (or lack thereof) of whiteness and blackness in many earlier books. Marsden, Carpenter, Sutton—wonderful books all, but no one is going to mistake them for sophisticated treatments of race. There are legitimate questions to ask about what we’re really doing with these methodological choices. FitzGerald describes it as historically driven, but I’m unconvinced. It is possible to describe exclusion without reinscribing it. We’ve failed to do that.

We run the risk of absurdity: defining our subject by race even as we pretend that race was not central to our subject.

The upshot of all this is that white evangelical is one of the most familiar phrases in our political lexicon, even though we can’t agree on what evangelical means, and we’ve barely even tried to figure out what whiteness has meant in the movement. This is so odd, so difficult to defend on a historical or intellectual level, that I begin to question our (I include myself in this) ethical stance. Does our work historicize racial exclusion, or recreate it? I think we would do well to sit with that question for a while.

From the Archive: “I Had to Stay Really Close to the Lord to Keep from Committing Suicide.”

img_20161219_134517408
In 1960s publications and advertising, the prospective evangelical college student was white.

When black students began to go to white evangelical campuses in larger numbers in the late 1960s and 1970s, they often had very difficult experiences. On many campuses, especially rural campuses outside the South, most of the white students came from backgrounds of isolation and ignorance. For many white students, seeing a dozen black students on campus might have been their first real contact with black people.

In the spring of 1978, a black student at a white evangelical college¹ authored a guest editorial in the student newspaper in which she reflected on her experiences and lessons learned during her time there. She wrote,

I have had some bad encounters here. As a Freshman, I was lonely, miserable and terrified of the whites on my floor in the dorm. I was even more afraid after students told me that they could not invite me home because their parents were prejudiced or their father hated ‘colored people’ because “they are so violent and rude.” Some of the other statements were: “does your color rub off; is your hair wirey; and when do you wash your hair?”

My Freshman year was really difficult, and I had to stay really close to the Lord to keep from committing suicide. I could not understand why God had put me in this type of situation. I could not believe that there were only four Black girls and six Black guys. This caused me to go through real culture shock. But now as I look over my four years here, I can see all the things God has taught me, and how much I have grown from being in this type of culture. I have learned to be content…

The main purpose of this editorial is to make you, my fellow-Christians, aware of the damage you can do by not trying to understand Blacks, and to share with you the way I have felt as a student here…I must admit that I would never recommend Blacks to attend [this] College.

There are at least three important things to know about this editorial. First, it is a good representation of sentiments that were extremely common among black students at white evangelical colleges in the 1960s and 1970s. This young women may have felt alone, but black students all over the country were having similar experiences. Second, some things have changed in the past 40 years. Some white evangelical colleges have made genuine strides. Third, take away the dated indicators of ignorance (“does your color rub off?”) and you’re left with a sense of alienation and isolation that could have been written this year at many white evangelical colleges. It is still extremely difficult to be black at many of these institutions.

As a researcher, these kinds of accounts are a kind of north star for me. It is incumbent on me to read them critically and with care, but I frankly find them more credible than the happy talk of white administrators at these colleges. As I sift through documents I sometimes begin to get the sense that things were beginning to go really well at such and such a place at this time or other. And then a document like this brings me up short. They are heartfelt testaments to peoples’ lived experience. On that level they have enormous moral force. But they’re also analytically useful for me, because they expose the fictions of the colorblind college. A community that makes people feel this way is not simply “united in Christ” as its rhetoric would imply. It is also united in and through whiteness.


¹ I’ve elected to withhold the names of the individual and the college because of the nature of this content.

Hip Hop Discovers (White) Evangelicalism

thisl
St. Louis based rapper Thi’sl. In contrast to Lecrae, his lyrics usually assume a black audience.

Here’s an article idea: how Christian rap in the age of black lives matter reveals the contours of white evangelicalism. This could be published in a popular venue, but with some work I think it could be an academic journal article. Who would publish something like this?

Ok, why open up a half-baked idea like this to the public? Historians can play a useful role not only by presenting history to the public, but by being historians in public. The actual work of researching and writing involves lots of questions, lots of confusion, lots of false starts and dead ends. When we only allow the public to see a polished final product, we’re not actually modeling the kinds of thought-processes and critical thinking that are so desperately needed in the public sphere.

Here are some early thoughts on the intersection of rap, whiteness, and evangelicalism.

Lecrae is the most obvious personification of this. He was invited into a world of white Christians and it seemed great for a while. Then he stumbled over invisible tripwires. He embraced evangelicalism, and found that its embrace of him had some fine print attached to it. The terms and conditions included: be an avatar of Christian colorblindness.

With the rise of black lives matter, Lecrae was no longer willing/able to play that role. Then the backlash began.

In his early music, Lecrae rarely mentioned race explicitly. His use of black slang and urban themes made his music “cool” for white Christian kids without necessarily being threatening. When race entered into his lyrics, it came as a foil, a false distinction rendered unimportant by the common spiritual need of humanity or the common mission of the church. In his first album, Real Talk, the song “Tha Church” says:

Cause God’s wrath is something we all gotta meet
It don’t matter if you black, white, Jew, or Greek

God’s judgment of sin made no racial distinctions. Presented with Pauline allusions, this was a message about race white listeners were happy to hear. In 2008, Lecrae released Rebel. Like his first album, Rebel was full of references to scripture and theology. The most prominent use of race in the album was in the popular song “Don’t Waste Your Life.”

Suffer, yeah, do it for Christ
You’re trying to figure what to do with your life
If you make a lot of money hope you’re doing it right
Because the money is God’s you better steward it right
And stay focused, you ain’t got no ride
Your life ain’t wrapped up in what you drive
The clothes you wear, the job you work
The color your skin, naw you’re a Christian first

An unusually alert listener could possibly understand Lecrae’s reference to skin color here as a rebuke of white evangelicalism, a religious tradition where race shapes everything from theology to education to home purchases. But this is almost certainly not what Lecrae meant, and it’s not what his white listeners were likely to hear. If they heard a rebuke, it was a rebuke of black Christians for being too race-conscious, for being insufficiently colorblind.

Lecrae’s latest single shows the distance he’s traveled:

Another murder on the television
Man, somebody go turn it off
I spoke my mind, I got attacked for it
Thought these people had my back boy
Then they tellin’ me I asked for it
I guess I’m just another black boy
And then they killed Tamir Rice
And they just go on with they life

In this song and in interviews, Lecrae frankly admitted that his encounter with white Christians drove him to a place of despair.

To me an article along these lines would be fascinating. But what would it tell us that we don’t already know? My sense is that this would be an article about nuance and texture more than a groundbreaking thesis. We know that white evangelicalism has problems with race. But this is an interesting and revealing way to explore that. Questions:

How does this relate to Christian radio and its playlists dominated by white males?

What does this tell us about how colorblindness functions at the intersection of culture and theology?

What rappers other than Lecrae would the article explore? Sho Baraka? Trip Lee?

Is there a way to more precisely figure out the demographics of Lecrae’s fan base?

What kinds of sources would reveal white evangelical opinion? Social media posts?

How is colorblindness best understood? Is it a theology in evangelicalism? Is it a feeling? Is it a gatekeeper to the community? If you reject colorblindness do you become a probationary evangelical?

Woah…just thought of this: what change over time have we seen since the reception of DC Talk in the early 90s? There’s an idea: white evangelicalism and rap, from DC Talk to Lecrae. Just typing that makes me laugh.

Has anyone written about this stuff?

Thoughts for Sunday

In honor of Martin Luther King Day tomorrow:mlk-birmingham

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?

–Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963. Read the whole letter here.