Review: Strength for the Fight

Strength for the Fight (Library of Religious Biography), Gary Scott Smith. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022.

Summary: A biography on this pioneer Hall of Famer who desegregated Major League Baseball, devoted his post-playing years to civil rights activism, all sustained by his active faith.

As a lifelong baseball fan, this is not the first Jackie Robinson biography I’ve read. The one I read when I was a young fan focused on his exploits on the field, his courage and restraint in breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and how his play contributed to several pennants and a World Series victory. As this book makes clear, Robinson not only needed to be both courageous and self-controlled to face racist treatment, he needed to be good–and he was. He was fast and daring on the base paths, a great fielder, and could deliver hits and bunts in clutch situations. He was a great all-round ballplayer deserving of Hall of Fame status simply on those merits.

This book added to the portrait of Robinson in several ways. Most importantly, it reveals him as a man of deep faith, who like Augustine had a godly mother and his own Ambrose in the form of a Methodist pastor, Karl Downs, who rescued him from gang life in Pasadena. Later, as he faces intense pressure and vitriol, he testifies, “Many nights I get down on my knees and pray for the strength not to fight back.” This and the support of his wife Rachel made all the difference for a proud man whose natural instinct was to fight back. Yet Smith also shows how Rachel went beyond standing by Robinson to pursue her own career as a nurse-therapist and professor.

Gary Scott Smith also fleshes out the vital role Branch Rickey played in Robinson’s life. Smith goes into the Methodist faith the two men shared, a critical factor in Rickey deciding to sign Robinson. Rickey was both a deeply religious man in Smith’s account and a sharp (and parsimonious) baseball entrepreneur. It was Rickey’s counsel he followed in not fighting back against spiking, knockdown pitches, and crude racial insults. When Rickey died in 1965 he said of Rickey: “He talked with me and treated me like a son.” The treatment of Rickey is so interesting that I would love to see Smith follow up this book with a full length biography on Rickey, perhaps as part of this Library of Religious Biography series.

What also distinguishes this book is the account it gives of Robinson’s post-baseball career as a tireless activist for civil rights through newspaper columns that did not hesitate to criticize presidents of either party, through public addresses including messages in hundreds of churches, marching on the front lines in places like Selma. At the same time, Robinson was not a “movement activist.” While honored by the NAACP with its Spingarn award, he did not hesitate to differ with others like Paul Robeson over communism or Dr. King over Vietnam. Some accused him of being an “Uncle Tom” for his relationship with Nelson Rockefeller, motivated by both political and business considerations, and his support in 1960 for Richard Nixon.

Vietnam would contribute to tragedy in Robinson’s life. His son Jackie, Jr. returned with addiction problems but the book makes clear the strains on the father-son relationship between the two. Sadly, just as Jackie, Jr. started to get his life on track as well as his relationship with his father, he died in an auto accident, just a year before Jackson himself passed.

That leads to my one question about this book, that the author doesn’t discuss how such a fine athlete as Robinson died at age 53, just sixteen years after retirement, suffering from diabetes, heart disease, and nearly blind. Others have discussed the disparate impacts of racism on health and the effects of his repressed anger and racial traumas on his health. Pictures of Robinson show him with hair turning white in his last playing years. Robinson bore on his body in many ways, externally and internally, the trauma of racism, and perhaps this might have been further developed in this work.

Smith portrays Robinson’s faith as “muscular,” and apart from those bedside prayers concerned more about moral and social uplift of his people, expressed in his tireless work. Even in his last years, with failing health, he was grateful for God’s blessings. Yet, he was infrequent in church attendance, and Smith notes the evidence of extra-marital affairs. After his first two years, he was more aggressive in defending himself on the field, having fulfilled his agreement with Rickey. Yet there is a thread running through the course of his life, shown by Smith of a faith that sustained and strengthened Robinson. What resulted was some of the most significant civil rights leadership in the twentieth century delivered in the form of a stellar athlete (no one since has stolen home more than the 19 times he did this) and a courageous champion. His faith, courage, and perseverance are worth emulation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Black Hands, White House

Black Hands, White House, Renee K. Harrison. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021.

Summary: A history of how enslaved peoples played a major role in the building of this country and the need to remember that work in our monuments and by other means.

A number of histories have detailed the slave experience in America. What is unique about this history is that it seeks to give an account of the contribution enslaved Blacks made to the building of this country and its economy. Not only that, it seeks to tell the story of people, often by name who made that contribution while enslaved. The author believes they need to be remembered for their important role. They are a part of America’s history and are worthy to be included.

The author begins with an overview of the economic impact enslaved Blacks made in the country especially through the production of tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar. She also lists six pages of companies and institutions that benefited from American slavery, or directly from slave labor. These include the government — slaves built many of Washington’s buildings and infrastructure. Insurance companies insured slaves for their owners, various banks accepted slaves as collateral or owned slaves, newspapers advertised slave sales, universities were funded by slave owners and some used slave labor in their construction, railroads rented slave labor, mines employed slaves–even churches and seminaries owned slaves and used slave labor.

Succeeding chapters chronicle the role slaves played in specific building projects. Mount Vernon’s buildings and tobacco and wheat crops depended on slaves. The author lists the names and values of slaves inherited by or subsequently hired by Washington and their trades, spouses, and enslaved children. At least 150 are buried in unmarked graves there.

Benjamin Banneker, a free black son of a slave was a self taught astronomer who was part of the survey team laying out boundaries, his role being to place the boundary markers for the new capital city. Slaves fired and laid many of the bricks and cut and hauled much of the stone for buildings in Washington. Slave markets often existed in the shadow of builds rising as shrines to democracy and freedom.

Both the White House and Capitol building were built with slave labor–and slaves re-built the White House after it was burned in the War of 1812. Of the first eighteen presidents, only two never owned slaves and publicly opposed slavery. Eight brought slaves they owned into the White House, four others owned slaves but did not have them at the White House. Four others, including Lincoln, did not own slaves but had ambiguous positions on slavery.

A similar story may be told of the Capitol. On page 175, the author lists 100 people who were “rented” for the construction of the Capitol building, a partial list. Philip Reid, a slave from Charleston, South Carolina, figured out how to cast Clark Mills Statue of Freedom in sections and install it atop the Capitol dome. His owner received most of the wages, apart from $41.25, for his work.

She goes on to describe slave involvement in the construction of the Supreme Court building, the Treasury building, the Smithsonian castle, Georgetown University, and the Library of Congress. At the core of the Library is the collection of Thomas Jefferson’s library. John Hemings fashioned the pine bookshelves and the portable book boxes in which the books were transported, Burwell Colbert painted the carriage that transported the books and Joseph Fossett fashioned the ironwork on the carriage.

Harrison believes it is past time to recognize in our nation’s monuments, particularly on the National Mall, the history of slavery, the vast machine of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the contribution that peoples forcibly removed from their own countries made in ours. She chronicles the inadequate attempt to do so with the Freedman’s Memorial, funded by former slaves but appropriated by white directors who chose the design, Abraham Lincoln towering over a kneeling slave who had been freed. Frederick Douglass, in a speech at its dedication, acknowledged the bravery associated with Emancipation but also the white self-interest.

The author describes the memorial as a pattern of absolution without accountability that has run from the end of the Civil War to the relatives of the Charleston Nine. A monument alone will not satisfy all the needs for accountability but a National Sanctuary Memorial to Enslaved Black Laborers would mark a beginning–a tribute to their labors that also helped build our country, a remembrance of the people whose names and work are often absent from the pages of our histories. It’s part of a larger conversation of acknowledgement of harm and accountability and appropriate restitution without which our national wounds associated with slavery and racism cannot be healed.

This is a compelling history that moves beyond the indignities done to Black bodies to the dignity of their work, already evident in many of our national landmarks. They nourished the economy of an infant nation. I thought the idea of a National Sanctuary Memorial to Enslaved Black Laborers was quite appropriate. I was surprised to find no way to help with the funding of such an effort or petition for such a monument. The University of Virginia was the only place (one mentioned in her list of institutions) where such a thing has been done. I could find no website to advocate for a national memorial. I hope the author will persist and find others to mobilize a national effort toward this end, one worthy of the many she has written of by name and the many nameless others.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Hidden Wound

The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010 (Original edition 1968, with Afterword 1988).

Summary: An extended essay on racism in America, our collective attempts to conceal this wound upon American life, and its connections to our deformed ideas of work.

Wendell Berry wrote words that would be exceptional for most whites today. These were written in 1968 by a white man of the South, making them all the more exceptional:

“If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of the wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.

This wound is in me….I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it….

Berry begins by acknowledging the story of his family as a slaveholding family, one that sold as well as acquired slaves. He acknowledges a family that went to church with its slaves but inured itself to the teachings about moral obligations that would have unraveled slavery.

He then turns to a childhood memory of Nick, a Black man who worked for his grandfather. He spoke of the racist structures that assigned Nick a place of being a worker and tenant and the dignity with which Nick accepted these but also the dignity of Nick’s work–his careful study of saddle horses, of the requirements of the land. Nick took Berry under his wing and taught him about the work of the farm. But the wound was there, evident in Nick not being able to accept the invitation to Berry’s birthday party, and Berry deciding that the only decent thing to do was to sit with Nick outside.

Berry recognizes in both what he learned from Nick in all his dignity and the underlying social divisions between them a picture of the deformities of our American society that defined success as distancing oneself from the physical labor of the farm and that used knowledge and status to make money off of the labors of others. So we have diminished ourselves, even as we had to diminish the personhood of Blacks to enslave them, something we have done since 1619. In doing so, we have alienated ourselves from good work and from the land upon which our lives depend. We have considered that work to be “n***** work” (Berry’s terminology, objectionable today but reflecting the demeaning character of its historical usage). By this we have not only demeaned persons but also lost our connection to the pleasures of good physical work and the land where this work is done.

Berry’s argument isn’t for legislation or structural change (and I believe this may be a weakness in ignoring the goods that can be done by addressing unjust structures). He argues that we need one another to heal the wounds racism has inflicted. Just as Nick taught Berry the wisdom of the farm and good work while Berry bridged the divide by sitting with Nick rather than staying with the white folks during his birthday, Berry argues that the task is not so much for whites to “free” Blacks but rather to “recognize the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity” and that “they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain.”

In his Afterword, written twenty years later, Berry addresses the displacement of racism from rural to urban settings and the decline of family farms, including Black farms. What has happened is simply a shift of the deformed ideas of work from the farm to the city with high paid executives and others who do “menial” work. Overcoming racism means no longer perpetuating these destructive ideas of work but paying just wages for all good and necessary work. Berry, drawing on his deep values of community also argues that integration without the restoration of the fabric of community is inadequate.

Perhaps the most significant thing in this extended essay, which I felt stands well on its own without the Afterword, is Berry’s courageous acknowledgement of the wound of racism on our national body. It is a wound caused by whites, but one from which whites suffer as well as Blacks. A strength of this work is that he owns his own complicity and his own learning with no “yes, buts.” It is vintage Berry, utterly consistent with other works of his on the dignity of manual work, of knowledge of the land, of caring for place, and of membership in community. What is striking is that Berry here offers a generous vision of community and membership that includes Black and white and the value in the humanity of each person. While Berry downplays systemic issues and may be faulted for this, his integration of issues of race into the larger themes of his work makes this more than merely a writing of place by a rural agriculturalist. It is an essay that discerns the fabric of society we are weaving, the rents in that fabric, and the crucial threads needed for a durable and useful garment.

Review: Healing Racial Trauma

Healing Racial Trauma, Sheila Wise Rowe (Foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A counseling psychologist describes the experience of racial trauma in story, drawing upon her own and other clinical experiences, and explores the resources for resilience to face continuing racial struggle.

As a White male, I’ve heard the terminology of racial trauma but have not experienced it in my own person. But I work with Black colleagues who have. One looking up to see a policeman’s gun trained on her for the “crime” of watering a neighbor’s flowers while the neighbor was away. Another and his wife stopped in front of their home after a trip to the grocery store, forced to lay on the pavement while their car was searched, for evidence from a robbery even though they offered to produce a receipt from the grocery confirming their whereabouts when the robbery happened. Their crime? “Fitting the description.” Or Asian-American friends who have faced racial slurs urging them to go “home” when this is the country of their birth and citizenship. Often Blacks and people of color can tell a litany of stories running not only through their lives but the lives of their parents and grandparents. When I see the story of a racial injustice, I may be incensed. When a person of color sees the same story, it opens old wounds and is one more in a series of assaults on their sense of dignity.

Sheila Wise Rowe, a counseling psychologist who grew up in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston helps us understand both from her own experience and those of others the deep wounds of racial trauma, wounds beneath the skin, that many Blacks and people of color struggle with. She begins with types of racism and types of racial trauma. The latter was particularly illuminating as she named:

  • Historical racial trauma: The trauma shared by a group that has faced in its past a traumatizing event such as the forced removal of First Nation tribes that continues to affect these people in the forms of alcoholism, addiction, and elevated rates of suicide.
  • Transgenerational racial trauma: The bodily effects of trauma passed from one generation to the next, possibly manifesting in diabetes, heart disease. An axiom of trauma is that “the body remembers” and this idea suggests that trauma is even remembered across generations. It also can mean the passing of trauma in the stories we tell.
  • Personal racial trauma: The personal experience of abuse for one’s race. Rowe in the book describes the verbal and physical attacks she endured when being bused to white schools.
  • Physical trauma: Attacks upon one’s body that are racially motivated. One thinks of what John Lewis and so many endured at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
  • Vicarious trauma: The wounds opened when one hears reports of violence against others of one’s race. One thinks of the example of mothers and wives who hear reports of a police involved shooting and think of their own husbands and sons.
  • Microaggressions: The small, everyday, thoughtless assaults on dignity. “You’re so articulate.” “Can I touch your hair?”
  • Racial gaslighting: The ways individuals and institutions in power try to recast reality turning an incident of racial injustice into something the victim of injustice must have done wrong and that racism is just something imagined that must be gotten over.

In the chapters that follow Rowe describes the effects of the ongoing experience of racial trauma. She describes the fatigue of racism’s relentlessness, especially pronounced for many Blacks in the summer of 2020 in the cycle of incidents with police, protests, and recriminations. Silence is the swallowing and suppressing of pain, anger, and rage, and the self-destructiveness that occurs when all this is turned inward. Rage is the bitter root that festers until unleashed in destructive acts. Fear is often used to subdue a population, as in lynching. Shame happens when the stories of racial inferiority are internalized and they become the stories that prevent one’s true story from being told. Addiction is a misguided response to relieve the pain of trauma.

Rowe addresses these with stories and charts the beginnings of the way out, starting with lament, that cries out to God, that gathers up the hurt and offers it to God. Lament tells the truth without spiritualizing or sugarcoating. She stresses the Christ-centered nature of the healing work that is needed in walking toward freedom, a work that allows Christ to enter in and walk with. It is both internal and external work. Rowe believes that this can lead to a growth in resilience. Racism isn’t going to disappear overnight. Rather, one must develop the resources in Christ who heals our wounds, who helps us practice self-care as his beloved, and calls us into creative engagement with our unique gifts and voices.

For people of color, this may be (and has been from accounts of colleagues) a book that both names what is often felt without words and offers hope and healing. It is an important book for Whites to read as well. It begins with naming the forms of trauma. Then, Rowe’s descriptions of herself as a little girl being bused invited me to imagine what it was like to be on the bus, the walk the gantlet of hateful crowds to enter her school. The other stories, including Nick, her husband’s, invite the same imagining, not as a substitute for what no one should experience, but as at least a very beginning of understanding viscerally as well as cognitively, something of racial trauma. To learn to just sit with and listen to these experiences may open the door to being an ally in Christ’s healing process.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: White Evangelical Racism

White Evangelical Racism, Anthea Butler. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, (Forthcoming, March) 2021.

Summary: A short history of the evangelical movement in the United States, showing its ties to racism and white supremacy from the time of slavery down to the present.

This was an uncomfortable book for me to read and review. In our racialized society, I would be identified as white. By conviction, I would identify as evangelical. What troubles me about this account is that it makes a good case that the evangelicalism in America with which I am identified is inextricably bound up with the history of racism, America’s original sin, as Jim Wallis has called it.

Anthea Butler offers in this book a concise historical account of white evangelicalism’s complicity in racism. She traces that history from the support of slavery in white, mostly southern churches. She follows this through post-Civil War Jim Crow laws and the support of white churches for segregation, and the participation of churches in lynchings. While some mainline denominations gave support to the civil rights movement, evangelicals remained on the sideline, calling this a “social gospel.”

Butler is not the first to note that the coalescing of evangelical political engagement in the Seventies and Eighties came as much around the denial of tax exemption for segregated schools like Bob Jones University as it did around opposition to abortion, which was originally not an evangelical cause. She traces the rise of organizations like Focus on the Family, the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition that led to an increasing alliance of evangelicalism with the Republican party, culminating in the support of 81 percent of self-identifying evangelicals with Donald Trump in 2016 despite race-baiting language, anti-immigration stances, and support of white nationalistic aims.

Perhaps no one person has defined American evangelicalism more than Billy Graham and so Butler devotes a chapter to him. While he desegregated his meetings, and hosted black speakers on his platform, and even include a black evangelist on his team, he took care to distance himself from the civil rights movement as it embraced nonviolent civil disobedience. King may have shared his platform once, but no more. Graham also preached against communism, associated by many in the South with the civil rights movement. His record was ambiguous at best and in the end, the focus remained on winning people to Christ rather than unequivocal stands for racial justice.

Parts of me wanted to protest against this sweeping indictment by citing the abolitionist efforts of northern evangelicals, and other socially engaged efforts in the nineteenth century. Butler does mention this as well as other forays like that of the Promise Keepers into racial reconciliation. The sad fact is none of these movements prevailed over the long haul in standing against white supremacism. The first decade and a half of the twenty-first century saw some promising evangelical initiatives around racial reconciliation and immigration reform, only for these to wither over the last five years.

I also wanted to protest that evangelicalism is not inherently white. Black and Latino churches in this country share the same theology. And people globally identify with the same theological convictions that form the core of American evangelical belief. I’ve been in a meeting with representatives of over 150 countries where this was the case, where those of my skin color were a minority. But in the ways American evangelicalism has separated itself from its Black and Latino kindred, the judgment stands. The typical first response of many white evangelicals to a Christian person of color trying to talk about racial injustice is to defend and argue rather than listen to a fellow Christian. We seem remarkably untroubled that divisions by race in our churches mirror our political divisions.

Butler, a former evangelical who still cares about this movement, reaches this sobering conclusion:

“Evangelicalism is at a precipice. It is no longer a movement to which Americans look for a moral center. American evangelicalism lacks social, political, and spiritual effectiveness in the twentyfirst century. It has become a religion lodged within political party. It is a religion that promotes issues important almost exclusively to white conservatives. Evangelicalism embraces racists and says that evangelicals’ interests, and only theirs, are the most important for all American citizens.”

I have no defense against this. I fear evangelicalism in the United States may be like the church in Ephesus described in Revelation 2:1-7. The church was marked by its orthodoxy and yet Jesus has this to say: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:4-5, NIV). I fear we are at imminent risk of losing our lampstand, that is, our witness within the culture. In fact, I find most churches are more concerned about political interests than even their historical distinction of seeing lost people come to Christ. Butler’s message mirrors that of Jesus in Revelation. This book is a call to repentance. The trajectory of history is not inevitable. We can turn away from the precipice. But I fear the time is short.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Good* White Racist

good white racist

Good* White Racist, Kerry Connelly (Foreword by Michael W. Waters). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.

Summary: Explores how whites may be complicit with a system of racism while being well-intentioned and how white efforts to sustain a sense of “goodness” help perpetuate racial divides.

Kerry Connelly opens this book with admitting that she is a racist. A good white racist. She’s not a white supremacist. She thinks racism is evil. She is a Christian who loves Jesus. Yet the very desire to think ourselves good, she would argue, prevents us from seeing the ways we are complicit with the history and systems of racism in the United States. Often, she acknowledges, that, paradoxically, it is our attempts to defend our goodness, that keep us from leaning into the hard work of understanding our complicity, and the even harder work of discerning what it means to “pursue justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Her appeal in this book is that we would be the good people we want to be and lean into that hard work rather than keep defending our goodness.

She begins by walking us through our national self-perception of goodness, at least among whites. We don’t even notice that it is “white.” She looks at the construction of “whiteness” that we are often not conscious of, and how, over time, many ethnic minorities assimilated into whiteness, or otherwise were set apart as inferior. She unpacks the tactics of gaslighting: denial and detraction, distraction, disclaiming, and disappearing. She discusses the power of language, and how whites may not use the “N-word,” regardless of the use of it by others. She looks at the assumptions built into our education system, from the “discovery” of America onward. She looks at common justifications (often a form of distraction) such as “I don’t see race–I’m colorblind.” She explores our tendency to call the police when we see blacks in “white” spaces when all they are doing is living their lives while black (I had a colleague who found herself staring down the barrel of a policeman’s gun because she was watering a neighbor’s lawn while the neighbor was out of town, and had the police called on her). She explores how this plays out in white churches, including the large white evangelical church she left after the 2016 election. She concludes with the work we must do, beginning with the five stages of grief, and the personal, interpersonal, and collective work that must be done to oppose racism.

This is a challenging book to read. The content is challenging as is the writing style. Connelly may be “good” but she is not “nice.” She can be blunt, and what one reviewer calls “snarky.” She is liberal with her use of profanity, but contends that if we are offended more by the profanity than the profane injustices about which she is writing, we’ve just offered exhibit one of what is the problem. Here is one sample:

I also know this isn’t easy. God knows it’s not easy for me every time I discover another racist thought floating around my head or realize another way I’m complicit in the system. I know that I’ve probably already made you a little uncomfortable, if not outright pissed off. That’s okay. Let’s just sit with that a hot second. Because honestly, our discomfort is not the problem. It’s our absolute refusal to roll around in that discomfort that’s the problem. It’s the fact that we’d rather run from the room screaming “I’m good! I’m good! I swear to God I’m good!” than actually sit and practice a little bit of honest self-reflection (p. 6).

If you want to remain comfortable, don’t read this book. “Doing the work” is just not comfortable. Period. It just doesn’t feel good to realize that you are not as good as you thought, or are complicit with injustices that have deprived many of our citizens of equal protection under our laws or an equally enjoyed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But if we do not begin here, we will not begin at all.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Heritage

the heritage

The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, and the Politics of PatriotismHoward Bryant. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

Summary: An account of black athletes in professional sports, from the path-breakers whose very presence was political, to the athletes of the ’70’s onward whose success tempted them to just play the game, to the recent clash of patriotism and protest that has led to a new generation of athlete-activists.

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest of the numbers of blacks dying in police-involved shooting, his act was the latest of a long line of black athletes whose presence, and whose advocacy asserted that they were far more than mere bodies, employed for the pleasure of largely white audiences and the profit of white team owners. When Kaepernick could not get another position when his contract expired, he joined “the Heritage”–a long line of black athlete activists who could not settle for simply “playing the game” in the face of the injustices faced by his people, and often suffered the consequences from acting as people with voices and minds, and not merely bodies to be employed for sport.

Howard Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN, chronicles this history in The Heritage. He traces the beginnings of the Heritage in the lives of Paul Robeson, Jesse Owens (who went from US Olympic glory in Hitler’s Germany to poverty and bankruptcy), Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier in baseball, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali who lost three years in the ring for his refusal to be drafted on religious principle, the 1968 raised fist protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Curt Flood, whose refusal to accept a trade led to free agency, but also resulted in his being blackballed from baseball.

Things changed in the 1970’s in what Bryant calls the “greenwashing” of professional athletes. Beginning with stars like O.J. Simpson, who received huge contracts and endorsement deals, a new generation of black athlete came on the scene who “just played the game” and took the money. Perhaps they invested it quietly in causes that uplifted the communities in which they played, or grew up. Bryant focuses on three as representative of this period: Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, who in an interview described himself as “Cablinasian.”

In sports as so much of American life, everything changed on 9/11. The citizenship rite of the national anthem was replaced by elaborate patriotic displays: singing police officers, fly-overs and veterans salutes, huge flags on the fifty yard lines. First responders and those in the armed services became heroes who were recognized in some form at every game. A kind of undifferentiated hero worship failed to grapple with a more nuanced reality of some real heroes, many decent, hard-working people, and some bad apples–just like in most of society. Bryant also cites evidence that this was staged by the military, rather than being simply an honest, spontaneous gesture of sports team. Teams profited by tax money spent for these displays, which were seen as good recruiting tools. An American public indulged these displays, perhaps guilty over treatment of returning Vietnam vets and the fact that most of us were at the mall while a small percent were fighting our wars in far off places.

Bryant argues that this set up the clash between black athletes protesting injustices in policing, and a wider American public. What began as an effort to call attention to ways a country wasn’t living up to the values represented by the flag clashed with the patriotism displays that had become commonplace in the nearly twenty years since 9/11. Some efforts were effectual. When players at the University of Missouri threatened to refuse to play because of issues of systemic racism, a university president was ousted. LeBron James could wear “I can’t breathe” jerseys with impunity, being at the top of his game and flush with endorsement deals. But a quarterback at the end of his contract was blackballed because he took a knee, a respectful symbol of praying usually reserved for locker rooms or end zones and his action was characterized as unpatriotic and an insult to soldiers. People who wanted Kaepernick to just play the game failed to observe that the game itself had been co-opted for political purposes in an unqualified endorsement of both police and military (and unspoken in all this were the ongoing wars in which the military was engaged).

This is an uncomfortable book perhaps most of all because it raises the issue that black athletes’ value continues to be their bodies, and that while they may be rewarded well when they excel in physical feats, the powers that be will continue the attempt to silence them when they use their voices and minds to speak for those who do not share their fame and expose the ways as a nation we fail to live up to our principles.

It also raises the issue of the ways we’ve changed as a country since 9/11. A simple citizenship rite at the beginning of a game has become wrapped in a celebration of both safety and military forces, and the use of their power to keep a fearful nation safe. Instead of celebrating the shared liberties of an empowered people, we’ve come to celebrate the power of the state. We’ve traded “peanuts and cracker jacks” for “shock and awe.”

I suspect I’ve probably made some people mad simply because I reviewed this book and haven’t done the white thing of pushing back with all that is wrong with it. I guess I’ve come to a place where I want to understand why a talented quarterback chooses to throw it all away by a simple gesture (actually unnoticed for several games) that for the life of me looks like prayer. I find myself wondering why such a humble gesture is so threatening that despite the fact that no law was broken, a combination of media, public opinion and even presidential power was brought to bear to suppress it. I find myself wondering what this gesture threatens. I wonder…


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Summary: A fictional narrative of a Georgia slave, Cora, who with another slave escapes the plantation, and through a series of harrowing experiences, and the existence of an actual underground railroad with trains and engineers, escapes to the North.

The Underground Railroad has received critical acclaim, winning a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. This is a very good book, portraying the brutal realities of Antebellum slavery on cotton plantations, the brutalities of slave owners, overseers, patrollers and night riders, and slave hunters. The character of Ridgeway, the slave hunter, is among the great evil characters of fiction. The protagonist, Cora, is a resilient, even fiercely determined character who will murder more than on of her potential captors, even while both angered and motivated by her mother Mabel, who escaped while she was a little girl and never was caught.

Cora agrees to escape the Randall Plantation with Caesar when Terrence Randall, a tyrant, takes over for his deceased brother.  Caesar has learned from a sympathetic merchant of an underground railroad that will take slaves to freedom. At the last minute, another slave, Lovey, joins in, but is soon captured while Caesar and Cora, who fatally bludgeons a young man attempts to hold her, escape and contact the station master. What they find is an underground railroad that is no metaphor but a vast subterranean rail network with rails, trains, and engineers, built by those engaged in the fight against slavery.

Their flight takes them to South Carolina, where they hide under assumed names in an “enlightened” town educating them for citizen, but with underlying sinister motives. Ridgeway shows up and Cora escapes, but Caesar is taken. Cora arrives unexpected at a closed down station in a North Carolina town on a freedom crusade of lynchings and house searches. Reluctantly, Martin and Ethel Wells shelter her, running a terrible risk. In the end Ridgeway finds her and takes her into Tennessee, where she is rescued by Royal, a militant version of Harriet Tubman. One of Ridgeway’s men is killed, Ridgeway bound and left to die, and they escape to a utopian Freedom Farm in Indiana. But will they be safe even here?

The plot is interrupted by “flashbacks” that fill in content, but felt like an interruption. But the feature that worked the least for me was the railroad. This aspect of the book had a magical realism feel, and just didn’t work for me, but then I’ve never been a fan of this technique/genre. It seems that the main function of the railroad was to get Cora to the next scene of action, where the real interest and the strength of this narrative lay. We see the courage of station masters, to be sure, but the actual journey, the risks run by slaves, and in many cases, rescuers like Tubman seemed to be minimized, even though the title suggests a focus on the railroad. I also found the decisions to stay in South Carolina, and later Indiana, somewhat implausible when all slaves knew their only chance of safety, especially from figures like Ridgeway, was Canada. I might have liked some documentation of sources for the portrayals slave conditions and race hatred, and some comment on what was based on fact, along the lines of what Stowe did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

All in all, the  plotline, strong characters, and portrayal of slavery and race hatred make this a good and important work. I think it could be more powerful if it portrayed the efforts of the historical underground railroad. But the portrayal of slavery and racism in this book is important to our nation conversation. To meaningfully, say “never again” we must understand to what we are saying “never again.”


Review: The Myth of Equality

the myth of equality

The Myth of Equality, Ken Wytsma. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A white pastor explores the reality of white privilege from the perspectives of both American history and the gospel of the kingdom and how white Christians might pursue justice.

We all like to believe the best about ourselves.Most of us want to believe we are a society where everyone is equal. Most of us would like to believe racism and racial injustices are a thing of the past. And most of us, if we are white, squirm a bit when we hear the phrase “white privilege.” I can imagine some who are reading this composing arguments as you read for what you want to say in the comments section.

Ken Wytsma is a white pastor who believes Christians need to have honest conversations about these matters if we are to contribute to healing the racial divides within our churches and society. He speaks of a conversation with a young, white landscaper who has worked hard to build his business and didn’t think he’d enjoyed privilege. Wytsma recounts their dialogue:

“I asked him in what part of town he did most of his work.

‘In the suburbs,’ he said,

I then asked where, specifically, he did his work.

‘Mostly in people’s backyards,’ he answered.

I asked him when he did most of his work.

‘Well, during the day, of course,’ he quickly retorted.

I asked if I could pose one more question, and he said yes. So I asked him how he got most of his business.

He responded, ‘I put flyers in people’s doors and sometimes knock at houses where I think there’s a particular opportunity I can offer them.’

Having gathered all this information about his business and how his work functions, I asked, ‘If you were a young man of color in those mostly white suburbs, is it possible you would be received differently by some of the potential clients?’

. . .

He nodded, and I could see from the look on his face that he finally understood white privilege. White privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard. It means that if you are a person of color, simply by virtue of that, your life might be harder.”  (pp. 25-26)

Wytsma’s book is broken into three parts. The first, titled “The Story of Race” explores the history of race in America through several historical lenses. He considers the history of immigration and the emergence of white supremacy. He steps back into European history and explores the roots of racism in Shakespeare, philosophy, colonization, and post-conquest treatment of Native Americans. He explores the history of slavery in the U.S., and the failed post-Civil War effort of Reconstruction succeeded by the rise of Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, political strategies of the Republican party to win the White south, and the war on drugs. The concluding chapter in this section is on the Great Migration to northern and western cities, and how redlining practices shaped these cities long after they were outlawed. He mentions the FHA/HOLC maps from the 1930’s that “graded” neighborhoods for the purpose of granting loans, with “D” areas in red, and deemed uncreditworthy. (Here is the map of my hometown of Youngstown; I grew up in a “C” or yellow area, but it was still part of the “white west side” and indeed, most Blacks lived in the “red” areas of town).

Part two focuses on theology as Wytsma considers “Equality and the Kingdom of God.” He speaks tellingly of all the “off limit” subjects in our “authentic” churches and how they reveal our conflicted loyalties between “empire” and “the kingdom of God.” He explores our truncated gospel, and how we leave out justice, not realizing that “justice,” “righteousness” and “justify” derive from the same words. To be in right relationship or justified with God and to be in right or just relation with neighbor are part of one gospel of the kingdom. He discusses what he calls our “salvation-industrial” complex that reduces salvation to how many have prayed a “sinner’s prayer,” a metric that can translate into enhanced donations for a ministry. This becomes a very individualized experience that fails to reckon with what it means to be incorporated into a new humanity that transcends all human-made divisions and national boundaries.

In Part Three, Wytsma outlines how we begin to address white privilege. He describes how implicit racial bias can shape our thinking, whether in an interview or a police stop.and how this may be overcome. He challenges our Christian conference complex that is often pervaded by white speakers from the platform, and other ways we simply don’t recognize people of other ethnicities and give them a place at the table, or even yield the table (or podium) to them. Finally he speaks of the steps we may take to open ourselves to the other, and even find ourselves in the other–listening and learning, lamenting, confessing, and laying down our privilege to raise up others.

What I appreciate throughout the book is that the point is not shaming or laying guilt but helping us understand and wake up to something to which we may have been oblivious. Wytsma helps us follow his own journey of understanding. Along the way, he helped me see that to attempt to deny or defend privilege is to carry a heavy burden, and one that isolates me from the manifold riches of a diverse community of believers. Recognizing privilege, honestly facing and lamenting the way it has hurt others, and laying it down as a gift to others, to bless others and share that privilege with them is liberating.

We are also facing a major demographic challenge as a nation, in which people of color will be in the numerical majority by 2050. It is one that faces white Christians with a challenge and an opportunity. Will we try to hang onto something of which others are desperately seeking a share, or will we both enrich, and allow ourselves to be enriched by brothers and sisters whose skin color is darker than ours? Instead of fearing what we might lose, might we consider both what we may give and gain?


Review: Race and Place


Race and Place

Race and PlaceDavid P. Leong (foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Looks at how geography and place serve to perpetuate racial divisions and injustice and how the church may begin to address itself to these geographic forces and structures.

In many discussions about the continuing legacy of racial divisions and injustices in our country we focus on structural problems in our justice system, our political life, and in our economic life that perpetuate divisions. What is often less obvious is that place and geography places an important role in these structural divisions and in the perpetuation of racial discord in our society.

David P. Leong writes this book to open our eyes to the ways that our geography, particularly our urban geography helps perpetuate structures of racial division. The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Leong lays out terms, including a discussion of place and colorblindness. What I find him arguing here as much as anything is that we are “place blind” and we do not see how place and race interact. He traces this in part to a docetic theology that spiritualizes life and doesn’t recognize physical places as an essential aspect of life–that our embodied existence is lived in a place.

Part two looks at how patterns of exclusion work in our geography and how this plays out in education, housing, and our transportation patterns. He talks about our freeway systems as facilitating a suburban exodus. I was surprised that he did not talk about how freeways changed our urban landscapes, isolated neighborhoods and reinforced racial separation in many cities. This was surprising to me because he writes about Detroit, including the wall at Eight Mile Road, yet does not talk about how freeways also changed the urban geography of the city. He also addresses what he calls “return flight” and the resulting phenomenon of gentrification which perpetuates geographic isolation as poorer (and often racially distinct) populations are often displaced when an urban area gentrifies.

Part three addresses the phenomenon of relocation often advocated by the Christian Community Development Association. The author is part of one such community in the Rainier Valley area of Seattle. He explores the postures and practices involved in avoiding a kind of imperialism by sinking roots into a community, by practicing radical hospitality, and engaging in neighborhood renewal through a ministry of presence.

I think the strengths of this book are its analysis of the ways place and geography perpetuate racial divisions and inequities, and in the author’s story of the hard work of nurturing a racially diverse church community in urban Seattle. At the same time it seems that its primary solution to these problems of place is relocation and incarnational ministry. Perhaps in the very long term such communities can transform an urban environment. Yet I wonder if this is only a very small part of addressing the structural problems that sustain racism, even in terms of urban geography. It seems that there are issues related to law enforcement and the justice system, banking and financial services, business and commerce, the location of employment opportunities, fostering quality educational opportunities and more that this book leaves unaddressed, apart from acknowledging them.

Perhaps this calls for a much longer book, but even more an aware presence in these communities. It seems that this is what the author wants as he writes:

“As you witness these oppressive systems at work in your own neighborhood and reflect on these personal tendencies in your own life, I hope you’ll never look at another freeway, public school, or suburban home the same way again. Beyond those new ways of seeing, I also pray that you’ll be disturbed with our complicity in these problematic walls of hostility, to the point of further study, research, and lament.”

Leong’s book does this and something more. It shares the story of a community that has started looking at these things, not clinically from the outside, but as a hospitable and learning community from the inside. Over time, that may be far more significant than one more grandiose solution imposed from the outside.