#7 Heartlands Best Reads of 2018: The Thin Light of Freedom

History books are always going to find a way to my reading stand. One of the reasons is that I had one of the country’s greatest historians as a professor back in the day. Ed Ayers told the story of the United States, particularly of the American South, with an eye for conflicts, resilience, and human progress through resistance.

Fortunately for all of us, he still does and his latest history, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, is another master work. Starting in the middle of the war and moving through Reconstruction, Ayers uses two communities — Augusta County, Virginia and Franklin County, Pennsylvania — to show how the conflict that was exploding on the battlefields of Gettysburg and Petersburg didn’t end with Appomattox in 1865, but only transformed into a new type of conflict, one that bears uncomfortable resemblances to our current Great Divide.

The Thin Light of Freedom makes it in at #8 on the Heartlands list this year, and not just because Ayers is my old advisor and one of my favorite people to talk to. This is great history everybody ought to read.

My full review is here and you can also read my 3-part interview with Ayers beginning here.

Normal is How America Got This Way: A Review of The View from Flyover Country

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photo by Omar Prestwich via Unsplash

“The absence of complaining should be taken as a sign that something is rotting in a society,” Sarah Kendzior says.  “Complaining is beautiful.  Complaining should be encouraged.  Complaining means you have a chance.” (225)

Sometimes it takes a critic to get things to change, and Kendzior is such a critic.  Her book, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, is misnamed, but her targets are well-chosen.  Looking back on the essays about the decline of America, which she wrote during the Obama years and which form the bulk of this book, she says, “in the era of the audacity of hope, I made a case for the audacity of despair.” (xii)

The book is misnamed because, even though Kendzior is located in St. Louis, her concerns are much larger than the forgotten Midwest where she begins her flights from flyover country.  She begins where I began this blog—with the recognition that the national media and the narrative of the Great Divide have turned the heartlands of America into a crude stereotype—a vast landscape of racist rubes who can’t discern what serves their own self-interest.  

“There are endless variations of ‘America’ in St. Louis alone,” Kendzior declares.  “This insistence that we have an inherent divide has in some respects become a self-fulfilling prophecy…America is purple—purple like a bruise.” (xvi)

Having begun here, however, Kendzior’s essays, which she originally wrote during her time as a reporter for Al Jazeera, quickly move from the local to the structural.  She wants to know why America isn’t working and she documents it with a sustained focus on a narrow range of issues.  

In Kendzior’s America, higher education is broken.  Adjunct professors are getting food stamps and living in their offices.  Students are leaving college with mountains of student loan debt and declining job prospects. Unpaid internships, available mostly to the wealthy elite, are replacing entry-level positions in careers like public service and the media.

Structural racism continues to limit the potential of black communities and black youth.  Though Ferguson, which happened in her back yard, is a mere footnote here, Kendzior sees its symbolic importance.  “St. Louis is a city where black communities are watched—by police, by spectators—more than they are seen, more than they are heard.” (108)

Journalism, which even into the 1970s had space for reporters without academic degrees, is now dominated by people with the means to get graduate degrees.  Even so, most journalists who can get a job are seeing their income potential shriveling.  

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Sarah Kendzior

This is important “complaining.”  It focuses attention on why, even when the economic indicators are rising and the unemployment rate declines, we continue to feel that all is not well.  For Kendzior, the 2016 election was not a radical departure from the norm, but the inevitable result of the “normal” we had already been experiencing.  “‘Normal’ is how we got here.” (231)

“Income inequality remains at a level unrivaled in modern U.S. history, as does household debt. Wages remain stagnant of in decline.  Higher education remains an exorbitant barrier to middle-class jobs, which middle-class jobs continue to disappear.  Geographical inequality…remains rampant, with prestigious jobs clustered in cities few can afford.” (231-2).

No wonder Kendzior feels “we live in the tunnel at the end of the light.” (29)

There’s much that I appreciate about the passion and analysis of this book, as well as Kendzior’s knack for the well-turned phrase. What I miss here is a reckoning of the capacity of the “flyover country” to persevere and renew itself.  By turning her attention so fully to the systems that are broken on a national level, the place Kendzior lives and the people with whom she lives disappear—just as they do in all the media reporting she decries.

In her great new book on Laura Ingalls Wilder, Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser quotes Pierre-Jean De Smet, the Belgian Jesuit priest who explored the Great Plains in the mid-19th century.  De Smet was mystified by the “strange people” who settled the region, defying all the “lethal obstacles placed in their paths by climate, weather, or disease.”  

“Nothing frightens them,” he said.  “They will undertake anything.  Sometimes they halt—stumble once in a while—but they get up again and march onward.” (106)

Those Midwesterners still exist.  I’m all for acknowledging the tunnel.  But it doesn’t have to mean the absence of the light.

Full disclosure: Flatiron Books provided me with a copy of this book for review.

Doughfaces, Denzel & Racing against Racism: The Ed Ayers Interview, Part 2 of 3

Think the racial narratives of American political discourse are bad today?  As Edward Ayers reveals in his latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, it’s nothing new and it’s been worse.  In the second part of my interview with my former professor, we talk about racial narratives of the mid-War North and the post-War South.  

The first part of my interview can be found by clicking this link.

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So, then, how new was the racial narrative that the Northern Democrats developed during the Civil War? How did it work for them and was it really new or was that of a piece with what went before?

Before the War, they were ‘Doughfaces,’ which is: Northern men with Southern sympathies. They were called Doughfaces because their faces could be shaped to whatever expression the South wanted. Before the War, the Democrats had basically been Southern sympathizers for reasons of racism but also for party advantage. 

Once they’re fighting to the death against white Southerners, they don’t have that option anymore and it becomes just anti-black. So, in some ways the racism is of a purer form in the War. You see this in the invention of miscegenation as a scare tactic of the Democrats. 

During the war itself, the Republicans are always pointing out, “You guys are just on the verge of treason—wishing ill for the Federal armies, kind of pulling for the Confederacy a little bit because you don’t want to see slavery end, because you don’t really want the formerly enslaved people to come into the North.” 

The Democrats don’t really have a good answer for that because that’s kind of true. Then after the War, they return to their sympathy for the white South and in some ways the War is an interruption of the longer conversation about race. The difference is that there are white Northerners after the War, who didn’t exist before, who had their entire political identity wrapped around some kind of justice and freedom for the formerly enslaved people 

That’s one thing I really emphasize—here’s a case where politics does something great. You have all the mobilization on the ground of people who want to be elected and re-elected, and to do so they embrace emancipation. And because they embrace emancipation, they embrace the character and capacities of African-Americans. If you don’t have that, you don’t really have the mobilization of white support in the North for Reconstruction. We’re so used to thinking of politics as a corrosive craft, but here’s a case where politics played a role that no other institution could have played because it blended self-interests and idealism in a really powerful mixture.

How much did the Northern Democratic narrative impact the Southern narrative that developed after the war? It obviously built on something that was there in South already, but how quickly did the alliance between Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats emerge?

Everybody was happy that Andrew Johnson was president after Lincoln’s assassination. The Democrats say, “OK, we got one of ours. Even though he just ran on the Union ticket, he’s always been a Democrat.”

The Republicans say, “Here’s the bravest guy in the South who was uniquely willing to stand up for the Union against his own people.”

Johnson was trying to make a national Republican Party that could hold its own with a national Democratic Party that was reassembling itself after the War. The white Southerners and the Northern Democrats came back together quickly despite the fact they had just been killing each other months before. 

So, I give Johnson a little more credit than most people. I’d say, “What was he doing?” It’s true, he threw black people under the bus. It’s true that he granted pardons to so many former Confederates. But why?

It’s usually explained, “Well, he was a racist.” Well, yeah, but so was everybody. The difference was, he was doing what he thought Lincoln wanted to do, which is to put together a national party, North and South, of white people who would further the cause of union. To do that he was willing to sacrifice much that had been won recently and at such great cost. 

Even though there was a war and I know those were extraordinary circumstances, it’s surprising that the Republican Party was able to retain control of Congress as long as it did. I don’t think of Congress as really having that much time to do much and, in our day, doing much of anything at all. How unusual was that?

That’s a really good point. If we pull the camera back a little bit, though, we see that they were racing. They accomplished as much as they did because they knew it wasn’t going to last. So, you have the nine months that Johnson was president that Congress is not in session. Then he basically sacrifices a lot of what the Republicans believed in and what a lot of Northerners believed in.

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Ed Ayers

But because of the disgust of what white Southerners did in that time, they were able to win a mandate in 1866 that they were able then to carry over into 1867 and ’68. But they started losing as soon as they started winning. The Democrats started a resurgence almost as soon as the Republicans were in power creating the Military Reconstruction Act. 

My experience is that people don’t even think they understand Reconstruction because it doesn’t have any kind of a narrative arc. It starts ending as soon as it begins and it ends in different states at different times in different ways.

I asked my freshmen students last year to tell me about Reconstruction. I said, “Go online and see what people think about Reconstruction.” They came back and the only commonality was that it was a failure. That’s what we teach our children—Reconstruction was a failure. I think that’s misleading and also defeatist. It also undercuts the idea that the government might be able to do something important. Of course, it’s going to end. You can’t change people. So the point is that the Republicans were racing precisely because they knew that if they didn’t do it then they might never do it.

Another great thing about the book is the way that you captured voices from people who were in the US Colored Troops during the War. I have always known how important those soldiers were symbolically, but what came through in the book was, practically, the North really relied on what the Colored Troops were able to do in the field.

Yeah. The New York Times wrote an article about the Valley of the Shadow project back in 1999 or 2000 when the idea of an online project was considered a novel idea. An older professor wrote me and said, “You would never find them, but the largest single collection of letters of African-American soldiers is of a family from Franklin County [PA]. But they’re filed in the county next door… I can’t read the letters.” 

colored_troopsI wrote back and said, “That’s ok. I know some twenty-two-year-old eyes that can.” And [the grad students] transcribed all those letters. So, I was able to flesh out that story because of that remarkable stroke of good luck.

The fact that these guys were just writing to each other…they’re not grandstanding. This is not a speech. This is not an editorial in a newspaper. They’re just saying, “I do believe it’s God’s will that this War will go on till the black people have their rights.”

I still get chills thinking about that and for us to know that that’s what they were fighting for. I think is crucial. It changes the story we have. Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman [in the movie Glory]—it’s all great, but it gives the impression that it ended after Fort Wagner [in 1863]. As you see, it didn’t and the kind of fighting they were doing on up to the gates of Richmond is an important thing for us to know. 

Click on this link for Segment 3, “Musicals, Monuments, and Historical Optimism.”

The Vicious State of Politics…Then: Ed Ayers on Heartlands-part 1 of 3

Edward Ayers is not only one of the nation’s preeminent interpreters of American History, he is a consummate storyteller and educator.  Ayers is the Tucker Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond.  His latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America won the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize and the Avery O. Craven Award.  He was also my professor and advisor at the University of Virginia back in the day.

Recently I interviewed Ayers about his book and the course of history in general.  In three segments on Heartlands, you’ll get a lot of what we talked about.  In this segment, we discuss the political culture of the Civil War period and how it may have echoes in our current era:

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By Dswanson1001 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51846534

So I started my review of your book by asking, “Who starts a book about the Civil War in the middle?” Of course, you did. Why did you choose to start Thin Light of Freedom with 1863?

This does start in the middle on purpose because it kind of throws us off balance a little bit. We’re used to thinking that Gettysburg is the pivot of the war, the turning point, but they certainly didn’t know it. We need to remember: as many people died after Gettysburg as died before and you certainly see in this book that the White South doesn’t say, “Well, we give up.” They kept fighting and I think the critical thing is to recognize that the election of 1864 is really the pivot of the war. They know it’s going to be from the beginning and a lot of the things that happen on the battlefield are actually oriented toward that. We usually think that a war is a series of battles and instead the war was a struggle for the future of the United States that would be determined by whether the US could hold it together long enough to defeat the Confederacy. That was determined more by the election than by the battle of Gettysburg or Vicksburg.

The contrast between the political culture in the South and in the North was fascinating. You use a lot of newspaper accounts to try to get at how public opinion was changing. You talk about how in Staunton, Virginia, (the Southern community that you chose to focus on) the newspapers were kind of united and probably united more behind the army than the government.

Right, right. Our usual understanding is, “Obviously the Confederacy was wrong,” and so we go back and look for ways that it was also flawed and failing. But the fact is that it considered itself under assault and it set aside the differences, which were just as strong before the Civil War as in the North. The newspapers that seem to be speaking with one voice during the war had been fighting with each other, just like the Democrats and the Republicans in the North, before the war and in some ways even more so because they were fighting over whether Virginia should secede or not. You read those papers in this book and you see that you wouldn’t know that one of the papers had been fervently Unionist a week before the Confederacy is created.

The important thing for us to understand is that the war is not just a playing out of forces that were already in play but rather it changes everything. It’s a crucible in which ideology and even faith are redefined in some ways. The idea of pointing out how much conflict there is in the North is also good for us because we’re self-congratulatory about the Civil War and imagine that it had to turn out the way that it did and that it was clear that the right side scored a win because it was intrinsically stronger, because it was intrinsically right. But recognizing that nearly half of white Northerners would not support Abraham Lincoln in the greatest crisis of the nation should be a sobering recognition for all of us.

That was to me the most surprising thing, even having lived with the story a long time. The divisions in the North were just…vicious. 

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Ed Ayers

Yeah, when I give talks about this I joke and say, “Now, I want to warn everybody: back then people used very hard language to talk about politics.” 

People laugh but then they go, “Wow, that actually is a harsh thing to say about the greatest president in American history.”

The point of this is not to diminish the Union cause but rather to be grateful for the people who made it happen rather than just give a blanket endorsement of all white Northerners because they don’t deserve it. The people who did fight and make this happen, who were brave and resisted the temptations of racism, deserve more credit and the people who resisted it all don’t deserve any.

Right, and as I’ve been thinking about our current times, I keep going back to the 1850s as a similar time when it felt like things were pulling apart. But the kind of divisions that I associate with that period continued into the 1860s in the North. I mean, it was not over just because the War came. 

Not only do I start the book in the middle of the Civil War but I don’t end till Reconstruction. So it is kind of an unusual slice that cuts across the way you usually compartmentalize it, which is: Before the War, the War, After the War. Those are three completely different literatures that don’t talk to each other very much. All we have to do is remember just how much of a presence Vietnam is still today in America to imagine what the Civil War would have felt like 18 months after it was over. We close the books on the War and start to talk about politics, but it’s basically the same thing and the War simultaneously changes everything but leaves the fundamental conversation in place.

Segment 2 of this interview, “Doughfaces, Denzel, & Racing Against Racism,” can be found by clicking this link.

Two Big Reasons for Churches to Talk About Race

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Bishop Greg Palmer

These are dangerous days to talk about race.  If you try to raise the subject in polite company you’re likely to face some averted glances or rolling eyes.  In impolite company, well, who knows?  For some, talk of race is a pretext for a political agenda.  For others, the failure to talk about race is an admission of darker motives.

It’s time to talk, though, and I’d like to think the church is the best place for us to have this discussion.

Why?  First, because the Christian story has always been about overcoming the walls that divide us. 

Ruth, the Moabite woman, crosses into Israelite society and restores a family’s fortunes.  Jonah reluctantly brings good news to Ninevites.  Jesus sits with a Samaritan woman.  The Holy Spirit bursts into an international gathering on Pentecost and creates a new community.  Paul declares that “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.” (Ephesians 2:14, CEB). 

We shouldn’t be afraid of an honest encounter about race.  When we confront it in Christ, it generally means good things are going to happen.

Secondly, the church is a place where we don’t have to pretend we’ve got it all together.  We are broken people living in a broken land.  A people of unclean lips.  That’s what Sin does to us.  And one of the manifestations of that Sin is Racism, the demon who haunts everything that happens in our scarred nation.

I’ll confess that I have avoided discussions of race for fear that I’ll do it wrong.  I’ll say the wrong thing.  Cause unintended hurt.  Expose myself as less than I want to be.  I don’t want to be racist.

But as a white man living in a society and a church still deformed by racial ideologies, I don’t have the luxury of being pristine.  Racism is in me.  Dealing with that means a lifelong confession, awareness, and commitment to crossing boundaries to begin relationships that can emerge despite the awkwardness of our limited vocabulary around race.

I’m writing this from a conference sponsored by the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion & Race called Facing the Future.  Clergy from around the country are here talking about their experiences in cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry settings.  The theme is “In the Midst of the Storm.”

There is realism and hope here:

 “The paradigm of white racism is already dead,” Bishop Greg Palmer said in the opening worship.  “But there are still a few minor rebellions against the reign of King Jesus.”  

That sums it up.  Racism doesn’t have a future because Christ has “broken down the barrier of hatred.”  But there are still a few minor rebellions and they still cause pain and real injury.  And some of those rebellions are within us.

I’m grateful for the steps that courageous lay and clergy folks on the Eastern Shore have taken to help us acknowledge what racism has done to us,  I’m grateful for the places on the Shore where clergy and churches are living out cross-racial and cross-cultural ministry.  And I know there is more to do.  Why shouldn’t it start in the church?

Your Civil War Is Too Easy: Looking for The Thin Light of Freedom with Ed Ayers

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Freedwoman –Juneteenth Memorial Monument, Austin, TX  By Jennifer Rangubphai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51616286

Who starts a story of the Civil War in the middle?  By the time Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia marched up the Shenandoah Valley into Pennsylvania in July of 1863, the war had been going for more than two years.  The twin Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the 4th of July usually mark the beginning of the end for the South and the two remaining years of conflict move inevitably to Appomattox, full emancipation of enslaved persons, and the reunion of the nation.

Edward Ayers, (the correct answer to the question above) is not having your easy narrative, however.  The eminent historian and co-host of the BackStory podcast knows that the Great Dates theory of history is as shaky as the Great Personage theory.  Something significant happened in 1863 (and in 1865) but a whole lot was still undetermined and conflict was still going to be necessary to preserve a “thin light of freedom” for those whose sought real racial equality in the United States.

51kX8OoXrAL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Ayers new book takes its title from this phrase.  The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America is the kind of history Ayers has specialized in—extensively researched, sympathetic to its subjects, discontented with simple narratives, progressive, eyes wide to the trauma but ultimately hopeful.  This book also throws uncomfortable light on the conflicts of our own age.

In covering the war and its aftermath from 1863 to 1902, Ayers chooses two of his frequent haunts as touchstones for his story—Augusta County, Virginia & Franklin County, Pennsylvania.  The two counties, despite being on opposite sides during the Civil War, share a common geography in the long Valley stretching behind the front line of the Appalachians, some common demographics, and a similar agricultural economy.  They have also been the focus of a long-term digital archiving project conceived by Ayers—the Valley of the Shadow, which has been collecting diaries, letters, newspapers, Freedmen’s Bureau reports, soldier’s records, and photographs from the period from the 1850s to 1870.

Ayers calls this “history on a human scale” (xx) and he regularly checks in with characters, black and white, who are living through the destruction and disruption caused by the war and then the dangerous uncertainties of Reconstruction.

Twelve-year-old Cate confronts a northern soldier looking beneath the beds of her Augusta County home “for rebels” by telling him “We are all rebels…I am a rebel too & I glory in it.” (171).

A northern Democratic newspaper editorializes vociferously against arming formerly enslaved men: “It was wrong to place ‘these poor devils in the army to be shot down like dogs, knowing that they had neither the physical nor the moral courage requisite to make good soldiers.’” (314)

Meanwhile, Franklin County men write back from their service in the newly-formed US Colored Troops with contradictory evidence: “Mi Dear Jest let Me say to you if it had Not a bean for the Culard trips Wiy this offel Ware Wod last fer ten years to Cum.” (317)

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Edward L. Ayers

Interspersed with this documentary evidence is Ayers’ interpretative account of what is happening.  Military actions are conducted with an eye to northern political struggles.  Northern Democrats develop a vicious racial narrative as a strategy to return to national power.  Republicans build a quasi-religious language that demands of the defeated Confederates shame, repentance, and moral regeneration.  In response, whites in the South retrench and we see in the early post-War years the building blocks of the narrative of the Lost Cause and eventual institutionalized segregation between the races.

As a boy who was raised in a Southern town steeped in the Lost Cause and as a student of Ayers in his teaching days at the University of Virginia, I have had the Civil War period much on my mind as the nation goes through this current period of Great Divide.  It’s hard not to be reminded of the political disintegration of the 1850s when the national story broke down and new, rigid narratives developed.  There are ominous parallels between our times.  Is a crisis similar to the Civil War on the horizon?

In this book, Ayers offers a different lens.  By downplaying the myth of the epic moment (Gettysburg, Lincoln’s assassination, 13th Amendment, etc.) he points to a more enduring reality.  Political conflict didn’t end with the Civil War.  If anything, the political environment of the North was more vicious than before and Lincoln’s achievement in holding even that part of the Union together seems all the more miraculous.  The achievements of the Reconstruction period seem similarly improbable given the resistance of northern and southern parties.

“Reconstruction, it turned out, moved by counterpoint and reaction as well as by intention and fulfillment,” Ayers says.  “Just as white Southerner’s secession made emancipation possible, so did their resistance to basic civil rights for black people create the possibility for votes and office-holding for black people.” (450)

Ayers is not making the case for continual conflict as an unqualified good, but he has a native confidence in the possibilities that emerge from the clash between mighty forces:  “At every step, those who would advance freedom found themselves challenged and defeated.  As this history shows, however, black freedom advanced faster and further than its champions had dreamed possible precisely because the opponents of freedom proved so powerful and aggressive.” (xxii)

There are echoes here of Martin Luther King’s famous arc of the moral universe, long but bending toward justice.  Ayers lets the question of an invisible hand in history hang in the air.  In the meantime he’s going to introduce us to the people who are actually moving though that history as agents of change, however provisional and tragic.  People like Serena Carter, a Staunton African-American leader who died in 1898 at the age of twenty-nine.  With her spouse, Willis, Carter began a school for black children, worked with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to improve the lives of women and children, and took a leading role in an economic improvement program for the black community.  At her death the Staunton newspaper headlined her obituary: “Useful Colored Woman Dead.” (491)

Is hers a story of triumph?  Ayers, I believe, would say, ‘yes.’  You just need the right frame.  And the chronological frame of a life, like the dates of a war, is just not big enough.

Read my interview with Edward Ayers here.

Order The Thin Light of Freedom.

The Country We Live In: Race, Sin, and the Birthday of the UMC

hannah-busing-423069-unsplashBehind every discussion in American life is the question of race.  At this stage in our history, with the long shadows cast by slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the struggle for civil rights, and last year’s gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, the impact of race is not something we can ignore if we want to be honest about who we are.  Race and racism are still the ocean we swim in, even if the vast majority of us are trying to shed old racist ways of thinking and behaving.

Recently we’ve had an opportunity to reflect on our racial history.  Two weeks ago, some of my United Methodist colleagues participated in activities in Washington D.C. to recall the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee 50 years ago this month.  Last weekend, the Virginia Conference sponsored the Bishop’s Convocation on Religion and Race in northern Virginia.  Both gatherings recalled how Christians can be challenged by the gospel to confront the effects of racism in our nation and in our churches.

imagesNext week we will recall another 50th anniversary—the birth of the United Methodist Church (UMC) from the union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.  The uniting of those two churches was not a sure thing.  The Methodist Church still carried, as part of its legacy from a previous 1939 merger, a racially segregated Central Jurisdiction for its African-American churches.  The integration of those churches into the larger church was a condition for the creation of the UMC.

When delegates gathered in Dallas on April 21, 1968, just 17 days after Dr. King’s death, there was a conviction among many of them that whatever this new UMC would be, it would have to be honest about its difficult racial history and commit itself to racial inclusion.  There were losses in the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction.  It had been an engine for developing African-American leader in the church.  But the vision was for a church where racial equality could be achieved.

We’ve still got a ways to go.  Fifty years later, our churches are still largely segregated.  The practice of open itinerancy has brought clergy of color into largely white congregations and some white clergy have made the move in the other direction.  But those appointments still bring unique challenges due to the lingering effects of our racialized history.

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The 1968 Uniting Conference

There was a time when the Christian churches might have imagined that they were on the forefront of the movement toward racial equality in the US, but now it seems we follow rather than lead.  Sometimes we even resist. For all the progress we celebrate, we are still in the grip of principalities and powers that rule in our day.

Our national conversations spend a lot of time trying to delineate what and who is racist.  Individual white people wonder if they are racist and try to convince themselves that they can be free of racism, like kicking a smoking habit.  As an expression of purity, we can try to be free from racist sins.

But the truth is that racism is a manifestation of big ’S’ Sin and the only honest stance we can hold in relation to Sin is to admit that it infects our every action.  It is the environment into which we are born.  It is the air we breathe.  And from that we need a Savior, not a resolution to do better.

There’s one more thing to say about Sin, though: God says ‘no’ to it.  Said it definitively on an Easter morning.  Delivered us from slavery to Sin and Death, as we say in the Great Thanksgiving.  Has died.  Is Risen. Will come again.

A conversation about where we are with race needs to start here—in confession that we all live in the deformed world that Sin has wrought and in confidence that God will reveal the restored cosmos announced in the cross and resurrection.  If we’re all in this space, there’s no room to step outside into an imagined America that doesn’t have to deal with race anymore.  We all live in the country where racism remains.  We all need the conversation (not shouting match) on race that we’re avoiding.  And Lord knows, we all need each other.

Shmoop on Huck Finn: Guest Blogger Jeanne Torrence Finley

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photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

My colleague Jeanne Torrence Finley has been writing about art and justice on her new blog Tell It Slant, (which you should definitely check out).  Today she joins my defense of Huck Finn by discovering an oddly-named defender of satire in literature:

When Alex wrote on February 18  (“In Praise of Uncomfortable Books:  Huck and Harper Revisited”) about the decision by the Duluth, Minnesota school district to remove Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from required reading lists, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet.   As a writer and former English teacher, I don’t understand censorship of two of the most clearly anti-racists books in American literature.  Expanding the curricula of schools toward diversity is essential, but it doesn’t require banning books like Huckleberry Finn, which is all the more remarkable in its denunciation of racism because it was first published in the U.S. in 1885.

Earlier this month I had written an essay for the publication FaithLink* called “Religious Satire” and included Mark Twain as arguably the greatest American satirist.    In the research for my essay I couldn’t resist going to my favorite literature website, Shmoop, and watching the short videos on satire on their ShmoopTube (a.k.a. Where Monty Python Meets Your 10th Grade Teacher).  I found three videos about Huck Finn that I wish school board members in Duluth would watch:

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”  (2:33) informs viewers that Huck Finn has 220px-Huckleberry_Finn_bookbeen on the top 100 banned books in the U.S. for several decades and frequently makes the top 10.  The main reason for the novel’s notoriety among censors is that Mark Twain wrote in the vernacular and used offensive language–specifically the N-word–219 times.  Yes, bad boy Huck started out a racist.  He learned it from his culture but he changed.  His spiritual journey with the slave Jim parallels their journey down the Mississippi.  If racist readers commit to that journey with Jim and Huck, there’s a good chance they will change too.

“American Literature: Finn: Racism”  (5:44) makes the points that anti-racism is the point of this novel and that the novel takes on systemic racism.  It’s pretty amazing that a white man born in 1835 in Missouri understood that racism is systemic and had the ability to put readers inside a racist society so that they could feel the offense.  The video mentions that a publication of a version in 2011 replaced the N-word with the word “slave” and comments about that attempt to be less offensive:  “It’s supposed to be an ugly word. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable.  Hiding it just waters down what Twain was trying to say.”

“American Literature: Huck Finn: Satire”  (5:38) explains satire in general, and the satire in Huck Finn in particular, as a way of exposing human foolishness and sin.  It’s a way of learning ethical thinking from a poor, pint-sized, foul-mouthed runaway whose heart and mind are open to change.

It’s a way of learning ethical thinking from a poor, pint-sized, foul-mouthed runaway whose heart and mind are open to change.

Shmoop Tube videos are designed for 10th graders by grad students in literature who know how to “speak” High School Student and their humor is commensurate with their audience’s level of maturity.  Nonetheless, I think adults who want to ban books, particularly Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird could learn a thing or two here.

 *Though FaithLink is a curriculum available by subscription from Cokesbury, the essay portion of an issue is sometimes picked up and posted on the Ministry Matters site.

–Jeanne Torrence Finley

In Praise of Uncomfortable Books: Huck & Harper Revisited

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photo by Chris Lawton via Unsplash

Huck and Harper are on the block again and I’m not comfortable with that.  Then again, I think it’s high time we all got uncomfortable.

In late 2016, as I was beginning Heartlands, I reflected on the controversy that was roiling Accomack County, Virginia where I live.  Only that’s not strictly accurate.  The decision by the local School Board to temporarily remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for offensive, racialized language did lead to some protests here (and the eventual return of the books), but the headlines were largely elsewhere.  Accomack County was one more piece of evidence for blue America (and places far beyond) that red America was regressing into ignorance and intolerance.

Now I think that maybe the greater danger is that the country as a whole is regressing into head-in-the-sand comfort.

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The courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama

This week news came that the same two classics of American literature were being removed from the required reading lists in the schools of Duluth, Minnesota.  The decision was not the result of a particular complaint but from ongoing conversations that included the local NAACP chapter.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Michael Cary, the school district’s director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune.

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the local NAACP said, “There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people.”

I don’t want to argue the case for Mark Twain’s Huck and Harper Lee’s Mockingbird, even though they stand among the best and most important books American culture has produced.  The de facto canon that American public schools have been using is too limited and could surely be strengthened by adding more diversity.  But to set aside Huck and Harper in favor of literature whose primary requirement is that it does not offend is a travesty.

Good literature is offensive precisely because, if it is authentic to experience, it goes directly to those places where humanity is exposed and revealed in all its flaws and triumphs.  Sure, let’s add Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave to the mix of required reading, but what they describe is degradation and it’s going to be no less offensive.  Put James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on the list and there will still be squirming in the seats.

I get the distinction.  Twain and Lee are white authors who may be using the racialized language satirically but who certainly don’t bring the same lived history or context to it that African-American writers would.  But the characters they create—Huck, Jim, Scout, and Atticus—are the kind of people I want my children to meet in literature.  They are limited by their times and their prejudices, just like their authors, but they contain the beating heart of humanity and of the possibilities of expressing that humanity in this land.  They can’t be what they are, fully fleshed out, without the jarring reminders of what racism and the legacy of slavery has done to them and their language.

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Alex hanging out with Scout & Jem

Removing the books may seem like a good move to save children from the disturbance of knowing how such hurtful language has been used against people who look like them.  But isn’t empowerment, in part, helping students of every race deal with the world they live in everyday that includes such language and its history?  Is it better to let them struggle with such language in its cartoonish version in alt-right chat rooms and casual daily racism or to deal with it in books that give them other resources for understanding what’s going on?

Another danger of the move is that it threatens to remove another voice from our contemporary world that we still need—our ancestors.  Because they do not conform to our current standards of appropriate terminology and ethical behavior, they make us uneasy and we are tempted to hide them away as an inconvenient embarrassment.  But the dead do not stop speaking for all our attempts to silence them.  What motivated them and stirred them to both moral horrors and triumphs is still within us and we have much to learn from them, even as we expand the canon with voices that were suppressed in their own time.

So here’s a plea for some holy discomfort that should welcome the challenge of Huck and Harper.  Perhaps it’s a longing for schools to be a space where wise books and wise people can lead us out of our struggles to live into a common story.  Or maybe it’s just because I believe that we are already uncomfortable and will be despite such changes, so why discard some companions who would try to help?

The Most-Read of 2017: A Heartlands Retrospective

freestocks-org-4875612017 began with a quaint and quixotic belief that one more blog might be helpful in addressing the Great Divide.  Post-election I was casting about for a way to explore this strange, new world we all seemed to be living in.  Were we really as divided as we seemed?  Had we forgotten how to talk to each other?  What new languages might we have for new conversations?  And how could the church reclaim its own language for this new day?

img_5321Heartlands is about the way these questions play out in rural America.  Over the year, it has developed a particular interest in how place and story can ground us.  Hence, book reviews, travelogues, and interviews with authors and artists.  But you have helped shape what this blog looks like.  And it’s time to count down the most read posts of 2017.  So here they are:

10. How to Preach a Bad Sermon – reflections by one who has delivered and heard more than my fair share.  Includes obligatory Annie Dillard reference.

9. Why don’t country people just get out? – What happens when we give up on country life?

19366224_10154952950103533_8737175430623632393_n8. In Which I High-Five a Bishop – The new bishop of the Virginia Conference, got me (and the whole conference) fired up at our annual gathering last June.  Here’s where I tell why.

7. We’ve Got an Open Door Problem – revisiting the deceptive slogan of the United Methodist Church.

6. Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters – not sure, but I think a few Duke alums might have helped goose this post up the list.  But the controversy did matter in helping us define the stakes of 21st century theology.

5. The Last Thing I Want to Talk About – Bishop Oliveto and the United Methodist Church – The legal wrangling over the status of the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop got me thinking about what I really wanted to be talking about.

14_working4. When Robert E. Lee was in the Walgreen’s Parking Lot – An interview with Photographer Michael Mergen – Passing through Farmville, Virginia one day, I took a break at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts and discovered the work of a great photographer of place and memory.  Man, I’m glad I did.

3. This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale – One of my favorite people who lives in one of my favorite places – The Porches writing retreat.

2. The Empty Bench at the Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner – the Eastern Shore and the UMC lost a giant in 2017.

images1. What Goes Without Saying – Some Thoughts on Charlottesville – a fitting #1 considering how much time we spent discussing that awful day in August in a city I love.  Race, faith, and the Great Divide in one terrible package.

But the true #1 is you, dear reader.  Thanks for giving these posts some life and breath and for moving toward something like a community – a far less quaint and quixotic concept.  Thanks as well to Christopher Smith and Sara Porter Keeling who contributed guest blogs this year and all the authors and artists who gave me their time.  Happy New Year!