If I were to add something to our silabus I would add a book or short story that is from the 2000s to show what Black religious texts are nowadays. One of my favorite books that might fit into this category is called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan Stevenson is a Black graduate of Harvard Law who defends people who have been treated unfairly by the justice system. The book mainly focuses on his work defending Walter McMillan, who was arrested for the murder of a white women, something that he clearly did not do when looking at all the evidence, but was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to death. It shows the long, painful process of dealing with the racist justice system in the South as a Black lawyer with a Black defendant, even in the 21st century. Although not specifically about religion, the book has a lot of Biblical undertones of forgiveness and does talk about the faith in God that is continued even when it seems like these people on death row for crimes they have not committed have been dealt the worst hand.
The film for Just Mercy just came out last year, starting Michael B Jordan and Jamie Fox could also be used as a visual text for the class. The film has a powerful scene of the inmates on death row singing hymns. I think that having a visual or written text like this book would add to the understanding of the role of racism and religion today. The book is extremely powerful and very well written, making complicated legal terms easy to understand. I think that everyone should read the book, so reading it in class would be beneficial to all.
Here is a picture of Bryan Stevenson and actor Michael B Jordan, who plays Bryan Stevenson in the film version of his book Just Mercy.
The use of dirt and filth is very interesting in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Gabriel is always complaining about how dirty he thinks that the house is and saying that his wife should keep it cleaner. His obsession with dirt is connected to how much he has sinned in his life. In Christianity, the idea of washing away your sins with Jesus blood is in important part of the religion. The baptizing of babies is how the ordinal sin is “washed away” and it allows for people to go to heaven. This connects to the idea that when you sin, you are becoming dirty and need to be cleaned. By saying that his house is dirty, it is symbolizing how he believes that his wife has sinned, possibly referring to her son John who she gave birth to out of wedlock.
This is super hypocritical though. If sinning makes you dirty Gabriel himself would be filthy. Gabriel had sinned many times. He even cheated on his wife, got the women that he cheated on her with pregnant, stole his wife’s money to send his mistress north and abandoned his son when his mistress died in childbirth. If he could not repent the sins that he had committed instead of taking out his anger on his family, he would be dirty forever.
That extra information provided changes how I think about Hughes’s story “Blessed Assurance” a lot. As someone who has very little experience with religion (other than the one night a year at a congregational church on Christmas eve) I did not know the story that the song was referring to. It now makes much more sense that it was upsetting Delly’s father John. John was having a very hard time accepting his son for who he was, so seeing him sing the song about the possibility only gay people in the Bible must have been shocking. I think that in general, I would have a better understanding of the readings with religious symbols or religious topics if I had a better understanding of the Bible. Having not been to Church much growing up, most of what I read about religion is new to me.
All God’s Children provides context to the intersectionality in the Black culture. It shows how it is possible to be Black, gay and religious. Those things have had a complicated relationship in the past and the people in the film are explaining how the Bible says to love everyone, not just straight people. “Blessed Assurance” by Langston Hughes shows a different side of Black sexuality. In All God’s Children, every parent that talked about their child’s sexuality was very supportive. They talked about how they love their child no matter what and they are just the same as everyone else. In the story by Hughes, the father John is having a difficult time with his son sexuality. The form of All God’s Children works really well for me. I like that there we got to see the different stories of people experience of intersectionality in the church intertwined with the gospel singing.
There are many connections between the poems that Aaron Coleman wrote and read out loud and the themes that we have talked about in class. One of the connections between the poems and the class is the theme of masculinity. Aaron Coleman talked to us about wanting to show the more tender side of masculinity. He wanted to push beyond the toxic masculinity and look at more positive sides of it. I really loved the poem that he wrote titled Viciousness in End that talks about Black masculinity. That poem is the same forward and backwards which is super interesting to me. I had never seen a poem like that and it was beautiful to hear it read out loud. The poem was about boxing and talks a lot about the violence that is often associated with men. Many of the words in it are harsh and violent. Words like blades, fists, fear and blood are repeated throughout the poem.
It reminded me of the violence that we saw from a lot of the readings earlier in the class. For example, Jonah’s Gourd Vine. The main character John, was extremely abusive. He would constantly beat his wife. We also saw this abuse in the short story Sweat. The husband was super abusive to his wife, to such an extent that she ended up letting him die when she could have saved him. That is the exact form of toxic masculinity that Coleman is speaking up against. He is trying to show how men can break away from this stereotype and become more then it.
I can definitely see why Nothing But a Man would be Malcolm X’s favorite film. There are many similarities between the civil rights leader Malcolm X and the protagonist in Nothing But a Man, Duff. The film has a strong criticism of Christianity. Duff and Reverend Dawson, Josie’s father, have conflicting values. Duff does not like that Reverend Dawson is waiting for change to happen and taking small victories when the white man decides to give him them. Duff believes that there should be larger victories like integrated schools opposed to just making the schools for Black people better. Duff admits to Reverend Dawson that he is not religious and most likely will not become religious because of his fundamental disagreements with it. Duff’s conversation with the Reverend reminds me of Malcolm X’s conversation with the preacher while he was in jail. Both had issues with what was being taught in church and waiting for white people to fix themselves.
Just like Malcolm X, Duff has a distrust of all white people. Even white people that seem to be nice to him at first, Duff does not speak more than a few words to them. This hesitancy to talk and be friendly to white people is shown to be valid when he is working at the gas station and the white man that he helped get out of the ditch, comes back with his friends to harass him. The white man didn’t like that Duff was not being overly friendly to him so sure enough, he started to racially harass him. Duff’s distrust of white people is very similar to Malcolm X’s belief that all white people are the devil that he learns in jail. It makes sense that Malcolm X would like the film Nothing But a Man, because there are so many similarities between himself and the main character.
Here is a side by side of the civil rights hero Malcolm X and the charactor Duff, from his favorite film Nothing But a Man
No one can understand the pain that was felt by the parents that lost children in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama in 1963. Not even Spike Lee after filming the entire documentary Four Little Girls. The documentary talk to the families of the children that died during the bombing, to get a deeper insight into what was lost that day, and what Birmingham was like for Black people during that time. One of the girls that was killed in in the bombing was Denise McNair. Her father, Chris McNair was one of people interviewed the most about his daughter and the bombing that killed her. Although it is possible that Spike Lee used Chris McNair as a stand for himself during the film I have one major issue with it.
Here is a picture of Chris McNair, holding a picture of his daughter Denise McNair, the day after her death in the church bombing.
I feel like saying that he is a stand in for the director Spike Lee is not giving Chris McNair himself enough credit for what he did during the documentary. It would have been unimaginably difficult for the people in the film to talk about the death of their children. Chris McNair himself even testified against Robert Chambliss, one of the men that planted the bomb that killed his daughter, in court. This was an extremely dangerous and brave thing to do, because it could have easily made his family even more of a target. By saying that he is a stand in for Spike Lee, it is giving all of the powerful things that Chris McNair had done and said to someone else. Spike Lee did an incredible job directing the film Four Little Girls. His work should be recognized and appreciated. Separate from Spike Lee though, Chris McNair’s bravery should also be recognized and appreciated.
In Warriors Don’t Cry one of the characters that I found very interesting was Danny. Danny was the soldier that was placed in charge of making sure that Melba or the other Little Rock 9 students were not killed at school. Acting as a personal bodyguard, he was there in hopes that it would discourage the white students around her from hurting her, though he was not meant to step in unless she was in big trouble. The more Melba got to know Danny, the more she counted on him to keep her safe. She listened to the advice that he gave her and learned how to handle the abuse after he had left. In Melba book Warriors Don’t Cry, there seem to be many similarities in the Melba’s relationship with Danny, and her relationship to God.
One of these similarities is when the soldiers started to leave the school, each night Melba would hope and pray that Danny would be there the next day to protect her. This was similar to the way that Melba would pray that God would do something to protect her at school. She counted on both God and Danny for protection. Another thing that made me think that Melba’s relationship with Danny was similar to her relationship with God was how Danny would walk a few feet behind her. There was a distance between Melba and Danny but she still had faith that he would step in and save her if she needed it. This is again similar to Melba knowing that even though she could not see God, he was watching over her and making sure that she would survive. In Chapter 16, after a boy sprays acid in Melba’s eyes, Danny saves her from being blinded. At the end of the chapter, Melba writes in her diary “‘Thank you, God,’ I whispered, ‘thank you for saving my eyes. God bless Danny, always.’ ” She is crediting both God, and Danny for saving her eyes.
Here is a picture of Danny and Melba, many years after walking the halls of Central High School together.
To Willie Cole, the ironing board and iron have much more significant than being a simple household appliances. In Zora Hurston’s short story Sweat, Delia is a washerwoman working hard every day. The short story emphasizes the physical labor that Delia has to put in, in order to provide for her and her abusive husband Sykes. In Willie Cole’s artwork involving irons, he is also emphasizing the physical labor that washerwomen had to put in to support themselves. Cole’s iron project means a lot to him because he comes from a family of washerwoman. He knew how much sweat and blood goes into the work that his family, along with Delia in the story did. For Cole’s artwork, he needed to make the ironing boards look like they had been used by making scratches and dents in them. By naming the ironing boards after real people in his life, he is saying that they are beaten down as well from their hard work as washerwomen, just like the ironing boards. In the short story, Delia was beat down as well, both by her work and her husband.
When Willie Cole was talking about the slave ship that looked like an iron board, Cole connected domestic labor like the labor done by washwoman, to the long history of racism, slavery, and suffering in the United States. Although working as a washwoman gave Delia some power because she was able to make money and provide for herself without relying on a man to provide for her, it also made her relationship more complicated. Working for white people seemed to put extra tension on Delia and Sykes’ marriage. Sykes hated that Delia was working for white people and told her not to bring the white people’s clothes into their house. He also left the house when Delia threatened to make him go to court with white people if he ever hit her again. When she came back that night after church, Delia made it seem like it was possible that the threat of white people could have really frightened Sykes and made him sorry for what he has done to her, though we soon learn this is not the case. Although they lived in an all-Black town, Eatonville Florida, race relations continue to be a theme in Sweat, similarly the history of racism is a theme in Willie Coles artwork.
The first picture is of the slave ship and the second picture is the flattened ironing board.
God’s Trombones is a book of sermons and poetry, written by James Weldon Johnson. The book was published in 1927 and it is still very common for preachers to recite surmans from the book today. I have attached a clip of William Warfield reciting one of the most popular sermons in God’s Trombones titled “Creation”, so that everyone can get a feel of what the book, (and sermons written in it) are like.
Reading about God’s Trombones and listening to performances of the poems and sermons, gave me a clearer view of what the song “The Little Black Train is Coming” was talking about. It also gave me a better understanding of the songs and religion in the movie “Hallelujah”. When reading about God’s Trombones, I found that the train was used in the book to symbolise death. In Death’s Black Train is Coming, it seems that the train also symbolizes death. The stanza that made me think this was the case, was when it goes “There some men and there some women, That care nothing for the gospel light, till they hear the bell ring and the whistle blow, o the little black train in sight”. I took that to mean that there were men and women that did not pray and were not religious until they were dying. People started praying and caring “for the gospel light”, only when they are close to death.
Death and hardship was a major theme throughout the book God’s Trombones. Death was also a very big part of the movie “Hallelujah”. Near the start of the movie, when the young boy is shot and killed, singing sermons and Zeke becoming a pastor is what gets the family through the hard time. Chick only starts really liking Zeke when she sees him singing and reciting sermons. Much of the movie revolved around religious songs and sermons. There are many similarities in Zekes preaching and the sermons written in God’s Trombones. In God’s Trombones, poems and sermons are meant to do the same thing that they did for the Mammys family. They help people that are struggling or mourning come to peace with their loss.