The Residue of Slavery and Jim Crow in the Black Family

Slavery and its Legacy.
The Five Colleges Learning in Retirement (5CLIR) 2005 Memorial Series
Session #5 – March 30, 2005, 
Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield


Henry Thomas III, Moderator 
CEO, Springfield Urban League

Mary Hall
Smith College School for Social Work

Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley
St. John’s Congregational Church

Peter Brandon
 Sociology, UMass.

The Bad and the Good

Introductions (abbreviated) by 
Wayne Cowan, 5CLIR,
Joe Carvalho, President, Springfield Museums
Henry Thomas, CEO, Springfield Urban League.

COWAN:  I’m happy to welcome you all tonight for Session Number 5, the next to the last segment in our series on Slavery and its Legacy.

We’ve been most fortunate to have the special cooperation of the Urban League here in Springfield, and the Springfield Museum, as well as the African American and African Studies program at Mount Holyoke College. Members of the faculties of the University, and Amherst, Smith and Hampshire colleges, as well as local leaders have graciously served as our experts in addressing such topics as the Challenges on the Road to Racial Justice in Higher Education, Slavery Above the Mason-Dixon Line, Challenges of Black Economic Development, Discrimination and Access Issues, and then tonight’s subject, the Residue of Slavery and Jim Crow in the Black Family.

We’re indebted to a number of agencies and institutions for their help to make this series possible, and none more than the Springfield Museum. At this point, I would like to recognize its director, Joe Carvalho, our host for two of these meetings.

 Thank you. Once again, I see many faces that were here last week. It is a pleasure to host this event and last week’s event. This series includes a very important dialogue about this issue.

So again, welcome to Springfield Museum. Enjoy this evening. I have been impressed with our last session’s invigorating energizing dialogue that happened not only on stage-excellent presenters– but the audience had such great questions and energy in the information exchange. The emotion was there. The information was there and their interest to ask these questions. I’m sure tonight will be very much the same. Thank you very much.

THOMAS:  Thank you. Good evening.

These symposia are dealing with contemporary social issues that are rooted in the slavery experience. Many things that happened yesterday have implications for today and things today will have implications for tomorrow. Tonight’s topic is The Residue of Slavery and Jim Crow in the Black Family – The Bad and the Good. I’m curious as to why they did not add ugly, but at any rate, we’ll continue on with the title as its stated.

I can’t think of a more capable set of presenters to give perspective and critical thought to our subject matter this evening. … But I’m going to introduce them in the order in which they will present and we’re going to embargo a little time at the end. Actually, it’s going to be more than a little time because last week, as Joe indicated, we had a tremendous number of people in the audience who asked some very engaging questions and in fact, a number of them were trying to audition to become panelists, I think, because they were very, very intense.

I’m going to introduce Dr. Mary Hall. When I first talked to Mary last week, she was Associate Professor Mary Hall, and today she is full Professor Mary Hall, so I think she deserves applause. Dr. Hall is at Smith College. She is-well, actually she’s at the Museum of Fine Arts tonight, right, but she has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Otterbein College and she has her MSW from the Smith College School for Social Work and she’s received a Master of Arts Degree from the Boston University Applied School of Sociology. She received her Ph.D. from Simmons College School of Social Work. There’s no question that she’s had a calling in the field of social work, but the areas of research that she has been engaged in are clinical practice with adults and children, significance of race in clinical practice, and the process of change in alcohol and substance abuse treatment, just to name a few. She’s published. She’s dynamic. She’s experienced and she understands the issues regarding family and community to very steep levels and we are really excited and proud to have her as part of our panel because she will add much.

The other panelist I want to present to you is Dr. Peter David Brandon. Dr. Brandon is associate professor of the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Brandon likes the colors blue and green. He has a Bachelors of Arts Degree from Michigan State University and-[applause] Ah, somebody else likes green, I take it. He has a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Michigan. There we go for anybody. Any blues out there? [applause] And he has his Ph.D. in public policy studies from the University of Chicago. He has also served as an investigator for the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine in Washington, DC, and he has served as a consultant for the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, as well. He has taught, just to name a few courses, methods in the analysis of secondary data, data analysis and collection, the American welfare system in reform, introduction to the American welfare system. Again, just naming a few. He has a number of awards, too many, too numerous to articulate to you or present to you, but he is well published in books, as well as periodicals and he is going to add a lot of breadth and depth to our discussion this evening. If you do detect a little accent in his voice, he is from down under originally, which is the great country of Australia.

Last and certainly not least, bringing up the rear is a dynamic gentleman who has distinguished himself as a spiritual leader, provocateur and a hell of a preacher. Locally-I can say ‘hell’ in that context, right Rev? Got to make sure I’m safe here. You never know when the call’s going to come. Reverend Dr. Howard John Wesley is the pastor of the historic St. John’s Congregational Church. Parenthetically, that is the birthplace of the Urban League of Springfield. Camp Atwater, Dunbar Community Center, all of those institutions came out of the mission work of St. John’s Church, congregational church, located here in Springfield on Hancock Street. He is a native of Chicago and is a graduate of Duke University with dual degrees in biomedical and electrical engineering. He certainly can get your biorhythms agitated and he will certainly electrify the room with his insightful and provocative sermons. Is that all right? And he plays a mean game of golf, basketball and karate. But that’s another subject that we’ll talk about another time.

Dr. Wesley received his Master’s Degree from the School of Theology at the Boston University. There he was a Martin Luther King Scholar. Reverend Dr. Wesley received his Ph.D. in theology from the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois. That is also Dr. Wesley’s home. With a concentration in prescriptive preaching-now, I reach for the teacher to get some help there, right away, right, prescriptive teaching. Prescriptive preaching and preaching to the new millennium of Black churches-no, to a new millennium of Black church goers. Reverend Wesley has grown the St. John’s Congregation Church from about three hundred parishioners to seventeen hundred in approximately four years. … An amazing feat and testimony to the kind of leadership and warmth he possesses. Dr. Wesley is exciting and he knows a lot about our subject matter this evening.

We’re going to ask Dr. Hall to lead us off and then Dr. Brandon will follow.


Mary Hall, Smith College School for Social Work

HALL: Good evening. I would like to express my appreciation to the 2005 Five College Learning in Retirement Collaborators. As you note in your flier, the period of slavery has been consistently minimized or denied in mainstream American scholarship, such that most Americans have never made a connection between America’s current preeminence as a world power and the forced migration of Africans that were enslaved to provide the free pool of labor that launched its birth. So I commend you for even making this connection and taking action as a contribution towards filling this void.

The first speaker, President Marx, discussed race and nation building. I would also like to thank you for including me in the roster and I’m honored to be a member of this evening’s panel, so much so that I asked to go first. I don’t mind being the warm-up act.

Twenty minutes goes fast and there is much that could be said, but I have decided to try to speak to two points that are a direct response to tonight’s topic. We’ll see how well I do. First is the residue of slavery and Jim Crow in the Black family and the bad and the good. There’s another important topic relating to what can we learn from this history because those who don’t learn from their history are doomed to repeat it. But I think gatherings such as these should not end without that kind of reflection, but maybe that’s something we can share during the question and answer period. There are just a few things I’d like to say about how I think about slavery and racism, because everybody has their way of pulling things together. So I’m going to just outline a series of points so that we’re all on the same page. You know Africans came to this country in 1619 as indentured servants. As such, they could buy their way out of slavery like other indentured servants, own land and slaves. That lasted for approximately forty years. Most slaves were baptized Christian and English law did not permit the enslavement of baptized Christians.

Economic necessity, too, dictated the institution of slavery and institutional racism. There were two problems that racism and slavery served. One, England had a class system, master-servant, and this was unstable. The Africans were the third attempt to get the manpower to exploit the land. Native Americans hadn’t worked. As for indentured servants, white indentured servants, there weren’t enough of them. Africans were the third formula, and it was an unstable system because there were numerous instances where servants, Native Americans, Africans and White indentured servants, would come together to make common cause against the masters.

Thus slavery and institutional racism solved an economic and a social problem, the need for cheap and actually a free pool of labor to exploit the riches of the land, and a social system where the landowner would be firmly established at the top, others in between and Africans on the bottom, ending the making of common cause. Those who say that there has been a decline in the importance of race, do not understand what slavery was about, from my point of view.

The promise of America has not been unlimited wealth and power to everyone. It has been that if you come here, you will not be the worse off economically and you will not be on the bottom of the social structure. We have a guaranteed place in our society for that and that is an attractive kind of thing that you won’t be on the bottom. I want to say that most people who have come to America have been oppressed. So I want to convey some understanding. Thus, I can’t help saying for people who want to undo racism, they have to be prepared to look at the issues that were solved when the system was instituted and I think frequently we overlook that. It’s generally accepted that the only people who kind of escaped major oppression are the British, the Dutch and the French before the Louisiana Purchase-not afterwards. And that each time the significance of race shows any sign of declining, you begin to hear from all sorts of competing groups about their oppression. Think about what happened in the ’60s. Think about what’s going on now. We call it at Smith College the “Olympics of Oppression”, that everybody wants to state that. I want to comment about Martin Luther King and President Kennedy: good people get killed because they’re talking about people coming back together and uniting–people who talk about violence never seem to get assassinated– because they’re talking about making common cause and looking at our common interests. That’s a very dangerous thing to do in this society.

So for me, when I started getting interested in this, it had to do with King. I couldn’t understand why he got killed and my analysis in the end was that his talking about all God’s children, White and Black, from snow top hills, right? That’s what was dangerous about what he was saying.

In the LIR flyer we are reminded that Reconstruction, you know, went from slavery to Jim Crow and that we’ve had several reconstructions and Jim Crow brought up the issue of separate but equal and that ended the whole reconstruction, what was the promise of the first reconstruction and the threat of force basically with the Klan and lynchings and so forth, when slavery was ended technically.

And -another thing that I have maintained and have written about– is that now we are once again witnessing the giving up of a promise of the civil rights laws of the ’60s, and that the way again it’s being done, always with some sort of legal technicalities. Separate but equal last time, and as far as I’m concerned, the drug-mandated drug sentencing is how we are once again instituting the conditions of slavery in terms of the Black community. The prisons have become the new plantations and the percentage of Black men who spend some time caught up in the legal system is very disturbing. This is my stance I take about this. African American men are once again-as during slavery-being separated from women, and starting in 1989 there has been an increased trend toward the criminalization of pregnant women, who in any way abused substances. Reflecting very novel uses of the law, starting with that they are transmitting drugs to a minor for the moments between birth and cutting the umbilical chord. That’s how the first case out of Florida started.

So increasing that and flowing from that children can be separated from their mother at the discretion of the state. So you have again an attack on the Black family, a systematic attack on the Black family, in all forms. Against men, against women, against children in terms of separating them. In fact, I would maintain that something like ninety some odd percent of the people who are incarcerated now all have drugs, (particularly people of color), as part of the whatever they’re being cited for, as one of the issues for which African Americans are receiving mandated sentencing.

The other thing I want to say is that racism includes both race and class. It was both economic and it was social; to the extent that African Americans have gotten better off, it’s because everybody is better off, but there is no shifting. It’s a very stable system that’s been perpetuated into the present. Groups are stacked in this country — pretty much along color lines, northern European, eastern European, Asian. It’s going down a color line, and that has been remarkably stable because it stops the problem of common cause.

One of the things, many of us feel about the election is people don’t see their self-interest in terms of how they voted. So in some ways that’s kind of the way that I began to think about slavery and its implications. Those things come then into the present. There has been, particularly within social work-well, not just within social work, but sociologists, in particular Black sociologists, have done a lot about talking about what the strengths of Black families are, and in terms of trying to combat the kinds of issues that they’re up against-discussed by Robert Hill in the Strength of Black Families which is an old classic. He outlines five things that African Americans have done in terms of how we come into the present, to the extent there have been strengths. I’d like to reiterate that, in terms of talking about the good and bad.

So these things have been good for us. One was the notion of having strong kinship bonds and sense of family, and African Americans have probably done more than any other group because of the situation they find themselves in of experimenting with different family forms. It is to be noted that as long as it is a problem in the African American community, it is pathologized. When it becomes a more widespread problem, then there is another way of talking about, perhaps the best illustration being the former illegitimate mother, unwed mother, you know, becomes a single parent family, broken home and all of those kinds of derivations. As long as it’s an African American problem, it becomes a broken home. You can probably think of a series of things that once a problem is widespread, basically driven by economics and people not seeing their common interests. You know, that women increasingly have to go to work, etcetera, you see the same kinds of problems being adapted. However, the lack of access has meant that African Americans, in terms of augmenting families and Hill goes through about twelve family forms that African Americans have experimented with that include having people who are not relatives, maid, uncles and cousins in very significant ways in their life. It is not just in name only, but these are people who have meaningful roles in the life of African American families. You know, families were broken up so people had to really be flexible about starting other families, augmenting them and they were probably the biggest informal adopters. This was part of a study Hill was doing. Almost everybody knows somebody who has raised a child that may have been family, may not have been family. So we note the strong sense of kinship bond and really adaptive family.

There is really a strong work orientation, when work is available, even menial work and that frequently the attacks about people working are at its highest when there’s no work to be had. The third thing was adaptability of family roles and male-female, whoever can get the job, working. That men and women can cook. That, you know, there was not the sharp division, actually, between male-female and actually in terms of slavery, men and women were treated with substantial equality in terms of going into the fields, the kind of work they were asked to do, etcetera. Of course, there are ways to elaborate on this, but Hill was sort of saying that it’s a very good thing that you’ve been flexible about roles and how you draw the line around family.

There’s a strong religious orientation. I’m sure Reverend Wesley will talk a lot about this, but you know, the heart of the Black community has been the Black church as a source of resistance and for any oppressed group usually when you’re looking at awards programs-

[end tape, brief segment missing]

–dealing with the deadness of spirit that can come from having to so consistently be negatively storied around whatever the oppression is. So the church has been a major strength in the other communities, too. None of the things that I’m talking about are unique to the African American community, but as really significant kinds of strategies.

Other things I would like to say about the downside is that you can count on the fact that the things that have been your strengths, will be negatively storied. So religion is a sign of dependency. You know, the flexibility about family becomes instability. The storying of things that have been strengths are not things that are supported or mirrored back to you by the larger and broader community.

In fact, one of the things Hill also refers to is the strong emphasis on education.

And each time there has been an opportunity for African Americans to actually have access to schools, I think the problem has not been what happened, but how many people wanted to go. In the ’60s there was really a rapid-in fact, I think that’s one of the things that scared people were how many African Americans were going back to school to get high school diplomas, go to college.

So I want to say, though, that what has been your strength will be storied negative. This is the downside. Actually, most people still live in sort of segregated communities. However, I think that one of the downsides for the African American community is the fact that racial segregation has been somewhat lifted, as people can buy in other places. So people who have had the hardest time are not able to see the people in front of them, what it takes to mobilize, to do better within the United States. People say it in all kinds of ways, in terms of an underclass or whatever, but you don’t have people who are coming out of it in significant ways. This becomes an issue: how we keep contact with the people who are the most disenfranchised in the African American community. It was kind of forced by housing segregation in the past. So I think that in some ways there was an upside to people having to live together and you could see people in different stages of being able to mobilize, to access the resources of this country.

And the other thing that I just wanted to emphasize is that in America they don’t want to look at slavery because it’s been called the American dilemma. That simultaneously the nation wanted to do, to sort of say “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equally. That they are”-I don’t know how it goes “Endowed,” etcetera, and at the same time in the Constitution, they bring African Americans in as three-fifths of a White male, actually, because they were talking-come in with the discussion about voting, you know. Not voting, but about how they will decide representation in Congress and they had to do it by population.

But we come in and the American imagination as sub human then, as almost as much, 60%, almost as much animal as human, and that plagues us into the present as an image and a metaphor for African Americans. That it is as much animal as human that allows people to corral them and a whole series of other things that kind of flow from that. That is something one has to do because one has to deal with, how can I feel so good about this, while doing this at the same time.

Well, I’ll stop there because there are lots that could be said about slavery, but I think I’ll stop there and some other things will come up.


Peter Brandon, University of Massachusetts/Amherst

BRANDON:  I’m pleased to be here and I want to thank the Five College Learning in Retirement people for inviting me to speak this evening. I want to discuss a contemporary issue : the changes that are happening in the American welfare system right now, and the efforts that are being made to, even in the words of Congress, to cajole or force African Americans to enter into a contract that is for their own benefit. I can give you the references for those Congressional statements that have been made.

So what I want to do is just talk a little about what’s happening in the American welfare system now and basically what African American families are being asked to be involved in and participate in. After I’ve given you some idea of what that contract is, then I want to talk a little bit about how that contract is juxtaposed against some of the emerging research and what we do know and the clash between the two.

Obviously, as many of you would know, Welfare reform and Welfare reform particularly as it relates to people of color is a very controversial issue. I think it directly ties into the issues of the African American experience in the United States, and some people-and I’m not saying myself here, but both many African Americans and welfare advocacy groups see it as the last outpost of slavery in the United States. So with that, I’m going to give you some of the background.

Basically, since 1996 both state governments in the United States, as well as the federal government have particularly focused on African Americans and have beseeched them or cajoled them-that’s some of the words that are used-to end their life of dependency. To basically, instead of being dependent on the government, to actually become part of the opportunity society. So welfare reform or welfare in contemporary United States from about 1996, even under President Clinton, has been one of trying to encourage African American families in particular to become part of the opportunity society or what President Bush is now calling the ‘ownership society.’

Basically, this is a paradigm shift and the argument is made that this is part of the modern day compassionate conservative approach. That everything’s failed in the past. That trying to elevate African Americans and their economic opportunities has not worked in the past, so we need to have a more compassionate conservative approach. What that usually has involved is four main points, and I’ll just go through them briefly. One is that to encourage African Americans in particular, as well as other minorities, to liberate themselves from the dependency of Welfare reform. So that’s the first thing, is that they need to liberate themselves. Again, I’m just giving you an idea of the rhetoric. I just want to frame this in terms of what is being argued and said at both the state, local and federal level.

The second thing is that they need to free their communities from social problems. That the government can do nothing. That it’s up to local communities to do it, and that any anarchy in local communities, inner city, suburbs, it’s the responsibility of those communities to take care of it. Really governmental authority can’t do that.

Number three, that if anything, the sole role of the United States state and federal government is to offer the opportunity for education, and that’s a long tradition in the United States. That’s not very new, but the government’s role is basically to curtail itself to just making sure there’s the opportunity of education.

Number four is that really we shouldn’t be giving African Americans or minority groups any money at all. No public assistance at all. Simply make sure that they’re out working and tax them less. Okay? And this way there’s going to-this is the four basic principles of America and its Welfare system in 2005.

The last part of this is -and it fits well with this particular world view, is to have the churches in inner city America, have religious organizations take over the responsibility for uplifting the economic well being and spiritual being of African American families. So basically what does this mean?

As opposed to the 1960s, what’s happening in the United States now and again this is being focused particularly on African Americans and other minority groups, is this notion of a personal transformation. That basically to change one’s situation in the United States for the majority of African Americans, that it needs to be this personal inner transformation, and that basically, the best thing that an African American family can do is stay away from Welfare Departments. In other words, the Welfare Department is part of the problem for the African American family. The Welfare Department is going to be run by Welfare workers that are basically going to continue this stereotype of dependency and this stereotype of America being racist, and this just feeds into this continuing ongoing pathology. In other words, we need to give this away for compassionate conservatism, capitalism and capitalism is not really what is keeping many African American families in poverty and Welfare dependent.

Again, a lot of the argument that’s used for this is the war on poverty. The BBC once did a documentary on the war on poverty in the 1960s, and what was very interesting about that was the whole notion of how Whites in the United States needed Welfare and that it was framed as a White problem. It was very interesting, if you look back on it, Medicaid and all the programs of the war on poverty were pretty much predicated on rural Whites, and that’s how a lot of these changes happened.

In contemporary America, when the Welfare system was dismantled, a lot of that dismantling was based on talking about the pathology of the African American family, which I find quite interesting, that it was turned around like that. So basically the other argument that’s made is that today there does not have to be this permanent underclass. That basically if the African American family abides by these four principles, that basically there will be no permanent underclass. There will be no corrosive self pity or resentment or this notion that African American families are simply the beneficiaries of public assistance. In other words, African American families and other families of color will not have self defeating attitudes in this permanent underclass mentality. Another example that’s given for this is the problem of immigrants. Immigrants come to the United States and they can make it, and they can work for low wages and work hard, and why can’t other US citizens do this and other particular families?

So basically what’s happened today is the African American family is confronted with a whole new way and a whole new rhetoric and a whole new rationale for how they can improve their lives. The notion that there’s a lack of jobs and that you don’t work hard and that basically you can’t work is disallowed. If you look at what’s happening right now, you can see that this is permeating itself into the federal system with sharp reductions in the community development block grant. So you’re supposed to improve your communities, but you can’t use the community block grant. The reduction in housing and urban development money for families has been reduced. There’s been a shrinkage in Medicaid. Again, you should go out and get your own health insurance and if you work hard enough, you will eventually find a job where you can get health insurance.

And that basically Welfare should only be temporary. That it is wrong to say that Welfare is a right. It’s a privilege and you are enslaving yourself if you continue to have Welfare. These things have come about, not necessarily under the current administration, but you’ve got to remember that this whole rhetoric started about 1992 and is now come to fruition.

Where is this leading us to? Well, it’s leading us to a situation where basically it’s easy to blame. If you’re not making it in America now, you haven’t gone off Welfare as a Black family in Milwaukee or a Black family in Boston or in any particular area of the South, it’s your fault. Obviously, it’s your fault. You’re not playing by the rules. You are living out a continual pathology, and this is what is being said. It’s an issue of blaming. It’s an issue of targeting.

So now that I’ve described to you what this is looking like –this depends on your view– you could either consider this the good or the bad, depending on your own political views-what do we really know about the Black family and particularly their interaction with the Welfare system, given the current rhetoric that’s being put out there?

Well, the first thing that I want to talk about is the notion of work. One of the arguments that’s made is that within the Black family-and this was already mentioned by one of our speakers-that there’s a lack of work. Well, if you actually look at the broad picture in the United States, I’m going to talk about some of my own research in this area. It turns out that African American families work harder than other families. African American women, whether married or single, many times hold two jobs and work more hours.

Secondly, with respect to education. They talk about educating and having more opportunity. Well, the plain fact is that one of the greatest success stories in the United States since 1960 is African American women, even more so than African American men, have made huge gains in their educational attainment. African American women, even in the ’70s, were graduating more from high school and college than African American men. That’s a fact.

Family togetherness was also mentioned. Under Welfare reform one of the things that I looked at in particular was whether the pressures of Welfare reform would lead to further dissolution of Welfare families. The argument that was made is, well, under these great pressures that the African American family, if you believed it was already under great pressure, would just even more fall apart. Well, using many different data sets and working with many different people across the United States, it turns out that the families that were most resilient to the pressures of Welfare reform were African American families. They were much more likely to stay together than White families or other families of color. So that’s three.

Thirdly, childcare. The issue of childcare: it’s impossible to meet the demands that are being placed on African American families and all minority families, if there’s no childcare. Remember, in the current system, even if you have a child, within six weeks in some states, you’ve got to be out working thirty hours or more a week. Turns out that the families that were most likely to pull it all together and cobble together childcare were African American families. I’ll add at this stage that these are families that are trying to play by the rules.

In some of the research that I’ve done and other families coming out, African American grandmothers are truly heroes of the Welfare system. Many African American grandmothers both work and take care of their grandchildren. So these kinship ties that were talked about earlier are alive and strong, and yet some of the rhetoric refers to the “pathology” in these particular families. That is far from the truth.

Another argument that’s made is that these African American families are the most costly to have on Welfare and that they sop up all the Welfare dollars and we got to get them off. Well, it turns out that when you look more rigorously at these families and you understand the circumstances they’re in, turns out that African American families, if you want to think of it in purely a bean counting or accounting sense, they’re not more expensive than any other family on Welfare.

And there’s other examples I could give, but I’m just giving you the facts and where I started with was the rhetoric. Where does this lead us? It leads us to the disturbing situation where African American families in particular have been playing by the rules, trying to get minimum wage jobs, trying to organize childcare, trying to keep their families together and yet their employment rates are still less and they’re more likely to be in poverty. So one of the conundrums or disturbing issues is why is it the case that in 2005 in the United States with so much wealth, so much diversity, so much celebration of diversity, is still leading to the truncation of opportunities for so many people that are keeping their families together and playing by the rules?

I don’t have an answer for you with respect to that. However, many people would argue that still in labor markets, that still in the United States, there is residual racism and residual suspicion and that communities cannot improve their lot without the cooperation of both local religious groups and state government, etc. So we’re left in a situation in 2005 where there is an attack on families of color. The rules have changed. It won’t go back. I can say after twenty-three and a half years here that the days of the poverty programs, the New Deal, all that’s gone and it will never come back. I cannot see it ever coming back, and so for families that are subject to these new structural constraints, it’s worrying to see how they can face the rhetoric of self determination without any or less and less responsibility on the part of governmental organizations to help them out.

And so with that, I’ll leave it there and be open to any questions later. Thank you.


Rev. Howard-John Wesley, St. John’s Congregational Church

WESLEY:  Two professors and a president. It always makes our role a little bit, a little bit suspect. As we look at this, and I really appreciated the comments because I think the stage has been set by Dr. Brandon and also Dr. Hall. I really want to focus my comments and my time around the role of the Black church historically and in contemporary context.

As we look at President Bush’s agenda, there’s been emphasis since his first term on faith based initiatives and money that typically was put through community organizations and government programs to now be funneled through the church to develop those programs and to equip and empower our people. I want to talk a little bit about why that’s good and why that’s bad and what some of the challenges that we face with that are.

I want to make a few opening comments to help qualify my statements tonight. One is that I want to speak generically and stereotypically intentionally about the Black church, recognizing that it’s neither homogenous nor monolithic-that it is not the exclusive religious experience in Black America, but it is the dominant one. The Black Christian church, for lack of a better term, is the most dominant institution within the Black community. One cannot even begin to understand historically nor contemporary context Black experience devoid of the Black church. The Black church has been the founding voice and Lawrence Mamiya referred to the Black church as the cultural womb of Black America. The church’s importance and significance historically cannot be devalued, but then again there raises the challenge, when I make my way towards our modern context of what the problem is with the church.

Secondly, I want to make an assumption that the Black church is really an extension of the Black family and a vehicle that has always been there to assist the development of Black families. Thirdly, I need to paint in some broad simplistic historical strokes, due to the limitations of time.

Hans Singer, wrote a book on African American Religion in the 20th Century, and the byline of the book to me really expresses historically the foundation of the church and the problem we face in contemporary life, which is this. The byline read, “Varieties of protest and accommodation.” It’s those two poles around which Black churches spin that really help us understand the power of the Black church and the failure of the Black church. Protests and accommodations are the Black churches’ ability to stand and yell and scream, “Here we are, give us justice,” and at the same time the ability of the Black church to mix, mingle, merge and become almost a chameleon with contemporary movements within society.

So the Black church is historically, and you’ll see a spectrum in between, of every church making a stand. Are we a protest? Are we a counter cultural entity or are we an accommodating entity? The issue really is more than just a theological one. It goes to the heart of the question of civil rights, of equality. That Black people have typically stood on one of two ends of the spectrum. Either there’s the integrationist, as seen maybe in a Dr. King, who would argue that we’ve got to earn the right to be respected, or there’s the pull out, separate, give me what’s mine and allow me to earn my own way. So if you look at how Blacks have responded to the call of equality, you’ll see that there really are these two different ideas that continue to run throughout the history of Black America from integrate, find our place, mix, mingle and merge with White America, to still today calls for a separate union, a separate state. If you look at the immigration movement that was led, you know, in the mid 1960s, go back to Africa kind of thing or give us our own state or recognize who we are. The Black Power movement. We don’t integrate. We are who we are. You respect us for who we are. So that theme actually makes its way into the church.

Well, I’m going to back up because I think it’s important historically to recognize how the church became so powerful in Black America. It really begins with slave owners and the attempt to really, for lack of a better term, deal with their guilt over enslaving people. We’ve got this genocidal middle passage and we are enslaving Africans to do free labor to really help boost the economy of this new world in our cottons and in our tobacco and in our sugar. So here you’ve got these good Christian folk from Europe who are now enslaving Blacks and of course it causes this moral dilemma because the real impetus behind slavery was this religious hypocrisy that said, “Well, we’re saving their souls. The reason we’re going to Africa, the reason we’re pulling you out of your own country and from these African tribal religions, is because y’all need to know Jesus, and until you know Jesus, all of y’all are doomed. You’re doomed to hell, and because we’re on a march to win the world for Jesus Christ, we will enslave you because it’s for your own good that you might experience Jesus Christ.”

Okay, so that’s the impetus behind it. That’s how we cover it. It’s really about economy, but let’s cover it up with religion. The problem then becomes, as Dr. Hall says, well, what happens when slaves convert to Christianity? You’ve got a couple who are now becoming Born Again Christians and the problem is the Anglican idea of Christianity really says you can’t enslave another Christian. How can a good brother in Christ enslave another good brother in Christ, regardless of whether he’s Black or White? Now, really it’s not a problem initially because most conversion Christianity comes through a written or literature catechism. You got to pass a test, a written test. Well, we know what the problem with that’s going to be with Africans. You know, we can’t read and we were kept from reading on purpose, because if we can’t pass the exam, then we can’t be Christians, which means there’s no moral dilemma for the good Christian slave owners.

All that exists until around the great awakening period in the late-really beginning in the late 18th century, moving into the 19th century, and that really accounts for the large numbers of Blacks who are Baptists and Methodists because unlike the Anglican Presbyterian model, which said we had to pass a written catechism, the Baptist and Methodist model said all you have to do is have an oral conversion experience. A testimony of when you met Jesus Christ. So now you got these massive droves of slaves becoming Christians, particularly in the Methodist and the Baptist church because they don’t have to pass a written exam. We don’t have to go through all that. All we need to do is be able to stand and testify like Paul, “I met the Lord one day,” and all of a sudden you’re accepted as a Christian.

So laws began to be passed beginning around 1660 that made it legal to enslave Christians. That’s the way it began in Virginia, really, that said basically this. A slave who becomes a Christian can still be a slave. So now Christianity is handed off to Christian slaves with this intent, with the intent of modifying and abridging Christianity to a format and a formula what would pacify slaves and root out any resistance in their spirits. Let’s give them a form of Christianity that focuses on Paul’s, “slaves obey your masters.” Let’s give them a form of Christianity that really makes them docile and passive and therein is the charge that a lot of people have with Christianity today, you know, was it really a White man’s religion?

Well, you’ve got to look at what the slaves did with it. You’ve got to look at the slaves’ response to that Christianity. On the one hand there is accommodation stance, those who adopted the Christianity of the slave owners and used it as a means of pacifying Blacks. If you look at the writings of a Jupiter Hammond, who literally wrote to slaves saying, “It is our Christian obligation and duty to obey our slave masters. That even if they are vile and cruel, we must pray for their transformation.” So on the one hand you do have the-excuse the term-the house Negro effect of Christianity, of those who accepted and accept that it’s meant to make us docile. But then the bulk of slaves used Christianity in the form that was given to them in a way that really lit the fires of protest in their spirits. They took the Christianity that was given to them, and they were able to integrate it with what remained in their spirits from African tribal religions.

Now, there’s a big debate between Herskovitz and Frazier as to how much slaves retained from Africa. Frazier, ironically the Black man, suggested that slaves came here, they were so overwhelmed with the European culture that they lost their sense of anything. Whereas Herskovitz, the White guy, says, ‘No, they retained a whole lot of what they had in Africa.” Herskovitz seems to win that debate, as you look at what slaves did with the Christianity that was given to them because they really reappropriated and reinterpreted the faith that was given to them to light the fires of protest in their spirit. Particularly in four ways.

As they met in the back woods and began the first Black churches, these slaves would meet after hours. Imagine this, here they are cutting down sugar cane all day long, only to then go out in the back woods back in the fields and begin to have church service and worship in those areas. And they found a few things in that worship movement. One was a new identity. That their faith allowed them to see themselves not as slaves, but as children of God who had an inherited promise.

Amazing thing, when Europeans came to America, they saw themselves in the exodus motif, as those who were fleeing an Egyptian monarchial existence in Europe to the promised land of America. But slaves looked at the exodus motif and they totally flipped around, for them America was Egypt and they were God’s children on the brink of being delivered, and so as you look at African American religion in its initiation, you’ll find a lot of references to Moses. To Moses, to God’s children. If you listen to songs that were sung and the hymns and the spirituals, there is a lot of resistance building up because they recognized that we are God’s children and God liberates them. Regardless of the fact that the slave owner only wanted us to read Paul, we got a hold of Moses and that was dangerous, because the minute children of Israel get a hold of a Moses figure, they figure a promised land is coming.

The second one is that they developed a sense of community. Despite slave owner’s attempts to isolate them as individuals, a new communal family was formed in these worship settings in the woods, where we saw ourselves as ‘us’ in this thing together, not just as individuals.

Thirdly, a meta language was created. Man, these slaves were unique and ingenious. They’d be out cutting sugar cane, picking cotton, overseer would say, “sing a song,” they’d start singing these spirituals and the slave owner would go, “oh, wow, that’s real cute,” and they didn’t know that they were singing songs about ‘how we gunna kill you soon as we get a chance.’ Yeah, yeah, when we sing about the River Jordan, you know, slave owners, “Oh, that’s just a good Negro spiritual.” No, they were talking about the Ohio River that separated the North from the South, saying as soon as we can make it to the river, we are out of this thing. [laughter] You know, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” ain’t a sweet passive song. It is really a song of a militant kind of subtle aggression that said that we are all going to get out of here. We’d sing about how where the chariot would swing and how we’d know where to get in the Underground Railroad and get the heck up on out of this thing. So there was this language that was developed that was really underneath the slave owner’s ability to understand what the slaves were singing about.

Then finally they found inspiration for resistance. That faith gave them the desire to be free. If you look at the writings of people like Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, they were inspired by Christianity to lead slave revolts. Not just escape, but to kill folk. Slave revolts. They spent all night up singing in a ring shop getting worked up, and you still see that expression of charisma in Black churches today. That there is a real spiritual awakening and energetic worship service that motivates and moves. If you look at the Civil Rights movement, I mean, you’ve really got to appreciate the Black church. Before there was any march, before there was any protest, they met at churches.

And it was in the churches that King would preach to them prior to going out, because if we gonna walk all these miles and have folks throw bricks at us and hose us down-somebody got to let us know this is for a great cause. We get worked up in our spirit and so there really is, before every great revolutionary moment, there’s a spiritual awakening that comes through the Black church that literally prepares us for the revolt that we’re about to engage in. The Civil Rights Movement could not have happened without the Black church. There’s no way civil rights would have ever have been born, had it not been for Black churches.

So you get these-you get that the Black church begins to have this power, that faith communities are seen as revolutionary communities, and also the leaders of those communities are held with the highest esteem. Black leaders in America, the first place folk look for Black leaders is in a church. You know, no disrespect to the president of the Urban League. [laughter]

HT: I come from the church. I’m a member of church.

HJW I mean, there’s this to understand, y’all, and you got to appreciate the history of it, the Black preacher does not hold the same role as the White preacher. The Black preacher is seen literally as a conjurer, as a medium between God’s voice and God’s people. Black churches have always venerated and lifted up Black preachers. Matter of fact, that’s who we look for to be our leaders. If you look at literally the majority of political figures, you know, perhaps prior to the ’90s, most of them were Black preachers. Either that, or they were definitely trained in Black churches, because if you’re going to speak to Black folk, you have to know the oral traditions and customs of Black church. You’ve got to move us and motivate us, you can’t give us an academic speech. You gotta be able to intonate. You gotta be able to modulate. You gotta be able to-you listen to King, King was a preacher. You know, “I’ve BEEN to the”-you know, he’s got that Black preacher voice in him.

So Black churches have all this perceived power. Well, here’s where things start going wrong. It starts with the great migration in the ’20s through the ’40s, 1920 through 1940 when Black folks start making their way up North. They’re getting out of the South, into the industrial revolution (away from boll weevil disease, cotton crops failing)– so Blacks start moving up North. When they move up North, a couple things happen. Number one, there is this split in the Black church because, and I’ve seen this really in the history of my own church. Our Black country cousins who stomped and shouted and sang, start coming up here to our well established accommodationist churches, where literally the method of worship in the north was predominantly ‘adopt the ways of White folk.” You worship like White folk because that’s the way you gain respectability. No White, no good standing White person can look at a Black church and see y’all shouting, passing out and hollering and think that you’re educated. So you have to sit still and you have to be like White folk worship. No offense to the White folk in the room. [laughter]

And so what happens when you get these country folk coming up who want to worship where they can shout and say “Amen!”? They are literally rejected by these northern, what now are called “silk stocking” churches, and so they begin to form storefronts. You want to know why there’s a church on every corner in every Black community? Because it was the Black folk who came up in the ’20s and ’40s were not always easily accepted by the major, predominant St. John’s of the community. So they had to form their own religious expressions, their own religious communities.

The second problem is that now the church is in competition with the streets. Used to be a time the Black church was the only thing Black folk knew, but now up North, we’ve got to compete with the juke joints, gotta compete with the movie theaters, gotta compete with the drug dealers and drug addicts. So the North brought another moral challenge to the church that it did not always respond to correctly. So the church begins to lose its power, one, because it’s diversified so much and two, because it’s now in competition with other things.

Civil rights comes, and don’t be fooled, y’all, civil rights was not a unified movement in Black America. There were different religious responses. There were those of the James Jacksons who literally thought King was too militant. That King was too aggressive. That we don’t protest, we should accommodate, we should prove ourselves worthy. It’s what has been called the politics of respectability. When you act right, folk will give you your civil rights. Then there’s the King movement, which literally played on the moral fear of America that if enough Americans can see civilly disobedient Blacks being attacked, that they would change their mind.

Then, of course, there’s the brewing city movement of the Malcolm X’s, those who say, “No, uh-uh. Nope, nope. By any means necessary. Put my —–your– hands on me, I’ll put you in the grave.” So there’s this wide spectrum of religion that is now wrapped up on civil rights that further diversifies from protest to accommodation.

One of the losses and the key critical failures of the Black church happens right after the Civil Rights Movement. Right after the Civil Rights Movement, there’s a new movement that the Black church didn’t catch onto quick enough, Black Power. The Black Power, which motivated my older brother. My dad will tell you stories. My older brother got caught up and that Black Power attracted any Black person under the age of twenty-five. Wearing Afros, James Brown, “I’m Black and I’m proud.” Militant, wearing Black gloves. Seeing Panthers walk around carrying guns. I mean, yeah, for a group that had been oppressed, this was high life. This is the way we get it, and the Black Power movement began preaching a new theology that literally said, ‘No more blond haired, blue eyed Jesus. We want to be who we are,” and the Black church was so accommodationist in its mainline form, that it did not catch on to the Black Power movement quick enough. It wasn’t until James Cohen and Gaywar Wilmore began writing Black theology, which is almost twenty years too late. So what began to happen is, there’s a new movement of young Blacks that are detached from the church because they find no relevance, nor any identity in Black church.

So now here we are in the 2000s. Here we are. Here’s the good and the bad of the Black church. Black churches have the ability and the perception of being powerful entities that can institute social change. When anything goes down wrong in the Black community, I even have folk don’t even come to church start calling, asking, “Well, where are the preachers? Where are the marches? Who’s going to lead it?” They’ll go to the NAACP. They’ll go to the Urban League, but you better believe they’re going to call the churches because they believe that the church has the power to institute that kind of change. But the downside is the church also has the power to fade in the background, to not lift its voice, to be so concerned with its own issues that it does not speak to community issues. Not to mention the power of the Black preacher, which has become really addictive, narcissistic and almost destructive to the Black church itself because there’s a generation of leaders that are raised with the power, but do not have the voices of the Kings and the Abernathys and the Jesse Jacksons. That breed is dying quickly.

So here comes President Bush. … Our hero. … Who, as Dr. Brandon says, you know, recognizes, let’s put it in-let’s put it in the hands of the church because he sees the church as a powerful entity. The problem is that most churches are not equipped either structurally or with the right vision to handle faith based money. We are not aggressive enough in what we do to help the Black family and Blacks in society. Very few churches can handle that kind of money and the danger is when government money is flushed into the main treasury of the church without the structure to accommodate it, now the government has the right to take control of the Black church. If we lose that entity, whether it be a protest or a accomodationist church, and we lose it to the government for financial mismanagement, what other hope do we have?

So to me the real challenge that we face, as we look at the residue of slavery and Jim Crow with the Black family and particularly around the Black church, is one, reclaiming our protest power to be civil change agents. To cast a vision beyond our own church life and to show a concern for our community to regrasp the communal identity that church was supposed to bring in the first place. To awaken the Black middle class, who has succumbed to “Cogito ergo sum”– “I think, therefore I am,” living in an individualized world because we have the first generation of Black millionaires now who are using their millionaire status to get as far away from the Black community as possible. And the church is the only voice that can help bring back a communal identity as it did in the back woods when slavery first gave us Christianity.

And the challenge to preachers, to recognize that our power is not to be used simply for our own progress and prosperity, but for the betterment of our communities. That our community does look to the Black preacher as an instrument of change.

So there’s a lot that I bring up-you know, I had this whole structured thing and I just got off it, so I’m going to stop there. Because I’m sure that, you know, given all that has been presented prior to me and prayerfully some of what I presented, that there will be some discussion now around that issue, those issues.

Leave a Reply