Visions of research danced in my head…

I was rustled from a sound sleep by the raucous characters I am researching for my master’s thesis. Friday I read more than 2,000 headlines and several hundred newspaper articles dating, between 1926 and 1960, about my theological antagonist. The situations depicted in the articles were unbelievable, and in many ways theatrical, so it is no wonder these words formed images that manifested in my dreams. But what made me sit up in the bed and grab my iPhone was the idea of how to organize all of what I read Friday and what I will read over the next several months, even years.

People who know me as a journalist and writer know I have to have organization. Most don’t understand it because journalists have the unfortunate reputation of being a highly unorganized lot, with notebooks and notes tucked hither, there and yonder. But that was never my approach. I need notes in an orderly form, notebooks with tabs and labels. And that is what cam to me shortly after 7a this cool Saturday morning, big binders with lots of tabs and sticky notes.

My subject, who I will reveal soon, is a slippery sort — in life and death and in research — because much of the information on him is second-hand, meaning he didn’t leave a heave paper trail, but a lot of people talked about him. I’m deconstructing the stories and accounts of others to get at who this man might have been.  But what that means is I’m reading twice as much material because I need to be able to see the biases in one writer’s description over and above another writer’s description.

So looks like I’ll be hitting up Amazon for a lot of paper, printer ink, binders and sticky notes and spending my Saturday mornings just like this, at the keyboard by 8a.

Good morning, world!


Random thoughts: Reflecting on Christianity and its place among the religious experiences of Africans, descendants of Africa and African-Americans

In two classes today I had the opportunity to consider the role Christianity plays when considering the history of religious experiences of Africans, descendants of Africa and African-Americans. The delineation of Africans, decedents of Africa and African-Americans is intentional, as not all Africans or descendants of Africa who reside in America consider themselves African-American. Without delving into the conversation on African retentions, the argument can be made — and has been made — that Christianity should not be considered as the beginning of religious experience for Africans, historically speaking.

In one class we discussed the danger of using Christianity as as historical starting point when discussing the religious practices of enslaved Africans. To do so would be to negate any previous religious experience these very Africans had prior to enslavement. In that same class, there was also the question of whether it is responsible to produce scholarship that suggests all slaved converted to Christianity. We all agreed such an approach should be avoided at all costs.

The question was asked, ‘How do we know what really happened,’ when it comes to historical religious events that may have occurred several hundred years ago. The answer, I believe, comes from my background as a reporter: You go to the source. In this case the ‘source’ would be the narratives of the enslaved that have been collected over the years. These document, which are accessible through a number of ways, should be read and considered carefully. Questions have to be asked, not only questions like: “What is this person saying?” but also, “What is not being said here?” and “What is missing from this account?”

We, as scholars and recipients of information, have to start doing our own research which means reading some primary source documents. The same principle applies in the neighborhood when you want to know what really happened between Mr. You-Know-Who and Ms. So-And-So. While everybody seems to have a version of the story, including people who don’t even know them, your best sources of information are the primary players: Mr. You-Know-Who and Ms. So-And-So.

Anyway, I just found this sliver of my day worth recounting.


Reflecting on history in the present: Ferguson in conversation with James Baldwin

I was struggling with an assignment that is due in the morning, so I did what I do best: I just started typing. What came forth is much of what I will present. I didn’t realize it could be my presentation until I was almost finished with the post. It is kinda long, and it needs some work and focus, but I’d love some feedback if anyone is inclined. ~M

Three days after my birthday, an 18-year-old unarmed black man was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Thanks to the advent of social media, people can share thoughts and emotions real-time and I, along with a smattering of my friends on Facebook, posted various stories about Michael Brown and his untimely death. I believe this story struck a chord with some in my generation, not because we were accustom to this sort of thing — though it is happening far more regularly, sadly — but because it sounded a lot like something we’d heard somewhere before. Something that was not supposed to happen in 2014. And we had heard it somewhere before. Our parents have horrific stories about black and brown men and women of yesteryear who were killed for doing  absolutely nothing wrong. I can’t even begin to list the names, but the chorus of names is getting longer, and far too many new names have been added to the roll in the past few years.

So what does this have to do with my assignment for the class History of Christian Preaching in the U.S.? Everything.

The assignment, which is due tomorrow (9/3) is to engage a theory of history and make a case for studying history. I chose Baldwin’s “Many Thousands Gone” essay from his work Notes of a Native Son. In reading this chapter Baldwin admonishes the reader to consider the past as a window to the future, among other things. Baldwin writes, “We cannot escape our origins, however hard you try, those origins which contain the key – could we but find it – to all that we later become.” He also begs the reader to be knowledgeable about the past so the present achievements/actions can be put into proper context. This essay is chocked full of soooooo much more, but my presentation is limited to five minutes, so I picked those two points. But these words, and others from this essay, are significant to me right now, in 2014, because of one particular response I received to an article I posted about Ferguson.

The poster in question was an associate of mine in middle school. To be clear, we were not ‘friends’ not even in the middle school sense. He was not particularly kind to me back then, but I did not really care at the time because I had my own small circle of friends. At any rate, he sent me a Facebook friend request a couple of months ago and I thought, ‘Why not?’ and accepted. I cannot say I ever went to his page or saw any of his posts during the period we were Facebook friends, so I do not know for sure about his political leanings and things of that nature. But I was able to glean his seemingly lack of understanding of what Baldwin wanted to communicate to the reader about honoring and being knowledgeable about the past.

The post in question was a CNN story about the private autopsy the Brown family had done on Michael. In summary, the story said Michael, who was unarmed, had been shot six times, including twice in the head area, among other things. Above the link to the article, I wrote:

“First question, how many bullets were left in the officer’s mag?? Second question, REALLY?!?!?
Shouts out to Ian Demsky, one of a small number of my non-black FB friends voicing their opinion on this issue, who posted this. #Ferguson #6shots #prayers”

A few hours after I posted the article and my comments/questions, I found this gem in the comments section:

“Sorry Michelle, I cannot be friends any longer if this is how the majority of your posts are. While this is a very unfortunate incident, you should not single out specific groups like that. This is at least the third time since I sent a f/r that you have posted similar things. You seem to have forgotten that we all are HUMAN. I know how and where I was raised, but you specifically need to seek out the reasons behind what you print online. I don’t walk around segregating myself with people because they cannot name ten Polish or Irish people; or bad things that have happened to them.”

I cannot EVEN begin to address the majority of this comment, but I will attempt to work with the last sentence, and put the idea in conversation with part of Baldwin’s “Many Thousands Gone” essay.

It never occurred to me that by posting about Michael that I was “segregating myself,” has he put it. I took the time to educate myself about past events and realized in that terrible past, there really was a window to the future. Early in the essay Baldwin proclaims, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America — or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans. It is not a very pretty story; the story of a people is never very pretty.” And I believe the poster did not want to see that unpretty story of America in his Facebook timeline.

Tragically the story of the murder of Michael Brown is not new to America. For so long so many, regardless of skin color, have closed their eyes to that unpretty story that stories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Renisha McBride — all unarmed black people killed by white people within the past 10 months — seem like anomalies.  But those who have an appreciation for the past, who understand the value of the past, can take these three murders and put them in context of past events. Otherwise, these three just come off looking unlucky.

To understand the history of black and brown people in America puts into context why some black and brown people are so upset/outraged/pissed off about Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Renisha McBride. To understand the origins of black and brown people in America puts into context puts into context the rage bubbling up inside some black and brown people in America.

So to that original poster, with whom I am no longer Facebook friends, no I have not forgotten we are all human. But you, sir, seem to have forgotten black and brown people were not always considered as such. Did you know, former Facebook friend, that there was a time when whites could do whatever they pleased to black and brown people? Did you know, there are still some whites who think they can do whatever they please to black and brown people? Do you understand how that realization shapes who I am today? No? That’s OK, because I do. I fully embrace what Baldwin means when he writes the likes of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom, though they are dead, they are dead they should not be forgotten.

“Yes there are now others who are more educated and socially accepted then they, but their experiences are just as important, if not more so, then those of the current generation. “They want only their proper place in the sun and the right to be left alone, like any other citizen of the Republic. We may all breathe more easily. Before, however, our joy at the demise of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom approaches the indecent, we had better ask whence they sprang, how they lived? Into what limbo have they vanished?”

Into what limbo have they vanished?

This going to be fun. And by fun I mean interesting. And by interesting I mean…

Last night I tried to finish a reading/writing assignment, but the words just weren’t there. I meant there were words there, but not the right words. The assignment was clear but I just could not seem to type the words or adequately dictate my thoughts into my dictation app. Realizing I’d hit a wall, so to speak, I went to bed.

I’d been reading and writing since about 10a Sunday morning, so when I hit the bed around 11p, I was sufficiently tired. I fell asleep in no time, but as I slept, the words came. I dreamed about my readings and had conversations with James Cone, Fredrick Ware and others during the night. Where was my dictation app when I needed it?!?

I woke up this morning about 8a, remembering I’d spoken to these theologians, but the conversation wasn’t clear in my head anymore. Drat! I could see us sitting at a table, talking about methods of doing black theology — which was the reading in question last night — but I couldn’t hear their voices anymore. But I could still hear MY voice. I remember what I said to them, and I had clear and coherent ideas in my head, at 8a on a holiday. Maaaaaaan!

So I got up, made my way downstairs to my designated work spot and got to writing, at 8a on a holiday. And here I am, at 10:45a, on a holiday, finished with two assignments and working on a third. Happy Labor Day, indeed.

Yeah, this is going to be fun.


A new theological journey

As of August 27, I am once again a student. Surprise. No really. Four years ago if somebody told me I’d be working on an advanced master’s degree I might have laughed. Pretty sure I would have laughed. But here I am, doing work for a second graduated degree that will prepare me for my third graduate degree. Just wow.

I’ve enrolled in the ThM program at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. This program is designed for more theological research than my MDiv coursework was able to provide. I’ll develop my thesis proposal over the next few weeks.

This program is only nine months long, so this is going to be an experience to remember. I’ve got a very full class load with a very challenging cadre of classes.

Many of my waking hours between now and May 2015 will be spent reading and writing. When I’m not writing a paper, I’ll try to remember to deposit a few thoughts here.