by Edward J. Blum
A new book from Harvard University Press that all of us who study civil rights and African American history must read is Stephen Tuck's We Ain't What We Ought to Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama. I’ve had the wonderful chance to get to know Professor Tuck at a few conferences and discussing how this work (and his current research) connect to and challenge some main themes in the study of race and religion in the modern United States. So I decided to pull a Phil Sinitiere and go to the source for an interview. Here's my interview with historian Stephen Tuck.
Edward J. Blum (EB): Tell us about the title. Where does it come from and why did you select it?
Stephen Tuck (ST): It’s a line from a prayer offered by a former slave, sometime after the Civil War. The full prayer goes something like this: “We ain’t what we want to be, we ain’t what we ought to be, we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God Almighty, we ain’t what we used to be.” Many African American leaders would use it, not least Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.
The book really tries to get away from an ‘everything gradually gets better’ type storyline, which is so common for this type of book (and which the timeframe, emancipation to Obama might suggest). Also, the book tries to get away from lumping all African Americans together – the one thing most African Americans have had in common, though, has been a conviction that they suffered a handicap in the U.S. “We Ain’t What We Ought To Be” seemed to capture all that perfectly.
EB: Since this is a blog for religious historians, what does your work offer to help us think more thoroughly about religion and African American freedom struggles?
ST: First up, religion and faith is in the story and integral to the analysis. It couldn’t be otherwise.
Perhaps the most important point the book makes about religion is to move away from the idea of civil rights protest inevitably being a Christian movement, for various reasons: segregationists also invoked God with power, the black church often opposed civil rights activists, and many civil rights leaders worked outside the church and traditional Christian belief. There’s also the role of Islam. So Martin Luther King – a Baptist preacher/political activist really is an exception rather than the norm … and needs explaining.
This is not to say that Christian faith was not influential in hastening civil rights progress – the church’s support of the Brown decision was important, and of those who changed their views on account of their faith (and there are some extremely moving stories), none switched sides towards white supremacy. But on the whole, religion’s main role was how those for and against racial equality used it to their own ends.
EB: The “long civil rights movement” concept seemed so controversial only a few years ago, but now has caught on like wild fire. Is your book another salvo for the long civil rights movement, or do you see a distinction in the 1940s/50s/ or 60s?
ST: Actually, the book – emancipation to Obama – goes much longer than the 1930s-70s framing that’s now in vogue (and the WWI era and 1980s+ were probably my favorite chapters to research). But I make a distinction between the long freedom struggle and the short civil rights movement – and in the longer view, I think the civil rights movement of 1960-5 is really the exception to what goes on before or after. That’s an exception, not exceptional by the way – not more demonstrations, or braver activists, or better leaders, or larger organizations, or the culmination of protest … just a different form of protest. Different in the sense that the most visible form is seemingly Southern, non-violent, Christian, for integration, national, rights focused, televised, with better off men at the forefront … I could go on, but that’s certainly not typical of other periods.
One more thing. For all the recent controversies, it’s worth remembering that the great John Hope Franklin wrote the first edition of his slavery to freedom narrative before the modern civil rights movement even started.
EB: Barbara Savage and Curtis Evans have written recently about the “burdens” of black religion – that there were created assumptions that it is necessarily a unit (“black religion” or the “Negro church”) and that it favors civil rights. Based on your research, why do you think that assumption exists? And how would you judge its claim that African American religion supports civil rights dynamism?
ST: Short answer to why the presumption that black religion favors civil rights: Martin Luther King … or at least the popular image of him, the preacher who led a movement that changed America.
Black religion did support civil rights activism: an institutional base, a supportive theology, a moral argument in the public square. But the opposite was true at many points, too.
As for black religion being seen a unit, the same false assumptions are there about just about black anything. It was something that many black writers railed against -- Ralph Ellison perhaps put it best when he wrote of “the beautiful and confounding complexities of African American culture.”
EB:Who was your favorite character to write about?
ST: Hmm, tricky. I guess I’ll go for Emelda West, a grandmother in so-called ‘Cancer Alley,’ Louisiana, who ended up in Tokyo facing down the directors of a firm that was dumping toxic waste near her home. Quite a story. Can I admit to enjoying writing about some of pompous types that strutted through the pages too (not least pointing out their flaws!)?
EB: What frustrated you most in the book – either writing it or events that transpired?
ST: Sometimes I think historians of race are like ER doctors – you sort of have to become immune to the horrors that you see and hold on the uplifiting aspects. But there were moments, even so, when racist actions were so horrendous, or so petty, that research was pretty demoralizing. That’s not the same as frustrating, I suppose.
As for the writing, maybe I’m looking back with rose-tinted spectacles now, but – apart from the inevitable ‘how can I ever write this’ moments – I enjoyed trying to write a readable narrative full of stories.
EB: And what are you working on now?
ST: Three things: religious reactions to the rise of Jim Crow; UK-US relationship on race protest, and a project looking at how American history is written abroad (and, by implication, in the US).