Race, Redemption, and the Red Sox: Making and Marking Communities in Books by Ira Berlin and Richard Bailey

by Edward J. Blum

Boston was depressed. We were in town as part of an East Coast speaking tour (half on Jesus, half on the devil. I try to keep my relationship to the spirit world fair and balanced). The Red Sox had collapsed, and the malaise that had so long dominated the city before the Sox won the 2004 World Series was back. It didn’t stop women and men, however, from declaring their loyalties through commodities. All over the city, the faithful of Red Sox nation donned their pro-Sox t-shirts with slogans like “We Did it Again” (to commemorate winning a second World Series in 2007). I kept wondering why a Bostonian would wear a Red Sox t-shirt after the epic decline. I asked others around me why individuals would maintain and promote this identity in light of such trouble, struggle, and despair. Didn’t they have other t-shirts or hats? Was it laundry day for thousands of Bostonians?

And, of course, it led me to reflect on two relatively new books that deal with making and marking communities. Conveniently enough, they were the ones I read on the journey. One was by the distinguished scholar Ira Berlin, and the other came from the pen of a much younger historian Richard A. Bailey. Both examine how communities make meaning of themselves, experience those meanings amid good and hard times, and mark their communities through ideas, actions, and commodities.

Ira Berlin is known to all U.S. historians. He’s the genius author of the magisterial book Many Thousands Gone, a beautiful and comprehensive history of the North American slave trade. Now in The Making of African America, Berlin examines how four great migrations – and the subsequent place-making between the movements – created and re-created black America. The Middle Passage transformed African ethnic and national groups into Africans in America. Then the internal slave trade to the Deep South drove a huge number of African Americans inland and created the “Cotton Belt” or “Black Belt.” The Great Migration of the early and mid-twentieth century shifted black America from southern and rural to northern and urban. And finally, the fourth migration of new immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa in the past thirty-five years brought in new groups of black Americans.

After each migration, black Americans made claims to space and place. They built families and homes; they formed coalitions and defined the land. They built churches, businesses, and cemeteries. Music reflected the moods of “routes and roots” – whether in spirituals, gospel hymns, the blues, or hip-hop.

Although Berlin probably doesn’t know it, his focus on movement and dwelling parallels the theoretical work of Thomas Tweed, whose Crossing and Dwelling suggested that we can think of religions as “confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries.” (Tweed has also recently published a book, America's Church, on the national shrine in Washington, D.C.; I haven’t read it yet, but it looks fantastic). Religions compel people to cross boundaries – imaginative and real – and to build homes or dwelling places. If we bring together Berlin and Tweed, we perhaps find some similarities between how racial groups and religious groups make meaning. On one level, we are always either moving or dwelling, but on another level, we can wonder what the differences are between racial community making and religious community creating. Any Jewish American or Catholic American may have a lot to say about those similarities and differences.

And this is where Richard A. Bailey’s interesting book on race and puritans comes into play. In Race and Redemption in Puritan New England , Bailey moves historiographically in two contrary ways: first, when looking at slavery in early America, he examines the New England (not the South); second, when examining puritans, he highlights race (and not just faith). The contrary combination produces striking results. Bailey argues that as New England puritans tried to bring order to their new world of Native Americans, Africans, and slave labor practices, they built from their theological contradictions and paradoxes. The outcomes were new perspectives of race, redemption, and social order. Basically, Bailey argues that to reconcile their own theological problems amid a new form of society, puritans linked race and redemption.

Bailey has some wonderful evidence to evaluate and ideas to consider. We now know that Jonathan Edwards was a slave owner, but did he also change the name of one of his slaves from Venus to Leah? Bailey starts by posing this as a possibility, but then easily moves into assuming it as true. On a broader point, how could such a small group of New World individuals with such a small group of slaves “create race”? Bailey wants us to believe that race was made in this theological and social mix. The claim may be difficult to prove, but the broader point is this – a point that so much new scholarship in race theory is making: racial categories cannot be understood outside of their religious and theological contexts. Whether it was W. E. B. Du Bois trying to present the “souls” of black folk or Vina Deloria declaring that “God is red,” race in America has needed religion for its meaning, shifting, and continuing. (more on this – much more – next fall when the University of North Carolina press publishes Jesus in Red, White, and Black: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in American History).

Bailey and Berlin won’t get reviewed together in the AHR. They won’t be assigned in similar courses (at least I don’t think so). But they both help us think more deeply about the confluences of race and religion. Loyalties and identities, whether racial or religious, seem to act in a religious way: intensifying joy and confronting sorrow. So I guess Red Sox Nation makes sense.


Curtis J. Evans said…
Thanks, Ed, for this concise review of what looks to be two very important books. Looking forward to reading both. So glad to hear about the Berlin's new book. The theme of the "great migration" of the internal slave trade was first articulated in his "Many Thousands Gone," something that Charles Irons's "The Origins of Proslavery Christianity" develops in a powerful and moving (and tragic and sad) discussion of the separation of slave families in VA, which at the time was one of the largest slave exporting states (to MS, AL, and other states). I use Irons' helpful book in my Slavery and Christianity Course. I look forward to reading both of these books and can imagine using them both in this class, at least part of Berlin's book.
Anonymous said…
Given that the subtitle of my book PUMPSIE AND PROGRESS is - precisely - "The Red Sox, Race, and Redemption", people might find that book rewarding in some regards.

Bill Nowlin