A Mormon, A Jew, an African American, and an Immigrant Go Into a Bar ... Well, Kind Of

New Biographies in African American Religion
Edward J. Blum

It’s often unfortunate when historical personalities become representative icons of their generation. Towering figures can conceal as much as they reveal. Two years ago, I spent hours explaining to a curriculum committee why the course title “The Age of Jackson” should be replaced with “Antebellum America.” As if John Ross wouldn’t roll over in his grave knowing that Jackson even defines the historical name of his epoch. Then there is the “Age of Lincoln” – the title of a book that I adore – but another shorthand that obscures much about the Civil War era. We know white Southerners weren’t so fond of Lincoln, but what about the 45% of adult white males who voted against him in 1860 and then then 50% of New York voters who turned out for McClellan during the 1864 presidential election. And finally, Taylor Branch’s calling the 1950s and 1960s “The King Years” established King as the icon of choice for mid twentieth century. Sure, it’s nice to have a non-president and a non-white male as the example, but it allows too many people to know only one African American who wasn’t a musician, media personality, or sports star from the twentieth century.

Two new books on brilliant, dogged, and courageous African Americans of the twentieth century brought this point home to me last week. Randal Maurice Jelks’s Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement and Sarah Azaransky’s The Dream Is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith should be added to any bookshelf of US religious biography.

If you don’t know Randal Jelks, then you probably haven’t been to enough conferences. He is a ubiquitous presence at panels and symposia, and he seems to know just about everything about everything. He’s been working on this Mays biography for almost 20 years, and we all benefit from his labor of love. As Jelks shows, Mays was Martin Luther King Jr.’s mentor and so much more. A son of the South – South Carolina especially – Mays usually traveled North for education and then returned South for uplift labors. Ordained a Baptist minister, Mays became a modernist/liberal Protestant through his undergraduate education at Bates College in Vermont and then graduate training at the University of Chicago. As an author, Mays asked questions about what “Negro” perceptions of God could tell us about their lives, mentalities, and experiences. As a trainer of leaders, he led Howard University’s Department of Religion and then the entirety of Morehouse College from 1940 to his retirement in 1967. He was there one year later to deliver King’s eulogy. Jelks does a terrific job showing how Mays’s identities as black, southern, Baptist, modernist, and internationalist influenced his views of race and religion.
The Dream Is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith
Pauli Murray just missed Benjamin Mays at Howard. She enrolled there shortly after he had left. After reading Azaransky’s The Dream Is Freedom, one can only imagine the intellectual fireworks that may have come from the two of them together. Azaransky’s study is one of those books that makes me wish I could re-write my previous works – not just because Murray is such a fascinating subject, but also because Azaranksy does such a nice and succinct job of interrogating her life, writings, ideas, and perspectives. For those who don’t know Murray, she organized sit-ins, was arrested for sitting in whites’ only bus sections, was a cofounder of NOW, and was the first African American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. And those are only some of the highlights.

Here are some teasers about Murray that get analyzed by Azaransky:
  • Murray cross dressed during the Great Depression
  • Murray shifted from law to Episcopal ministry
  • Murray may have invented the phrase Jane Crow
  • Murray was a pioneer in black feminist theology and law
  • Murray wrote a poem that begins with a Mormon, a Jew, an immigrant, an African American, and a refugee walking into a bar … oh wait, no, wandering in exile (sorry, I couldn’t resist … but the poem is titled “Dark Testament”
If that’s not enough to whet your appetite, then check out how Azaransky situates Murray’s political theology vis-à-vis the ideas of Jean Bethke Elshtain, Cornel West, and Shawn Copeland in the final chapter. I’ll never think of these scholars the same way.

My thanks to my friends Randal and Sarah for offering two more fascinating books!

<and for those who want more daily doses of race and religion, check out this blog that is now part of the blog roll here at RiAH: http://rhetoricraceandreligion.blogspot.com/>


Edward J. Blum said…
for review of Azaransky by Rosemary Radford Ruether, see http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8596718
Edward J. Blum said…
another fun little tidbit from Azaransky: Murray more appreciated J. Deotis Roberts's black theology than James Cone's