A Band of Angels Coming After Me

As people across the world mourn the shooting of nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church, comparisons have been made with shooter Dylann Roof’s act and that of four white supremacists who, in 1963, planted bombs at another historic church—the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls. This is an apt comparison, even though it may seem incomprehensible that a person would attack a church group, whether killing little girls or accusing the people gathered for peaceful Bible study of “raping our women and taking over the country.” The Black church (not just in America, but in all places where slavery existed) has been seen as a threat from its inception because it separated itself from the whites—and remains separate, even though Blacks are no longer banned from or allowed only in the back of white churches. In the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves who gathered on Sundays for worship were often suspected of sedition. And indeed, the Black Church was a place where the rights of the enslaved were advocated and protests organized. In general, as Kadir Nelson puts it in Heart and Soul (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), “White folks thought that if slaves learned to read or write, they could read the Bible for themselves . . . and begin to question their master’s behavior” (24). Many of them did just that: Jamaican Sam Sharpe, for example, was one of the church leaders who instigated a protest that led to the 1831 rebellion in that country.

After slavery ended, the position of the Black Church as a place for civil rights organizers and advocates continued. These advocates were often met with violence, as in the case of another Jamaican rebellion led by church leaders George Gordon and Paul Bogle, the Morant Bay rebellion. Therese Mills, in her collection of biographies of Great West Indians (Trinidad: Longman Caribbean, 1973) writes that George Gordon “founded a native Baptist chapel in Stony Gut, in the parish of St. Thomas, and this brought him into close contact with many of the poorest people” (12). These poor people were often accused of crimes, and then tried by their own employers. Gordon and Bogle, a deacon in the church, organized their members to protest this injustice, but their pleas were ignored by the British governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre. Peaceful protest led to outright rebellion, and Bogle was hanged for his attempts to gain justice for his people.

Bogle and Gordon in Therese Mills book.  Illustration by Tony Evora.

Bogle and Gordon in Therese Mills book. Illustration by Tony Evora.

Despite the deep connection between faith, people of African descent, and the violence and racism perpetrated against them, children’s books often have a difficult time balancing a discussion of all those things—and religion tends to be the loser if one thing is to be left out. Sometimes this happens through omission. There are no children’s biographies in print of Sam Sharpe, and few of Paul Bogle, even though they are both considered national heroes in Jamaica. Therese Mills’ biography, mentioned above, seems to indicate that Bogle was chosen to be a church deacon because of his radicalism rather than his religion: “Bogle was one of the former slaves in Stony Gut who was able to vote, and he was a natural leader,” she writes. Nothing more is said about religion. Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul has, despite the quotation above, few references to religion in his poetic history of African Americans.

Children’s books about clearly religious figures also struggle with this balance.  Abolitionist and Women’s Rights advocate and preacher Sojourner Truth changed her name from Isabella Baumfree because, as she puts it in her autobiography, “I went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them. Afterward I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare Truth to the people.” But in Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp-Stride by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney (New York: Disney, 2009), her name change is explained this way: “She gave her slave name the boot, and called herself Sojourner Truth. She said the name Sojourner was just right for someone who was a traveler. And Truth—well, that was what Sojourner did best—she told it like it was.” This alteration shifts the agency to Sojourner Truth and away from any religion or deity. Although the book cannot escape a discussion of Truth’s faith altogether, it avoids linking religion and radicalism by stating that she preached about “her beliefs about what the Bible meant to her.” She does not preach about what the Bible meant, or even about how other people should act based on Biblical teaching, according to this text; her “beliefs” only mean something to her.

She can go her own way: the Pinkneys' version of Sojourner Truth.

She can go her own way: the Pinkneys’ version of Sojourner Truth.

Even a children’s book that describes the racism and struggle experienced by singers of spirituals can leave out religion. Deborah Hopkinson’s A Band of Angels (New York: Atheneum, 1999), with its lovely illustrations by Raúl Colón, tells a fictional story based on the origin of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, was founded by three men, two of whom were ministers, and sponsored by the American Missionary Society. (It is still affiliated with the United Church of Christ today.) The Jubilee Singers were named after a passage in the Book of Leviticus, and became famous through singing spirituals—songs that were religious and radical, advocating the freedom of black people throughout the world.  The racism they faced in the north is discussed, but not their religion.   “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Many Thousand Gone,” are both quoted in Hopkinson’s book, but she otherwise entirely avoids any mention of the singers’ religious faith. The songs that the Fisk singers perform are “song[s] of freedom” and the Jubilee singers were so named because “jubilee means a time of hope and freedom.”

Singing about God, without God in Hopkinson's book.

Singing about God, without God in Hopkinson’s book.

Whatever an author’s (or reader’s) personal beliefs about religion, it has inspired many people throughout history to both good and bad behavior.  It is unfortunate that many children’s books are so hesitant to talk about one of the strongest motivating forces of some of the heroes of Black History—especially when white murderers have no trouble making the link between the Black Church and Black people’s freedom and equality.

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