The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
Welcome to a new feature on the blog that we're calling "RevRecs." Every so often your clergy (and our colleagues) will make some recommendations based on things we're reading, watching, listening to, eating, etc. February is Black History Month, so we thought we'd start off with some reading recommendations appropriate for this month. There are more recommendations here than you'll likely be able to get to this month alone, which is kind of the point. I believe that as a white Christian it's part of my responsibility to pay attention to black history and black issues year-round. That means I don't have to (nor should I) relegate black history and black issues to one month. There's plenty here for you to read throughout 2023 and beyond!
With that, here are 10 recommendations, in no particular order:
1. Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr.
I read this book with a men's book club a few years ago. One thing that really struck me was some of the comments from the older participants. Essentially, they were surprised. When Dr. King was living and doing his work their opinions of him were shaped by what they heard from the media or from other (mostly white) people. None of them had taken the time to read Dr. King's own words before. For these men, Strength to Love reframed their whole idea of who Dr. King was, what he believed, and what he was trying to accomplish. Written in 1963 it's message is as powerful and timely as ever.
2. The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone
When I read this book I came away with two things. First, I was embarrassed at how little I knew about the terrible history of lynching in this country. Second, it brought to the forefront for me how powerfully different the black experience of Christianity is from the white experience. It reframed the cross of Christ for me in new and striking ways.
3. Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
This is the book that's on my nightstand at the moment for black history month. I've owned it for years, and have never had the chance to read it. Thurman wrote this in 1949, and it was apparently a primary text for Dr. King. So much so that he supposedly carried a copy around with him virtually everywhere he went.
4. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson is an Episcopalian, and an attorney who has successfully argued some landmark cases involving the criminal justice system before the Supreme Court. He directs the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. This book reads like a story, and was made into a movie starring Michael B. Jordan. The movie is good, and worth watching, but the book is far better. Stevenson writes, in words that I think echo Howard Thurman, "The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned." If this list were in order of favorites this one would be near the top for me.
5. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Another book that would be at the top of my list. Alexander's book contains some great historical background about how the legacy of slavery has been passed down in new form through the generations. The one statistic that really stuck with me from this book, and that gives her whole thesis a lot of credence for me, relates to drug use. Whites and blacks use drugs at almost exactly the same rates. Why, then, are there so many black men incarcerated on drug charges, compared to whites? The book is an enlightening read. As a side recommendation, you might also want to check out The 13th, a Netflix documentary about the mass incarceration of African-Americans and the prison boom. Michelle Alexander is featured prominently in the film.
6. Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells as a Prophet for Our Time by Catherine Meeks and Nibs Stroupe
Mtr. Liz recommended this book to me, and we read it as a group with the St. Paul's DEI team. What's interesting about this book, besides the fascinating history of the remarkable Iba B. Wells, is the juxtaposition of the two authors' experiences of Wells and of racism. Dr. Catherine Meeks is an African-American woman, and the director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. Dr. Meeks is also an advisor for our diocesan Commission for Racial Healing. Nibs Stroupe is a white man, and retired Presbyterian pastor who grew up under the shadow of white supremacy in the South. I listened to the audio book, and each author reads their own parts. It was so engrossing I got through it in one weekend.
As a side note, Mtr. Liz also recommends Dr. Meek's podcast A Brave Space. Dr. Meeks shares her own thoughts and musings about current racial issues in our nation and she interviews a variety of people on issues of race and equality. This is a wonderful and easily accessible way to learn from one of the great racial healing teachers of our time.
7. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in Christianity by Robert P. Jones
I read this book during the pandemic and found my jaw on the floor several times. It recounts some stories that I had trouble believing were real until I looked them up. Jones writes, "Christian theology and institutions have been the central cultural tent pole holding up the very idea of white supremacy." If that strikes you as an overstatement, or outright offends you, read this book. I'm a firm believer in subjecting our theologies and ideologies to challenge. I'm a firm believer in leaning into discomfort. This isn't the only book on this list that will challenge you and make you uncomfortable, but if you are a white Christian it may sting the most.
8. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
If you know me at all, did you really think you'd get through this list without a recommendation in the realm of science fiction? Who Fears Death is a work of Afro-futurism, and it's set in a post-apocalyptic Africa. It follows the journey of a girl named Onyesonwu (pronounced "own-yay-soon-woo"), which means "who fears death," a child born of violence born who develops magical abilities. If you enjoy sci-fi, or post-apocalyptic stories, and you'd like to read a work by a black author that's completely different from anything you've read before, give this a shot.
9. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Alicia Miles
This recommendation comes from Mtr. Liz. She writes, "All That She Carried is a beautiful book that tells the story of a family torn apart by the institution of slavery and how they managed to stay connected to one another through the gift of a sack laden with special items given by a heartbroken mother to her scared daughter. Author Tiya Miles weaves together a story using history, records of the sale and purchase of human beings, and cultural artifacts to create a beautiful tapestry that helps readers remember those who would have been lost to time and the oppression of enslavement. This book will continue the education of those who have studied slavery in the United States, but it will make it much more personal than any textbook. This is a beautiful and challenging book that everyone should read."
10. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Most people have never heard of Henrietta Lacks, a woman of color who lived in the early 20th century, but chances are your life has been profoundly affected by her. Some of the most remarkable medical advances of the modern era are thanks to her "immortal" cells grown in culture that are still alive today. The cells were taken from Henrietta without her knowledge. This book tells the amazing story of the scientific advancements her cells have played a part in, and also tells the troubling story of her family who have never benefited financially from these advances in any way. I could not put this book down. There is also an HBO movie version (which I've never seen) starring Oprah Winfrey.
There you have it! There are plenty of other books that could certainly serve as wonderful entry points for leaning about black history and racial healing. I don't claim these are the be-all-end-all selections, but simply that they've been important and meaningful to me. Do you have other suggestions? Leave them in the comments. Let's have a conversation!