I spent this week with my family in Wisconsin, mostly unplugged. One afternoon we visited a small bookshop in downtown Woodstock, IL, just across the border. It was my first time in an independent book store since March and, despite masking-up before entering, it felt great to browse the stacks and shelves.
Interestingly, in this very white town, the main display was filled with books about race. There were titles by friends like Jemar Tisby and Austin Channing Brown. There were history, sociology, and books of essays represented. I picked up My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem, a book that’s been recommended repeatedly during the past few months.
It wasn’t what I expected when we walked in the door of this small town book store.
The other day I got to interview my friend Drew G. I. Hart for an event at his local bookshop in Harrisburg, Midtown Scholar. Drew thinks about race a lot and his book is one of the more sober treatments about the fraught intersections between Christianity and racism. I wanted to know what he thought about the recent groundswell of interest in racial justice.
Drew’s answer surprised me. Yes, he said, this moment does feel unique, certainly in our lifetimes. And the thing that really stood out to him was how many non-Black people are suddenly interested in justice for Black communities. Ta-Nehisi Coates said something similar the other day during a conversation with Ezra Klein. “I don’t want to overstate this,” he said, “but there are significant swaths of people and communities that are not black, that to some extent have some perception of what that pain and that suffering is. I think that’s different.”
Does that explain the display of racial justice books in the Woodstock book store? Probably. Why else would the only bookshop in the area expect to sell these titles to a clientele which, if it mirrors the town, is close to 90% white?
It’s possible, then, that the same thing is behind those books and the hesitant optimism shared by those like Coates and Hart: White people are finally understanding our essential role in taking apart racism. If this time is really going to be different it will largely be because enough white people have woken up to precisely this. We are finally understanding that, in so many ways, racism is our problem.
Last Friday I had to ride my bike downtown to pick up my son’s camera from the repair shop. This gave me a couple of uninterrupted hours to listen to a some conversations between Miroslav Volf and Willie James Jennings hosted by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. In the first, these two Christian scholars talk about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. Dr. Jennings also riffs on the theological differences between crowds and congregations.
The second episode features an essay by Dr. Jennings, “My Anger, God’s Righteous Indignation,” in which he reflects on the killing of George Floyd. This is one of the most incisive theological treatments of anger that I’ve encountered and it’s worth returning to.
I enjoyed my recent conversation with Sheila Wise Rowe, author of Healing Racial Trauma. You can watch it and my other interviews here.
On Thursday I’m talking with Rev. Dr. Robert Chao Romero, author of Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/O Social Justice, Theology, and Identity. Dr. Romero embodies a fascinating mix of scholar, activist, and pastor and I think this will be a rich conversation. You can register here.