Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Willie James Jennings


Torn between the demands of black nationalism and American democracy.

In Race Matters (1993) Cornel West judged the state of black leadership as one of crisis: "There has not been a time in the history of black people in this country when the quantity of politicians and intellectuals was so great, yet the quality of both groups has been so low. … Just when one would have guessed that black America was flexing its political and intellectual muscles, rigor mortis seems to have set in." West echoes what has become a loud refrain within the black community.

Loud, yes, but also wrong. The fact that black intellectuals and activists now bemoan a crisis of leadership in the black community is a strange twist of history. It is as if a Shakespearean tragedy were being enacted in public view. Black leadership in America is not in crisis. Black leadership is always a matter of crisis—born of crisis, schooled in crisis, and performed and recognized in crisis.

These texts showcase the complexity of the black public persona as an always trouble-filled place of existence for those who out of divine providence, historical accident, political expediency, or even sheer luck become embodiments of hope, bearers of collective dreams, actors of believed destinies. Their lives are played out against the background of America's disease, white supremacy and racism. Herein lies the basis of their complexity as individuals and their dilemma as black religious leaders. They live in the "in between" of public presentation, between an oppressed community and a larger nation, between being representations of blackness and representing the realities of black people. Each book registers a life engaged in this almost impossible task.


Mattias Gardell's In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam is a fine social history written in the tradition of C. Eric Lincoln's classic text The Black Muslims in America (republished 1996). In ten chapters, Gardell moves from the Nation of Islam's foundations in black nationalism, through the founders of the Nation of Islam, to Louis Farrakhan, to current issues confronting black Muslims. In the process, In the Name of Elijah Muhammad gives a fairly complete account of the theology of the Nation of Islam and related groups (along with a fine bibliography). Black nationalism emerges as the hermeneutic key to understanding the Nation of Islam and its controversial leader, Louis Farrakhan. Gardell shows Farrakhan to be unwavering in his commitment to what Elijah Muhammad understood as Afro-American advancement.

While Gardell narrates this complex subject effectively, his treatment suffers from its sociological tenor (read "flat"). Also, Gardell does not sufficiently help the reader see where the Nation's theology develops, derives, or deviates from Christian thought (or, for that matter, from Islamic thought).

This latter weakness points to the analytical complexities of black nationalism and its relation to American and Afro-American religion. Black nationalism, with its inherently Christian elements, has always carried within it contradictions. It proposes to be universal in its ethic, yet when applied it becomes chauvinistic. It claims the exclusivity of monotheism, yet when articulated reflects the pluralism of nineteenth-century theological thought, becoming a form of political deism. It claims a prophetic mandate, yet when actualized turns religious faith into a utility of social uplift, becoming merely an engine for generating ideas for social and economic policy. Ultimately, anyone hoping to present a full account of Farrakhan (or black leadership in general) must reckon with these inherited conflicts between black nationalism and religious faith, Christian or Islamic.

In this regard, On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X, by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., is a helpful guide. This may seem like an already exhausted topic, given the plethora of books written on Malcolm X, but DeCaro's study explores the crucial nexus in Malcolm's life between Christianity and the Nation of Islam on the one hand, and between the Nation of Islam and orthodox Islam on the other.

With a robust style and meticulous research, DeCaro interprets Malcolm's religious journey in terms of two conversions, first to the Nation of Islam and second to orthodox Islam. On the Side of My People first explores what attracted Malcolm to the Nation of Islam and its central theological figure, Elijah Muhammad. DeCaro explains that there is an incarnation motif that enlivens the theology of the Nation of Islam; that is, God is a black man, and at this very moment the divine is at work in black bodies. More significantly, the plight of Africans is understood within a Christian theological drama of fall and redemption, creation and eschatology. This theological drama has at its center, not at its periphery, black agents joined to divine agency. What made (and makes) the Nation of Islam's theology credible is not its internal consistency but its black nationalist vision and its ability to touch tender spots in the collective experience of African Americans. Malcolm found the words of Elijah Muhammad credible because they were consistent with his experience and amiable to his religious upbringing, a blend of Garveyite nationalism, biblical ideas, and independently minded spiritualism.

DeCaro makes possible a more accurate analysis of Malcolm's religious transitions, in turn shedding light on the nature of black leadership in America. Malcolm did not simply move from Christianity to the Nation of Islam; rather, Malcolm's life discloses a much more circuitous process. The most important thing Elijah Muhammad did for Malcolm was resolve any tension between black nationalism and religious faith. As Malcolm's assessment of the Nation of Islam's prophet changed, however, so did his religious self-understanding. Malcolm's moral crisis with Elijah Muhammad led directly to a theological crisis centered on Islam. We find in the later Malcolm someone constantly negotiating the demands of a clarified Islam with the nationalistic aspirations that originally gave flight to his religious commitments. When Malcolm walked away from Elijah Muhammad, he walked away from what Elijah Muhammad had worked out in his theology: an easy confluence of nationalism and religious faith.

Yet a confluence remained. That confluence remains at the heart of the dilemma for black religious leaders in America. At one level, this confluence of the universality of religious faith combined with the sectarian interests of black nationalism is an essential part of the legacy of American civil religion. At another level, it derives from the Afro-American tradition of religious leadership that is always, simultaneously, political leadership. Malcolm X, like Elijah Muhammad before him and like Louis Farrakhan after him, became a public performer who exhibited the utility of religion in service to a would-be black nation. Unlike Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan, for Malcolm X that service became a much more constrained and conflicted matter.

In Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X experienced the cult of personality that is often the driving force behind a social movement. In his own life he experienced the same dynamic. This cult of personality is another side of black religious leadership. Over time, the heroic efforts of African American leaders (a great number of whom have been ministers of one sort or another) have solidified into a kind of public mask. While we have enjoyed the benefits of this legacy, we have also encountered its pitfalls: being bound to a leader's arbitrary decisions, which are often claimed to be the divine will for black people; tied to their idiosyncrasies, which become law for black behavior or permission for questionable behavior; and trapped by their intellectual limitations, which discourage attempts to rethink accepted ideas or explore new and different models of leadership. The effects of these pitfalls are yet to be fully reckoned within the lives of ordinary black folk.

A memoir that offers insight into these dynamics is Sonsyrea Tate's Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam. Beautifully written, Little X is the poignant story of a little girl growing up in the midst of some of the Nation's most significant changes. Little X bears witness to the wider frustrations that occur when the lives of the many marry the religious vision of the one. Tate's life in the Nation introduced her to a kind of secular holiness—where citizenship and religious piety prescribed a regimen of practices and principles to guide the members of the Nation. While we glimpse both the joys and sorrows of this existence, we are left with the lesson of how much damage can be done to anyone caught in the unhealthy religious pilgrimage of another.


If one side of the dilemma for black religious leaders is the legacy of cult, then the other side is the legacy of confinement. The time-honored image of the black servant-leader has become a gilded cage. In a country that claims freedom of religion, black religious leaders are the least free people.

First, they are trapped in America, in the experiment called American democracy. From the very beginning of black struggle in America, these leaders have had to argue for the importance of Africans for America, their worth, their contributions, their humanity. The democratic context meant their arguments hung on one central point: that caring for Africans in America is to care ultimately for America. Thus to act for the good of Africans in America is for the good of America. A brilliant argument immediately produced a tragic result: only if one can show that America, meaning the white majority, benefits from actions, policies, and politics deemed good for Africans in America will such actions, policies, and politics be deemed truly democratic.

Black religious leaders are thus caught in a web of expectations. They are expected to speak and operate in ways that are for the good of the union even though it is exactly the plight of African Americans in the union that led them to raise their voices. They are expected to serve, but their service is tied to the state. Their utility in the service of statecraft becomes the gauge of their contribution. Their religious commitments are transformed into public affirmations of a vague morality tied to notions such as tolerance, civility, justice, and equality. And their message must transcend race, which means that they must continue the American tradition of eliding the nation's horrific record of abduction, slavery, and genocide.

In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam
by Mattias Gardell
Duke Univ. Press
482 pp.; $19.95, paper

On the Side of My People: A Religious Life of Malcolm X
by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.
New York Univ. Press
363 pp.; $29.95

Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam
by Sonsyrea Tate
Harper San Francisco
230 pp.; $12, paper

Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson
by Marshall Frady
Random House
552 pp.; $15, paper

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume Three: Birth of a New Age: December 1955- December 1956
edited by Clayborne Carson
Univ. of California Press
566 pp.; $40

The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Word That Moved America
by Richard Lischer
Oxford Univ. Press
344 pp.; $14.95, paper

Every step a black leader takes is measured by an unrelenting nationalism, black or American. Black ministers especially become public performers whose worth is determined by their response to the often conflicting demands of participation in America's democratic political culture and allegiance to the black community.

With this context in mind, it is worthwhile to engage Marshall Frady's Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson. Frady is an excellent writer and a perceptive journalist, providing insider information into not only the workings of Jackson's public life and activities, but of national politics over the last 15 years. However, his central concern is to give us a picture of Jesse Jackson, the man—what drives him, what calls him forward on his journey.

To this end, Frady labors to construct a portrait of a very complex man. Jackson according to Jesse is a man born on the outside, which Jackson readily admits. Yet Jesse pushes this motif so far that Jackson becomes the quintessential social outsider. Born outside the care, acceptance, and love of his biological father, born outside the bounds of acceptable morality (to a very young unwed mother), Jackson grows up a black man in Jim Crow America, outside the rights and privileges of citizenship. His early adventures in college and beyond speak of an outsider trying to come inside. He joins the civil-rights movement burning with the desire to become an insider of the movement. He draws close to Martin Luther King, Jr., seeking first to be in his inner circle, then seeking to be one with King, King's second self. Finally, Jesse Jackson the mature man is exactly this: an outsider seeking to come inside.

Jesse provides an excellent case study of the dilemma of black leaders. Here is a black leader whose power, whose radicalness, comes precisely from being an outsider. His dilemma is that of every black American prophet. Like the prophets of the Scriptures, he must not desire to live in the city. Rather, he must live outside the city gate in close proximity to the killing field upon which stands the cross where political prisoners and enemies of the state are regularly killed. There and only there may the prophet keep perspective, remaining free from the manipulation and petty politics of the city dwellers.

Yet as Frady narrates the story, Jackson's prophetic voice is driven by the desire to come inside, a desire reaching back to his very beginnings. And in the end, this produces a deep conflict. One self opposes another: the black Jeremiah, warring against injustice from the outside, is pitted against the candidate, the black civil servant. Indeed there is, as Frady narrates it, a great pathos to Jackson's life. The press misunderstand Jackson, the politicians misunderstand Jackson, many of his closest friends and followers misunderstand him. Jackson even misunderstands Jackson.

Jesse is an American text, brilliant yet painfully flawed. The author has captured less of Jesse Jackson and much more of the dilemma of black religious leadership. Surely, Jesse Jackson is a complex man, but Frady only partially understands that complexity. This book is about an image before it is about a man. Frady did not create this image. He merely cultivates it, articulating it in terms of Jackson's life. It is the archetype of a black leader born to serve America. African Americans are simply the occasion, the objective circumstance around which this leader's greater service comes to light. This service demands nothing less than a biblical connotation: prophet. Here the black leader speaks words that cut us (white America), that chasten us, that call us to our better selves. Thus the utility of Jackson in promoting American democracy becomes the measure by which to gauge his worth as leader, maybe even as a human being.

In this regard, Jesse comes dangerously close to psychobabble, that discourse often used to retreat from the political to the Freudian inner world of repressed drives and clandestine motives. Frady seeks to explain Jackson's failures, flaws, and contradictions, but as a biographer he lacks a sense of the tradition of black leadership that is absolutely crucial in interpreting Jackson's life. Here is the point that is missing: Jesse Jackson's life has not been about what he has done in America given who he is, but what has been possible for him to do in America given what America is.

Jesse Jackson is not Louis Farrakhan or Malcolm X. But this observation is loaded with meaning; it implicitly invokes the scale upon which they are all measured. It is an American scale. On this scale, black nationalism stands at one end, powerful and compelling; and at the other end, American democracy, demanding and uncompromising. Against the image of a servant-leader, blessed and yet binding, they all must interpret their lives.

Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan (like Malcolm X before them) live in a world not of their own making. They have responded to that world, and the results have been sometimes stunning, even breathtaking, often very controversial, often quite creative, but always theological. In truth, their lives are theological. That is to say, they seek a place of resolution, a resolution that comes only in claiming to do the will of God. But to do the will of God in America is for a black religious leader an exceedingly difficult task when everyone tells you exactly what the will of God is for you. In fact, the sanity of leaders like Jackson and Farrakhan depends upon their belief that they are doing God's will. This finally is what makes them so interesting. However, in this regard they all stand in the shadow of Afro-America's most celebrated religious leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. In King's life one may see exquisitely the operation of this American drama.


The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., is a monumental scholarly enterprise, undertaken by a group of editors under the direction of senior editor Clayborne Carson. Three volumes have been published to date: Volume 1: Called to Serve, January 1929-June 1951; Volume 2: Rediscovering Precious Values, July 1951-November 1955, and Volume 3: Birth of a New Age, December 1955-December 1956. Birth of a New Age chronicles King's emergence as the leader of the civil-rights movement beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956 and presenting many of the central events of this crucial period in King's life and the civil-rights movement. His speech from the first day of the bus boycott, transcripts from his appearances in the Alabama state courtroom, and his address at the 1956 NAACP convention are all here published for the first time. What is amazing is the list of people who corresponded with King during this period. The list reads like a Who's Who in America.

Reading Birth of a New Age gives a sense of King's moment in history. His destiny opens before him and he is swept up into kairos, that special moment in history when a pathway breaks open in the present and the past becomes tied to the future in a new and irrevocable way. As Birth of a New Age gives testimony, even though King acts decisively, powerfully, poetically, and with deep conviction, he is not in control of this moment and certainly not in control of his own life. He becomes an actor on the stage of America. His actions are interpreted for him by America as much as he interprets them for America. Through this process, King becomes the Mozart of black religious leaders, not the first and certainly not the last, but the one by which all others will be judged, the one who is both the real and the ideal. In Birth of a New Age we find a man who already, at the very beginning of his moment in the sun, must negotiate an image formed around him. He is seen as embodying the best of America, a prophet who shuns violence, an exotic voice of morality and justice in our midst calling us to our better selves. King's is the voice of his people speaking for us (white America) and not simply to us.

Birth of a New Age shows us just how much King was from start to finish a churchman, a theologian, and most centrally, a preacher. Herein lies one of the great contributions of this volume. It shows us a person who understands his actions to be bound to the providential actions of God but who yet experiences himself as being pulled back and forth by the racial dynamics of this country. Specifically, King understood his words, his sermons, his speeches, the very way he presented himself to be about seizing control of the dominant image of black people in America and showing them to be a moral people on the move for justice and equality, the very things believed to have made America great. Certainly not a new idea, but in this new moment this time-honored stratagem led to a holy ascension of a movement and bound King to the dilemma of black religious leaders. However, with King there is one central difference.

In his wonderful work The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Word That Moved America, Richard Lischer captures that difference for us. Lischer's is a study in King's rhetorical genius. Preacher King gives a comprehensive account of the historical and cultural architecture of King's preaching and in so doing offers a beautiful overview of the sources King drew from, the preaching tradition he stood in, the people and places central to his formation, and the factors that gave shape and meaning to his public witness. Not just a book about King's preaching, Preacher King shows that being a preacher was central to King's being.

Preacher King shows the important transitions that took place in King's thinking and his actions in the crucial years from the beginning of the civil-rights movement to his untimely death. Clearly, King's early preaching and lecturing reflected much of his theological training in the liberalism of mainline Protestantism. However, Lischer reveals the complexity of King's theological orientation. Always a black churchman, schooled in black church theology with its deep biblical formation, narratively structured Christian life, and eschatological orientation, King could never be designated a simple theological liberal. He adopted the vocabularies of liberalism while adjusting those vocabularies to operate within a theological vision born in the black church.

In many ways, King found the language of theological liberalism the most useful discourse he could employ in his social and political advocacy. It helped solidify his position in the eye of the American public as one whose religion is sufficiently tamed so as to be a useful tool in the upbuilding of the nation. Indeed, King tapped into the power of American civil religion, always wishing America to be more than it was, that is, a peaceful society where individuals reach their highest potential. In this endeavor, King confronted two warring images: the black image in the white mind and the black image born in black flesh, resisting, fighting for freedom. Here we witness the "in between" of the black public persona, the fight for acceptance between two opposing groups, where his energy is constantly drained and his hope constantly tested, where setbacks seek out patience in order to destroy it. King found in this confrontation a tragedy that was to mark his latter years, a tragedy to which Preacher King gives eloquent witness.

Lischer shows us that as King approached his end, he found himself stripping away more and more of Protestant liberalism's comfortable pieties. What led to this theological refining? King began confronting in greater measure the racial resistance woven into the fabric of American life, with its threads running right into Western colonialism. The discourse of liberalism could not cut through this fabric. With each sermon, each speech, each sweat-draining exhortation, it held fast.

A change came in King, a change reaching back to the black church itself. In his preaching, King began to emphasize the end, the coming judgment. The eschatological vision found on the lips of so many black church folk found its way to the front of King's preaching: There is a judgment profound and terrible coming on America, and death will point the way to the coming judgment. As the end approached, the words of Jesus became more and more King's words, the vision of Jesus became more and more his vision, and the life of Jesus became more and more his only hope. Preacher King recognizes that at the end of his life King was what he was at the beginning, a child of the black church.

This at last is the difference between King and all black religious leaders born into his legacy. King found resolution to the dilemma of black religious leaders in death, a death like that of another man. And if King has been united with this man in a death like his, then he will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. It could be that this at last is what will free black religious leaders from their dilemma. They will be freed not simply by their religious faith, bound as it is either to black or American nationalism. Freedom to be a religious leader will come from the freedom of death, a death leading to life. We must always be careful in what we say about King, given the incredible variety of ideological uses made of his life, his work, and his words. However, I think the theological vision that held center stage in King's public life near the end of that life is vitally important for interpreting the role of black leaders today.

King in a pivotal way signified the crisis moment for black religious leaders. The crisis moment is the strange fusion that joins these very different books. The crisis is not a failure to seize the day and lead black people to a bright and productive future. The crisis is one of representation. Anyone who would lead black people in America must confront an arrangement as old as America itself. An established black public image greets these brave-hearted souls, calling them to show through their words and actions their devotion to the common good, the agreed-upon republican goal. Here their rhetoric may purchase power in only one of two directions, either position them as holders of a democratic dream or as seers who envision a black phoenix rising from the ashes. Clearly there are points where these paths converge, as do all nationalisms, and their convergence is our point of summary. These works confirm that crisis lies at the heart of black leadership in America.

Unlike others in leadership, African Americans who claim a fundamental religious identity as constitutive of their public work and activism encounter profound misunderstanding. They are misunderstood by so many because so few take seriously their religion. Many of the works on these men and their movements demonstrate a shallow understanding of religion. We should not attribute this to poor scholarship. It arises from a larger reality: In American society, there is little price to pay for theological ignorance. Whether examining the life of Farrakhan or of King or of any black leader of significance, scholars and journalists are rarely held accountable for ignoring their subjects' vision of God and the world. Such an accounting is often rendered tangential to what is presumed to be the real work of analysis—the social and political import of these individuals, that is, their value in creating structures or moments of national uplift. Thus research into the lives of many black religious leaders functions as so much nationalist ideology.

Black religious leaders should struggle against the ideological maxim that they are born to serve America or black America. The black public persona is a very complex thing, not a bad thing, not an evil product. It is a trouble-filled place of existence surrounded by the majesty of destiny. Here in this place the winds of commitment driven by ongoing racial tension and conflicts pull and push people in directions over which they have little control. The beauty and indeed the truth of being a leader is being taken up on the winds of destiny headed to places unknown. In this sense a loss of control and freedom is a good thing. However, as we have seen, a disturbing set of attributes comes along with this living space. We have uncovered within the legacy of this leadership, on the one hand, a cult of personality and, on the other, the reality of confinement. With these dual problems we have before us the limitations that black religious leaders carry and the crucible out of which comes their oftentimes creative genius.

The "in between" of public presentation can be a place of unbelievable pressure. What does such pressure produce? Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many, many others. It also produces powerful and compelling visions of the divine life. This is why any attempt to "understand" them must reckon with the possibility they may be both mad and correct in the way they see the world. At least one must reckon with the possibility that God may actually be more important to them than America.

Civil religion is a powerful reality of nationalism, and nationalism is the obsession of Americans, white and black. This means that these leaders along with many lesser lights may be happy participants in the deception of their usefulness. That each of the subjects examined in these books has in one way or another lived in service to black people is without question; what requires further consideration is the freedom of that service. If we demand that their faith be taken more seriously both by their examiners and by those who would follow in their footsteps, then what we are suggesting finally is that the only thing that will save black religious leaders from despair, madness, irrelevancy, or slavery is God.

Willie James Jennings is associate dean of academic programs at the Divinity School of Duke University.

Most ReadMost Shared