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John Wilson

Bookshelf: Essential Reading on the American Dilemma

Elsewhere in this issue, Eugene Genovese directs our attention to the "enormous body of excellent scholarship" in Black Studies. Indeed, within the scope of a single issue of Books & Culture, we can only begin to suggest the range of important work that is being done in this field. Herewith a quick survey of eight recently published books that should be on the shelves of your local library. (If not, request that they be ordered!) Together they provide a superb overview of the black experience in America.

In A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763-1840 (Univ. of North Carolina Press; $45, hardback; $17.95, paper), Jon Sensbach tells the story of a settlement of German-speaking Moravian Brethren and their interaction with African American slaves, a number of whom were baptized into Moravian congregations. While the Moravians condoned slavery as part of the worldly order ordained by God (and owned slaves themselves), their acceptance of African Americans as co-heirs in salvation pointed the way to a road not taken.

Mark Smith's Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South (Univ. of North Carolina Press, $45 hardback, $16.95 paper) documents the shift from a premodern sense of time—"God's time"—to clock time and the degree of "obedience and regularity" it fostered, cruelly so in the "time discipline … enforced or imposed by time-conscious planter-managers."

Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (Louisana State Univ. Press $16.95, paper) is not a new book but rather a reissue of Bertram Wyatt-Brown's 1969 biography of the abolitionist leader. Read Wyatt-Brown for a corrective to the simplistic and inaccurate portrait of Tappan in Steven Spielberg's film Amistad.

Milton Sernett's Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration (Duke University Press; $54.95, hardback; $18.95, paper) begins with the lynching and mutilation of Anthony Crawford, a prosperous black farmer in Abbeville, South Carolina, in 1916. Sernett wants readers to understand that the Great Migration of 1916-18, during which some 500,000 blacks emigrated from the rural South to the industrial North, cannot be explained solely in economic terms. His focus is on the ways in which this massive exodus permanently altered the face of the black church.

The black church figures prominently in Arnold Rampersad's Jackie Robinson (Alfred A. Knopf; $27.50) as well. One of the surprising revelations of this biography—by far the fullest account we have—is the extent to which Robinson was shaped by the strong Christian faith of his mother and by the mentoring of a dynamic young black pastor in Pasadena. To read at length of the burdens Robinson bore and the hatred he endured is to understand the explosive and often self-destructive anger of many young black men of the next generation.

Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott (Univ. of North Carolina Press; $45, hardback; $17.95, paper), edited by Stewart Burns, is a collection of documents providing a detailed chronology of the historic events of 1955-56 that launched a nonviolent revolution and propelled Martin Luther King, Jr., to the forefront of the civil-rights struggle. The events in Montgomery showed Christians and the church at their worst, actively supporting evil, and at their best, inspiring courage and sacrificial love. A refrain that runs through all these books, in fact, is the tragically mixed record of American Christians on the matter of race. One startling exception to the varieties of white supremacy that dominated even Christian thinking before the civil-rights movement was Koinonia Farm, the interracial cooperative founded in Georgia in 1942 by two white Baptist ministers, Clarence Jordan and Martin England.

In Interracialism and Christian Community in the Postwar South: The Story of Koinonia Farm (Univ. Press of Virginia; $35), Tracy Elaine K'Meyer recounts the history of this bold experiment from its founding to the late 1960s.

Finally, Will Campbell's And Also with You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma (Providence House; $26.95) is an extraordinary interweaving of two narrative strands a century apart: one involving Duncan Gray, Jr., an Episcopal minister (later Bishop of Mississippi) who, beginning in the 1950s, stood as an advocate for black Americans when all too many of his fellow pastors were silent; the other involving the University Greys, a company of Confederate soldiers from Mississippi recruited at or near the state's university. It is an unforgettable book and an uncomfortable book that will get under your skin. Read it.


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