The Hearts of Black Folk

Renee Greene
We Might Overcome…Some Day.

Says Willo5899 on AOL’s Black Voices: Black Christians are the ones who give racism a weapon. First they vote in a guy, a republican, who could care less about them or any black causes'. When republicans are in office, it is every man for him self. Jesus or no Jesus. Ronald Reagan could not have gotten into office except he mentioned God. Black Christians love that. The blacks ran to the poles, voted him in, he in return cut all the black caucus' out funded by the government. His slogan, "America got it's confidence back."  From who?  Blacks. Did the black Christians learn anything?  No, double No.

 We’ve seen it all and heard it all before. Christianity attacked from the left and the right. It seems that from all corners of the modern sophisticated world, right on up to the most recent release of the New Line Cinema movie The Golden Compass, that Christian principles, beliefs, and aspects of living are taking a serious hit from every social set known to mankind, even from Christians themselves.

 American blacks who call themselves Christians are scrutinized faster than someone can put on a choir robe and sing “Surf is our leader.” My apologies to those who don’t remember that old Unilever commercial that tried to capitalize on the Afrimerican detergent-buying consumer by using a joyful and ‘way-too-happy’ black choir fully dressed in purple and gold robing to happily shout the praises of Surf detergent. That was obviously some crazy white idea of what black people are all about.

 However, we do love our churches, for the most part. Between T.D. Jakes’, Creflo Dollar’s, and Eddie Long’s financial records and Juanita Bynum’s allegedly abusive husband, Thomas Weeks, there lurks among us that ‘certain something’ that is out to get black Christians. They’d like to call it demonic activity in the world, but others amongst us who call ourselves Christians believe that the black church is the launching pad of every kind of hellish activity and demon spawn that ever entered earth’s atmosphere. What the above-noted blogger failed to see is that it was not “black Christians” who helped elect Ronald Wilson (a/k/a “Old 666”) Reagan to office, it was that certain sector of black Christians more popularly known as the evangelicals. I was there when it happened and watched it unfold with my own two eyes, aided and assisted by the use of glasses. I had to clasp my hands together, tip my glasses downward on my perch of a nose, and blink twice to focus on the scenario unfolding before me.

Black “Christians” of other religious denominations attempted a hard and fast campaign against Reagan that ultimately failed. They already knew what was coming if he was elected; they’d lived through the Civil Rights Movement and all that happened before that led up to it. They knew what to expect of Reagan’s type, and knew that Dr. King would never have been that forgiving of a white man who donned George Wallace’s tactics and used the Word of God to do it. He would have said, we can only guess, that Reagan had the ‘Drum Major instinct’, and that he definitely wasn’t tossing out his baton for equal justice under the law.

 The black evangelical movement attracted a younger and faster sect of the Christian community. The youth who didn’t give up on God altogether forsook the teachings of its parents and forefathers for a more up-to-date version of the old gospel. If they were going to hear it at all, they were going to hear it their way and from whomever they wanted to hear it. Mama and Daddy’s old-time religion was passé. We were the new ‘up and coming’ Negro who would not be felled or hindered by the old excuses of racial injustice. Give white folks a chance, we said…only time will heal these wounds. In the meantime and in between times, forgiveness is expedient and we should forget the past and move on to better things.

When I joined the latest spiritual evolution called the word of faith movement, my grandfather took me aside and told me that I should “be ashamed of myself” for turning my back on the A.M.E. church to attend an all-white non-denominational church called Word Outreach Center, which was more than 15 miles away from where I lived at the time. My old church was right around the corner, in a dying old upscale black neighborhood that was, at one time, southwest Georgia’s “Black Wall Street.”

In my mind, it was outrageous to ask for A.M.E. forgiveness when the blood of Jesus already had me covered; and it was the blood of Jesus that the evangelical Pentecostal church was teaching. I needed more than baby Jesus lying in a manger and crosses combined with rabbits on Easter Sunday and definitely more than Amazing Grace and other hymns about lost dying souls forever mourning their horrible displacement in life. The new breed of black evangelical quickly found a resting place for their just causes (one of which was putting a final end to all questions and comments of racism in America) amongst the burgeoning gospel explosion taking place with whites. There was one white man in particular, a preacher man from Podunk, USA (or Broken Arrow/Tulsa, Oklahoma); the man who they claim started it all. RHEMA’s Daddy Kenneth Hagin Sr., more commonly known as the “grandfather of the prosperity gospel.”

Time has not healed all wounds, but the blogger, Willo5899, got it partly and disproportionately right. I personally witnessed a hand full of haggardly backwaters tent revivalists, many of them the children and grandchildren of card-carrying Klansmen, re-invent racism, amongst their other interwoven patriotic American duties. Those who could have just as easily mimicked their own kind, people like Rev. Ike and Sweet Daddy Grace, mixed that sweet blend of gospel truth with philosophical heavy and out came elements of spirituality that, at the time, seemed too good to resist. Just as God Himself did, they said, we could simply speak—call those things that be not as though they are; pray “in the name of Jesus;” touch and agree and stand on the Word and intercede; and most of all pray in tongues and command those material things that we desired so badly to come into our realm by the laying on of hands as we prayed “in the spirit.” I discovered that black folk had done without for so long, that they were desperate for anything and everything that was going to give them the quick easy “You owe me” way to prosperity and riches.

To the old folks at home who were raised on hymn books placed gently into their proper holding places on the backs of pews; sorrowful black liberation theology sermons, woeful medleys, as well as the threat of hellfire and brimstone, the church proper became a watered down testimony and a Sunday morning social club. However, the newer and younger “more enlightened” crowd of evangelicals didn’t see it quite that way. To them there was nothing more important on earth than being healed of illness and sickness, of ridding the world of moral and social injustice, and of becoming financially rich “in the name of Jesus.” Health and wealth, freedom from racism and poverty, release from drugs and alcohol, even from the vice of cigarettes…who doesn’t want that?

The “word teachers” promised to reveal, step by step, every single way there was to get through the Veil of Glory and into the throne room of God, where—according to what we heard—one could simply stamp right into God’s heavenly and most holy of holies headquarters any time of day or night and “demand” that He own up to the promises stated in His living word. In essence, we were filing a verbal lawsuit against God and daring Him not to abide by His own covenant with Abraham.

But first, in order to become a part of this ‘new’ movement, this wave of God throughout the land, we had to come into complete and unfailing agreement with its founders, or like-minded believers; had to become one with the spirit by being in agreement with them. This was no Jim Jones cult-like revolution, this was a good old-fashioned Jim Bakker-type Rhema-Agape-Holy Ghost revival in the land.

The revival, later labeled the Gnostic gospel, didn’t begin with these well-known forefathers of the faith movement. They themselves were students of the fundamental Pentecostal and Assemblies of God preachers like Smith Wigglesworth and William Branham. According to Wigglesworth, “First, read the Word of God. Second, consume the Word of God until it consumes you. Third believe the Word of God. Fourth, act on the Word."

Black folk had, for the most part, come from a history and background of superstitious beliefs conceived and incorporated by our African ancestors; so teaching that the word of God was a magic talisman designed to cure all of humanity’s ills was easier done than said. Black folk were easily magnetically attracted to the Full Gospel evangelical association because of their once-strong stance against slavery. In the folds of liberation theology was once a mighty army of staunch Methodist and Anglican abolitionists.

The lines between the “Christian right” and the “evangelical left” were blurred during the Reagan years. That is changing, as today’s evangelicals tire of extreme right-wing conservatism and its greed-ridden “we don’t like paying government taxes to help the people who labor to make us rich” philosophies. They are beginning to branch out into more socially-conscious events and activities designed to serve humanity and the less well-off. However, the damage to the black evangelical’s psyche was already done by the time it began to end.

There is a remnant, even today, of Black evangelicals who will still align themselves, morally, ethically, and politically, with the ultra-conservative Christian right, even to the point of demoralizing and mocking and counting out their own race. The ultimate effect is a watered-down and ineffective version of godliness that weakens our defenses and our immunity, as well as our willingness to fight against continual civil rights injustices. We often go so far as to demand and attempt to extract a perfectionist  behavior out of black America’s citizens, in order to impress whites, that whites folk themselves can’t live up to, except on paper and in the media.

While it is true that anyone who so much as said the name of God to most black folk back then enjoyed relatively elevated status in the community; it is also true that Ronald Reagan used that knowledge for political gain at a time when black evangelicals were very thin-skinned and sensitive and believed themselves far removed from American racism based on nothing more than righteousness alone. Reagan achieved the vote of the black evangelical by promising to restore America to its former glory as a Christian nation.

They never realized just how basic he meant when he said that America must go “back to basics.” He began his major campaign for the office of President in Philadelphia, Mississippi, with a speech about states’ rights. Ironically enough, though Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois—Heartland, USA; he chose to launch his campaign down south, in a place where three Civil Rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were brutally murdered during what is now known as “Freedom Summer.” It’s time to take America back, he said. The evangelicals never bothered to notice he wasn’t talking to them, but was speaking of taking America back from them.
I remember the A.M.E. and Baptist preachers, also calling themselves Christians, who stated that Reagan was trying to turn back the clock on blacks. Black evangelicals, however; fully trained in the ways and sensitivities of the ultra-conservative religious right of the Republican party Pentecostal Assemblies of God, stated that Reagan was not to blame for the nation’s ills and that he should be allowed an opportunity to prove himself a better man than his ancestors. After all, black people in America were Republicans; the Democratic Party was filled with Klansmen. Over time, that was reversed—as more poor white trash prospered economically and joined the Good Ol’ Boys clubs of America. Black folk, en masse, left the former to align with the latter.

Meanwhile, those who helped vote Reagan in would live long enough, and hard enough, to eat the bitter gall and wormwood of that overly-welcoming forgiveness. Of Reagan it was later said,

The same could be said, of course, about such Republican heroes as, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon or George Bush the elder, all of whom used coded racial messages to lure disaffected blue collar and Southern white voters away from the Democrats. Yet it's with Reagan, who set a standard for exploiting white anger and resentment rarely seen since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, that the Republican's selective memory about its race-baiting habit really stands out. Space doesn't permit a complete list of the Gipper's signals to angry white folks that Republicans prefer to ignore, so two incidents in which Lott was deeply involved will have to suffice. As a young congressman, Lott was among those who urged Reagan to deliver his first major campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in one of the 1960s' ugliest cases of racist violence. It was a ringing declaration of his support for "states' rights" — a code word for resistance to black advances clearly understood by white Southern voters. – TIME magazine, Lott, Reagan and Republican Racism, Jack White, Saturday, December 14, 2002.

Reagan either considered black folk too dense to make the connection, or he simply didn’t care if they did. He spoke the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14 to a nation dying to hear a government official who wasn’t afraid to take a religious stand. A large number of “new Negroes” did endear themselves to Reagan and his speeches about giving America back to God. Though the nature of the thoughts we embraced were of the same caliber that burdened our ancestors with talk of a “sweet by-and-by-pie-in-the-sky heavenly hope” as their masters beat and cheated them in the here and now, black evangelicals embraced him nonetheless. When, they asked, will we just get over it and learn to get along?

Time has answered that question for us: It would never have happened. Not in a nation where the gross profits upon which it was rooted and founded came from forced black labor camps, called plantations; and definitely not in a nation that found a way to profit off black labor, talent, and skills even after the machines did all of the cotton picking and corn and tobacco stalking.

Having said that, and then some, how true is Willo5899’s statement that ‘Black Christians are the ones who give racism a weapon’? About half true; because it was not the black evangelicals that fell into Reagan’s smokescreen that failed us; it was the black Christians who left Dr. King’s words, “we, as a people, shall get to the Promised Land” dangling in mid-air.

It was that certain sector of Christians called black evangelicals who fell for Reagan’s hype and added their additional voting leverage to what many of us now recall as an eight-year “reign of terror” that set us back 20 years worth of hard-earned progress in race relations and emotional security. But it was black Christians who let him get away with it. Dr. King spoke of a rubber check that America once wrote to its black citizens, and of how we had come together as a nation to make a call on that check. However, Dr. King also loaned us his life to make good on that bounced check until Jesus’ return; and we defaulted on that loan.

In the hearts of black folk is engrained a certain fear of turning our back on God just because of some claim that Christianity weakens the urgent stand that we have yet to take against racism; against its moral and ethical and financial inequalities. However, more than 15 years after Reagan’s reign, we find ourselves in a quandary and at a loss to cure the devastating effects of his reluctance to fully acknowledge that black people had more than earned their way in this nation. If there were ‘welfare queens,’ as Reagan so ably put it, they were taking a lot less off the government’s dole than our ancestors had already earned for them.

We never needed Reagan’s quote from the book of 2 Chronicles to do for us what God had already finished. The above-noted blogger was half-right and half-wrong, spelling and grammar errors notwithstanding. And the only part the evangelicals got right?

None of it was really Reagan’s fault. He, too, was born into something over which he had no control, as were we all. What makes the blogger, Willo, right is the underlying notion, though he or she does not say it direct, that if black folk don’t care enough or understand enough about their own causes to make a difference, why should anyone else? It may be a half-cocked way of saying that if we can’t fix it, no one can; but it’s the truth.

So what did we so-called black Christian/evangelicals (or spiritually-minded folk) learn from being too quick to roll over and drool whenever someone used words from the Bible like a snake charmer uses a flute? We should have learned that if they know us well enough to put fake nails, weave, and cardboard-backed dime-store jewelry in our ‘hoods and loan Asians the money to sell it to us, surely they know us well enough to know that our love for God is genuine and deep, and that we can be carted off to glory at just the mention of His name.

Our love for the goodness and righteousness of the Lord is a love that touches our hearts and the unknown depths and recesses of our souls and minds. It is a love that is rooted and grounded in the heart of Africa, on the ‘dark’ continent from which Light originated in the form of Judaism, as well as its knock-off derivatives of Islam, and ultimately Christianity. Thus, we often are hard-pressed to recognize a demon capable of saying the name of Jesus even though its actions clearly show us that it does not, in fact, know God.

What we learn, in the final analysis, remains to be seen. Some (albeit, most) of us have still not fully excised our spirituality from our politics; but all in all, what we should have learned is that neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties have the ability, the knowledge, nor the diligence to make this, the 21st century, any different from what we encountered in the 20th. It is barely much different than the one our ancestors encountered in the 15th through the 19th, less the chains, shackles, and plantations, of course. When all is said and done, the resolution to these sociologically ill-conceived matters of race do not rest with government, or even with black Christians and evangelicals.

W.E.B. DuBois once said that America’s problem was that of the color-line; the great divide of racial discrimination. That much remains unchanged. The color-line was never fully erased; its fire was simply re-stoked with fresh kindling wood. The chains of slavery and the ill repute of the Jim Crow era was replaced by a laundry list of racist statistics and scientific hypotheses about the societal value, longevity factors, and the intellectual future of the black race. However, it was the black Christian of yesteryear who brought us this far by faith. We can no more deny that truth than Tina Turner can deny that she owes her fame and infamous lifestyle to one newly-deceased Izeal “Ike” Turner. It wasn’t all good, but it obviously wasn’t all bad either.

God didn’t fail us in that fight to overcome, we failed one another. He will not fail us in this new/old fight. Racism is due to choke itself to death any day now. The more racist theories prevail, the more they backfire on those who keep trying to string them along for personal and professional gain. (See: DNA Pioneer James Watson is blacker than he thought)

Attacking black Christians/evangelicals about their weak mindset and unwillingness to deal direct with black social issues and pathologies is not going to fix what ails us. There is only one way to do that; and that One Way will be the last thing to occur to us before all is said and done. We might overcome one of these days, but we still have a long way to go.

  • Columnist (The Hearts of Black Folk) and Author Rev. S. R. (Renee) Greene is the founder of Open Book Ministries, a social ministry targeted at helping to reduce the rate of recidivism in America and to helping Black Americans learn and understand the power of a KISS (“keeping it short & sweet”) in the language arts. She can be reached through Her recent book release, “In My Skin,” is the story of her experiences with common black folk while living in the deep south and “overcoming” in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement.