One might think Kelly Brown Douglas would be discouraged. A priest and Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, she wrote Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis 2015) in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s murder. The book was prompted in part by fear for her own teenage son. Now, yet another Black man, George Floyd, has been murdered by police and her social-issues-minded publisher, Orbis Books, is asking her for yet another book.
And Jemar Tisby might wonder if the leap to the bestseller list for The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Zondervan Reflective, 2019) is a flash of interest that will subside when protests against police violence fade. The book he’s writing now, he says, will challenge readers: You’ve studied up, you’ve marched, now, what are you going to do when just being nice won’t cut it?
Indeed, scholar and trainer Robin DiAngelo is working on her follow-up to the current big bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Beacon, 2018) The new title is a spear stabbed at all-join-hands-and-sing complacency— Niceness Is Not Courageous: How Well-meaning White Progressives Uphold Racism. No one will be spared, particularly those she dubs “spiritual progressives,” who seem to think smudging sage together is going to undo centuries of economic and social discrimination, she says.
Indeed, all three authors tell PW they are undaunted by the fact that they have written, are writing, and may yet have to write still more books to inform, inspire, and equip readers to do battle with racism that may not end in their own lifetimes. In this age of the roiling internet and the splintered audiences of broadcast and print media, they believe in the power of books to define issues and propel movements. PW asked each about how they sustain strength for the publishing journey, what they’re reading for inspiration, and to imagine a book they’d love to read in the future.
Douglas imagines a book titled How We Got Over, laughing delightedly at a title in the past tense. That book, she says, would be looking back to our times and detailing how the world shifted and how racial justice was finally embedded in American life. It would likely be published by Orbis, which “has always been committed to bringing voices from the underside to the center. They take seriously a faith tradition with a crucified Lord at the center. Publishing has a huge responsibility if we are going to change the narrative in this country.”
The books she writes begin with a question tugging at her soul, she says, “They are something I feel called to. It’s like theology. You don’t sit down and say, ‘Oh, I wonder what I can say about God today.’ It begins with faith seeking understanding in places of conflict and contradiction. We talk about a just God in a world of injustice. The Stand Your Ground book I had no intention of writing and didn’t want to write. But I had this nagging, urgent question: ‘What’s going on here?’ I had a son and I had to find answers.”
In 2020, Douglas wrestles with hope and the meaning and significance of faith. “I believe, deeply that the arc of the universe bends toward justice but how long does that arc have to be? The questions driving me now in the book I’m working are “How do we hope? How do we talk about an anti-racist faith? What does that look like? Can we all talk about just communities?”
She finds company, new questions, fresh inspirations in new books and one’s she revisiting, written by authors Black and white, delving into how social systems are built and maintained. She lists: a book edited by Angela Davis, Policing the Black Man (Pantheon, 2017); Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist (Oneworld, 2019); an advance copy of Robert Jones’ White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (Simon & Schuster, Aug.) because “I’m trying to understand the white Christian voter; and Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom (1941); and Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil (subtitle to her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem) to “investigate how societies capitulate to immoral leaders.”
Douglas says, “The faith community has a particular responsibility because we are accountable to God. Everyone has a role to play in creating transformative change for a just future. We have to play our role with the gifts and the call that we have. Scholars, thinkers have a role to play. Books sustain a movement long past its life in the streets.”
Tisby is certain of the power of books. When he read John Dittmer’s 1994 book Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, as part of his graduate school course work, “its granular detail on racial oppression gave me a righteous anger and a deep curiosity about how the past shapes us,” he says. “The past around race is not necessarily predictive of the future. But I think it is instructive because it talks about actual events and moves us beyond theory and rhetoric to what we really do when we have the chance to choose between justice and injustice.”
A book he would like to read would be one on Black Christian resistance and resilience, something titled How We Survived, he says. But he doesn’t know how far in the future that might be. Tisby, cofounder of The Witness: a Black Christian Collective to “engage religion, race, justice, and culture from a biblical perspective,” spent three years batting ideas around with an agent until he found a home with Zondervan Reflective for his first book. “We found many interested Christian publishers, but getting to a broader public was the challenge. They were not necessarily interested in the intertwining of Christianity and race.”
They are now. The Color of Compromise concludes that a paralyzing combination of fear and apathy "holds the church back from more aggressive action to bring about justice.... When confronted with a choice to oppose racism or to acquiesce to business as usual, people of God too often shrink back.” To this, Tisby wrote, “effective advocacy is a skill just like any other and skills can be learned. At some point you must act.”
Two steps forward, one back
In January, he’ll launch an action guidebook: How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice (Zondervan Reflective). It’s his answer to the question he’s been asked coast to coast this year: “What do I do?” The text will set the readers on a journey, one that will be “two steps forward, one step back,” he says, “But part of the power of a journey is not just the progress of it but the way it changes you.”
Religion has a role, and we have to pay attention to it, he says. Consider when the government of Mississippi dropped the Confederate Battle Flag off its state flag in June. Few noticed the second legislative requirement in the flag redo: There can be no battle emblem but now there must be added, ‘In God We Trust.’ This a coded nod to reassert a form of white supremacy under the veneer of Christianity, says Tisby, drawing on one of the books he’s reading, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America,” by historian Kevin Kruse.
Some of the baggage that needs to be shed on the journey to justice is “niceness,” he says. “When I was in seminary, I saw how evangelical forms of racial reconciliation posit the problem as one of separation and the need to be nice. There are panels and events and church pulpit swaps and then everyone goes home to all the issues they had before. Niceness lacks awareness, real relationships and commitment to action.”
Robin DiAngelo couldn’t agree more. A former academic turned consultant on issues of racial and social justice, White Fragility didn’t specifically zero in on Christians or the role of churches in American’s racial history. It’s more a piercing look at the wider white culture’s range of response —from wallowing in anger, fear, and guilt to defensiveness, argumentation, and combativeness. It was published by Beacon, the same house that published classics of social criticism such as James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (1955).
Challenge and change
Now, she’s sharpening her assessment in Niceness is Not Courageous (also from Beacon for late 2020 or early 2021). Her favorite chapter zeros in on “spiritual white progressives, These are, she says, “the new age white folks who romanticize indigenous cultures with incense and chimes and smudging sage and a mishmash of beliefs by people who know nothing of indigenous people’s culture and rituals.” Worse, she says, they’re haughty, imagining themselves to be colorblind and that racism is an illusion. It’s in the realm of acting as if we live on the spiritual plane instead of where we actually live – in a desperate and unequal society.”
She doesn’t have any balm to offer, but rather a new vocabulary and road map for challenge and change. Writers have a job to do and dare not back down, no matter how many more books are needed. On her own reading table: Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury Circus, 2017)); Ibram Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist (Oneworld, 2019) and Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury, 2017).
A book she would like someone to write in the future: How The Criminal Justice System stopped Being Punitive and Became Restorative. "It would be a book that shows how we realized the current system is barbaric and cruel,” DiAngelo says. However, she’s not holding her breath for a triumphant conclusion to a national journey to uproot injustice. DiAngelo says, “Racism is not going to end in my lifetime. It is continually adapting and you have to adapt with it. It’s not an arc to progress, it is push and pull, progress and retreat. I feel like white nationalism is growing. But I also see that my book and Kendi’s are both out of stock, being read and discussed all over. People are devouring these books. We have cracked open a space. I see room for us. The question is, will it be sustained?”