Ten days after a white supremacist entered Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Church and murdered nine worshippers in 2015, activist Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole at the South Carolina state capitol and removed the Confederate battle standard. "In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down," Newsome declared to those assembled, including the police who would ultimately arrest her. "You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today."
The language of Newsome's protest is important, because it defined the struggle against structural racism and racist violence not just in political terms, or even moral one—but as a religious issue. Newsome’s words play an important role in author Lisa Sharon Harper’s forthcoming book, Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World and How to Repair it All (Brazos, Feb.). The critically-acclaimed author of 2019’s The Very Good Gospel writes in the new book that Newsome testified to an important truth: "To allow the Confederate flag to fly and statues to tower over people made in the image of God is to war with God for supremacy."
Civil Rights activists have always spoken through faith, but there has been a reinvigoration of such language during our current moment. As an advocate for racial justice working within a specifically Christian framework, Harper explains to PW: "It is impossible to repair what race broke in the world without addressing the religious belief systems that laid foundations for, protected, and propagated this human hierarchy of belonging."
Fortune's title has many connotations: the centuries of wealth produced by the exploitation of Black women and men and which they were denied, as well as the shifting balance of fate which turns across history. In Harper's book it's also the name of her seventh great-grandmother, Fortune Game/Magee, who in the eighteenth-century sued for her emancipation in Somerset County, Maryland (but was denied her freedom). Threaded throughout Harper's book are accounts of her family's Black and indigenous genealogies, along with a scriptural argument for reparations and reconciliation. "Mine is the first generation in more than 400 years with enough distance from slavery and Jim Crow to try to assess the damage – and to demand repair," Harper points out in the book. Influenced by Alex Halley's seminal Roots and its attendant television adaptation, Fortune focuses on the intricacies of identity as a means of reconstitution.
Senior acquisitions editor Katelyn Beaty says that with the release of Fortune, Brazos hopes to further conversations around racial justice and faith, explaining that for those who've followed Harper's activism over the past 30 years, they should anticipate "prophetic insights on race, faith, and a right remembering of U.S. history," adding that "Hers is a trusted, truthful, and timely voice."
Because the Middle Passage permanently severed most Black Americans from their African ancestry, DNA tests such as those supplied by 23&Me and Ancestry.com have provided a means of reconnecting with distant roots, as Harper does when she discovers her family's origins among the Yoruba of present-day Nigeria and the Hausa from the border region of Niger and Chad. "Science has offered us a powerful tool that subverts the previous origin story that begins in the death ships that brought us to this land," Harper tells PW, adding that now "we can be reconnected to our homelands, our people and our people's story."
Genetic genealogy services aren't just helpful for people in the African diaspora, Harper argues, but also for those who identify as white who may be able to better understand their own complex stories over the centuries. "Whiteness is a ghost, an illusion, a figment. It doesn't really exist, except for the power we give it," Harper explains. Just as doctrines of white supremacy erased the ethnic backgrounds of the millions of Africans enslaved and brought to America, so too do such ideologies separate many who identify as white "from their common stories, their past struggles, and their cultural heritage." She argues that because most people of European descent "came to the U.S. driven by one of two things— poverty or oppression," genealogy can then help people better reconnect to their own history, so that "the shifting demographics of our nation will feel like less of a threat." These shifts include movements toward equality for BIPOC people and immigration reform.
Brazos intends for Fortune to contribute to ongoing, difficult conversations about race and privilege, which are increasingly attracting Christian readers. "More Americans, including American Christians, are waking up to the realities of racialized gaps in access to education, health care, affordable housing, and workplace protections, as well as the ongoing and devastating threats of racialized violence and the specter of white nationalism," says Beaty. She sees a book like Harper's as speaking to this particular moment from a Christian perspective, sitting on the shelf next to titles like Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby, and The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.
As an activist with three decades of experience training clergy on how to politically organize, and as a columnist for the liberal evangelical publication Sojourners, Harper's intent isn't just to add to the conversation, but to affect actual change. She envisions a movement based in "truth-seeking, truth-listening and truth-telling," as she says, and in Fortune, Harper details her experience researching the Truth and Reconciliation Committees established in post-apartheid South Africa as a means for healing the wounds rendered by racism. Mentioning conservative rhetoric about Critical Race Theory and The 1619 Project, Harper says that until "we tell the truth, as a nation, we will always suffer the blows of competing narrative in our politics and churches." She envisions a project not dissimilar to the South African commissions, established at both the federal and regional level, "to redress wrong-doings that are found." The goal of such a project is more than just teaching the historical record, Harper argues, but also for "public apology, substantial redress, and action to adopt discoveries into the cannon of public memory through monuments, memorials, and museums."
American society finds itself at an inflection point, buffeted between both an ongoing reckoning with the nation's racist history and a growing white supremacist movement. Though Harper says there are "mountains of reasons to despair right now," she adds: "This is not the first time we have faced this demon. We have overcome before. We shall overcome again."