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Black History Month 2019: Books to Keep You Woke and Inspired

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Black History Month is celebrated every February in the United States thanks to Carter G. Woodson, who first established it as Negro History week in 1926. It’s a time to specifically acknowledge, reflect on, and celebrate the achievements and contributions of Black Americans.

We’re taking the occasion at Faithfully Magazine to highlight several books that we hope will inform and inspire reflection and perhaps action.

Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero

Jackie Robinson, the professional baseball player who helped integrate Major League Baseball, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on January 31, 2019. While much is known about Robinson’s athletic prowess, political and social convictions, and the role his wife played in his pivotal journey, perhaps few know about his spiritual foundation as a Christian.

ackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero Paperback by Michael G. Long
Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography: The Faith of a Boundary-Breaking Hero Paperback by Michael G. Long.

In Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography, author Michael G. Long delves into this aspect of the athlete’s life and how his faith kept him anchored amid turmoil over his successes as a Black MLB player and activist.

“Jackie Robinson believed in a God who sides with the oppressed and who calls us to see one another as sisters and brothers. This faith was a powerful but quiet engine that drove and sustained him as he shattered racial barriers on and beyond the baseball diamond. Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography explores the faith that, Robinson said, carried him through the torment and abuse he suffered for integrating the major leagues and drove him to get involved in the civil rights movement. Marked by sacrifice and service, inclusiveness and hope, Robinson’s faith shaped not only his character but also baseball and America itself.” (Westminster John Knox Press)

Related book, 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story, takes a similar dive into how Robinson’s Christian faith compelled him forward and kept him steady amid turmoil from opponents and critics.

Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers

This history surrounding photographer Ernest C. Withers’ work is complicated. While he managed to capture some of the most iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement, he was also revealed to be an informant for the FBI. Withers had access to leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and actively fed key details about their history and activities to the bureau.

Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers by Preston Lauterbach
Bluff City: The Secret Life of Photographer Ernest Withers by Preston Lauterbach.

Withers died in 2007, about six years before the FBI documents were released via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. He did comment years before his death, however, that he felt targeted by the FBI and made sure to avoid attending “meetings where decisions were being made.”

In this gripping narrative history, Preston Lauterbach examines the complicated political and economic forces that informed Withers’s seeming betrayal of the people he photographed. Withers traversed disparate worlds, from Black Power meetings to raucous Memphis nightclubs where Elvis brushed shoulders with B.B. King. He had a gift for capturing both dramatic historic moments and intimate emotional ones, and it may have been this attention to nuance that made Withers both a brilliant photographer and an essential asset to the FBI. Written with similar nuance, Bluff City culminates with a riveting account of the 1968 riot that ended in violence just a few days before Dr. King’s death.

Brimming with new information and featuring previously unpublished and rare photographs from the Withers archive not seen in over fifty years, Bluff City grapples with the legacy of a man whose actions―and artistry―make him an enigmatic and fascinating American figure. (W.W. Norton & Company)

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You Can’t Go Wrong Doing Right: How a Child of Poverty Rose to the White House and Helped Change the World

You Can't Go Wrong Doing Right: How a Child of Poverty Rose to the White House and Helped Change the World Hardcover by Robert J. Brown.
You Can’t Go Wrong Doing Right: How a Child of Poverty Rose to the White House and Helped Change the World Hardcover by
Robert J. Brown.

Robert J. Brown is a pretty interesting figure. He played a key role in the Nixon administration, was close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other top players in the Civil Rights Movement, and says he played a part in helping to bring attention to apartheid in South Africa.

Called “a world-class power broker” by the Washington Post, Robert Brown has been a sought-after counselor for an impressive array of the famous and powerful, including every American president since John F. Kennedy. But as a child born into poverty in the 1930s, Robert was raised by his grandmother to think differently about success. For example, “The best way to influence others is to be helpful,” she told him. And, “You can’t go wrong by doing right.”

Fueled by these lessons on humble, principled service, Brown went on to play a pivotal, mostly unseen role alongside the great and the powerful of our time: trailing the mob in 1950s Harlem with a young Robert F. Kennedy; helping the white corporate leadership at Woolworth integrate their lunch counters; channeling money from American businesses to the Civil Rights movement; accompanying Coretta Scott King, at her request, to Memphis the day after her husband had been shot; advising Richard Nixon on how to support black entrepreneurship; becoming the only person allowed to visit Nelson Mandela in Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town. (Convergent Books)

Read Brown’s take on today’s police violence, Kaepernick’s protest, and on Obama in this Time interview.

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Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine

Black Is the Body is a collection of gripping essays written by Emily Bernard and inspired by a random stabbing at a coffee shop, the woulds of which will likely remain with her forever.

Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard
Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard.

Bernard, who holds a B. A. and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University, teaches Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont. She set out to write Black Is the Body while healing in a hospital bed and reflecting on how her attack by a White man could have ended. Although she wasn’t attacked because she is Black, Bernard writes, “I have always viewed the violence I survived as a metaphor for the violent encounter that has generally characterized American race relations.”

Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Bernard and her White husband and children live in Vermont. In her 12 essays, described by readers as “profound,” “genuine,” and “fresh”, Bernard explores her fascination with race and relationships in the context of personal experiences. “I am most interested in blackness at its borders, where it meets whiteness, in fear and hope, in anguish and love, just as I am most drawn to the line between self and other, in family, friendship, romance, and other intimate relationships,” the author explains.

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Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in America

Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in America by Kyle Swenson
Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in America by Kyle Swenson

Award-winning investigative journalist Kyle Swenson takes a deep look at “the longest wrongful imprisonment in the United States to end in exoneration,” that of Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu, and Rickey Jackson. The three African-American men were sentenced to a cumulative 106 years for the robbery and murder of a man outside a Cleveland, Ohio, store. Their conviction rested primarily on the false testimony of a 12-year-old boy (Ed Vernon), who waited 40 years to finally admit that he had lied.

The actual murderer was never found. Almost four decades later, Vernon recanted his testimony, and Wiley, Kwame, and Rickey were released. But while their exoneration may have ended one of American history’s most disgraceful miscarriages of justice, the corruption and decay of the city responsible for their imprisonment remain on trial. (Picador)

While focusing on Wiley, Kwame, and Rickey’s journeys, Swenson also takes a sympathetic look at Vernon. Ultimately, the Washington Post reporter takes aim at the “high crime rate, decaying infrastructure, race riots, and unchecked police corruption that plagued Cleveland during the 1960s and ’70s, in addition to exploring the broader failures of the ‘war on crime’ and the ‘war on drugs,” according to Publisher’s Weekly.

Publisher’s Weekly describes Good Kids, Bad City as “vivid, extensively researched” and “cinematically written.”

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Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women

Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn<
Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn

Described as a gripping, well-written narrative, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women details the tragic, difficult, and inspiring journey of Susan Burton. Looking for a way to cope with the death of her 5-year-old son, Burton turned to self-medicating and soon found herself in-and-out of prison—but never offered therapy or drug rehabilitation.

Burton eventually found herself help and was inspired to found an organization, A New Way of Life Re-entry Project, to help other women overcome difficulties and avoid spending their years cycling in and out of the so-called justice system.

Called “a modern-day Harriet Tubman” by New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, Burton’s efforts have earned her numerous accolades. Readers describe her memoir, co-written by journalist Cari Lynn, as “profoundly moving,” “temporally relevant,” and an “inspiring read.”

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The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South (Movie Edition)

The Best of Enemies, Movie Edition: Race and Redemption in the New South by Osha Gray Davidson
The Best of Enemies, Movie Edition: Race and Redemption in the New South by Osha Gray Davidson

The Best of Enemies by Osha Gray Davidson tells how a North Carolina politician convinced Ann Atwater, an African-American activist, and C.P. Ellis, a Klansman, to co-lead a series of meetings intended to get their community to embrace desegregation.

As Faithfully Magazine previously reported: Their first meeting as co-chairs was so intense, “To protect himself from bodily harm, Ellis showed up with a machine gun in his trunk; Atwater showed up with a white Bible to protect her soul.”

Ellis suggested that learning about his and Atwater’s similar trials of struggling through poverty helped him accept their task to push for integration of local schools. His partnership and eventual friendship with Atwater compelled him to renounce the Klan and go on to help organize Black and White labor unions, according to NPR.

Atwater and Ellis’s story inspired a motion picture of the same name (headed to theaters April 2019) and may inspire those who feel discouraged by today’s too-frequent cases involving prejudice, racism, and hate.

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FM Editors
FM Editors
Faithfully Magazine is a fresh, bold and exciting news and culture publication that covers issues, conversations and events impacting Christian communities of color.