Book probes religious lives of prominent Black Americans

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There have been two biographies of jazz piano great Mary Lou Williams. There are two biographies of singer and actor Ethel Waters, as well as her two autobiographical memoirs, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and “To Me It’s Wonderful.” Black Panther Party founder Eldridge Cleaver wrote two autobiographies – “Soul on Ice” and “Soul on Fire.” And there have been countless books on the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, including his own “The Greatest.”

So why did University of Kansas Professor of African and African-American Studies and American Studies Dr. Randal Maurice Jelks feel it necessary to write a book focusing exclusively on their spiritual and religious lives?

Dr. Randal Maurice Jelks

Jelks profiles each of them in his new book, “Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans” (Bloomsbury, 2019).

He says he wanted to place their lives in the context of their 20th-century times, showing how each of them responded to his or her life experiences in a different religious way.

For instance, the writings of Catholic Trappist monk Thomas Merton were influential on both Williams and Cleaver, Jelks said, to the point that Williams converted to Catholicism and her later, religiously inspired works presaged the strain of “liberation theology” that runs through the church today, particularly in the Third World.

Cleaver’s religious life was a peripatetic as his politico-legal one, becoming first a Black Muslim, then an evangelical Christian (and a political conservative) and finally joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (i.e., Mormon).

Ali may have been the most famous religious convert of the 20th century, committing himself to the controversial black nationalist Nation of Islam immediately after winning the heavyweight championship in 1964. Like his friend Malcolm X, Ali later left the NOI and became a more traditional Muslim.

But Jelks begins the book with his recollection of seeing Waters, singing what had, by that time, become her signature gospel song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” on a televised Billy Graham crusade during the late 1960s. As a pre-teen, Jelks writes, he considered Waters an “Aunt Jemima.”

“I sternly judged Waters with all the sexist, self-righteous indignation that a thinking ten-year-old boy could muster,” Jelks writes.

It was only decades later that he reappraised her, after learning that Waters had been a lesbian or bisexual and yet still hewed to the evangelical worldview that condemned those like her. His chapter on Waters attempts to explain that dichotomy.

While he was working on what he thought would be a scholarly article about Waters, Jelks said, friends encouraged him to consider writing about other prominent African-Americans’ “religious journeys.” Studies continue to show, Jelks noted, that African-Americans as a whole are more religiously observant than non-black Americans.

So he thought about other leading figures who influenced his life, from Ali to Cleaver to Williams. Jelks writes that grew up in an ethnically and religiously diverse neighborhood in New Orleans and in Chicago, and he uses his own life’s trajectory as a through line in the book.

“My argument in these pages,” he writes, “is that individual Black American stories in particular provide luminous and revealing inner histories, and they are just as important to explore as the histories of human rights protests and political activism.”

At another point, Jelks urges the reader to “consider this book an effort to recover a usable democratic past from the faith stories of four Black Americans. Maybe, just maybe, by examining these stories we might creatively recover moral possibilities for today. Amid authoritarian and antidemocratic politics, Islamophobia, ISIL, and justice struggles like Black Lives Matters, it seems a crucial time to examine faith stories.”

Jelks is scheduled to read from and discuss his book on Feb. 11 at the Lawrence Public Library.

About the author Randal Maurice Jelks

University of Kansas Professor of African-American Studies Randal Maurice Jelks is also an ordained Presbyterian minister. His new book, “Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans,” published January 10, 2019 by Bloomsbury. Jelks is also the author of “African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids” (University of Illinois Press, 2006) and “Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography” (University of North Carolina Press 2012).

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