No, I love the New York Review of Books, I really do. I think I have read every issue for the past thirty-five years or so. I started reading in when they were still publishing articles in favor of SDS, and giants like Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Lewis Mumford graced its pages. And I always read it cover to cover, novel reviews, long art history and music essays, the latest example of American perfidy somewhere in the world, the whole thing. But of course, it has always sort of lacked the common touch, and relies on the same stable of reviewers, all usually weighted down with scholarly honors, writing very soberly issue after issue. I can live with that; they are at the apex of the scholarly mandarinate, the world’s unacknowledged (and sometimes acknowledged) legislators, and our roles are clear; they get to write about what is important , and I get to read it.
But imagine my surprise when in July there was an article about Obama and the Black Church by the estimable Darryl Pinckney, a follow-up to the flap over the Rev. Wright. He included a few paragraphs about Howard Thurman, who probably had never been mentioned before in the NYRB. Now as one of the editors of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, I know more about Howard Thurman than just about anyone, and Pinckney had made a few small mistakes,
and one slightly bigger error. I thought that I would write an email, offering a few corrections and comments. And lo and behold, I received a reply a few days later from Robert Silvers, the
founding editor a few days later, telling me that my letter would be published. Finally, at long last, I would be a real New York Intellectual!! Of course, there was a condition attached. I had made reference to a statement that Obama made about Thurman, and I was asked to track down the source. This was for various reasons a bit more complicated than it sounded, but I did this, enlisting a few people to help me. And I was promised that the letter would be published.
That was back in July, and now its January. And in every issue that has come out since, I turned to the letter page to see if my letter was published. So far it has not appeared, and as the timeliness of my letter begins to fade, I suspect that it won’t appear. The letter column of the NYRB is as tough to crack as the body of the magazine—the current issue has letters from the former mistress of V.S.Naipaul, Orlando Figes, a leading scholar of Russian history, a contributor correcting her own essay on the incandescently hot novelist Roberto Bolano, retracting a statement that at one time he had a heroin addiction, and the Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History at Columbia writing about Meyer Schapiro. With this sort of competition, how could I make the cut?
So as an alternative to the NYRB, below is my letter, in all of its unpublished glory:
The religious and spiritual roots of Barack Obama’s worldview have been discussed and debated since he emerged on the political scene. Now that he has elected to the presidency, these questions have only gained in their importance. Unfortunately, much of the discussion about the Obama and the Black Church has concerned the controversy over his one-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. If the Wright controversy has no other positive results, it fostered discussion of Obama’s religious heritage. One of the most lucid of these contributions was an article by Daryl Pickney in the New York Review of Books (July 17, 2008), “Obama and the Black Church, ” in the course of which he allots several paragraphs to Howard Thurman, surely one of the most distinguished 20th century American religious thinkers, black or white.
Although Pickney does not mention it in his article, Obama has acknowledged a debt to Thurman. Howard Thurman I think represents some of the best in America. In an interview with filmmaker Arleigh Prelow, “Howard Thurman: Spirit of a Movement” Obama said “I constantly refer back to the work that's been done by Dr. King, Dr. Thurman, and others who've whose shoulders really I stand on. " (The film is not finished, but excerpts from the documentary in progress can be viewed at the Freedom Theater at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco.
Although Pickney’s discussion of Thurman is illuminating, it is somewhat misleading to categorize Thurman’s best-known work, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), as “an early work of black liberation theology.” I suppose this depends on your definition of “black liberation theology” but Thurman’s work, while rooted in a consideration of racial oppression and discrimination, is far from a political tract or call for revolutionary struggle (he was a lifelong pacifist), and is rather, as Vincent Harding has described it, “a profound quest for a liberating spirituality, a way of exploring and experiencing those crucial life points where personal and societal transformation are creatively joined.”
Jesus and the Disinherited was not, contrary to Pickney’s assertion, a direct response to Thurman’s trip to South Asia in 1935 and 1936, when he became the first African American to meet Mahatma Gandhi—Thurman had already outlined the core ideas of the book in articles published before he left—but the trip did had significant consequences on his thinking and subsequent career. He had been challenged, as Pickney notes, by South Asians who told him that as a black representative of an American Christianity that was profoundly racist and segregated, he was either a hypocrite or a dupe. Thurman resolved to do something about this, and in 1944 left a comfortable position as dean of chapel at Howard University to co-found in San Francisco the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, one of the first religious congregations in the United States explicitly organized on an interracial and integrated basis. Everything about his career as a religious thinker was concerned, as the title of another of his books indicated , with “The Search For Common Ground,” and if he never minimized the magnitude and difficulty of the task, he always sought a world in which racial, ethnic, and religious differences could be at once acknowledged and transcended.
As we come to know more about Barack Obama, I hope Obama’s roots in the moral philosophy of Howard Thurman will become increasingly apparent, and the work of Thurman will become better known, as he always intended, outside of the confines of the “black church tradition.”
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