Catherine Meeks and Nib Stroupe, Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells as Prophet for Our Time (New York, NY: Church Publishing Inc., 2019)

 

[1] I would love to start my review by talking about the importance of Passionate for Justice at “a time like this,” but that qualification immediately rings hollow for me.

[2] Threat of danger is the traumatic, collective history and memory (and, too often, direct experience) that Black [1] and Brown people just know. To wit, Passionate for Justice co-author Meeks, who is Black, says: “As I think back on it now, I understood that white people were dangerous.” (24)  As a Black person, I may not be able to articulate it, how I know it, or when I learned this any more than one is able to articulate other types of culturally-transmitted knowledge. I just know, and have always known. This is how the threat of violence registers in the psyches of Black and Brown people, meaning that a “time like this” – a time of heightened racial awareness for some – is just everyday life for others.

[3] Being African American during the lifetime of Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) was akin to living in an apartheid state. Freedom of movement, education, housing, work, and relationships were all dictated by skin color. Choosing to defy those normative restrictions could lead to violence – up to and including lynching. Wells is perhaps best known for speaking out against the grassroots domestic terror campaign of lynching. She forged a rich professional life as a teacher, organizer, speaker, syndicated newspaper columnist, newspaper owner, and co-founder of the NAACP.

[4] Womanist Christian Ethicist Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon would delineate how Black women like Wells thrived despite the “tridimensional phenomenon of race/class/gender oppression” [2] in her Black Womanist Ethics. Legal scholar Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw would later create the term “intersectionality” [3] to succinctly describe overlapping oppressions affecting Black women’s lives in the United States. [4] In Passionate Justice, Meeks offers an extremely compelling instance of Black women’s ethics as a means of survival in the midst of curtailed freedom and opportunity (141).

[5] Refreshingly, in the first chapter the authors lift up Wells’ capacity to define herself via a liberating theological anthropology. That is, she defined herself as a Black woman beloved of God – not as enslaved property, and not created by a god who condoned enslavement and white superiority. This is important as the book challenges the personal, civil, and theological structures that worked to dehumanize Wells during her life, and as we continue to recognize and denounce the structures that continue to deny the humanity of people today. 

[6] Even though Wells’ granddaughter wrote a preface to this book, a reader seeking a more thorough dive into the life of Wells is better served elsewhere. Wells’ life and work is covered in the first chapter; in other chapters the authors consider U.S. history, their own personal histories, and the future of race in the United States with Wells as their inspiration. That said, this book has merit for representing what it does portray of Wells’ life accurately.

[7] In Passion for Justice the lives of Wells and co-authors Meeks and Stroupe are like roads, each with their own history/scenery but still managing to cross and echo each other at points. Co-author Dr. Catherine Meeks is an African American woman and Distinguished Professor of Socio-Cultural Studies at Wesleyan University. Co-author Rev. Nibs Stroupe is a white man and retired pastor, author, and community social justice leader. Both were born in Arkansas.

[8] We learn of suffrage through Wells’ exclusion at a suffrage march; Wells is excluded because a Black woman marching for voting rights would offend southern white women. We learn about slavery through Stroupe’s clear-eyed yet regrettable family history, and we are faced with the recurring contradiction between Christianity and chattel slavery. We see that Meeks even as a teen recognized the uneven and unjust power differential between white people and Black people. We are exposed to internalizing a sense of Black inferiority in childhood – the tradition of “the talk” that black mothers give to their children to keep them utterly respectful lest a white person take their child’s life over a slight or misunderstanding. All of this is American (specifically, United States) history, a history seldom discussed, and even more rarely discussed across racial lines.

[9] This reflective writing style, as opposed to reportage, is one of several strengths of this book. Also, the writing style is easy and engaging without talking down to the reader. At 150 pages, it is compact. Still, it has enough theological and psychological interest (especially in chapters 5 and 6) for adult book groups while being a suitable way to introduce complex concepts like European discovery narratives, racial conciliation/reconciliation, projection, reparations, and the “extraordinary Negro” to readers as young as high school age. There are also discussion/reflection questions at the end of most chapters; the last chapter features the authors themselves answering questions that envision what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. termed “the beloved community.”

[10] As much as I wholeheartedly believe in King’s idea of Beloved Community (and also in what I think the authors are representing when they use that phrase), there is something just a little out of tune in asking if a woman is working towards a man’s vision instead of her own vision (136). I wonder how the last chapter might have taken shape if it were conceived around a quote or phrase from Wells’ own words, since the authors are operating on the theme of Wells as prophet. On the other hand, the authors assert that there was nothing in Wells’ experience “…to allow her to hope that white people would begin to see black [sic] people as equal members…” (136, Meeks speaking).

[11] I will end this review talking not about the final chapter, but the penultimate chapter. Equity, not diversity, is not only the issue of our time – it has always been the issue. The chapter “Order Our Steps” (written by Stroupe for white Christians, and drawing on his knowledge of Wells’ life and his own ministry career) contains steps white people can take to work toward equity, and the theological arguments that underpin that work: including recognizing the power and ubiquity of racist and white supremacist thought in ourselves and our institutions.  The last question for further reflection in that chapter is: “Are you interested in using these seven steps to help you combat the power of racism in your life?”

[12] Of course there was no way to have foreseen the exact events of June 2020. But if those events have made you more aware of racial inequities and want to combat the power of racism in your life, honest work with this book can lead you into fruitful conversation and change. Let this book and the life of Ida B. Wells be catalysts.


Denise Rector is a PhD Student at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago studying Womanist theology, decolonialist theory, and U.S. Lutheran history. She works for the Justice for Women program in the ELCA Office of the Presiding Bishop.




Endnotes

[1] In this book review, I am choosing to switch freely between the terms “Black” and “African American” as I refer to people like myself who have grown up in the United States.

[2] Cannon, Katie Geneva. Black Womanist Ethics. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1988. 68.

[3] Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” Stanford Law Review Vol. 43, No. 6 (Jul., 1991), pp. 1241-1299

[4] Stroupe, a white man, wrote in 2019 that “Ida Wells was ‘intersectional’ before it became cool and topical.” (65) I would hope that, by now, Rev. Stroupe respects intersectionality as the persisting core of Black Women’s experience in the United States – and, therefore, it has always been “topical” for every member of the Body of Christ, in the sense of 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.




Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


© August/September 2020
​Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 20, Issue 5