Saturday, February 6, 2021

"The Color of Compromise" by Jemar Tisby

I read this for Jamie Lapeyrolerie's book club.  Unfortunately, due to some kind of weird library snafu, I got my copy the day of the club discussion, so I'm only now finishing it.  Yes, it took me about three weeks to read this book, not because it's long, but because it is hard.

Now, the first five chapters, I felt like I wasn't really learning much new stuff.  Those were talking about the history of slavery in the US from the early days of colonialism through the onset of the Civil War.  And I've read a lot of books about race relations pre-Civil War, slavery, and life in the USA in that era, so... what Tisby was saying made sense, but it also wasn't new to me.  If that's not an era or subject you've read and studied about, then you'll learn a lot from those first few chapters.

But the chapter where I really started to learn new things was the sixth one, called "Reconstructing White Supremacy in the Jim Crow Era."  And boy, did that open my eyes to things.  Not to how bad Jim Crow was, because I've read a lot about that too.  But to the way that, after the Civil War, some people in the South started rewriting the collective memory of the South, as to what the Antebellum era was like.  And how much of that has trickled down to today.  And that's when it got really personal, for me.

My family moved to North Carolina when I was twelve.  Until then, my view of the Civil War was very straightforward: North = Good, South = Bad.  I didn't want to move there, in fact, because that view had been branded into my brain by my history books, a couple movies that involved the Civil War, and just the general viewpoint of the people I interacted with in Michigan while I was growing up there.

But, between moving to NC when I was 12 and going to college in MN when I was 18, that changed.  Because, guess what?  I made friends in NC.  The people at our new church embraced us.  A local homeschool group embraced us.  I came to view NC as my home, and I still do.  I still love my church family there, and my other friends as well.  They are dedicated Christians.  Most of them are also white.  But... I gradually came to believe that you could fly the Confederate flag as a symbol of your family's heritage as brave soldiers and people who opposed "big government," and not as a statement of white supremacy.  That some slave-owners were evil, but most were kind.  That the Civil War was really about states' rights and not about slavery.  I became convinced of these things, because so many people I encountered were so fully convinced of them.

And here's the thing: I truly believe that the people who changed my mind, oh so gradually, about things like that... didn't realize that those ideas came from people after the Civil War trying to rationalize away the evil they had allowed to exist in their midst.  They did not understand.  They knew not what they were doing.  They were repeating things that they had been taught by their parents, who had been taught them by their own parents, and they are so far removed from the origins of the collective memory-replacement that they have no idea that they're perpetuating something untrue.  

By retrofitting the people of the South with a gauzy, rosy view of the past, one filled with delicate belles and stalwart soldiers and happy slaves, those people stopped the healing that the South should have done.  You know how, if you open a wound to light and air, it heals, but if you cover it and keep it dark and closed up, it festers and rots?  I think that's what happened here.  Instead of letting the horrors of slavery be exposed to light and air, and thus healed, people in the South after the Civil War strove to cover it all up and forget it.  And so racial hatred got worse, and worse, and worse.  Until people can't even tell anymore that the things they think are true about the past, aren't.  Until people can't see that the memory that's been handed down to them... is a lie.  Is founded in hatred and fear.

Today, I'm convinced you should not display a Confederate flag, unless in a museum, because it's going to cause hurt to someone Black who sees it.  It inevitably will.  Even if YOU aren't meaning it to be a symbol of hatred, that's what it's become, and that fact needs to be accepted and respected.  It's kind of like a reverse version of the cross -- originally, that was a symbol of oppression and agonizing punishment, but Christians have turned it into a symbol of God's unfailing love and redemption for all mankind.

Now, I think the same can be said of the people in the North, actually.  What I learned there as a child was that everyone in the North was an abolitionist, anti-racist hero who set out to rescue those enslaved in the South.  I can see now that such was not the case there either -- that the victors created their own gauzy, rosy narrative about their role in the affair as well.  

Okay, so, that was what hit me the hardest, in this book.  I learned many things from it besides that, but that's the lesson I'm going to be carrying with me forever.  That you can't separate reality and history and current life the way that has been done so much, because you will just perpetuate hatred and hurting, and prevent healing.

One thing that disappointed me about this book was the absolute lack of any discussion of the Lutheran church, any of its synods.  Various Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist, Fundementalist, Reformed, and even Roman Catholic church bodies get talked about, regarding their historic relationship with racism.  But there is literally one mention of Lutherans, and it's only that a Lutheran man in Illinois gave wallet-sized pictures of Jesus to his friends in the 1950s as a statement against card-carrying Communists.  

I don't know why this is.  Have Lutherans in the US, historically, been more racially tolerant or accepting?  Do they simply not fit the narrative focus that Tisby had in this book?  Are there just not enough of them to matter to him?  I am not sure.  

I do know that Booker T. Washington viewed Lutherans very favorably as being eager to put their time and money to use helping Black people after the Civil War.  From reading Light in the Dark Belt by Rosa Young, I learned a lot about Lutheran support for poor Blacks in the south in the first half of the twentieth century.  Being a lifelong Lutheran, I was disappointed to have them so entirely overlooked in this book, as if we had nothing at all to do with this issue in any way.  Which, obviously, cannot be the case, since there have been Lutherans here since before the American Revolution. 

I was also disappointed by Tisby's seeming attitude that the Gospel message ruined other cultures by wiping out their traditional religions.  He never once talked about the Gospel being the only way to heaven, and that bothered me.  I understand that attitude from non-Christians, because they don't believe that faith in Christ as the Savior of all mankind is the only way to heaven.  But he was writing from the perspective of a Christian, and so, yeah, that bothered and disappointed me.

Particularly Good Bits:

The refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice.  Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression (p. 15).

The ability to weep with those who weep is necessary for true healing (p. 23).

...if people made deliberate decisions to enact inequality, it is possible that a series of better decisions could begin to change this reality (p. 27).

The "Lost Cause is a narrative about southern society and the Confederate cause invented after the Civil War to make meaning of the devastating military defeat for southern white Americans.  The Lost Cause mythologized the white, pre-Civil War South as a virtuous, patriotic group of tight-knit Christian communities.  According to the Lost Cause narrative, the South wanted nothing more than to be left alone to preserve its idyllic civilization, but it was attacked by the aggressive, godless North, who swooped in to disrupt a stable society, calling for emancipation and inviting the intrusion of the federal government into small-town, rural life.  Confederates reluctantly roused themselves to the battlefield not because of bloodlust or a nefarious desire to subjugate black people, but because outsiders had threatened their way of life and because honor demanded a reaction (p. 93-94) (This is EXACTLY what I learned when living in the South.)

History is about context, so studying history remains vital.  It teaches us how to place people, events, and movements within the broader scope of God's work in the world (p. 194).

Those who declare that Confederate symbols represent "heritage not hate" must recognize that part of that heritage was hate in the form of slavery and white supremacy (p. 201).

Black people have somehow found a way to flourish because of faith.  It is a faith that is vibrant and still inspires black Christians to endure and struggle against present-day forms of racism.  The entire church can learn from believers who have suffered, yet still hold onto God's unchanging hand (p. 203).

If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It: R.  There are multiple discussions of rape, torture, and murder, all the more awful because they all happened in real life.  


  1. This does sound very interesting. Also for Europeans, since we don't understand many things about the U.S. because we lack background information. Interesting to me, because I got my Ph.D. studying Thoreau and the New England transcendentalists who were active abolitionists. I should refresh my memory about the subject of slavery. However, the way you describe the book makes me think it's awfully depressing. What with the general situation right now, I don't know how much depressing reading I can take. I don't want escapist pleasures only, I want to use my brain and get new insights, but the book sounds very, very dark.

    1. Andrea, I'm sure all of this looks very different from a European perspective. That must be fascinating.

      I don't know if I'd call this book depressing. Hard to read in places, yes. I read one chapter a day, mostly, except when I had to put it down after the chapter about lynchings in the twentieth century because there were some awful, awful things there. And I kept thinking, if it's this hard to read about this, how hard would it be to endure it? To see it happen? To live with the fear that this could happen to you or your loved ones? To live now with the knowledge that this happened. Very hard to read in parts, definitely.

      But it also was filled with constructive ideas of how to improve, how to go forward. Ultimately, not dark, so much as starkly realistic, I think. And hopeful.

    2. I think I know what Andrea is saying. For me, anyway, Reading Roll, Jordan, Roll at THIS time...frequently I was so disinterested because the issue is constantly in our faces (besides Covid), and it was not enjoyable. [Although, I might add, my book was not entirely depressing, but rather matter-of-fact. If that makes sense.]

    3. Ruth (and Andrea), I feel like there's a difference between being uncomfortable and difficult to deal with, and depressing, though. Depressing, to me, means there's a hopeless feeling of "nothing will get better," and this book was not at all depressing in that way -- it had many suggestions of ways for congregations and church bodies to change attitudes and practices as they strive to be more loving to everyone. And it talked about ways that people's attitudes and beliefs have become better over time, albeit more gradually than the author would have liked.

      So, yes, many chapters were emotionally hard to get through, and I did have to set it aside to kind of come to terms with some darker parts of history before I was ready to move forward, but that is not, to me, depressing?

    4. Oh, wow! I totally commented in a separate comment on this post, and it is gone. :( I said a lot, too. Bummer. I think my comments (on blogs) go to the spam file a lot.

    5. Ruth, that's so weird! I never got another comment from you besides the one above. Just checked the spam comment file, and it's empty. Must have gotten lost in the ether :-(

    6. Ooor, it is possible, that I did not hit Publish. LOL! I basically talked about the issue of reading more history, getting the entire story, and coming to grips w/ knowing that people of the past lived in a different time than we do; not taking things personal, though I understand being sensitive to some things, like you mention - the flag. I talked about how I learned so much about the South from Gone With the Wind, which I did not know. And there were other histories that have been helpful in getting the bigger picture. Anyway, I don't remember everything I said anymore. Ugh.

    7. Ruth, sometimes I think I hit "publish," but I actually hit either "Preview" or "Sign Out," especially if I'm trying to answer comments on my phone (which I almost never do because I screw it up so often). So I heartily sympathize.

      I definitely think that it's important to read new perspectives on things so that we can try to understand both how people on different sides of an issue viewed things in the past as well as today. The older I get, the more I realize that, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, many of the things I thought were facts were only facts from a certain point of view. Or rather, that there can be more than one view of things I used to think were obviously just so.

  2. This sounds like a really eye-opening read. And it's so true that the South has really revised the history of the Civil War (but so has the North, although not quite to the same extent), and that has caused a lot of division and misunderstanding. I think I would definitely be interested in reading this one at some point. :)

    1. Samantha, absolutely. Both sides have done memory-revision. I think it just did a lot more damage in the South because it stopped the kind of healing and change that could have happened.

  3. The Lost Cause myth makes me physically sick. I've lived in the Deep, Deep South for twenty years now and I HATE the way Southern white culture, especially Southern white Christian culture, tries to excuse and justify its horrible, horrible past.

    And I agree, it's really fascinating--in a twisted way, of course, but still historically fascinating--how monuments to the Confederacy (the flags, the statues, etc.) were established and promoted decades AFTER the war, in order to solidify the system of segregation and Jim Crow law which were being bulked up around that time. Early 1900s. That's when a lot of the statues went up. That's when the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in downtown Memphis went up. We FINALLY managed to take it down a few years ago.

    1. Katie, having only lived in the mid-South and upper-South, I can only speculate on whether or not the Lost Cause myth would be stronger the farther south you go, but I kind of expect it would be so.

      My thinking on monuments is... complicated. And mostly, I'm tired of people yelling about it as if you can erase history by pulling down a monument. People on both sides of the argument. What happened, happened. How we remember it, though, is what we get to decide.


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