Belief DisBelief Back

Belief DisBelief Back


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 They were a people always moving, if only in their souls and spirit, carrying the yoke

up hill, in their marriage of symbol and reality. Their way of life was probably

neither doctrinal nor scriptural, but their religion was serviceable



Belief, DisBelief & Back

What Faith Got to Do With It?

By Rudolph Lewis


I grew up in a religious community called Jerusalem. Then it was still a Virginia of poor farmers and sharecroppers in the southern piney woods of the western Tidewater, not far from the Carolina border. During the late 30s to the late 50s, the era of Reverend Ruffin, religionists came from Richmond, the Carolinas, Baltimore and Philly, to hear our Black Jesus preach. During Ruffin’s era of ecclesiastical prosperity, the family church boasted three hundred members. Freedmen laid the foundation in 1870 for this house of worship with its white wood clapboards and a steeple bell to call to the faithful.

When I was baptized in 1960, we didn’t go to the river, the nearby Nottoway (or the creek or Sansi Swamp or a lake), but a white-washed concrete pool in the yard filled with clear water hand-pumped from a nearby well. During baptism, one walked up steps and then down into the water where dressed in white the preacher and his assisting deacon turned you about and immersed and held you in the water while you held your breath and they speaking words about Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And you filled with faith in the balance they would not drown you, as you wondered whether you really understood.

One rose (brought up) dripping with water and out of breath in the sunshine and the warm air and the Sunday hat dressed neighbors looking on to see whether any would shout or a dove land on the shoulder of that child God favored. These were ethical men and women, with the foibles of all humanity, common sense, superstitions, and magic more common than public education. In hard sickness when drugstores and MDs won’t do even doctrine gives way to a visit to root doctor Jim Jordan of North Carolina.

These people were birthed in and found themselves in an unethical world, an isolated community of dirt roads and swamps, fields of cotton, peanuts, corn, and tobacco, mostly belonging to other people. And sawmills, where Uncle Billy lost fingers in bloody steel-toothed blades. These people of the rough hands and strong backs and flat feet and souls as deep and winding as the muddy Nottoway worked a half day Saturday, milling uneasy for their pay. After a week’s drudgery many were ready for a juke joint grinding time, or whiling away in one’s own garden. 

This was black peasant culture in transition—both mule and wagon and a dark red Massey-Ferguson in the barnyard. Many lived on the land of large white estates, many owned medium-sized plots from ten to seventy acres, and a few with hundreds of acres. There were a few craftsmen, and a few who worked at the local industrial plant. These were all the people of Jerusalem, black Christians worshipping to sustain community.

The religion of these people preceded the laying of Jerusalem’s foundation. Inherited from a father or a grandmother, steeped in God’s grace and challenge long before Abe made it on the scene, with his throbbing religion of national guilt. Kinship is established in blood and tradition. The theological aesthetics of our Christian ancestors was captured by the early 1830s, in the era of Thoreau and Turner, in fighting songs, like “I’m A Soldier in the Army of the Lord” or “Walking in Jerusalem Just like John” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

They were a people always moving, if only in their souls and spirit, carrying the yoke up hill, in their marriage of symbol and reality. Their way of life was probably neither doctrinal nor scriptural, but their religion was serviceable, as well as radical. It was only yesterday that the nights were long in the cricket symphony darkness of purple pines and red oaks and white birch. After the sun-go-down roving Patty Rollers, and bloodhounds. The soul is like forest deer during hunting season. The spirit flies with eagles, soaring.

George Graves, maternal great grandfather, was a deacon at Jerusalem, before he died in the 30s in his 90s. He was a landowner, with twenty-five acres, a widower who never remarried, but at sixty he made two sons with a much younger Mary whom he feared to marry, maybe with good cause. George was a teenager (a slave) when Lincoln issued his EP. That he was a “mulatto” probably had little to do with George’s clerical status or his landownership. He was a smart man, a reader and writer. The leading families of Jerusalem, e.g., the Masons and the Massenbergs, all had a white ancestor, often not spoken of in public. Black respectability has its demands, too.

People will talk, especially good Christian people, into their palms, whispering vibrating ears with ridicule. When I was eleven, several families intrigued and deposed the popular  Reverend General A. Ruffin, one of the blackest men I’ve known to possess the fire of the Holy Spirit, a preacher who could rival C.L. Franklin of Detroit in the classic Negro sermon style. Ruffin was voted out one Saturday in 1959 for sexual improprieties. He wasn’t just eating fried chicken, they defamed. I missed by a year being baptized by this man of God who sweated vigorously when God appeared in his black robe of red trim. The Carolina preacher John Boone, who followed, had that honor. 

Bible stories, theological discussions, and prayer sessions at home were socializing and instructive but rather repressive of youthful enthusiasms on both religious and racial grounds. The ideals that the saints proclaimed were seldom the reality lived in those harsh days of rural poverty—no indoor plumbing, telephone, and electricity, so no tv, vcr, or computers, maybe, if blessed, a spring operated 78 rpm Victrola. Nothing remains in the dark, though hushed. The compromises, we make. Every waking moment challenges integrity and dignity.  Body and soul heavier than mud when the sun go down.

In those days people didn’t need much preaching, once a month was more than sufficient. More men set at the head of the supper table, then. Far from urban centers in the wooded wilderness of the swampy Tidewater of Nathaniel Turner, men and women were closer to God. One experienced his miracle in a cool breeze on a suffocating humid day. One saw his spirit whispering in a grove of pines. When death passed your door, undeservedly.

One’s humanity was recovered more fully in those August days of weekly revivals, in those prayer sessions and testifying moments when the church was people proclaiming unprompted the visit of the Lord’s mercy and grace and healing and the unexpected financial relief in a letter from a Northern relative, an aunt or a sister, a brother or uncle. On these nights they word stones landed on the head of Satan, for goodness sake. Their victories ranged mountains over the three dollars a day for fieldwork in the 50s — chopping, shaking, picking, crapping  — in a blazing sweating sun in a clear blue sky. As a schoolboy, it was rare I worked in a big farmer’s fields.

“They say preachers don’t steal / but I found one in my corn field” was a rhyme that I picked up, maybe, on the basketball court, an insurgent retreat for teenage 60s culture. A few guys down in the bottom shooting crap and drinking wine on Sunday for in such scenes boys wear the mask of men and sexual exploration and other realities the religious only allude to in Sunday School, pulpit sermons, or during the symbolically grim bread-and-wine. Like the boasts of “backdoor men.”

So these Christian slaves and their children (my grandparents) laid conscientiously the foundation for my religious sensibility. I just did not care for Reverend Boone, the Carolina preacher who replaced Reverend Ruffin. Boone’s demeanor was filled with toothy grins, rough edged humor, insufficient gravity and imagination. Under Boone’s regime men were less particular in their duties, money from building projects found its way in undeserving coffers.

August 1958 Daddy brought home a 21-inch Zenith TV, brand new, and the world was never the same after that. There in that box of the bizarre I discovered varieties of religious expression. Oral Roberts was then the TV preacher with the healing touch for willing believers. I was amazed but deep down I felt it was trickery, a deception, no Jesus turning water into wine or raising the dead, or feeding the thousands. By the age of twelve I was keenly familiar with the arts of deception and hypocrisy, ubiquitous as love and generosity, if not more so.

Maybe I saw King on tv, I think not, all of that militant heat was far from the daily hum drum trials of Jerusalem, it seemed. Hog killing. Storing peanut vines in the barn. Mule stable cleaning. Broadcasting manure. Riding the back roads to a juke joint in Emporia. Doing the Georgia Grind in the shadows. Fumbling, sweating in the dark.

Most of the black Christians I knew, of my age especially the males, left the church not long after baptism. Church-going becomes less and less until finally churches are not entered unless there is a wedding or a funeral or at times of extreme depression. I too followed such a path after I left Jerusalem at sixteen for Morgan State College in Baltimore. What an abrupt change in perception, style, as well as place. They called such fellows as I then, “country.”

In B’more (as Negroes dab it) there were politics and class and family names of which I was totally ignorant. Except for Little Willie Adams, rumored kingpin of Black Numbers, my family here (mother, stepfather, and my three younger sisters) were not intimate with the makers and shakers of Black Baltimore. The first to graduate from high school in my family my appearance at Morgan was breaking virgin land. I was a pioneer in the world of collegiate scholarship, a world set apart from my biblical view of history.

Here in this semi-segregated urban landscape of the mid-60s I discovered Baldwin and Wright and Benjamin Quarles. Go Tell It on the Mountain reaffirmed my early religious rebellious questions; Wright’s exposure of Southern fear and terror explained black rage nights of prayer and anguish; and Quarles reaffirmations of Negro contributions to the making of America broaden the landscape of black concerted struggle.

Religion was superstition. Darwin was established fact, evolution challenged revelation; the roundness of the earth and its rotation explained mathematically, Joshua shoved aside. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence guaranteed me the rights of a citizen though governments failed in their obligation to sustain them. But all would right itself in God’s Time—prayers sustain, and miracles be possible. It was a Brunswick stew, a muddle.

The free African had come of age in America (1960s), conscious hands reaching out, comfortable with his place in the world. That was all I knew and all I needed to know.

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books

For July 1st through August 31st 2011  


#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

*   *   *   *   *

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

By David Graeber

Before there was money, there was debt. Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems—to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There’s not a shred of evidence to support it. Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that for more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors.  Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong. We are still fighting these battles today without knowing it. Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a fascinating chronicle of this little known history—as well as how it has defined human history, and what it means for the credit crisis of the present day and the future of our economy.  

Economist Glenn Loury  /Criminalizing a Race

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 10 February 2005 




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