ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Everyone knows about Muhammads journey to heaven from Jerusalem. The site of his
heavenly departure is now in dispute between the Muslims and the Israelis. In Negro American
folklore, we too have stories of Africans with the knowledge of bodily flight.
A Theology of Black Liberation
By Rudolph Lewis
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Isaac in Heaven: An Interview
Review of a Patriarchal Tale
By Rudolph Lewis
I do not know how it came to be. I know that it was an answer to a prayer. I had prayed night and day to our Lord for a little light and understanding on the dilemma endured by Isaac, that odd middle figure in the patriarchal trio of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Isaac seemed a man more acted upon than a leading actor in the Genesis epic tale of Hebrew pre-history. In his lack of aggression and definitive character, Isaac stands apart from both his father Abraham and his son Jacob, renamed Israel and the namesake of the Hebrew nation. And the Holy Spirit answered my prayers. I got to know Isaacs truth.
I realize that people today believe more in fortune tellers like Miss Cleo than they believe in the truth of biblical history, for instance, that the patriarchs were real people like you and me. I include contemporary African Americans in this grouping, though distressed by the thought. For we too were a chosen people. The Exodus story was our story. Like the old patriarchs we walked and talked with God.
Yes, the God of the Christian slave was transcendent, yet he was ever so available for those with the right heart and eyes, for those who sought him earnestly. But it is a new day. Now too often we are like the Hebrew children in the Wilderness. Nothing moves us like the golden calf, or in the American scene, as the hip-hop generation calls itthe bling-bling.
We Negroes have a full literature of stories and songs about our relationship with our liberating God. They are stored away in museums, libraries, and archives. Sometimes they reach publication; even then these divine tales are not given the appropriate context and so as a result they come off as meaningless, as just old-folks stories. I am just saying, contrary to reason, there is some truth in these sacred memories.
Everyone knows about Muhammads journey to heaven from Jerusalem. The site of his heavenly departure is now in dispute between the Muslims and the Israelis. In Negro American folklore, we too have stories of Africans with the knowledge of bodily flight. I dont know whether there is any truth in these stories or not. I know I too have had dreams of flight.
I understand that in psychological history it would be said these flights were connected to my level of spirituality. I dont know about that. My flights seemed real enough to me. I did take note that doubt hindered my flight and made me heavy as unleavened dough and unable to rise above the housetops. The meaning of the tale, I am sure, depends on how it is told. And by whose ears the story is heard. All these stories have a dream-like state, similar to that presence which characterizes ritual prayer.
I am saying all this to establish a certain cultural context for my visit with Isaac in heaven. The Negro has been to heaven before and has come back to tell his people about it. This spiritual experience was not limited to Muhammad, praise be his name. Even the simple Negro slave of the southern United States, especially the Virginia slave, has been to heaven. I am sure he got there before the Carolina slave, who was a close second.
We the descendants of the Virginia Christian slave have always known that we are older than scientific history can record. We too were at the beginnings of creation. We were there when man and woman first began the struggle between themselves, when they couldnt work out things for their mutual benefit and they had to make an appeal to the One God.
It’s well known in the Village of Jerusalem a Virginia Christian slave first talked to God. His woman was not acting right. She wouldnt do nothing he told her and she fought him like a natural man. So his gracious God gave him more strength than the woman. So this Virginia man attempted to beat this woman God had given him, into submission. But that didnt work as well as he hoped.
And, of course, the woman, also a Virginia Christian slave (though some are inclined to think that she was one of those Carolina women with magical powers), she was the second person to go up to heaven and talk to God. And with a little advice from the devil, called Satan, God gave her the three keys on his mantle: the keys to mans stomach, the bedroom, and his generations. Man and woman thus had to learn to respect each other.
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Well, I too went up to heaven. I dont recall just how right now. It might have been by Jacobs ladder. If so, it was more like an escalator, for the journey was of short duration. It was like when you desire to be a place and the next thing you know you are there.
It was not quite like the poets and the painters have imagined it: streets paved with gold, ethereal and lighter than air, a land to suit every delight. On my visit, it was more like a great lawn with a few bushes and trees, white capped mountains in the distance. A few small houses here and about. There wasn’t that much to sight see.
Now it is true I didnt walk all over Gods heaven. So the milk and honey and the golden streets might have been in a section I didnt visit. It seems, however, our God is a simple man, doubtless a gardener. His majesty is in his simplicity, doubtless, rather than in the lavish decorative arts. Certainly, hes an Anglo-African.
Isaac was sitting under one of those shade trees, a live oak growing. I am not sure why shade trees were needed in heaven. There was light and a sky but no sun. A blue jay sang his song and butterflies flitted here and there taking a drink from flowering bushes.
It was warm but not really hot. There were two chairs. Isaac sat in one in jeans and T-shirt with the image of Martin Luther King, under which were the words Free at Last! Isaac had a two-day beard and seemed, sitting in the lawn chair, in a contemplative air.
An empty chair was on the other side of the small table on which sat a tall glass of lemonade with a glass straw in it. Isaac stood, welcomed me, and asked me to take a seat. I desired a small glass of tea with ice and it immediately appeared on the table. I took a sip. What a delight! Manna from Heaven!
Isaac and I got along wondrously. So I got right to the point. I didnt want to waste the mans time. I got the impression though he was exceedingly comfortable and alert. He had a busy schedule, nevertheless. Others than myself had too prayed for his audience.
My suspicion was that Isaac, the man rather than the symbol, was much more than the Genesis writers let on. Isaac is sort of squashed in, sandwiched in between the tales of Abraham and Jacoba mere prelude to the tale of Joseph, at best the father of Jacob. God seemingly didnt inspire these writers (J, E, P) to speak of the Hebrew sojourn in Canaan from Isaacs point of view.
I wasted no time. I asked Isaac about his immediate family. He said Abe his father complained every now and then, but mostly about his joints. Sara was still in wonder that she had a son at ninety years old. Ishmael stopped by every now and then to talk about old times. Esau was the most frequent visitor.
Rebecca is still in love with Jacob. And Jake is still busy keeping his sons in line. Rachel is still ecstatic that she is the mother of Joseph, the savior of the nation. The family was just fine, Isaac told me, and glad to be done with the blood and guts of politics of their former worlds. Isaac seemed quite attentive, however, to the driving reforms of todays world.
Isaac asked me about Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. I told him I didnt know that much about their business. But that I could testify that they were no Martin, with whom it seems Isaac had become quite fond. He too was impressed by Kings spirituality and sacrifice for the poor, the misfortunate, and the downtrodden. He said Martin stopped by now and then to pay his respects.
So I finally asked him that question unanswered adequately for two and a half millennia. On the mountain of the Lord, lying there bound on the holocaust wood blindfolded, what did he think about his daddys readiness to cut his throat (Genesis 22)?
I noted a slight wince as if I had touched a spot he had spent some time in curing, if it were that indeed. I see you have some doubts about the biblical record. You think it is twisted a bit, dont you? I admitted his insight was on target.
Yes, you non-churchgoing Christians of today are bold with your questions. You descendants of the Virginia Christian slave, who know the Bible from first to last, got much more time on your hands these days to see the pitfalls in my ancient story. I do appreciate your interest and concern. Isaac concluded.
I thought he was going to dismiss me promptly. But he just took a sip from that tall lemonade glass and smiled. I supposed you think my papa was a mad man, hunh, like some think that young Nathaniel Turner was out of his mind? It is difficult to estimate men of faith like my father Abraham or your Nat Turner. . . . But to tell you the truth that episode in my young life did make me a bit skittish. I suppose in your day, Id definitely be on the psychoanalysts couch telling childhood stories. But it wasnt like that at all. The Lord blessed me.
Yeah, you been blessed all right, I concurred, looking about me, across that great green lawn. But I still felt I hadnt gotten that far beneath the surface of things.
Brother Isaac, let me put the hard questions to you. I see there is a little bit of your father in you. For at Genesis 26: 6 and 7, it says, So Isaac dwelt in Gerara. When the men of the place inquired about his wife, he said She is my sister; for he feared to call her his wife lest the men of the place should kill him on Rebeccas account, as she was beautiful. He held up his hand, moving it like a wiper on a car window.
Thats a lie, Isaac broke in. It was true that Rebecca and I were in Gerara. But I never lied about her as my sister. Somebody got Abrahams story mixed up with mine, maybe deliberately. Some of the scribes probably wanted me to be more like my father and son. I never really got that deception game right. I am more of a straight shooter. Even the most simple-minded knows no lie can live forever.
That deception is something that Rebecca passed along. She was quite imaginative. I had no great fear of our neighbors. I thought we could all get along and that God would still fulfill his promise to Abraham.
“It seems to me you continued to carry a heavy load.” I began again. “You were separated from your brother Ishmael and never really got to know him. You all did some mending of the breach though through Esau’s marriage with one of Ishamels daughters. You and Ishmael got to know each other much better after you two buried your father. But you didnt get a chance to choose your own wife. You were forty years old before we finally see you with a woman.
You seemed an awfully devoted son. You were thirty-seven when Sara your mother died. For the Scripture says, Isaac led Rebecca into the tent and took her to wife. Because he loved her, Isaac was consoled for the loss of his mother (Genesis 24:66 and 67).
Yes, thats all true as far as it goes. Isaac responded. There was another twenty years before Rebecca bore you two sons (Genesis 25.26), I continued. By the time your sons marry they too are forty years old and you had grown old (about a hundred) and youre blind. And your wife Rebecca and your son Jacob had no respect for your gray hairs. They crudely deceived you.
The Bible writers did make me out to be a bit senile, didnt they? But the Lord, will have his way. Jacob was his mothers sonstrong willed and independent. And I allowed both to have their way. Each had his destiny to fill. Our God is a slow walker. Hes God alone despite our machinations. He has a way of turning evil into a good. I knew hed work it out in the end, the way he wanted it. So I followed the program. I left it to my son Jacob to contend with the Lord.
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I began to understand. Isaac was much more wise than the biblical storytellers allowed. He had a faith, though different, as great as that of his father Abraham and a vision as wondrous as his son Jacob. Actually, Isaac started up again, I liked Esau the better. Really? I exclaimed.
Esau was easy going, easy to get along with. Isaac explained. I could be comfortable around him. Like our Canaanite neighbors were comfortable with him. He married among them and became one of them. He still prayed to the god of Abraham. I love all my grandsons. As you know Jacobs boys could be a little wild in their pride. Deep down, I wanted the marriage approach. Our faith would have won out eventually. If that had happened, the Holy Land probably would not be in the mess it is in today.
His last words struck me like a bolt of lightening. I thanked him and said my goodbyes. In a moment, I was back on earth. It was as if I had awakened from the best rest I had had in years. It was a new day and I had a new faith that all would work out indeed in the Middle East and elsewhere. Isaac said he didnt mind if I remember our encounter and relate our conversation to you. You can believe it or not. But thats the truth of my interview with Isaac in heaven.
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The State of African Education (April 200)
Dr Asa Hilliard III speaks on the assault of academia on Africans writing and accounting for their own history.
Dr Hilliard is A teacher, psychologist, and historian.
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Basil Davidson’s “Africa Series”
By Basil Davidson
By Basil Davidson
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By Randall Kennedy
Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama . . .
The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism. Recalling some of the criticisms of Americas past made by Mr. Obamas former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.
His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him boy, and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedys father relished Muhammad Alis quip that the Vietcong had never called him nigger. The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.
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By Charles C. Mann
Im a big fan of Charles Manns previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Its exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that its anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, Im proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, globalized entity.
Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.
We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.
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By Pauline Maier
A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her books footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a conventions decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maiers accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly).
Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state conventions verdict affected anothers. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.Booklist
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By Glenn C. Loury
In this pithy discussion, renowned scholars debate the American penal system through the lensand as a legacyof an ugly and violent racial past. Economist Loury argues that incarceration rises even as crime rates fall because we have become increasingly punitive. According to Loury, the disproportionately black and brown prison populations are the victims of civil rights opponents who successfully moved the country’s race dialogue to a seemingly race-neutral concern over crime. Loury’s claims are well-supported with genuinely shocking statistics, and his argument is compelling that even if the racial argument about causes is inconclusive, the racial consequences are clear.
Three shorter essays respond: Stanford law professor Karlan examines prisoners as an inert ballast in redistricting and voting practices; French sociologist Wacquant argues that the focus on race has ignored the fact that inmates are first and foremost poor people; and Harvard philosophy professor
Shelby urges citizens to break with Washington’s political outlook on race. The group’s respectful sparring results in an insightful look at the conflicting theories of race and incarceration, and the slim volume keeps up the pace of the argument without being overwhelming.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 1 June 2012