Scholar Strike 3: Race in Biblical Interpretation

As I wrote in my post yesterday, race was not a concept that influenced the composition of biblical texts.

It has, however, deeply influenced their reception and use. Over the past 500 years it has been inextricably bound up in the practice of biblical translation, interpretation, and application. Biblical scholarship—both historical and theological—has been conducted in a world where racial concepts, hierarchies, and structures permeate life at every level, and biblical studies have not been immune to their influence.

The vast majority of biblical scholarship in these centuries was conducted by white, Christian men who sat at or near the top of racial, gender, religious, and class hierarchies, and their interpretations inevitably bear the marks of those social positions. Many read race into these texts where it was not originally present, and the character of these readings have skewed white supremacist (in the broader sense)—not universally and not always explicitly, but often enough and strongly enough to be undeniable.

A number of scholars—particularly scholars of color—are working to untangle the white supremacy that has become so deeply enmeshed with biblical interpretation, and I admit freely that this is not my area of expertise. So I’ll offer one illustration and then point to some work by other scholars that will provide a more comprehensive and detailed representation of the issues.

Early in my graduate studies, I sat in on a seminar session on Old Testament ethics. The professor was white, and if I remember correctly, all of the students were too. The topic of this particular session was slavery in the Old Testament.

In a pre-circulated paper, the professor had outlined his thoughts on the nature and ethics of the topic. To be fair, the limited Hebrew vocabulary for slaves and slavery (עבד [masculine], אמה and שפחה [feminine]) do refer to many different social arrangements and situations with what seem to be quite variable parameters. They apply to Israelites sold into debt bondage (e.g., Leviticus 25:44) and enslaved prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 10:16, 20:10–15), as well as high-ranking officials in the royal court (Exodus 10:7, 1 Samuel 22:14), and there is legitimate work to be done exploring the details and particulars of individual instances and the essential commonalities that bind them together.

The seminar paper, however, admitted to little of the diversity or ambiguity, and generally presented Israelite practices in the most sympathetic light possible. In fact, the professor suggested that the relevant Hebrew words should be translated “servant” in every case, and followed that practice throughout the paper. This was done in part to distance the practices of biblical servitude from modern race-based chattel slavery. While perhaps imperfect, biblical slavery was cast as a basically ethical arrangement, nothing like the fundamentally corrupt trans-Atlantic system.

One section of the paper was titled “The Advantages of Servanthood,” and it defended the pleasant ness and even desirability of Israelite servitude with a quote from a Chinese domestic servant in early 20th-century San Francisco:

I don’t know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love…. A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master’s kindness, but because of habit and indolence…. My master will defend me, protect me. You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less.

As the professor admitted, though, this quote came from a work of fiction. It was spoken by the character Lee in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. In effect, one white man was defending ancient servitude with words that another white man had placed in the mouth of a fictional non-white servant to defend modern servitude.

I should not have to point out that this is not legitimate evidence. There is no necessary connection between a real experience of subordination and the idea of it that exists in the master’s imagination.

Consider a rosy depiction from another era, in which servants are described as

hapy, contented…Lightly tasked, well clothed, well fed—far better than the free laborers of any country in the world,… their lives and persons protected by the law, all their sufferings alleviated by the kindest and most interested care..

Here we know that reality bore no resemblance to the pretty picture. The servants, in this case, were enslaved Black Americans, and the speaker was James Henry Hammond, who said this on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1836, as part of a two-hour speech defending race-based chattel slavery as a positive social good.

First-person narratives of race-based chattel slavery in the United States, of course, attest overwhelmingly to its brutality and inhumanity. The disconnect between reality and representations by Hammond and other  apologists could not be starker. Perhaps this should not be surprising, since most of them had a vested financial interest in its continuation, and thus in its moral justifiability.

Likewise, John Steinbeck grew up in a household with maids and servants, and so had experienced servitude largely from the master’s point of view. I do not know the professor’s history or situation, but in his treatment of the topic of Israelite slavery, he showed a naive and uncritical willingness to accept the master’s point of view that was undoubtedly conditioned by his position at the top of a racial hierarchy in a society where that position aligned him more often with masters than with servants.

Just as he accepted Steinbeck’s portrayal of servanthood as ethical a desirable, so he accepted and propagated an ethical and desirable framing of biblical servitude.

In this way, I don’t think he is unique. Sympathetic presentations of biblical slavery are common, even from those who would flatly condemn its counterpart in the last century. I don’t mean to condemn this particular professor as an especially bad actor, but rather to present this paper as a glaring example of a common interpretive orientation. All of us were born into this racial caste system, and our thinking and engagement with ideas and institutions have been shaped by aspects of our identity that we did not choose. As we grow and learn, however, we can gain a critical understanding of these received structures and work to change them.

It’s difficult to admit, but at the time of this seminar I wanted to believe this framing. I wanted to believe that biblical slavery was different in kind from all other kinds of slavery, because the Bible was different in kind from all other books. Unlearning this unconscious desire to gloss over the oppressive and unjust parts of the text required reading the work of scholars whose experience was informed by the other side of the arrangement—scholars whose family stories were of discrimination and oppression, whose ethics were formed in subjugated communities burning to live free. It took scholars who would not gloss over inconvenient facts in a rush to apologize for a broken and unjust system, even if it came from their sacred Scriptures.

Some slaves in biblical texts may have been treated well and prospered, but the laws regulating the practice also left ample room for abuse and degradation. Too often, the whiteness of academic biblical studies has obscured biblical slavery’s harsher realities and mischaracterized it as a gentle and humane social arrangement. This does a disservice to African American readers of the text, for whom the fundamental illegitimacy of forced labor is immediately apparent. This is one reason why it is necessary to broaden the engagement of historically underrepresented groups in academic biblical studies and to read and teach their insights alongside the work of white scholars.

Further Resources

This post covered just one small way in which white supremacy has influenced biblical interpretation. Its reach is not limited to issues of slavery, though. If you are interested in learning more, I would point you toward the following scholars, among other.

Dr. Wilda C. Gafney has made this short Scholar Strike video surveying the many faces of white supremacy in biblical interpretation. Go ahead and watch it right now:

She has also written two books, both of which are filled with interrogations of white supremacist readings and proposed alternatives. Go buy, Daughters of Miriam and Womanist Midrash.

In regard to specifically Christian uses of the Bible in support of racist policies and practices, I recommend Jemar Tisby’s must-read The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism and the accompanying video series on Amazon Prime (linked on the book page).

See also Dr. Nyasha Junior’s Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and BibleIntroduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation, and (with Jeremy Schipper) Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon.

Please feel free to drop more resources in the comments!

Scholar Strike 2: Race in Biblical Texts

This afternoon, I’ll turn to my academic specialization: the Hebrew Bible.

What is there to say about race in the Bible? I’ll make two points:

1. There is no race in the Bible.

2. Thus, there is no racism in the Bible.

Class dismissed. Thank you for your time.

Ok, of course I can’t let you go without saying more. So let’s dig in a little deeper. What does it mean that there is no race—and thus no racism—in the Bible?

Obviously, people in antiquity had different skin colors, and the writers of biblical texts knew this. So we get verses like jeremiah 13:23: “Can Ethiopians change their skin, or leopards their spots?” This rests upon the assumption that Ethiopian skin tone differed from Israelite skin tone and was marked as different, but note the woman speaking in Song of Songs 1:5, who says

שְׁחוֹרָה אֲנִי וְנָאוָה

“Black am I, and beautiful.”

Thus, dark skin was known and admired, even if it was not the norm. Several other Israelite characters are described as אדמיני, “ruddy” or “earthy” (e.g., Esau in Gen. 25:25 and David in 1 Sam. 16:12 and 17:42). Though it is quite a bit later,the Mishnah provides support for the idea that the skin tone considered normal in Israel was a reddish mid-brown. In the 2nd century CE, Rabbi Ishmael said “The children of Israel (may I be atonement for them!) are like boxwood, neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.” (Mishnah Negaim 2:1). 1Thus, statements that crop up from time to time saying Jesus was white are not true either in a literal or a racial sense. Credit to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg for the reference.

Mid-brown seems to be the default for the residnts of ancient Israel, then, and darker skin tones were known, but no mention is made of white or light skin in any biblical text.

But, as I wrote in my previous post, race is not color and color is not race. The existence and acknowledgment of different shades of skin does not necessarily imply any concept of race.

To clarify this point, it will help to expand on what “race” is as a concept and what it isn’t, and how concepts of race developed. I say concepts of race in the plural, because the definitions and theoretical underpinnings of race have changed over the years, even as its function in creating a stratified social order has remained relatively stable.

What ties concepts of race together is the idea that the global human population can be divided into a small number (usually 3–5) of subpopulations according to meaningful (i.e., biological) criteria. Different theories of race have rested on varied historical models—most involve early branching of the human family tree into distinct populations, but some have held that different races were the result of separate acts of divine creation (polygenesis).

These theories began to emerge in the context of European expansion and conquest in the 15th century, most directly as justifications for slave trafficking. In Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi locates the first attestation of a racial theory in Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s biography of Prince Henry of Portugal, published in 1453. The prince had sought to enter Portugal into the European slave trade in earnest at a time when the traditional source of slaves—Eastern Europe—was building up defenses against Westerners. Prince Henry had shifted his efforts to the west coast of Africa, sailing south to avoid paying the premium charged by North African Middlemen who trafficked slaves across the Sahara.

In his presentation, de Zurara referred to all Africans as belonging to a single people, from the light-skinned Tuareg to the dark-skinned Ethiopians and sub-Saharan populations. They were all members of an inferior race, whom Prince Henry, according to de Zurara, had undertaken to enslave in an altruistic act of evangelism.

The reality, of course, was not so benevolent. Prince Henry had grown fabulously wealthy trading slaves, and de Zurara had laundered his reputation with assertions of his Christian charity and the Africans’ natural savagery.

Thus, the racialization of Africans arose as justification for a strategy of domination and exploitation. This is perhaps the most important thing to realize about race—it has never been disinterested, but serves always to organize groups of people into hierarchies of domination and subordination. Race did not emerge from the studies and laboratories of careful, objective scholars, but was created to defend oppression and justified with science only afterward. Even as the biological arguments for its validity have changed and finally evaporated, therefore, it has continued to serve its function stratifying society.

Thus, the statements above that race and racism do not appear in biblical texts is interesting, but it does not quite reach the heart of the issue. Biblical texts provide evidence for many kinds of oppression and exploitation.In some cases they are condemned and resisted (e.g., slavery in Egypt in Ex. 1–3, economic predation throughout the Law and Prophets, and the unaccountable power of kings in Deuteronomy, Judges, and 1 Samuel); in others they are accepted or even celebrated (e.g., rape marriages to war widows in Deuteronomy, slavery in the laws of the Torah). In each case, acts of oppression were justified by existing or invented social, legal, or political structures supported by appeal to tradition or divine mandate.

Biblical texts contain many faces and types of oppression, racism just isn’t one of them. There are several lessons to learn from this. For one, race is not eternal. It was invented and it can be dismantled. But dismantling racism will not necessarily bring about the end of systemic oppression. Racism is just one manifestation of a pernicious and persistent human drive to dominate others, to gain from others even at their great expense.

In our contemporary context, combatting racism is an urgent and necessary part of building a world that allows for the freedom and flourishing of all. Yet we ought never forget that other vectors of oppression persist alongside systemic racism—discrimination according to class, disability, sex, gender, and sexual orientation. A fully-realized anti-oppressive ethic must approach all of these in their distinct forms and logics, never imagining that there is only one vector of oppression or that more cannot be contrived.

And regardless of how oppression is enacted and justified, it is also important to remember the biblical texts that confront and resist it in any form—the calls to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18), to break the bonds of oppression (Isaiah 58), to avoid theft, exploitation, and excess wealth (Amos 8:6, Proverbs 30:7–9)), to care for the needs of orphans, widows, and immigrants (Deuteronomy. 27:19, Jeremiah 22:3, Zechariah 7:10), and to speak up for the rights of the poor and destitute (Proverbs 31:1–9). These ideals contain the seeds of resistance against unjust systems in any form, in any time, place, or society.

Scholar Strike 1: I Don’t See Color

“I don’t see color.”

We’ve all heard this line in conversations about race. It is almost a standard response to accusations or insinuations of racism or racial prejudice. It is the mantra of so-called “Colorblind Ideology,” the belief that the best way to end racism is to stop considering race altogether.

The assumption, I guess, is that racism stems directly from the perception of skin color, and simply wouldn’t be possible without it.

I have a problem with this. You see, I don’t see color.

No, but like, literally. I really don’t see color, not real color anyway. Sometimes my visual field pulses with red and blue light, or turns entirely pink for no apparent reason, but those are artifacts of my optic nerve and brain. Colors from the outside world don’t make it inside. Not anymore.

I grew up with color perception, so as a child and young adult I could see skin tone as well as anyone else. But as my vision has deteriorated, I find myself less and less able to tell the color of a new person’s skin. My color perception is nonexistent, and even my ability to tell contrast is greatly diminished. 

Often, I find myself a bit adrift, thinking that some information about someone’s racial or ethnic identity would be useful. So despite being literally colorblind, I cannot deny the importance of race.

But maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m just used to thinking about race because I grew up sighted. Maybe I’m just missing the visual information that once came so easily. Wouldn’t people who had always been blind be free from concerns about race? Wouldn’t they “not see color” in the metaphorical as well as the literal sense?

Good question., Luckily someone did some research on that.

In his 2015 book Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race through the Eyes of the Blind, legal scholar Osagie Obasogie undertook to discover the link between the visual stimulus of skin color and the social and legal phenomena of racial classification, prejudice, and discrimination.

Obasogie was motivated by the basic question “how do blind people understand race?” (p. 1).

and he is reacting against the naive general assumption that “blind people simply cannot appreciate racial distinctions and therefore do not have any real racial consciousness” (p. 2).

This assumption rests upon a common sense view of race that he calls race ipso loquitor, or “race speaks for itself” (). That is, race is an obvious category that derives directly from salient visual markers such as skin color and physical features. If race is visually self-evident, how important can it be to the blind? In interviews with sighted participants, Obasogie found that most thought race would be irrelevant or unimportant to the way blind people live their lives.

Interviews with blind people showed something quite different.

Obasogie interviewed 106 participants from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds who had been totally blind from birth. Unlike me, they had never had vision and thus had never experienced race as a visually self-evident phenomenon. 

It was striking, therefore, that the blind participants defined race primarily in visual terms. Despite having no direct access to visual information on skin tone and other physical characteristics, most participants initially described race in terms of color, and then supplemented that definition with other factors such as ethnicity, ancestry, geography, and genetics. Some described their attempts to use other other information—accents and speech patterns, hair texture or body odor—as proxies for visual information when trying to ascertain peoples race, but noted also the high error rate in attempts to do so.

Regarding the significance of race, understandings varied more across lines of race than across lines of visual acuity. That is, blind white people and sighted white people had more similar views on race than blind people of different races or sighted people of different races. Most notably, blind white people across the board tended toward a view of “white racial transparency”—that is, they thought of race as something that other people had, not themselves. This view has been characterized as a view of white as the default—a baseline to which “ethnic” attributes are either added or subtracted. Non-white participants, on the other hand, tended to see race as an attribute possessed by and significant to everyone. 

Blind white participants were also the only ones to use discrimination against disabled people (ableism) as an analogy for racial discrimination, and to understand the struggle for civil rights by both racially minoritized and disabled communities as essentially the same. Non-white participants, on the other hand, tended to frame disability and race as two entirely different and separate experiences and identities. As a side, note, this has long been and continues to be a common point of strife in the disability activist community, which skews heavily white and has historically marginalized the voices and perspectives of disabled people of color.

So far, the findings show more similarity than difference between blind and sighted people of the same racial background. This alone calls into question the notion that race visually speaks for itself, since blind people tend to share the same racial identities and assumptions as the rest of their racial group.

This became explicitly apparent when participants were asked to describe how and when they became aware of the existence and significance of race, and how it factors into their everyday living and decision making. Participants told story after story of parents and authority figures who made sure to instill racialized knowledge in blind children and, to some extent, in blind adults as well. 

Sighted children can pick up on racial cues non-verbally, noting in course of regular events the correlation between racial identity and adult attitudes, body language, and types of speech. Blind children cannot correlate behavior with visual features in the same way, and thus did not generally come to awareness of race on their own. Instead, many adults felt compelled to make the implicit explicit—to ensure that blind children receive the racial information that they deem necessary to live within their place in society.

Blind participants recounted common experiences in their childhood, wherein they would meet and converse with someone without knowing their race. Afterward, and adult would inform them of the person’s race and perhaps give cues about whether the person was suitable to socialize with or not. Such experiences reinforced the idea that race was an important marker not only of identity, but also of status.

White parents also made sure to highlight the racial housing segregation that still exists in many cities and towns across the United States. They would inform their child when they would cross over the line dividing white and Black sections of town, emphasizing that Black people lived in separate areas, that the conditions in these areas were inferior, and that these inferior conditions resulted from the inherent shortcomings of their race.

Racial boundaries were drawn and enforced with special vigor when it came to romance, particularly for young blind white women. One participant related a story in which she brought home a picture of her third-grade boyfriend. Her parents looked at it and said “Crystal, he’s colored.” 

Confused, she confirmed that it had been taken with color film.

They then gave her a lecture on race and the unsuitability of Black boys as romantic partners. She describes the potent mixture of bewilderment and shame that she felt, driving her to destroy the photograph and cease speaking to the boy completely.

Quite a few participants reported that these childhood lessons stayed with them and still guided their behavior. Many were uncomfortable dating across racial lines, and made special efforts to ascertain the race of the people they dated before committing. 

Blind people’s experience with race is not a mere curiosity. It cuts to the heart of the illusion that underlies colorblind ideology. It shows that race, though understood visually by sighted and blind alike, is not an obvious or self-evident characteristic. It is not learned by observation, but by implicit and explicit instruction from a very young age.

The example of the blind throws the disconnect between colorblind ideology and social reality into stark relief. The racial distinctions, classifications, and hierarchies that sighted children learn implicitly from observation must be actively and intentionally taught to those who cannot perceive visual cues.

In some cases, parents went to extreme lengths to impress the importance of race on their blind children. Leaning into the apparent impunity with which they could lie about visual matters, they said things that would be amusingly bizarre if they were not so damaging. One mother told her daughter that mixed race relationships would lead to polka-dotted children. A small blind black girl was told she should not bathe with her white friend, because her black would rub off on her. 

As strange as these lies are, they are no more strange than the counterfactual definitions of race we use without question every day. No person has truly black skin, or truly white skin. Skin tones exist along spectra of colors and tones, which do not divide neatly into clear categories. Consider how often people are described as racially ambiguous, or the recent cases of Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, two white women who successfully pretended to be Black for years. If race were a self-evident function of skin color, these cases should not be possible.

Race is not color, and color is not race.

Race is a socially created and maintained classification scheme with no defensible biological basis. The social processes that construct and perpetuate racial categories are not straightforward or empirical, but they cast themselves as such. Thus, colorblind ideology manages to hide its social construction behind a veil of straightforward common sense. Race becomes obvious. It becomes what is seen, not what is made and reinforced over centuries of social relationships and representations. 

But this is an illusion. Behind the common sense of racial self-evidence, the social creation and perpetuation of racial divisions and hierarchies continue. Racism cannot be undone simply by not seeing it, or by pretending not to see it. The next time you hear someone say they do not see color, or the next time you are tempted to say it yourself, think of me. Think of those who cannot see color in the most literal sense, but still recognize that they are not exempt from the racialized system in which we live. Race is all of our responsibility, and the first step toward dismantling racial injustice is recognizing its foothold in our minds.

 ***

For further reading on the shortcomings of colorblind ideology, see here and here. Also read Part Two of Obasogie’s Blinded by Sight and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

 

For further reading on the experience of blind people of color, see this recent piece by Anil Lewis: Being Black Helped me be Blind and Being Blind Helped me Realize that #BlackLivesMatter.”

Announcement: Scholar Strike!

 

The logo for the Scholar Strike, which includes the text

Tomorrow and Wednesday (Sept. 8–9), I will be participating in a day of solidarity and action called Scholar Strike.

Scholar Strike was inspired by the swell of protest and uprising in cities across America, as well as by the ongoing actions of WNBA athletes and last week’s strikes by several teams in the NBA. It has been organized by Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon, and has attracted pledges to participate in some way from over 5,000 scholars and other academic professionals.

The purpose of this strike is to disrupt the regular flow of academic life and to use the specific skills and expertise of academic professionals to draw attention to forms of racial injustice and oppression in America and the urgent need for solutions.

The strike will be combined with an online teach-in. Scholars from a range of disciplines and specializations will create and share resources for education in the history, theory, and confrontation of racist ideas, practices, and structures in the United States.

The organizers have created a dedicated YouTube channel, which will air ten-minute videos produced by scholars back-to-back for both days.

Further resources, including written pieces, podcasts, and live events can be found by following the strike on social media: facebooktwitter, Instagram, and the hash tag #ScholarStrike on all platforms.

 My own contributions will appear here. I plan to publish several posts over the next two days that cover topics relating to racial discrimination from a number of different angles. 

Please follow the strike and check back here over the coming days to participate in this movement for learning and change!

2019: My Year in Books

A grid of covers from some of the books I read in 2019

In the rush to finish my dissertation, I was sad to miss writing my annual book review post (see 2017 and 2018), so I’m just going to do it now…in May.

This year I read 37 books. Nowhere near the high mark of 67 books from last year; I didn’t even get to my goal of 40 books. But that’s ok, because the trade-off was, you know, finishing my dissertation.

 So here, without further delay, is my reading list from 2019. As usual, some favorites are called out on top, and the rest are listed below in the order I read them.

Top Picks

Fiction

Octavia E. Butler. Yes, yes, I know Octavia Butler is not a book, but I discovered her last year and read three of her novels and one short story collection. If you haven’t read anything of hers, you should. From Kindred, the story of a woman who has to literally navigate the brutal injustices of her family tree as she jumps back and forth in time, to Earthseed a prescient series set in a near-future America troubled by climate change, unchecked corporatization, designer drugs, and theocratic power-grabs, Butler’s writing perceptively explores many of the disturbing undercurrents that plague American society and culture and brings them to life in gripping narrative.

Non-Fiction

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch

This book on education policy came out in 2012, so some of the information is a bit dated. Nevertheless, its core message is still alarmingly relevant. Movements toward school privatization have continued in force since the book was written, and are only intensifying during the Coronavirus pandemic. Reign of Error gives important background and useful, data-backed arguments against privatization and charter and voucher school programs. Once an advocate for charter schools herself, Ravitch became disillusioned by their consistent failure to deliver on their grandiose promises and now offers clear and convincing arguments for revitalization and reinvestment in public education.

I first heard Diane Ravitch speak on the Pitchfork Economics podcast, She and host Nick Hanauer discussed their former advocacy for school privatization and the process by which their views changed. It is rare to witness people who have, by evidence and experience, become disillusioned with positions for which they have advocated strongly and systems which benefit them personally. I was impressed by the intellectual honesty and personal integrity they showed as they adjusted their beliefs, acknowledged their error, and worked to make amends. 

Atlas of Moral Psychology, edited by Kurt Gray

This colossal edited volume presents a current state-of-the-field survey of moral psychology. Unlike the field of ethics, moral psychology does not attempt to ascertain what is actually right and wrong; instead, it attempts to identify the psychological and socio-cultural processes by which humans decide what is right or wrong, and how to act and react morally in specific circumstances. It is a new and messy field, but it already offers valuable insights into many foibles of human morality, from the ethical systems we create down to the inconsistency with which we embody them. I was especially happy to see that this volume made a strong effort to include investigations across class, gender, and culture, the lack of which has historically been a weakness of psychological research. 

The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby

Tisby presents an excellent historical survey of the shortcomings of the American church as it relates to issues of race. Even when white Christians were not explicitly championing racist views or defending the institutions of slavery and segregation, their advocacy for equal rights and protections under the law were muted and weak. Few and far between were those who gave full-throated support to the liberation of Black, Asian, and Hispanic people, here or abroad. This book focuses only on the Christian church’s role in the history of racism in America, and may work best as a supplement to Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning and/or Paul Ortiz’s An African American and LatinX History of the United States.

The Whole List

  • Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism by Malka Z. Simkovich.
  • Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orisha #1) by Tomi Adeyemi
  • Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  • The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
  • A Brief History of Everyone who Ever Lived: The Stories in our Genes by Adam Rutherford
  • The New Cambridge History of the Bible: Volume 1. From the Beginnings to 600 edited by James Carleton Paget
  • Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg
  • This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies edited by Hector Avalos
  • The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book by Timothy Beal
  • The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker
  • Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics and How I learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway by Frank Schaeffer
  • The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next, #1) by Jasper Fforde
  • Atlas of Moral Psychology edited by Kurt Gray
  • A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen
  • Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement by Rich Karlgaard
  • The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green
  • Beyond Orality: Biblical Poetry on Its Own Terms by Jacqueline Vayntrub
  • The Emily Series by L. M. Montgomery (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest)
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
  • Blood Child and Other Stories by Octavia E Butler
  • Parable of the Sower (Earthseed, #1) by Octavia E. Butler
  • Parable of the Talents (Earthseed, #2) by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Big Disruption by Jessica Powell
  • Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan Metzl
  • Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch
  • What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? by Ziony Zevit
  • Moses Among the Idols: Mediators of the Divine in the Ancient Near East by Amy L. Balogh
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
  • White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin D’Angelo
  • A Short History of Iraq by Thabit Abdullah
  • Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity by Candida R. Moss
  • Biblical Corpora: Representations of Disability in Hebrew Biblical Literature by Rebecca Raphael
  • The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom by Candida R. Moss
  • The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

Update: Finishing Up and Starting Anew

Partial page from a medieval Hebrew manuscript of the Psalms. The main text is interrupted by an enlarged and stylized

Well, it’s been a long time since I last posted. I guess some years you blog a lot and other years you have an infant, finish a dissertation, and graduate with a PhD in the middle of a global pandemic. Every year is different!

Here’s an update to bring everyone up to speed:

At this time last year, I was finalizing the first few chapters of my dissertation so I could send them to my committee for review.  I had been working on the underlying research for a couple of years already, but the strands didn’t come together into something coherent and submittable until last May. From there, it was less than a year before I sent a complete draft—397 pages of glorious, heavily footnoted nerdery—to my advisors. The date was March 8, and my defense was set for the 20th.

It had been planned out for months. We had conscripted my parents to fly out from Colorado. They would watch the girls, while Kristin and I went back to Boston for the defense, some celebration, and our first trip away without children in more than five years.

But alas, dear reader, it was not to be.

On March 10th my department sent a note that defenses were likely to be virtualized, and to await further guidance. It was still very early in COVID times, and it was the first hint we got that life would start to be affected in the United States. Kristin’s job had recently made work-from-home mandatory, and some of her coworkers in China had not left their apartments in weeks already, but it was still largely business as usual over here.

Needless to say, things did not get better over the next ten days, and so I found myself sitting at my computer before sunrise on the morning of the 20th, defending my dissertation to a committee with members spanning two continents and nine time zones. The circumstances were surreal, but the experience itself was supportive and encouraging. My dissertation passed with enthusiastic support, requiring only a good proofreading and some  formatting corrections before submission.

Now it is done. The final version has been deposited for posterity, my email signature has been appended with the three fateful letters P, h, and D, and…

And, well, I sure picked a doozie of a year to graduate.

As I’m sure several (hundred) emails inform you every day, these are uncertain times—unprecedented times, even! This is very much the case in higher education, as universities have closed down for the semester and are now weighing when, how, and in some cases whether to reopen. Many universities have announced full or partial hiring freezes for the upcoming academic year, and in all likelihood the job market will be especially slim for years. 

So a lot of things are up in the air these days. School is canceled for the kids and we are operating without child care. I’m taking on full-time lead parent duties, though Kristin is taking the lead on their crisis schooling since most of the materials are inaccessible. In the gaps, naps, and evenings I’ll keep on keeping on—writing articles, revising the dissertation, and perhaps even posting around here some more. 

I’m glad to have you along for the ride! Let me know how you’re doing in the comments!

Music and Blindness in Babylonia: New Piece on the Disability History Association Blog

This is just a quick notice that a piece I wrote was just published on All Of Us, the peer-reviewed blog of the Disability History Association.

Don’t worry, though, there will be new content here soon! I’ve been writing and planning a few posts for the coming weeks and months, and should be posting them here in the next few days. In the mean time, check out the article, The Songbird: Linking Music and Blindness in Ancient Babylonia.

Who was Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland? A Tale of Academic Sleuthing and Recovering the Name of a Braille Pioneer

For the past two days, I’ve been on the hunt for a name. I’ve been looking for it for months, actually, but this week I got serious. I’m writing an encyclopedia article on the history and development of Hebrew Braille and I want to make sure to credit the women who made important contributions, as well as the men.

So I have been frustrated that the woman who transcribed all twenty volumes of the first Braille Tanakh (=Hebrew Bible) is identified ever and only as “a Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland.” I wanted to credit her by her own name, but this is how she was referenced in every written source I could find. I read the preface to the Braille Tanakh, newspaper articles about its publication, even bulletins from her congregation at the Euclid Avenue Temple in Cleveland. But everywhere she was simply “Mrs. Harry A. Cole of Cleveland.” I even called the temple, and while they could confirm that she had been a member and was now deceased, they had no record of her first name.

This morning, I called the headquarters of JBI International (formerly the Jewish Braille Institute), the organization that had commissioned the development of the International Hebrew Braille Code and the publication of the first Braille Tanakh. I wasn’t sure how far I’d get. They might have nothing, or I might have to wait for Beth, the Director of Development, to search through piles of dusty correspondence in JBI’s archives, but I didn’t even get halfway through my question before she had an answer:

“I’m curious about the woman who transcribed the Braille Tanakh—“

“Oh, Belle Cole?”

And there it was. Belle Cole.

The name sprang so easily to her mind—how had I not found it?

Quite reasonably, as it turned out. Belle Cole’s given name was never used in print materials, but it appears in a hand-written note that sits on display at JBI headquarters. In 1950, Leopold Dubov, JBI founder and chair of the committee that designed the International Hebrew Braille Code, gifted a first edition of the Braille Tanakh to Mrs. Cole, with the following inscription on the flyleaf:

“Presented gratefully and inscribed to Belle Cole, the First Lady of Hebrew Braille Land, to whom, thousands of years after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, was given the priceless privilege of translating the full Hebrew text of our ancient Holy Bible into the miracle script known as Braille. Surely, a unique and heaven-blessed ‘mitzvah,’ an achievement of matchless worth and enduring significance.”

Several years ago, her family returned the Tanakh to JBI for preservation, and this page sits displayed under glass in their collection, in the same building where Beth works. She offered to walk over and take a picture for me:

A photo of the inscription by Leopold Dubov to Belle Cole. Photo by Beth Rudich of JBI

I have since found further verification in a congratulatory notice in a bulletin from the Euclid Avenue Temple. The main text of the notice still refers to her as Mrs. Harry A. Cole, but it quotes the text of Dubov’s inscription, in which her given first name appears. This bulletin hadn’t turned up in searches because the process of scanning had mangled the text. It had elided the s and Google had indexed it as “Mr Harry A. Cole.” Quite a step in the wrong direction, but when I searched by her first name, it turned right up.

It is important to remember all of those who worked to bring Braille to Hebrew speakers, and sacred texts to the blind, especially those whose names are in danger of being lost to history. My sleuthing was a testament to the power of high-tech tools and to the necessity of good old-fashioned low-tech methods. I am glad I found the name of Belle Cole, and I will be happy to recognize her in print, by her own name, for the first time since her “unique and heaven-blessed ‘mitzvah’” was completed.

My Year in Books: 2018!

Picture: A collage composed of the covers of many books i read in 2018

Continuing the tradition I began last year, I’ve decided to celebrate the increasing availability of books to the blind by sharing my full 2018 reading list, with some of the best and most meaningful given special comment.

In 2017 I read 59 books, and thought I might have to slow down. So of course in 2018 I read 67 books! Many of them were meaningful and formative, and I struggle to narrow down the list to recommend just a few. Below are some notable works in no particular order, followed by the rest of my reading list.

Top Picks

Fiction

The Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy by Cixin Lio (The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s En)

This imaginative, thinky trilogy is quintessential speculative fiction for super nerds. If you like your novels pumped chock full of wonky physics and written in a non-Western cultural idiom, these books are for you. 

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky)

I thought I had lost the taste for straight fantasy, but then I read this series by N. K. Jemisin. The world she builds here is spectacularly creative, and she delves deep into some very real and very rough parts of human nature. There’s a reason she’s just become the first author to win the Hugo award three years in a row (once for each of these books)—you won’t regret reading them. 

Non-Fiction: Race, Society, and Inequality

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

A detailed and masterfully-argued examination of the changing face of racial discrimination in America. Writing at the height of the Obama era, when many Americans were heralding the onset of a post-racial society, Alexander revealed their optimism to be largely unwarranted. Discrimination is still rampant, though it now adopts subtler and less explicit means than slavery or Jim Crow segregation. Alexander shows how the construction of an unnecessarily punitive and differentially-applied justice system has effectively created a new iteration of the same old racial caste system—exploiting Black Americans for free labor, diminishing their economic prospects, and reducing their access to voting and other rights and responsibilities of full citizenship. All of this goes on within a culture of nominal colorblindness, a thin veneer of propriety and unbiased objectivity that peels away under Alexander’s relentless scrutiny.

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

This book is dizzying in its scope and utterly surprising for many who learned a sanitized version of American history in school. Kendi defines three strains of thinking on race and traces them across four centuries through the life, work, and context of five paradigmatic American thinkers: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. Each of these individuals exhibits one or (more often) more than one of Kendi’s three strains of thought: segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. Kendi does an excellent job of showing how racist ideas were created and perpetuated to justify exploitative economic practices, as well as how the particular expressions of those ideas changed and adapted to new cultural, legal, and economic context. Racist thinking has changed, but never disappeared from American life.

I have a few residual questions about the nature and scope of Kendi’s assimilationist category, but they do not diminish the overall value of the book. This book would pair well with Paul Ortiz’s An African-American and LatinX History of the United States  or Karen Fields’ Racecraft, mentioned below.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas

The world of big-money philanthropy operates under the assumptions that market solutions provide the best hope to rectify societal ills and that it is possible to become extremely wealthy in a way that also benefits society as a whole. Long an insider to this world, Anand Giridheradas has become disillusioned with these beliefs and argues effectively against both in this incisive book. He questions the basic premise that one can “do well by doing good,” that every problem has a win-win solution that allows for both the reduction of inequality and the accumulation of fabulous personal wealth. Instead, he urges the creation of more democratic and more egalitarian institutions and social structures to combat growing inequaltiy and the worsening prospects faced by many Americans. 

Non-Fiction: Bible

Womanist Midrash by Wilda C. Gafney

Gafney combines rigorous scholarship and imaginative storytelling in this quest to rediscover important female characters of the Hebrew Bible. She provides fresh and well-argued interpretations of the text and explores the evocative importance of its gaps and holes. This welcome and challenging contribution honestly probes the concerns and perspectives of biblical women, addressing in the process a host of neglected questions that will benefit all readers and interpreters.

The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek

The Bible was not always the Bible. Before the diverse texts we now call biblical were gathered into one binding, each of them had a life of its own (and some more than one). They existed alongside and together with a vast library of other writings—some were lost to history and others survived in non-biblical contexts. How did people think about these texts before there was a Bible, before there were even books? Mroczek approaches that question with clarity and creativity, suggesting a number of productive metaphors that can guide our thinking about the Bible before there was a Bible.  

Nonfiction: Blind Lit

Crooked Paths Made Straight: A Blind Teacher’s Adventure Traveling Around the World by Isabelle D. Grant

Dr. Isabelle Grant was a Scottish-born Los Angeles schoolteacher who was forced out of her job after she went blind as an adult. So of course she embarked on a trip around the world with her cane and Braille typewriter. Alone. In the 1950s. She visited five continents and many countries to observe and assess the quality of education for blind children, encouraging teachers and authorities to invest in blind youth and improve their self-sufficiency and self-determination.. Her intelligence, good humor, and openness to new ideas and relationships make for a delightful and surprising read. Foreword by Debbie Kent Stein, who found this manuscript decades after it was written and saw it through to publication. 

Non-Fiction: Personal Growth & Effectiveness

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris

A master class in humility. Tavris digs deep into wrongness—why it’s inevitable, why we have trouble recognizing it, and why we avoid doing anything about it. The process is so universal and so relatable that you can’t help but begin to recognize unwarranted certainty and misplaced confidence in your own life and thinking. Everyone should take the lessons of this book to heart.

Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke

This book can help address some of those pernicious human problems described in the last entry. Duke applies her experience as an international poker champion and Ph.D. in psychology to the problem of making good decisions in an uncertain world. Excellent theoretical frameworks as well as practical tips. Let’s all work on thinking better!

French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered Ten Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon

A much more nuanced book than the title implies. I found it extremely helpful—not for definitive answers, but for opening up new avenues of thinking about food and food education within the family. French parents consider good eating a crucial skill to be acquired, and teach it as intentionally as reading, writing, or math. They do not consider children’s tastes to be immutable, but condition them by repeated exposure to and discussion of healthy and diverse foods. A great read for parents of young children trying to escape power struggles over food.

The Rest of the List

  • The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time)
  • You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman
  • How to Write Short: Wordcraft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  • How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation by N. J. Enfield
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • R. J. Rommel: An Assessment of His Many Contributions, edited by Nils Petter Gleditsch
  • Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey
  • An African-American and LatinX History of the United States by Paul Ortiz
  • Can We Talk About Race? and Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation by Beverly Daniel Tatum
  • The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong
  • Rethinking Expertise by Harry M. Collins
  • God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says by Michael D. Coogan
  • Reality is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli
  • Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein
  • Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein
  • Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy J Keller
  • The Formation of the Jewish Canon by Timothy H. Lim
  • Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind by Gary F. Marcus
  • What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics by Adam Becker
  • The Talmud: A Biography by Barry Scott Wimpfheimer
  • Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life by Tasha Eurich
  • People of Vision: A History of the American Council of the Blind by James Megivern
  • Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success by Shane Snow
  • The Anne Shirley Series by L. M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside)
  • 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson
  • Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love by Rob Schenck
  • What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
  • Manhood: How to be a Better Man or Just Live with One by Terry Crews
  • Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson
  • How the Bible Became Holy by Michael L. Satlow
  • The Akata Witch Series by Nnedi Okorafor (Akata Witch and Akata Warrior)
  • The Blind Doctor: The Jacob Bolotin Story by Rosalind Perman
  • Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse
  • Love and War: How Militarism Shapes Sexuality and Romance by Tom Digby
  • On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama
  • Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields
  • How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley
  • Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind by Osagie Obasogie

What is the best book you read in 2018? Leave a comment and help me build my 2019 reading list (as if it isn’t 20 books deep already)!