Another Point Where Wilson and I Almost Entirely Agree: On Doing History and Multiculturalism
In my last post regarding the historical outlook of Black and Tan, I included a post-script which I’d hoped would encourage us all to step back from “our” narratives to more fully consider the perspectives of others. I was contending that we live in a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-everything world. I think that’s irrefutable.
Today, Wilson responded with another very charitable engagement with my critique of Black and Tan‘s view of history and a push-back regarding my post-script.
Not responding to every response has helped Wilson and I keep the conversation moving and prevented us from being bogged down into very fine details. Those details are relevant but probably don’t fit a blog format very well. That’s why we have books with footnotes and the like. So, I don’t intend this to get us down into the thicket of historical detail or twist us in the brier of “he said-she said.” But I do want to attempt a quick reply to Wilson’s latest post with the hope of mutual understanding and charitable iron-sharpening.
Like Wilson, I have found every post in this back-and-forth to meet the requirements of Ephesians 4:29 and the Bible’s call for charity between brothers who disagree. I’m grateful–deeply grateful–for Wilson’s spirit in all of this because we’ve all seen our share of internet exchanges that fail to meet the tests of Scripture. So, Doug, “thank you” again for being willing to engage and for staking out your positions with a concern for truth and grace. I would have left comments like this on your blog several times by now but for some reason I can’t get the comment feature to work even though I’m registered. Oh well, on to my reply.
Critique 1: Black and Tan is not history.
Wilson concedes this point, but adds in his defense: “First, Thabiti is quite right that B&T is not, and was not intended to be, a work of history proper. I agree that my book is more a statement of an historical outlook than it is a foundation for that historical outlook. This approach has its limitations, but they need not be crippling limitations.” He then goes on to mention Genovese’s helpful comments on the manuscript and commendation of Wilson’s grasp of the intersection between American slavery and Christian theology.
Actually, I do think the book’s weaknesses here are “crippling.” The book doesn’t merely assert that “slavery was not that bad,” it goes on to argue that relationships between slaves and their owners were really quite good and to assert the outstanding Christian character of the South. Those assertions, it seems to me, are critical for the book’s analogy to abortion and our contemporary responses to abortion to hold. For if American chattel slavery fails to display the more benign character Wilson holds, the entire thing becomes a house of cards. Consequently, for such a dramatically revised view of the history to “stick” most thoughtful readers will require documentation well beyond the brief citations of a couple secondary works. Moreover, Genovese’s commendation doesn’t bolster the book’s argument, nor should we take it as a golden seal of approval. The Decline of African-American Theology boasts an endorsement from Dr. Dwight N. Hopkins, widely regarded as a leader in Black Liberation Theology and heir-apparent to James Cone. He says, “Thabiti Anyabwile builds on rich religious scholarship for the black church in the U.S.A.” I’m grateful for his endorsement and taking the time to read the book. But, judging from the differences between Dr. Hopkins’ emphasis and my own, that comment can hardly be interpreted as an unqualified endorsement of the book. Likewise, we don’t want to make too much of Genovese’s endorsement of Black and Tan, especially if said endorsement is being offered as a substitute for historical groundwork.
Critique 2: Black and Tan attempts a revision of history.
Here, I argued that Wilson needed to provide a lot of historical evidence if he was going to overturn the well-established narrative about American chattel slavery’s dehumanizing nature. To which Wilson replied, “Thabiti points to the “massive claim” that slavery was more benign than the literature of the abolitionists indicated. But I believe that this point really was established by Fogel and Engerman, and I cited them as having made it.”
I’d simply say that citing one source is nowhere near sufficient for substantiating the historical outlook Wilson maintains in Black and Tan. I suspect that if a student of Wilson’s attempted to counter the Southern conservative intellectual tradition’s narrative regarding, say, state’s rights, Wilson would require more than a reference to a Lincoln biographer writing 150 years later. Citing one source–a source very much debated–simply doesn’t hold muster when it comes to making a case on the magnitude that Black and Tan assumes.
Critique #3: Black and Tan needed to interact with a wider range of sources and opinions.
On this critique Wilson writes, “I think this is an entirely reasonable point. I have no objection to doing something like that….” He sees himself as doing that now, by which I take him to refer to these exchanges. He believes having done this “would have made Black and Tan a better book.” I agree, and I’m glad we agree. I hope that some future work from Wilson might attempt to remedy this omission and that he might especially use source material left by slaves themselves. Throughout Black and Tan I kept wondering, “But why doesn’t he include some statements from Black people themselves regarding what slavery was like?” Some good general introductions would be Mellon’s Bullwhip Days and Johnson’s, God Struck Me Dead. Both include first-hand narratives from the perspective of slaves in the twilight of the institution, and the conversion testimonies in God Struck Me Dead have useful glimpses into the slave’s perspective on that intersection of slavery and Christian theology. Including material of this sort would not only make Black and Tan a better book, it would make Black and Tan a different book.
Critique #4: Post-Mill assumptions make Black and Tan’s judgment of Southern history too optimistic
That was my contention, which I did not develop. I had in mind comments like: “The discipleship of the nations is a process. This means that the South was (along with all other nations) in transition from a state of pagan autonomy to one of full submission to the Lordship of Christ. Christian influence in the South was considerable and extensive, but the laws of the South still fell short of the biblical pattern. In spite of this, the Christian influence on antebellum Southern culture surpassed most other nations in the world of that time” (pp. 51-52).
Wilson writes in his post today that “postmill thinking doesn’t require us to believe that the past was altogether rosy. There are many historical hellholes that I believe were genuine hellholes, and this is not in tension with my postmillennialism at all.” I agree that post-mill thinking doesn’t require a unilaterally rosy view of the past. But I think Wilson’s view of the South falls far closer to “rosy” than “hellhole.” I suspect that assuming the possibility of something called a “Christian nation” and “the discipleship of nations” and a national “full submission to the Lordship of Christ” has a lot to do with post-mill understandings. If so, I think it’s corrupting Wilson’s view of the South precisely by making him too optimistic about its character and past. Without a fuller articulation of the historical evidence and/or how his post-mill views play into all this, I’m at least left guessing that’s the way his millennial views are at work.
The Post-Script on Multicultural Realities and Perspectives
Finally, in his critique of my post-script, Wilson wrote in part:
I would want us to be careful to distinguish multicultural realities, which are characteristic of our triune God’s creativity, and multiculturalism, which is a false and very postmodern way of refusing to privilege any historical narrative whatever. But such a refusal, in order to be workable at all, would have to include the scriptural narrative of creation, fall, flood, exile, return, not to mention the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Postmodernists don’t like any metanarrative – and the Bible is the biggest hegemon of them all. But then, after postmodernism has rejected all hegemonic stories, it keels over and points all four hooves toward the sky, and quietly decomposes into the future of every form of relativism.
I am as much concerned about the next hegemon as I am about the last one, and my concerns about the last one are largely wrapped up in wanting to learn the appropriate lessons so that we might not get ourselves a tyrant for the next one. In order to do this we have to assert that while we don’t have automatic access to a God’s-eye-view of history, there nevertheless is a God, and therefore there is a God’s-eye-view of history. He has given us a good portion of an inspired history in Scripture so that we might learn how to imitate it, and we should do our best to do exactly that. As we do our best, we know that we are fallible and so we should always be open to correction. We should do history with a confident humility, and a humble confidence.
Okay, now it’s time for me to say, “I’m not that kind of multiculturalist” in the same way that Wilson might say, “I’m not that kind of ‘Confederate’ or ‘neo-Confederate’.” That is to say, in conversations like this we always face the danger of not defining terms or pausing to know what the other guys means when they say ‘x’.
I completely agree with Wilson that there is a comprehensive, infallible, exhaustive meta-narrative. It is God’s metanarrative. Our Lord knows all, sees all, ordains all, and governs all. He comprehends the ends from the beginning, and I shout with the sacred writer, “Let God be true and every man a liar!” I want to ratify, endorse, sign off on, and cheer the call to “do history with a confident humility, and a humble confidence.” That’s well-stated, in typical Wilson fashion.
However, I think ethnic minorities and White evangelicals use “multicultural” and “multiculturalism” in two entirely different ways. When almost every ethnic minority I’ve ever had the conversation with uses the term “multicultural” or “multiculturalism,” they’re simply talking about the inclusion of their persons and their perspectives in the broader story of America or whatever story is in view at the time. It’s a way of saying, “We’re here, too.” I can’t think of a single conversation where a person from an ethnic background used “multiculturalism” as a joust against meta-narrative. We use it to push back on hegemony and the assumed normative nature of White western ideals and values, but not against the very nature of truth or of God’s controlling narrative. So we bristle and, quite honestly, assume the worst when we hear our white brethren rail against “multiculturalism.” It sounds to us like an adamant argument against our inclusion in the discourse and the history–an exclusion which we have historically felt the brunt of.
But I’ve learned that most of my White evangelical brothers are usually referring to something else entirely when they talk about the “ism” of “multiculturalism.” They’re stiffening their backs to defend the idea of absolute truth against the kind of “postmodern relativity” Wilson mentions. They’re aware of the postmodern theorists who really do deny any overarching story one could call in any absolute sense “true.” They deny Francis Schaeffer’s notion of “true truth” and embrace the skepticism of Derrida, Foucault and others. I happily join my white brothers in the fight against such claims!
But postmodernism–whether an academic or man on the street variety–is not at all what I mean when I use the term “multicultural” or “multiculturalism.” When my White friends think “postmodernism” while I’m thinking “include me,” we’re having two different conversations drawing upon two different experience from our respective “worlds,” and we’re missing each other completely. One walks away thinking, That’s a white supremacist racist way of viewing me, history, etc. The other walks away thinking, I’m tired of these attempts to deny the truth and to overthrow what’s good about my history, culture, and people. In the vast majority of cases, both walk away with false conclusions because they haven’t understood the other’s use of the term or the underlying concerns.
And this use of “multiculturalism” in our back and forth, it seems to me, illustrates and proves the point of my post-script. Unless we make room to really listen to one another and hear what the other is saying and meaning we doom ourselves to disastrous results. Wilson writes near the end of his post, “while I believe that it is valuable to hear different multicultural perspectives of different groups, especially on a subject as convoluted as this one, we must do so in a way that clearly resists every form of relativism.” Amen. And, we must also do so in a way that clearly questions the centrality of our own experience.
This exchange regarding “multiculturalism” proves another point as well: Listening is hard, slow work. Even when we’ve worked as hard as Wilson has to hear me, or as hard as I’ve worked to hear Wilson, it’s still entirely possible to misfire at various points. Then we have to go back and listen all over again–perhaps suspecting ourselves and our assumptions a bit more. It’s hard, slow work, but I think it’s worth it.