On History and Justice: An Interview with Dr. Jemar Tisby

On History and Justice: An Interview with Dr. Jemar Tisby September 5, 2022

Hello all! It’s a great privilege to be in the lineup here at the Anxious Bench. As I said in my Introductory post, I’ve got many weaknesses as a scholar but am rich in brilliant friends. I got to talk with one of them here. Hope you enjoy listening in!

AQ: Jemar, my friend, it is such an honor to get to converse with you. Thank you for taking the time. I know you have had a long history in both ministry and education before entering into academic and political life. Could you share a bit of your personal story? I’ve heard you say that you “came to history because you had a burden for justice,” how, in the post-Trayvon moment in American life, it was historians who had something to say. Now, as a historian, how do you think about your work advocating for justice, especially in Christian contexts?

JT: Right after college, I joined Teach For America and they placed me in the Mississippi Delta on the Arkansas side. While it began as a two-year appointment, I ended up serving as sixth grade science and social studies teacher for four years and then as a middle school principal for another three years. I still live in the same community where I taught, in a town that has a poverty rate of 40 percent—the national average is 11 percent. All of the issues associated with material poverty took on a human element in the faces of my students. Houselessness, over-incarceration, lack of health care, poor nutrition, under-funded education and more. Remember, this is the Delta. Cotton country. Many of these ills were connected to the history of race-based labor exploitation in the form of sharecropping and, before that, chattel slavery. I had to ask, “What does my faith say about justice?”

 That question led me to seminary, a conservative Reformed institution in Jackson, Mississippi, but I was still left searching for wisdom about how Jesus and justice interacted. Then a white police officer killed Mike Brown in August 2014, and I tried to understand the latest racial upheaval. In my search for answers, I found that historians often had the most helpful things to say. They revealed the history of red-lining and restrictive covenants. They talked about the origins of the police force and the crisis of incarceration in the U.S. Eventually, I enrolled in the University of Mississippi as a doctoral student in the history department. I believe a deeper understanding of the past is essential to promoting justice in the present. We can learn from those who came before us—their missteps and their progress—to inform our practices today.

AQ: Your first book, the Color of Compromise, was an general survey of Christianity and race written for a trade press (Zondervan). Writing a work of such scope and breadth is a service to the public and, for many academics I’d imagine, quite daunting. What was the impetus for this project, especially as a first book? 

JT: The Color of Compromise grew out of a presentation I gave in 2017. I was in the second year of my PhD studies and reading dozens of books on U.S. history. In almost every case, white Christians were on the wrong side of justice when it came to racism. I believed that it was necessary to understand how Christians constructed and compromised with racism in order to work for racial justice in the present. I first presented some of this material in a talk, then I turned it into a book.

AQ: In writing The Color of Compromise were there particular historical moments that stood out to you?

JT: In 1667, the Virginia Assembly, a group of white Anglican men, passed a law saying that baptism would not emancipate an enslaved Native American, African, or person of mixed-race descent. This stood out to me because it linked race, religion, and politics—a triumvirate that even to this day cannot be sundered. It also occurred more than a century before the Declaration of Independence was written (1776) or the Constitution went into effect (1789). This means that the Christian underpinnings of racism and white supremacy predated the political entity known as the United States. There was no time in this nation’s history when Christian complicity with racism was not present.

AQ: An important re-framing for many of us.

So, the last time I saw you was in Waco for the Conference on Faith and History. And you issued a stirring invitation for those gathered to consider: “what does this historical moment require of historians?” And yet, at that same meeting others offered different approaches to the discipline. In the keynote address, John Fea cautioned historians not to be subject to presentism and end up “nowhere at all.” (Note: this address and this interview occurred well before the recent dust-up over AHA President James H. Sweet’s recent column.) Certainly this debate includes questions of perspective and position, what we might call privilege (something Fea acknowledged). Some historians might pretend to have more dispassionate distance given race/class/employment status etc. (The most egregious example Fea gave was Unger’s critique of the New Left for abandoning “pure” history, the “natural” dialogue, and the profession being taken over by “outside” influences–all *very” familiar, racialized language in my estimation that postures as neutral but abandons those not traditionally included in that space. What you called “binary and white-centered, I believe). 

But I wonder, too, about another type of perspective. John quoted Gene Genovese arguing that the fight must be had “in the seminar rooms” and “little journals” and not in the streets (or on Twitter). While this could be read as a convenient ensconcement to protect tenure track positions and academic journals, Fea and Genovese suggested that only when historical craft is done well in and for itself can it be of any use when the moment comes. For instance, academic concepts like whiteness studies and intersectionality went mostly unnoticed in journals for decades but have recently broken into the public consciousness and lexicon. At these moments it is sometimes historians who write op-eds or testify before Congress or do some other public facing work, but sometimes it is journalists or activists (as in the case with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ deep reading of Reconstruction historians like Eric Foner and Kate Masur). Additionally, with the politicization of academia/education and the corporatization of universities, there is some danger of history departments/the discipline being eradicated by hostile political forces should it appear activist, as we’ve seen with the fabricated hysteria around CRT. There is certainly a tension here. What do you think about these two approaches? Are they incompatible? How do you think about questions of privilege and perspective?

JT: Historians have different personal goals and ambitions for their craft. Some seek tenure and professional success in the form of awards, recognition, and the respect of their peers. These are understandable and even laudable aims. My aim as a scholar is different. I seek to employ the tools of the discipline of history to “seek justice” and “love mercy.” I may take a religious approach, but Black studies, in general, has tended not to take a dispassionate approach to their subject matter. For people from historically oppressed groups, putting their scholarship in service to liberation is a key tenant of their practice. We have a long history of such scholars including W.E.B. DuBois, Howard Thurman, Benjamin E. Mays, Anna Julia Cooper, and today scholars such as Keisha Blain. I think the quality of our work should not be whether we engage contemporary issues of justice but whether we have a cogent argument that is well-supported by historical evidence as evaluated by our peers in the guild. I think innovative and sound scholarship can be true both to the standards of the historical discipline and help shape a better world for ourselves and our neighbors.

AQ: Yes, I agree. Perhaps this discussion requires us to order our identities a bit: historian, Christian, citizen, Black man/woman, teacher, etc. How do you negotiate that space? In your lecture, I was touched by your admonition for Christian historians to have courage, to expect persecution and hold onto Jesus. Do I understand that correctly as an admonition to prioritize our faith over and above all other identities? And, in so doing, advocate for freedom and justice?

JT: Many branches of the Black Christian tradition do not segment or segregate our varied identities. The goal is not to create a hierarchy of identities so that one takes precedence over another. The aim is to integrate all of our identities into a holistic outlook and approach to life. My blackness does not compete with my Christianity. They inform one another. Thus I cannot separate my being a historian from being Black from being Christian. It is because I am all of those things that I do history with a mind toward justice.

AQ: Yes, that seems healthy! In closing, what would you tell Anxious Bench readers today about the relationship between historical inquiry, religious history, and Christian faithfulness?

JT: It could be that we are living in the civil rights movement of our day. We are not merely studying history; we are living it. What do you want your legacy to be—as a historian, a Christian, a resident of this nation? Being good historians and good neighbors are not at odds. I have less concern about whether you use your professional skills to publicly promote justice (even as I hope to), but whether you are involved in promoting justice at all. Each person must decide for themselves, but a choice must be made. Justice takes sides.

AQ: Indeed. Grateful for your wisdom and courage on this. In closing, tell us: What are you working on now? For the many who want to follow along, where can we find you?

JT: I’m working on my fourth book. It’s about resilience in the face of injustice. It’s another historical survey like The Color of Compromise, but instead of focusing on white Christians who were complicit with racism, I examine Black Christians who, in the name of their faith, confronted racism. It’s due out Spring 2024. In the meantime, you can keep up with my latest thoughts at my newsletter, JemarTisby.Substack.com. Follow me on social media: @JemarTisby.

Jemar, you remain as compelling as ever. Thank you!



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