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Q&A With Wallace Best: Sacred Space, Bridging North and South
Wallace Best is Assistant Professor of African American Religious Studies at Harvard Divinity School. His book Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 was published earlier this year by Princeton University Press. Wendy McDowell spoke with Best about his motivations in writing it and his discoveries along the way.
Why did you decide to write about this particular topic and time period?
I was doing a PhD at Northwestern University and was, in a sense, discovering Chicago for the first time. All the sociological literature talked about Chicago being a great laboratory for the study of societies, and I discovered that to be true. I was studying the Great Migration with my professors at Northwestern, and it dawned on me that my family was a part of this wonderful mass movement from the rural South to the North. So when I began looking for a dissertation project, it occurred to me to explore the Great Migration from the angle of religion, because I'd started work at Wheaton College on the historicizing of the African American church. I began to look at some of the primary sources, and I discovered there wasn't a book-length discussion on the African American religious culture of Chicago. I thought, "That cannot be." But it was true enough. Yet, when I looked into the Illinois Writers' Project files there was plenty of discussion about religion. In fact, I was absolutely overwhelmed about a year into the project as to how much information there was. It was almost as if I was guided along by some good fortune, some forces unseen, and the generosity of people at the university and throughout the Chicago community who supported me so much.
Your book is a revision and an expansion of scholarship because you feel that past scholarly accounts of the Great Migration haven't focused on religion, and have relied too heavily on social theories as opposed to cultural history. How does your perspective differ?
I can put that quite simply. What I really wanted to do was to write a book that let the migrants speak about their own religious practices and sensibilities. I critique the Chicago School but I also celebrate them for the contributions they made to the study of African American religion. However, one of the things they did which prevented a clear vision of what was happening on the ground was to use their sociological theories to wrongly determine certain religious actions. For instance, they had a notion that one's class position determined one's religious affiliation. If you happened to be a woman of means, you would be more likely to attend the Episcopal or Congregational church. I found that to be absolutely not true. That same woman of means might attend a storefront church because she identified herself not merely as a middle-class person but as someone from the rural South, or someone whose religious sensibilities were more vivacious.
The researchers also pathologized black life in a certain way, and they wouldn't allow certain migrants to speak for themselves. Field workers would interview middle-class people (always identified by their jobs—stenographer, clerk, doctor, etc.) about "lower-class" people, but they wouldn't actually ask the "lower-class" people about themselves. I wanted to reverse that.
It surprised me to find that people didn't see themselves in terms of strict categories, but the religious culture at the time was so wide open that people would often go to a Congregational church in the daytime and to a Pentecostal church at night. How do you categorize that? There is one quote in the book where a mainline minister was being interviewed by one of the WPA workers and he said, "Well if you want to see my folks, my congregation on a Sunday night, you need to go over to Elder Lucy's church!" People went over to these storefront churches because that's where the lively worship was happening. That's why I like to talk about the pervasiveness of a Southern religious ethos, because the way that some of the migrants were "doing church" became the way to do church. Even mainline churches had to adapt their services. Those that didn't lost membership and prestige, which I show in my chapter on the AME church.
Finally, the sociologists typically thought of religion—especially the storefront churches—as premodern or anti-modern, whereas I tried to suggest that it was quite the opposite. As opposed to being retrograde, nonprogressive, and otherworldly, the churches of migrants were quite modern. Migrants actually saw themselves as existing in the modern world. The storefront church is a wonderful example of that. It was meant to reflect the rural past, but it was the very epitome of modern African American religion. They were located in commercial stretches along Federal and State Streets. This was a merging of the past and the present, the rural and the urban, and sacred space in the midst of commercial space.
You also challenge the notion that storefront churches are only focused on otherworldly concerns, by showing how they provided material needs for the community.
I like to quote Elder Lucy Smith, who said that during one period in 1932, "We fed as high as 90 folks per day." She was so savvy. She used the radio program she started, "The Glorious Church of the Air"—don't you love that title?—which broadcast from 11 to midnight on Wednesdays, and she would make appeals for charitable contributions. People responded generously with clothes and other items. On Thursdays, she would distribute these goods out of her church basement. I interviewed her granddaughter, who said: "My grandmother always made sure that people didn't bring no junk. Make sure the stuff is clean and good—if you won't wear it, then nobody else wants to wear it!" She also ran what was effectively a soup kitchen throughout the Depression. Hers was one of just two churches doing this kind of charitable outreach (Father Clarence Cobbs's was the other). I found no evidence that any of the mainline black churches were involved in this work, so you had these two churches on the margins of church orthodoxy doing the very essence of gospel work.
Elder Lucy Smith was aware that she was having a great impact on the community. This woman had incredible vision. She built two churches from the ground up and went on to establish her own Pentecostal Conference, with three other churches in Alabama, Nebraska, and Florida. Nothing held her back. She wasn't constrained by gender, race, or anything.
Tell how she handled challenges when they did come up in her ministry.
She said, "Some people care for a woman preacher, and some don't," and that was how she left it. Isn't that just a beautiful way to close off the debate?
I contrast her with Mary Evans, pastor of Cosmopolitan Community Church, who was very different in terms of her physical stature and temperament. The few sources on the two always remarked about them in contrast. Yet I also try to point out the ways these two women were operating very similarly, in that they were reading the culture and adapting their churches to meet the needs of the people in their congregations and surrounding communities.
I suggest that Mary Evans, in terms of her Thursday broadcast and of the music of her church, actually took cues from Elder Lucy Smith. Of course, a lot of people were taking cues from Elder Lucy because she was so successful. The church at one point had 5,000 members, all across the class spectrum. In fact, her granddaughter tells this wonderful story about the first time Elder Lucy Smith ever performed a healing. A limousine pulled up in front of the church one night and this white man got out. He had turned to Elder Lucy because he had exhausted the doctors. I wish I had said this in the book, but a lot of people came to her as a last resort. This man was so full of sickness that he emitted an odor and they had to open up the windows in the church, but Elder Lucy Smith prayed for him and, according to her report, she healed him. He got back in his limousine and drove away.
The fact that he was a rich white man was very important, because one of the reasons she called the church All Nations was because she didn't want it to be considered only a black church. Though it was overwhelmingly black and female, it was not uncommon to have people all across the class spectrum worshiping together in her church. Again, chipping away at that strict class typology, in fact you had the rich and the poor worshiping in the same sacred space. That was very typical of the culture in Chicago at the time.
You start your conclusion with the photograph from her funeral.
There are about 10 or 12 surviving photos of the funeral. I chose that photo because it showed the crowds. It was the largest funeral of any African American in black Chicago to that date. All told, about 100,000 people attended. There were 400 police officers on duty at the wake and the funeral. The cortege was about 75 cars long, with 11 buses and several other cars that just held the flowers. People lined up and down the street and her granddaughter tells this wonderful story about how people were screaming "Thank you, Mother Lucy," as the horse-drawn cortege of glass and wood was going down South Parkway.
Here was a woman who came up from rural Georgia in 1910 and built an empire in the 40 years she was in Chicago. When she died, she was acknowledged not only by people from her church, but by state and city government dignitaries, the elites, the upper class, and every African American minister from every kind of church. What that means to me is that this woman literally embodied the dynamic development of African American religion in Chicago during the first part of the twentieth century. I ended with her funeral, because I believe that when she died, it was the apex and the end of something.
The church building literally collapsed a few years after she died. Instead of rebuilding, the congregation just bulldozed it, and to this day that lot is vacant. The only thing you can see are the steps that led up to what was the entrance of the church. It's a sacred site and nothing has been built on it since 1954 when it collapsed. This is really remarkable since I think the memory of what was there has long passed.
Do you find there still are links to that time?
Yes and no. There are some tremendous churches in Chicago now that make up a new generation. Someone from Chicago could read my book and be unfamiliar with the earlier time period because, for them, black church in Chicago begins in the 1950s with the establishment of churches like Johnnie Coleman's and Clay Evans's and others who have been doing great work in Chicago since the 1950s. I end my book with a charge of remembrance to them to realize that they are built on the foundation that was set by the generation before them. And so I say there is continuity, but the degree to which people understand that there is continuity between what they're doing now and what came before them, I don't know.
In fact, one of the things I hope this book does is to generate some conversation among this second generation, particularly with regard to the things I have to say about social class and sexuality.
It is an interesting window to the past in terms of how southern migrants dealt with sexuality. The term "outing" didn't even exist then.
I talk a lot about sexuality in this book, and I do that deliberately because I think African Americans have been skittish about discussions of religion and sexuality. So I open up the discussion. Mary Evans might have been lesbian; Clarence Cobbs I outright call gay because I came across so much evidence to support this: it was clear from the literature and from the people I interviewed about him. What I found remarkable about that was the bargain he struck. He lived openly, yet silently. He did not espouse a gay identity; he would never have claimed to be gay. The code was silence. He abided by that code, but the payoff was he could live openly as a gay person in his church as its leader. Everybody knew. Actually, Timuel Black, whom I interviewed a couple of years ago, told me: "Yeah, everybody knew he was gay. He made no apologies for it. He just didn't stand up and say, 'I'm gay.'"
In that way, he was able to do tremendous work within the community. This is why I suggest that this current era among African American Christians is a new era in terms of discussions about sexuality and religion. In the 1930s and 40s, the atmosphere was much more open and much more tolerant. I think I did right by Cobbs by calling him gay in my book.
Silence about sexual identity has become a problem for black churches. I would argue that inasmuch as homophobia exists in black churches, there's a historical development to it that happens, ironically, with the advent of the civil rights movement and the greater visibility of black churches on the national scene in the 1950s. During this time, African Americans developed political projects that were incongruent with the kind of tolerance to homosexuality they exhibited previously. And I found all kinds of evidence of such tolerance. Mary Evans lived with the woman who was perhaps her partner for the much of her life. And so the issue of sexuality is so much a part of this story.
What I find interesting is the way the congregants themselves responded favorably to these ministers who stuck to the bargain. It was a hard bargain, I'm sure. I say in the conclusion that the cost Cobbs paid was to keep silent about somebody he perhaps truly loved. It's sad in that regard, but at the same time, what he was able to do was amazing. All the politicians knew him because he could bring in the votes, and they all spoke favorably of him because he was doing wonderful work.
You point out that his church was a stop in the gay nightlife!
I interviewed a man named Sukie de la Croix, who was the editor of an alternative magazine in Chicago called Outlines. Sukie told me that he interviewed a lot of aging gay men who said that they'd go to Cobbs's church from 11 to 12 and hear the night broadcast. After that, they'd continue on to the Kitty Kat Club or the 430. What I say in the book, which I'm sure I'm going to get in trouble for, is that some of those guys drew no distinction between the two spaces (church and club). They were both kinds of sacred spaces. Cobbs made sure that those guys were welcome at his church. It was a religious space that had similar goals of transcendence, ecstasy, praise, and worship in an accepting community, which was precisely what they were seeking at the gay clubs.
What remains so remarkable to me about this study is how everything in some ways was up for grabs prior to the 1950s. It was a culture in formation.
You give numbers indicating the massive change, and how the entire community was being reconstituted. What was this like for the migrants?
You had people coming up from places in the South not really knowing what to expect. They came up and were suddenly shopping in a "downtown." They worked in places that were unfamiliar. Someone who the previous month had been following a plow in rural Georgia was now up in Chicago working in a steel mill. This was amazing psychologically and emotionally disruptive. So people were coming up with new ideas about how to even live in the city.
In the churches, too, everything was in formation. There was a tremendous openness about religious culture, because there was no need to be judgmental about what people were doing. There was an understanding of the openness of the city itself, releasing people to do some incredibly innovative things, and I think that's one of my favorite things about the storefront churches. They were amazingly innovative. Sometimes they represented whole new church expressions. People simply made it up!
No one embodies the disruption of the Great Migration better than the Arthur family, who are pictured in your book. Can you tell the story of that family?
We've all seen that photograph of those eight people looking forlornly into the camera. That picture actually was taken at the train station when they arrived in Chicago. It has been used so many times in documentaries, in books, in exhibits, but it has never been identified. My book is the first book I know to identify who that family was. Even when the photograph was first published in the report on the commission of race relations in 1920, the authors failed to identify them. When I was doing research in The Chicago Defender, I came across this photograph and this family's story, and I thought, "Wait a second, this is incredible." This family had been, quite literally, through hell. Once you know what they'd been through, you understand how they could look so forlornly into the camera.
The Arthur family lived on the farm of J. Hodges in Paris, Texas, and one day there was a dispute about money between the two eldest sons, Irving and Henry (ages 28 and 19), and Mr. Hodges and his son, William. In the dispute, the Hodges went back to their home to get weapons in order to threaten the Arthur family, who presumably owed them money. Well, when Hodges and his son got to the Arthurs' house, the two sons shot the men dead. They then fled to Valiant, Oklahoma, to escape capture and certain death, but the town sent out a posse to get them. The posse found them in Valiant and brought them back to Texas, where they were to "try" them. The night before the trial, men from the town broke into the jail and retrieved the prisoners and took them to the town square and lynched them.
You have to imagine that in July 1920 there was complicity on the part of the municipal forces. The sheriff and the deputies, they're in on this. These guys were dragged out and paraded past their home so their family could see them being taken to the center of town to be burned. The three oldest daughters screamed when they saw this, at which point some men went into the house and took them. They were taken to the jail, where over three days they were raped repeatedly by more than 20 men. And so the two sons were taken to the town square, lynched, and their bodies were burned and left there.
In the meantime, the parents—Scott and Violet—had escaped to the woods with the remainder of the family. After three days, the girls were let go, and they somehow reconnected with their family in the woods. It was actually through the efforts of the African American community in the town that the family escaped. They alerted Chicago and the NAACP, asking for help to get the family to safety. The community shepherded the family to Chicago, where they tried to put their lives back together. The Arthur family ended up in a small apartment on the South Side, where they lived the remainder of their lives.
It is a horrible, horrible story. My point in the book was to suggest that if we actually knew the story of that photograph, it would be even more meaningful as an icon of the Great Migration. I'm hoping that no one will able to look at that photograph in quite the same way again.
It is interesting that such a forlorn image is the icon for the Great Migration, and you point to Richard Wright and other writers who look at the Great Migration in terms of loss. Yet your book is about how the Great Migration is as much about construction as it is about loss.
Both things go on at the same time. The Arthurs came to Chicago under the most horrendous of circumstances, but at the same time the migration was their salvation. Who knows what would have happened to them had they remained in Paris, Texas? Theirs still was a journey of faith and of community, and it included that classic event of being met at the station, so much a part of the Great Migration. W. W. Lucas met them and helped them get settled into their new life. I can just imagine that family in a train station in Chicago, when just a few weeks back they had their own home and were living in a place where they were born and raised. Now they're in unfamiliar surroundings, living on Federal Street in the 1920s, which was teeming with people and beginning to experience its first signs of physical dilapidation. You do have these forces of agency, triumph, and chaos at the same time. It's all a part of the dynamism of the era.
In your introduction, you also set up how much accounts of the Great Migration involve biblical themes of exodus and salvation.
Milton Sernett's 1991 book Bound for the Promised Land initiated discussion of the migration being a salvific event, and I pick up on that theme in my book. I open up the book saying that the history of African Americans is in large part a religious history. The Great Migration was, in a sense, the second exodus. I found in my research that a lot of people, and not just Christians, saw this as a journey of faith, and they made direct connections between their faith and the Great Migration. The migrants' accounts are rife with themes of deliverance and exodus and salvation, with tribulation and triumph. The fact that it was a leaderless movement added to the providential ethos. There was no Moses. It was a movement of the people. People did not wait for the sanction of their ministers, and in fact, some people left without the sanction of their ministers. In some cases, ministers would actually follow their congregations north.
That leads well into asking you about the section on music, because you show how songs from the era are full of religious themes. What was unique about gospel music and why did you include a discussion of it in this book?
My favorite part about writing this book was writing about the music and preaching, because I saw in this development of gospel music real evidence that this was indeed modern culture being formed in an interesting way.
This musical form, gospel music, rose out of the chaos and the opportunity of the city itself, and reflected secular culture as well as sacred culture. It was a reflection of working-class people—the Pentecostals, for God's sake! It was their kind of music. It was also a reflection of blues culture because some of the first gospel artists came out of the blues, Tomas Dorsey being the best example of that. So what I saw in this music was this merging of the sacred and the secular, the rural and the urban, the past and the present, all embodied in the music itself. The music was evidence of the way modernity itself was about continuity and discontinuity, about the merging of things.
Thematically, there were all of these transformations in gospel music. The music was so intensely personal in contrast to the Negro spirituals and classical music, which was the music of the church prior to gospel music. The personal pronoun "I" becomes prominent in gospel music. The relationship with God becomes intensely personal, not communal, necessarily. God's gonna deliver us becomes God's gonna deliver me.
Can you give some examples?
"Jesus is my only friend," "Jesus is my light"—these kinds of lyrics that talked in the most intense, personal way about your own commitment and relationship to Jesus. It's "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," not take "our" hand or "their" hand. And so, that song, written in 1932 under very tragic circumstances, is the very epitome of the modern gospel song, and includes this familial way of addressing God. It's not "take my hand, mighty lord," or "take my hand, high lord," or "ultimate lord." It's "take my hand, precious lord." Gospel music, in a sense, personalizes faith. What happens is that the chaos of living in the city forces a re-evaluation of personal faith, and so people are thrown onto their own walk with God, which shapes the way that they sing about their faith: "Jesus is my friend"; "I'm going to heaven with my Lord, he's coming back for me one day."
Another thing that happens in gospel music is that it becomes much more vernacular. You have people singing songs about God helping them pay their rent and to get through the most mundane of circumstances. You have references to modern life. I talk about the Mother McCollum song, "Jesus is My Aeroplane." The aeroplane, of course, is the ultimate transport to heaven, but what she and Sister Calley Fancy did so brilliantly was to talk about the stuff of modern life: airplanes, trains, automobiles. They even talk about current events like world war. They are keen observers and readers of modern life. So gospel music becomes, in much the way blues is doing at this same time, a way of talking about everyday life and experience; it is reading and articulating the culture on the local, national, and international levels. That aspect of African American sacred music hasn't been celebrated as it has with blues and jazz. That was one of my favorite discoveries in researching the book. I had some fun with that, I have to say.
The other part of chapter four has to do with the change in preaching styles brought about by the Great Migration. Can you explain this shift?
The migrants didn't force the churches to respond, but churches were compelled, if they wanted to remain relevant, to change. This had a tremendous effect on how everything was done in the church, including social outreach, but also preaching and worship. A lot of ministers figured out right away that they would have to change the way they preached and what they preached about.
Prior to the migration, people tended to group themselves religiously according to class positions. That's where the sociologists I talk about were correct to suggest that the impulse was to worship "among your own kind." In middle-class churches, the preachers (most of whom were trained in theology and had graduate degrees) preached from manuscripts in an orderly and decorous manner. There was classical music, because church was a means to show your class respectability.
However, the migration complicated and disrupted all of that. People from different classes started mixing together in worship, and ministers had to embrace what Cayton and Drake, who wrote Black Metropolis, called "mixed-type preaching." Because the migrants coming into their churches were used to a much more vibrant and vivacious preaching style, a folk preaching style, ministers had to adapt the way they preached to appeal to everyone.
So preachers would start off with their manuscript, reading in a very measured and dignified fashion, to appeal to the educated class. They would quote from the local press, classical literature, examples from the Old Testament and so forth. But then they would start to build, and would reach a point where they would go from the text to the extemporaneous and they would abandon their manuscript completely. They would go into the "preacher's breath"—a heightened pitch in their tone, and they would also change what they were talking about. The examples they would use would come from the rural South. Sometimes, they would cleverly make fun of their own position. In the book, I quote a minister who preaches, "Look, I can't be educated all the time. I can't be dignified all the time. I've got to pull back from all of that, and I've got to let myself go."
The migrants loved this. This was "bringing it home," and was the time when the church came alive, and people were responding with "Yes, Lord!" and "Amen!" The preacher would bring the sermon to a point of tension or crisis, and finally he or she would bring it back down at the end and conclude.
Not everybody in Chicago churches could do this. Some ministers would bring in other ministers to do what they called "the emotional part." But most preachers at the time knew their audiences well, and used imagery that increasing numbers of their congregation would be familiar with, chickens and cows. Of course, some of these ministers were themselves familiar with Southern life.
I would argue that a version of mixed-type preaching has, in a sense, always existed. And that sermon structure is still very much followed in many churches today, particularly in Baptist and Evangelical churches.
Were there tensions caused by the Great Migration?
There was definitely a division between the Northerners and the Southerners. I would argue that it was an imagined division, or a deliberate appropriation of identity, because even some of the Northerners weren't so far removed from that experience themselves. But there did become a real battle between those who were more keen on embracing their Southern identity and those who, often, wanted to reject it. These two identities were seen in contrast and distinction, and there were tensions in the institutions, not just churches but also civic groups.
Yet the two identities were dependent on each other, because Northern identity meant nothing without the Southern identity, and the Southern identity increasingly bolstered itself in distinction from those things that people considered to be Northern, like the way people dressed. The Chicago Defender actually published rules of behavior, which deliberately said: "This is how you act in the city. If you want to be dignified, if you want to be citified, this is how you act. You don't wear your 'boodwa' caps in the streets. Don't yell out of your windows. Don't talk loud on public transport. Don't wear your work clothes in the streets."
But for the most part, churches were willing to accommodate the Southern migrants.
What were some things that the more successful churches did to adapt to the migrants?
Olivet Baptist started a pari-church organization called the Bethlehem Baptist Association, which was designed specifically to assist new migrants in their new lives. They helped them secure housing and jobs, and they gave them instruction on how to live in the city and helped them to develop social networks among themselves, such as migrant clubs. Lacey Kirk Williams, who was the minister there during the time, essentially said, "Look, we were so effective in our outreach work that we didn't have to do special programs to appeal to people to come to church. They knew that if we were feeding and clothing them, hey, this is where they would join."
That's one example, but most churches, in some systematic way, tried to help migrants, and for a lot of them, the payoff was increased membership. Some churches were started before they had any congregation, because they were so sure that there were so many people moving into Chicago that no church was going to sit empty for very long. And lo and behold, within a couple of years, a church would go from maybe 20 or 30 members to 300 members.
Your section on the explosion of the numbers in some churches is staggering. Give the numbers just for Olivet.
Olivet had always been a huge church by any measure. Evidence suggests that even in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, it had maybe 1,000 members. That's a lot, given that the African American population was around 14,000 then. But by the 1920s, estimates ran from 11,000 to 14,000 members.
There's no way to substantiate it, but I've seen everywhere in the literature that somebody reported Olivet was the largest Protestant church of any race in the world. It was certainly one of the largest churches of any race in America at the time.
Now we live in a time of the mega-churches, with 20,000 members in a church, but in the 1920s, to have a church of that size was quite astounding.
Of course, just like Quinn Chapel (the AME Church), Olivet is now down to a couple of hundred steadfast members. And Pilgrim, on a given Sunday, has more tourists, who know that it's the birthplace of gospel music, than they have regular congregants.
It's sad, but on the other hand, it exemplifies that history keeps rolling, and churches have to continue to respond to whatever the new set of challenges and communities are. Some of the more vibrant churches in Chicago now are actually not in the city proper, but are in the suburbs.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on several things at once. Because I did not nearly exhaust what I can say about Elder Lucy Smith, I'm working on a book exclusively about her, which will include primary sources and interpretive essays. I'm also working on an anthology called Sacred Cities, for which I've collected several articles of the latest, most innovative work on African American religion in cities. So far, I have Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Meanwhile, I'm putting together a book of essays from the conference on Black Pentecostalism that Marla Frederick and I organized this past spring, which we hope to get out in about 18 months time.
The major work that I'm engaged in is a book that I'm calling Langston's Salvation: Race and Religion and the Harlem Renaissance, where I'm actually looking at the development of religious culture in New York, the way I did for Chicago, but I'm locating this study specifically in the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance has not been mined for its rich, rich religious and theological content, so the focus will be at the intersection of religion and literature, focusing on the Harlem Renaissance.
One of the most enduring images for me from your book was the woman with the diamond shoes, which actually came from your own personal experience in your home church. There was something about it that captures African American experience, past and present. Can you end with that story?
I was 15 or 16 years old when that happened. I don't name the woman in the book, but her name is Zebia Neale, and she's an Evangelist. I was sitting in church one day, and there was a lot of holy dancing in my church, and Zebia Neale was dancing up in front of the church in her Evangelist robes, and she had on these shoes which had what looked to me like diamonds in them. It was a glorious vision of this woman who was in a trance, dancing, with those shoes. They were catching the light and refracting the light, and it was so stunning. I was so sure that this must be a prosperous woman, and that the church was a prosperous church, because everyone seemed so happy.
After the service, my cousin was supposed to take me home and she told me, "We have to take Evangelist Neale home first." And so we all piled in the car and we drove down to a place off of Independence Avenue in northeast D.C. We pulled up in front of her house, and I'll never forget it, because the house looked like it was leaning to one side. The awning was caved in. The steps were decaying. And she got out happily and said goodbye to everybody and walked up the steps into this house that was quite literally falling down.
And when I saw the house, it dawned on me that I had gotten it all wrong. It was not about wealth. She was not rich at all. In fact, she was quite poor. But that was even more reason to shout and to wear these shoes. The people in that church were not tied together by networks of wealth and prestige. What tied them together was that they had all come from the South. They were a transplanted community.
You use the term diaspora . . .
Yes, they were diasporic people, and that was the most significant thing about them. She's still there, the woman in the diamond shoes is still there. Some people have moved on from that church, some have died, but still the core identity is there.
And that experience has been duplicated time and time again when I find out that people who wear these really nice suits and ties and hats and fine shoes—and who have an air of stature—work for the Salvation Army as a clerk, or they are bus drivers or security guards or whatever—they are working-class folks. But when they come to the church, they are somebody, and they dress like it.
So what this book tries to do is say, "Look, allow people's lives to speak for them, because if you predetermine according to your own perception of how someone looks or seems, you're probably going to get it wrong, just as I did."