Reading for Reconciliation

Today’s guest post is written by Bobby Valentine. Bobby is a minister currently serving God in Arizona. He is also a scholar who has co-authored several books in the field of church history and practice. Bobby writes a popular Bible study blog that I encourage you to check out:

Unlike previous reading lists posted on this blog Bobby’s list isn’t directly related to church ministry. However, I believe this list serves as a great example of how dialogue and inquest lead to transformation.


I grew up in north Alabama. My family’s roots come thru Florida and New York though.  My family was and is open to many things on a “personal” level regarding race.  But I did not know anything. I still do not but I am learning.  It was during my ministry in New Orleans that I came face to face with the matter of race as something beyond my imagination to comprehend.  This was a rather difficult discovery and one that I resented to be honest. But some folks actually helped open my eyes in a gentle but firm way.  This was 1995ish when I was challenged by a fellow by the name of Robert Birt to read Before the Mayflower … it was the beginning of a long journey.  Talking about race, I have learned, is an explosive issue for many.  It is a subject filled with defensiveness at the mere mention of it. But there is in fact a “history” and that history … like the history of our family of origin … has profound and not so subtle influence on every aspect of our lives in America.

As a Christian, I am certain that we have an obligation to move beyond our own personal experience and be God’s leaven in our world.  This redemptive MISSIONAL task is not easy.  The church has an obligation to deal with this and preachers and elders have one as well.  With that in mind I share the following list of books and movies that have helped me move out of my comfort zone.  Preachers often avoid the subject like the plague.  It is so much easier and safer to preach about something as profoundly relevant as instrumental music (!) … Yes I am being sarcastic but I cannot help myself.

Remember I am a White Italian Boy from Alabama. I make no pretense to being a scholar in this area.  These are just resources that have helped me in my own ministry as I try to live the Gospel of Reconciliation.  There is nothing on this list I have not read.  I began keeping this list in 1996 and have updated it on my pc thru the years.  I share it with you my friends and lovers of God’s shalom and grace …


Lerone Bennett Jr, Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America (in many editions).  Bennett’s book is a classic and it was the beginning point for me.  It was the first book I read as noted above.  It immediately let me know there is way more to American history than I ever figured.  Bennett eloquently chronicles and interprets the African American experience in the USA. His book can help us get a grasp on the proud moments and the valleys of blacks in America.  This is a great book to begin your own journey of thinking and learning.

Edward J. Blume & Paul Harvey, The Color Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.  What color was Jesus? It has mattered to many people through the years.  And how we have conceived him has impacted Christian practice and social ethics. We travel from slave huts to Hollywood in this excellent and compelling book.  Jesus has been hijacked for many an agenda in the racial sage of America.

Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65; At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68.   These three volumes by Branch are the most extensive material on the struggles that wracked America in that long decade or so from Rosa Parks to the death of Martin Luther King Jr.  How American changed in those years!  My own question was after reading these breathtaking volumes was … Lord have mercy on your church and so how can we move forward.  These are great books.  They are not small but they are easy to read.  Branch is a great writer. Branch won Pulitzers for his work.

James Cone, Black Theology & Black Power.  This was my introduction to Cone. Cone makes me squirm.  He is in your face and he rubbed me raw I confess.  I cannot tell you how many times I threw that book down.  He made me mad and I think he wanted to! However I am glad I read it and I am better for it.  He helped me understand something of anger and that I should be angry about how some things have been and remain.  Do we use the Gospel and religion as a cloak to hide our complicity in racism?

James Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: Dream or Nightmare. Cone’s style in this work is considerably different than in BT&BP. He is not dispassionate (not sure he is capable of that) but not as fiery.  But was America in the experience of these premier black leaders? How far apart are their visions of what we are and what we are to be.  This is a good book.

Tony Evans, Getting to Know One Another.  It is always good to see an Evangelical write about the subject of racial reconciliation.  Evans has great respect for the Bible and he walks a fine line of not trying to radically offend white folks he is writing too.  This is a good books to give to the highly sensitive but he will actually convict us if we let him.  The Bible is not silent on this matter.

Michael Casey, Saddlebags, City Streets & CyberSpace: A History of Preaching in Churches of Christ.  This book is not on race relations per se.  But Casey includes an insightful chapter on African American preaching among “us” as represented by Marshall Keeble especially.  How did Keeble address the issue and did he at all?  Casey suggests that Keeble used “coded” language that said something to Whites and another thing to Blacks.  It reminds me of the movie “White Men Can’t Jump” when Wesley Snipes says to Woody Harrelson’s character “YOU CAN’T HEAR JIMI!!”  Its true … sometimes we do not have ears to hear.  Good material on G. P. Bowser and R. N. Hogan too.

Tom Dent, Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement.  This is probably one of the better introductions to this turbulent period for a White Italian Alabama boy.  It was a good read.  It is filled with human interest stories.  Reading this book originally in 1998 I recall saying to myself, “ive been there! and I didn’t know that!”  This along with Bennett is a good “entre” into the waters.

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  I have long championed the agenda of recognizing FD as one of the Founding Fathers of America.  This book is small, heroic and disturbing.  Some folks have idealized visions of slavery and nothing is worse than perpetuating these images than Gone with the Wind (a book I have come to despise).  The defining moment in FD’s life was when he was 19 or 20 he refused to submit to a beating and he fought back.  It was his declaration of independence. His fiery passion for liberty and justice fill his narrative. This book should be required reading in high school.

Eric Foner, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation & Reconstruction.  Foner is one of the foremost scholars on the Reconstruction period.  This lively work draws from newspapers, sermons, corporate advertisements, art, even the circus! It scattered among it brief “Visual Essays” because seeing a pictures are worth a thousand words and these are worth millions.  The story that we share is the tragedy of willfully selling out for the sake of filthy lucre a race of people that brought Reconstruction to an end.  And there are PLENTY of MYTHS about reconstruction that need to be burst.  Great book.

David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Garrow won a Pulitzer for this magnificent work.  It is marked by great prose, depth of understanding, and showing the continuing relevance of King and his legacy.

Fred D. Gray, Bus Ride to Justice: Autobiography of Fred Gray.  I first read Gray’s book in the late 1990s and a revised edition has since come out.  Gray is the quite “giant slayer” of the Civil Rights Movement.  Born and raised in Jim Crow Montgomery, he pursued a silent promise to “destroy all things segregated!” He defended Rosa Parks, orchestrated the Bus Protest of 1956, was MLK Jr’s attorney, he desegregated Alabama’s schools, the 1965 Selma march, the landmark Gomillion v. Lightfoot Supreme Court case and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study attorney.  Gray is a testimony of a man’s CHRISTIAN commitment to the Gospel of reconciliation and how one poor man defeated the system.  He is deeply committed to Christian education and a preacher of the Gospel.  He was one of Marshall Keeble’s “boys” … and preacher for the Tuskegee Church of Christ.

Martin Luther King, Jr, Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. King is as powerful to read as he is to listen to. His passion for both peace and justice is contagious.  The importance of reading King is self evident in my opinion.  Nothing else needs to be said.

Malcolm X (with Alex Haley), The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  Reading Malcolm reminded me – yet again – how different some people’s experiences have been from mine.  What I got out of Malcolm is not only a sense of the deep seated nearly subliminal anger that exists in many quarters of the USA.  Malcolm helps me understand “why this is so.”  The second thing I get from Malcolm is how dangerous racism, and the inevitable injustice that comes with it, is to Christian faith and its witness.  Racism leads folks to declare Christianity a white man’s religion and this is why Malcolm embraces Islam.  Must read book.

Deirdre Mullane, editor, Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing. This is an outstanding resource that I came across in the late 1990s.  It contains selections from slaves and freedman.  It has speeches by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DuBois.  It contains government documents that will shock you. It has poetry and prose.  Truly a wide ranging and good resource.

Thomas Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.  It is one of the biggest mistakes of the American mind – both white and black – to imagine Christianity as a EUROPEAN religion.  This is not the case.  Oden argues with deft command of the primary sources that in the first 1000 years of Christian history that the religion of Jesus was African and not European.  Many of the first commentaries and schools were established and written in Africa not Europe.  The rise of monasticism that played such a huge role in Christianity rose in Africa not Europe.  Some of the first decisions regarding the canon of Scripture were made in Africa not Europe.  This is a vastly important work for both white Christians and black Christians.  Get it and devour it.  Oden btw is one of the worlds leading Patristic scholars.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  I recall hearing the derogatory term “Uncle Tom” thrown around growing up.  I had no understanding of what it meant though.  I have read UTC at least three times since 1995 and each time it has been a different book.  I was stunned first of all how compelling the work actually is. I learned the book is about far more than Uncle Tom and I learned that Uncle Tom is radically different than the stereotype I had encountered.  Tom is actually a powerful character in the book and far from a weakling. But there are slaves that would choose death willingly over slavery in the book.  There is discussion of biblical interpretation in the book.  It is no small wonder the book was burned on the campus of the University of Virgina when it was published and that it was banned in all the states that would become part of the Confederacy.  This is the book that saved the dying abolitionist movement and it was the most widely read book in America (after the Bible) in the 19th century.  It has a much going for it being the quintessential American novel as Tom Sawyer.  You should read it.

Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth.  Truth does for women what Frederick Douglass did for the men.  Douglass was legendary for his eloquence but Truth has nearly prophetic gifts for speech.  She speaks not simply about racial justice but gender too.  Am I not a woman she asked once!? I was impoverished as a White Italian Alabama Boy before having her in my life.

Richard Wright, Native Son.  Wright is a great novelist but I just did not like his book.  The first time I read Native Son I actually hated it. It was so depressing.  It had communists in it.  I did not understand it.  I had no way of actually understanding what was going on in the book. The book released way back in 1940 reflects the inner hell of a black man of the time.  Something of this appear again in the Autobiography of Malcolm X. But as I have grown and matured and have gone thru some pretty interesting life experiences Native Son has a different feel to it.  Wright forces his readers to deal with the demons living inside at least one victim of Jim Crow.

Richard Wright, The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.  This small book was actually published earlier than Native Son but I did not read it until 2000.  I was interested in Wright because I was living in Mississippi and the work is set in MS.  It is an introduction to a world that I, as a white boy, was totally clueless to.  Reading this helps me see that there really have been two Americas … if not more.  Read this book if you dare.

Maryanne Vollars, The Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evars, the Trials of Byron De La Beckwith and the Haunting of the New South.  I read this book in 1996.  It won the National Book Award and was turned into a movie that I invited several folks at the church i was preaching at to go see.  It is set in the same area I lived.  It is a riveting account of the struggles for liberty and justice and righteousness in Mississippi. The White Citizens Council, the Sovereignty Commission, the “reign of terror” in the lives of people. This is a compelling book and a window into our common story.

Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery.  This is a classic from the man from Tuskegee.  His struggle for freedom, dignity, the struggle for education.  It is good to read BTW and W.E.B. DuBois because it shows us that “black people” are no more monolithic than “white people.”  We have these stereo types that just because a person is “black” that they think so and so when there has been as much diversity of thought among “them” as there has been among “us.”   That is confirmation that we are all just … PEOPLE!!


There are numerous films/movies that have helped me move from an intellectual engagement with this issue to an emotional one.  Movies are powerful media that can be used to effect change within us if we are open to them.  I am not commenting on these movies as a movie critic, historian or any thing else.  I am commenting on them as a White Italian Alabama boy and the effect they had upon me.  Not all had the same impact upon me.  But each has opened my eyes and my heart to something of our shared story here in America.  I will simply list the title and who made it or starred in it.  I have never forgotten any of these films … some folks are so fixed on their like or dislike of certain actor they can not open their minds to the film … dont be like that …

  • Mississippi Burning (Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman)
  • The Ghosts of Mississippi (Alec Baldwin & Whoopi Goldberg)
  • White Man’s Burden (John Travolta & Harry Bellafonte) movie engages in brilliant “role reversal” to powerful effect
  • A Time to Kill (Samuel L. Jackson)
  • Roots (adaptation of Alex Haley’s epic)
  • Rosewood (true story of the massacre of a black community in Florida)
  • Amistad (a Stephen Spielberg film)
  • Buffalo Soldiers (Danny Glover)
  • Tuskegee Airmen (story of Benjamin O. Davis Jr)
  • The Color Purple (Oprah Winfrey)
  • When We Were Colored
  • Planet of the Apes (a brilliant parable about race relationship in America without people even knowing it (see )
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (classic based on Harper Lee’s novel)
  • Spike Lee routinely deals with the black experience in America.  Films such as “Four Little Girls” and “Malcolm X.”
  • The Butler (Forest Whitaker)

This list does not even attempt to be comprehensive of either books or films.  Rather these are materials that since the mid 1990s have had an impact on me.  They have made me more sensitive to things than before.  They have changed my preaching and hopefully my living.  Part of learning to love is learning about your neighbor.   I am not nearly as defensive as I used to be on this matter … now I just pray and pray for God’s new creation to be a reality in his church.


Do you have some suggested reading that you’ve found helpful as you navigate different cultures that you can add to this list?


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