Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans:
Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Eldridge Cleaver, and Muhammad Ali
by Randal Maurice Jelks
Black History Month celebrations often follow a familiar pattern of lifting up the bravery and determination of key individuals in Black history. Their religious affiliation is generally not mentioned unless the person is a religious figure or has known connections to religious communities. For instance, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is acknowledged as a Baptist minister in most discussions of his life and work. Likewise, Aretha Franklin was known as a singer and songwriter with deep roots in the Black Baptist church. In other cases, the religious practices and beliefs of Black artists, musicians, and other notables are not part of their public persona. In his new book, Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans, Randal Maurice Jelks argues that the individual narrative of faith is a neglected element in Black biography. He explains, “My argument in these pages is that individual Black American stories in particular provide luminous and revealing inner histories, and they are just as important to explore as the histories of human rights protests and political activism.” Rather than discussing the collective experiences of Black Americans, he concentrates on teasing out the religious and spiritual elements that are frequently overlooked in the lives of four prominent Black individuals.
In conversation with a wide range of literary and artistic sources, Jelks discusses the importance of faith for singer Ethel Waters, musician Mary Lou Williams, boxer Muhammad Ali, and activist Eldridge Cleaver. Jelks aims to reveal more of the “inner history” of these four figures and to illustrate the diversity of Black religious life. Although he is a historian, Jelks acknowledges that he is not a dispassionate observer. He connects his own life and faith journey with those of his subjects. In the book, he shares details about his New Orleans roots and Chicago upbringing as well as his rearing as Missouri-Synod Lutheran, his evangelical Christian awakening, and his love affair with jazz. Jelks selected these four seemingly disparate figures because of how they grappled with and wrote about their Black Protestant “religious inheritances.”
As a singer, dancer, and actress, Ethel Waters was a triple threat. She appeared in Broadway performances, and received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination in 1950 for her role in the film Pinky. Her 1933 rendition of the song “Stormy Weather,” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003. Drawing on interviews, performances, and Waters’ memoirs, Jelks constructs a narrative of Waters’ faith. She was baptized in the Catholic Church but attended Protestant services with her mother. Her spiritual awakening came at a children’s revival meeting. In her first memoir His Eye Is on the Sparrow, Waters writes, “And then it happened! The peace of heart and of mind, the peace I had been seeking all my life.” Later in life, Waters finds God as a consistent guiding presence in her life. She first appeared at one of Billy Graham’s crusades in 1957 at Madison Square Garden, and in the early 1970s, she became a featured singer with the crusades, facing criticism from some younger Black artists and activists who were embarrassed by her embrace of the White evangelical minister. Jelks admits that he too had a negative view of Waters in his youth. He writes, “In my eyes she was Aunt Jemima” who “might as well have been singing minstrel ‘coon songs.’” Later, he learned of Waters’ consciousness about race and class and her lived experience of faith. He acknowledges, “However shrewd and staged it was for Waters to hitch her wagon to Graham, it too was an act of faith. In the end, she genuinely believed in a God that welcomed everyone and kept watch over all, even the sparrow.”
Jelks’ next subject—pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams—was a child prodigy. She is not as well-known as many of her male contemporaries such as Duke Ellington or John Coltrane. Yet, she was immortalized in the famous 1958 Esquire photograph, “A Great Day in Harlem,” which was taken by Art Kane and featured 57 of New York’s jazz greats. Moving beyond Williams’s musical legacy, Jelks discusses her conversion from Black Protestantism to Catholicism in 1957 and focuses on the influence of faith in her life, as well as her secular and sacred musical output. Her choral composition “Elijah and the Juniper Tree” was based on the biblical narrative where the prophet Elijah encounters the divine while he sleeps under a tree. Also, she was moved by the canonization of St. Martin de Porres, who became the patron saint of interracial harmony. It led her to compose a mass entitled Mary Lou Williams Presents: Black Christ of the Andes. In order to portray Williams as more than a musician, Jelks engages the religious themes of Williams’s compositions alongside her own religious journey.
American icon Muhammad Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam is a familiar element of his biography, but Jelks seeks to provide greater context for Ali’s initial conversion from the Black Baptist church of his parents to membership in the Nation of Islam. He also follows Ali’s continued practice of Islam after the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975. Jelks tracks Ali’s faith story with changes in public perception of Ali over time. Initially, Ali was regarded as a threat to national security for his opposition to U.S. intervention to Vietnam and for his resistance to the draft. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” he famously said in 1966. Yet, by 1996, Ali had become a beloved Parkinson’s survivor and Olympic torch bearer. Jelks regards Ali as having a “common ecumenism” that was appealing to many of his fans, along with his “charisma, physical prowess, and moral courage to live out his faith.” Jelks focuses on Ali as an internationally known Black Muslim whose life and career illustrate how much the both the personal and the religious are used politically.
The final biography explored in Jelks’ book is of Eldridge Cleaver, one of the leaders of Oakland-based Black Panther Party and the author of the 1968 book Soul on Ice, a collection of essays he wrote while incarcerated in Folsom State Prison. Jelks tracks Cleaver’s changing political views—from the radical left to conservative Republican—with his varied religious affiliations, which included atheism, the Nation of Islam, the Catholic Church, evangelical Christianity, and finally the Latter-Day Saints, whom he joined in 1983. Cleaver went into exile in 1968 after a shoot-out between the Oakland police and members of the Black Panther Party. After returning from exile abroad, Cleaver made what seemed to be an abrupt shift to conservative political views, but Jelks understands this move as consistent with Cleaver’s belief in individual liberty and freedom. Jelks portrays Cleaver as a seeker. He contends that at Cleaver’s death in 1998, “he was a man still in search of a faith that would aid him in building an ideal Black community.” In contrast to other writers who regard Cleaver’s religious and political choices as inauthentic or fraudulent, Jelks explains these shifts as part of Cleaver’s continual reinvention of himself.
Faith and Struggle provides a helpful reframing of these biographies as faith stories. Jelks adds insights from other historians and other scholars to round out these religious portraits. Those who are familiar with these figures will probably gain greater awareness of the importance of religion in their lives, and those who are less familiar may be inspired to learn more about them. Furthermore, I anticipate that it will serve to spark conversations about how scholars engage race and religion. It would be helpful to consider this work alongside other scholarship that interrogates religion in contemporary life, such as Monica Miller’s Religion and Hip-Hop or the edited volume Religion in the Age of Obama from Juan M. Floyd-Thomas and Anthony B. Pinn. Also, instructors may use Faith and Struggle to generate classroom discussions regarding contemporary Black artists such as Kendrick Lamar or Chance the Rapper who engage religious elements within their work.
This book illustrates some of the difficulties in speaking to matters of faith. In crafting these narratives, Jelks sometimes has to rely on hunches and speculations and makes connections not made by the individuals themselves. For example, he surmises that Williams may have been thinking of Waters when she decided to write her memoir. Jelks acknowledges Charles Marsh’s 1997 book, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, as a model for this book. Yet, Marsh’s work focuses on the “Freedom Summer” of 1964. That date serves as an anchor around which Marsh engages the narratives of five individuals. Jelks lacks a similar focal point and his personal connections to these figures do not provide enough of the continuity needed to make the volume gel. Furthermore, Jelks does not delve much into the inconsistencies and contradictions of religious adherents. For example, he offers a sympathetic view of Ali’s extra-marital affairs: He seems to excuse Ali’s actions as due to teachings that “opened a door for a confused young man to blow it in relationships with the women he married.” Jelks does not discuss the use of religion in supporting patriarchy and particular views and practices of masculinity.
Still, Jelks’s personal connections led me to consider my own introduction to Black public figures and how much religion is weaponized in public discourse, particularly within political life. For instance, during his 2006 congressional campaign, Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, was forced to denounce the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan because of allegations that Ellison had been a member of the Nation. Barack Obama had to address false rumors that he was secretly practicing Islam. He distanced himself from his Chicago congregation, Trinity United Church of Christ, after excerpts and clips of some of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons criticizing the United States began circulating. Also, current Congressional Rep. Ilhan Omar is a Black woman who wears a hijab, thus visibly marking her Muslim identity; she has faced much more public scrutiny than many other newly elected members to Congress. In addition to the racial struggles they face, the religious practices and beliefs of Black Americans in the public eye are examined more closely than those of other politicians or celebrities. Whether for contemporary figures or past individuals, Jelks provides an important contribution to better understanding the entanglement of religious and racial history.