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Dr. Randal Jelks could have played it safe when selecting the four subjects for his new book partially titled “Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans.”
Randal Maurice Jelks is an award-winning professor of American and African American studies at the University of Kansas. He graduated from Michigan State University where he received his Ph.D. in comparative black histories. He is a graduate from the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and was a pastor in Grand Rapids for nine years.
Having gone through American public schools, Jelks wanted to share stories of black excellence beyond the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fredrick Douglass.
Jelks explained in an interview why he chose to highlight the contributions of boxer Muhammad Ali, activist Eldridge Cleaver, and musicians Ethel Waters and Mary Lou Williams.
Heavy weight boxing champion Muhammad Ali came under scrutiny when he publicly announced his allegiance with the Nation of Islam. At the height of the Vietnam War, Ali did the unthinkable and refused induction into the military in 1966. Ali immediately had his defending title stripped in addition to a $10,000 fine; felony charge and was banned from competing for three years.
As a witness to the some of the iconic careers mentioned in his book, Jelks interjects his own personal thoughts and experiences. For example, he shares a story about meeting Ali as a kid growing up in Chicago during the seventies.
“Some boys were in a scrape on the street in what you would call a fight today, when a big black car pulled up. A big man jumped out of the car and stopped the fight,” Jelks said. “When everyone figured out it was Muhammad Ali, we were speechless.”
In an effort to show the extent of Ali’s influence, Jelks recalls a time when he travelled to the Middle East in 1981. At the border between Jordan and Syria, a guard while checking his American passport asked, “Do you know Muhammed Ali?”
Jelk’s book is the result of analyzing autobiographies, interviews and performances by Eldridge Cleaver, Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams and Muhammad Ali. All four were African-Americans who used religion as a tool to understand their personal strife and re-define Blackness in America.
Since he was 12, Eldridge Cleaver had an enigmatic relationship with a number of faiths, including Catholicism, atheism and the Nation of Islam. Cleaver returned to the Catholic church in 1969 in a highly publicized manner by joining forces with televangelist Billy Graham Sr. Cleaver was highly criticized by black activists who claimed his conservativism was driven by his desire to escape prosecution for attempted murder in 1989.
Similar to Ali, Cleaver looked to religion to understand his position as a Black man living in post-Jim Crow America. However, to this day, many African-Americans struggle to carve out an identity of their own absent of the disapproval from their communities.
Ethel Waters was the second African-American woman nominated for an Academy Award. She began her career as a blues singer and later ventured into jazz and pop. During the Harlem Renaissance, Waters’ acting career took off with several appearances on Broadway and the silver screen. After making it in the Big Apple as a singer and actor, Waters added evangelist to her string of professions. During the 1960s, Ethel joined hands with televangelist Billy Graham Sr.
Waters, who previously worked in Black Vaudeville and was an openly bisexual woman, lost a large portion of her fan base when she joined the Billy Graham Sr. circuit.
Incorporating the narratives of queer, Black female entertainers shows the depth at which Belk wants his audience to think about the myth of the collective American identity. He does this as a reminder to show just how little we’ve come in our conversations regarding race and gender, especially in the Western art world.
Mary Lou Williams was a jazz pianist and composer in the 1920s that went on to write for Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie. She made her impression on the Catholic Church in the 1960s at St. Patrick’s Cathedral when she leaned on the traditional rubric to create a mass inspired by the jazz medium.
Additionally, Williams poured her heart into her community through the Bel Canto Foundation – a rehabilitation center catering to black musicians. Jelks continued her passion for service and became a traveling preacher with a little extra soul.
The book is part of what Jelks calls the “cycles of black life” and points to the playwright August Wilson’s famous series of plays including, “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” as inspiration.
Jelks said, “I wanted to write a book that engages historians both young and old and the public who have an interest in religion,” Jelks said. “With young scholars, the focus now seems to be on writing about the resistance. This book is more about people’s inner lives which are opaque to the public.”