The ‘Christianization’ of Shirley Sherrod

Blogger Andrew Breitbart’s recent attack on Shirley Sherrod reflects the American legacy of “Christianization”—the measure of black acceptability in white civil society. Sherrod (a former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee activist, and longterm farm advocate) lost her job as the USDA Director of Rural Development in Georgia after Breitbart manufactured an image of her that was out of compliance with his standard of appropriate black behavior toward white persons. The reality of Breitbart’s deception has been made painstakingly clear through full presentation of the context from which the excerpted sound bite was clipped.

The sound bite came from Sherrod’s March speech during which she encouraged a black audience toward sensible racial collaboration to help “poor” people and not just “black” people. Sherrod told the story of helping a working class white farmer save his farm. Memories of her father’s still-unsolved racial murder and legacies of racial injustice against African Americans, she said, initially made her hesitant to put full efforts behind white farmers Roger and Eloise Spooner when they approached her for help.

However, when the white attorney to whom Sherrod referred the Spooners failed to take their predicament seriously, she realized the challenges they faced were the same as those faced by the black farmers she helped everyday. “[W]orking with him,” Sherrod said, “made me see that it’s really about those who have versus those who don’t, you know, and they could be black, they could be white, they could be Hispanic.”

While Sherrod told the story to demonstrate and encourage transformation (a transformation she identified as divinely inspired), Breitbart intentionally sought to discredit her by posting an edited clip showing only Sherrod’s discussion of her initial hesitancy. Breitbart’s construction of a mechanism to “get” Sherrod and her black audience is not significantly different from the narrow and arbitrary policies drawn to confine African Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries (e.g., convoluted literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and behavioral policies required for black enfranchisement and interaction with whites). Such practices are rooted in colonial uses of Christianity to circumscribe black life.

Colonial use of Christianity—or “Christianization”—is the employment of “Christian” rhetoric and identification to construct meaning in social and political life. This has included establishing specific conceptions of citizenship, structures of education, social roles and behaviors that simultaneously develop and inscribe hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy, and racial subjugation in policies, practices, and the imagination.

Examining Christianization during the US antebellum era, religious historian Albert Raboteau says Christianity initially had a slow start among enslaved Africans in the United States because, among other reasons, enslavers feared a common baptism would signal social equality. To resolve the dilemma Christian missionaries declared that Christianity would help better fit black persons to enslavement.

Crafting a “Christian” argument that enabled the participation of enslaved Africans continued even after Emancipation as some black racial uplift workers, and white evangelical home missionaries, argued that Christianizing formerly enslaved persons was necessary in order to make them acceptable and respectable participants in civil society. Christianity (rather, Christianization) functioned in both instances as a mechanism to define or justify black humanity and participation within white civil society.

To add injury to Breitbart’s insult, the NAACP and Obama Administration hastily misjudged Sherrod, condemning and firing her, respectively. Notwithstanding recent apologies and retractions, more disappointing than the administration and NAACP’s failure to investigate Breitbart’s claims is their rush to show they are not guilty of supporting so-called “black racism” (i.e., that they do not condone black “misbehavior”). Similar to some racial uplift advocates of the Reconstruction era the Obama administration and NAACP officers apparently seek to broker acceptable black participation in civil society. Also similar to that era is the cross-racial patriarchal collaboration against a black woman.

The current cultural offensive launched through poisonous sound bites and blogs includes a subtext advocating a constricted, “Christianized” social morality that excludes racial, sexual, class, language, and even certain gender diversity. In the face of so much knee-jerk speaking and thinking, the time is ripe for critically thoughtful governing officials, civic leaders, compassionate conservatives and liberation theologians to celebrate and follow Sherrod’s longterm lead of overcoming direct racial injury and speaking the truth while encouraging thoughtful collaboration to build a diverse society for everyone.

RRoss@spelman.edu'

Rosetta Ross is a professor of religious studies at Spelman College in Atlanta. She is author of Witnessing and Testifying: Black Women, Religion, and Civil Rights (Fortress Press, 2003).