In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the copious amounts of books, articles, documentaries, films and TV shows it inspired, a certain tone emerged as the clear preferred attitude for all these projects. This tone could be found anywhere, but was particularly prevalent in the Christian market.
“It must be triumphalistic,” Danté Stewart explains. “It must be pure.”
Stewart was raised in a deeply Christian household in a mostly White community. He says there’s an understood implication that Christian writing around racism can “grieve against whiteness” but is still supposed to imply that a culture of racism is something that happens out there, in other communities. In other words, he says most Christian writing about racism can’t depict “us as being caught up in that story.”
But when Stewart sat down to write his own story, that was an attitude he deliberately avoided. “So many people want Black books that just simply reduce Black life to White racism,” he explains. “And the way we tell Black stories is centered on White education. And I just felt like I could not write that type of book. I would not feel good about myself writing that type of book. It just would not be an honest book.”
Instead, Stewart wrote Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle. “I was trying to mourn, I was trying to celebrate, I was trying to theorize and welcome people into the sacred space of both my failure and the courage and the beauty that surrounded me,” he says.
The result is a book that takes in a fuller picture of the Black experience in America, particularly as it relates to Christians. He says he didn’t write the book as an educational tome for the masses, but for “my sister Dominique or my friend Sheena or my boy Drew.” It makes for a very intimate reading experience — and a necessary one.
Stewart sat down with RELEVANT to talk about his long road to being able to write a book like this and rejecting old narratives for something new and better. This conversation has been lightly edited for length.
Where did you get the idea for the book?
For me, the origin story starts in South Carolina. It starts between, as the book says, my grandmother and grandfather’s red brick house and our white-stained brick church. So much of what I became when I went out to Clemson and even got involved in White evangelical spaces was rooted in the kind of inherited script that taught that to be Black and young and Southern and rural is to be wayward. There was a need for us to distance ourselves from home as much as possible, in hopes that in our distancing, we will be accepted, we will be embraced, we will be rewarded with the pinnacle of success, which is access into these spaces.
What really made me write this book was 2020. I was originally a writer who was very preachy in my writing. But I started to read better books in 2018 and 2019, after I had left White spaces with the Alton Sterling murder, the murder of Philando Castile, and the White Church’s embrace of Donald Trump.
As I began to read, as I began to think, as I began to wrestle, I began to write to make sense of it. So then here comes the book out of 2020, really trying to make sense of the central question: What does it mean to be Black and American and Christian?
You mentioned you felt the need to exit White spaces in 2016 and 2017 — and these are spaces where you’d had some success. Why did you feel that way?
So you had the shooting of Alton Sterling and then the shooting of Philando Castile the next day. And when those murders happened, we witnessed the response to those murders, both in this positive sense of resistance to this structural racism and the power structures of White supremacy and police brutality. But also the backlash of blaming Black people for our own deaths, which I did. When I was really getting into the White evangelical space, I blamed us for our own deaths. I was like, “Yo, why Black people out there protesting?”
The way I was socializing these White spaces was to believe the best about White people and Whiteness, and to believe the worst about Black people and Blackness. To believe the best about White people’s ideas, about the way many of them saw and acted within the world. But then when it came to us and our lives and particularly our deaths, I viewed us with skepticism.
The first initial relation that I had was not necessarily innocent until proven guilty, but guilty until proven innocent.
So when the shootings happened, it brought about a lot of questions for me. I started to get shaken out of my idea that I could escape these questions. I started asking questions about things that White people in my Bible study group was saying. I didn’t have no language to talk about it, but I knew it was very racist and anti-Black. And I started to meet with the elders, but they did not respond in care and compassion. They responded in apathy and, in some sense, hostility.
And so at the end of the day, when it came to me being concerned about how we were living in the world and the world that they were protecting, they did not care about me. They only cared about protecting the people who kept their livelihood going. I became very angry.
But then my boy Drew Hall gave me a copy of Martin Luther King’s Where Do We Go from Here. I’m starting to weave what I’m learning from Martin Luther King in that book within my own group and then we started to bump heads.
The idea is always reconciliation, but not freedom and liberation. Reconciliation becomes a way to devalue Black liberation and revolution in our society. The revolution Martin Luther King and others spoke of: a revolution of values, a revolution of vision, a revolution of citizenship, and even a revolution in theology. A revolution of how we think about the world, how we name and see and experience the world.
Could you clarify that a little? Because “reconciliation” is a very popular word in these conversations, but you’re talking about something different. What’s the difference between reconciliation and liberation?
One hundred percent. I used to think that diversity would change perspectives. But I realized that proximity does not change anything if it does not deal with power dynamics. If we don’t deal with the inequities of power and try to empower people to be fully human, to be fully themselves, to be fully in the world as themselves, knowing that we have something to offer, we fail.
That is what I mean by that difference between reconciliation and liberation. Reconciliation has been a way to evade us and to devalue us, not taking into account that, as Martin Luther King said, you want us to integrate into a burning house. Or as Willie Jennings would say, you want to integrate us into a colonial project, where White people still control the power, and we are just present. And for me, that’s the difference. As the sisters say, “Unity is good, but freedom is better.”
This one challenges so much Christian theology. Our theology doesn’t take into account inequities of power. We need power analysis. As Katie Cannon writes in Deeper Shades of Purple, we have to address the institutional power structures, the beliefs, the practices, the visions and the values that teach that Black people must enjoy the best things in heaven while White people enjoy the best things on earth. It’s wrapped up into our ideas of what we believe God wants for us now.
When you’re talking about Luke chapter four, when Jesus says that the Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news, to set free the captives, those things are spiritualized. Because once we spiritualize our theology, then we can easily evade and justify our material reality. And the material reality we are living in right now is what bell hooks calls the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. This is the material reality that I believe we must change. We can’t do that by just simply being together. We have to deal with those multitudes, whether that’s race, religion, gender, sexuality, ability or disability, class, et cetera. We have to take into account those experiences and realize how in those experiences, oftentimes so much is taken from us, stolen from us, destroyed within us. And Jesus wants us to have life.
Correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I think a challenge that you as a communicator would frequently run into here is a poverty of imagination. It’s so difficult for those of us who are raised in White spaces within the West to even imagine a world without these hierarchies of power. Have you found any ways to communicate this effectively?
I would say that maybe at one point in time, I was concerned about that question. I’m not necessarily concerned as much about that question anymore.
I think this is one of the challenges and the limitations of so much of the talk regarding our country, race, religion, politics, things like that: It centers Whiteness. It continues to center White progress and White education and White people. And that’s just not a question that I’m concerned about. I’m more concerned about: What can we gain and glean from looking again at our Black lives and what those worlds that we have created and that we contain can tell us about what it means to be Black and alive, as June Jordan says in Looking Back at You.
I feel like so much of the conversation about race, especially when you’re talking about the context of churches, is just simply centered on the question: What can White people do that they have not done before? And in some sense, it reinforces the anti-Black lie that White thoughts, White feelings and White realities matter more than ours. It reduces Black life to White racism or White apathy or White hostility.
I really want to lean into, more than anything, the rampant beauty. Our lives are already art, are already beautiful. We need not be concerned about how they imagine us or their limited imagination. We need to be concerned about what we can imagine of ourselves. What do our lives contain? What can we bring forth out of ourselves in ways that don’t just fetishize us, that make us a piece of material and performance for other people to consume or to destroy or to exploit? I’m not as much concerned about their limited imagination as much as I’m concerned about leaning into ours.
That’s a very generous and righteous response. I appreciate it. One last question. What part of this whole journey has surprised you the most?
I’m reminded of Saul’s story in the Hebrew Bible. God tells him that you’re going to go to these different places, you’re going to meet these different people and you’re going to come across this group of people called the prophets. They’re going to be prophesying, and you’re going to be caught up in the prophetic frenzy that they are caught up in, and you’re going to become a different person. And then the Bible says, when that happens, you will know that the Lord is true to His word.
And so what’s most surprising is that from the beginning to now, that I actually did become a different person.
And that change did not happen just because I was smart or just because I was well read or just because I was this or that. No, it happened because the people around me believed so much in my ability to become better, that they did not give up on me and did not give up on what we all could become together. My wife is so integral to my change.
I think that’s what surprised me is that my change was one of the first times where I chose myself instead of giving my worth to other people to do whatever they wanted to do with it. This was not about proving to people that I was better or proving other people wrong, but people actually believed in me and said that I could become better. And I actually was willing to believe them. That’s probably what surprised me the most: that actually I did change.