Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Book #12: Arc of Justice

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."--Abolitionist Theodore Parker, c. 1850s

Arc of Justice won the national book award in 2004. It tells the tale of an African-American doctor, Ossian Sweet, and his wife Gladys, who bought a house in a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925, when neighborhood segregation was just hardening and the Ku Klux Klan was in its ascendency in the north. The story is fascinating for its depth, attention to detail, and background. Some of the details:

1. The emergency of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination in the aftermath of the civil war, specifically dedicated to encouraging the newly-freed African Americans to work hard, prove to their white neighbors that they were worthy of the freedom they were given. Yet their efforts were made almost impossible by the continous institutional racism they encountered.

2. When you hear the word "race riot", what do you think of? Detroit and Los Angeles in the 1960s? Yet there were many race riots at the turn of the last century, when frightened whites rioted in the aftermath of real or alleged crimes, often burning down whole african-american sections of town.

3. The emergence and role of mortgages and mortgage lending in the growth and hardening of segregation. Before the 1910s or 20s, most people bought land and built their own house, or saved and bought a house outright. But business practices changed, and made this impossible. It was an effort to keep certain classes of people (not just african-americans, but immigrants) out of the markets. It also made people more afraid of losing their investment, since they had take out loans.

4. The cameo role played by a young pastor, Reinhold Neibuhr, as he spoke out against racism in his Detroit church in the aftermath of the shooting at Ossian Sweet's house, and the trial that took place. It made me muse on what it would take for me to be a prophetic pastor in my time and place, and what is the great issue God might be calling me to weigh in on.

You will have to decide for yourself, after you read this book, whether the quotation at the top of this post is true.


angela said...

I would have a hard time reading this book without getting really depressed. It sounds like it ought to be read though--I'll suggest it to my book club.

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

#4, hard question. I think we're "spoiled" or our eyes may be closed. This book sounds depressing, but about history we really should learn so it isn't repeated.

Barbara B. said...

Thanks for highlighting this book. It's one I would definitely like to read.

Lindy said...

It was also about that time that white people started calling one another by their first names instead of mr. and mrs. That way, they didn't have to call black people mr. and mrs. too. It was all just first names.

Crazy, isn't it, what lengths people will go to to preserve their perceived position?

I am glad you reviewed this book. I wouldn't have picked it out but now I want to read it.