11 May 2013

Precious Puritans and Accidental Racists

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the 20th Century
Christian martyrs remembered at Westminster
Abbey, London.
"Pastor, you know it's hard for me when you quote Puritans…. You know they were the chaplains on slaves ships, right? Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees? Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs? Even if thei' theology was good? It just sings of your blind privilege, wouldn't you agree?"

With seawater, seagulls, and creaking timbers in the background, he continues, "It must be nice to not have to consider race…. Pastor, your colorless rhetoric is a cop-out. You see my skin, and I see yours. And they are beautiful. Fearfully and wonderfully divinely designed uniqueness. Shouldn't we celebrate that rather than act like it ain't there?" 

So begins rapper, Propaganda, on his track “Precious Puritans,”  which touched off a tempest in the Evangelical blogosphere late last year.

In a blog interview with Joe Thorn, Richard A. Bailey, assistant history professor at Canisius College and author of the book, "Race and Redemption in Puritan New England," provided historic insight on Puritans' participation in the British and American practice of slavery.

Owen Strachan criticized the song for its lack of historical nuance, and Steve McCoy argued the song, when taken as a whole piece of art, isn't primarily concerned with the Puritans at all but uses them as an example for the larger point, namely the danger of putting humans on pedestals.

Joel Beeke, president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary wrote, "The enslavement of African-Americans was a horrific and shameful evil." But he goes on, "Some have commented that the song really isn’t about the Puritans, but is a clever, artistic work designed to make us question ourselves and to treat no one as inerrant…. But making that point does not justify depicting godly Christians in such a manner." Beeke is coauthor of "Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life," a systematic exploration of Puritan theology, and "Meet the Puritans," a collection of biographical sketches and bibliographical summaries of major Puritans.

Much of the reaction to the song tends to prove Propaganda's observation. White Americans don’t have the same experience of racism or the legacy of race-based slavery. So they’re not personally threatened by it. A sense of admiration for the Puritans comes easier for whites because they don’t have to deal with the complexities of studying theologians who wouldn’t…or just didn’t…identify with enslaved, African ancestors. 

In his response to the "Precious Puritans" controversy, senior pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman, called for, "…more conversation about our respective historical narratives and interpretations. We need to learn how others weight certain aspects of our shared history and how that shapes our interpretations of the present. We hear the word 'Puritan,' and one man thinks 'hero' while another thinks 'slave owner.'" 

Anyabwile continues, "Both interpretations are in some sense true, but only partially true. We know that a partial truth masquerading as the whole truth is a complete untruth. Partial truths asserting themselves upon others is an act of oppression."

Country singer Brad Paisley recently collaborated with rapper LL Cool J to cut the track “Accidental Racist” on Paisley's album "Wheelhouse." Paisley describes walking into Starbucks with a shirt displaying the Confederate battle flag. The chorus begins: “I'm just a white man comin' to you from the southland, tryin' to understand what it's like not to be. I'm proud of where I'm from but not everything we've done...."

In the third verse, LL Cool J begins, “Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood, What the world is really like when you're livin' in the hood; Just because my pants are saggin' doesn't mean I'm up to no good...I'd love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air, But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn't here."

LL Cool J has taken heat for lines, “If you don't judge my do-rag, I won't judge your red flag. If you don't judge my gold chains, I'll forget the iron chains.” In the interview with ABC, he clarified that he's not implying an equivalency between the historical symbolism of Confederate battle flags and do-rags.

The George Washington Carver
National Monument,
Diamond, Mo.
He probably could have been more precise. But in the context of the song, he's having a conversation with Paisley, not a Klansman. And for Paisley, the red flag apparently was a fashion statement.

People whose grandparents and great-grandparents didn't face lynching at the hands of people who flew the Confederate battle flag can more easily think about a confederate battle flag as an accessory.

And the t-shirt isn't the only way Paisley demonstrates white privilege. In the song itself and in an interview with ABC news, Paisley emphasized “Our generation didn't start this nation, And we're still paying for the mistakes That a bunch of folks made long before we came."

While it's true that “it aint like you and me can rewrite history,” African-Americans have had their family histories and their personal experiences shaped by slavery, segregation, and the complexities of life since those institutions. In contrast to Paisley, LL Cool J spoke of respecting the past, forgiving, and moving forward, not of his distance from the past. 

Unlike “Precious Puritans,” “Accidental Racist” isn't great art, but it does appear to be two men reaching across the barriers that ordinarily separate them. And when  Paisley sings, "I try to put myself in your shoes and that's a good place to begin, but it ain't like I can walk a mile in someone else's skin," he's taken an important step to recognizing what these conversations can and cannot do.

Our pasts are not interchangeable. We are not interchangeable. We might discover our most tenacious sins hide out behind our virtues—whether doctrinal integrity, constitutional legality, or historical nuance. And we might have to rethink how we depict heroes.

Or as Propaganda concludes, "…it bothers me when you quote Puritans, if I'm honest, for the same reason it bothers me when people quote me…. God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines. Just like your precious Puritans."


  1. I really react to someone telling me I have "white privilege" or anything that is beyond my element of control. Let me explain why. First, because it's not really something that can be quantified... its size and reach is not completely known and each person has their own idea of how much of a factor it is. In addition, whether or not this is the intention it makes me feel like I'm supposed to be ashamed; like most people I have a large dose of pride, I also don't know why I should be ashamed when my ancestors immigrated from Ireland, never owned slaves and fought for the North in the Civil War. Furthermore, it makes me feel as if I'm being treated as a surrogate racist in place of racist white people that are already dead and gone. African-Americans certainly still face current challenges but I'm not a racist person so I react when I feel like I'm being labeled that way by proxy.

    If I understand correctly you are using the term "white privilege" as more of a mindset. I agree 100% in that my ancestors and family heritage didn't experience slavery at its most true form. We did however experience, agonizing work with nearly no pay (some would call that slavery!), extreme poverty, hunger, and starvation to the point of many deaths. So does everyone else have "non-Irish privilege" if they don't have the same heritage background as I do?

    1. Hey, Preston. I think you are right to push for a clearer definition of white privilege. A full definition was a little beyond the scope of the original post, but here are a few points I think might help as we converse.

      First, I need to clarify a person does not "have white privilege" in the sense that one has integrity or a crooked nose. White privilege in America is more than a mindset; it's is a cultural effect of majority status and the particular cultural history of the United States.

      Second, our cultural contexts and experiences lead all of us to have certain blind spots. And it's hard to know what we aren't seeing until someone else comes along and provides a different perspective. White privilege is no exception. And I think our American individualism gets in our way here too because we tend to think about problems and solutions almost exclusively at the individual level, ignoring the cultural context.

      Your Irish ancestors and my German and Swedish ones actually illustrate this point. They had mostly to overcome economic obstacles to interact and move upward in American society. So we, their descendants, believe that almost all our ills can be solved by hard work and determination, but as you have pointed out, African Americans have traditionally had a significantly greater number of obstacles to overcome. And we haven't even begun to explore all the ways that white passes for "normal" in American society.

      Third, because it is a cultural effect rather than an attitude or moral disposition, white privilege is not the same thing as racism. To be sure, the existence of white privilege has allowed institutionalized racism to exist in the past and it allows for more insidious wrongs in the present. But observing the privileged status of whites in America is not the same thing as saying white people are racists.

      Finally, you point to something profound, I think, when you speak of feeling like you're expected to be ashamed. Why do you think that is? As I think about it, wrestling with that question…together…might help us all explain a lot.