Daniel Black is a novelist, a scholar, a musician and a storyteller par excellence. He’s a polymath who is as comfortable channeling the voices of his ancestors as he is directing the voices of a gospel choir. In this conversation with “Can These Bones” co-host Bill Lamar, the Clark Atlanta University professor talks about his writing process, the research that went into “The Coming,” a novel about the movement of African people through the middle passage, and why he believes in the stalwart power and necessity of the black church.
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More from Daniel Black
Video: Daniel Black reading from “The Coming”
Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: Daniel Black entry
The Ndugu Nzinga community, founded by Daniel Black
“They Tell Me of a Home”
“The Sacred Place”
“Listen to the Lambs”
Laura Everett: From Faith & Leadership, this is “Can These Bones,” a podcast that asks a fresh set of questions about leadership and the future of the church.
I’m Laura Everett.
Bill Lamar: And I’m Bill Lamar. This is the seventh episode of a series of conversations with leaders from the church and other fields. Through this podcast, we want to share our hope in the resurrection and perhaps breathe life into leaders struggling in their own “valley of dry bones.”
Laura Everett: You spoke with the novelist Daniel Black for this episode, and he is a really fascinating human -- a writer and thinker, and a deeply spiritual man. And I know that he is personally one of your favorite novelists. Tell us a bit more about Daniel.
Bill Lamar: Oh my goodness. This man is a treasure.
Laura Everett: How did you find his work?
Bill Lamar: It’s interesting -- I found his work through Howard University. Every year, they invite the incoming freshman class to read a book, and the book that the freshman class was asked to read some years ago was Daniel Black’s “The Coming.”
I was apprised of the choice of the novel, and because I’d like to think I’m still 18, I read the book along with the freshman class.
And it was -- I mean, superlatives and hyperbole -- you’re told when you write you shouldn’t use these things, and when you speak you shouldn’t use hyperbole or superlatives.
But this book was riveting in every, every way. It was riveting because, as Dan will share in the interview, I feel like, Laura, he was not so much the author as he was midwife of being able to tell the stories of people long dead but still very spiritually active in our world, people who suffered tremendous indignity but who had a humanity that was bright and that continues to shine to the present day.
What is interesting is that Daniel Black is a scholar. So you could have one life, a life well worth living, if you’re an excellent scholar. He’s got a Ph.D. in African-American studies from Temple University in Philadelphia, which is one of the premier places to study that field. You could stop there and live a wonderful life.
He’s also a person who cares deeply about the church. He’s in church every Sunday. He’s a church musician. He lives within the complexities and difficulties and beauties of the church. So there’s another life worth living.
On top of that, he is a novelist who has written not just “The Coming” but other interesting books. Here’s a man who writes novels but who also pours libations, channels the ancestors from his sofa, and he does all of those things while having a robust Christian theological grounding but also an understanding that God’s work in the world is beyond dogma, that it is beyond theological category.
I mean, I get so excited talking with him and thinking about his work. And I think that what he shares with us in this moment through his creativity and his midwifery, if you will, offers us a wonderful opportunity to learn from lives still among us in some mysterious way.
Laura Everett: Bill, that sounds really good. Let’s listen to your interview.
Bill Lamar: I have the privilege of speaking with Dr. Daniel Black, the author of “They Tell Me of a Home,” “The Sacred Place,” “Perfect Peace,” “The Coming,” “Listen to the Lambs”; a professor -- so an all-around gifted young man.
Dr. Black, welcome to “Can These Bones.”
Daniel Black: I’m appreciative of being here. Thank you for having me.
Bill Lamar: Thank you very much. So the first thing that needs to be said, sir, is I am an unrepentant fanboy of your work.
We’ve had a chance to meet and to speak, but I want to begin by sharing that your book “The Coming” was the most compelling book that I have read. And I have shared that with a number of people. The reason that we are talking is that I shared it with my colleagues, and [we] want you to share about what that book means to you and how it came into being.
Daniel Black: “The Coming” is a story of the movement of African people through what we call the “maafa,” or the middle passage. It details day by day, hour by hour, the trauma, the tribulation, the successes, the death, the unbelievable stench, the unbelievable pain of that journey, that movement of African people across the Atlantic Ocean.
And I came to write that story because, quite frankly, I began to see and I began to believe that people knew about the middle passage in a very cursory sense. We’ve heard the word, you know, we’ve heard of this historical moment before, but I realized in “The Coming” historical narrative that we had never heard from the Africans themselves.
They’d never gotten a chance to tell the story themselves, from their own perspective, their own point of view -- what really happened, what they endured, what they were thinking about in the belly of this ship. How they treated each other, how they thought about God, the new ways they evolved, the new ways they changed.
And I thought this was incredibly important, because the truth of the matter, Bill, is that the middle passage is really the defining moment of what it means to be black in America -- of what it means to be black in the diaspora.
The middle passage is the place where the transition from being African, if you will, to being African-American occurs. And there are so many cultural realities, from dancing to us literally learning to beat our thighs instead of having a drum, us understanding the power of collective unity, us accessing this thing called a collective consciousness, a collective memory.
These things happen during this historical moment known as the middle passage, and without understanding that, if we’re not very careful, we will believe that our beginning is America itself, and it is not. Nor is our beginning the middle passage. That’s not our beginning, either.
That’s simply the bridge that brought a people from one ancient land to a new place. But it’s a very, very important bridge, and it’s a very defining moment.
And so I wrote this book with the hopes of really helping people to understand the price that was paid -- just the unbelievable price that was paid -- for the sanctity and the sacredness of black life in America.
And I wanted, then and now -- I want people never to forget that.
Bill Lamar: Dan, your passion is palpable. And one of the things that I want to share -- because you have shared this with me in other conversations -- not only can it be argued that the middle passage moment was defining for African-Americans; it can be argued that that is the defining moment of America, period. Can you say more about that?
Daniel Black: Yes. In fact, I think what’s really important about what you’re saying is that the middle passage is a microcosmic example of what America will look like structurally for the next 300 years.
In other words, that ship -- the designation of people, the designation of race, the designation of where people even physically exist on the ship -- is a symbolic representation of where people would exist in terms of class structures in America itself. Black folks in the bottom of the ship; white folks at the top of the ship, giving orders, running things, if you will.
Black people waiting and hoping and trying to figure out how white people think, how white supremacy has absolutely shaped their lives. And black people trying to take account of the ways in which they feel their own culpability, in terms of their own social situation.
And this is important -- because a lot of people read the middle passage as a moment in African history -- there are as many whites on the ships as blacks. They’re just in a different place. But that’s extremely important to understand, because to understand the birth of “whiteness,” if you will, in America, one absolutely can go to the middle passage for that, too.
Because the ideology of white supremacy reigns central, and grows up, on this thing or during this moment known as the middle passage. So it’s very important to understand that the slave ship, again, is absolutely [emblematic] of American society to come.
Bill Lamar: Great insight, as always. Now, one of the things about this work -- and we are going to discuss some of your other work -- but one of the things about “The Coming” is that it is genre-bending. It is difficult to discern whether it is a novel, whether it is historical fiction. What I want to ask you is, how do you qualify the genre of this work?
Daniel Black: It’s a little poetic. There’s nonfiction. There’s fiction. All of that. Because what I really wanted to show is that Africans didn’t even conceive of narrative in the same way Europeans conceived of narrative at the time. They didn’t conceive of storytelling necessarily as a straight fictional act.
They knew oratory, but oratory included various possibilities in terms of genre. And I wanted to make sure that the African voice spoke in its own structural literary mold. It was a difficult thing to do, but I pray I did that well.
Bill Lamar: Well, sir, from my perspective, mission accomplished. I do want to ask -- you keep time differently. There is not necessarily a central character; you are able to paint beautiful portraits of the villages from which these people emerge, their theological systems, their familial systems, their sociopolitical systems.
In the backdrop of such a tremendous work, I sense exhaustive research. Tell me how you were able to reconstruct the lives of these persons with such precision and such beauty.
Daniel Black: Yes. I did years and years, probably 10, 15 years of research. I started researching the middle passage in graduate school, because that historical moment fascinated me then, as it does now. So I read about just hundreds of ships. I read captors’ journals and logs. I read how the ship was made. I read other novels that touch upon and speak about it, like Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage.”
I read for years and years and years and years and years, because again, I was really in search of the African voice. What they thought, what they felt, what this meant to them, how this disrupted their entire -- not just way of life -- their entire being. How they had to construct new ways of being if they were to survive.
One of the things I realized throughout all this research is that no one had ever really dealt with these African people as people, man, as human beings. And one of the ways I knew that is because I could rarely ever find names. People would refer to these ancestors as “cargo.” Or they would talk about them as part of just the “goods” that had been brought from Africa.
And I began to wonder, Didn’t these human beings have names? Didn’t they have hopes? Didn’t they have wishes? Didn’t they have regrets? Didn’t they have dreams? And I realized that it was going to take someone coming along to humanize these ancestors on this boat and to give them names and to reconstruct what their dreams might have been, to imagine the arguments they may have had in the hull of those ships at night. To begin to believe that they probably blamed themselves as much as they blamed anyone for their social condition.
They have every right to speak for themselves.
They have absolutely every right to be registered in history as those who came, not just to a land with the physical ability to do labor, but they brought a culture. They brought a spiritual tradition. They brought religion. They brought dance. They brought music. They brought poetry. And the truth of the matter is, those things they brought with them have really made America what it is.
Bill Lamar: Wow. No one questions Shakespeare’s ability or Hemingway’s ability to speak to the human condition. But if you were to lift up a Toni Morrison, or if you were to lift up a Ralph Ellison, persons might say that they speak to the black condition but not the human condition. Help me to articulate -- please articulate how this work is a universal work rooted in the specificity of the victories and struggles of a particular people.
Daniel Black: Absolutely. The first problem is what you said, and that is we don’t yet understand black as human. That’s the first problem. We think all white-related experiences are human, because whites get the privilege of deeming themselves, or crowning themselves, speakers for the universe.
And what I’m suggesting is any human is a spokesperson for the universe. And so this story, “The Coming,” the story of this tragedy, but also the story of this triumph and this survival of African people, is really the story of human beings who were misplaced and displaced and demeaned and rejected and yet survived, and today their descendants thrive in the land that was once the land of their bondage.
And that is as “universal” as any story could possibly be. What we have to do is be very careful not to believe that, “Oh, this story, then, must be for African people.” No, this story is for humanity. It’s for human beings -- as every story is.
Bill Lamar: You shared a somewhat humorous anecdote that really gets to the heart of what you’re saying -- that a white book group got hold of this book, and they invited you and they shared with you. And I dare not tell your story. Would you share that with us, please?
Daniel Black: Sure, sure, sure. It was an amazing, amazing experience. They invited me to a book club, and I went to this book club meeting, to a white book club meeting, and it was a fantastic group of amazing, amazing people. And they were telling me how much they appreciated the story, the beauty of the writing; the language was just lyrical; it was fantastic.
And one person raised her hand and said, “You know, I really, really appreciate this story, and I feel like I’m learning so much about you and your people and black people in this.”
And I said, “Ma’am, I want to pause you. Because this story is about your people.” And she froze.
I said, “This story is about your people. You are as much a participant on the middle passage as was I. The minute I got on the boat, you were already there. It’s your boat.”
Yeah. And so we had -- it was an aha! moment, you know. And I’m really pleased to say she said, “I have to admit I just did not understand this that way. I didn’t see this that way.”
And I said, “And that is part of the reason we have a difficult time doing racial healing in America.”
Because we categorize moments and we categorize experiences so that whiteness always comes out clean. It always comes out pristine. It always comes out some kind of way being seemingly committed to healing and to reconciliation, when not only is that not true, but whiteness really is the reason that we even have the other categories, you know.
I was telling a class I teach the other day that we have to stop saying phrases like “people of color.” That is one of the most racist phrases I’ve ever heard in my life, because “of color” simply means that the standard is white. Everybody else is not white. You’re of some color. But white is a color, too. White is a color. And so to say “people of color” just means everybody else gets put into one category, and whiteness gets its own.
Bill Lamar: So, Dan, you had to, in order to give birth to this piece, to be the author, you had to assume a posture of listening. And I think often about the difference between a symphony, which is melodic, and a cacophony, which is disarming, aurally.
How did you assume a space to listen so that you could distinguish between the symphony that was being given you and the cacophony around you?
Daniel Black: Yes. I poured a libation every day, brother, before I would start writing. I would sit on my sofa and breathe for a while. Right? To still my own thoughts and to let the ancestors’ voices come to me. I would pour a libation.
It would come, and some days I would weep. I would just cry, man. I would just cry as they were telling me the story. It was just unbelievable. But what I also had to do was probably even more intense. After I wrote, I would have to go outside, literally, and either sit or lie on the earth in order to be grounded and to come back and to be functional in this space and in this historical moment. Some days I was so emotionally distraught that I was dysfunctional.
Bill Lamar: Interesting. You make us think again of the artist as conduit, and that is very, very interesting. One of the pieces of the work that was captivating was you weave a narrative about the Africans’ own self-critical mechanism. Can you speak to that? Because I see that as a narrative that you could drop in any locale among any people.
Daniel Black: Sure, and in some ways that was probably the most heart-wrenching and the most complicated and confusing part of this narrative. The way in which these Africans, when they got the chance to speak for themselves, held themselves responsible for their own enslavement.
They were not wasting time, they were not spending time saying, “These white folks are horrible people, and I can’t believe they did this.” There was some of that, too, of course, but their main thrust in trying to understand and to explain this historical moment was a critique of themselves.
They said, “Listen, we spoke more proverbs than we lived. We simply did not heed the words of our elders at times. When the drums sounded the warning, we weren’t paying attention. We had gotten so used to life as we knew it, we simply took our gods for granted. The elders had been trying to tell us that destruction was coming, and we were just, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Greed began to grow among us, and all of us began to taste greed. And in our commitment to having material things, we lost our spiritual sensibility.”
Bill Lamar: Were you writing about that time or our time? Wow.
Daniel Black: Oh my God, man, oh my God. In fact, the parallels are just eerie. It’s just eerie. It’s just eerie.
But I have to admit I love how these ancestors were saying, “No, no, no, no, it’s not about the white man. No, that’s not what we’re talking about. That’s not our story. The white man is not at the center of our story. Our story is about ways where we dropped the ball ourselves. We were too spiritual -- we were too spiritual not to have known this was coming.”
Bill Lamar: And read the stars, as you said, read the stars.
Daniel Black: How in the world didn’t we know this? Because we simply weren’t -- we were skipping rituals, because we just didn’t want to go. And you know what? We were human beings. We were human beings. We were flawed human beings like any human beings anywhere. We were excellent, yes, but we were not without error.
Bill Lamar: And would you say more? I feel like I want to make sure that people hear this in the textured way that you give it and it does not become another argument for taking personal responsibility. What you’re talking about is much more than that narrow “they can blame themselves.” Can you just give it more texture? I want to make sure that people understand that.
Daniel Black: Yes, because this does not exonerate Europeans at all from, of course, what they did. No, not at all. Not at all.
What it does say is these Africans are saying that they had enough spiritual wherewithal, they had the kinds of cultural mechanisms, whereby they could have protected themselves, had they just been honest with themselves and had they been true to their own cultural mechanisms.
And I think that’s the point. They’re saying, “We knew how to protect ourselves. We knew how to sense danger coming. We knew how to do that.”
These were not naive, “primitive” people living in a place, who had no notion of higher-level intellectual things. No. That’s not who we were. We were not that.
We knew how to sense things. We knew how to tell danger coming. We knew how to extract healing from the forest. We knew how to do this. So when these strangers came, we were simply off our game. That’s what they said: “We were off our game.”
Now, [the Europeans] were wrong, absolutely, for coming. They were wrong for the way they treated us. They were wrong for enslaving us. That is absolutely true. There’s nothing that can make that anything other than true. They were absolutely, positively wrong.
What it’s saying is, while that is also true, what is true on our part is that we had compromised too much of our own principle and too much of our own standard to make this even possible.
Bill Lamar: It just adds so much texture to the way that we think about our present, as well as our past. I want you to share a little bit about your own reality in the church. I mean, you are a man of faith, of deep faith and commitment in that reality. Can you talk with us about that?
Daniel Black: Sure. I’m absolutely a man of faith. I’m a man who believes in the complement between the visible and the invisible. I am a man who believes that when one really understands this notion of what it means to have purpose and to have consciousness, that one gains a quality of life that no material thing can match. I absolutely believe that.
I’m also one who believes in the stalwart power and necessity of the black church. You know, the black church has really been historically the only institution we own, the only place where we could go when we were kicked out of all other places. The civil rights movement would never have happened without the black church.
But I’m saying something else, too. I’m saying that the black church also as an institution -- not a particular church but the black church itself as an institution -- is absolutely critical, I think, to the survival of black people. But if we’re not careful, in this contemporary moment, I’m not sure most of us see this.
Most of us are too busy being tied into the whole argument of whether you believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior. Do you have to be baptized in the name of Jesus or in the name of the Holy Ghost? Do you have to go down under the water; can sprinkling be enough? We’re caught up in these details, which really don’t translate into spiritual insight anyway. Right? It’s really useless babbling.
But I’m saying the institution itself, for what it has taught culturally, the institution of the church really gave black people self-worth, gave black people dignity. It taught black children confidence.
How did they do that? Black kids, there was a day when black kids had to do things -- Easter speeches. There was a way they taught you to stand before people. They taught you to speak loudly, to hold your head up, to make sure you learn those lines. “Say them clearly, young man.”
Those kinds of things, they were teaching us. They were preparing us to stand in a world that did not believe in the excellence -- or even didn’t believe in the possibility -- of our humanity. But that wasn’t so much about God. That was about the culture. That was about us believing in ourselves. And the black church as an institution absolutely taught that. It taught economic solvency. It taught forms of leadership.
It even perpetuated good culinary skills. All of us know if you were in the black church the best cooking was going to happen on certain days of the year. You know? And I’m saying all of this to say: those cultural remnants I would beg us, beg us not to lose. But I don’t see them being stored or being kept anywhere other than the black church right now.
I’ve had my issues philosophically with the black church and some of the foolishness that we teach -- “That’s what God said” and all that, and “The Bible is the only word of God.” I don’t believe any of that.
What I do believe, though, is we need the institution itself. Now, let’s overhaul it. Certainly. But my God, let’s not get rid of it.
I go to church absolutely every week. But one of the things that I think has been a serious deficit for us as black people is we have a lot of black scholars who critique the church, but they don’t attend it.
And I think that’s a deficit of sight. I’m not sure how accurate one’s sight is if one is not in the middle of what you’re reporting about. We need our scholars’ insight in the church. I know what the church has done to scholars. I know what the church has done to intellectual inquiry. I’m enormously clear about that.
And still, I would say we need to fight the battle, because we need our thinkers in our spiritual places. But from what I see, most black scholars -- very solidly, I believe that most black scholars have abandoned the walls of the black church. But I think that’s to our detriment. Because the truth of the matter is I’m not sure what other institutions are being built that would take its place. And you cannot sustain a culture, you cannot sustain a people, you cannot sustain a nation without institutions.
Bill Lamar: Say more about institutions, because our listeners work in institutions, Christian institutions. What is your understanding, your theology, your philosophy of institutions? That would be very helpful.
Daniel Black: Sure. I think that an institution is an organization or is a body that people come together and create, whose purpose is not for any particular person but to perpetuate the collective ethos of a people. Institutions -- it can be church, it can be schools, can be social clubs, etc., -- but the point of the institution is to perpetuate the idea and the excellence of the people themselves. It should outlive any one person.
But for all practical purposes, when the people come together, they create an organism that could not exist with any one person alone, and that organism is the thing I’m calling an institution. And every culture has it. I’m clear about why institutions are critical, but I’m also clear that we won’t survive without them, because no one person can do the work of the transformation of a people. That takes an organ, or organism, that is bigger than any one person has the strength to do.
Bill Lamar: Dan, when I consider the titles of your work -- “They Tell Me of a Home,” which is a piece of that great James Cleveland song “Uncloudy Day”; “The Sacred Place”; “Perfect Peace,” which comes from Scripture; “Listen to the Lambs” -- all of this is drenched in religious language, gospel language. Tell me about your work and how it is so connected and drenched in that reality.
Daniel Black: The first thing I’ll say is that music has been the healing balm for black people throughout the diaspora. In many cases, the reason we survived is because we had a song. See, music does for the heart what reading does for the head. Music does for the heart what reading does for the head.
And we have needed heart surgery from the time we stepped off those slave ships, because our hearts have been so wounded. Our hearts have been dismissed; our hearts have been degraded; our hearts have been damned. And what music does is give the heart, if you will, back its life. And specifically, the music of the spirit, the music of the church, this thing we call gospel music, spirituals. You know, all our music has its root in the gospel, in the spiritual. Whether it’s blues, jazz, hip-hop -- the root is the spiritual, and the spiritual was really trying to tease through this question of, “What lesson is God trying to teach me?”
And so, you know, I’m a musician; I’m a gospel musician. I’m a choir director, and I see in so much gospel music where the black heart is crying out and trying to ask God the question of, “God, am I doing this right? Are you proud of me, God? God, do I look like you yet? Are you hearing my cry, oh God? Are you going to cover me? Are you going to take care of what I cannot handle?”
It’s all of these conversations between the visible and the invisible, because black people believe that there is as much real in the invisible as in visible places. And so our music perpetuates this notion. It perpetuates this narrative.
And so my books, you’re right, do have these titles which bespeak our connection to music and musicality. And I’m suggesting that music is really the thing that keeps blood flowing to our hearts every day.
Bill Lamar: Could you share with me as a teacher, as a musician, as an author, as a man of faith -- what practices ground you, give you energy, remind you of who you are and who God is?
Daniel Black: I visit the water often, whether it’s beaches, lakes, rivers, streams. I visit water often. I’m a fisherman, so I love to fish. But often when I’m at the water, I’m in conversation with God. I’m in conversation with the Spirit. You know, water as the life-giving substance has a way of bringing clarity. It has a way of helping me, at least, to think things -- to put them in their proper context, to not let the details overwhelm the big picture. So I’m often, often, often at the water.
The other thing that I do is I attend choir rehearsal regularly. Being in music, being in gospel music particularly, has a way of grounding, has a way of reminding me that “trouble don’t last always.” It has a way of helping me be clear that the things I’m in the middle of or the things I might be going through have a function and have a purpose and I’ll be better for it afterward.
This group of people, Ndugu Nzinga, we meet weekly. And that gathering of people, that connecting to other human souls in a spiritual place, with all of our imperfections -- when we gather, the way we love on each other, the way we touch each other, the way we hold each other’s hands, the way we sing together -- that human connection, that touch, does everything of restoring my divinity and my clarity that I have worth and value as a human being.
Bill Lamar: Finally, my brother, the name of this podcast is “Can These Bones.” What does that phrase bring to mind for you?
Daniel Black: What’s funny is when I first heard of this podcast, when I first received information and the invitation to be part of this podcast and I saw that title, I loved it.
Because, of course, I know that scripture, that story in the Bible about the bones, you know, the folks -- these bones, and the valley of dry bones. And the thing that’s amazing to me about the image -- “can these bones” -- it’s like there’s this interstitial space.
See, bones mean there was once beingness; there was once life here. But what bones also suggest is, and it can be again.
Bones, to me, kind of exist in this liminal space between that which was and that which can be, right? We can dress up the bones; we can put flesh back on the bones, metaphorically, if need be, and we can live again. Or we can let these bones deteriorate, and let all life leave from this space.
But when I heard the question, I felt like it was asking, Can we as -- not just black people -- can we as human beings in America, can we thrive again? Is there a new way of being that would honor all of us? Isn’t there a way that we can love that we have not done before? Isn’t there some means by which we can hold and touch each other that is more excellent and more beautiful and, even in its vulnerability, is more divine than what we did yesterday? Can’t these bones live again -- these bones, this fragmented place called America? Can’t we be more excellent than we’ve imagined before?
And absolutely we can. Absolutely we can, if we will do the work of telling the truth, of being honest with each other, being honest about the way we’ve wounded each other, but also being honest about the unbelievable power we have to create the world that I think God created us to create. God is not going to do it. God created us to do it, and either we’ll do it or we won’t have it.
And I think the question, “Can these bones?” is asking that question. Are we willing to pull together and to do a new thing, a brand new thing, a much more marvelous thing?
And hey, I’m ready for the work, brother. I hope I began or am perpetuating that work through this book “The Coming.”
Bill Lamar: You’re a gift to us, and we hope that those listening will be motivated to get “The Coming” and your other work and to participate in the new world that I believe God is creating through your work and the work of so many others. So thank you very much.
Daniel Black: Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Rev. Lamar, for having me. And thank you for doing this podcast. And thank you, sir, for believing that these bones can in fact live again. Because the truth of the matter is if we don’t believe that, we should shut down every institution, we should close every book, we should even give up our breath.
Bill Lamar: There you go again. Thank you, brother, thank you.
Daniel Black: Yes, sir. We’ll talk soon.
Laura Everett: That was my co-host Bill Lamar speaking with the writer Daniel Black.
That was such a rich and robust and wide-ranging interview. There are so many places we could dig in, but I want to start by asking you about this genre-bending work that Daniel Black does as a researcher, a historian, a novelist, and a poet and a musician.
For those of us who defy easy categories, talk to me about what it means for you to be in conversation with Daniel Black and the way he’s moving as an academic and an artist.
Bill Lamar: The first thing I have to say is that Daniel Black is a human being. He does not wear a cape. He does not go into telephone booths and change his garments. He is a human being.
He’s so present spiritually, so present intellectually and so present relationally that he is a polymath. He can do so many things well.
And one of the things I learned from him is if you sit still and if you don’t categorize yourself -- you don’t say, “I’m just a pastor; I’m just a Christian institutional leader” -- if you allow your imagination to grip you at the intersection of all of your giftedness, you’d be surprised at what you are capable of producing.
And so for Dan, the story of “The Coming” was gift given to him that he gives to us. It was a means of recovering the humanity of people who were listed simply as cargo or simply as the enslaved. And I think that this ancestral gift that Dan gives is not just trapped in the pages of “The Coming” and some of his other work and other manifestations of his creativity and artistry, but it is how Dan deals with human beings.
For him, every human being has a story worth being told, a story worth capturing and a story worth sharing. And his means of wrapping all of that up in one package of boundless energy teaches pastors and teaches Christian institutional leaders that we must be the spaces and places for people to share their stories.
Especially those whose stories might not be told or might be disrespected because of race, because of gender, because of socioeconomic status, or just because somebody is weird. Because people can be mean, and people marginalize others. Dan’s work shares with all of us, in our perspective as leaders, that the world is a poorer place when stories are not told and humanity is not given a chance to shine.
This work was so transformative for me, Laura, that it went from the book that all of the Howard University freshmen read to the book that Metropolitan AME Church is reading together in this new year. We are going to be discussing it and thinking ourselves about how we can be channels and midwives of the greatest dreams and fondest hopes of our ancestors. Their dreams and hopes were human hopes. Before and beyond categorizations that separate us was hope for human freedom, for human thriving, human dignity. And all of those things excite me to no end, especially given the status of the world in which we live.
Laura Everett: Bill, that act of naming, of unearthing the names of those who were simply listed as cargo, or as goods, is such a sacred act -- a scriptural act, really. We see so often in the stories of our faith that the act of naming grants dignity and agency.
And I’m really struck by Dan sitting with those ship manifests, the slave ship manifests, and imagining, inviting the names of those who were merely listed as numbers to come to him.
It is an act of pastoral imagination to notice those who go unnamed. It’s what we do on Sundays, right? I mean, that’s what we do in prayer. And what we do when we read the newspaper carefully is to notice who is going unnamed and invite ourselves to research and imagine and think into their experience. I found that a deeply profound gift, the way Daniel Black talked about his work.
Bill Lamar: One of the things that need to be said is that Dan Black gives permission through his artistry and his giftedness for us to not be afraid or ashamed to engage the world spiritually. I really believe that many of us in the church are afraid to engage the world spiritually or to speak in spiritual terms. I think that we speak in terms of the things that are tangible and can be counted.
But people come into our institutions, whether they name it or not -- whether they can name it or whether they’re comfortable naming it, they are seeking an encounter with God. They are seeking encounters with the divine -- even those, again, as I said, who would shudder at mentioning that kind of language.
So what excites me so much about Dan is that Dan is the one who was willing in this work to sit with the pain. Because he talks about often, in the interview, and in other venues where we have spoken, the pain of his having to do this work -- it crippling him, him not being able to work for days on end because of the clarity with which the ancestors communicated with him spiritually.
Here’s the thing: he’s not just making stuff up, but he spent 10 years researching primary documents, seeing things that some people had not seen or that very few people had seen. So this profound spirituality does not come being disconnected from tradition. It does not come sitting in our rooms making stuff up, but it is an encounter with human wisdom and a human reality beyond our categories of description, beyond physicality, beyond the tangible.
And I think that there is a tyranny of the tangible in the church that will weaken us, especially in this day when Christendom is disintegrating. We cannot expect the culture to push people to a church. The church’s proclamation and the power of the God to whom we bear witness must drive people to the church, and that requires a depth of spirituality. And Daniel Black is at the forefront of that kind of work.
Laura Everett: I am captivated by the artistry of this, too. He certainly -- I mean, he could have written a historical record of the lives of those who were enslaved and in the belly of those ships. But instead, he made the decision that the genre-bending -- that no single genre would do, and that he needed to allow the African voices to speak in their own mode.
That conversation actually reminded me a little of some of the conversations in the church about inclusive and expansive language, and about the sort of multisensory, multimodal ways that we come to understand our lives in Christ, that it does not do to just work in one way.
And Bill, I need this, too. I’ve said to colleagues recently, “If there isn’t artistry in this work, I’m done. I’m out. I cannot do it.” Seriously! If it’s just about learning “the 12 best things to get your board to do what you want them to do” or “the five easy steps for financial solvency” -- like, I’m done. I need the kind of artistry and the kind of multimodality that Daniel Black is practicing in his own life, and the attentive listening to the voices that not only have been suppressed but have gone unnamed. I need that.
And the place that convicted me in this so much was when Daniel said that this is not simply a black story; this is an American story. And that there were as many whites on the ships as blacks, but they were in a different place.
That conversation about universality that you two engaged in, this sort of parsing of what we think of as a black experience or a white experience, and that I as a white person somehow have no need to know the history of Africans coming to this country -- that that is an American experience, and part of what I need to understand about how my whiteness comes to be defined at that moment in the middle passage.
Bill Lamar: And what’s fascinating is, you know, the whiteness is defined in opposition to. And the sad thing, the theft and poverty of our world in regard to human exchange, comes in large part because of the tyranny of normativeness of whiteness that Dan and I almost -- if we were white, talking about white things, there would not need to be an argument about its universality, because its universality is assumed.
And that is part of the difficulty of the church and the broader body politic’s language, because what is assumed as universal is not. All voices are necessary to point us to the universality.
And one more thing that I really think is important: what Dan does is what each leader in institutions and churches must do, and that is return agency to the people, the way that [Ronald] Heifetz, on leadership, talks about giving work back to the people.
[Daniel Black] is clear that these Africans were agents before the middle passage. He spends time talking about how they were scientists, how they were astronomers, how they were philosophers and theologians and agriculturalists, and how they did wonderful things, and how their looking away from themselves made them vulnerable. Their looking away made them vulnerable to the horrors that came.
So he does not hide from their vulnerabilities. He restores to them their full humanity, and they remain fully human even in the most dehumanizing situations.
One of the threads that you pull from that into his experience in the black church, or my own -- he talked about giving Easter speeches. We talked about that, laughed about that -- that what the black church has offered to black people in this space is, “OK, no matter what you see, what you hear, you are human. You are capable of learning beautiful things and writing beautiful things. You’re capable of speaking beautifully and changing the world. The world is yours. You are not being acted upon. You are an actor in this space, and you can continue to act and to take agency.”
I think a weakness in our institutional and church lives is that we rob people of agency. Give people the space for them to speak and for the glory of God to shine through them.
One of the church elders and doctors is reported to have said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. And I think that as we offer persons spaces to be fully alive, our churches will thrive, our institutions will thrive -- not without complexity, not without difficulty -- but you will have a place aglow with human beings are fully alive. And God indeed is present in that kind of space.
Laura Everett: Amen. Amen and amen. Listeners, you have heard the benediction from the Rev. Dr. Bill Lamar. Your reading assignment is “The Coming,” by Daniel Black. Thank you so much for this conversation.
Bill Lamar: An absolute thrill. Thank you for listening to “Can These Bones.” There’s more about Dr. Daniel Black, including video of him reading his work, on our website, www.canthesebones.com.
Who are we talking with next time?
Laura Everett: It’s a really interesting conversation with my friend Marty St. George, who is an executive vice president for commercial and planning at JetBlue.
Bill Lamar: I can’t wait.
Laura Everett: Sounds good.
“Can These Bones” is brought to you by Faith & Leadership, a learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. It’s produced by Sally Hicks, Kelly Ryan and Dave Odom. Our theme music is by Blue Dot Sessions, and Daniel Black’s interview was recorded at Clark Atlanta University. Funding is provided by Lilly Endowment Inc.
Listeners, we want to hear from you. We invite you to share your thoughts about this podcast and the stories we’re discussing on social media. I’m on Twitter @RevEverett, and you can find my colleague Bill @WilliamHLamarIV. You can also find us through our website, www.canthesebones.com.
I’m Laura Everett, and this is “Can These Bones.”
This transcript has been edited for clarity.