The Philanthropists Behind Early Black Institutions

Guest post by Tamika Y. Nunley, author of At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, and Shifting Identities in Washington, D.C.

I remember the day I went into the archives at Howard University where librarians generously gave me access to a lovely rendering of Alethia Browning Tanner, a formerly enslaved woman who earned enough income to purchase her own freedom. Once she became legally free, she continued to build her local enterprise selling goods in the local market in Washington, D.C. Tanner used her earnings to purchase the freedom of her sister along with her sister’s five children at a time when Black women’s income earning prospects were limited to a narrow set of options.  Tanner is an important example of the degree to which women like her maximized the possibilities of enslaved and free Black women’s informal economies. After she secured the freedom of several generations of her family members, Tanner began the work of supporting the education and spiritual edification of people within her network of kin.

Portrait of Alethia Browning Tanner. Cook Family Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

Tanner provided financial support for her nieces and nephews as they sought educational and broader employment opportunities. Tanner’s nephew John Cook was one such beneficiary of her generosity, and he became one of Washington’s most prominent educators. This tradition of philanthropy ran in the family. Tanner’s sister Sophia Browning purchased the freedom of her husband George Bell, who established the first school for African Americans in the District. The Browning, Bell and Cook families provided decades of support and leadership in Washington’s Black schools at a time when African Americans were excluded from the District’s public schools. Black residents not only paid taxes to support the schools they were excluded from but worked tirelessly to financially support the establishment of schools for their own.

Alethia Tanner not only appeared in the school records of Washington, but also in the records of the religious institutions of the city. When a group of members belonging to the racially segregated Ebenezer Church decided to establish a separate congregation, the group founded Israel Bethel Colored Methodist Church. When the church faced financial hurdles, Tanner and her brother-in-law purchased the church to address any debts owed. When Tanner’s nephew, John Cook founded Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, she served as the first woman to officially join the church and appears in records as a “Class Leader.” The fundraising committee of the church organized efforts to purchase a plot of land and they recorded Tanner as the only woman donor with the distinction of making the second highest contribution. Both Israel Bethel and Union Bethel merged to become present-day Metropolitan AME church, the oldest continuously operating church in the District of Columbia, a former haven for fugitive slaves, the church home of Elizabeth Keckly and Frederick Douglass, a place of worship for former US presidents, but significantly, a hub of spiritual edification and political activism for African Americans in the nation’s capital. The essence of philanthropy is generosity that centers the welfare of others. Black women like Alethia Browning Tanner, who confronted scarcity and limitations profoundly shaped by slavery, invested their earnings to support some of the nation’s most vibrant African American institutions and traditions.

Tamika Y. Nunley is assistant professor of history and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.

Five Weekly Reads for Black History Month: Biographies of Notable Women

This week for our Black History Month reading list series we are featuring five biographies of groundbreaking women who challenged and altered the course of Black life in the United States, from the 20th and into the current century.

For more background on the founding and annual themes of Black History Month, check out the website of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Save 40% on all UNC Press books with discount code 01DAH40. Visit the sale page to browse more recommended titles in African American History, or view our full list of books in African American Studies.

Pauli Murray: A Personal and Political Life
by Troy R. Saxby

The Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray (1910–1985) was a trailblazing social activist, writer, lawyer, civil rights organizer, and campaigner for gender rights. In the 1930s and 1940s, she was active in radical left-wing political groups and helped innovate nonviolent protest strategies against segregation that would become iconic in later decades, and in the 1960s, she cofounded the National Organization for Women (NOW). In addition, Murray became the first African American to receive a Yale law doctorate and the first black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest.

Half in Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Nellie Y. McKay
by Shanna Greene Benjamin

Nellie Y. McKay (1930–2006) was a pivotal figure in contemporary American letters. The author of several books, McKay is best known for coediting the canon-making Norton Anthology of African American Literature with Henry Louis Gates Jr., which helped secure a place for the scholarly study of Black writing that had been ignored by white academia. However, there is more to McKay’s life and legacy than her literary scholarship. After her passing, new details about McKay’s life emerged, surprising everyone who knew her. 

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical
by Sherie M. Randolph

Often photographed in a cowboy hat with her middle finger held defiantly in the air, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (1916–2000) left a vibrant legacy as a leader of the Black Power and feminist movements. In the first biography of Kennedy, Sherie M. Randolph traces the life and political influence of this strikingly bold and controversial radical activist. 

In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James & Grace Lee Boggs
by Stephen M. Ward

James Boggs (1919-1993) and Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015) were two largely unsung but critically important figures in the black freedom struggle. Born and raised in Alabama, James Boggs came to Detroit during the Great Migration, becoming an automobile worker and a union activist. Grace Lee was a Chinese American scholar who studied Hegel, worked with Caribbean political theorist C. L. R. James, and moved to Detroit to work toward a new American revolution. As husband and wife, the couple was influential in the early stages of what would become the Black Power movement, laying the intellectual foundation for racial and urban struggles during one of the most active social movement periods in recent U.S. history.

Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision
by Barbara Ransby

In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Ella Baker’s long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. 


“A beautiful ode to a grande dame of Southern cuisine.”—Edna Lewis: At the Table with an American Original, Now in Paperback

Guest blog post by Sarah B. Franklin, editor of Edna Lewis: At the Table with An American Original

Edna Lewis: At the Table with An American Original is a collection of 20 essays by chefs, food writers, and scholars that examine and celebrate the life, legacy, and boundary-breaking politics of chef and cookbook author, Edna Lewis, considered the Grand Dame of Southern Cooking, one of the progenitors of Black food writing, and an early advocate of sustainable agriculture and farm-to-table practices. Much has been written about Lewis in recent years—some excellent, some misinformed (Lewis’s legacy is, in truth, shrouded in mystery, as her papers still haven’t been made public), but there’s still much to say and a lot of fresh framework that can be applied to Lewis’s story and her relevance today.

Some thoughts for how this might fit into current cultural journalism:

Part of why I believe there’s a chance to renew interest in the book is because of its form; it’s, in effect, a conversation (its format became the basis for the Splendid Table episode on Lewis, which has become one of their most listened-to episodes of all time), which means it’s ongoing; given the chance, I could easily add another 20 essays from another 20 individuals to the book, and it could go on like that forever.

In terms of pegs to the moment, I’m particularly interested in plugging this book into conversations around 2020’s events raising awareness around the urgent need for reparations, land redistribution, and the limitations of capitalism to address systemic racism. Lewis was raised in a community that attempted to reject the cash economy as its basis of survival and, thus, its measure of self-worth. She was an early advocate for food sovereignty, an idea that, as you know, has gained a ton of traction in recent years. She is (quietly) known as a lifelong communist, who dipped in and out of official politics. Her stance on food is borne of these experiences and beliefs. 

I firmly believe we’re only beginning to see the fallout of this past year’s disruptions, uprisings, and awakenings, and that this book speaks right into the radical possibilities that have long been experimented with, and cultivated by, marginalized communities who have been denied opportunities within more conventional, white-supremacist capitalist systems and structures.

2020 also brought into stark relief how critical developing local and regional food systems is as an urgent matter not only of dealing with food access in the here and now, but preparing for future disruptions in supply chains (pandemics, natural disasters, socio-political conflicts, and, of course, the steady march of climate change). The past 10 months have brought rapid and innovative responses in food distribution, and have highlighted the importance and exceptional nimbleness of smaller-scale regional food growing and distributing operations, as opposed to industrial-scale, centralized ones. 

On a more personal note, I’m going to be donating 100% of proceeds to three organization that do direct-impact work around immediate and long-term food security in communities of color: Soul Fire Farm (Upstate NY), Alma Backyard Farms (Los Angeles CA), and the Black Feminist Project (Bronx NY).

Sara B. Franklin is a writer and food studies scholar teaching at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study.

BAR Book Forum: Yelena Bailey’s “How the Streets Were Made”

This post was originally featured in Black Agenda Report, and has been reblogged with permission.

By Roberto Sirvent, BAR Book Forum Editor

The streets permeate dominant understandings of Blackness, and the life-and-death consequences of these perceptions are at the heart of this book.

Even Breonna Taylor was not safe in her own home from the way the streets have shaped perceptions of Blackness and Black rights.”

In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Yelena Bailey. Bailey is the Director of Education Policy at the State of Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board. Her book is How the Streets Were Made: Housing Segregation and Black Life in America.

Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?

Yelena Bailey: When George Floyd was murdered in my city on May 25, I was going through the final copyedits of the manuscript. While anti-Black violence at the hands of police is not new, this scale of social uprisings in response is. Six months have passed, and the media has moved on to other environmental and political disasters, but the realities and conditions that produced George Floyd’s murder persist. Floyd was racialized as violent, fraudulent, and poor because his Blackness signified to outsiders that he belonged to the streets and all the negative meanings associated with them. Even Breonna Taylor was not safe in her own home from the way the streets have shaped perceptions of Blackness and Black rights. This becomes abundantly clear when one considers the way their right to life is being attacked posthumously through anti-Black narratives that blame their deaths on involvement with drugs. The waythe streets have evolved to permeate dominant understandings of Blackness, and the life-and-death consequences of these perceptions are at the heart of this project. For over 10 years, protestors have been physically occupying the streets of cities like Ferguson and Minneapolis, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” This declaration of power over space is at the heart of my project. Black protestors are not simply proclaiming their physical right to be in certain spaces, but also their right to exist and be understood in specific ways in those spaces. 

Image: Public Domain

What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?

For me, a large part of writing this book was to solidify and articulate truths I had long known experientially. I have always known that the way I am understood as a Black person, regardless of where I physically am, is shaped by the perceived connection between Blackness and the streets. I hope activists and community organizers will, like me, find clarity in the framework I provide for understanding these experiences. I also hope they will take inspiration from the long history of Black authors and artists who have used creative mediums to carve out spaces of discursive autonomy. Black art and politics are inextricably linked, so I hope the works I explore inspire activists to find new ways of resisting anti-Blackness.

We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?

I think this largely depends on who is reading the book, because some may find confirmation and analysis of what they already knew to be true through experience, while others will come face to face with a brand new way of understanding Black urban space. Regardless of which end of the spectrum a reader is on, I hope readers will un-learn the tendency to analyze public policy through purely economic or sociological lenses. While these are important, and I address them in the book, policy and power operate through culture and we must analyze the ways in which these structures intersect and collude. I also hope readers will un-learn the idea that reparations and redress are impractical. I spend a lot of time on this in the conclusion and I walk through the key points in public discourse on reparations and redress over the last 50 years. I devote a portion of my conclusion to discussing the Kerner Commission, not as a prime example of redress, but rather to illustrate that even basic reform efforts in the 1960s acknowledged the need for economic action. Of course, real redress must move beyond reform and address the social, cultural, and economic impact of geographic segregation. I hope readers will un-learn the tendency to see this as a pipe dream and embrace it as a necessary reality.

Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?

Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to hear Toni Morrison is my ultimate intellectual hero. As an author, theorist, and philosopher, no one surpasses her. More directly though, I found inspiration in Katherine McKittrick’s and George Lipsitz’s work on cultural geography. McKittrick in particular encourages readers to think about the radical resistance that takes place in and on Black geographies. I also found inspiration in James Baldwin’s work, as well as Assata Shakur’s reflections on Baldwin and her life in New York. Similarly, my book is in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and Ann Petry’s works. Although writing decades apart, both of these authors theorized the streets as something more than a physical landscape. 

In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?

This is a question I really tried to wrestle with in the book. I, like many of my generation, have a tendency to identify a problem or theorize the nature of a reality – like the existence of the streets as a sociocultural entity – without really meditating on how to respond. I tried to push past this tendency by first analyzing the way Black artists themselves have responded to the reality of the streets by imagining them as sites of new, countercultural identities. For instance, in the chapter on hood genre films, I examine Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight  as a reimaging of the genre that recasts the streets as a space of complex self-fulfillment. I think that the film does an excellent job of avoiding “fix it” narratives that situate urban Black life as a problem in need of a solution. Instead, it imagines a world in which tenderness and hustling are not mutually exclusive. In the conclusion of the book, I discuss the topic of redress and reparations more broadly. While my book looks at the streets through an interdisciplinary lens, I try to make it clear that the history of the streets is one of economic disenfranchisement. A new world that offers redress for decades of anti-Black policies is one that involves economic, ideological, and cultural reckoning. 

Yelena Bailey is director of education policy at the State of Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.

Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics , where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project .

To Renew American Democracy, Look to Black Freedom Fighters like Lawrence Reddick

Guest post by David A. Varel, author of The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power

The Trump era has made painfully clear how much the United States needs to revitalize its democracy. There is no better guide to doing so than African Americans, who have labored ceaselessly to make American founding ideals of freedom, justice, and equality real in practice.

As I show in my new biography of Lawrence Reddick (1910-1995), a close understanding of one little-known but consequential Black scholar-activist—placed against the evolving backdrop of the modern civil rights movement—goes a long way toward clarifying the radically democratic nature of the Black freedom struggle. We need the wisdom and inspiration from this struggle now more than ever.

Why This History Matters

Most Americans don’t know much about their nation’s history, much less the experience of marginalized groups within it. As a result, journalists, politicians, and media pundits play an outsized role in framing how they understand race in America.

This is a problem, because even the best journalism is no replacement for broad-based historical understanding. Last year’s protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd are a case in point. They speak both to the accomplishments of history education so far and to its still untapped potential.

Specifically, the protests for Black lives have been larger and more multicultural than ever, underlining how historical knowledge about marginalized groups has helped young Americans see all that remains to be done to create a just society.

Yet the dramatic protests that unfolded across the nation and the world also scared many other Americans, especially when Republicans predictably exploited the relatively rare instances of looting and violence (often among outside groups) to frame the whole movement as hateful and dangerous. Public support for Black Lives Matter ebbed after reaching unprecedentedly high levels earlier last summer, and preliminary survey results from the election suggest that the protests influenced the decision of many conservatives to vote for Trump.

As President Biden works to build a coalition to confront racial injustice, a longer and deeper view of the Black freedom struggle is needed. This is where history must step in.

Lawrence Reddick, Pioneering Black Scholar and Activist

Reddick was an activist who both participated in and helped organize some of the most dramatic protests of the civil rights era, including the 1963 March on Washington. As one of the founders and longtime board members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Reddick mentored Martin Luther King Jr. throughout his entire public life, helped craft his speeches, wrote the first biography of King (Crusader without Violence, 1958), travelled with him to India, Oslo, and Africa, and helped spearhead the mass protests that made SCLC famous. He was never far from the most memorable figures and events that Americans continue to associate most with the civil rights movement.

Yet by foregrounding Reddick and his generally behind-the-scenes intellectual work over decades rather than only the most dramatic protests and speeches of the 1950s and 1960s, we gain a better sense of what the freedom struggle was and is really about.

For one thing, Reddick illustrates the righteous but also tedious and painstaking work that underpins Black activism. The arguing over strategy, the crafting of language for speeches and press releases, the documenting and archiving of protest activities, the fundraising, and the quiet building of relationships with ordinary people on the ground are the lifeblood of any movement. The dramatic moments and violent clashes with segregationists (like today’s clashes with police and white supremacists), may be useful in awakening some white Americans to the oppression experienced by African Americans, but they are in many ways an afterthought to the real work of building a more democratic society from the ground up and pushing the country to live up to its founding principles.

Similarly, Reddick’s long career helps us see how the emphasis on charismatic leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. leads to a truncated view of the struggle. Black activists at the time and since have understood this. That’s why Ella Baker left SCLC early on and helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which adopted a group-centered style of leadership meant to empower each individual to act. This is the same style as today’s Movement for Black Lives, which is why the movement is so diffuse, diverse, and vibrant.

The Long Black Freedom Struggle

Although Reddick very much committed to the King-centered style of charismatic leadership in the Sixties (seeing in him a rare opportunity to cast the always controversial movement in an utterly respectable light), a focus on Reddick himself rather than King is instructive. For instance, Reddick was part of an older generation of activists who proved invaluable to King’s generation. We still tend to view King as this exceptional figure whose moral principles transcended time and place, but it is more productive to see him as a person whose ideas and methods were historically specific and molded by his elders.

Reddick was one of those elders. As a historian by training, he offered King a longer view of the Black freedom struggle. And as part of the Double Victory campaign against fascism at home and abroad during World War II, the Pan-African and decolonization movements during the Cold War, and as a friend and Phi Beta Sigma fraternity brother of Kwame Nkrumah (the first president of Ghana) and Nnamdi Azikiwe (the first president of Nigeria), Reddick helped King and the other young ministers of SCLC understand their movement as only one part of a global struggle for human rights and self-determination. Today’s activists have not forgotten this.

Reddick himself came to his broader view by becoming an integral part of the Depression-era Black history movement led by Carter G. Woodson, who institutionalized the study of African-descended peoples through his Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Journal of Negro History, and Negro History Week (later Month). Here Reddick did such thankless work as microfilming Black historical newspapers and collecting the testimony of former slaves and Black servicemen. These quiet efforts were in fact essential components of the civil rights struggle. They recovered Black perspectives throughout history and allowed African Americans to better understand who they were, what obstacles lay in front of them, and how they could push closer to that ever-elusive goal of true equality.

In pursuit of that same goal, today’s Black Lives Matter activists are embodying the spirit that moved Reddick to act so productively throughout his indelibly twentieth-century life. Like his, their work is best understood as a radical investment in a better future—for all of us.

Once we step away from the headlines and open up our history books, we can’t miss that.

David A. Varel is a historian and author of two books: The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); and The Lost Black Scholar: Resurrecting Allison Davis in American Social Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

Five Weekly Reads for Black History Month: Recently Released Highlights

It’s the first day of Black History Month, and over the course of the next four weeks are celebrating books new and old that focus on Black life and culture.

For more background on the founding and annual themes of Black History Month, check out the website of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Today we’re happy to share a handful of recent titles in Black history, all published in Fall/Winter 2020.

Save 40% on all UNC Press books with discount code 01DAH40. Visit the sale page to browse more recommended titles in African American History, or view our full list of books in African American Studies.


I Don't Like the Blues: Race, Place & the Backbeat of Black Life by B. Brian Foster

I Don’t Like the Blues: Race, Place & the Backbeat of Black Life
by B. Brian Foster

In this illuminating work, Foster takes us where not many blues writers and scholars have gone: into the homes, memories, speculative visions, and lifeworlds of Black folks in contemporary Mississippi to hear what they have to say about the blues and all that has come about since their forebears first sang them. In so doing, Foster urges us to think differently about race, place, and community development and models a different way of hearing the sounds of Black life, a method that he calls listening for the backbeat.

Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell by Alison M. Parker

Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell
by Alison M. Parker

Born into slavery during the Civil War, Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) would become one of the most prominent activists of her time, with a career bridging the late nineteenth century to the civil rights movement of the 1950s. The first president of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP, Terrell collaborated closely with the likes of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois. ###Unceasing Militant# is the first full-length biography of Terrell, bringing her vibrant voice and personality to life.

The Scholar and the Struggle: Lawrence Reddick’s Crusade for Black History and Black Power
by David A. Varel

Lawrence Reddick (1910–1995) was among the most notable African American intellectuals of his generation. In The Scholar and the Struggle, David A. Varel tells Reddick’s compelling story. His biography reveals the many essential but underappreciated roles played by intellectuals in the black freedom struggle and connects the past to the present in powerful, unforgettable ways.

To Make the Wounded Whole: The African American Struggle Against HIV/AIDS
by Dan Royles

In the decades since it was identified in 1981, HIV/AIDS has devastated African American communities. Members of those communities mobilized to fight the epidemic and its consequences from the beginning of the AIDS activist movement. They struggled not only to overcome the stigma and denial surrounding a “white gay disease” in Black America, but also to bring resources to struggling communities that were often dismissed as too “hard to reach.” To Make the Wounded Whole offers the first history of African American AIDS activism in all of its depth and breadth.

Visualizing Equality: African American Rights and Visual Culture in the Nineteenth Century
by Aston Gonzalez

The fight for racial equality in the nineteenth century played out not only in marches and political conventions but also in the print and visual culture created and disseminated throughout the United States by African Americans. Advances in visual technologies—daguerreotypes, lithographs, cartes de visite, and steam printing presses—enabled people to see and participate in social reform movements in new ways. African American activists seized these opportunities and produced images that advanced campaigns for black rights. In this book, Aston Gonzalez charts the changing roles of African American visual artists as they helped build the world they envisioned.


#VirtualAHA: Meet the Acquisitions Editors

Today we welcome a guest post from members of the UNC Press acquisitions editorial team to accompany our 2021 virtual exhibit for the American Historical Association (AHA).

Keep reading to see how our editors approach their work with historian authors, and to learn about new and forthcoming history titles from UNC Press.


Especially in these turbulent times, we are sorry not to be able to gather in person with our many friends and colleagues who were scheduled to meet in Seattle at the 2021 American Historical Association meeting. But as we gather virtually in this new year and envision the role history plays in creating the present and future we wish to see, the history acquisitions team at UNC Press is eager to speak about our enduring commitment to the field and the sense of purpose we bring to our publishing work.

Who are we? Debbie Gershenowitz, Elaine Maisner, Brandon Proia, Mark Simpson-Vos, and Andrew Winters acquire books in history at UNC Press. While we hail from different backgrounds, places, and experiences, we share a deep love of history and a faith in its power as an agent of change. For us, history is continually open to reconsideration as sources are uncovered, reinterpreted, and recast. As we publish works that engage this process, we seek to challenge calcified assumptions and unearth new insights into the events and dynamics that shape our world to this day. We are dedicated to publishing books that expose, confront, and revise past injustices, that unearth tools and insights that can inform the struggles of today, and that fearlessly take on “hard history” from the bottom up. 

Continue Reading #VirtualAHA: Meet the Acquisitions Editors

Jack A. Draper III: Pibes and Moleques on the Soccer Field: The Parallel Stories of Maradona and Pelé, Argentina and Brazil

"The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer" by Mario Filho, Translated by Jack A. Draper III

Today we welcome a guest post from Jack A. Draper III, translator of The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer by Mario Filho, out April 2021 from UNC Press.

At turns lyrical, ironic, and sympathetic, Mario Filho’s chronicle of “the beautiful game” is a classic of Brazilian sports writing. Filho (1908–1966)—a famous Brazilian journalist after whom Rio’s Maracanã stadium is officially named—tells the Brazilian soccer story as a boundary-busting one of race relations, popular culture, and national identity. Now in English for the first time, the book highlights national debates about the inclusion of African-descended people in the body politic and situates early black footballers as key creators of Brazilian culture.

The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer will be available in paperback and ebook editions in April 2021, and can be pre-ordered now. Use code 01HOLIDAY on our website to receive 40% off during our annual holiday sale.


Pibes and Moleques on the Soccer Field: The Parallel Stories of Maradona and Pelé, Argentina and Brazil

Recently there has been a lot of discussion in Argentina and internationally about the legacy of Diego Armando Maradona, in the wake of his passing on November 25. Having just translated a book for UNC Press about Brazilian soccer history, Mario Filho’s The Black Man in Brazilian Soccer, I can’t help but note that the tales of Maradona as a player connect to a national mythology in strikingly similar ways to those of Brazilian soccer stars in their country. It’s all the more striking since Argentina and Brazil are so often pitted as rivals, not least the “who was the greatest” debate between Pelé and Maradona. There is something about the Río de la Plata regional (rioplatense) history that encompasses both of their stories, which are part of the nationalization of a sport imported by the British in both countries before the turn of the 20th century.

At its base, there is the idea of meritocracy in soccer which allows for social mobility for the poor and/or people of color. I say meritocracy because it is only of course a skilled elite that can achieve the pinnacles of a Maradona or Pelé, or even some fraction of their success and fame. And what kind of player of humble origins is the one who can make it big in the soccer world?

Continue Reading Jack A. Draper III: Pibes and Moleques on the Soccer Field: The Parallel Stories of Maradona and Pelé, Argentina and Brazil

In Support of Garrett Felber and Scholar-Activists Everywhere

UNC Press is proud to support the statement below from Senior Editor Brandon Proia, in response to the recent firing of historian and author Garrett Felber.


"Those Who Know Don't Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State" by Garrett Felber

This week I was dismayed to learn that the University of Mississippi has fired historian Garrett Felber. I have worked with Garrett for years now, both as his editor and as his collaborator in efforts to get books into the hands of those behind prison walls. I know first-hand that he is a formidable thinker, organizer, writer, and human being. His book, Those Who Know Don’t Say, introduced me to the notion of a “dialectics of discipline” between the captive and the captor, between organized repression and those who resist. It’s a straightforward concept: as repression changes its shape, resistance changes too.  

There have been far, far too many instances of repression of scholar-activists lately. As publishers, we have the responsibility of broadcasting scholars’ work to the wider world. When scholars face retaliation, particularly within the university itself, our responsibility increases.

Like so many others, I stand in solidarity with Garrett. I intend to amplify awareness about what’s happening and to urge others to channel their support to the Study and Struggle program, which serves those imprisoned in Mississippi. But there is more that can be done.

Moments of struggle also demand study. My colleagues at UNC Press and I understand that there are additional tools available to publishers, and in times like this it is our responsibility to use them. To that end, and with Garrett’s support, UNC Press is making Those Who Know Don’t Say freely available online. We hope that it will help inform the conversation about Garrett’s work, carceral history, and organizing for freedom of all kinds and on all fronts.

To access the free ebook, click here.


Early American Literature Book Prize for 2020

Lindsay DiCuirci
Photo by Brandon Chaney

Lindsay DiCuirci, Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), has been selected to receive the 2020 Early American Literature Book Prize, which is awarded in even calendar years to a first monograph published in the prior two years, and in odd years to a second or subsequent book. DiCuirci’s Colonial Revivals: The Nineteenth-Century Lives of Early American Books was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2019. The prize selection committee consisted of Early American Literature’s Co-Editor for Reviews, Katy Chiles; our Advisory Editor, Sandra Gustafson; incoming Chair of the Modern Language Association’s Early American Forum, Jordan Stein; and prior President of the Society of Early Americanists, Gordon Sayre, with EAL Editor Marion Rust as an ex officio member. We thank our publisher, the University of North Carolina Press, for continuing to support the award, which carries a $2,000 cash prize. It should be noted that there were more prize submissions this year than ever, due in large part to the stupendous work of EAL Assistant Editor Chinwe Morah.

Colonial Revivals: The Nineteenth-Century Lives of Early American Books by Lindsay DiCuirci

“Elegantly conceptualized” and “beautifully written,” in the words of one committee member, Colonial Revivals examines how the 19th century’s relation to the past shapes contemporary understandings of early American texts in unacknowledged ways. “Many of the major texts that early American literature scholars study,” elaborates a second, “were little known to Americans of the early Republic.” “Above all,” concludes a third, “DiCuirci illuminates the paths by which literary-historical works were lost and found, embraced and disavowed, recovered and reinvented in the period when a national imaginary was constructed, contested, and nearly destroyed.”

Continue Reading Early American Literature Book Prize for 2020

New Publicity Hires at UNC Press

The University of North Carolina Press announces the following changes in its Marketing Department.

It is a bittersweet moment for the Press to announce the retirement of long-time Publicity Director Regina Mahalek, who is retiring after 20 years of service.  During her tenure, Gina worked tirelessly for our authors and books, and led many successful national campaigns, including for Wayfaring Strangers and Amazing Place (which landed both books on the NY Times Best Sellers List); for multiple books by Mildred “Mama Dip” Council and Adrian Miller; and most recently, for From Here to Equality by William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen. She also helped many authors reach a global audience by working with them on developing op-eds, particularly for placement in the New York Times. In the last two years, she has co-produced 8 promotional book trailers, all of which have been featured by Shelf Awareness as a “Book Trailer of the Day.” In recent months, in response to the challenges created by the pandemic, she led the publicity team’s transition to an almost entirely digital publicity environment. We thank Gina for her many contributions to the Press and wish her the best in her well-deserved retirement.

The Press is also announcing the following two new hires:

First, Peter L. Perez will join the Press in the newly created position of Director of Public Relations and Communications, effective January 1, 2021.  Peter has worked in various areas of the publishing and retail industries for over 20 years, as buyer of books and gift categories at Rizzoli Bookstores, The Nature Company, Discovery Channel Store, and Williams-Sonoma, in the sales and marketing departments at Chronicle Books, and, most recently, as Public Relations and Communications Director at University of California Press. For almost his entire work life, he has worked on initiatives to sell and promote nonfiction publishing to general and specialized readers.  He will head the UNC Press publicity department, handling book publicity, overseeing the Press’s overall social media and blog presence, coordinating content and messaging across all platforms, and working on planning and execution of plans for the Press’s 100th anniversary, and other development activities.  

Continue Reading New Publicity Hires at UNC Press

UNC Press and the Association for Public Religion and Intellectual Life (APRIL) Announce a New Partnership

Round logo: Association for Public Religion and Intellectual Life (APRIL) Since 1983

UNC Press is pleased to announce a new partnership with the Association for Public Religion and Intellectual Life on the publication CrossCurrents. The journal complements numerous areas of the Press’s book program such as religious studies, human rights, and social justice. Starting in 2021, CrossCurrents will be available from UNC Press to individuals who become APRIL members and to institutions. S. Brent Plate, who will be serving as editor after the retirement of Charles Henderson, discusses the journal and its network of scholars and writers.


CrossCurrents has been published since 1950, and published by the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life (ARIL) since 1990—that’s quite a run. Can you tell us about how it started and how it has evolved through the years?

SBRP: CrossCurrents was founded by Joseph Cunneen. He’d been a soldier in Patton’s 3rd army and after the war was stationed in Paris. While there, he soaked up the intellectual climate and wondered why so few European religious intellectual ideas were reaching the United States. When he returned to the U.S. he began working toward what would become CrossCurrents, with the first issue being published in Fall of 1950. In that issue the editorial statement read, “our primary function will be to reprint outstanding articles from foreign and out-of-the-way sources that indicate the relevance of religion to the intellectual life.”

While Cunneen was Catholic, his interests and the interests of the journal were ecumenical, and they quickly began publishing work from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish perspectives. The journal retained a largely Jewish and Christian orientation through the 1980s when we began to see more Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim voices and outlooks. Since around 1990, when ARIL became the publisher, CrossCurrents has become much more broadly interreligious.

Significantly too, the journal moved away from its European intellectual heritage, and started looking at what is going on in Asia and the Americas, as well as paying more attention to gender and social justice issues. CrossCurrents published a good deal of early feminist theology, beginning in the 1960s with Rosemary Radford Ruether’s writings, and the focus on gender has continued through today, including work on masculinity/men’s studies and religion.

In 1969, just a few months after Catholic theologians and clergy met in Medellin, Colombia, David Abalos worked through the documents and gave one of the first ever English-language summaries of what became the start of Liberation Theology. By the early 1970s, we had published works by several of the key Latin American theologians in the movement. The 1970s also saw a number of publications in black theology (we’re reprinting James Cones’s “Black Church and Black Theology” in the first issue of The Commons) and the beginnings of eco-theology and concerns for the environment.

Over the past twenty years CrossCurrents has published special issues on interreligious education and dialogue, sexuality and LGBTQ issues, poetics and aesthetics, religion and science, and religion and politics.

We take a “big tent” approach to the ways religious life meets the publics! And our new editorial team reflects that. Our new associate editors—Melanie Barbato, Amanullah de Sondy, Tim Beal, and Stephanie Mitchem—are connected with a variety of scholarly and public endeavors around the world.

Continue Reading UNC Press and the Association for Public Religion and Intellectual Life (APRIL) Announce a New Partnership

Giveaway: Win an Indie Bookstore Gift Certificate!

We at UNC Press deeply appreciate independent bookstores around the nation, as well as the hardworking booksellers who staff them. Not only are these bookstores essential to our business, but they are also vital community hubs where people can connect, access new ideas, and find books suited to their particular interests. In our home state of North Carolina, we are lucky to have a wealth of spectacular indie bookstores. However, on top of the usual trials of maintaining a small local business, indie bookstores face even more uncertainty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a way to spread the word about NC bookstores and support their efforts, we have purchased $75 gift certificates from eighteen different bookstores around the state, and we’re giving them away to encourage you to #ShopIndie, #ShopSmall, and #ShopNCBookstores. Even if you are not selected as a winner, please consider purchasing books at one of these stores or at another local bookshop this holiday season.

Winners are not limited to purchasing UNC Press books with their gift card, but we have lots of great books for everyone on your holiday list, all available through these independent bookstores.  Here’s a list of just a few—click on the link to visit the book’s page on

Below you’ll find a link to the giveaway for each bookstore. You may enter as many giveaways as you want, and we’ve provided a variety of ways to enter, whether it’s sharing the giveaway link with others, visiting the store’s website, or following us on social media.

You don’t have to be in North Carolina to win, but please note that the gift certificates are subject to the terms set by each individual store. While each store has an online shopping option, shipping options and costs will differ. If you’re not local, please check out the store’s website before you enter to ensure you can use your gift certificate from afar.

U.S. residents only, age 18+. Winners will be randomly selected using the Rewards Fuel platform. Enter by 11:59 PM ET on Sunday December 6th, 2020, for a chance to win.


Rebecca Sharpless: Celebrating 50 Years of the Southern Association for Women Historians (SAWH)

Today we welcome a guest post from Rebecca Sharpless, professor of history at Texas Christian University and past president of the Southern Association for Women Historians (SAWH).

The Southern Association for Women Historians, founded in 1970, supports the study of women’s history and the work of women historians. The SAWH especially welcomes as members all women and men who are interested in the history of the U.S. South and/or women’s history, as well as all women historians in any field who live in the U.S. South.

See the guest post below to read about the history of the SAWH as the Association commemorates its fiftieth anniversary.


The Southern Association for Women Historians (SAWH) came about in 1970, when a group of women met in a basement room near the boilers of the Galt House Hotel in Louisville during the Southern Historical Association (SHA) annual meeting. Frustrated because they were not accepted onto panels or committees of the SHA, the women sought to establish a regional affiliate of the Coordinating Committee on Women in the Historical Profession. Their early goals were to look at women’s roles in the profession and to get women’s history into school curriculums. They pressed forward with another meeting the following year, concerned about the role of women in the academy in the South, the status of women in the SHA, and identification of archival sources on women’s history. And they persisted, becoming a formal organization in 1974.

From the beginning, the SAWH has emphasized mentoring graduate students and encouraging and recognizing scholarship on and by southern women. The Willie Lee Rose Prize, for the best book by a southern woman historian, and the Julia Cherry Spruill Prize, for the best book on southern women’s history, were first awarded in 1987. The A. Elizabeth Taylor Prize, for the best article in the field of southern women’s history, began in 1989. The best graduate student paper submitted at the triennial conference receives the Jacquelyn Dowd Hall Prize, established in 1992. And the Anne Firor Scott Mid-Career Fellowship, which provides funding for a second book or equivalent project, began in 2007.

Half a century of collegiality, encouragement, and recognition have made better the work and lives of innumerable scholars of southern women.

The SAWH sponsors two kinds of meetings. At the SHA each year, the SAWH address and reception are often the highlights of the meeting, and the graduate student and member breakfast connects new scholars with older members. The SAWH often sponsors a workshop as well. The multi-day triennial Southern Conference on Women’s History started in 1988, with panels and plenary speakers showcasing the newest and best work in southern women’s history. The meetings have occurred on university campuses across the South in efforts to be affordable to all attendees. The next conference, originally scheduled for 2021, has been pushed back to 2022 because of the pandemic. Between 1994 and 2009, the University of Missouri Press published seven volumes of essays based on conference presentations.

Continue Reading Rebecca Sharpless: Celebrating 50 Years of the Southern Association for Women Historians (SAWH)

Douglas Flowe: The Conundrum of Writing About Race and Crime

"Uncontrollable Blackness: African American Men and Criminality in Jim Crow New York" by Douglas J. Flowe

Today we welcome a guest post from Douglas Flowe, author of Uncontrollable Blackness: African American Men and Criminality in Jim Crow New York, out now from UNC Press.

In the wake of emancipation, black men in northern urban centers like New York faced economic isolation, marginalization, and racial violence. In response, some of those men opted to participate in underground economies, to protect themselves when law enforcement failed to do so, and to exert control over public space through force. Douglas J. Flowe traces how public racial violence, segregation in housing and leisure, and criminal stigmatization in popular culture and media fostered a sense of distress, isolation, and nihilism that made crime and violence seem like viable recourses in the face of white supremacy. He examines self-defense against state violence, crimes committed within black social spaces and intimate relationships, and the contest of white and black masculinity.

Uncontrollable Blackness is available in paper and ebook formats.


The Conundrum of Writing About Race and Crime

Writing about race and crime is very sensitive. Crime is a fraught topic on its own, but the addition of race makes it inflammatory. In Uncontrollable Blackness: African American Men and Criminality in Jim Crow New York, I attempt to tell the stories of those men who, in fact, committed illegal acts, and those whose actions were criminalized by others. It was very important to me not to reproduce the idea that black men were more likely to be criminals than other men. They most certainly were not. The goal, however, was to understand how the society surrounding them had a part in making some men seek revolutionary ways of attaining the same freedoms, resources, and respect that all Americans sought at the time. Or, how that society criminalized them, regardless of their actions. Most black men did not commit street crimes or domestic violence, nor did they always participate in underground economies. Uncontrollable Blackness is about those men who did, or those who were treated as criminals whether they were or not.

Chapter four of Uncontrollable Blackness, which looks at instances of domestic violence and crimes meant to support households, was, in many ways, the most difficult chapter to write. There are multiple stories of struggles between men and women to control their households, and a few couples whose relationships end in abandonment or tragic moments of murder. Such endings were very rare, and do not represent what typically happened in black households. The sentiments of the men in that chapter also do not represent the way all, or even most, black men thought. To be certain, most black men did not abuse their spouses, and most black couples cared for each other in ways that supported and sustained themselves and their children into the future. But, the conundrum of mentioning those rare cases when violence and abuse happened is that it may seem as if one is arguing that dysfunction was typical in black families (as some scholars of the past have wrongly contended). That is certainly not my argument. Chapter four looks at these very uncommon occurrences only to give voice to those few men and women who committed these acts when their desires for sustainable lives and stable families were stunted by the vagaries of Jim Crow. The historical record makes clear that on occasion some relationships did end in violence, and as a historian, my mission is to comprehend how issues relating to housing, job insecurity, racial violence, and legal forms of public emasculation might have informed those times.

Continue Reading Douglas Flowe: The Conundrum of Writing About Race and Crime

Kelly A. Hammond: Islamophobia in Modern China

Today we welcome a guest post from Kelly A. Hammond, author of China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire: Centering Islam in World War II, out now from UNC Press.

In this transnational history of World War II, Kelly A. Hammond places Sino-Muslims at the center of imperial Japan’s challenges to Chinese nation-building efforts. Revealing the little-known story of Japan’s interest in Islam during its occupation of North China, Hammond shows how imperial Japanese aimed to defeat the Chinese Nationalists in winning the hearts and minds of Sino-Muslims, a vital minority population. Offering programs that presented themselves as protectors of Islam, the Japanese aimed to provide Muslims with a viable alternative—and, at the same time, to create new Muslim consumer markets that would, the Japanese hoped, act to subvert the existing global capitalist world order and destabilize the Soviets.

China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire is now available in paperback and ebook editions.


Islamophobia is rampant in China. Stereotypes about Muslims as violent outsiders in China have long existed. Ever since 9/11, the Party-state has amplified long-held antagonisms and stereotypes toward Muslims. The result is a pacification campaign against people presented by the Party-state—both to domestic and international audiences—as terrorists. Although attention is currently focused on the Uighurs, there is mounting evidence that the CCP is taking aim at all Muslims, such as the Sino-Muslim actors who appear in my recent book. By bulldozing mosques, shuttering Islamic bookstores, removing Arabic script from storefronts and restaurants in an effort to “Sinicize” Islam, the Party’s goal seems to be the complete assimilation of Muslims and the eradication of Islamic practices in China. Most concerning, there is fear that the “re-education campaigns” will continue to spread to other Muslim ethnic minorities, like Kazakhs and the Hui.

Muslims in China already are particularly marginalized. They make up a small fraction of the overall population, and I would argue that the majority of Han Chinese citizens of the People’s Republic have internalized state-driven narratives about Muslims posing a threat to state stability. This is possible because of Islamophobia in China, but it is abetted by Islamophobia in North America and Europe. Moreover, Muslims in China are conveniently forgotten by Muslim governments like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which rely on economic linkages to the PRC.

Continue Reading Kelly A. Hammond: Islamophobia in Modern China

Emily Contois: How I Wrote My First Academic Book

Today we welcome a guest post from Emily J. H. Contois, author of Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture, out now from UNC Press.

The phrase “dude food” likely brings to mind a range of images: burgers stacked impossibly high with an assortment of toppings that were themselves once considered a meal; crazed sports fans demolishing plates of radioactively hot wings; barbecued or bacon-wrapped . . . anything. But there is much more to the phenomenon of dude food than what’s on the plate. Emily J. H. Contois’s provocative book begins with the dude himself—a man who retains a degree of masculine privilege but doesn’t meet traditional standards of economic and social success or manly self-control. In a work brimming with fresh insights about contemporary American food media and culture, Contois shows how the gendered world of food production and consumption has influenced the way we eat and how food itself is central to the contest over our identities.

This essay is cross-posted from Dr. Contois’s website. View the original blog post here, or check out the book page for Diners, Dudes, and Diets.

Diners, Dudes, and Diets is now available in paperback and ebook editions. The book is also featured in our American Studies Association virtual exhibit.


Behind the Scenes Look: How I Wrote My First Academic Book

My first book, Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture comes out next week from the University of North Carolina Press, which is really exciting. (The pre-order promotion is still on, if you’re interested!) The book’s publication is also causing me to reflect on how I got here. We don’t often tell the stories of how books come to be. The nuts and bolts of how we actually wrote the thing. The lucky breaks that helped. The challenges that seemed insurmountable until we finally found a way through.

But let me be clear, this is NOT an advice post. For that, William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book is the book you need. I read it twice and referenced it multiple times as I wrote and revised.

So, here’s the story of how my book came to be.


The research in Diners, Dudes & Diets started in my MLA thesis in Gastronomy at Boston University, “The Dudification of Dieting: Marketing Weight Loss Programs to Men in the Twenty-First Century”—though that project’s roots lie in my undergrad honors thesis, parts of which I eventually published in Fat Studies as “Guilt-Free and Sinfully Delicious: A Contemporary Theology of Weight Loss Dieting.” When I applied to PhD programs, I proposed expanding the thesis into a dissertation. I could have done that, but as I completed my field reading, I realized there was more I wanted to do. I kept my focus on masculinities but expanded beyond just dieting to food, cooking, and the broader food mediascape.

In grad school, I was told don’t write a dissertation, write a book. I tried, hard, to do that, but the thing is, when you’re a grad student, you have no idea how to write a dissertation or a book, so you’re just doing your best to write something that you can one day revise into a book. At least that’s how it was for me.

Continue Reading Emily Contois: How I Wrote My First Academic Book

Tony Tian-Ren Lin: Make America Dream Again

"Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream" by Tony Tian-Ren Lin

Today we welcome a guest post from Tony Tian-Ren Lin, author of Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream, out now from UNC Press.

In this immersive ethnography, Tony Tian-Ren Lin explores the reasons that Latin American immigrants across the United States are increasingly drawn to Prosperity Gospel Pentecostalism, a strand of Protestantism gaining popularity around the world. Lin contends that Latinos embrace Prosperity Gospel, which teaches that believers may achieve both divine salvation and worldly success, because it helps them account for the contradictions of their lives as immigrants. Weaving together his informants’ firsthand accounts of their religious experiences and everyday lives, Lin offers poignant insight into how they see their faith transforming them both as individuals and as communities.

Prosperity Gospel Latinos and Their American Dream is now available in paperback and ebook editions.


The American Dream is an enduring and inspiring claim about what defines our country. While the term was popularized in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, its principles were present before the founding of the nation. By 1782, the French American writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote:

“What then is the American, this new man? . . . He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He has become an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

The American Dream promises that anyone, regardless of their social position, can be as successful as they want. It is the myth of endless frontiers and infinite opportunities for all. It fuels the tale that upward mobility is possible for all who work hard, sacrifice, take risks, and follow the rules.

Yet despite its ardent devotees, the dream has not materialized for most. America is unrivaled in the inequality of its citizens.  Recently, the United States was ranked 27th in social mobility by the World Economic Forum. An American’s station in life is predetermined by the race and class they are born into. Social scientists have shown that the complexion of a person’s skin is a more powerful determinant of job acquisition than skills or education. Upward mobility may require hard work and sacrifice, but they are not sufficient for the majority of Americans.

Continue Reading Tony Tian-Ren Lin: Make America Dream Again

Author Interview: Jodi Eichler-Levine on Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis

"Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community" by Jodi Eichler-Levine

In this Q&A, Jodi Eichler-Levine discusses her new book Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community, out now from UNC Press.

Exploring a contemporary Judaism rich with the textures of family, memory, and fellowship, Jodi Eichler-Levine takes readers inside a flourishing American Jewish crafting movement. As she traveled across the country to homes, craft conventions, synagogue knitting circles, and craftivist actions, she joined in the making, asked questions, and contemplated her own family stories. Jewish Americans, many of them women, are creating ritual challah covers and prayer shawls, ink, clay, or wood pieces, and other articles for family, friends, or Jewish charities. But they are doing much more: armed with perhaps only a needle and thread, they are reckoning with Jewish identity in a fragile and dangerous world.

Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis is now available in paperback and ebook editions. It is the newest addition to our Where Religion Lives series.


Q: What inspired the book title, Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis?

A: After I had begun my work on the book, I rediscovered an old needlepoint of a rabbi that my paternal grandmother made decades ago. It’s an immensely kitschy piece, and yet, I couldn’t let it go. The story of that picture became the prologue to the whole book. “Painted pomegranates” comes from the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework, one of the major sites for my research. At their biennial convention in 2017, I was struck by a banner that featured an enormous painted pomegranate. I love that this book title mixes the pomegranate, an ancient near eastern fertility symbol that was the talisman for an organization predominantly made up of women, with this stereotypical image of a bearded old, male sage grasping a Torah. It plays on our notions of femininity and masculinity in a book that explores how Jews do gender.

Peach State Stitchers, Pomegranate Guild banner, detail, Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework Biennial Convention, Atlanta, Georgia, May 2017. Photograph by the author.
Continue Reading Author Interview: Jodi Eichler-Levine on Painted Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis

James Hudnut-Beumler: Will the Pandemic Lead to Catastrophe for Churches?

Today we welcome a guest post from James Hudnut-Beumler, author of In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism, as well as Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South.

In this post, Hudnut-Beumler considers the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on church finances in the 2020 stewardship season and in years to come.


Will the Pandemic Lead to Catastrophe for Churches?

What will the pandemic do to the churches? I am reading a fair amount of speculation on this question lately. There is a good reason for that — October and November are traditionally the time when churches try to secure financial pledges to support their operations for the coming year. Like many matters ecclesiastical, the season even has its own name — stewardship season. With the pandemic continuing and getting worse, pastors and lay leaders are wondering, “Will church finances get worse as well?” I get asked that question a fair amount these days. In my book, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar, I explored 250 years of American Protestants raising and spending money for their churches. Looking to that history, I think we will see at least three things unfold in the coming months.

Religious leaders have often marveled that giving was holding up in 2020 even while houses of worship were closed and trying to stream stripped-down services and group gatherings. This did not surprise me, for the pattern in the 19th and 20th centuries, with their many economic panics, recessions, and depressions, was that people tended overwhelmingly to honor their pledges during the first year of an economic reversal. Yet they were also less likely to increase their giving in the five years after the start of a crisis. Even with the same memberships, the churches fell behind their former budgets in real dollar value, even years after the crisis was over. In my view, people who still felt insecure were less likely to make a voluntary commitment to the same or an increased pledge of support. The clear result was that clergy income always took a lasting hit. I predict the same depression of support happens after the current pandemic.

Churches are more resilient entities than some religious leaders fear.

The next thing we can foresee may make the post-pandemic religious scene worse. The tendency in religious life in recent decades has been toward a greater percentage of people attending large or mega-churches. These operations represent costly physical plants and programs relative to the way “church was done” a half-century ago. Decreased giving may reduce the numbers of staff or lead to actual bankruptcy on the part of big churches living on the edge of having just built a new campus addition premised on continuous growth. That is exactly what happened following the 1929 stock market crash. Among the nation’s many smaller churches already on the verge of financial viability, like after every recession, some will close.

The third thing I hear worries about among pastors is whether people will have un-learned the church habit and never return in an increasingly secular America. America’s voluntary approach to religion cuts both ways. You can have as much religion as someone is willing to pay for, but when the people and their giving decline, so does organized religion. While we have seen something like that with former mainline churches having problems passing on the faith to subsequent generations, I predict that church attendance will not suffer the catastrophe that some are predicting — at least not in the short term. Going to one’s house of worship and seeing one’s close friends and faith has an appeal that, at points, has even made the pandemic worse. Churches are more resilient entities than some religious leaders fear. But the economic shock that will last well beyond the pandemic will not make faith groups less relevant in the years ahead. Instead, these charitable and spiritual bodies can likely expect to be asked to do more with less.


Photo by Vanderbilt University

James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, is the author of In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism (UNC Press, 2007) and Strangers and Friends at the Welcome Table: Contemporary Christianities in the American South (UNC Press, 2018).