As we celebrate African-American heritage month, it's worth looking at two thought-provoking books by black authors that explore the Bible in a refreshing way.
Both "Let My People Go" by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, and "When The Beginning Began" by Julius Lester are aimed at children ages 9 and up. Both offer a highly personalized reading of the Old Testament. And both portray the African-American religious tradition as a robust give-and-take with God.
In introducing "When the Beginning Began," Lester notes that "regarding God with a loving irreverence is characteristic of African-American storytelling." It is a sentiment he takes very much to heart in this witty, yet profound exploration of the creation stories in Genesis. Lester's God cannot be contained by one particular form. Sometimes this God is male, sometimes female; sometimes a bird, sometimes a mountain; and sometimes some brightly colored ribbons.
In writing the 17 stories that make up the book, Lester says he sought to "play with God."
"Some readers will undoubtedly be disturbed or even offended by this," he writes. "Others will undoubtedly be confused. My intent is to invite the reader into a new experience of the Divine. And who knows? Maybe God is tired of being thought of as an old man with a long white beard."
In "When the Beginning Began," Lester has created a spicy spiritual stew that combines the African-American tradition of "loving irreverence" with the Jewish tradition of "midrash." In this tradition, Lester explains, Jews interpret a Biblical text, providing the details that generally aren't there, as a way of drawing out the meaning of the text. (Although his father was a Methodist minister, Lester converted to Judaism as an adult, a religious journey recalled in his memoir, "Lovesong: Becoming a Jew.")
Lester obviously had a great time writing this book. It is laced with earthy humor, and even older children who think they aren't interested in religious reading will find themselves laughing at the images he offers. In one scene, Adam's organs argue with God about where they will be situated in his body. In another, a crow tries to walk like a dove, but succeeds only in looking like he needs "to go to the bathroom real bad."
The laughter sparked by Lester's language, however, serves a serious purpose by helping the reader experience the creation stories in a new, and hopefully fuller, way.
The story of creation is just one of the dozen biblical stories highlighted in "Let My People Go." This large-sized book, with vivid illustrations by James Ransome, is a potent mixture of African-American history and Bible stories.
The book focuses on a young girl named Charlotte Jefferies, who is the daughter of a former slave named Price Jefferies. The story is set in Charleston, S.C. in the early years of the 19th century, when the slave trade was flourishing.
Charlotte is full of questions, and her father frequently answers her by retelling a biblical tale. When Charlotte asks, for example, if Charleston's major slave-owner also owns the moon, her father tells her the story of creation, concluding that "nobody can make a slave of the moon, the sun, the stars, or any part of what God created, no matter how rich they may be. God made something out of nothing. What human being can do that?"
In another chapter, the courage of a woman who rescues slaves from a burning building in Charleston inspires Price to tell his daughter the Biblical story of Queen Esther, whose courage in speaking up for the Hebrew people also saved many from death.
The McKissacks explain in their introduction that a Sunday school teacher introduced them to this way of combining African-American history with the Bible during the days of segregation.
"We were shown the parallels between two heroic people from different cultures and distant time periods. The Bible came alive for us; it was the source of great ideas that we could use in looking for solutions to the social injustices of our own time."
In "Let My People Go," the McKissacks have brought this tradition to the wider audience it deserves.