Lived Realities: Suffering | Hope
"If this be freedom, then Heaven is hell."
Abbey Lincoln, Negro Digest, 1966
"Hope is invented every day."
James Baldwin, Ebony Magazine, 1970
Through a myriad of creative social and political endeavors, many Black artists and activists have deployed their faith, talents, and moral visions to articulate the complex dimensions of the suffering and trauma of Black people in America. Further marshaling their creative genius, these same individuals offered bold visions of Black flourishing and restructured new worlds of Black possibility.
These artists and activists, through their artistic and prophetic gifts, have given rise to an indomitable hope, and emboldened the oppressed in their fight for justice and social equality. While exposing the harsh realities that Black people have experienced and continue to endure, these visionaries and their people found the courage to rise.
Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) was a trailblazing civil rights activist, suffragist, and educator. Heavily influenced by Frederick Douglass, she dedicated her life to leading on educational and political fronts. Fighting for equality and justice for all, she organized several sit-ins and other demonstrations in local venues such as the Black church. As reported in Ebony, Metropolitan AME, located in Washington, D.C., served as a central spot where early Black orators like Terrell “lifted their voices” to the masses.
Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays (1894–1984), a South Carolina native, was an ordained Baptist minister, theologian, civil rights activist, and author. As one of the notable presidents of Morehouse College and dean of Howard University’s School of Religion, he played an integral role in religious education, influencing religious leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. In 1955, Mays wrote “Who Will Preach to Negroes in 1980,” emphasizing the importance of religious education as a means of tackling social issues. He was burdened by the fact that Black ministers were “poorly trained” and encouraged theological training to combat inequalities. In 1958, he helped establish the Interdenominational Theological Center at the Atlanta University Center, welcoming seminarians from various denominations across the country.
A child prodigy, Stevie Wonder (b. 1950) entered the musical stage at the early age of 11, as Little Stevie. Over the years, Wonder’s discography has served as a soundtrack for addressing and acknowledging various social issues, while evoking a sense of pride and uplift. In a 1974 issue of Jet, he discussed the pathway of serving as a conduit for peace, love, and faith by becoming the Good Samaritan. Following a near-fatal car accident in 1973, Wonder galvanized the crowd during a benefit concert in support of the Minisink Townhouse, a Harlem-based nonprofit for disadvantaged children, as seen in this photo.
In 1954, Sammy Davis Jr. (1925–1990) survived a severe car crash and lost his left eye. While recovering, the world-famous entertainer began a process of soul-searching that ultimately led him to convert to Judaism. “I knew that there was more to reality than the material world,” he told Ebony in 1960. “Judaism gave me security and understanding.”
As a singer, actress, and activist, Abbey Lincoln (1930–2010) inspired others by expressing and embracing her humanity as a Black woman. Writing for Negro Digest in 1966, she affirmed her belief that “any Black human being able to survive . . . must be some kind of a giant with great and peculiar abilities, with an armor as resistant as steel yet made of purest gold.”
"I believe it is faith which allows human beings to try to rise in the morning, after evenings of terror and fear and grief and disappointment."
Maya Angelou, Jet Magazine, 1992
As grassroots leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) and Ella Baker (1903–1986) shared a belief in the power of ordinary people to challenge injustice. Both women grew up attending rural Baptist churches, Hamer in Mississippi and Baker in North Carolina. Baker, eulogized by Jet as “an unsung heroine” of the movement, helped organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and mentored the young activists who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Hamer, a cotton plantation worker, became a voting rights activist after attending a SNCC meeting at her church. Despite being fired, evicted, jailed, and brutally beaten, she never lost faith. “I know I’m right,” she told Ebony in 1966, “so long as I stay here and do my part.”
"Any God that delights in the suffering of His people is a sadistic God, and I don’t pray to a sadistic God."
Reverend Ike, Ebony Magazine, 1976
A trailblazer in Black religious broadcasting, namely televangelism, Reverend Ike’s (Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter, 1935–2009) media success paved the way for other Black religious leaders to thrive on both television and radio platforms. While Ike’s followers were largely the urban poor, his message of prosperity promoted middle-class lifestyles and aspirations for wealth and sought to distance itself from traditional forms of African American theological reasoning. In a 1976 interview with Ebony, Ike confessed: “I got tired of being poor, while God sat up in Heaven behind the pearly gates, with streets of gold and walls of precious jewels.” Within Ike’s theological vision, there was no space for accommodating Black suffering as redemptive.
Resisting theologies that consigned benefits and rewards for the faithful solely to the afterlife, and believing that religion should make a difference in the daily lives of Black people, Reverend Ike broadened the Black religious landscape by advocating for a radically “this-worldly” approach to African American religion. Ike’s lavish dress is best understood as a theological signification of his teachings, which emphasized luck, wealth, health, prosperity, and abundance in the here and now.
Select details to learn more about this ensemble, which Reverend Ike wore while receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award in Mentoring in 2004.
“I am a preacher without boundaries,” Rev. Jesse Jackson (b. 1941) told Ebony in 1967. Throughout his boundary-breaking political career, the charismatic Baptist minister inspired millions with his messages of hope and empowerment as he organized them to fight for social and economic justice. During this rally in Chicago in 1969, Jackson spoke to the hearts of his people: “For years we were told we were Black and ugly, and we looked into the dishwater and concluded we were ugly. But now we have come to know that it was the water that was ugly all along. And that we were Black and beautiful.”
The son of a minister, and a child preacher himself, novelist and essayist James Baldwin (1924–1987) was regarded as America’s inside-eye on the Black Pentecostal experience. His writings exposed his readers to the very inner life of his tradition by unveiling the moral, cultural, and theological worlds inhabited by the initiated, and by depicting the ways in which this religious experience was performed by those who believed. After disaffiliating from the church in his late teens, through his novels and essays, Baldwin continued to use his literary gifts to articulate the complex dimensions of Black suffering and to point his readers to new horizons of hope and Black possibility, especially regarding the social problematic of race in America.