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The river has always had a tremendous influence in my thinking. Not in terms of anything African.

But there was a companionship, there was movement, there was a vitality in the river, so that very early

I began to see the parable of life in the river. Yet at the same time none of my buddies who fished with all day,

for ten years, ever saw anything in this, because you see, this was not the kind of peg they had hanging out.


Books by Howard Thurman

Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Thurman) / Jesus and the Disinherited  (Thurman)  /

With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman / For the Inward Journey (Thurman)

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Leading Black Theologian Speaks About the Traditions

Racial Roots and Religion

An Interview with Howard Thurman

By Mary E. Goodwin


Dr. Thurman, I know that your grandmother was a slave. What do you feel were the most significant things you learned from her.

The things that came to me directly from my grandmother are very important. In the first place, she was a strong, positive, self-contained human being. Her life was full of tragedies – hunger, cold, the death of some of her children. But she had built-in controls. Only once did I see a tear on her cheek. That was the night, in my college years, that the people of our church came to our house to give me a surprise at the end of the summer during which I had been their preacher.

You felt that she contained and honored all of your feelings and all of hers, but they didn’t spill over. I got a certain kind of strength from her. That was very fortunate for me, because my father died when I was seven years old. When I was at Earlham College, one of the professors there, a counselor and a psychologist, heard me say that I had been reared without a father. So he said: “Oh, then I have to revise my tests, because none of the things that go with a male child reared in a home with women apply to you.” Well, now, that proves this indomitable quality in my grandmother.

The other thing I got from her was an enormous respect for the magic there is in knowledge. That came from what she had observed as a slave child. Whenever her owner’s wife saw he little daughter trying to teach my grandmother the alphabet or one, two, three, she would chastise the child and send her to bed without supper. My grandmother said: “I saw there must be some magic in knowing how to read and write.”

Occasionally when she was in an expansive mood she would talk about her life as a slave on the plantation in north Florida. Two of those stories I never tired of.

The first: sometimes the plantation owner’s minister would be permitted to hold a religious service for the slaves, and he always preached from the same text: “Slaves, be obedient to your masters, for this is right in the Lord.” My grandmother said that she made up her mind then and there that if she ever learned to read or if freedom ever came she would never read that part of the Bible. So all the years that I was growing and had the job of reading to her every day, I could never read any of the Pauline letters, except now and then the 13th chapter of I Corinthians. Maybe this experience unconsciously influenced my thought when I wrote Jesus and the Disinherited.

My grandmother’s second story is even more important to me, but in a different way. She would talk about the times when a slaver preacher was permitted to hold services for the slaves of her master’s and all the neighboring plantations.

I don’t remember how often this happened, but that that it happened at all was tremendously important. And then my sister and I would be every still, because we knew what she was going to tell us – this: “It didn’t matter what the text was, the minister always ended up at the same place.” It was the sort of thing we used to say in college, that it didn’t matter where the black preacher started out, he always ended up at Calvary. Anyway I can see her getting ready. Then she would say: “he would stand up, start very quietly and then look around to all of us in the room and then he would say, ‘You are not slaves, you are not niggers – you are God’s children’ . . .” And you know, when my grandmother said that she would unconsciously straighten up, head high and chest out, and a faraway look would come on her face.

Now that transmitted an idiom to me. And there was nothing that could happen in my environment that could ever touch this. It gave me my identity, so I didn’t have to wait for the revolution. I have never been in search of identity – and I think the explanation is that everything I’ve ever felt and worked on and believed in was founded in a kind of private, almost unconscious autonomy that did not seek vindication in my environment because it was in me. This is what I tried to pass on to my children. We have to have some way to keep from internalizing our environment’s negative judgments about us. As long as I keep the environment external to me it cannot control me; but when I internalize it I become captured by it.

Do you think that there is anything to the hypothesis of social anthropologists, such as Melville Herskovits, that the Baptist denomination had a great appeal to the slaves because its “baptism by total immersion” took them back to the river cults of their homeland?

No, I don’t. I may be a million miles off, but I’ll tell you something about this. The question is: What is there in any river cult that people are trying to fin? Once you know what the river say to them, you are in position to get the answer to why there is a cult about it in the first place. You see, the things that are true in religion are in religion because they are true. They are not true because they are found in religion. Now the things that are true in the river cult are to be found in the river cult because they are true. And whoever is seeking things will find them wherever they may be found, and one of the places he will find them is in the impact of the river.

The river has always had a tremendous influence in my thinking. Not in terms of anything African. But there was a companionship, there was movement, there was a vitality in the river, so that very early I began to see the parable of life in the river. Yet at the same time none of my buddies who fished with all day, for ten years, ever saw anything in this, because you see, this was not the kind of peg they had hanging out. I had that peg – that’s what I’m trying to get at!

Years after, when I started to write my Deep River, it was what I had learned out of my experiences with my river – the Halifax – that gave me the clue to what was implicit in the spiritual “Deep River.” You take to life what you are trying to find in life. Remember the man to whom Jesus said, “This can only come by faith, help thou my lack faith.” That means that only the man who is conscious of a lack of faith has faith, because it is faith in him that calls for more of itself. If he doesn’t have it, then he doesn’t know what he’s looking for. That is the way it comes through to me.

So this is what the river meant to you spiritually. What else did it mean to you and the community? For instance, did it give sustenance to you in any way?

Oh, yes!. In the summer, quite a part of our families’ support came from the river. I was so good at getting fish that I could take orders on Mondays for fish for Tuesda’s supper, and on Tuesdays I’d go around to all my customers and deliver.

You see, I feel that life has to be accepted first – that you can’s understand it before you accept it. Now, I knew where the fish fed and I knew the times when this or that kind of fish would bite. When the tide was reversing itself – when, instead of going forward into  the ocean, it started going back into the lagoon – there was a period, sometimes an hour to an hour and a half, when the water stood still. But, if you looked down beneath the surface you could see a movement, which indicated that the river was making up its mind to reverse itself. Well, there was a certain fish that only bit during that period. Things like that were important, because for me life was at stake! It’s true that in the interior part of the community, between Deland and my town, there were lakes – there were lakes and there were fresh-water fish. But I never was a fresh-water fish man; I was for salt water.

So the river had more movement than the lake. Was this one of the reasons why the river had more appeal to you?

Yes, I think so. The lakes were fed by deep springs, you see. There was movement there, but it went on way down at the deep level. The lakes had no outlets—didn’t need any. But the river was movement!

And sometimes storms would come. Walk along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and you suddenly realize that you noticed quite some time back that there was no wind, that the tides were not coming in. Then all at once the winds begin to whisper, and in five minutes there are waves eight and ten feet high. And the storm comes up. It is elemental! I’ve done much traveling on ships – I’ve been around the world twice and I’ve crossed all the oceans. And I like to stand on deck and listen to the mighty winds and watch the ship go up and down on the giant waves. Sometimes the rudder will heave up out of the water and give a roar, and then it will find its way back down into the sea – and I just about burst with ecstasy watching God at work in his universe!

The Baptist denomination was the most popular among the slaves, and today it stands at the top numerically among the black churches. What would you say accounts for this?

Oh, I don’t know, I am not very smart in these ways. I suppose some of it was just circumstantial. But if I put my mind to it. I can think of one or two things that are important.

First, the Baptist denomination has a highly charged and highly convincing emotional content. Second, it has a tradition of freedom. There is so much local autonomy that any Baptist church can ordain its own men; it’s not accountable to anybody beyond its own congregation. I would say that its democratic practices in ordination account for the general appeal of the denomination. Not its religiosity, but the fact that in the Baptist denomination any man is as significant as any other. Even the head man is no longer the head man when the rest of us decide that he isn’t. And this would have a special appeal to people who were terribly circumscribed everywhere else in their world.

These, I believe are the primary characteristics that made and make the Baptist denomination popular among blacks, and among whites too. It seems to me that in specifying them I have described the very genius of the church.

Source: The Christian Century (9 May 1973)


Howard Thurman's best known work Jesus and the Disinherited  influenced King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. He retired in 1965 from his position as  Professor of Spiritual Resources and Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He was the first black man to occupy the post of dean at a traditionally white university.

For a period Thurman was Visiting Lecturer at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. At his retirement, he returned to San Francisco to direct the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, which provided scholarships to needy students and served as a base for his continued ministries and counsel. Many leaders of the civil rights movement, workers, students, professionals, social and community leaders visited the mystic, holy man, and saint in san Francisco. Thurman died in 1981.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Related files:  Interview with Howard Thurman  Howard Thurman Bio   Negro Spirituals and American Culture  The Spiritual and the Blues  God of the Oppressed  The Second Time Around  The Black Religious Crisis 

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