An important new anthology of African-American sermons -- eloquent, impassioned, sometimes scorching messages delivered by preachers in this country over the past 250 years -- was co-edited by Dr. Frank A. Thomas, senior pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.
Thomas will sign "Preaching With Sacred Fire" (W.W. Norton & Co., $45) at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Davis-Kidd Booksellers.
Thomas and Martha Simmons of Atlanta have collected the words of preachers from John Chavis, born in North Carolina about 1763, to Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., born in Philadelphia in 1941.
"W. W. Norton was looking for someone to put together an anthology of African-American preaching," says Thomas, who works with Simmons to publish the journal, The African-American Pulpit. "We had the skill set, and they had the interest."
A sermon by Wright, former minister of President Barack Obama, as well as Thomas, closes the collection. The message delivered on the Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attack created a national controversy when excerpts were reported by news organizations covering Obama's campaign.
"Excerpt" is the key word. Thomas believes the reporting of "snippets" led to misunderstanding.
"The whole flap around the Jeremiah Wright sermon indicated a tremendous amount of ignorance of the African-American preaching tradition," Thomas said. "It is extensive, it worked toward liberation, it allowed black people to move toward freedom amidst slavery, racism, Jim Crow....
"There's been a long history of African-American preachers who have decried America's treatment of African-American people," said Thomas, also author of "They Like to Never Quit Praisin' God."
He and Simmons hope their book will allow readers "to make their own judgment (of Wright's message) given a wider context, rather than snippets or sound bites played across a cable TV program."
Thomas, who has been at Mississippi Boulevard in Memphis for 11 years, received his master of divinity degree at Chicago Theological Seminary, and was ordained by Wright. While in Chicago, Thomas was a member of Wright's church, Trinity United Church of Christ.
The collection of more than 100 sermons delivered over the past three centuries includes Frederick Douglass' breathtaking July 5, 1852, message, "What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?" Thomas calls it "a scathing indictment." ("The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn," Douglass said.)
Simmons' and Turner's book also makes an enthusiastic effort to include the oratory works of female and non-Christian speakers. The names of Sojourner Truth and Zora Neale Hurston are immediately recognizable, as are Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, but other more obscure speakers are included as well.
An illuminating introduction explains the "Principles of Black Christian Preaching," for instance, the significance of the Bible as a source of visual images to support "an eyewitness style of picture painting and narration."
The story behind Route 69
Author Matt Dellinger comes to Memphis this week to sign "Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway" (Scribner, $26), a drama about politics and transportation in which Memphis has a supporting role.
When, and if, completed, I-69 will link Canada, the United States and Mexico. As it heads south from Indianapolis, the highway is designed to hook up with I-240 and I-55 in Memphis, before it continues into Mississippi on its way to Texas.
Dellinger, who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Atlantic, describes Memphis, not surprisingly, as hot, humid and languid. But the book provides an outsider's perspective that will intrigue local readers. "You can still smoke in the bars -- many do -- and the city's jukeboxes tend to play vintage tunes that match the ubiquitous old furniture. Greasy food is celebrated; old cars are plentiful," he writes in a chapter called "Best-Laid Plans," which details the 1970s-era clash of Interstate 40 planners with Memphis' Citizens to Preserve Overton Park. "One encounters everywhere tacky rooms and sunny afternoons that resemble classic William Eggleston photographs."
Dellinger will sign "Interstate 69" at 6 p.m. Thursday at Davis-Kidd.
Davis-Kidd is at 387 Perkins Ext. Call 683-9801, or visit daviskidd.com.
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