As far as African American history books go, Heroes in Black History is unique. First of all, it was written by a white couple whose passion for their subject matter leaps off the page. Second, the book places the spiritual lives of its subjects front and center and shows how vital their Christian faith was to their historic accomplishments.
Authors Dave and Neta Jackson may be best known for their 40-title series of Trailblazer Books, novels for young readers about great Christian heroes that have sold more than 1.7 million copies. But their prolific catalog features both fiction and nonfiction works that extend across genres and age groups. Neta's bestselling series for women, The Yada Yada Prayer Group, features a multiethnic cast of women. Dave's novels, Forty to Life, and his more recent, Harry Bentley's Second Chance, show God's dramatic redemption in the rough world of gangs, prison, and the Chicago streets. UrbanFaith spoke to Dave and Neta about their hopes for Heroes and why black history is so important to them personally.
URBANFAITH: A lot of people may be surprised to learn that this book on African American history was written by a white couple. Why did you write it?
DAVE: Several times we've shown up for a book signing or media interview and we get, "Wait a minute! You're the wrong color!" We just laugh and say, "No, we're the right color. It's us white folks who need to learn more about these saints from different cultures!" Actually, we've written four Hero Tales volumes similar to this that included the stories of white and black saints as well as some from other ethnic groups, but we gathered these stories about black heroes and added a few more for Heroes in Black History because of our own desire to know more about them and share their stories with everyone. It's especially important for white folks to hear these stories since they have usually been untold for too long in our isolated circles. It's a way to bring us together in celebration of God's work all across His body, the church. In some ways, this book shares the essence of what we have enjoyed learning with our African American brothers and sisters in church and small groups for years.
How did you select the individuals profiled in the book?
NETA: Several of the stories feature well-known heroes like Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but we wanted to mix in those heroes that many of us know little about, like William Seymour, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Festo Kevengere. There are also more recent heroes we've been privileged to know personally, like John Perkins and Ricky and Sherialyn Byrdsong.
Who were the most interesting historical figures to you, and what was the most surprising thing you learned as you worked on the book?
NETA: I loved learning about Mary McLeod Bethune, a teacher who followed the railroad workers into Florida and established a school for their children. She began with just five little girls -- but her school grew to become Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Her philosophy was to educate the "head, the hands, and the heart" -- meaning classical studies, practical skills, and spiritual values. We visited her school recently, and there over the door was the very motto she drilled into her students: On the outside of the door it says, "ENTER TO LEARN," and on the inside of the door it says, "DEPART TO SERVE." Wow, what a woman!
DAVE: I think learning about William Seymour was most interesting to me because of his pivotal role in founding the modern Pentecostal movement, to which almost every Pentecostal or charismatic church in the world can trace its roots. And to me, the most interesting discovery was that Seymour believed Jesus died to forgive our sins and wash away all divisions, including the "color line." To him, this -- above speaking in tongues or performing miracles -- was the true proof of conversion and being filled with the Holy Spirit. It was a fulfillment of Jesus' prayer in John 17 that we all might be one.
The subtitle is "True Stories from the Lives of Christian Heroes." One thing your book shows is just how integral Christian faith is in the history of African Americans. Your book suggests that it's impossible to talk about Black history without also addressing the role of religion and faith.
DAVE: Definitely, and this was another reason for writing this book. Even those more well-known heroes in black history are seldom described as being primarily motivated and sustained by their faith. But most were. True faith was essential for many African Americans to endure slavery and discrimination over the centuries. Want to know how to "get through" when you are facing a heavy trial and feeling that you can't take another step? Let an African American saint be your teacher, hold your hand, and show you how to focus on Jesus, the only One who can see you through!
NETA: We hope the book has a long and wide life, encouraging individuals and families and Sunday school classes with the godly character qualities of heroes. That's what many people appreciate about this book -- especially families trying something new for their family devotions -- since it focuses on character qualities and provides questions for discussion. And we just hope it spreads.
Many today suggest that we're in a post-racial era, and that things like Black History Month may no longer be necessary, especially with the election of an African American president. How do you respond to those types of arguments?
DAVE: We are grateful for the progress that has been made. There is a new generation rising up, and that's hopeful. No doubt about it. However, there is a great deal more work to do, and racism still raises its ugly head all too often, usually in subtle ways we white people don't even recognize. Even what we might think is in the past is not that far in the past for some of us.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the murder of our dear and close friend, [college basketball coach] Ricky Byrdsong, who was slain by a white supremacist. Ricky was walking with his children just a block from his home, not far from us, when he was gunned down. That was only ten years ago. But God is still working, and the place where we should all desire and work to showcase God's reconciliation is in the church. Let the world see what He can do, and let it begin in me.
Find out more about Dave and Neta Jackson at www.daveneta.com.
Edward Gilbreath is director of editorial for Urban Ministries Inc., editor of UrbanFaith.com, and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity. He blogs at Reconciliation Blog. This article appears courtesy of a partnership with UrbanFaith.com.