Da'Shawn Mosley is associate editor and culture editor of Sojourners magazine. He earned a B.A. in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago and graduated from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, where he studied and briefly taught creative writing. In 2012, he was recognized by President Obama as a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts for his works of creative nonfiction.
Da'Shawn was a researcher for two documentaries by the Oscar and Emmy-winning filmmaker Kirk Simon (The Pulitzer at 100, Where Has All the Play Gone?) and was featured in the PBS documentary Becoming an Artist. His poem "I Don't Know" was published in the anthology The Best Teen Writing of 2011 and received a Scholastic Art & Writing Award from former poetry editor of The New Yorker Alice Quinn, NAACP Image Award winner Nikki Giovanni, Pulitzer Prize winner Vijay Seshadri, and other luminaries. Da'Shawn's fiction earned him the 2019 A Suite of One's Own: A Writer's Residency, awarded by Kiese Laymon. An excerpt of his essay "Dark Matter" was exhibited in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Da'Shawn is a native son of South Carolina.
Posts By This Author
City of Brotherly Justice?
PENNSYLVANIA CAPTURED THE attention of many of us this year via the superb crime drama Mare of Easttown on HBO, but there’s another incredible television show set in the state that we should be watching. I’m talking about Philly D.A., on PBS. An eight-episode documentary series focused on activist-attorney Larry Krasner’s unusual election to the role of Philadelphia’s district attorney and his desire to drastically reform the office, Philly D.A. is gripping and revelatory in how it explores the intricacies of his efforts. In the social justice sphere, we have big ideas of how government systems and traditions can be altered and abandoned, but most of us never get the chance to implement them. Philly D.A. depicts a staff doing just that and shows how difficult it is.
We see assistant DAs and staff members who have worked in the office for years, for several administrations, and have households and families—we see them be fired because they’re believed to be too entrenched in how things were done in the past. We see surviving loved ones of murdered citizens wonder why, after many years of the DA’s office recommending the death penalty, Krasner does not see it as a good solution. We see judges and other officials express their fear that, in the pursuit of innovation, all aspects of a functioning system are being tampered with, negatively affecting the city’s safety.
Mary Lou Williams' Jazz Is for the Masses
FROM THE 1920s until her death in 1981, Black jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams injected energy and innovation into the genre and, via three jazz Masses composed after her conversion to Catholicism in the 1950s, into the church. Still, her music is sometimes overlooked, while the popularity of male jazz musicians’ work—including her mentees Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker—persists.
In this century, Deanna Witkowski is amplifying Williams’ works of music and faith. Witkowski is a jazz pianist herself, inspired by Williams, and a doctoral student in the jazz studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. She is restoring and recording general and liturgical compositions by Williams, some of which haven’t been recorded since 1944. And she has written a biography of the pioneer, Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul (Liturgical Press). Witkowski spoke with Sojourners associate editor Da’Shawn Mosley about the book and its namesake.
Da’Shawn Mosley: How did you become interested enough in Mary Lou Williams to write a biography of her?
Deanna Witkowski: In 2000, Dr. Billy Taylor, a jazz musician himself and the judge from a jazz piano competition I had played the year before, contacted me and said, “Come bring your quintet to play at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center in the spring.” And so of course I said, “Yes, I would love to do this.” And then thought, “I really don’t know Mary Lou Williams’ music.” That’s a very common thing, even among jazz musicians or aficionados. She has this reputation [as] this great pianist and composer who wrote big-band music for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and mentored all these famous jazz musicians—so we know Thelonious Monk. But her compositions aren’t very well known.
U.S. Politics' Narrow Gate
EXCEPT FOR ABRAHAM LINCOLN and Thomas Jefferson, every president of the United States was or is a professing Christian.
Only in the case of John F. Kennedy, it seems, has a president’s Christian faith counted against him in the opinion of a significant number of citizens, and in Kennedy’s case it was because he was Catholic rather than Protestant. The Christian belief of public officials in any branch of national, state, or local government hardly ever raises concern among the U.S. public. But the opposite is true when it comes to Muslim officials.
Many conservative Americans say they fear that the U.S. will become a nation influenced by Islamic tenets instead of Christian ones. Commentators on Fox News often express alarm about sharia (Islamic law). Jeanine Pirro, host of the network’s Justice with Jeanine Pirro, accused Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a Muslim woman of Somali descent, of supporting Islamic rule in the United States. Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan are the only two Muslim women ever elected to Congress, and two of the three Muslims ever to serve in the U.S. legislature; Twitter users criticized Omar for wearing a hijab and Tlaib for wearing, at her congressional swearing-in, a traditional Palestinian dress called a thobe, made by her mother. Another Fox News host, Pete Hegseth, said that, based on how Tlaib “talked about President Trump having a hate agenda, I could, therefore, look at her and say that she has a Hamas agenda.” The Associated Press had to debunk the claim that Tlaib’s thobe was a “symbol of Hamas terrorists,” a sign that many Americans may have believed it to be true.
The alienation and hate go even further. A Florida Republican politician said in a fundraising email that falsely claimed that Omar worked for the nation of Qatar, “We should hang these traitors where they stand.” Another man called Omar’s office and said he would “put a bullet in her skull.” Following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when lawmakers were still in the building trying to certify President Joe Biden’s election, Tlaib discussed on the House floor her constant fear due to the death threats she regularly receives.
“I worry,” she said, “every day.”
The Book of Abby
THE PROPHET JOB had a hard life, but I think even he, if listening to Abby’s story, would say, “Damn.”
He’s not listening to her troubles, though: Abby’s therapist is. No, wait, she’s not listening either, for a reason that will spur Abby’s friends to joke about just how sad Abby’s life really is.
I’m describing Work in Progress, a scripted comedy produced by Showtime and co-written by Tim Mason, Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix, Sense 8), and Abby McEnany, who stars as a fictionalized version of herself.
“Abby is a mid-forties self-identified queer dyke whose life is a quiet and ongoing crisis,” Showtime’s website describes, not revealing that Abby lives with OCD, washing her hands repeatedly and recording her life meticulously in notebooks, in case she forgets anything she’s ever done. It doesn’t reveal that Abby, throughout much of her life, has been called Pat—a reference to the Saturday Night Live character from the early ’90s—and is often mistaken for a man, asked to leave public bathrooms, and struggles with her weight. It certainly doesn’t reveal what we learn in the first few minutes of Work in Progress: In a couple of weeks, if Abby’s life doesn’t get better, she plans to take her own life.
'Tough As Nails' Plays to Kinder Rules
IN MIDDLE SCHOOL I emailed CBS and asked them to make a teen version of their reality show Big Brother, in the hope that they would cast me and I could schmooze and deceive my peers to win the contest’s $500,000 prize. Schmooze and deceive weren’t my bright ideas: They formed a strategy I had seen succeed on previous seasons of Big Brother and Survivor, as clueless heroes were undone by ruthless, money-hungry, victorious villains. Even CBS’ clean-fun competition The Amazing Race had enabled contestants to backstab another team for $1 million.
So it’s unexpected that the network’s newer prime-time contest Tough as Nails plays to kinder rules—and that it has become part of my mostly drama-filled viewing habits. Twelve Americans with some of the most strenuous jobs that exist (welder, farmer, firefighter, ironworker, and more) vie in team and individual challenges to see who’s the hardest and smartest worker. As an artsy guy whose most physically demanding professional activity is typing, I would not have pictured myself in the Tough as Nails fan base. And yet, here I am.
A Latinx Family's Hilarious, Relatable Journey To The American Dream
A GENUINE HEART can overcome many a fault in the television landscape. I don’t just mean from a plot perspective, in which a character’s good nature helps them exit a situation their good nature got them into in the first place. But also from the perspective of capturing viewers’ attention—protagonists whose warmth we feel through the screen in a way that makes us forget a show’s turnoffs: occasional weak jokes, predictable storytelling, trite dialogue—all of which the Netflix show Gentefied contains.
And yet Gentefied, a half-hour comedy with a title that plays on the words gente (Spanish for “people”) and gentrified, has quickly become a favorite. The Mexican American Morales family at its center are hilarious and relatable. Casimiro (or “Pop,” as his grandkids call him), owner of a taco restaurant in LA’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, struggles to keep his establishment open as he falls further behind on its rent and gentrification makes the neighborhood less and less familiar. Meanwhile, Casimiro’s granddaughter Ana seeks to become a successful artist; grandson Chris, a trained-in-Paris chef; and other-grandson Erik, a dependable dad. Haunting their family home are Chris’ financially stable yet estranged dad and memories of Pop’s late wife. In these tough situations full of grief (Donald Trump’s xenophobic presidency does not help), Gentefied’s creators Linda Yvette Chávez and Marvin Lemus highlight the humor and love of the Morales family journey.
Ruby Sales: “So What Is It They're Asking You To Do?”
IF ASKED “What era would you time travel to if you could?” many young Black and brown and Indigenous people would answer in a flash, “None of them.” Why? We’re too aware of the past and what it means for us today—we tweet about the results of American slavery and can break news of the latest injustice to emerge from centuries-long hatred of nonwhite skin faster than MSNBC. We feel the negative effects of history enough each day to not want to go back there.
But maybe we should. If all we see of ourselves on TV and social media is us sick, oppressed, or dead, what other understanding of ourselves do we miss? How can we remember that we are greater than the damage done—that our history holds more than that and so might our present?
Ruby Sales, founder and director of the SpiritHouse Project, helps young people invested in faith and social justice see themselves through the lens of their divine wealth and boundless potential rather than through eyes dimmed by media and versions of history shaped by white supremacy. Sales, who by age 17 was a Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee member registering people to vote in her home state of Alabama, has a Master of Divinity degree from the Episcopal Divinity School and is a preacher, speaker, and intergenerational mentor on racial, economic, and social justice. I spoke with her in December by phone. —Da’Shawn Mosley
Da’Shawn Mosley: I watched a YouTube video of you speaking in 2015 at St. Albans Episcopal Church in D.C. and was struck by what you said about today’s youth: that the most recent generations have incredible insight but haven’t lived enough to have hindsight.
Ruby Sales: Now that I’m working with young folks in my fellowship program and have had some time to weigh how things have changed from the ’90s to the 2000s, I think young people lack insight also. When you have been raised in a technological age, when history is no longer lived experience but is created on social media and reproduced through technology, I think that long-term memory is affected, as well as the ability to empathize and connect with human suffering. There is a difference between being able to theorize about human suffering and being able to feel it. All of these are challenges faced by generations raised in a technocracy—the decimation of history, of who we are as a people.
How to Thrive in a Decade of Accelerating Change
Tom Sine has served as a futures innovation consultant for various denominations and organizations and Dwight J. Friesen is associate professor of practical theology at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. They spoke with Sojourners associate editor Da’Shawn Mosley about their book 2020s Foresight.
Sojourners: What motivated you to write this book?
Tom Sine: Essentially, a desire to write a more compelling book on the changes we’re facing in this pandemic and recession. Churches rarely do forecasting. As a consequence, they’re not ready for the next crunch. They care about their people, but they’re not thinking, “What’s going to happen to them as the recession gets worse?”
Dwight J. Friesen: Our book intends to say, “Listen, we don’t have to be passive bystanders to whatever the new normal’s going to be.” We can be proactive.
In ‘Love Child's Hotbed,’ We Are the Organic Matter
FOR BLACK people in the U.S.—a collective from which lives are still stolen on a daily basis, as though the slave-boat travels of 1619 never ended but merely set course in new directions to the same destination—reclamation is essential. Perhaps our history motivated the poet Nikky Finney’s father to repurpose a phrase that long had a negative connotation into a moniker to give his daughter positive focus.
“My mother steeped us in the stories of Black history and my father named me ‘Love Child’ in order not to give anyone else the opportunity to distract me from what I had come to earth to be,” writes Finney, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, in her newest collection, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry. “So be she.”
And so she is. About a month into quarantine 2020, Finney released perhaps the most history-and-affection-freighted book to be published this harrowing year. Love Child’s Hotbed cannot be read on a Kindle. Less a typical, slender publication of modern verse, and more a hefty coffee-table book of startling import, it brings to mind The Black Book, that historical anthology co-edited in 1974 by Toni Morrison, the eventual Nobel laureate in literature who was an editor at the publishing company Random House. A book that strove to contain the vast lives of Black people in the U.S.—their horrific experiences and their magnanimous achievements—The Black Book was a gift to the nation’s children and grandchildren of slaves (and even inspired one of the greatest novels of all time, Morrison’s Beloved). Likewise, in a time of immense death and thus plundering of families, Finney’s latest book is a blessing for a continuously undone but never destroyed people, reaching into the past to grasp hope and self-worth to sustain their future.
‘Good Lord Bird’ a Few Feathers Short
I don’t begrudge Ethan Hawke for wanting to play John Brown and producing this project. John Brown’s life was vast and exciting; his willingness to take up arms to defeat injustice mirrors conversations we still have in the church today about nonviolence.
HBO's Revolutionary Black Artists Shine
EVERYTHING THAT THE devil stole, HBO’s giving back to me. That’s a sacrilegious statement, but sometimes that’s how I feel when I’m on my couch watching yet another show with a largely Black cast (and sometimes even crew) miraculously greenlit in a sea of Hollywood whiteness by the network titan that years ago gave us The Wire and made many of us notice the likes of Idris Elba.
For what seemed like eons to Black folks eager for visual confirmation that their lives mattered, Black characters on TV were mostly relegated to sidekick or background roles—and Black writers, directors, and showrunners were rare or entirely absent. But from Insecure to A Black Lady Sketch Show, Watchmen to I May Destroy You, HBO is perhaps the strongest ally for revolutionary Black artists and creators of color on and behind TV.
Sufjan Stevens’ Latest Hymns of Honesty
The album is titled The Ascension but, I’ve got to be honest, Sufjan Stevens’ latest masterwork has me feeling the lowest I’ve felt about this country since the start of quarantine.
Why Faith Communities Are an Organic Part of HIV/AIDS Care
IN 1985, WHEN Jesse Milan Jr. was in his late 20s, no one from his Philadelphia church attended his partner’s funeral. Not because they refused, but because Milan didn’t invite them. Doing so would have required him to say what he felt uncomfortable sharing: He loved a man who had HIV. He is a man who has HIV.
“This is never going to happen to me again,” Milan vowed to himself at the funeral, regarding the loneliness he felt because he didn’t draw close his church family at one of the most painful moments of his life.
Milan is now the president and CEO of AIDS United, an organization fighting the HIV epidemic in the U.S. He is adamant that no one in the HIV community be isolated from the love and support they need. “People living with HIV,” said Milan, “have a longing to belong. A longing to be cared for and a longing to not be silent or secret.”
A lifelong Episcopalian, Milan grew up in a congregation in the Diocese of Kansas, following the example of his mother and father in serving their spiritual home and, in times of need, allowing their siblings in Christ to serve them. Milan kept this mutuality in mind when he enrolled at Princeton University and, struggling to transition from public school and homesick for his church, joined the Episcopal Church at Princeton. It was, Milan told Sojourners, “an anchor, a port to tap into on a regular basis whenever I needed it.”
Helping communities live
FOR MANY PEOPLE today, the closest we get to understanding the impact of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and early ’90s is through stage and screen portrayals such as Pose, Angels in America, and Rent. For others, the memories and losses of that time are vivid and unforgettable.
For instance, Jesse Peel, a gay psychiatrist and community organizer, documented in his journals the avoidance and terror of HIV that overtook his home city, Atlanta, and the nation. As many people rapidly contracted and died of the disease, doctors struggled to understand what was happening and many nurses refused to bring meals into the hospital rooms of the stricken, Peel wrote in documents he donated to a collection at Emory University. By 1994, AIDS was the leading cause of death for Americans age 25 to 44. It killed more than 350,000 people in the country between 1981 and 1995.
“I think the experience of people who are of a certain age will always be colored by our experience of the death and the dying,” said Milan. “Today, I sense that [younger] people’s commitment to HIV/AIDS work is more about the rights and the inequalities that are manifested in HIV and AIDS. They have a broad lens about where human rights need to advance, and that broad lens includes the trans community and all others.”
In the early years of the epidemic, many pastors and religious people publicly denounced and turned their backs on HIV-positive people. Others embraced those who were suffering, opening care programs and advocating for government funding. Reminding the nation’s leaders of their responsibility to the HIV community is a job that’s been done by many Christians and is a significant part of AIDS United’s history and present work.
A Black, Female Pastor in 'The Amen Corner' Takes Center Stage
When’s the last time you saw a play in which the main character was a black woman? If you’ve never seen one, you’re likely not alone. Although it’s the year 2020, and within the past year Slave Play and American Son were on Broadway, the number of American plays with black women as their leads staged in America still has immense room for improvement. As of today, zero are slated to appear on Broadway during the rest of the 2019-2020 season and the entirety of the 2020-2021 season. That’s why it’s shocking that, 55 years ago, The Amen Corner, a three-act play about a black woman pastoring a Pentecostal church in Harlem, N.Y., opened on Broadway, albeit more than a decade after its birth.
Let Black Voters Be Black Voters
FROM THE SOUTH CAROLINA Democratic primary onward, the votes for the presidency cast by black churchgoers will be criticized by many white people. Even now, black churchgoers’ feelings are speculated about in the press, like in-progress crimes announced on a police scanner.
Media and election pundits ask: “Are they going to choose Joe Biden because of his relationship with Barack Obama? Are they going to go for Elizabeth Warren because of her plan to give $50 billion to historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions? Are they going to bypass Pete Buttigieg because he’s gay?”
The latter question is the most problematic—an attempt to deem all black churchgoers as homophobic, as if homophobia is something no other racial, ethnic, or religious group has played a part in; as if there’s no such thing as the black grandfather who accepts his gay grandson; the black grandmother who always asks how her grandson’s boyfriend is doing; or the black grandmother who puts on her “good wig” to hang out with said boyfriend when he visits the South. All three are my Christian grandparents, and they’re not alone.
But the most problematic aspect of the Buttigieg question is what it reveals about white sight: Black churchgoers of the electorate are seen as tools to bring about a desired election result, and scapegoats if the election doesn’t go the white way.
Playing With Fire
Da’Shawn Mosley: What inspired this book?
Robert W. Lee IV: I’m a pastor first. But the events in Charlottesville, and our nation’s response, terrified me and inspired me to put pen to paper and say, “We gotta talk about this, because if we don’t, our silence becomes complicity.”
This summer marks the second anniversary of the white supremacy violence in Charlottesville. What is your read of where we are as a nation? Charlottesville will live in our collective history as an event of great horror. It was domestic terrorism. As we move forward, especially in the 2020 election, we’re going to have to talk about the deep chasm of racism that exists in our country without using it as a pandering mechanism to get votes. It’s important for us to care and be deeply concerned about these issues.
As a white man, how have you navigated wanting to be an ally and not be at the forefront of the movement while at the same time being catapulted into the public spotlight? It’s a learning experience. I hate to put it like that, but it is.
What God Has Joined Together
THE CHURCH THAT baptized me and was my spiritual home does not provide marriage counseling to LGBTQ couples. I doubt it even allows openly LGBTQ people to join its congregation. This treatment isn’t unusual: For years, many LGBTQ people have been denied true belonging and dignity in church bodies worldwide. Their romantic partnerships have been damned by clergy and discredited by loved ones. While heterosexual couples have been given pastors’ blessings and guidance, many LGBTQ couples have been abandoned to the harshness of life’s challenges.
David and Constantino Khalaf know this struggle well and don’t want queer Christians interested in finding a partner to have to figure out the complexities of faith, marriage, and commitment on their own. That’s why they have bravely written the book Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage.
Father Ted Hesburgh's Revolutionary Kindness
The new documentary Hesburgh, which premieres nationwide on Friday, May 3, and is directed by the Emmy-nominated filmmaker Patrick Creadon (Wordplay, I.O.U.S.A.) gives us a thorough look at Father Hesburgh’s walk. From Hesburgh’s origins to his decision to devote his life to the priesthood, to his appointment — at the young age of 35 — as president of the University of Notre Dame, to all the personal, national, and global adversities that the man of the cloth later faced afterward, Hesburgh weaves a beautiful and engaging story of faith lived out.
IF I WERE MURDERED TODAY—say, shot and killed while walking unarmed through a residential area, wearing my hoodie—and my murderer weren’t arrested by dawn, my family would make one phone call. To Benjamin Crump.
This has become the African-American family emergency plan—set in motion when the “hurricane” is a white person with a gun. Call Benjamin Crump.
This is what Trayvon Martin’s family did in 2012 when they realized the criminal justice system would not punish the man who killed Trayvon. They called the lawyer who once stood on the steps of a courthouse where two white men had just been acquitted of beating to death a 14-year-old boy and said: “You kill a dog, you go to jail. You kill a little black boy, and nothing happens.” They called the attorney who, time and time again, tries to make something happen. They called Benjamin Crump.
In Trayvon’s case, Crump, one of the best-known civil rights attorneys practicing today, thought at first that something would happen without his help—since the only thing Martin had in his possession when George Zimmerman shot and killed him was a can of fruit juice and a bag of Skittles. When Crump realized there was a strong possibility that justice would not be served, he came face-to-face with what he calls “a test from God.”
“Nobody was watching this call between me and this brokenhearted father, save God,” Crump told Sojourners in a phone interview in October. “And I believe God was testing me to see if I was going to answer the bell, use the blessings and education and all the other things [God] has given me to be a blessing to the least of these. I stepped out on faith to do the right thing. And God took over from there.”
Can This Planet Be Saved?
IN OCTOBER, The New York Times published an article that, despite its dire implications, seemed to wash away in the rapid news cycle. It described how, according to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s population will see major consequences, as early as 2040, from its mistreatment of the planet. More droughts, more wildfires, more poverty, and higher temperatures—in only 22 years. When that time comes, when nature begins to resemble Hell, how will we have to live?
Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker David Conover has been thinking about this question for 12 years. “I was a parent of two young kids,” Conover told me about the moment when he began to ruminate on creation care, “and was trying to understand the world they were growing into: pollution, severe weather with fires, flooding, droughts, struggles with realities that weren’t that apparent even a generation ago.
“There have been many films made about those things, how we know that they’re happening, what’s causing them, and so on. But there haven’t been any films about people and their experience of exploring the very tough question of how to live right today in this climate.”
Conover’s wrestling with how to live a moral life during a time of environmental hardship has culminated in the production and release of his newest documentary, Behold the Earth, which explores contemporary Christianity’s relationship with creation care.