Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four Black African Americans

Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Eldridge Cleaver, and Muhammad Ali

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Randal Maurice Jelks
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans, Randall Maurice Jelks examines the role that religion played in the lives of four important 20th century African Americans. Jelks’ approach is a departure from the typical way that these subjects’ stories have been told. The subjects chosen—Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Muhammad Ali, and Eldridge Cleaver—were not best known for their faith—their stories have been told traditionally as agonistic tales in which the protagonist fights battles with white America on social, political, and economic fronts. Yet, each had complex, zig-zagging spiritual journeys that Jelks seeks to foreground.

This book is fueled by the gerund “storying”—a concept that captures the “inner histories” of African Americans that have served as survival manuals and repositories of transgenerational truth. Storying utilizes the “ways in which black folk use fiction in its various forms to free themselves from the bound fact” (5). Jelks is particularly interested in the religious/spiritual sources of storying, including his own. He finds faith to be a central player in the construction and sustenance of self-written stories—stories that speak of a God who values a black body and mind, even if the world did not.

Jelks’ first subject is Waters, the renowned singer of the early to mid-20th century. Waters’ own take on religion was unconventional—if not contradictory—on appearance. A lifelong Catholic, her grandmother had her baptized at the age of nine, Waters found the church to be “the rock and the light" amidst the chaos of inner city Philadelphia (36). Yet she also found a freedom of expression in the black Protestant church, which her mother attended; an expression that eventually led her to perform at the Billy Graham Crusades in the 1970s. Consequently, Waters held a kind of religious inclusivism that was grounded on a "God is love" theology, and this theology dovetailed with her sexual openness, according to Jelks. Though her relationships with women and men were downplayed in public, or completely ignored in her autobiography, His Eye Is on the Sparrow: An Autobiography (Da Capo Press, 1992), Jelks defends her. In order to make a living in the public eye, Waters’ story had to conform to mainstream expectations at that time, and performing at the Billy Graham Crusades contributed to this narrative. Waters found freedom in her private life, and by contrast, was able to justify her double life on religious grounds.

Williams is Jelks’ next subject and was also a musician in the first half of the 20th century, yet unlike Waters, Williams eventually shed her reliance on the black church and jumped into the deep end of the Catholic pool later in life. Jelks suggests that religion or spirituality did not exercise significant influence on Williams's music, or even her life, until exhaustion from touring drove her to a spiritual reckoning. She composed Elijah and the Juniper Tree in 1948, and “Mary Lou, like Elijah, was in need of rest” (67). Magic, astrology, mysticism, and finally, conversion to Catholicism led her to live an ascetic life in the 1950s. Though in dialectical form, Williams began to reincorporate jazz back into her spiritual life which, in turn, affected her relationship with Catholicism. Jelks notes that Williams was compelled “to Blacken the faith” by bending it towards justice for African Americans (80). The title of her 1963 album, Black Christ for the Andes, pointedly expresses this shift. 

Next up for Jelks is a man who needs less introduction: Ali. Reminiscent of the spiritual journeys of Waters and Williams, Ali’s did not follow a predictable path. After giving a brief history of the Nation of Islam, Jelks details Ali’s famous rejection of his Baptist heritage and given name in favor of becoming a member of the Nation immediately following his winning of the heavyweight championship in 1964. Jelks does not delve into Ali’s inner theater as much as he does with his previous two subjects, but instead calls our attention to Ali’s biography—especially as it pertains to his maltreatment as a black Muslim. In the end, Jelks views Ali’s conversion and commitment as a radical act of freedom that expressed an opaque desire for “determining truth for himself” (118). 

Cleaver, the writer and early leader of the Black Panthers, is Jelks final subject. Like the previous three, Cleaver’s religious trajectory was far from linear; perhaps his veered the wildest of the four. Incarcerated in the 1950s for selling marijuana, Cleaver left Catholicism for the Nation of Islam while in prison. His popular book, Soul on Ice (McGraw-Hill, 1968), addressed prison life, race relations and masculinity—themes that would persist throughout Cleaver’s spiritual journey. That journey had stops at the Unification Church, evangelicalism, and Mormonism. Cleaver even ditched his leftist ideology for the Republican Party in the 1980s. These shifts come off as less-than-genuine to Jelks who has trouble seeing Cleaver’s religious allegiances as anything more than opportunistic moves in search of money and celebrity (151). Still, Cleaver’s desire for Black liberation never waned, even if his means of achieving such liberation were flawed.

While Jelks’ reflections on his own spiritual journey are refreshing for an academic text, it is difficult, at times, to decipher where his journey ends and those of his subjects begin. Moreover, Jelks at times takes off on some speculative flights by suggesting that some synchronistic events are causing each other. Still, Jelks’ urge to understand the interior lives of these renown African Americans, even if only to help him make sense of his own religious narrative, stands as a novel and needed way in which to further disentangle the biographies of these four multifaceted individuals.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey Scholes is Associate Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Date of Review: 
July 29, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Randal Maurice Jelks is Professor of American Studies and African American Studies at the University of Kansas.


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