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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.
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W.E.B. Du Bois, from The Souls of Black Folk

A powerful opening to an important book. 

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We’re going to try an experiment tonight… live video streaming with an iPad + a WiFi connection (yes, for realz!). So far the tests look good. At 7pm ET/6 pm CT, we’ll start filming. Join us from afar and listen in on the conversation from NPR's beautiful new building in Washington DC! 

http://www.onbeing.org/blog/nonviolence-vs-no-justice-no-peace-the-civil-conversations-project-live-video/6085

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What might words like repentance or forgiveness mean, culturally, in this moment? These are questions of the emerging church, a loosely-defined movement that crosses generations, theologies and social ideologies in the hope of reimagining Christianity. With Phyllis Tickle and Vincent Harding, we bring you an honest (and sometimes politically incorrect) conversation on coming to terms with racial identity in the church and in the world:

"The great American experiment with building a multiracial democracy is still in the laboratory. We have got to be willing to see ourselves as part of an experiment that is actively working its way through right now. We stumble. We hold on to each other. We hug each other. We fight with one another in loving ways. But we keep moving and experimenting and trying to figure it out."
"There’s a difference between repentance and forgiveness and there’s a difference between those in grace. And if we do this thing that Vincent’s talking about, if we refashion this country — which we’re going to do — but if we do it without grace, it will be just as clunky and just as unfortunate. And just as many people will get the short end of the stick as has been true in the past."

Visit the website »

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I think that slogan has been meant to serve and I think is serving a very important aspect of our attempt to get at humanity. You are challenging the very deep roots of the Black man’s belief about himself. When you say ‘black is beautiful’ what in fact you are saying to him is: man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being. … So in a sense the term ‘black is beautiful’ challenges exactly that belief which makes someone negate himself.
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Steve Biko, from his book I Write What I Like

Vigil in memoriamSteve Biko founded the Black Consciousness Movement as a student leader. He was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 70s, and became a martyr for the movement after dying in police custody in 1977.

Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu spoke in memory of Biko in 2006:

"That is what Steve diagnosed in us as our illness and black consciousness was meant to exorcise this demon, to make us realise that as he said, we were human and not inferior as the white person was human and not superior. I internalised what others had decided was to be my identity, not my God-given utterly precious and unique me."

Former president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki said of Biko in 2007:

"Steve Biko understood that to attain our freedom we had to rebel against the notion that we are a problem, that we should no longer merely cry out -Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?, that we should stop looking at ourselves through the eyes of others, and measuring our souls by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."

Musician Peter Gabriel wrote a tribute in a song titled “Biko”:

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko,
because Biko Yihla Moja,
Yihla Moja - The man is dead

South African supporters hold a vigil in honor of the anniversary of Biko’s death. (photo: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images)

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…15 years ago when I went out into communities, these people would ask me, ‘Why are you doing the slaves’ work?’ And now I don’t hear that anymore.
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Will Allen, founder of Growing Power in Milwaukee

In his recent interview with Tavis Smiley, Allen credited Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative and and the White House Kitchen Garden with getting people of color “back into the game” of what he calls the “good food revolution.”

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

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Backing the Springboks
Colleen Scheck, senior producer

This week, ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 documentary series continued with "The 16th Man." This doc chronicles the role of rugby in helping unify blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa. It’s centered around Nelson Mandela’s risky “magnanimous gesture” to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup and back the majority white South African Springboks, culminating with their improbable victory and its unifying symbolism for a nation starting a healing process.

It features interviews with players, including Afrikaner captain François Pienaar, alongside an interview with political activist Justice Bekebeke, who doubted Mandela’s actions, and a few brief comments from Desmond Tutu that echo his belief in a “God of surprises.”

The film’s director quotes Mandela’s post-victory words: “Sport has the ability to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people that little else has … It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers.” Often sports documentaries seem to exaggerate this sentiment; in this case, the documenting feels very authentic, even without knowing how long the impact lasted for the people of South Africa.

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Einstein on Race
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Colleen Scheck, senior producer

"But after I accepted that…he actually said such things, the next puzzle for me was why? Because…prior to Martin Luther King, I don’t know of any other Nobel Laureate who spoke so forcefully for the rights of African Americans."
— S. James Gates, Jr., string theorist

"My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause. There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it."
— Albert Einstein, speaking at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1946

Albert Einstein’s spiritual sensibility is the center of this week’s program, "Einstein’s God," but I want to highlight a section from our companion show, "Einstein’s Ethics," that explores the nature of his humanitarian passions and public ethics, including his views on race. It contains one of my favorite interviews: Krista’s conversation with S. James Gates, Jr, a professor of physics whose work focuses on string theory and supersymmetry — things I don’t fully comprehend.

Originally, he was not on our radar for this program, but when we heard him speak at a conference on Einstein’s legacy, we were impressed not only by his scientific insight, but also by his reflection on Einstein the person. In this excerpt from our program, Gates speaks eloquently and thoughtfully about how he discovered Einstein’s passion for the problem of racism, and his "capacity for ethical engagement and his scientific creativity" — something Gates himself embodies. You’ll hear the beautiful voice of the legendary opera singer Marian Anderson, whom Einstein invited to stay at his home after she was denied a room at Princeton’s best “whites only” hotel.

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"The Color of Ideas"
Krista Tippett, host

Black & Universal: Meeting E. Ethelbert Miller
Artist Kara Walker installs her work “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (photo: Cameron Wittig/Walker Art Center)

I’ve heard E. Ethelbert Miller’s essays and short interviews on Weekend Edition Sunday and always learned something new. He has been at Howard University, first as an undergraduate, since it was a crucible of Black Power in the late 1960s. I’ve heard him observe political and cultural events — like the election of Barack Obama as president — through a fascinating lens, from that vantage point, and also from his vantage point as a poet, a “literary activist.” And I wondered what would happen if I sat down with him for a whole hour to explore the nexus of the political, the artistic, and the spiritual in the dramatic trajectory of black history over the last half century — a trajectory he has both been shaped by and has shaped.

The result is an unpredictable, playful, and challenging program. For starters, he is not eager to engage in a head-on discussion of Obama and race — the discussion many in our culture have both longed for, and not found a way to have, throughout his candidacy and now his presidency. For E. Ethelbert Miller, Obama’s election says interesting things about how white people in the U.S. have changed. He does not buy the language of a “post-racial society.” Yet he sees that both Barack and Michele Obama have made a lasting impact on global cultural associations between blackness, elegance, excellence, and beauty. And in the long run, he seems to feel, that may be more than enough, for now.

We hear the trumpet of Miles Davis and the saxophone of John Coltrane as Miller guides us in an entertaining, if not linear, way through the evolution of what he calls “blackness” in the last half century. His words and the sounds of this music join the poetry of Lucille Clifton "won’t you celebrate with me") and the prose of Buddhist novelist Charles Johnson and Muslim activist Malcolm X to evoke the eclectic range of influences that nourished the black consciousness that first emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Our cultural memory has taken in some of these influences and forgotten much of the rest, though they have all continued to ferment in E. Ethelbert Miller’s being and in the diverse universe he inhabits.

My Imagination, My Language by E. Ethelbert MillerHe likes to imagine a healing role for African-American Muslims, for example, in the global encounter between Islam and the West in this century. He also suggests that, in this globalized world, the noun/adjective “African American” is too small. His own heritage is West Indian, and the term African American in fact obscures the far-flung immigrant story inside the story of race in the U.S. alone. But in using the word “blackness” — which culturally might seem a reversal — E. Ethelbert Miller is talking about much more than the color of one’s skin. He is talking about “the color of ideas.”

Listen for yourself, and enjoy.

Also, I recommend reading Miller’s "My Language, My Imagination." It’s a beautiful essay based on a speech he delivered on the campus of Western Oregon University in 1998. It is a vivid, personal, concise, and energizing introduction to the turning points and inner dynamics of African-American life in our time. And it is terrific background for going on to read Miller’s memoirs — especially his first, Fathering Words — and his poetry.

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The Final Cut: Omitting the Samaritan Woman’s Story
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer

Some interesting reactions to the Vashti McKenzie program this past weekend, both positive and negative. This interesting e-mail in particular was mentioned during our Monday morning staff meeting, coming from Kathryn in Davis, California. She mentions a segment around 01:12:00 in the full interview that we cut out of the final production. The segment is about 6 minutes long, and survived through a couple of rounds of edits before it was ultimately cut out.

I am a big fan of this show and admire your talent, Krista. The editing on this particular show disturbed me, however. By her own account, and yours, the essence of Vashti McKenzie is discovered in the the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s an incredibly profound teaching in the same way that Native American stories are so deeply wise and transformational. (One can understand how Christianity of the mainstream stumbled so badly by failing to understand the meaning of this core teaching. Rev. McKenzie finally gets it right.) And yet, it didn’t make the final cut.

When I look at what did make the cut — the emphasis on the Jeremiah Wright exegesis — and the timing of this interview, it tells me that you used Speaking of Faith and Vashti McKenzie to make an appeal to nervous undecided and conservative voters to support Barack Obama, much like the just released movie about George “W” Bush did.

This is your show, you can do that, and I hope it works. That said, the story of the Samaritan woman holds so much more meaning and value for viewers here and around the world than whether or not undecided voters now might feel a little better about Barack Obama’s Christianity. Rev. McKenzie’s teaching goes both to her core and the central mission of your show. Your rough cut managed to miss the mark on both counts.

There are a couple of things there. The first thing is the apparent support for a candidate. Depending on what we’re covering on a particular week, we often hear from listeners who think we’re supporting this or that political ideology. Just as an example with this program, some listeners suggested that even mentioning Jeremiah Wright at this stage meant we were trying to derail Sen. Obama’s bid. It seems to go with the territory no matter how much editorial rigor we subject a program to, and that’s fine, we’re happy to talk about our process.

But as with most Speaking of Faith programs, we try to contribute something to the conversation in the larger American community. Talking about race in the context of this presidential election might seem cynical, but I don’t know if there’s ever a wrong time to talk about racism.

Maybe the story of the Samaritan woman contributes to that larger conversation in a more enduring way than anything that can be said about the Wright controversy. Rather than reflecting an ulterior motive, this is where the desire to be newsworthy comes in. Krista is talking to someone who is a prominent leader in the African-American community, and who had close ties to Jeremiah Wright. There is a journalistic responsibility to address it openly. To be honest, in the full interview, I detected some reluctance in Bishop McKenzie’s voice as far as talking about the Wright controversy. There is more discussion of the controversy throughout the interview, but we edited a lot of that out because the segment we had in the final program addressed the issue without belaboring it. And there was some thematic redundancy between the story of the Samaritan woman and other parts of the interview. With our eyes on the clock, we make room for some things at the expense of others.

The show itself was meant to act as part of a reflection on how race and gender have been used in this campaign. And when we decide to re-broadcast this show at some future point, it’s highly possible that we swap out the Wright discussion — which will no longer be timely — with the story of the Samaritan woman.

For now, we’re still trying to draw something positive out of the uglier aspects of the campaigns. Bishop McKenzie talks about defining moments. In our public life, we often hear about missed opportunities to turn crises into teachable moments — “transformational” is a word Kathryn uses above. I don’t know, what do you think? Samaritan woman, or Jeremiah Wright reaction? Timely or timeless?

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The Real Triumph of the Ole Miss Debate

Krista Tippett, Host

On Thursday night before the debate, I wrote something that meant a great deal to me. It was about a trip I made to Ole Miss in August and the incredible symbolism of that the debate on that campus, a cultural triumph it signified far larger than who won or lost.

The drama in financial markets nearly stopped the debate completely, and overshadowed a few hours of reflection we might have allowed ourselves on race. But Scott Simon did a lovely piece on Saturday morning, and Slate produced this: "Negro to Address Ole Miss Class" (The headline you won’t be reading about tonight’s presidential debate.) A white presidential candidate in civil debate against a black presidential candidate is a monumental, quiet victory of a milestone worth pondering, and celebrating, in a world in which bad news gets all the attention.

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Makes Me Wanna Jump & Shout: Religion, Ecstasy & Race
Kate Moos, Managing Producer

We had a cuts-n-copy session this week for an upcoming show on Democrats and religion, with Time Magazine editor Amy Sullivan, herself an Evangelical Christian. Mitch had placed some fabulous music in the rough version of the show: the Campbell Brothers performing Sam Cooke’s yearning "A Change Is Gonna Come". But it gave me pause, because one of the points Amy Sullivan makes in the course of her interview with Krista is that liberal Democrats have historically “delegated” religion to black churches, and have been uninterested in engaging with white Christian piety in this country. Sullivan argues that in 2008 this changed, with much more evidence of a vibrant religious presence — albeit a self-conscious & studiously interfaith one — at the DNC.

Still, it seems to me there is not only a political but a racial divide in how we members of the media, and the liberal “intelligentsia,” perceive devotional practices that fall outside the mainline habit of sitting up straight in church while being lectured.

Sarah Palin, a white person who was at least at one time associated with the energetic devotions of Pentecostal worship is handily dismissed by many liberals as — therefore — a kook. Apparently white people are dismissible if they engage in ecstatic devotion, at least for Jesus. But the same liberal sensibility finds the ecstatic worship of African-American Pentecostalism charming, authentic, and soulful. What gives? I think this is racism of a pernicious variety.

We accept the full-bodied worship of African-Americans because, at least subliminally, they are still The Other — that is, they are other than the dominant, hyper-rational, majority white culture.

I’m not an apologist for Palin or any candidate, nor am I an apologist for Pentecostalism, though I do sometimes find Pentecostalism’s fervor and emotionalism persuasive, beautiful, and deep. I just don’t like what I smell underneath the high-toned dismissal of Palin’s Pentecostal roots, when it’s accompanied by the wholesale enthusiasm for our cultural appropriation of gospel music, blues, and soul.

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Mississippi on My Mind

Krista Tippett, Host

I spent three fascinating, moving days in Oxford, Mississippi at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in August — the site of the first scheduled presidential debate. I was honored with an invitation to speak to the remarkable Honors College of Ole Miss by its dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales. Oxford was the home of William Faulkner, and it is one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited — marked by a loveliness of people as well as place. Even then, in mid-August, the Secret Service and other affiliated debate authorities had begun to tear up and rearrange that beautiful campus — building elaborate security perimeters and state of the art communications Gertrude Castellow Ford Center for the Performing Artsfacilities for thousands of journalists. The august building in which I was to speak, the appointed site of the debate, had already been locked down and quarantined. I couldn’t help but think of all these practicalities — at public expense — as I heard John McCain’s announcement of his wish to postpone the debate yesterday. I imagine many hearts sank in Oxford.

And it’s been a wild ride for them all along. The first debate was originally planned to focus on issues of domestic policy and the economy. The Ole Miss faculty and administration created an interdisciplinary semester curriculum around these issues. They lined up an astonishing array of visiting lectures and extracurricular seminars. Then just as school began, the McCain and Obama campaigns agreed to shift the Ole Miss debate focus to foreign policy. Right now it looks like the original plan was more prescient. The university took the change in stride, moving forward with its own well-laid plans, though with some understandable frustration. I joked — but not all in jest — that by November the students at Ole Miss will be the best-informed, most well-rounded thinkers in the nation.

James Meredith and Ole MissBut there are deeper issues at play around this debate, in particular, a convergence of more fundamental national dynamics that could easily be missed in all the politicking around this ultra-politicized event. In 1962, the nation’s eyes focused on Oxford and Ole Miss, as race riots accompanied the integration of the university by a determined African-American student named James Meredith. In just a few days there, I learned that for people who live in and love Oxford even in 2008, history’s subdivisions and ephiphanies still fall on either side of this living memory: time is divided into “before Meredith” and “after Meredith.”

I remember especially one woman who stood with me at the monument to James Meredith at the center of the campus — a wonderful dean at the honors college from an old Oxford family. Her grandparents were close friends of William Faulkner and his wife, icons of a paradoxical past — at once immensely gracious and essentially cruel. She spoke of how after the riots hearts and minds changed individually and ultimately collectively. She suggested, softly, that Oxford has become something of a model for how people and communities can evolve. This is not a story so often told. She said, “We had to realize that we had been wrong — and wrong about a way of life we loved.” I was humbled to be in her presence. I have not spent much time in the Deep South in my life, though I grew up in Oklahoma, where issues of race and bigotry have not often enough met with profound public reflection. In Oxford, I saw people wrestling carefully, searchingly, self-critically, and gracefully with the unresolved American encounter with race. I was impressed.

And so hosting this historic 2008 civil debate between a white candidate for president and an African-American candidate for president means more to the people of Oxford than most of us can imagine. The current chancellor of the university was himself a student “during Meredith.” History is present at Ole Miss, and it is history that we have scarcely found ways in our common life to name and discuss even in the midst of Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. I for one will be watching the people of Oxford tomorrow, not just the candidates. I hope very much that the debate happens.

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Understanding Islam in the U.S. — a Milestone

Krista Tippett, Host

I wanted to share a tremendously informative piece of writing that came into my inbox yesterday — an essay by Omer M. Mozaffar about the passing of Warith Deen (often referred to as W.Deen) Mohammed titled "American Islam Enters its Next Phase." Mohammed was a gentle but towering figure in the history of Islam in the U.S., yet remains little known in the culture at large.

Fully one-third of U.S. Muslims are African-American, with a noble, fascinating history and theological trajectory all their own. We first waded into these waters when we did an early post-9/11 program on "Progressive Islam in America." (If you listen you will find that it sounds quite different from the programming we do now, though it remains kindred in spirit and intent.) One of the voices in that show is the supersmart fast-talking Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, a third-generation African-American Muslim. I will never forget discovering her, and discovering all I learned about African-American Islam as I prepared to speak with her.

I’ll boil my most surprising learning down to this: although Louis Farrakhan is still to this day known best and heeded in U.S. culture as the face and voice of African-American Islam, he has long spoken for only a sliver of this movement (tens of thousands as opposed to millions). The vast majority of the African-American Islamic community went through a profound mini-reformation, which W.Deen Mohammed led and exemplified and which mirrored the conversion Malcolm X underwent near the time of his death — away from the more militant, racially separatist roots of Farrakhan and Elija Muhammad (W.Deen’s father) and towards a universalist, orthodox Sunni Islam. To put a finer point on this: Farrakhan speaks for tens of thousands; but the gentle Mohammed embodied a religiosity of millions who, as Mozaffer says, will now move into their next phase as a community formed by his example.

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