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A Feature Review of
Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God
Kelly Brown Douglas
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2015
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Reviewed by Josiah Daniels
If the cover art of Kelly Brown Douglas’s most recent book doesn’t compel you, what’s inside surely will. Douglas’s Stand Your Ground is a challenging and timely commentary on America’s original sin: the plunder of the black body. What makes this book unique is Douglas’s awareness of contemporary events along with a keen ability to parse out the ways in which the past is connected to contemporary situations.
The book largely orbits around Douglas’s thesis that American Exceptionalism is a “theo-ideology” that births a vicious cycle of violence against those who are non-white (chapter 1). While becoming “white” is a highly arbitrary process, Douglas suggests that one way whiteness is created is by demonizing black bodies (chapters 2 and 3). Douglas contends that there are even certain laws that legalize the demonization of black bodies such as the ubiquitous “stand your ground” law (Excursus). How then can black faith speak into this crisis? How does the justice of God address these systemic evils? Douglas answers these questions by examining God’s “preferential option for freedom,” Christ’s solidarity with the victims of injustice and the black prophetic legacy (chapters 4, 5 and 6). Perhaps what I appreciated most about this book is that Douglas brilliantly examines all this from the perspective of a pastor and the mother of a black boy (Epilogue).
Douglas begins her book by conducting a meticulous inquiry into the historical events that helped shape what she calls “the Anglo-Saxon myth” of America (10). This myth begins with the 1st century Roman historian Tacitus’s Germania which suggested that the Germanic people were a superior race. This treatise serves as fodder for the pilgrims and the founding fathers to inextricably link America to the Anglo-Saxon myth. This myth affected all facets of America’s formation. Literature, politics, science and religion were all manipulated to idealize white flesh and demonize non-white flesh. Immigrants from Europe that wished to identify themselves as white (e.g. Irish, Italians, Greeks, Jews etc) were able to do so at the expense of those raced as black. It is here that Douglas exposes the ways in which race is a social construct which serves to maintain various forms of control and power. For those familiar with Critical Race Theory or the works of J. Kameron Carter and Willie Jennings much of this discussion will be familiar. But what I found to be helpful with Douglas’s book is that it is much more accessible than Carter and Jennings’s work and it is specifically focused on exposing the racial matrix of the United States. The only thing I’d want to push back on is her use of the term “Anglo-Saxon myth.” I think the term is not nearly abstract and arbitrary enough for the process Douglas is trying to describe. It is not only the German and the English that get caught up in this “myth.” The myth also reconfigures the identity of Italians and Greeks who then internalize and redeploy America’s racial imagination. For this reason, I think “the myth of whiteness” or even “the myth of white supremacy” are better phrases.
To be raced as white in the United States of America is to be the beneficiary of certain rights and privileges. The primary example that Douglas references throughout her books is the right for white persons to protect their bodies. The myth has historically affirmed that white bodies must be protected and defended because whites are reasonable and blacks are not; whites control their sexual urges but blacks do not; whites obey the laws of the land while blacks are prone to criminality; whiteness is next to godliness but blackness invites hellish condemnation. Thus, Douglas argues that “stand your ground laws” ultimately favor white bodies pronouncing a “guilty verdict” on black bodies. The myth is intensified by what Douglas identifies as a “theo-ideology” wherein white supremacy, American exceptionalism and God-talk are all combined to “exclude black people not only from the category of citizen but also from the category of human” (52). For those who affirm the Doctrine of Discovery or Manifest Destiny, it is not difficult to assert that America is God’s nation and America’s racial hierarchy is God’s will (97). If unfreedom, social marginalization and theo-ideological injustice are the inheritance of black people then William R. Jones’s question must be (re)asked, “Is God a white supremacist?”