Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Foreword: Marked For Greatness

Below is the foreword written by Dr. Barbara A. Holmes for the series titled the Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner in Volume 1 (Mellen Press). Dr. Holmes currently serves as President of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

But many of us have now concluded, that the judgment of God will never cease its plagues upon this nation, till slavery and oppression shall be foiled, and right, equity, and justice shall be seen in all its grand regalia, leading on in triumphant conquest the victories of humanity.-Henry McNeal Turner, published August 30, 1862 in the Christian Recorder


What does it mean to have a dream so real and so memorable that it becomes a blueprint for your life despite a thicket of racism and cultural marginalization? As a young boy, The Reverend Dr. Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915) had a dream that inspired a life of public service, prophetic leadership, and intellectual inquiry. Raised by teen mother Sarah Turner and Grandmother Hannah Greer, Turner was taught self worth, spiritual acuity and the importance of his cultural heritage.

In dreams, Turner saw himself in a leadership role that seemed impossible to achieve in the segregated south, yet he believed that he was “marked for greatness.” His testimony is not unusual. Throughout history, leaders, martyrs, prophets and queens have dreamed futures that they could not imagine during their waking hours. Sacred texts in many religions describe dream landscapes as spaces where life purposes may be revealed and divine instructions may be given.

As you read the introduction of this volume and Turner’s brief biography, you realize that his emergence as a public intellectual in the midst of the confederacy was nothing short of a miracle. Turner was born a free black man in the South during an era when he had no recourse to the protections of law or the opportunities of a purportedly free society. And so, the dreams began, and an improbable life path unfolded. What emerges from Turner’s writings is that he while he is fulfilling his unique calling; he is also laying a foundation for the flourishing of African American people, as they are merging from the catastrophe of slavery.

The papers reveal that the contributions that Turner made to an evolving liberative consciousness among formerly enslaved African Americans and abolitionists, laid the groundwork for the civil rights initiatives of the mid-twentieth century. Although the Civil Rights movement seems to erupt out of nowhere when Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat, and King and Malcolm X (El Haj Malik El Shabazz) challenge American apartheid, closer analysis reveals the work of predecessors like Turner, who prepared the way, articulated the humanity of besieged people, and prophetically claimed a future.

In addition, the papers of Henry McNeal Turner reveal a renaissance man, who had a vision of what could be achieved with a mix of divine inspiration, intelligence and hard work. His talents were eclectic, wide ranging and too numerous to recount here. From cotton fields, he learns blacksmithing, serves as the first black chaplain of the armed forces, writes for the Christian Recorder, serves as a Postmaster, elected to the Georgia Legislature and elected the first southern Bishop of the AME church.

Turner is tireless and prophetic as he amplifies the voices of the poor, supports an Afro-centric worship style, a “back to Africa” movement, and then declares that if humankind reflects the image of the Creator, then God is also a Negro. Turner has all of the markings of a forerunner, one who sets the stage for the future, who speaks truth to power, and who reframes the moral boundaries of public life for all citizens.

Dr. Andre Johnson’s scholarship on the life, work, and writings of The Henry McNeal Turner recovers an incredibly important aspect of African American history. It is always an important occasion when a scholar goes beyond the study of well known historical figures to re-introduce a leader who lived beyond the limits of current life memories, and whose efforts paved the way for current benefits. The volumes that will follow, document Turner’s contributions to history through his copious writings. Dr Johnson, a rhetorician, theologian, professor and pastor, is uniquely suited to edit volumes that will enhance our understanding of Turner’s work and the political, theological, and legal issues of the antebellum and reconstruction period.

As I read this first compilation, I noted that Turner’s eloquence transcends the span of time, whether he is sermonically chastising those who sleep in church or publicly challenging a vacillating president to support the emancipation of enslaved people. He was equally forthright when he addressed his congregation on its duty in the Civil War as well as when he addressed the North as “mythic Egypt” for its role in the War.

This series marks an important milestone in African American history, and enlightens those of us living in the twenty-first century under the leadership of the first African American President of the United States. Through Turner’s prophetic rhetoric, it becomes apparent that capable leaders of African heritage have emerged in every generation. From the time that African Diaspora people landed on the shores of the Americas, they handled dire circumstances with trickster savvy, the multiple realities of dream language, and prophetic, mystical, and practical traditions. We know the stories of those struggles in part, but the brevity of our own lives and times, and the loss of critical historical resources constricts our knowledge.

Turner’s writings remind us that famous or not, we all stand on the shoulders of ancestors and progenitors. We benefit from their feats of courage and learn from their occasions of human frailty. Their stories chart the path for our future and remind us that we are only responsible for a small segment of the journey toward freedom. It is apparent in this first volume that Henry McNeal Turner was not marked for greatness by unusual divine intervention, he was imbued, as each of us are, with a spark of divinity that he fanned into a lifetime of passionate service to God, country and his people.

The dreams strengthened his resolve, and heightened his spiritual awareness, but he translated the mystical into the practical and never allowed his access to power to separate him from his origins. I am confident that the example of Turner’s extraordinary life will continue to inspire future generations.

Barbara A. Holmes
Professor of Ethics and African American Religious Studies
Memphis Theological Seminary

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