Conversations with God:
Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans
By James Melvin Washington,
HarperCollins, 347 pp.,
$20 (cloth) $13 (paper)
That James Melvin Washington did not want to publish this anthology of prayers is part of the reason you will want to read it. He so understands the intimacy of spiritual experiences that he resisted presenting these selections to a larger public.
Washington explains his hesitation in the book's introduction:
"As a historian of African American religion, I was quite aware of the cynicism that has often made the spiritual life of my people part of a cultural menagerie," he writes. "This indecency callously subjects genuine spiritual struggles to ridicule, dismissing them as superstitions and escapist, or reducing them to various doctrinaire theories of group frustration."
Washington overcame his hesitation and produced an anthology of such feeling and texture that one finishes the book thinking these prayers are the seeds of history, the seeds of current events.
We hear voices and tones and phrases we have heard before - the rhetoric of prayer, one might call it. But in and around those familiar devices flows the most startlingly fresh and moving spirit of desire and humility.
Here is a slave woman in 1816, who asks that God bless her master and "keep me from wishing him bad - though he whips me and beats me sore, tell me of my sins, and make me pray more to thee - make me more glad for what thou hast done for me...."
Here is James Baldwin in his classic novel "Go Tell it on the Mountain:"
"Her mother had taught her that the way to pray was to forget everything and everyone but Jesus; to pour out of the heart, like water from a bucket, all evil thoughts, all thoughts of self, all malice for one's enemies; to come boldly, and yet more humbly than a little child, before the Giver of all good things."
Here are verse and prose, folk English and high oratory, and a growing awakening that if God is good, slavery must be wrong and must fall. One cannot read this book without being overwhelmed by the nobility and grace of a people so abysmally abused. It is a triumph - as the prayers themselves are a triumph.