`This Far By Faith', a book that is companion to a PBS television series of the same name, is by Juan Williams and Quinton Dixie, but is in reality a series of narratives in which the authors strive as much as is possible to let the characters themselves tell their stories, for these characters were and are real-life figures, some larger than life, and others virtually unknown to the general public. The authors begin by setting the stage, showing in general historical terms the progress of black population growth in the Western hemisphere, and the differing ideas about the numbers; they take a middle-number approach, but concede (both in the essay as well as in the general format of the book) that the numbers approach is not all that helpful or useful toward true understanding of African American faith experience.
In comparing the experience to other recent struggles for liberation, the authors see a key difference. `Unlike the pope or the bishops, who built their struggle with the help of an established church, the African American freedom struggle began outside any organized religion. As slaves, black Americans were stripped away from organized worship. They came to God not through the church but through faith.' There was no institutional help for African Americans throughout much of their struggle for freedom; even churches that at one time might have been accommodating and supportive on moral and philosophical grounds gave way to separatist and class-oriented views, if not (as was most often the case) outright racial discrimination.
`Black people could have turned against the white Christian church, but instead they separated the message of Christian love from people who had no love for them.' One of the things that Abdul Rahman would comment upon with regard to Christianity is that the religion itself is worthwhile, but that it is remarkable how few people seemed to practice it.
The early chapters each focus on a particular individual - Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina; Abdul Rahman, in his Africa-to-America-and-back-again journey; Isabelle, who would later become Sojourner Truth. The later chapters draw on wider experiences, as more people became involved and the histories are better preserved, culminating with the post-World War II to the 1960s era of Civil Rights struggle. There is a bit more material after this on more recent events and people, but this is the focal point of the book.
Particularly when the narrative stays close to the individuals highlighted, the authors do a good job at showing both religion and faith matters as distinct but related. They also show the struggles that slaves might have with regard to their own religious traditions - Abdul Rahman is a case in point here, as an African Muslim who maintained his faith even while living and raising a family in a Christian-dominated plantation environment. Christianity is the dominant faith tradition throughout the text, as it is throughout the African American experience, but it is not the only one with strong roots. Some later issues of religion (the different varieties of Christian, Islamic, and otherwise religious experience continues to grow) do not necessarily have the same kind of cultural or institutional support, but nonetheless share connections with an overall historical trajectory that sees faith matters as being of vital importance for both individuals and communities.
Throughout the chapters' narrative structure, there are side-bar boxes that highlight items of special interest - they might focus on particular people contemporary with the central figure; they might explore a particular event or institution. Within the sidebar boxes, one will find the five pillars of Islam explained, a brief history of Operation Breadbasket, excerpts from David Walker's `Appeal', and biographies of people such as Rebecca Cox Jackson and Richard Henry Boyd.
The text is inviting and compelling - this is the kind of book whose stories keep one interested, even when the outcome is known. The success and the failure at various times in history make for a tempestuous and controversial tale; much like portions of the bible itself, in this book there is hope and heartache, sorrow and success.