When Reverend Louis Cole wasn't farming his land in Fayette County, Tennessee, he was probably on the road. A "circuit preacher" is what he was, and he had congregations to minister to in Baptist churches scattered across the rural communities of North Mississippi and West Tennessee.
Reverend Cole died in 1981, but you can see him still, an energetic man of 77, possessed of the spirit and a Bible in one hand, commanding in a photograph taken inside Mt. Vernon Church in Rossville, Tennessee. Other pictures tell other stories: a young woman, possessed, arms raised, inside that same Rossville church; a family on their front porch and dressed in their Sunday best; the baptismal waters of a country pond; a gravedigger; a snake; a wintry landscape; a still-life. The black-and-white photographs are by James Perry Walker, and they're featured in The Reverend (University Press of Mississippi).
Twenty years later, newer pictures tell a different story: the "media ministry" readying audio equipment and video cameras for a worship service in Washington, D.C.; Reverend Gina M. Stewart fired up during her "Resurrection Sunday" message in a Memphis church; a "step team" of youngsters strutting their stuff during services in Alexandria, Virginia. The black-and-white photographs are by Jason Miccolo Johnson, and they're featured in Soul Sanctuary: Images of the African American Worship Experience (Bulfinch Press). But are Johnson's photographs so very different from Walker's? Here's a family too in their Sunday best in Los Angeles; a preacher possessed in Baltimore; a baptism in Chicago. The churches may be bigger. The settings high-tech and urban. The community of believers abides.
It's a community James Perry Walker knew well growing up in Red Banks, Mississippi, but even he has had to answer (as his fellow photography students asked him to answer at New York University in the 1990s): "What's a white boy like you doing trying to interpret black culture?"
For "interpret," let's substitute the word "capture," because that's what Walker's done, sensitively, in every skillfully composed image collected in The Reverend . And for "boy," let's say "man."
Walker may be a hill-country native, but Memphis was always that "glow" on the horizon 50 miles away. He graduated from Christian Brothers University in the early '60s and worked as a professional photographer in Memphis for years. When he rid himself of the trappings of the job -- the lights, the tripods -- he freed himself too: free to keep fine photography his passion and free, from 1976 to 1981, to spend time in the company of Reverend Cole, his people, and the landscapes that haunt Walker to this day.
"I find it ever more mysterious and still do . . . Mississippi," Walker says. "Memphis too. Most documentary photographers -- I won't call myself an artist -- will tell you they're trying to sum up a place. In The Reverend I wanted to not sum it up. I wanted to express the mysterious."
Photography as art or as document? That's one question. No question, however: One look at the ghostly laundry -- black choir robes hanging out to dry in a foggy field somewhere in Rossville -- and it's obvious enough: Walker knows a perfect moment when he sees one.
As does Jason Miccolo Johnson throughout Soul Sanctuary . Johnson is a Memphian born and bred, but he lives in Washington, D.C., and works as director of the photo lab at USA Today -- this after graduating from Carver High School in 1974, after serving in the Navy as a photographer's mate, after attending the U of M then transferring to Howard University, and after doing production work for ABC News and Good Morning America .
In 1996, however, Johnson took a 30-day leave of absence. He traveled the South and the East. He researched and photographed the members of black churches large and small, across generations and across denominations. (Many of those images made in Memphis.) He traveled again, time permitting, in the years that followed. Before this project or in the meantime, he participated in exhibitions at the National Civil Rights Museum, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian in Washington. And in the pages of The New York Times in March 2006, he was quoted on the funeral service for his mentor and friend (and author of the foreword to Soul Sanctuary ), famed photographer Gordon Parks. He believes he's been "led by the spirt." It shows.
Call Johnson's project one of personal and professional call and response, action and reaction, a key ingredient in the history of African-American worship and an equal ingredient in many of Johnson's most powerful photographs.
"The Order of the Day" -- Preparation, Inspiration, Dedication, Proclamation, Cele-bration, and Benediction -- is how he's ordered the images. "Hush tones" is how he describes the deep blacks and rich whites he arrived at by technical means. But it's the lone, stark, raised profile of soloist Karin Cox from Fort Worth, participating in Preach Out 2005 at Longview Heights SDA Church in Memphis in 2005, that says it all. On the cover of Johnson's book, it's Ms. Cox you see, true emblem of the soul's sanctuary.
First, there was the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville writing on America in Democracy in America in the late 1830s. Now there's the Frenchman (and philosopher and journalist and political activist and filmmaker) Bernard-Henri Lévy writing on America in American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Random House).
Tocqueville made it to the "small town" of Memphis in the early nineteenth century, but did he make it to the Rum Boogie Café on Beale? No, but Lévy did. Did Tocqueville visit Graceland, Sun Studio, and something Lévy calls the Music Hall of Fame? No, but Lévy did. And he did it in the space of 48 hours -- two days that just happened to coincide with the annual Church of God in Christ convention in Memphis, a convention Lévy at first mistakes for some kind of carnival, "like in Venice or Rio." This after he describes the COGIC crowd inside The Peabody lobby as a possible "joke." Or is it a "hallucination"?
Good, then, that Lévy got a good dose of America (and religious practice) when he attended services at Mason Temple. What he witnessed was spectacle, stagecraft, joy, and, foremost, faith. What he learned bears repeating. I quote: "[T]hat there is in this church and perhaps beyond it, in the big black churches of the South, a quality of bliss that you don't find elsewhere; that there is, at the root, in the population of the faithful themselves an intensity of piety that has nothing to do with what can be observed in the megachurches of the North -- of that I am convinced."
Well, all right, Monsieur Lévy, and amen.
Intruder in the Dust
by William Faulkner
How did William Faulkner get away with what he did? The Nobel Prize winner was to run-on sentences as Shakespeare was to sonnets. But damn, he was brilliant.
Tackling a Faulkner novel can be an intimidating enterprise, but Intruder in the Dust (first published in 1948) offers a novice the kind of page-turning story that can be read at the beach, all told in the inimitable style (yes, run-on at times) that has made Oxford's favorite son a literary legend. And for Faulkner veterans? This is the story-telling savant at his mightiest.
In Intruder we meet Lucas Beauchamp, an aging black man accused of murdering a white man near Jefferson in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County. A young boy -- Charlie McCaslin -- and a black friend come to Beauchamp's aid, with the help of an elderly woman as wise for what she's willing to question as for what she's come to know. It's a story of salvation, but centered on a premise with which Faulkner's South struggled so mightily: racial tolerance.
The theme should be familiar. Think of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and John Grisham's A Time to Kill. But with Faulkner's flair for description and his subtle means of reminding a reader of the dangerous instincts we tend to harbor behind closed doors, Intruder becomes a lesson in societal grace. Not to mention the sanctity of forgiveness.
The book has enough plot twists to have been made into a movie (the 1949 film starring David Brian and Elizabeth Patterson). But don't cheat yourself with the Hollywood version. Start Intruder in the Dust on a quiet Friday night and you'll be telling your friends about it Sunday afternoon. With a lesson all the way from Rowan Oak.
-- Frank Murtaugh