Book Review: When Things Were Black and White

I usually do not review fiction on Reading Acts, but I want to make an exception for this little book. I met Dan David at a local folk music event several months ago and we have played music several times since. A few months ago he handed me a copy of his recently self-published book, When Things Were Black and White: A Story from Detroit. (The book is available for Kindle as well.) He told me to read it and pass it on to someone else. I read the book with a bit of trepidation, since most of the time when someone hands you a book they wrote and self-published it is not all that great. But Dan’s book is very well written and edited and does not read like an amateur making a stab at a writing career. (The fact that Dan is an English teacher helps a great deal!) While it struck me first as a kind of “Wonder Years in Detroit” (minus Winnie Cooper), there are some deep themes in the book with which I deeply resonated. I want to touch on one or two of them and draw some implications for the church in America.

When Things Were Black and White is a story cultural change in the early sixties, told through the eyes of a seven or eight year old boy named Detlef. The boy’s father is a police officer in Detroit who retires early and becomes the pastor of a small inner city church slated to be shut down. He pastors two such churches before moving out to the suburbs to start a new church at the end of the book. While there are a number of episodes in the book which are included to help create the world of the early sixties in the reader’s mind, this is not a sentimental memoir or nostalgic journey to David’s childhood.  The title appears to refer to a time when things were simpler, decisions were easier because things were “black and white.”  But the title has a deeper meaning.  This was a time when America was Black and White, and it was a scary time for a child to learn about the world.

One of the key themes which runs through When Things Were Black and White is the troubling issue of racism in the church. Detroit was particularly effected by racially motivated riots in the sixties, so Dan David looks at race through the eyes of a young boy who is clueless about the sort of bigotry which fuels hatred among members of his community. His father has no patience for his bigoted neighbors, but America in the early sixties was rife with bigoted and racist speech.  Anyone who remembers 40 odd years ago knows that there are words which were not only acceptable, but used even by religious leaders.

In the book, the young Detlef is shocked to discover that one of the men from his church is a racist. Mr. Lorraine helped around the church and was kind to the kids in the neighborhood, but he hated black people and occasionally voiced “wild and fear-filled predictions” of what will happen to the all-white neighborhood once black people began to move in. Even the teachers at his elementary school are racist, thinking that black people will be happier “with their own kind.” Teachers and students are opposed to integrated schools, fearing that the black children who are bused to their all-white school will destroy everything.

Detlef sees through this, believing racism as a cowardly act: “The rest of the neighborhood racists seemed incredible cowards. The were like jackals, brave enough when they were in the pack, but skulking and cowardly when caught alone” (184).  Influenced by his father, he comes to realize that the bigots in his school are foolish to hate someone based on their skin color. At one point in the book the family moves to Chicago, where Detlef has more problems with poor white people than he did with the black students in Detroit.

I find this a particularly convicting point, since it is well known that the most segregated time in America is Sunday morning when people go to churches which seem as though they are built along racial lines.  I have visited churches in the south where unacceptable racist language was used frequently among the “Christian” white kids.  There is a kind of cowardly implicit racism in most churches (probably running both directions), creating churches which are ethnically non-diverse.  This is not at all a good thing, especially since those who are in Christ are neither “Jew nor Gentile,” Paul says.  Nor are they Black and White, Asian, Hispanic, or whatever.

In Christ we are supposed to set racial differences aside.  Looking at the world of the mid-sixties through the lens of Dan David’s book, I cannot really say that we have set those differences aside some fifty years later.

When Things Were Black and White is a great title, since the church was “black and white” then.  This little book is a window into that now distant world of the sixties, a time which seems so strange and unenlightened to me.  I would like to think we have come along way since the racism of those days, but it is not as far as we need to go.