Home Christian News Christian Activist Lisa Sharon Harper’s ‘Fortune’ Uncovers America’s Racial Roots in Family...

Christian Activist Lisa Sharon Harper’s ‘Fortune’ Uncovers America’s Racial Roots in Family Stories

Author Lisa Sharon Harper. Photo by Joy Guion Bailey

(RNS) — Days into writing her new book, Lisa Sharon Harper stumbled across a Zillow listing for a house in South Philadelphia that had been her grandmother’s home. Though at the time she had no intention of leaving Washington, D.C., the author and Christian activist surprised herself by moving close to the place her family resided for 70 years.

But the neighborhood barely resembles the thriving Black community her grandmother knew. Ravaged by drug wars, then chewed up and spit out by urban renewal projects, the area today has been gentrified — “dogs and lattes and white folks everywhere,” as Harper put it.

But as she writes in “Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World and How to Repair It All,” she felt her ancestors calling her back to reclaim the place. “Perhaps the layered trauma of this land is the same layered trauma that has lived in my body,” she writes.

The book traces her family history to tell the story of America, pulling together three decades of Harper’s research into her family to examine how the decisions (and religion) of those in power deprived Black Americans of homes, prosperity, history and humanity. Yet the book, set to be released by Brazos Press on Tuesday (Feb. 8), is also written with an eye toward redemption.

Harper spoke with Religion News Service about how race corrupted America and Christianity, and her belief that truth-telling, repentance and forgiveness can repair what is broken. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fortune, your ancestor, is just one of many family members you write about. Why did you choose her name for the title of your new book?

Fortune is likely my seventh-times great-grandmother. She was born in Maryland in 1687, only 23 years after the colony’s very first race law. Her life, her body, her spirit, it all absorbed the wrath of those first laws, those laws that shaped the possibilities and the fortunes of her descendants forever. Her mother was a white woman who had a child by a Senegalese man named Sambo Game, and after living the first 18 years of her life free, she was hauled into court and sentenced to indenture until the age of 31.

As I was researching her and her descendants, and realizing that we were connected, it struck me that this is much more than family research. I’m actually discovering how America was made. I’m discovering the racial roots of America. And one of the things that I realized in my research is that none of these laws just — “poof” — came into being. They came from choices that the legislators made in that era that were always to benefit them and their economic standing.

You write: “Any attempt to repair what race broke in our nation must contend with what race broke in our faith.” Why can’t we effectively pursue racial justice without reckoning with the corruption of Christian faith?

Seventy-percent of Americans claim to be Christians. If you don’t address their broken faith, then you cannot convince them of their need for repair. A central way that race broke the world was through the partnership of the church. Churches became the theological justifiers for slavery. It has been the rare but mighty cases that have revolted from that inertia and mounted a countermovement.

Jesus himself was a brown colonized man, who came from a brown colonized people who were serially enslaved. The faith was corrupted by the construct of race and racial hierarchy. So there’s no way for us to repair what race broke in the world without addressing both the laws and the religious worldviews that underpin those laws.

You argue that reparations are key to repentance. Can you say more about the connection between repentance and reparations?  

Reparation literally comes from the root “repair.” Reparations exist to repair not only the peoples who were broken by oppression, but the relationship between the oppressing people in government and those they oppressed. There are layers upon layers of injustice that have never fully been repented of. Repentance is turning and walking in another direction. It’s not saying “I’m sorry” — that’s confession. Repentance is to “do” sorry, to do things differently. That’s why reparations is repentance. It’s our nation choosing to do differently, to order ourselves differently.  

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