In conversation with Dr. Randal Jelks: Beloved local author releases third book

Tuesday, Feb. 12, 7 p.m.
Grand Rapidians who recently moved to this place may not have heard of the name Dr. Randal Jelks, but to many of us, he represents so much of our history through the many ways he has intersected with our community over the years. And on Tuesday, February 12, Dr. Jelks will host a community conversation about his newest project at Schuler Books.

Randal Maurice Jelks is Professor of African, African American, and American Studies at the University of Kansas. He holds courtesy appointments in history and  religious studies, and is the co-editor of the journal “American Studies.” Jelks is a graduate of the University of Michigan (B.A. in history), McCormick Theological Seminary (masters of divinity), and Michigan State University (Ph.D. in comparative Black histories).

On the occasion of his third book being published, “Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans: Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Eldridge Cleaver and Muhammad Ali,” Jelks will share insights from this latest book that seeks to frame for a modern audience a journey into the lives of four very distinct African Americans who have each made unique contributions in the 20th Century and beyond.

From the publisher about Jelk’s latest work:

“In 1964, Muhammad Ali said of his decision to join the Nation of Islam: ‘I know where I'm going and I know the truth and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want to be.’

This sentiment, the brash assertion of individual freedom, informs and empowers each of the four personalities profiled in this book. Randal Maurice Jelks shows that to understand the black American experience beyond the larger narratives of enslavement, emancipation, and Black Lives Matter, we need to hear the individual stories. Drawing on his own experiences growing up as a religious African American, he shows that the inner history of black Americans in the 20th century is a story worthy of telling.

This book explores the faith stories of four African Americans: Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Eldridge Cleaver, and Muhammad Ali. It examines their autobiographical writings, interviews, speeches, letters, and memorable performances to understand how each of these figures used religious faith publicly to reconcile deep personal struggles, voice their concerns for human dignity, and reinvent their public image. For them, liberation was not simply defined by the material or legal wellbeing, but by a spiritual search for community and personal wholeness.”

Jelks has already released two award-winning books: “African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids” and “Historical Society of Michigan and Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography.”  

His Furniture City book is often referenced by local historians as a critically important work of literature because of Jelks’ handling of this vital time in our local history that many may not be aware was a part of our evolution as a city.
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