Elevating the Race



Albert G. Miller
ISBN 1-57233-221-2
University of Tennessee Press,
211 pp. / Hardback

“Two things contribute to this result. First the expense…is sometime more than the parent can pay; secondly it is often more than he is willing to pay.  People uneducated do not generally appreciate education. The sad dereliction of the state, the poverty and indifference of parents are dooming us to a mental darkness that must retard the church and hinder the gospel of Christ.  If there can be no improvement in our educational facilities, I fear the proportion in ignorance must increase. Bad as our condition is, it seems actually growing worse.”
– Excerpt from Elevating the Race  

Elevating the Race is Albert G. Miller’s account of the life and times of Theophilus Gould Steward, one of the top black intellectuals in the post-Emancipation period. A theological activist, Steward used his position as an ordained African Methodist Episcopal minister to further his vision of an African-American civil society. 

 A contemporary of noted figures such as AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, Frederick Douglass and William Howard Day (editor of Our Mutual Progress newspaper in Delaware), Steward’s dedication to building an African American society primarily based on education and religion.  His belief that education was the primary building stone for African American society and, as such, should be put foremost in the lives of African Americans, aligned him with scholars and activists such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.  He also called for an alliance with African nationalists, which put him on par with Marcus Garvey.  Unfortunately, Steward’s efforts were seen as overbearing by some and misguided by others.  He frequently came under fire for airing his views and chastising those that didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm for the improvement of the African American community. Indeed, the problems Steward faced in 1973 were practically identical to those faced today, as evidenced by the above excerpt. In his later years he continued to keep education as his focus while expanding his rhetoric to attack racism and imperialism.  An elevation to a military chaplaincy allowed Steward to address such issues as the worldwide spread of Christianity (or lack thereof) and the role of women within the AME church.

 Mr. Miller does a credible job in portraying both the legend and the man that were Theophilus G. Steward.  An obvious fan of Steward, Miller manages to effuse this work with that admiration without compromising the bare facts of Steward’s life.  This adoration of Steward does indeed color the entire biography and provides a positive spin of Steward’s beliefs, perhaps in reaction to the negative opinions of Steward’s detractors.  This is most evident in the chapter, which examines Steward’s views on the role of women in the church in particular and in civil society in general.  This ambivalence was credited to the influence of Steward’s mother, Rebecca Steward, an outspoken and educated woman in her own right.  In discussing Steward’s views on women in the church, it is his mother and her views that are given a significant amount of print.  It is of great interest to this reviewer that the two chapters dealing primarily with Steward’s interaction with females, “Rethinking Liberal Religion” and “Steward, Women, and Civil Society,” are the shortest chapters in the book.   

An examination of Steward’s life and methodologies would show that Steward was, for the most part, on the right track, as evidenced by the actions of many of today’s activists.  This book, however, is not to be perceived as light reading.  Indeed, the critical mass of the subject matter in conjunction with the author’s writing style makes this a work that cannot be quickly digested.  It is best taken in small doses, the better for digesting fully and with complete concentration. 

Tiffany M. Davis is the winner of 2001 The Page novel contest sponsored by Blackwords, Inc. She has reviewed for AALBC.com, and serves as critic-at-large for jrbarras.com.  Ms. Davis’ work has appeared in the e-zines The Nubian Chronicles and Eroticanoir, and in the anthology Malaria Shots Not Included: A Guide to Surviving Life After College.