Book Review: Walking with Our Ancestors: Contemplation and Activism

Book Cover Images image of Walking with Our Ancestors: Contemplation and Activism

by Barbara A. Holmes

Publication Date: Feb 06, 2024
List Price: $14.99 Now Only $12.99!
Format: Paperback, 63 pages
Classification: Nonfiction
ISBN13: 9781506499239
Imprint: Fortress Press
Publisher: 1517 Media
Parent Company: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Read a Description of Walking with Our Ancestors: Contemplation and Activism

Book Reviewed by Denolyn Carroll

On the face of it, contemplation is deep reflective thought or consideration. At a higher level, it hinges on a critical spiritual component that moves one to wise action. It is this degree of practice that Barbara A. Holmes expounds upon in Walking with Our Ancestors: Contemplation and Activism. A few pages into this thought-provoking and compelling offering, Holmes presents a strong premise around the integral role of contemplation in advocacy:

“Activism and contemplation are not functional opposites. Rather, contemplation is, at its heart, a reflective activity that is always seeking the spiritual balance between individual piety and communal justice seeking. I am suggesting that the genesis of the great justice movements of the twentieth century emerged from the consistent contemplative practices of those seeking liberation.”

Holmes proposes that we need only ponder the historical impact of such visionaries as Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Daniel Berrigan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela, as well as Black Lives Matter protesters to surmise that there is a grave need for contemplative activist leaders today who can garner and represent communities in a renewed fight for social justice—a fight undergirded by spiritual guidance and resolve.

President emerita of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities and formerly professor of ethics and African American religious studies and vice president of Academic Affairs at Memphis Theological Seminary, Holmes is a spiritual leader, an activist, and a scholar focused on African American spirituality, mysticism, cosmology, and culture. It is this visionary who brought us the pivotal Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (2017), in which the original content of Walking with Our Ancestors first appeared. This link between the two works solidifies the focus on “the connection between Black spirituality and social action” in the latter.

“The world is the cloister of the contemplative,” writes Holmes in Walking with Our Ancestors. “There is no escape. Always the quest for justice draws one deeply into the heart of God. In this sacred interiority,” she adds, “contemplation becomes the language of prayer and the impetus of prophetic proclamation and action.” She emphasizes the need today for renewed communities committed to justice and a leadership spearheaded by contemplatives—as exemplified in the Civil Rights Movement. To illustrate this, Holmes highlights the nature of contemplation in the lives of a few well-known civil rights leaders—including Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X— public mystics, or contemplative exemplars, as she calls them. Hamer is noted for “her spiritual focus and resolve”; King “used the spiritual essence of nonviolence as a tool for liberating the social order and the spiritual authority of a denigrated people”; while Malcolm’s “contemplative spirit is a call to the Africana community to recognize the sources of their own oppression, including their complicity in its perpetuation.”

But what of now and of the future? Who will continue the fight for justice? In a podcast interview on Contemplify, Holmes turns the light on the younger generation. They will emerge, she posits, because the old order isn’t working, and they are no longer happy with how things are. In the closing line of Walking with Our Ancestors, Holmes, referred to as “a mentor for our times,” asserts, “Perhaps the next location for change and restoration will be in the hearts of the willing.” It seems, then, that we await another contemplative activist or group of contemplative advocates to rise from the ranks, willing to “follow the dimly lit path toward greater wisdom”—walking with their ancestral exemplars toward a brighter future.

With Walking with Our Ancestors, Holmes—also author of such works as Liberation and the Cosmos: Conversations with the Elders and Crisis Contemplation: Healing the Wounded Village—offers a handbook that provides insights that motivate us to continue the struggle “with intentional contemplative practices…” Its compact size belies the depth and breadth of its contents. It’s short but not a quick read. Each section, such as “Identifying the Power Source,” “A New View of Community,” “Marching for Freedom: Waltzing with Upward Mobility,” and “Public Mystics: Letting the Light Shine” overflows with anecdotes, revelatory nuggets, and perspectives that are best slowly digested to prepare the reader for going forward.

The title of the piece itself speaks of action (walking, marching, singing, dancing, drumming) in tandem with a silence that speaks to intentionality, a connection to the divine in us, and homage to our ancestors, our guides, the ones who have cleared the path through their own obedience to sacrificial service. The illuminating details in this work present both a call to action and a caution. Each generation will have its own confusions, contradictions, and complexities to navigate, but navigate it must, even as it seeks or molds effective leaders. Yet, despite the momentousness of its message, the tone of Walking with Our Ancestors is measured and pertinent.

There is a consistency and cohesiveness to the narrative that clarifies the message of contemplative activism. At the core of Holmes’ spellbinding storytelling, though, is a reminder that we are not here to exist in self-imposed isolation in guarded coteries. We are here to be of service to our wider communities in varied ways, to help reclaim liberation not only for our race but ultimately for humanity. Walking with Our Ancestors is a powerful wake-up call for these divisive and chaotic times. It has inspired this reader to delve into other works by Barbara A. Holmes, as well as some titles in the “Suggested Reading” section of the book. There is much more to learn, and an urgency to act, “while chains still chafe/…while Jim Crow [still] stalks…” (from the poem “Joy Unspeakable”).

Read Fortress Press’s description of Walking with Our Ancestors: Contemplation and Activism.

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