No Future in this Country: The Prophetic Pessimism of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner by Andre E. Johnson, an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies at the University of Memphis, and Director of the Henry McNeal Turner digital humanities project, is a rhetorical history that details the public career of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner with an emphasis on the trajectory of Turner’s thinking as a pessimistic prophetic persona “within the lament tradition of prophecy” (14). Turner’s role as a Bishop in the African American Episcopal Church and his political leadership in the African American community from 1896 to 1915 is the focus of Johnson’s narrative. This text is a follow up to the author’s previous work The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition (Lexington Books, 2014). Johnson’s book begins with an “Introduction” section and includes six chapters with a “Conclusion.”
In this rhetorical history, Johnson contextualizes and analyzes some of Turner’s key speeches and writings delivered between 1896 and 1915 amid the rise of Jim Crow segregation and the first Great Migration. Turner through his speeches, writings, and activism laid much of the intellectual groundwork for Black protest ideologies of the twentieth century from Black nationalism to Afro pessimism. Turner was a prominent figure throughout much of the nineteenth century. Born free in 1834 Newberry Courthouse, South Carolina, Turner, an autodidact, was self-taught who eventually joined the A.M.E. Church after becoming a licensed minister in 1853. He became pastor at Union Baptist Church in Washington D.C. in 1860 and served as a Chaplain with the Union Army during the American Civil War. Turner relocated to Georgia after the war and became involved in Reconstruction politics but he soon grew pessimistic about Black equality in America with the retreat from Reconstruction. In the 1880s, he became a supporter of Black emigration to Africa while expounding on the idea of a Black Christ. The Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 only compounded Turner’s pessimism.
Turner’s skepticism about “the goodness of America” and its status as a “civilized nation” juxtaposed with his use of the invective, to criticize White institutions, and complacent Black leaders, is at the core of Johnson’s argument. For Johnson, Turner’s use of language “that was meant to shock and provoke” help to demonstrate his status as a prophetic persona who utilized prophetic rhetoric to guide, instruct, and lead on important questions about Black equality. Johnson situates Turner within the framework of a distinctive African American prophetic tradition “with origins not in freedom, but in slavery” that was both hopeful and pessimistic (11). Turner as a public intellectual contributed greatly to the development of Black Nationalism as a champion of Black emigration to Africa, Black theology with his ideas about a Black Christ, and Afro pessimism by “damning” America as a place that increasingly was a land that had no future for African Americans. No Future in this Country is a pivotal text in African American intellectual history.
Hettie V. Williams Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history. She has published book chapters, essays, and edited/authored five books. Her latest publications include Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History (Praeger, 2017) and, with Dr. G. Reginald Daniel, professor of historical sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union (University Press of Mississippi 2014). Follow me on twitter: @DrHettie2017
Hettie V. Williams Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history.