Friday, June 23, 2017

Sarah Azaransky's "This Worldwide Struggle"

Sarah Azaransky is Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. She is the author of The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith and the editor of Religion and Politics in America's Borderlands.

Here she shares her take on adapting her new book, This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement, for the screen:
A crackerjack production team is necessary for This Worldwide Struggle, a movie about a group of black American Christians who looked abroad, even in other religious traditions, for ideas and resources to transform American democracy.

The location manager needs to have extensive contacts in South Asia to chart Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman’s five-month journey in 1935-1936 through what is now Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and throughout India, when they met many activists and intellectuals, including Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi. After meeting with the Thurmans, Gandhi proclaimed it may be through black Americans “that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”

A skilled lighting team is necessary to capture William Stuart Nelson’s awe of an Indian dawn. Nelson and his wife Blanche spent a year in India, working with the American Friends Service Committee in 1947-1948. On a visit to the largest Christian meeting in the world in southeastern India, Nelson wrote that “few sights more beautiful than dawn in Travancore… Slowly many objects and events take shape; bullock carts carrying their loads of cocoanut hulls to market, a great work elephant lumbering toward you… workers already in the fields. The rising sun, lighting up the green fields and tinting the flowering trees.”

Only an expert sound mixer could capture layers of joyous celebration on independence day in Calcutta, when, according to Blanche Nelson, “hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children…rushed through the streets on foot, by rickshaw, by bus, by tram, by automobiles, in lorries but always shouting ‘Jai Hind! Jai Hind!’ They shouted until their voices completely disappeared and then they painted their throats with lime and started all over again.”

The director will need to have an eye for the pageantry of world historical events, such as Ghana’s independence, and the deftness to portray crackling exchanges between powerful men. Coretta Scott King, who was on Accra’s polo grounds that night in March 1957, recalls how the crowd listened with rapt attention as Kwame Nkrumah called for moments of silence to mark the transition to independence; then, as Nkrumah raised his hand in celebration, fifty thousand roared in unison “Ghana is free!” Earlier that evening, her husband had his first high level encounter with the American executive. Eisenhower had not responded to Martin Luther King’s entreaties for a meeting. When King met Nixon, the Vice President leading the official American delegation, King reportedly said, “I’m very glad to meet you here, but I want you to come visit us down in Alabama where we are seeking the same kind of freedom the Gold Coast is celebrating.”

Certainly the casting director has her work cut out for her to find actors to portray identity-defying Pauli Murray, brilliant Bayard Rustin, and charismatic Benjamin Mays. As well as an international cast of characters, including Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah and many others, for This Worldwide Struggle is indeed a sweeping historical narrative, showing how the greatest American social movement had significant roots in many other parts of the world.
Learn more about This Worldwide Struggle at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue