By: Gustav Niebuhr
The story of how Shirley Sherrod briefly lost a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and almost immediately received an offer of a new one –from departmental Secretary Tom Vilsack himself–has had a remarkable staying power in the news media. A week has gone by since an administration official, furiously dialing Sherrod’s cell phone, demanded she pull her car over and resign. Very few subjects, short of wars and catastrophic oil spills, receive the amount of ink her dismissal has.
But amidst all the ruminations about and fulminations against blogger Andrew Breitbart, Fox News, Vilsack, the NAACP, President Obama, and–well, you name ’em all–a central character in the drama has gone almost unremarked. That would be Ms. Sherrod’s God, to whom she assigned the decisive role in the now globally famous speech she gave to Georgia’s NAACP last March.
By now, most Americans must know how the video excerpt of her words, posted on the Web, made Sherrod look as if she were discriminating against a white farmer by not extending him the services he, a struggling agriculturalist, deserved. And most now know the excerpt was not the full speech, but served Sherrod as a prelude to explain how she changed and came to be who she is today.
As she said to members of the Georgia NAACP back on that March day, she spoke as the daughter of a murdered black farmer, victim of a racial crime whose author was never convicted. That allowed her to talk about how, through her experiences with the financially hard-pressed white farmer in 1986, she came to believe a divine agency was at work in her life, teaching her.
“God helped me to see that it’s not just about black people–it’s about poor people. And I’ve come a long way. I knew that I couldn’t live with hate, you know.”
That’s the key statement in her speech. In traditional Christian terminology, it’s called a testimony.
In her speech, Sherrod singled out young people, asking them to hear her story of moral transformation. The daughter of a murdered man, she credited God with goodness and showing her a way helpful to others.
In reporting on Shirley Sherrod’s case, commentators have focused on the high-pressure dysfunctions of the 24-hour news cycle, the embarrassing, knee-jerk, rush to judgment of high administration officials, and the way race as a subject continues to bedevil many Americans into saying and doing stupid things.
But not to be ignored is one woman’s recounting of how she experienced an amazing grace. That’s not a singular narrative. Americans have been telling those stories about themselves for centuries. The details vary, but the essential storyline remains the same: I was lost, now I’m found. Too bad a lot of the news media are tone deaf when it comes to recognizing the story and the tradition to which it belongs.