Ouida Sebestyen

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Ouida Sebestyen's novel Words by Heart will strike a responsive chord in the hearts of anyone who has ever believed that mobility is achieved not by skin color but by hard work (the Puritan work ethic), God's favor (Full Gospel Businessmen's Association) or intelligence. All three elements are embodied in this tale of a young Black girl growing up in the all-white town of Bethel Springs….

By the end of the novel it is evident that Lena's "magic mind" has not won her any significant number of friends or increased her stature in the neighborhood or school. Ben's hard work and dependability earn him the hatred of his neighbors and eventually his murder. And what we are left with is God's favor, which according to this book is worse than nothing at all.

We see the author extolling the virtue of forgiveness but not that of justice. Instead of calling for justice, the author calls for passivity in the face of injustice. The quest for justice is ignored, as is an authentic use of the scriptures….

In addition, the author gives Ben Sills a theology that is closer to that of a plantation master than to those families he left behind in Scattercreek. It is objectionable therefore, to see the words of Bible-wielding oppressors put in the mouth of a Black man whom the author could have developed as a free-thinking, freedom-seeking Black man. From the time he "explains away" the first sign of violence—the stabbing of a loaf of bread with a butcher knife—Ben Sills speaks of forgiveness, patience, love and understanding for those who would harm him and his family. Ben speaks of the love expounded by Christ in the New Testament—"love your enemies, do good to those who hate you." He has no understanding of the radicality of Christ's strategy. Christ's intent was to stir the people in order to bring order and justice to the community.

Words by Heart does not use scripture to encourage change. The book quotes scripture that would have people give control of their lives to a benign God; it blatantly ignores scriptural admonitions that would support people taking responsible actions in their own affairs as well as those of their neighbors, and yes, those of their country. (p. 16)

Good theology leads one to ask questions and probe the quality of human life. Good theology does not serve the vested interests of a few, but of the whole. Good Christian theology does not allow death without resurrection, as this book does. Ben Sills' death does not stir this community to any redemptive acts. After Ben's murder, the white characters indulge in post mortem trivia; there is no move to see justice done. There is no place in the book where the white characters are held responsible or accountable for Ben's death, either individually or collectively. The book only hints at the possibility that Mr. Haney, father of Ben's murderer, may be picking the Sills' cotton because he's sorry for the trouble his family has caused the Sills family. (He might just be stealing it.) There is no renewal of life and no justice in this story. Mr. Haney is not saved, Tater is not saved, no one is saved. Why does the death of the only Black man in the story end in tragedy and insignificance? (And even if the Haneys had been saved—or experienced some kind of renewal—nothing would redeem the racist injustice and brutality of Ben Sills' murder.)

It must be stated that Words by Heart is not a book for Black children but for white racists. The author...

(This entire section contains 864 words.)

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wrote a book extolling outdated, oppressive theologies at a time when the world is crying for liberation and models to point the way.

The author wrote a book about love, a passive love, that in no way resembles the love that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. got from his forebears. King preached a non-violent love that would propel men and women to agitate and confront an unjust society. The author advocates and portrays a love so distorted by her own perspective that it is inactive and unresponsive, narrow and restricted. (pp. 16-17)

The cry of liberation has been lifted up by Black, feminist, Latin American and other theologies. This book is an insult to all these efforts to achieve human liberation.

We do not need a repetition of history's ugliness. Rather, we need to know how resistance, confrontation and negotiation can change attitudes and laws and, hence, behavior. We need books that expound a theology of liberation and not oppression. We need to see the the plantation theology condemned, not lifted up. Lena, in refusing to tell her stepmother who killed Ben, contends that she was holding to the first law, "forgive your enemies." We must always choose God's law over man's law only if we properly interpret or understand God's law. Lena obviously did not. The scripture also says: "let justice run down like rivers of water" and "thou shalt not kill." (p. 17)

Fay Wilson-Beach and Glyger G. Beach, "'Words by Heart': An Analysis of Its Theology," in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, Vol. 11, No. 7, 1980, pp. 16-17.


Rudine Sims


Patricia Lee Gauch