Mennonites and the Magical African-American Friend

The Mennonite church in the United States has established a record from the middle to the end of the twentieth century of welcoming, celebrating, and then frequently discarding charismatic, provocative African-American leaders. Most – but not all – have been men. Some went on to established and well-respected careers outside the confines of the denomination. Few stayed within. Evangelist and seminary professor William E. Pannell provides one such example. I contend here that many of these figures offer striking parallels to the phenomenon of what journalist and author Christopher John Farley has called “magical African-American friends” or MAAFs.1

A MAAF, also referred to more problematically as a “magic negro,” is a well established Hollywood trope in which an African-American character plays a salvific role in the life of a White person, often through magic or supernatural means, even if it means sacrificing themselves to do so. In the 1958 crime drama, The Defiant Ones, Sidney Portier’s character sacrifices his chance at freedom to save the life of the White convict played by Tony Curtis. In The Green Mile (1999), John Coffey as played by Michael Clarke Duncan exercises his healing powers on behalf of a White inmate, White death row guard, and the White wife of the prison warden before being executed. The MAAF trope crops up in a host of other Hollywood dramas such as Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (1990), and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). The list goes on. The comedy duo Key and Peele spoof the Hollywood archetype in a hilarious 2012 skit the skewers the trope’s reliance on stereotypes.

Of particular importance to the function of a MAAF in these films is that the Black figure – again most often male but not always, note the Whoopi Goldberg role in Ghost – usually comes into the life of the White protagonist from outside. In the case of Will Smith’s Bagger Vance, he literally approaches the White lead played by Matt Damon from out of the dark of the night. In few of the films does the Black savior figure stay around in the life of the White person he or she has saved.

William E. Pannell came into the White Mennonite community having spent time with Brethren Assemblies in Detroit. By the end of the 1950s, already a well known evangelist, he began to show up at Mennonite sponsored meetings such as the 1959 round table discussion entitled “Program of Witness to and With Negroes,” held in Chicago and sponsored by the Home Missions and Evangelism Committee of the Mennonite Church.2

Although in these early meetings, his voice in the minutes comes across as reconciliatory and appeasing, that would change over time. While in 1959 he commented, “We should remember that our primary problems are the spiritual, and here we must make our basic contributions,” a year later in the pages of the Mennonite Church news outlet, the Gospel Herald, he caricatured White people as being held hostage by an insurmountable “basic fear” of Black people expressed by trembling “slightly” and mumbling “nonsense about intermarriage.”3 By 1968, an excerpt from his controversial book My Friend, The Enemy criticized White-dominated missions conferences sponsored by congregations that relocated from Black neighbors even as they claimed to minister to them.4 As of 1971, he appeared in the pages of the General Conference news magazine, The Mennonite, with a reflection on the need for the Black community to have “power, control, the sharing of power.”5 That same year he also participated in the AFRAM conference held near Nairobi, Kenya, to bring together African-American and African Mennonites.6

Pannell’s Mennonite connections were more extensive than these publications and meetings suggest. He counted White Mennonite church planer Vern Miller as a “friend and brother,” even indicating that Miller introduced him to Martin Luther King, Jr.7 He recalled conversations with theologian John Howard Yoder while visiting Goshen College and referenced talks he gave at nearly every Mennonite college and high school as well as most Black Mennonite congregations in the U.S.8 Even more importantly, Pannell credited Mennonites with forming his “understanding of servanthood, of discipleship, of dimensions of faith in practice,” going so far as to exclaim in the course of an oral history interview, “Ah, boy, that was good stuff. I watched them live that stuff out in very uncomfortable circumstances. It helped me enormously.”9

And the exchange between Pannell and the Mennonite community wasn’t just one way. His invitation to participate in the 1973 AFRAM conference was only one indication of the trust that Black Mennonites placed in him. Already in 1968, leaders of the racially integrated Broad Street Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had invited him to consult with them to discern their role as a church in their immediate neighborhood.10 White Mennonites also found Pannell’s contributions helpful. One reader praised Pannell for “Telling it as it is and honestly facing” racism present within the Mennonite community.11

The connection I make between Pannell and the trope of the Magical African-American Friend has less to do with the nature of Pannell’s specific interactions with both Black and White Mennonites than it does with a larger pattern into which his interaction with Mennonites fits.

Consider the following list: Hubert Brown, Curtis Burrell, Rosemarie Harding, Vincent Harding, Warner Jackson, James Lark, Rowena Lark, Joy Lovett, Stan Maclin, Charles McDowell, Dwight McFadden, John Powell, Ed Riddick. Every one of these high-profile African-American individuals appeared on a national Mennonite platform between 1950 and 2000 either as a speaker, author, evangelist, or church official. Every one of them then left the church for at least a stretch of time or disappeared from national attention.12 In the case of Pannell, he had never officially become Mennonite.

So this is my question. What does this pattern tell us about the White Mennonite church during the second half of the twentieth century? Each one of the individuals listed here is worthy of much fuller attention than what this column can offer. The reasons for their specific departures from the Mennonite world range from the most problematic of personal failings to decisions to pursue alternate career paths. But what troubles me as I review this list and ponder the tenure of William Pannell in the Mennonite world is that, like MAAFs, high-profile Black Mennonite leaders have rarely found a long-term home in the church.

And, the historical record would suggest, there is a through line in the personal narratives behind these names that speaks of White Mennonites being willing to be challenged for a period of time but only, in the words of Pannell, in “relationship to a suitcase.”13 Here is what Pannell wrote back in 1968. His words are worth quoting in full:

It took considerable time, several years in fact, before I began to realize that there were any number of people whose acceptance of me was conditioned by my relationship to a suitcase. A singing Negro has always been welcome as long as he is a vagabond, and has no intention to settle with his family. Again this is an overstatement since many would have been delighted if I would have stayed. But they too disappoint me when I discover their unwillingness to fight for my right to stay against those entrenched local forces of bigotry. They handcuffed me to my suitcase by their silence.14

He wrote these words now more than fifty years ago. The Mennonite community today counts a host of African-American leaders who have stayed and are leading the church: Michelle Armster, Leslie Francisco, Glen Guyton, Cyneatha Millsapps, Regina Shands Stoltfzus. There are many others.

Yet, for those of us who are White and Mennonite, the history of Black Mennonite leaders who have left after performing important leadership roles in the church – often at significant psychological and spiritual costs to themselves – is a cautionary tale, one that points to how easily even the best of intentions to welcome and embrace can all too quickly fall into the same traps of paternalism, exclusion, and stereotyping that are at the root of the highly problematic and ultimately racist portrayal of Magical African-American Friends.

In a community that continues to find it far easier to speak of and respond to racism in interpersonal rather than systemic terms, the trap of the MAAF will be one that we will have to work hard to avoid.


  1. Gayle R. Baldwin, “What a Difference a Gay Makes: Queering the Magic Negro,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 5, no. Fall (2003), http://www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art5-whatagay.html.
  2. Linden M. Wenger and Virgil Brenneman, “Program of Witness to and with Negroes,” (Chicago: Home Missions and Evangelism Committee Round Table, 1959), 1.
  3. Ibid.; William Pannell, “The Evangelical and Minority Groups,” Gospel Herald, March 8, 1960, 205.
  4. William E. Pannell, “Somewhere in the Middle,” Christian Living, September 1968, 24.
  5. William Pannell, “Little Black Sambo Still Lives,” The Mennonite, February 16, 1971, 100.
  6. John Powell, “AFRAM to Bring Blacks Together,” Gospel Herald, July 31, 1973.
  7. William E. Pannell, interview by Robert Shuster, April 21, 1998, in person, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, Collection 498, Pannell, William E.; 1929-Interviews; 1995-2007, Audio Tapes, Tape 3, https://ensemble.wheaton.edu/hapi/v1/contents/permalinks/Ne5q4L7G/view.
  8. William E. Pannell, interview by Robert Shuster, February 28, 2000, in person, Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, Collection 498, Pannell, William E.; 1929-Interviews; 1995-2007, Audio Tapes, Tape 5, https://ensemble.wheaton.edu/hapi/v1/contents/permalinks/Dz2e8FCa/view.
  9. Ibid.
  10. John S. Weber, “The History of Broad Street Mennonite Church 1936 – 1971” (Senior Thesis, Eastern Mennonite College, 1971), 46.
  11. John E. Fretz, “Hard to Face It as It Is,” The Mennonite, March 2, 1971, 150.
  12. John Powell, for example, returned to the church, fulfilled a variety of leadership roles, and continues to write a column for Mennonite World Review. James and Rowena Lark started a church in Fresno, California, in the mid-1960s that did not have a Mennonite affiliation.
  13. William Pannell, My Friend, the Enemy (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1968), 55.
  14. Ibid.

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