Larry Smith

I don’t care much for most awards shows, “Top 10” lists and the like. (I do fancy the superlatively important U.S. News & World Report rankings of America’s colleges and universities. We all have our guilty pleasures.) Nonetheless, I am quite interested in who The Root includes in its annual list of the 100 most influential African Americans ages 25 to 45. The Root, an online-only magazine, was launched in 2008 by Harvard professor and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr. It is one of today’s most respected Afrocentric publications. Thus, making “The 100” is seen by many as confirmation that one’s work is important, relevant and even “cool.” This year marks the 10th anniversary of the magazine’s greatly anticipated list. The introductory paragraph to last year’s awardees reads in part: 

“… It’s our way of honoring the innovators, the leaders, the public figures and game changers whose work from the past year is breaking down barriers and paving the way for the next generation. This year’s list of honorees is a reminder of the beauty and brilliance of blackness, at a time when the political and cultural landscape has grown even more hostile to the idea of Black achievement.”

There are eight categories in which nominees are considered: art, business, community, entertainment, media, politics, sports and STEM. Tarana Burke, who started the “Me Too” movement in 2006, topped last year’s list. Director Ryan Coogler, politician-turned-activist Stacey Abrams, sports star and businessman LeBron James and San Francisco Mayor London Breed rounded out the top five honorees. (Fun facts: LeBron James has more than 41 million followers on Twitter; Ryan Coogler, who directed the record-breaking “Black Panther” movie, is the rare millennial superstar who does not have a Twitter account.) The 2019 honorees will be announced in a couple months.  

Given its format, it isn’t surprising that The Root’s methodology for selection is based in part on social media: “… By using a unique algorithm, we calculate honorees’ REACH — the people they touch through media and Twitter followers — and their SUBSTANCE — the impact of their work, graded on a scale of 0 to 10 — to determine their INFLUENCE, which determines their ranking. Ultimately, we scored hundreds of people to determine The Root 100.” (Emphasis theirs.) It is important to note that the general public may make nominations. One doesn’t have to be a celebrity like honoree John Legend; “ordinary people” frequently make the list. 

Beyond the envy, outrage, disappointment and voyeurism that are natural byproducts of this annual compendium, there is also an interesting trend — or lack thereof — that I will point out: pastors rarely make the list. This is astounding when one considers the historical role that the Black church has played (and continues to play) in Black life. Presumably, pastor and civil rights activist Dr. William Barber (who was born in Indianapolis) would make the cut, as would T.D. Jakes and a handful of other pastors — if they met the age criteria. (Pastor Jamaal Harrison Bryant, now 48 years old, has been an honoree.) 

While I am cognizant of the danger of extrapolating too much from this single cultural phenomenon, I am comfortable suggesting that — were the list published, say, 30 years ago — several members of the clergy would have made the cut. Thus, “The Root 100” is a reminder that today’s Black church wrestles with cultural and social zeitgeists, as well as the ubiquity and power of social media. (Of course, the white church faces a similar struggle.) 

The church battles to remain relevant in any historical epoch; today is no different. Thus, pastors are perpetually challenged to meet people at the point of their spiritual, emotional, social and psychological needs. Dr. E. Dewey Smith, who pastors the House of Hope near Atlanta, describes the dilemma this way:“Effective biblical preaching takes place when you take the ideas of the past and apply them to today. We must turn ‘then-ness or ‘was-ness’ into ‘now-ness’. (We) stand on the razor’s edge and balance the two. Too much of the former and (the sermon) is a history lesson; too much of the latter and it’s a motivational speech... Pastors are pulled in both directions.”

I am a minister, but not the senior pastor of a congregation. (I tend to joke that, if Jesus really loves me, He won’t call me to be a pastor.) Pastors must be cognizant of popular trends, but not be wedded to them. They may need to alter their methods, but they should stay true to a Biblically-sound message. As the saying goes, “it’s more than a notion.” While very few pastors will garner enough re-tweets to make “The 100,” let’s pray that they keep doing their job well enough to help us all make the most important list.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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