The 'African' in African American Religion

I'm Ron teaming from Harvard Divinity School and it's my pleasure to welcome you to the second lecture in the religion and society doctoral colloquium on theorizing race and ethnicity in religious studies and theology we are delighted to welcome as this evenings lecturer professor Eddie Glaude professor Claude is the William as Todd professor of religion in african-american studies at Princeton University and is a core faculty member in the Center for african-american studies he is also the founding member and senior fellow of the Jamestown project based here in Cambridge which is an initiative that provides a forum for everyday citizens to engage in democratic deliberation on issues of race ethnicity and gender professor Claude's first book Exodus religion race and nation in early 19th century black America won the Modern Language Association William Sanders Scarborough Book Prize in 2000 he's also edited is it nation time contemporary essays on black power and black nationalism published in 2002 and in 2003 collaborated with Cornel West in editing african-american religious studies and anthology his most recent book in the shade of blue pragmatism in the politics of black America published in 2007 is it important and critical engagement with the Phyllis philosophical thought of John Dewey making the case that pragmatism remains alive and viable option for thinking about african-american politics most fascinating about this work is that it ends by advocating for what God has called a post soul politics the working title for his next book which is a form of political engagement that acknowledges the legacy of black freedom struggles of the 60s but ultimately moves beyond that legacy in an effort to rise to the new challenges facing America's commitment to values in participatory democracy tonight with the overall arching theme of this lecture series his lecture is entitled the African in African American religion president o'clock thank you it is indeed a pleasure to be here with you this this evening with so many friends professor Gregory from my home town not really home town but for my institution to see the great Charles Addams here it's just amazing it's an honor to be here with you I want to thank dr. stateman lover dear brother Ron and the terrace for for making this moment possible I have a close friend from Morehouse who's here professor Ron Sullivan from from from Harvard Law School we went to Morehouse together we're getting old together and I see several of my former students Danielle from Amherst and Ernie from from Princeton and and it's a delight to be here and hopefully I'll have something to say this of substance let me jump right into it the title I adjusted the title a bit sister Marla and sister Evelyn thank you for for coming chop reader Dean everybody shouldn't once you start listing you get in trouble don't you it's one of the sins of this thing thank you let's just jump into it I changed the title of it is Africa in the study of African American religion and this is really part of a broader set of reflections I'm obsessing at this particular moment with the boys is reflections on on on african-american religion and this is just another kind of vignette piece kind of thinking about what he opens up and what he shuts down and in this case I want to talk about how Africa figures in the study of African American religion studying religion is a perilous endeavor we need all they think about the inherent ambiguity in the fields central term of art religion and reflect on the multiplicity of traditions and practices that complicate what can be said about religions to get a sense that the subject matter is fraught with difficulties those of us who study religion often find ourselves in what Samuel Beckett called the mess the messiness of faiths beliefs doctrines rituals of modern prejudices and of the practices of a scholarly guild with its own standards of excellence and failure like Beckett our task as scholars has been and continues to be to sup to find some way to accommodate this mess that is in part our own doing and many of us at least some of us I think recognize even as we stumble about that much is at stake an informative body of literature has been written about the difficulties in the study of religion I don't need to go into that my aim in this talk tonight is not to take up the particulars of those debates I do hold the view however that many of the concerns evidenced in these conversations are interestingly complicated when the term religion is over determined by the adjective black or african-american I hold this view because the adjectives bear the unusual burden of an enormous ly complicated history that colors the way religion is practiced and understood indeed on their own both terms generate enormous debate distinctions between being religious and doing religion or concerns about whether races are real or not animate conversations throughout the Academy but what happens when we think about them in tandem what do we mean when we describe certain African American practices as religious practices and what work is the adjective doing here how do I answers to these questions inform our histories of african-american religion now I don't know why I brought it up but I won't be able to take up these rather broad questions in the context of this talk but I brought him up anyway but they frame how I examined the next issue of the place of Africa in the study of African American religion indeed uses of the trope of Africa in many accounts of African American religion help us understand the potential meanings that follow from thinking about the terms together particularly in the manner in which the trope registers histories of violence and displacement that capture the distinctive entree of African Americans into the modern world indeed the distinctiveness of African American religion is often located in its African origins a place that simultaneously marks a condition of living prior to the fateful encounters with white Europeans and one tragically disrupted by them as well this disruption in some ways necessitates that loose for some of us a narrative insistence on the centrality of Africa and its place in the beliefs choices and actions of the continents descendants Africa and in some instances its diaspora stand that as a principle of narrative and historical uncertainty the site of an imaginary order disrupted by profane history that speaks of a destiny resulting from that disruption in this sense constructions of African American religion that takes seriously questions of African origins and dispersion accentuate issues of black agency resistance and freedom precisely because those constructions take shape amid the destruction and ruin that followed Europe's encounter with Africa Robert or sue can I mention his name here Robert warsi has it right of being that naughty Robert Worsley has it right when he says that quote the history of the study of religion is always a political history just as the political and intellectual history of modernity is always a religious history and quote the history of african-american religion is no different it is always a political history of sorts distinctly signifying on discourses about religions and religion in the West and of course the trope of Africa is one of its central tools uses of Africa in the histories of African American religion do a certain kind of work in what I want to call narratives of recovering Redemption and resistance we can talk about that later these kinds of stories announce that the lives of Africa's children do not begin with the transatlantic slave trade that these individuals exhibit in their daily lives the presence of Africa and their worldviews in their conceptions of life and death and in the moral and ethical principles that guide them as they negotiate their circumstances within these narratives black agency is central because the very presence of African Americans acting on their own behalf betrays the lie that white supremacy has reduced them to mere pawns in the doings of white men of course the fact of African descended peoples acting for themselves taking on this significance as to post as opposed to some other involves a kind of poetic tropen of the facts which gives them the quality of heroic self assertion a sense of commonly shared experience and a singularity of reference and meaning that come to signify the essence of a people engaged in struggle now such stories are not necessarily bad the violence of America physical and epistemic easily warrants such a narrative technique that emphasizes the court unifying experiences of African peoples disparate but dispersed by the slave trade as well as efforts to locate a single culture within singular historical roots so a single culture with singular historical roots as a basis for embolden those persons to resist their subjugation in quo so what I just said was it's not necessarily a bad thing that we tell a story about these folk who caught hell because of the slave trade and then when we tell a story about them being located in one specific particular place that their that location in one singular culture provides them with singular historical roots which gives those dispersed people the resources to imagine themselves as agents in the world that's not a bad thing at all moreover in light of the grand narratives of American religion and history that all too often marginalized the presence of African Americans such narratives constitute important interventions and Corrections they revealed the bodies buried beneath the pristine histories of the American nation state but we need to understand these stories as constructions that attempt to do a certain kind of work and that's simply as the account of the origins of African American religion they are indeed other ways of beginning the story there are other ways of beginning the story now of course a distinction is to be made between origins and beginnings beginnings constitute a first step in the production of meanings about a given topic as well as a means of differentiating between competing views I begin this way as opposed to that origins some would believe are not subject to such choice they reflect the fact of the matter we cannot begin the story otherwise my aim here is to recast this concern about origins in light of the overall question of narrative what are the implications of beginning the story in this way and holding the view that this beginning as opposed to another constitutes beginning of the story of african-american religion why do we have to begin with Africa right as a way of marking the distinctive agency of african-american practitioners of religion ever Syed writes of beginnings can I quote Syed here a beginning suggests either a a time be a place C an object d a principle or e an act in short detachment of the sort that establishes distance between either time place the object principle or an act on the one hand what or what came before it on the other side goes on to write my beginning my beginning specializes still more but the moment I come conditionally speak of the beginning knowledge is theologist knowledge is theologizing once made the focus of attention cited goes on to say the beginning once made the focus of attention the beginning occupies the foreground and is no longer a beginning but has the status of an actuality and when it seeds its place to that which it has aimed to produce or to give rise to it it can exist in the mind as virtuality paraphrasing sight says both Hegel and v co we can say and I think this is really important that formerly the problem of beginning is the beginning of the problem the problem of beginning is the beginning of the problem stories of african-american religion that posit Africa as the beginning generate particular problems that need to be made explicit not so much because knowledge is theologist Sayid is justifiably skeptical of the process by which historical claims are mapped onto the very order of things in order that stands apart from the actual doings and sufferings of people I take it that his characterization of such processes as the theologizing of knowledge is consistent with his thorough going secularism one need not embrace however his overall suspicion of religion to take seriously his insights about the problem of how to begin to grasp the relationship between the past and the circumstances and exigencies of the present we can in fact begin to do some of the work of making these problems explicit by isolating particular dimensions of the narrative of african-american religion such a beginning has produced we should be mindful when we write or invoke history and I say this to those of you who know this already but we should be mindful when we write or invoke history as historians philosophers are as cultural critics that we are not engaged in a dispassionate detailing of facts or a mere representation of the record rather we actively work in shaping the narrative and singling out certain events and particular characters and we do so with purposes and interest in mind in writing such histories we find ourselves negotiating the authority of tradition the constraining power of conventions and encountering the limits of narrative form history that is always written even when not explicitly acknowledged to be so from a self-consciously critical point of view and in full awareness of the temporal distance between the historian and the subject or subjects about which she writes I like Thomas tweeds kind of characterization of this process when he writes the stories that fill history textbooks are important because they negotiate power and construct identity they situate us in society and tell us who we are historical narratives often reflect and shape the social and economic order individuals and groups excluded from narratives are excluded from more than stories those who do not find themselves or their experiences represented in the most widely told stories engage in struggle private in public quiet and noisy to make sense of themselves and locate their place among others in the wider society historical narratives then tweet rights never are just history right there always is a great deal at stake for narrators and readers always much to gain and lose in power and meaning in quote for subject people for folk catch inhale this is this insight takes on added significance can I say for folk catching Hill here I've been moving I just as a quick aside I've been moving between different spaces you know I've been kinda I just did a radio show in Mississippi in McComb Mississippi and now I'm here at Harvard it's been a journey so I'm trying to keep these worlds in in place now but tweeds inside takes on added significance for folk who are oppressed who are catching him their subjugation not only involves their actual bodies but also the colonization of history capital H and the forging of a regime of truth that often regulates them beyond the margins remember that paraphrase from finola edges of the earth by a perversion the colonizers not content which is simply right colonizing the subject but to go into the history of the colonized and to wipe it claim so history capital H becomes a crucial site of struggle this account not only removes the slave for example from history at capital H but denies her moral standing as a result as such history becomes a critical battleground often resulting in a theologizing upon which issues of meaning identity and resistance are addressed and for black folk I want to maintain Africa stands as a crucial site of contests in this battle in his 1998 book afro Thalia Wilson Moses extraordinary a story intellectual historian delineates popular traditions of african-american historiography that reflect this political and existential reality both the historiography of decline that is a historical narrative that begins with the greatness of an African past that has been displaced by the brutality of the west and the historiography of progress a story that posits of progressive evolution toward improved conditions for african-americans engage according to Moses in a battle around meaning and identity both historical accounts take up the importance of Africa as a site for regeneration and recovery of meanings lost in the face of the brutality of white supremacy both stand as different examples of a kind of vindication ISM or what he says quote the project of defending black people from the charge that they have made little or no contribution to the history of human progress end quote what is interesting about Moses is account for my purposes tonight is the extent to which he captures a general tendency in african-american religious historiography how we account for the African presence in African American religion how we understand its power in the religious imagination of African Americans its influence on the form and content of black religious expression and its centrality to a conception of black identity forced in the struggle for freedom in the new world now I think Dubois is at the heart of it and so this section is called the boys of beginning of sorts WB Dubois his classic text the souls of black folk and particularly his chapter of the faith of our fathers inaugurates these sorts of concerns in the formal writing of African American religious history I read of the faith of our fathers as one of the first treatments of african-american religion as an object of inquiry he's not engaged in the exploitation of a faith tradition he's not trying to take he's not engaged in writing church history in fact he's treating african-american religion as an object of sociological inquiry as an object of historical investigation the boys does not take himself as I said to be explicate in the faith claims of a particular religious denomination rather he sets out to examine the social history of the quote/unquote black church and it's then-current role in african-american life as such many of the concerns that preoccupy I believe contemporary studies of african-american religion can be found in Du Bois his account I don't want to make the genetic fallacy here right by trying to link all of the current stuff to de bois his failings but I think the boys an interesting source of ways sets the frame for how much of African American religious studies or religious history is written now three important tendencies stand out first Dubois foregrounds the social function of black churches and draws on the distinction between otherworldly and this worldly religion between accommodation and protest those of you who are studying African American religion you know those categories that binary just there's an obsession of those of us who study African American religion so this distinction between otherworldly and this worldly religion that has defined so much of the literature on the subject the emphasis on black churches also reveals in some interesting sort of way the decidedly Christian bias in much of the work done on African American religion second Dubois refuses to ghettoize his account of African American religion right he understands it within the larger context of American religious history right prefiguring Sidney Ostrom claimed at the recovery of African American religion serves as a paradigm for the recovery of American religious history generally right Dubois is a count of African American religion functions I believe in the context of souls as a cynic Dokic account where to tell the story of African American religion is to tell in part the story of American religion right lastly the voices at Dubois attempts to account for the place of Africa in the history of african-american religion in fact he answers the question what have been the successive steps of this social history remember that question in souls if you don't just Nagi it would have been the successive steps of this social history with the claim he answers that question with the claim that the foundations of african-american religion are found not in America but in Africa Dubois writes quote first we must realize that no such institution as the Negro Church could rear itself without definite historical foundations these foundations we can find if we remember that the social history of the Negro did not start in America he was brought from definite social he was brought from a definite social environment the polygamous clan life under the headship of the chief and the potent influence of the priests his religion was nature worship with profound belief in invisible surrounding influences good and bad and his worship was through incantation and sacrifice in code now drawing on the bad anthropological descriptions of Africa had circulated at the time Dubois offers a description of a form of life that in fact informed how African descended peoples negotiated the devastating implications of new world slavery he describes the violent disruption of forms of life and claims that although it was a horrific social revolution quote some traces were retained of the former group group life and the chief remaining institution as you recall was the priest or the medicine man right and then he makes the correlation between the priests medicine man and the preacher right and the preacher of course is part of this try threefold characterization of the black church to preach of the music and the frenzy right so I'm not interested in vindicating I'm not interested today I'm not interested in vindicating Dubois his claim about the continuity between the medicine man and the black preacher what interests me instead is that his move to Africa as foundation must be understood within the context of writing history small age against history capital age a form of writing bound up with the struggle against white supremacy to highlight the trope of Africa the African beginnings in the construction of his story then is to read Dubois his use of the trope as part of a discursive battle to redeem African Americans and given that I'm figuring his study as paradigmatic for african-american religious history his beginning sets the trajectory of how the story has been told ever since I believe now one can see this way of beginning the narrative in the extraordinary ferment of the 1960s and 70s when so many of our now classic texts in the field were written these histories sought to recover and redeem a past long-neglected in mainstream American religious history Albert rabbito whom I loved dearly reflected on the time reflecting on the time writes quote for many of us studying in those movement years the attempt to research and write about african-american history had a personal significance and a political impetus I felt that in my recovery of this history lay the restoration of my past myself and my people in this context I chose to write about the history of the religious life of slaves in quote now I think this view captures much of the moment particularly the sorts of debates about slave agency and religious commitments many wrestled with the question of what if anything was distinctive about slave culture in quote the question of distinctiveness was answered by many not necessarily professor rabbito but by many with appeals to african survivals right slave religion was not merely a rep location of the Masters religion slaves were not reduced to Sambo's by the peculiar institution rather they had the resources to forge itself amid the absurdity of their condition those resources were African and the scholarly work aimed to demonstrate this connection and continuity and it didn't have to be in the Hertz Covidien model right many people wanted to just simply turn to have you read Michael Sobel's work for example on black Baptist right you see this initial journey to Africa as a way of locating a particular kind of Elton song and a particular kind of worldview as the house folk ought to understand the uniqueness of black religiosity right part of what we have to see what part of what we see in this moment right is there's a way in which we could think about these people as not being simply reducible to the hell that they're catching in slavery that they're not just simply extensions of the Masters will well how do we account for that but we want to trace them beyond this institution and the way we do that is to Africa it's to turn to Africa I point your attention to this work to this work not to belittle it or to call it scholarship into question far from it I only want to highlight the way Africa has been implanted in the story in light of a broader context within which histories of African American religion have been written histories in which certain motifs characters plots and settings orient the reader and locate her in a particular terrain and social space there's a wonderful I'm thinking about the context of of these brief reflections it's really kind of my working through and I talked with rod about this earlier a kind of pragmatic understanding of history really thinking about the relationship between say Emerson's essays on history and representative men and how we can think about history as biography without falling into Emerson's subjectivism right and so what do we begin – how do we begin to think about writing history a pragmatic history right with knowledge of the present informs our understanding of the past right and so it's a kind of present is preoccupation that drives the organization right of the facts as we begin to lay bare particular problems that are confronting us right here right now and I want to suggest that the ways in which Africa has been deployed is precisely in this manner right that is to say it's always already in the service of a certain kind of political project even as some folk are actually engaged and excavating right continuities right those continuities are doing certain kinds of political work because remember I said following Bob Morsi there's that name again that our religious history right is it some substantive way political history right and all political history is in some significant way religious history that's the Lord calling me to be sure african-american religious historians have relied on certain motifs to tell their story of African American religion I think I've been beating this point home and you can give give some examples stories of declension so central to american religious history in general take on a different form an african american religious historiography you know fall from a glorious african past or the story of the prophetic black church of the nineteenth century in which falls falls short in light of the interwar period and the emergence of all of these cults and sects and the like and of course black theologians riding in on their black horses to save the day not white horses black horses or you can think about stories of religion and freedom that begin with the presence of africa differentiating say african american appropriations of christianity and i got been asking what sort of work is africa doing in certain accounts of african american religion or we can think about the this notion of recovery and redemption and which aims to shed light on the darkness of the continent to proclaim the gift pase Hegel of its descendants to the world right more often than not these stories these plot lines right are framed within a Liberatore or progressive model even narratives of declension stand as a prelude to liberation I've tried to show that uses of the trope of Africa are central to such efforts I'm coming to a close that we can talk indeed beginning the story of african-american religion with the question of African origin origins Orient's the narrative in a particular sort of way the result has been an affirmation of a certain kind of black subjectivity and too often in my view an evasion of the particulars of the vast continent and the complexities of its relationship to the new world in other words Africa in the service of a particular story of recovery Redemption and resistance often obscures more than it illuminates it blinds us to the fact that quote Africa is neither a figment of a new world imagination frozen in time nor the sole birthplace of modern African culture instead the actual doings and sufferings of African descended people constantly people's constantly reshaped recast and transform Africa and its diaspora the stories I've alluded to mattered and continued to matter but we can and must insist on a different beginning and here I'm trying to speak to the thing'll of the colloquium in part because these older stories make it possible to begin anew Africa quote-unquote can now be approached without the Justice Kotori burden of black agency and the weight of resistance we can take up the extraordinary richness and diversity of its landscape not simply to establish continuity and connections but to explore the beliefs held the choices made and the actions taken in the context of an ever-changing world now we've certainly seen some good work some great work in this regard I'm thinking about the tremendous scholarship of John Thornton and Michael Gomez the work of David Altus and David Richardson and the ongoing work around the African American religion a documentary history project we hope that that will ever we hope that that will be finished at some point as well as the work in and around the black Atlantic that is not so caught within national histories in fact that work seems to disrupt such accounts right we can now see much more of the complex any of the relate the relationship of a foreign African ethnic enclaves to their new world destinations and see somewhat more clearly their cultural effects but even someone like Thornton and Gomez for example ironically fall into some traps as Phillip Morgan has argued they tend to overreach their evidence and claim a coherent cohesive and coherent African identity for many slaves that in his view and I would agree downplay cultural creation adjustment and adaptation that characterized the efforts of diverse Africans on this side of the Atlantic one might wonder if the question of black agency has been recast even in this context now my primary purpose tonight has been to call attention to how our beginning of the story of African American religion shapes the history of the study of African American religion to my mind there is much more to the story of African America and religion than the issues of resistance and agency even as we want to maintain the importance of those tropes important concerns though they may be neither exhaust the myriad narrative possibilities evidenced in the extraordinary religious imaginations of these new world peoples to begin the story differently I'm quite confident to say will return us to that mess with which I began this talk and like the artist to whom Beckett refers and like those scholars who have come before us we too must find a form to accommodate it I sit down here's the ritual the feast tariffs do we have a microphone questioners or do we just anyway we have ample time for let you recognize people and when I think a worn out is working home okay yeah I came little late and but I was wondering if you thought about Dubois and saying that our stories should start in Africa but I I read some writings by yourself and so long as some years ago they talked about the reconfigured Exodus saga in the 400 years situation after which you know there's some divine dispensation and and I I find that I'm a Muslim myself but I grew up in the church and I still attend church and I I find that at the african-american church the Exodus saw days continually brought up again and as a kind of african-american version of American exceptionalism and I was wondering if you could speak on that yes go ready yeah absolutely I do want it I I you know I I want to make the claim that let me let me back up a little bit in reading professor Rabbitohs slave religion there's a wonderful chapter catechesis and conversion chapter and there's this interesting moment in that chapter we're al kind of reflects on this moment this Yeah right and the gap has everything to do with right the gap between the intention of that which is uttered right alongside of the kind of the performative contradiction of those who are committed to certain claims and what do I mean by that that is to say there are these folk who are trying to convert Christians convert slaves to Christianity right and so their intention is to convert them in this way right and there's a gap between their intention to convert them such that they could become better slaves and what the slave actually hears and then that gap is widen right by the performative contradiction right you know there's example that rabbito uses of the South Carolina slave holder saying to the slave as he submits to baptism do you submit to baptism because you want to be a true Christian or do you submit the baptism because you want to be free or something like that right so there's this performative contradiction and what rabbito says is that if the slave holder right assumes that the slave who converts to Christianity is not – is not going to simply or merely pair it the doctrine that they have to imbibe it they have to absorb it then at that moment they can can't control its meaning and for at rabbito this movement from instruction to conversion is the opening for the sorts of creativity right the sorts of creation our cultural adaptation that generates this outcome called black Christianity right for rabbit so african-american Christianity is a refutation of the idolatry of white Christianity does that make sense okay right right and so for rabbits oh and then how how then might we chart this kind of cultural creativity right this forging of a theology that is unique and rooted in not this thing not necessarily totally distinct but rooted in the particular conditions of these folks who are caught under the conditions of slavery right so for him right because remember this chapter comes on the heels of his own attempt to try to find a middle way between the herskovits Frazier debate right so it's not just simply about these folks just simply bringing tools baptism is not just simply water rituals right something else does going on here right and so for him Exodus the interpretation of Exodus because that's how he in slave religion right it's with the reading of Exodus and that's how he begins that's the first essay in fire in the bones of how these folk interpreted the interpret the Exodus story now I tend to read that as a way in which we can begin to think about their implication in a certain kind of American nationalism at the same time how they themselves imagined themselves as a kind of people how they can imagine a notion of racial solidarity without falling into the traps of racial essentialism so that's one side of the story the other side of the story is Du Bois as accountant what is the count it's really fascinating to me and Curtis Evans has written a wonderful piece on the boys in the study of religion I think it came out a couple of issues back in the Journal of American Academy of religion where he's really trying to figure out all of the insights and contradictions that follow Du Bois as a count of african-american religion and part of what I want to suggest is that Du Bois his account frames in his very interesting ways some of the questions that we're preoccupied with and one move that he makes early on write this essay was initially published in 1900 comes out in 1903 but we see he actually reflects on the black church early on in the late 1890s right at a convention where he talks about this institution having to change in the face of the differentiation of the black community but the boy says though that we have to begin to think about African American religiosity as not being reducible to the American context of slavery and so how does he make that claim how does he substantiate that claim we have to go prior to that moment now perhaps that's right right that might be right I'm not sure I just want it I just want to think about the political motivation behind the move right because we see it say for example in Afrocentric writing right there's a way in which we can account for ourselves apart from the gaze of white folks and this becomes an interesting and important way for accounting for a certain conception of black subjectivity that's not reducible to new world circumstances now why is that so important it's the question I want to ask right another example of d-boys shaping after the study of african-american religion is not only the otherworldly this worldly distinction there's a moment in of the faith of our fathers where Dubois sees he says at the end I talked about this last time I was here he says that he sees the black church differentiating right moving into these churches that are in distinguished not that aren't distinguishable from broad white churches or churches that are become big businesses mm-hmm right they do I mean he actually notes it at the end of that chapter right a complex religious landscape but at the very moment in which he notes something that might look like prosperity gospel here oppresses it he moves it out of the way as not being authentically African an authentic expression of African American religion perhaps that's what he's saying I'm not sure right and the result has been that we haven't told ourselves a thick enough story about African American religious expression that would include resources that would account for some of the stuff we see today and so focal walking around saying see that's new that's new that's new and when in fact it's not it's not somebody should put on them somebody should put on the cover up you know two people back-to-back wherever and I can't Martin Luther King and then right underneath who one right and we can go from Reverend Ike to Prophet Joel we can just so we can begin to tell a thicker story about african-american religiosity and I think part of what happens is that Du Bois is account frames so much of what we do and part of what I'm trying to do because it's it's at Apple in some way I'm just trying to figure out my relationship to this cat okay I had a question about the thickness also another if you could comment on this aspect of the thickness I thought it was a fabulous talk by the way I thought what was thin for me was it sort of flattened the the internal constant stations that African Americans are having about africanist which I think occurs around the time of the American Colonization Society for example early 1800s where they're seeing African as as as a trap that might justify white Americans as seeing them as somehow foreign and justifying extricated them free blacks and moving them somewhere else so that they can better control enslaved blacks this has come up again topically with about Barack Obama's church right so it's an afro centric Church and on the website it says we are an African people and some people are questioning whether or not that indicates that Barack is or that church too somehow anti-american and unpatriotic that's a great question well so many different levels part of what the first move I want to make is to make a distinction between the writing of history right the sorts of preoccupations that organize the very ways in which we imply the details right and and then the the the the actual this is this is only an analytic distinction and then the messiness that's on the ground so part of what I'm trying to do is to kind of chart in some ways some people say that what I do is a kind of intellectual history of African American religious thought right and so part of what I'm trying to do is to think about a certain kind of problematic within the ways in which we've written the history about these folk and that's not to deny that the complexity on the ground because some folk have you actually done done exactly the work that you're suggesting particularly around you know debates around colored right an African Methodist Episcopal using African as a way to describe the AME Church how are we ought to call ourselves colored how does that moment in at a particular point in the early 19th century signal a certain kind of political consciousness visa VB identification with Africa how that then is played out within ranging a range of debates around immigration with an e I Mississippi I can't make the distinction right so these sorts of things right so so all of this is folks have done some really interesting work on the ground but what's interesting for me is that at a certain level of the problematic of writing a particular kind of history about the religiosity of folk right there's a certain way in which when we begin to talk about well how do we account for beyond the particulars right their religious orientation right a lot of folk have kind of made there and I'm thinking here if people like a road will more people like Michael so Michael Sobel and some others we begin to see this turn that to that direction and and I want to trouble that a bit so I'm conceding the claim but I want to also say I'm talking about it at a different level as well can I concede that coin I think I can yeah thank you that was wonderful and I I have some thoughts on this idea of historic sites in the history of this because you know it's interesting that the questions that we ask of the past are always the questions of our own time and so when al Roberto is writing he is very much addressing the herskovits issue in fact remember when he first starts it off even identifies all the myths of his past but I think we're really in a very new moment now and this new moment is best represented by my colleague Miranda matauri he's written a brilliant book black religions of the Atlantic I think I have that title right and what he's arguing in that book is that Annie's anthropologist is that we have for so long understood Africa is this kind of stable you know tradition and so we are looking back for our roots but that those roots and and I you know he hope play with it with our OTS and our o Utes and what happens is that not only is the American scene constantly changing and differ and she ate it you know you've got condom blade and you've got obeah and you've got well you guys got all these things going on on the Americas in the Americas but Africa itself is changing and not only is it changing but it's changing because of the Americas that Africa is getting these new voices these new American ideas of people who were literally in the new world in the 18th 19th and 20th century will go back to Africa and change African religions and so there's such a big blend and for me what I find so fascinating is that he is probably the the most recent and I think one of the ablest discussions in this long-standing herskovits debate I don't believe that book would be possible if we didn't live at a time when we have such a dispersion of people the immigration with the eye I mean there are more Africans moving to the Americas and to outside of Africa than there has than there was in the slave trade era there is such a dispersion and there's such a movement back and forth that I think our present is determining our history you know we are we are looking now with just brand-new questions and I think the way we will look at african-american religious history will never draw on why shouldn't say never but it'll it's just its gaze is somewhere else it's not back in the traditional herskovits understanding of finding the survival in the same kind of way right I think I think that's right that was a very gentle way of saying and some I think I think that was I think that's right I I and what I'm what I'm trying to suggest it's not so I don't want to rely I don't want to rehash old debates in the sense that I don't want to say that herskovits is legacy still looms large no I think what I'm trying to say is that I'm vindicating okay argument no I liked your archive because what your argument is is saying to us that there is a politics of history and that there is a history that is understood by you you were saying it to the question back there the circumstances and the issues of of this time and and and what I'm and what I'm so fat as I heard that genealogy what I'm saying is that there's there's a new one right I think that's absolutely right I mean part and I you know when you think about what Liz McAlister has done with her work thinking about religio escapes in particularly Haitian migrants to to New York City me and and and how we look at just simply migratory patterns and and we think about them economically but we need to think about how they create these streams or these conduits for different religious meanings to circulate within the Diaspora I think that's really crucial but what's interesting is where we haven't really begun to see an expansive body of scholarship that just you know is just beginning and part of what I'm trying to do is to kind of open up some kind of theoretical reflection how do we tell ourselves a story about how we've gotten to this point right I think it's you know I think it's like we don't for example we don't have a vast body of literature or research on african-american quote-unquote fundamentalism and we have to tell ourselves a story as to why we haven't told ourselves a story about this or we don't have a really expansive body of literature on african-american Pentecostalism and we have to tell ourselves a story about why that's the case and it has something to do with interestingly enough right these preoccupations that have defined the very ways in which we've written our story or the ways in which african-american religious history has been told one way of accounting for it has been that a certain kind of liberal Protestant sensibility has informed the writing of the story so do you just think about all of those masters theses written at Chicago all right and then you think about Benny Mayes and Nichols right and then you think about E Franklin Frazier and then we look at all the footnotes the seventies and we see them all citing all of those Chicago theses right and then what we see here is the kind of reproduction of a certain kind of regime of truth about how we understand the production of religious meaning within this particular community and part of what would the moment we're in and I think Evelyn you've hit it right on and Randy's work is so good in this regard it's a part of what we're we're at a moment where and I get in trouble saying this in other places where many of the categories that were thought that people thought to be able to use are now being subject to critical scrutiny does that make sense so for example you can think about in Africana philosophy right when you think about the a group of african-american philosophers whose principal preoccupation was to think about race and freedom I'm repressing the guy who writes on a lane lot Jeffrey's – no I was just repressing my name he's at Purdue Leonard Leonard Harris thank you philosophy born of scrubbing right so there was a big conference I had to pull it up I had to download it philosophy board of scrubbers it's a big conference you know and that's all they used to do Angela Davis Cornell bill Lawson Howard McGarry Leonard Harris always Katz they know each other they give each other pounds they drink cognac together because they used to get together you know I used to think about freedom and race right think hard and then you know Anthony writes his essay where he begins to call into question the very category that had been assumed to be stable and so here we are in African American religious studies and I'm gonna say this and get in trouble because ow and most of the folks in you too that you announce generation but that voice emerges and outs complicating a lot of things and you were complicating a lot of things but it emerges at the same time that the Black Liberation Theology Voice murder emerges right and then we know that there is an ideological battle between Black Liberation Theology and african-american religious historians and we know who lost right and we know who lost and it's all we got to do is just go into any library file and just type in African American religion and see what books show up and what we begin to see is that the sorts of questions that animate the kinds of literature's that have been produced within the frame of Black Liberation Theology certain sorts of questions preoccupied them questions that don't end up in that lap of random Ettore but actually end up in someone else's lap but that's a long answer at first I thought you were giving me the slip oh this is old hat that's yes I wonder if you could say a little better reflect a bit on the potential ramifications of this for broader issues that are dealt with in the colloquium that is under which which invited you about the questions of race and religion because the obsession with origin because I think they're potentially very large the obsession with origin has been pointed out to be endemic to the study of religion itself tomoco misawa's book origins of the Dreamtime where it's the study of religion begins with an obsession with origin and although we no longer foreground those questions they're percolating in the background or somewhat less impenetrably Talal Asad says that there's no history of religion with that with you know unless it comes on the back of a protestant enlightenment Tilos of a certain kind that begins with Origen and moves toward progress end point and so it seems to me that you know that it seems a bit unfair almost to weigh the state of African American religious history right now or the state of the field to put it all at do boys's feet it's endemic to a much large I mean is al Roberto also at the same same level that he's influenced by african-american history also by the way in which religion itself studied so could you reflect a little bit on what you see the potential being for the broader study of religion in the history of really sure part of part of where I go back to where I began I began with the kind by noting or marking the incredibly difficult tasks that we as self-identified religionists engage in that is to say that we find ourselves struggling with the term that we created to deal with these sorts of practices that are very very complex and nuanced and settled and contradictory in so many different ways and part of what I'm trying to suggest and let me say this by way of caveat part of what I'm trying to do in locating the boy locating it at the feet of the boys is to just try to mark a particular obsession of my own and then to reflect on that obsession and to see what it generates I'm perfectly open to other people saying when we can begin elsewhere and because the point that I was making following Sayid is that the problem of beginning is the beginning of the problem and if we extrapolate that broadly part of what we have to do is to kind of engage in critical reflection on these competing stories right that is to say that they're competing narratives that we tell ourselves about what we're doing whether we're on the normative side in the philosophy of religion whether we do Buddhism or Hinduism there are these competing narratives about how do we account for particular intellectual problems that we're trying to wrap our minds around part of the implication why am i hunching up part of the implication part of the implication of the work is to say that this becomes a site of intellectual work right that is to say what what does it mean right it's not so much to say right that origins are really beginnings right I'm actually more interested in in the subsequent question that is to say what motivates beginning here as opposed to there and the moment we asked that question right we begin to get to something I think a little bit more central right about the various ways of various descriptions that work and circulate in our particular areas and so part I mean again part of what I'm suggesting here is that we understand the significance of questioning the political implications of beginnings period does that does that make sense and so that that's exactly what I'm suggesting and it has everything to do with my pragmatist commitments right has everything to do with it's not reducible to those commitments but it has everything to do with my own obsession right my own obsession is how do i account for this moment right here right now where I'm engaged in this particular kind of work why am I so freakin obsessed with these sorts of questions as opposed to this question how can I begin to situate myself within a field that four on a number of different occasions can't quite make sense of why I'm obsessed with this in this way and so part of what I'm trying to do is to tell a story from the vantage point of where I am now about how I got here and in process of that kind of solipsistic or narcissistic kind of preoccupation right I'm telling a story about the field and such right about the field as such and hopefully opening up new pathways for reflection at the same time discussion tonight and I want to thank you for not jumping to a particular answer but simply sharpening the question I also would like to ask you I want to reflect upon a question that you raised about why Pentecostalism for example has not been given its rightful place in the history of the world could it be that there was a time in the history of black churches when all forms of religious expression were present were tolerated were understood and that range from those who sit silent in worship and there will always be the chosen frozen and so you're going to always you're gonna always have silent people not all black people are going to be as expressive as others right on the other hand you're going to have persons who are off-the-hook expressive I believe there was a time in our history like in the time of Roman Catholic history when everything Christian could be tolerated under that one shelter and then they began to separate out or get kicked out well you had variation in our history there was a time when the shouters and the thinkers were able to worship together and the shouders not prevent the thinkers from thinking and the thinkers not prevent the showers from shouting and they all were able to get along together build the churches became so-called more respectable they went to a higher level and they began to mimic the values of the wider society white society and then you couldn't have these people speaking in tongues and getting out in the middle of row and dancing and rolling or whatever they were doing because you are a middle class Church now you were acceptable Church and so you had separate those people out and I notice my church is split right down the middle those were more expressive step to the left of the pulpit those that quieter sit over there and there's less toleration for variation then there used to be and I think that happens when churches reach a certain sociological I just want you to comment on there well there's certain a certain ly a story that we can tell about the routinization of chrism there's certainly a story that we can tell about the kind of mainstreaming of particular forms of religious expression one can imagine not just simply African Americans but one could imagine at one point white Methodist and black white Baptist acting a particular sort of way because they were marginal religious voices in fact they could act in such a way that they could condemn slavery and then find themselves absorbing streamed and suddenly slavery becomes more tolerable I don't know if I'm as convinced as you are that there was a time when all of us could worship under one in in one space in in our various ways I'm more inclined to presume differentiation all the way down that there's always been kind of distinctions and those distinctions play themselves out in different registers under different historical and material conditions so on the one hand I want to grant your claim that we need to think about what happens when a particular religious denomination acquires a certain kind of status within a certain set of social arrangements and how that status that impacts the worship and so we get certain kinds of distinctions between high church and frozen church the church the frozen Chosin as it was but I don't know if that quite accounts for the study the blindness or the absence of historical accounts of Pentecostalism I think interestingly enough Pentecostalism in the historical literature emerges at the same time that people are talking about the black jews that they're talking about the sex and cults and so Pentecostalism is often in the in the literature initially accounted for as a foreign as as other as a site where folk have gone off and embrace something wholly strange and and that initial entree into the history into the scholarly literature right had an impact I think on the ways in which we've studied Pentecostalism Upton we're just now beginning to get some work I'm repressing her name she's at Rochester's you her recent book and Thea Butler there you go I'm repressing a lot and thiers recent book on Pentecostalism is wonderful in this regard and you one of your students wrote a wonderful but she was writing a dissertation I recall on Pentecostalism I can't yeah because it nails too so so part of part of part so so we're just now beginning to get sophisticated work around this in this regard so I want to resist the narrative that once win and now block right I want to resist that because part of what I think we have to wrap our minds around is that you know what complicated folk complicated folk so many different levels I can't I can't threaten to fail you love the lecture love the lecture everybody had to write the question is not about black paganism nor so good good good nor is it about internationalism although bracket that for another time but what I'm really interested in and you sort of alluded to this in the beginning of the talk so there's a questioning here of the centrality of Africa what is Africa and African American religion what I would like to ask about is are we willing to question the black or the african-americans the whole term in African American religion so yeah so we can we can jettison we can jettison the origin the original piece of Africa right but as we sort of turn to the messiness and the absolute the hybridity within America and within perhaps the Diaspora is there room for talking about something that is bigger than just about what what's about black people that's a naughty question but I think you're right I'm you know I'm working on at least I'm supposed to be working on you know that Oxford series the very short introductions on African American religion and this is the question that I begin the chat that I begin the book with or that which will become a book or that which will become the writing that will be a while back yes and part I mean you know I mean it becomes I mean we don't walk around talking about black Buddhist like Buddhism or black Hinduism right I mean so part of part of what I want to do is to think about what is this adjectives right how what does it mean to think about these words together religion and african-american how might the the adjective black or african-american overdetermined the noun is it just simply signaling a particular political of political and historical reality are we talking about something uniquely different right and it's a question that we have to wrap our minds around what in fact does the label mic the label single out right now when it comes to African American Christianity it becomes a very for me is somewhat interesting and perhaps easier answer that's ready at hand I'm not quite sure why yet but it is a question that we have to kind of ponder right and and so are we talking about a particular history of religious practice right and well how does that history then lead us to see say because usually when we talk about a black hinduist right or black Buddhists we're just talking about a Buddhist who happens to be black but when we talk about an african-american Christian right that that phrase carries a little bit more weight to it and we have to think about why that's the case right and it might be historical it might be political it might be sociological but we have to think about it and so I can't answer that now that's why I kind of paused and mentioned it as a frame and left it but it is something that has to be an object of inquire has to be subject to to two serious reflection and part of it has to do with us as the kind of person that I am is thinking about what what are the effects of these labels how do these labels carry us forth in experience right and so as we begin to think about the complex landscape of african-american religious practitioners what do these labels do in helping us sort through the the messiness of the landscape that we encounter do they obscure they block the way to further clarity or do they open up the way in certain certain instances my intuitions right now rest here that that the labels actually matter that when we use words like Black Muslim it signals something particular and we can tell a story about its evolution it is its development yes I believe it gets you back to Africa because the black Muslims the black Jews hmm the black that's that's how the trope kind of reenters but in a different way you know Jews as far back as you know the queen of sheba and Ethiopia and you got the like Muslims cuz the you know in the pre in the ancient African days yet Islamic cultures in the 16th century in Congo you had Catholicism I mean the what would you call a black mm no I I think they they called it I'm not sure what the king of Kongo called it but it was clearly Catholicism and they had they sent people to Portugal and they you know mixed those images the the cross that ivory how does it go that the the cross right right Congo okay so but anyway but but there is a reality it's your argument it's it's a reality that's there black people haven't taken all those black forms of religion are still have a route summer Africa that's one way of doing it one could say one could one could it reintroduce the trope of Africa in a different way right that is to say that there are these kind of well no that wouldn't work but because I'm sorry okay so I just love talking to you we have this long history in the black church you know the great cush and all that I mean all that's even in the black Christian tradition oh well we're just harkening back to our religious roots in Africa what I'm hesitant about Evelyn is using that as a kind of sufficient condition for identifying what is an expression of black religion right I know and and provide if I would concede it it would've been a performative contradiction but what what I'm thinking about here is that it doesn't quite get us to really being able to wrap our minds around what is a very messy religious landscape where there's all of this overlap and interpenetration right so poco mania in Jamaica is that black religion condom Blaine is it black religion if so what is why what political work is that doing and so part of what I want to do in the beginning of this of this writing that would become the book if it ever is written is is to kind of use this as a moment to do the kind of querying and work that Ernie is talking about and what you just kind of began so that was me petering out in the face of yes yes thank you great this ties into a conversation is actually having with Ernie the other day while we were watching the a political returns and it's somewhat a political question but excellent we were talking about Dubois and the question of you know why is this the narrative that we seem to be running with and the question I'm asking is that in with black academics in the study of religion is there a need to have to sell black religion as and black history is something a tragic narrative but with these you know self-determination elements in them so even with black theology you have this notion that we have been removed from our homeland but there is this subversive element within our tradition that you know allows us to keep striving for what is essentially fits into the American dream so there's a story there's an element of tragedy for me but there's also this element that you know they are nobly working towards the the goals that we have as a country and my question for you is do you think that there is there's that word progress there's enough progress for you you know not to have to sell that type of black religion in scholarship to people yeah I get hit with this question I get hit with the version of this question all the time last time I think I was and I was telling you right about I was in Alabama and I gave a version of this talk and and his cat just stood up and he had a PhD but he forgot that he had one and he said what the hell make you think we're ready is to be so attentive to complexity and nuance to many people catching hail right there's a you know these stories have are doing political work and what authorizes you or justifies your conclusion that we no longer need that kind of political work to be done is this a version of the question that you asked it's in a sense I just wanted to see if you thought that you know we're there is enough room for you to have the freedom to go go back and reassess those complexities I of that are so and part of it has to do with a political motivation to be honest with you and it's a political motivation that's that that proceeds from from this assumption right that is that the moment that we happen to be in requires a set of descriptions that are descriptions that are apt that account for the complexity and nuance of the moment precisely because that complexity and nuance continuously frustrates our political aims and ambitions you see the move so there are people who are articulating a politics predicated upon a narrative about black folk right and that narrative right doesn't quite it's always in some interesting sorts of ways in my view undermining the political ambitions that to which the appeal to the narratives that motivate the appeal to the narrative in the first place does that make sense and so part of it like for example there is this desire to understand after the African American the African American religious landscape you know and we it's a perennial preoccupation what is the role of the black church today if you want to know where black people are where black people are let's look to the black church right how black people are doing let's look to the black church is the black church still relevant let's answer that question I keep looking at your I'm sorry right but it's a perennial preoccupation right and that perennial preoccupation has something to do with the particular understanding of black life in which the black church is at the center in which this particular religious institution is at the center what if we begin to tell a different story about that institution and about black life as such right maybe that question is not suppressed as pressing as it as it once was we've had this discussion before right and and and and in addition in addition I do believe that these posts soul babies right those of us born in the aftermath of the civil rights in the Black Power movement right we have to wrap our minds around the implications of the successes and failures of that movement and what it is opened up and what it has constrained at the same time and part of that analysis will require an interesting source of ways in my view and attention to complexity and nuance precisely because our politics to go back to where I began continuously running up against a brick wall in the face of that complexity because we tried to mobilize communities with the presumption of black solidarity we're trying to mobilize churches with the presumption that they're necessarily prophetic we're trying to mobilize right communities with the presumption that they're necessarily have certain kinds of political interests that are singular and all the time we're finding out well why isn't it working right on the ground right and this is what makes Obama dangerous and delightful at the same time because all of this is at play in his campaign oh did he gotta have the Dean yes yes sir let me start with something very very simple which is about the level I operate on and that is I want to ask you just to say a little bit more about the issue of the political in relation to your comments about origins and beginnings now let me complexify explain that a little bit if you look at as I do at Islamic history and if you look at the interpretation of Islam by Jews and Christians in particular and by Western secularists across the 19th and most of the 20th century when you talk about origins it's been politically used in scholarship and this is you know would be parallel to a lot of sides perceptions but on a very different track it's been used a lot – in a way disqualify Islamic religiousness as anything original right because you and of course the Christians first did it with the Jews – beginning Paul starts it goes a long way back but but then the Jews and the Christians beginning in the 1820s or 30s at least start doing this with the interpretation of Islam Islam can be explained away because its origins are obviously in Judaism and Christianity and that's all part of this that that and referring to part of this original adji that has bedeviled the study of religion much more broadly I you could talk about the same thing in the Indian case you could write the same thing in Buddhism in Western study in modern academic study of these traditions this has been I think a scholarly political move to focus on origins and say we explain everything by going back to the origins right how do you see that now playing out in either the reappropriation of African origins for African American ism and which is I mean it understands what you are talking about but I wish you would maybe even think forward a little bit what are the political dangers and possibilities in that in the distinction you're trying to make between and now maybe I'm not understanding that distinction between an origin not really being enough but choosing which beginning your going to start with I mean I like that because I think what you're getting at is maybe the same kind of thing of not being dominated by by the origins I absolutely make any sense absolutely I mean part of what I want to do is to is to make explicit right the political stakes at the heart of these sorts of narratives that we tell right and and that is to say that these become that that that where we begin constitute right tremendous traW Denari sites of contestation right that the stakes are high right because we begin in this way as opposed to that for certain purposes in certain interests right and so it's to make explicit the very political work that certain stories that are naturalized are doing right I mean this is just rather old now right but the whole idea is to kind of is to kind of understand what theologizing alla jizz doing right in terms of reproducing meanings that interestingly enough coerce and discipline right and so part of what I want to do and particularly in the context of african-american religious studies right is to think about how thinking out loud about where we begin the story opens up space for different pathways for different kinds of accounts that in my own kind of president's preoccupation right may read au n– in in in in sorts of descriptions that open up different kinds of political possibilities in our current moment and I say that precisely because as a person I mean it could be the case that as a kind of person with philosophical leanings that I shouldn't give any attention to to history altogether I should just think about these problems in the abstract but I don't I don't I don't hold that view right I think stories matter stories matter because the stories single out right certain issues that tend to preoccupy us right and so the kinds of stories we tell ourselves right if we tell bad stories we oftentimes wind up being bad people but the kinds of stories we tell ourselves are matter in terms of the kinds of actions and choices we take or we make actions we take and the choices we make and so part of what I'm suggesting you answered it already in some significant way is to make explicit the political work and Sayid was notorious for this right in in in in his own way and and I think it's very clear that Sayid has some political interest at heart and what he was doing and and it's important to understand that when we read his book on Islam we need to understand what he's doing when we read Orientalism what culture and imperialism we need to understand that there's some stakes here and this avoids I think this helps us avoid the material just washing over us we can be a little bit more active in our engagement with this stuff as opposed to letting the stories in plot us as opposed to us and plotting the stories it's all too rare in the Academy that a scholar has the courage to invite an audience into a project in progress but invariably those are among the most stimulating moments in the university and we had one tonight thank you every time I ask a question and every time you raise your hand I'm just gonna run

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