Posts Tagged ‘African-Americans’

Michael Brown Wins Raboteau Prize

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

The Journal of Africana Religions has announced that Michael Brown’s African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry (Cambridge University Press, 2012) has been selected to receive the 2013 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions.

This award is given each year to an academic book that exemplifies the ethos and mission of the Journal of Africana Religions, an interdisciplinary journal that publishes scholarship on African and African diasporic religious traditions. Albert J. Raboteau, for whom the prize is named, is author of the classic Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South, a book that has made a lasting impact in the field of Africana religions. To become eligible for the award, books must be nominated by an academic publisher, and a prestigious five-member committee is responsible for assessing these nominations and determining a winner. The selection, thus, is international in scope and highly competitive.

Brown’s book examines perceptions of the natural world revealed by the religious ideas and practices of Africa’s Kongo region and among African-descended communities in South Carolina from the colonial period into the twentieth century. Brown is an Associate Professor in the History department and the Africana Studies department at the University of Southern Illinois, Carbondale. African-Atlantic Cultures is his first book.

The Journal’s founding co-editors, Edward E. Curtis IV and Sylvester A. Johnson, were quite positive about the book prize. “We are very excited to learn of the committee’s decision. They described Brown’s book as a model of erudition,” said Curtis and Johnson. “Most religious studies scholarship still devotes too little attention to Africana religions. So, we think it is especially important to recognize outstanding work in this field.” Curtis teaches at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts, Indianapolis (IUPUI); Johnson is at Northwestern University.

Reflecting on Professor Raboteau’s work, in whose honor the prize was named, they both emphasized that a range of pioneering scholars aspired more than a half-century ago to produce scholarship and train professional researchers in the intellectual study of religion among African and African-descended peoples. “Professor Brown’s book certainly advances this aim,” they agreed. Of added significance for Professor Brown is the fact that the 2013 award, which recognizes a book published in 2012, is the inaugural book prize. “Professor Brown should take special note of the committee’s assessment that his scholarship is an especially keen contribution to this larger enterprise of studying Africana religions.”

The journal receives support from the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts-Indianapolis and Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. It is housed at Northwestern University’s Department of African American Studies.

Beyond the Black Church, Or, African American Religious Studies: The Next Generation

Monday, July 16th, 2012

by Matthew Cressler

(CC BY-SA) Elvert Barnes
I study, among other subjects, black Catholics. When I tell people I study black Catholics, I am often met with blank stares. If black Catholics occupy any space in the American religious imagination, they conjure images of Catholic Masses with Gospel choirs and the politics of parishes like St. Sabina’s on the South Side of Chicago.  Black Catholics sometimes baffle because they pose a problem for scholars and laypeople alike.  African American religious studies, until relatively recently, may be one of the few instances in which popular imagination and scholarly interpretation align quite neatly.  When African Americans and religion are invoked a specific image usually comes to mind, and black Catholics don’t quite fit.
Lucky for me, while working on this dissertation about black Catholics in Chicago, a number of books have interrupted popular and scholarly assumptions.  What I have realized over the past few years, with equal parts gratitude and relief, is that we have not simply witnessed a number of great books.  Rather, we stand in the midst of a new generation of African American religious studies. African American Religious Studies: The Next Generation, as I’m thinking of them, challenge at least three persistent theses about African American religion.1

The first thesis presumes black people are naturally religious or, if not naturally religious, at least more religious than other Americans. The second thesis assumes black people are not just more religious, but more religious in very particular ways. Black religiosity is presumed to be stylistically emotional and politically liberationist. The third thesis, which speaks more to the internal discourse of black religious communities than to their external study, challenges the “blackness” of those not conforming to the standards of the first two. If a black person or black community is not religious in a particular way, they remain racially suspect.2

But the Next Generation has come to challenge these popular assumptions that black people are naturally religious, that there is one way to be black and religious, and that those black religious outliers are somehow suspect. The real flurry of publications began in 2008.3 Two works in that same year took on the two presumptive pillars of African American religion: the notion of an essential “black religion” and the myth of “the Black Church.”4

Curtis Evans’s The Burden of Black Religion traces the intellectual construction of “black religion” and how this essentialism was weighed down by “the burden of a multiplicity of interpreters’ demands,” whether imagined as “amorphous spirituality, primitive religion, emotionalism, or…‘the Negro Church.’”5 In the end, Evans hopes to free scholars of the burden of black religion’s essence, so that they might be attentive to the actual lives of religious black people—lives that vary quite dramatically in terms of theology, worship, and politics.6

Barbara Dianne Savage’s Your Spirits Walk Beside Us interrogates the narrative of “the Black Church” as necessarily involved in black liberation. She incisively identifies the ways iconic civil rights movement images definitively shaped how black religion and politics were imagined ever since. By unearthing the many debates within the black community about the potential political potency of African American churches, Savage reveals how many scholars “misread the successes of that [civil rights movement] period and applied them retrospectively over the entire span of African American political history, seeing the past through the haze of a post-civil rights consciousness.”7 She successfully demonstrates there is nothing necessarily liberationist about the Black Church and, in fact, “the Black Church” itself is a normative notion which tells us more about internal debates over the politics of black religion than it does about black religion in se.

The Next Generation continues to redefine the field of African American religious studies and reshape the ways we think about African American religions and American religion more broadly.8 The New Black Gods: Arthur Fauset and the Study of African American Religions, edited by Edward Curtis IV and Danielle Brune Sigler, collects the work of eleven other representatives of this new era in an attempt to reinvigorate Fauset’s attempt to study African American religions beyond the Christian conception of the Black Church.

Essays by Sylvester Johnson and Kathryn Lofton offer just two brief examples of this rich contribution. Johnson argues that the search for “religion proper” (the essence of religion) cannot be understood apart from the colonialist construction of “proper religion” (the legitimization of particular ways of being religious and the marginalization of others). Thus, for Johnson, the study of “other” African American religions like the Moorish Science Temple of America not only moves African American religious studies beyond the Black Church but also serves as a postcolonial critique of the normative implications of Black Church history.9

Lofton also brings critical theory to bear on African American religious history, pointing out the ways black religion has been categorized as the primitive foil to the contemplative, cosmopolitan, modern religious subject. Lofton notes that scholars reinforce this primitivist reading in their reproductions of an abstract emotional Black Church, assuming they already intuitively know what African American religion looks and sounds like: “the African American believer remains the body in motion, the voice in song, with eyes affixed, unblinking, to God.”10

Though it has apparently become popular to declare the Black Church “dead,” or to note that it never existed, this is not what makes The Next Generation truly revolutionary.11 It is not enough to simply add in new characters, jettisoning the Black Church for a diversity of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. No, their work is revolutionary because it has transformed what we mean by “religion” when we describe African American religions and narrate African American religious history. It is not that “the Black Church is dead,” per se, but rather we’ve moved beyond it altogether.

Matthew J. Cressler is a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Northwestern University. He holds a B.A. from St. Bonaventure University and a M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School. He is currently working on his dissertation, “To Be Black and Catholic: African American Catholics in Chicago from the Great Migrations to Black Power,” which won the American Catholic Historical Association’s 2011 John Tracy Ellis Dissertation Award.



[1] Yes, challenging the singularity of African American religion is one of them.

[2] This is, of course, an incredibly truncated summary of the long and rich tradition of African American religious studies. I have selected these three theses not because they are representative of all works on African American religions, but rather because they are the primary theses this Next Generation attempts to tackle.

[3] There were, of course, scholars who preceded this new generation. Theologian Anthony Pinn’s Varieties of African American Religious Experience is just one example, which clearly stated “African American religious experience extends beyond the formation and practice of black Christianity.” Anthony B. Pinn, Varieties of African American Religious Experience (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1998): 1.

[4] Barbara Dianne Savage has recently published an excerpt of her work under the title “The Myth of the Black Church,” on the online journal Religion & Politics.

[5] Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 5.

[6] Ibid., 279-280.

[7] Barbara Dianne Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008): 2.

[8] Sadly, I don’t have the space to discuss every book in the ever-growing corpus of The Next Generation, which would also include, among many others, Marla F. Frederick, Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith (California, 2003); Wallace D. Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 (Princeton, 2005); Jonathan L. Walton, Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (NYU, 2009); Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories (Harvard , 2010).

[9] Sylvester A. Johnson, “Religion Proper and Proper Religion: Arthur Fauset and the Study of African American Religions” in The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions, ed. Edward E. Curtis IV and Danielle Brune Sigler (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009): 145-170.

[10] Kathryn Lofton, “The Perpetual Primitive in African American Religious History” in The New Black Gods: Arthur Huff Fauset and the Study of African American Religions, ed. Edward E. Curtis IV and Danielle Brune Sigler (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009): 171.

[11] The “Black Church is dead” debate, sparked by Eddie Glaude in 2010, is obviously intertwined with this Next Generation. However, to a certain extent, this debate is an altogether different beast with normative implications that sometimes overlap and other times diverge from the topic at hand. For more see: “The Black Church is Dead” and “Call and Response on the State of the Black Church”.

A Forgotten Legacy

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

Lott Carey (1780-1829)

by Eric Michael Washington

Just recently, an editorial assistant at Christianity Today sent me some stories asking for my assessment regarding their “newsworthiness.” I love it when historians get asked to comment on contemporary issues. One of the stories appeared in the October 6, 2010 edition of The article, “Black Christians Largely Absent from U. S. Missionary Force,” focused on the lack of African-Americans in world missions.

This particular issue “lives on my street.” As a historian, my focus is on the history of African-American Baptist missions in Africa during the 19th century and early 20th century. When I embarked upon this study as a doctoral student in the early 2000s I realized that there was an alarming lack of attention on world missions in my home church and in my national convention, the National Baptist Convention USA. The article on affirmed my observations. In stark terms the article states: “According to the 2007 African American Missions Mobilization Manifesto by Columbia International University, blacks make up less than one percent of the total number (118,600) of U. S. missionaries.”

The contemporary lack of attention fails to correspond with a historical lack of attention. As I read general histories of African-American Baptists I found that there had been African-American Baptist missionaries in Liberia, Nigeria, the Congo, and southern Africa during the 19th century and early 20th century. With my concentration fixed on African-American Baptist work in southern Africa, I became familiar with the stories of men and women such as R. A. Jackson, Emma Delaney, and James East. One residual effect of my work, hopefully, will be to spark some sort of revival among African-Americans regarding sending missionaries overseas, especially to Africa.

Just recently I presented a paper at Calvin College, my home institution, on the pioneering Baptist missionary to Africa, Lott Carey. Born into slavery in Virginia around 1780, Carey became a Christian, an ordained minister at First Baptist Church in Richmond, and in 1821 a missionary and colonist representing the Baptist General Convention and the American Colonization Society, respectively.

In the paper, I began by showing how Carey’s influence still rested upon African-American Baptists one hundred years after he began his work in West Africa, Liberia particularly. In the summer of 1920, the monthly organ of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention, the Mission Herald, announced that the third Sunday of January 1921 would be the observance of Lott Carey’s sailing to Africa. From this, it is clear that Lott Carey’s legacy was alive and well. This fails to be the case today.

One can point to a plethora of reasons why African-American churches, in general, and the National Baptist Convention, USA (NBC-USA) in particular has lost a zeal regarding missions to Africa. To be just, the NBC-USA still maintains presence in Liberia and parts of southern Africa;”>With that stated, African-Americans in the 19th century and early 20th century were comparably worse off economically and educationally than in the last 25 years. This is something that is assumed and rightly so. Is there a legitimate excuse for the lack of money that flows to the Foreign Mission Board of the NBC-USA? According to the aforementioned article, the NBC-USA reported that the average church member gives 40 cent to foreign missions work as of 1993. This is simply a neglect on the part of local churches, district associations, and state conventions all of which can funnel monies to the Foreign Mission Board.

Though Lott Carey and his family left for Africa in January 1821, he helped to organize a missionary society in 1815, the Richmond African Baptist Missionary Society. By this time, Carey had purchased his freedom by saving his money earned by being “hired out” to work in tobacco warehouse in Richmond. Other members of the Richmond Society were slaves, who offered their “mites” for the hope of sending a missionary to Africa.

This group was concerned that American Baptists overlooked Africa as a potential mission field; their attention was on India and the Far East. A fledgling missionary society composed of primarily poor African-Americans endeavored to send the gospel to their “homeland” even though these Africans were born in America. For such a purpose, the society gave $700 to Carey and his party as the left for Africa. This was no mean accomplishment.

What made the difference then compared to now? Judging from my research, African-Americans both slave and free had a strong belief that the same God that allowed their suffering under the lash of slavery would fulfill his word in Psalm 68:31, “Princes shall come out of Egypt;”>This was evident in Absalom Jones’ famous sermon preached in January 1, 1808. The day and year marked the United States’ termination of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and caused celebration among African-Americans, especially Christians. Jones, an Episcopalian minister who had been part of the group of African-American worshipers that left St. George’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1791 after receiving prejudicial treatment, wrestled with the providential meanings of African slavery and the abolition of the Atlantic Trade. From his Philadelphia pulpit in St. Thomas’ Church, Jones asserted with a hint of caution:

It has always been a mystery, why the impartial Father of the human race should have permitted the transportation of so many millions of our fellow creatures to this country, to endure all the miseries of slavery. Perhaps his design was that a knowledge of the gospel might be acquired by some of their descendants, in order that they might become qualified to be the messengers of it, to the land of their fathers.

These slaves and free African-Americans had a vision of hope that lay beyond freedom for freedom’s sake. They envisioned their freedom in order to engage in Christian service. Carey exemplified this sentiment when he responded to a person who asked him why he desired to become a missionary in Africa. He said, “I am an African, and in this country, however meritorious my conduct, and respectable my character, I cannot receive the credit due to either. I wish to go to a country where I shall be estimated by my merits, and not by my complexion; and I feel bound to labor for my suffering race.” This sentiment seems to be largely missing among African-American Baptists, this connection between themselves and Africa and Africans, alike.

This is an academic problem as well as a church problem. One large question that looms for me is: is there still a type of grassroots Pan-African spirit among African-Americans in general, but among African-American Christians?

A sense of historical and cultural connectedness with Africa and all persons of African descent was key motivating factor that led to African-American missions in Africa. Is there a connection with the seemingly lack of such spirit now and the lack of African-American missionary presence worldwide but also in Africa? These are questions worth exploring.