The ‘African’ in African American Religion

The ‘African’ in African American Religion


Hi, I’m Ron Thiemann from
Harvard Divinity School. And it’s my pleasure
to welcome you to the second lecture in
the religion in society doctoral colloquium
on theorizing race and ethnicity in
religious studies and theology. We are delighted to welcome
as this evening’s lecturer professor Eddie Glaude. Professor Glaude is the
William S. Todd Professor of Religion and 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 Glaude’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– An Anthology. His most recent book,
In a Shade of Blue– Pragmatism and the
Politics of Black America, published in 2007, is an
important and critical engagement with the
philosophical thought of John Dewey, making the
case that pragmatism remains a live and viable
option for thinking about African-American
politics in the 21st century. Most fascinating
about this work is that it ends by advocating
for what Glaude 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.” Professor Eddie Glaude. [APPLAUSE] [INAUDIBLE] That was just the proof. [LAUGHTER] Thank you. It is indeed a pleasure to
be here with you this evening with so many friends, Professor
Gregory from my hometown, not really hometown, but
from my institution. To see the great Charles
Adams here is just amazing. It’s an honor to
be here with you. I want to thank Dr. Thiemann,
my dear brother Ron and brother Terence for making
this moment possible. I have a close friend from
Morehouse who is here, Professor Ron Sullivan
from Harvard Law School. We went to Morehouse together. We’re getting old together. Oh, yeah, right. All right, Ron. That’s such a long
conversation to have. And I see several of my former
students, Danielle from Amherst and Ernie from Princeton. And it’s a delight to be here. And hopefully I’ll
have something to say that’s of substance. Let me jump right into it. The title– I adjusted
the title a bit. Sister Marla and Sister
Evelyn, thank you for coming. [INAUDIBLE],, Dean,
everybody, I shouldn’t have– once you start listing, you
get in trouble, don’t you? It’s one of the
sins of this thing. Dean Graham, thank you. Let’s just jump into it. I changed the title of it. It’s “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 Du Bois’ reflections 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 only think about
the inherent ambiguity in the field’s 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 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
overdetermined by the adjective “black” or “African-American.” I hold this view
because the adjectives bear the unusual burden of an
enormously 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 our 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 them up anyway. But they frame how I
examine the vexed 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, at least for some of us, a
narrative insistence on the centrality of
Africa and its place in the beliefs,
choices, and actions of the continent’s descendants. Africa, and in some
instances its diaspora, stand then as a
principle of narrative and historical
uncertainty, the sight 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 take 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 Orsi, can I
mention his name here? Robert Orsi has it right,
being that naughty. [LAUGHTER] Robert Orsi 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,” end 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 recovery, 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 in their world views, 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 opposed to some other involves
a kind of poetic troping 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, quote, “unifying
experiences of African peoples dispersed by the
slave trade as well as efforts to locate
a single culture within singular historical
roots, a single culture with singular historical roots
as a basis for emboldening those persons to resist their
subjugation,” end quote. So what I just said was it is
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 particular place, that they’re– 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 reveal 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, not 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. Origin, 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
the 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? Edward Said writes
of beginnings. Can I quote Said here? [LAUGHTER] Sure. A beginning suggests either A, a
time; B, a place; C, an object; D, a principal; or E, an act. In short, detachment of the
sort that establishes distance between either time, place,
an object, principle, or an act on the
one hand, or what came before it on the other. Said goes on to write, my
beginning– my beginning specializes still more. But the moment I unconditionally
speak of the beginning, knowledge is theologized. Knowledge is theologized. Once made the focus of
attention, Said 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 cedes
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, Said says, both
Hegel and Vico, we can say– and I think this is
really important– that formally 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 theologized. Said is justifiably
skeptical of the processes by which historical
claims are mapped onto the very order of things,
an 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
thoroughgoing 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,
or 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, in 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 then 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 Tweed’s
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 and public, quiet and noisy, to
make sense of themselves and locate their place among
others in the wider society. Historical narratives,
then,” Tweed writes, “never are just history. There always is a great
deal at stake for narrators and readers, always much to gain
and lose in power and meaning,” end quote. For a subject people,
for a folk catching hell, this insight takes on
added significance. Can I say “for fold catching
hell” here at Harvard? I’ve been moving–
just as a quick ASIDE I’ve been moving between
different spaces. I’ve been kind of– I just did a radio
show in Mississippi, in McComb, Mississippi. And now I’m here at Harvard. It’s been a journey. [LAUGHTER] So I’m trying to keep
these worlds in place. Now, but Tweed’s insight takes
on added significance for folk who are oppressed,
who are catching hell. 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
Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. By a perversion,
the colonizers not content with just simply
colonizing the subject, but to go into the
history of the colonized and to wipe it clean. 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 theologized
history 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 contestation in this battle. In his 1998 book,
Afrotopia, Wilson Moses, extraordinary historian,
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 a
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 vindicationism, 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’ 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 and 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 it’s centralogy to a
conception of black identity forged in the struggle for
freedom in the new world. Now I think Du Bois is
at the heart of this. And so this section
is called “Du Bois, a Beginning of Sorts.” W.E.B. Du Bois’ 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
explication 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. Du Bois does not
take himself, as I said, to be
explicating the faith claims of a particular
religious denomination. Rather he sets out to examine
the social history of the, quote-unquote, “black church”
and its 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’ account. I don’t want to make the
genetic fallacy here, right, by trying to link all
of the current stuff to Du Bois’ failings. But I think Du Bois, in
interesting sorts 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 Du Bois foregrounds
the social function of black churches and
draws on the distinction between other worldly and
this worldly religion, between accommodation
and protest. Those of you who are studying
African-American religion, you know those categories. That binary just is an
obsession of those of us who study
African-American religion. So this distinction
between other worldly 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, Du Bois
refuses to ghettoize his account of African-American
religion, right? He understands it within
the larger context of American religious
history, right, prefiguring Sidney
Ahlstrom’s claim that the recovery of
African-American religion serves as a paradigm
for the recovery of American religious
history generally, right? Du Bois’ account of
African-American religion functions, I believe,
in the context of souls as a
synecdochic account, where to tell the story of
African-American religion is to tell, in part, the story
of American religion, right? Lastly, Du Bois 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
nod your head. What 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. Du Bois 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 a
definite social environment, the polygamous clan life under
the headship of the chief and the potent
influence of the priest. His religion was nature
worship with profound belief in invisible surrounding
influences, good and bad. And his worship was through
incantation and sacrifice,” end quote. Now drawing on the bad
anthropological descriptions of Africa that
circulated at the time, Du Bois 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 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 priest medicine
man and the preacher, right? And the preacher, of course,
is part of this tri– threefold characterization of
the black church, the preacher, the music, and
the frenzy, right? So I’m not interested
in vindicating– I’m not interested
in a lot today. I’m not interested in
vindicating Du Bois’ 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 h, against History, capital
H, a form of writing bound up with the struggle
against white supremacy. To highlight the trope of
Africa, of African beginnings, in the construction
of his story then, is to read Du Bois’
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 Raboteau whom I love
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,” end 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, end quote. The question of
distinctiveness was answered by many, not
necessarily Professor Raboteau, but by many with appeals to
African survivals, right? Slave religion was not
merely a replication of the master’s religion. Slaves were not
reduced to Sambos by the peculiar institution. Rather they had the resources to
forge a self 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 Herskovitsian model, right? Many people wanted
to just simply turn to Af– if you read Mechal
Sobel’s work, for example, a black Baptist, you see this
initial journey to Africa as a way of locating a
particular kind of [INAUDIBLE] and a particular
kind of world view as to how folk ought to
understand the uniqueness of black religiosity, right? Part of what we have to see– part of what we
see in this moment 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 master’s 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– is to turn to Africa. I point your attention to
this work not to belittle it or to call its scholarship
into question, far from it. I only want to highlight the
way Africa has been emplotted 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 these brief reflections
is really kind of my working through– and I talked with Ron
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? With knowledge of
the present, it forms our understanding
of the past, right? And so it’s a kind of
presentist 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 in excavating continuities, right? Those continuities are
doing certain kinds of political work. Because remember, I said
following Bob Orsi– there’s that name again– that all religious
history, right, is in some substantive way
political history, right? And all political history
is in some significant way religious history. That’s the Lord calling me. [LAUGHTER] Amen. [INAUDIBLE] [LAUGHTER] 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– I can give some examples. Stories of
declension, so central to American religious
history in general, take on a different form in
African-American religious historiography. You know, a fall from a glorious
African past, or the story of the prophetic black church
of the 19th century, which 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 like I’ve been
asking, what sort of work is Africa doing in
certain accounts of African-American religion? Or we can think about
this notion of recovery and redemption, which
aims to shed light on the darkness of the
continent to proclaim the gift, [INAUDIBLE] Hegel, of
its descendants to the world, right? More often than not, these
stories, these plotlines, are framed within a liberatory
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
so that we can talk. Indeed, beginning the story
of African-American religion with the question
of African origins orients 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,” end quote. Instead, the actual
doings and sufferings of African-descended
people constantly– peoples constantly reshape,
recast, and transform Africa and its diaspora. The stories I’ve alluded
to mattered and continue to matter. But we can’t, and must insist
on a different beginning. And here I’m trying to speak
to the theme of the colloquium. In part because
these older stories make it possible to begin anew. “Africa,” quote-unquote,
can now be approached without the justificatory
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 Eltis 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
complexity of the relationship of 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 Philip Morgan
has argued, they tend to overreach their
evidence and claim a cohesive and coherent African
identity for many slaves that, in his view, and I would agree,
downplay cultural creation, adjustment, and adaptation
that characterize 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-American
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 this story differently,
I’m quite confident to say, will return us to that mess
with which I began this talk. And like the artists
to whom Beckett refers, and like those scholars
who have come before us, we too must find a
form to accommodate it. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Do I sit down? No, you stay here. Here’s the ritual of the feast. Terence, could we have a
microphone for questioners? Or will we just– anyway, we have ample
time for– good. We have ample time
for questions. Was I supposed to go on longer? Why don’t I let you
recognize people. And– Thank you. –when I think we’re worn
out, I’ll bring it to an end. Sure. Microphone is here. Good, we can all go home. [INAUDIBLE] Oh. [SNAPS FINGERS]
How are you doing? How are you doing? I’m holding on. Is this working? Hello? Yes, sir. OK. Yeah, I came a little late. But I was wondering if you–
you talked about Du Bois and saying that our stories
should start in Africa. But I read some writings
by yourself and [INAUDIBLE] some years ago that talked
about the reconfigured Exodus saga and the 400-year
situation, after which there’s some divine dispensation. And I find that– I’m a Muslim myself, but
I grew up in the church. And I still attend church. And I find that, at the
African-American church, the Exodus saga is
continually brought up again as a kind of
African-American version of American exceptionalism. And I was wondering if
you could speak on that. Yes. Go right ahead. Yeah, absolutely. I do want to– I want to make the claim that– let me, just let me
back up a little bit. In reading Professor
Raboteau’s Slave Religion, there’s a wonderful chapter,
“Catechesis and Conversions.” Remember that chapter? And there’s this
interesting moment in that chapter, where
Al kind of reflects on this moment, this gap, right? And the gap has everything
to do with the gap between the intention
of that which is uttered alongside 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– or 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 widened by
the performative contradiction, right? There’s this example
of that Raboteau uses of the South Carolina
slaveholder 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 to baptism
because you want to be free, or something like that, right? So there is this
performative contradiction. And what Raboteau says is that,
if the slaveholder assumes that the slave who
converts to Christianity is not going to simply
or merely parrot the doctrine, that
they have to imbibe it, they have to absorb it. Then at that moment, they
can’t control it’s meaning. And for Raboteau, this movement
from instruction to conversion is the opening for the
sorts of creativity, right? The sorts of creation,
cultural adaptation that generates this outcome
called black Christianity. For Raboteau,
African-American Christianity is a refutation of the
idolatry of white Christianity. Does that make sense? OK, right? Right? And so for Raboteau– and then
how then might we chart this, call it cultural
creativity, right, this forging of a theology
that is unique and rooted in, not necessarily totally
distinct, but rooted in the particular
conditions of these folk who are caught under the
conditions of slavery, right? So for him– because
remember, this chapter comes on the heels
of his own attempt to try to find a middle way
between the Herskovits-Frazier debate. So it’s not just
simply about these folk just simply bringing tools. Baptism is not just simply
water rituals, right? Something else is
going on here, right? And so for him, Exodus, the
interpretation of Exodus, because that’s how he ends
Slave Religion, right, is 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 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’ account. Du Bois’ account is
really fascinating to me. And Curtis Evans has written
a wonderful piece on Du Bois and the study of religion. I think it came out
a couple of issues back in the “Journal of the
American Academy of Religion,” where he’s really trying to
figure out all of the insights and contradictions
that follow Du Bois’ account of
African-American religion. And part of what
I want to suggest is that Du Bois’ account frames
in these very interesting ways some of the questions that
we’re preoccupied with. And one move that he
makes early on, right– this essay was originally
published in 1900, comes out in 1903. But we see he actually
reflects on the black church early on in the late 1890
at a convention, where he talks about this
institution having to change in the face
of the differentiation of the black community. But Du Bois 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. That might be right. I’m not sure. 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 is the question I want to ask, right? Another example
of Du Bois shaping the study of
African-American religion is not only the other worldly,
this worldly distinction. There’s a moment in “Of
the Faith of Our Fathers” where Du Bois sees–
he says at the end– and I talked about this
last time I was here. He says that he sees the black
church differentiating, moving into these churches that
aren’t distinguishable from broad white
churches, or churches that become big businesses. Hmm. [LAUGHTER] Right? I mean, he actually notes
at the end of that chapter, a complex religious landscape. But at the very
moment in which he notes something that might
look like prosperity gospel, he represses it. He moves it out of the way as
not being authentically Afri– an authentic expression of
African-American religion. Perhaps that’s what he’s saying. I’m not sure. 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 folk are 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 a– somebody should put on a cover two
people back-to-back, Reverend Ike and Martin Luther
King, and then write underneath, “who won?” Right? And we can go from Reverend
Ike to Prophet Jones. So we can begin
to tell a thicker story about African-American
religiosity. And I think part of what happens
is that Du Bois’ account frames so much of what we do. And part of what I’m
trying to do, because he– it’s Oedipal or something. I’m just trying to figure out
my relationship to this cat. It’s maybe I have a– it’s [INAUDIBLE]. Yes? Then we’ve got to come– OK, I had a question
about the thickness also. If you could comment on this
aspect of the thickness. I thought it was a
fabulous talk by the way. Thank you. I thought what was thin for
me was it sort of flattened the internal contestations that
African-Americans were having about Africanness,
which I think occurs around the time of the
American Colonization Society, for example, early 1800s, where
they were seeing Africanness as a trap that might justify
white Americans as seeing them as somehow foreign, and
justifying extricating them, free blacks, and moving them
somewhere else so that they can better control enslave blacks. And this has come up again
topically with Barack Obama’s church, right? So it’s an Africentric Church. And on the website it says,
“we are an African people.” And some people are questioning
whether or not that indicates– What does that mean? –that Barack is, or
that church is somehow anti-American and unpatriotic. Right. Right. That’s a great question on
so many different levels. Part of what– the first move
I want to make is to make a distinction between
the writing of history, the sorts of preoccupations
that organize, the very ways in which
we emplot the details, and then the actual– 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 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
actually done exactly the work that you’re suggesting,
particularly around debates around “colored” and
African Methodist Episcopal, using African as a way to
describe the AME Church. We ought to call
ourselves “colored.” How does that moment
at a particular point in the early 19th century
signal a certain kind of political consciousness,
vis-a-vis the identification with Africa, how that
then is played out within a range of debates
around emigration with an E. I’m from Mississippi. I can’t make the distinction,
right, right, so these sorts of things, right. 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,
there’s a certain way in which when we begin to talk
about, well how do we account for beyond
the particulars, their religious
orientation, right? A lot of folk have
kind of made their– and I’m thinking here of people
like Gayraud Wilmore, people like Michael Sobel– Mechal Sobel and some others. We begin to see this
turn to that direction. 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 levels as well. So, yeah? [? Sister ?] [INAUDIBLE] Can I concede that claim? I think I can, yeah. Yes. Thank you. Thank you. That was wonderful. And I have some
thoughts on this idea of historicizing
the history of this, because it’s interesting
that the questions that we ask of the past are always
the questions of our own time. And so when Al
Raboteau was writing, he is very much addressing
the Herskovits issue. In fact, remember when
he first starts it off. He even identifies all the
myths of his negro past. But I think we’re really
in a very new moment now. And this new moment
is best represented by my colleague Lorand Matory. 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– and he’s an anthropologist– is that we have, for
so long, understood Africa as this kind
of stable tradition. And so we are looking
back for our roots. But that those roots– and he’ll play with it, with
R-O-O-T-S and R-O-U-T-E-S. And what happens is that, not
only is the American scene constantly changing and
differentiated– you know, you’ve got Candomble. And you’ve got Obeah. And you’ve got–
well you just got all these things going 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– Absolutely. –that Africa is getting
these new voices, these new American ideas
of people who are literally in the New World, in the 18th,
19th, and 20th century, who 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 most recent, and I think one of
the ablest discussants in this longstanding
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 I. I mean, there are more
Africans moving to the Americas and to outside of
Africa 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 looking now
with just brand new questions. And I think the way we will look
at African-American religious history will never draw on–
well, I shouldn’t say never. But 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 that’s right. And that was a very
gentle way of saying. I think that was– I think that’s right. What I’m trying to
suggest is not so– I don’t want to rehash
old debates in the sense that I don’t want to say
that Herskovits’ legacy still looms large. No, I think what I’m trying
to say is that I’m vindicating your argument . Oh, OK, because I was thinking,
wow, it’s already dead. And I was– And that your argument– no,
no, no, I liked your argument, because what your argument is
saying to us is that there is a politics of history and that
there is a history that is understood by– you were saying it to the
questions back there– the circumstances and
the issues of this time. Right. And what I’m so– as I heard that genealogy, what
I’m saying is that there’s– It’s raised. –there’s a new one. Right. I think that’s absolutely right. When you think about
what Liz McAlister has done with her work, thinking
about religioscapes, and particularly Haitian
migrants to New York City– It’s amazing. –and how we look at just
simply migratory patterns. 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 in this regard. It’s just beginning. It’s 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 like we don’t
know, 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, 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 you just think about
all those masters theses written at Chicago, right? And then you think about Benny
Mays and Nicholson, right? And then you think about
E. Franklin Frazier. And then we look at all
the footnotes in the ’70s. And we see them all citing
all of those Chicago theses. 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 the moment
we’re in– and I think, Evelyn, you’ve hit it right on. And Randy’s work it’s
so good in this regard. It’s part of what we’re– we’re in a moment where– and I get in trouble saying
this at other places– where many of the
categories that were fought, that people
fought to be able to use are now being subject
to critical scrutiny. Does that make sense? Absolutely. So, for example, you can think
about an Africana philosophy, right? When you think about the
group of African-American philosophers whose principal
preoccupation was to think about race and freedom. I’m repressing the guy
who writes on Alain Locke. Jeffrey Stewart? No, just repressing my name. He’s at Purdue. Leonard– Harris. –Leonard Harris. Thank you. Philosophy Born of
Struggle, right? So there was a big conference. I had to pull it up. I had to download it,
Philosophy Born of Struggle. It was a big
conference, you know? And that’s all they used to
do, Angela Davis, Cornel, Bill Lawson, Howard
McGary, Leonard Harris. All these cats, they
know each other. They give each other pounds. They drink cognac together. Because they used
to get together, and they 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 going to say
this and get in trouble, because Al and a host of
the folks– and you too– not that you were in Al’s
generation, but– cause you’re not. Yes, I am. No, you’re not. No, you’re not. That voice emerges. And Al’s 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 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 that’s all we’ve
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 literatures that have been produced within
the frame of black liberation theology, certain
sorts of questions preoccupy them, questions
that don’t end up in the lap of Randy
Matory, but actually end up in someone else’s lap. But that’s a long-winded answer. Thank you. At first I thought you
were giving me this like, oh, this is old hat. I thought you were giving– [LAUGHTER] It was all [? gentle. ?] Yes? Hi, I wonder if you
could say a little bit or 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 are
potentially very large. The obsession with origin
has been pointed out to be endemic to the
study of religion itself. Tomoko Masuzawa’s book,
Origins of the Dream Time, where 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 unless it comes on the back
of a Protestant enlightenment telos of a certain kind that
begins with origin and moves toward progress, end point. And so it seems to me 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 Du Bois’ feet. It’s endemic to a much larger– I mean, is Al Raboteau also
at the same level that he is influenced by
African-American history, also by the way in
which religion itself– Oh, absolutely, they
all try to [INAUDIBLE].. –has been historically studied. So could you
reflect a little bit on what you see the potential
being for the broader study of religion and
the history of religion? Sure. Part of where I– I go back to where I began. I began with the kind– by noting or marking the
incredibly difficult task 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 subtle,
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 Du Bois– locating it at the
feet of Du Bois 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, well, we can begin elsewhere. And because the point that
I was making following Said is that the problem of beginning
is the beginning 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. That is to say that they
are competing narratives that we tell ourselves
about what we are doing. Whether we are 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 of the work is to say that this becomes
a site of intellectual work. That is to say what
does it mean, right? It’s not so much
to say that origins are really beginnings, right? I’m actually more interested in
it in the subsequent question. That is to say, what
motivates beginning here as opposed to there? And the moment we
ask that question, we begin to get to
something, I think, a little bit more central
about the various ways or 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 make sense? And so that’s exactly
what I’m suggesting. And it has everything to do
with my pragmatist commitments, right? It has everything to
do with– it’s not reducible to those commitments,
but it has everything to do with my own obsession. My own obsession is how
do account for this moment right here, right now, where I’m
engaged in this particular kind of work? Why am I so friggin obsessed
with these sorts of questions as opposed to this question? How can I begin
to situate myself within a field that for, 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,
I’m telling a story about the field as such,
right, about the field as such, and hopefully opening
up new pathways for reflection at the same time. Yes, I want to thank you for
your amazingly stimulating 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 there. Could it be that
there was a time in the history of
black churches, when all forms of religious
expression where present, were tolerated, were understood. And that ranged from those
who sit silent in worship. And there will always
be the chosen frozen. [LAUGHTER] The chosen frozen. And so you’re going to
always have silent people. Not all black people are going
to be as expressive as others. 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, where you had variation. In our history,
there was a time when the shouters and the thinkers
were able to worship together. And the shouters not prevent
the thinkers from thinking, and the thinkers not prevent
the shouters from shouting. And they all were able
to get along together. But then 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
floor and dancing, and rolling, or whatever they were doing,
because you were a middle class church now. You were acceptable
church, and so you had to separate those people out. And I notice my church is
split right down the middle. Those who are more expressive
sit to the left of the pulpit. Those that are quieter
sit over there. And there is less
toleration for variation than there used to be. And I think that
happens when churches reach a certain sociological– I just want you to
comment on that. Well there’s certainly
a story that we can tell about the
routinization of charisma. 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 Methodists and white Baptists 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 mainstreamed,
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 one space 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 then impacts the worship. And so we get certain
kinds of distinctions between high church and
other forms of worship– frozen– the church– the
frozen chosen, as it were. But I don’t know if
they’re quite accounts for 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 sects and cults. And so Pentecostalism is
often, in the literature, initially accounted for
as a foreign, as other, as a site where
folks have gone off and embraced something
wholly strange. And that initial entree
into the histor– into the scholarly
literature had an impact, I think, on the
ways in which we’ve studied Pentecostalism
up to the– we’re just now beginning
to get some work. I’m repressing her name. She’s at Rochester. Her recent book– Anthea? Anthea Butler, there you go. I’m repressing a lot. Anthea’s recent book
on Pentecostalism is wonderful in this regard. And you, one of your
students wrote a wonderful– I thought she was writing
a dissertation, I recall, on Pentecostalism. I can’t– [INAUDIBLE] Yeah, [INAUDIBLE], right. So we’re just now beginning
to get sophisticated work around this in this regard. So I want to resist– again, I want to resist the
narrative that once [? win ?] and now [? blop, ?] right? I want to resist
that because part of what I think we have
to wrap our minds around is that we’re complicated
folk, complicated folk on so many different levels, oh,
so many different levels. I can’t threaten
to fail you now. [LAUGHTER] You’re all right. I can though. [LAUGHTER] He can. Loved the lecture. Loved the lecture. Yeah, I remember he
had to write– he wrote his senior thesis with me. I’m so proud. Yeah, go ahead. Yeah, the question is
not about black paganism. Oh, good, good, good. Nor is it about
internationalism, although I’ll 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-American,
the whole term, in African-American religion? So we can jettison the
originary piece of Africa. But as we sort of turn to the
messiness and the hybridity within America and within,
perhaps, the diaspora, is there room for
talking about something that is bigger than just about
what’s about black people? That’s a naughty question. Yeah, it is a naughty question. But I think you’re right. 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 book with, or that which will
become a book, or that which will
become the writing that will become the book. [LAUGHTER] When did you say you
were coming [INAUDIBLE]?? Awhile back, yes. I mean, it becomes– I mean, we don’t walk around
talking about black Buddhists, black Buddhism– We don’t. –or black Hinduism. I mean, so part of
what I want to do is to think about what
is this [INAUDIBLE]?? I began with those
broad questions, right? What does it mean to think about
these words together, religion and African-American? How might the adjective
black or African-American overdetermine the noun? Is it just simply
signaling a particular political, or political
and historical reality? Are we talking about
something uniquely different? And it’s a question that we
have to wrap our minds around. What, in fact, does the label,
might the label single out? Now, when it comes to
African-American Christianity, it becomes a very, for me,
it’s 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 so are we talking
about a particular history of religious practice? And well, how does that
history then lead us to say– because usually when we
talk about a black Hinduist or a black Buddhist, we’re
just talking about a Buddhist who happens to be black. But what we talk about an
African-American Christian, that phrase carries a little
bit more weight to it. And we have to think
about why that’s the case. 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 inquiry, has to be subject to
serious reflection. And part of it has to
do with, as the kind of person that I am, is
thinking about 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 messiness of the
landscape that we encounter? Do they block the way
to further clarity, or do they open up the
way in certain instances? My intuitions right now rest
here, 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, its development. Yes? [INAUDIBLE] I
believe it gets you back to Africa, because the
black Muslims, [LAUGHTER] the black Jews, the
black Christians. Oh, that’s how–
that’s– oh, I see. That’s really [INAUDIBLE]. There all back there in Africa. That’s how the trope
kind of re-enters, but in a different way. OK, I see what you’re saying. Black Buddhists, I mean,
you know, that’s in Asia. I mean, all the rest of them– I mean, no, you got the
black Jews as far back as, you know the Queen
of Sheba in Ethiopia. And you got the black
Muslims, because in the ancient African days,
you had Islamic cultures. In the 16th century in The
Congo, you had Catholicism. I mean, those– Wait, would you call
black Catholicism? No, I think they called it– I’m not sure what the
King of Congo called it. But it was clearly Catholicism. And they sent
people to Portugal. And they mixed those images,
the cross, that ivory– how does it go? That the cross– Right, right, I know exactly
what you’re talking about. It’s actually a symbol in Congo. OK, so, but anyway, but
there is the reality. It’s your argument. It’s a reality that’s there. Black people haven’t taken– all those black
forms of religion are still have a root
somewhere in Africa. [LAUGHTER] That’s one way of doing it. One could say– one could
reintroduce the trope of Africa in a different way. That is to say that
there are these kind of– well, no, that wouldn’t work. But there– And could I say one more thing? I’m sorry to be so– No, go ahead. I just love talking to you. But you know, we have this long
history in the black church, the great Kush and all that. I mean, and all that’s even in
the black Christian tradition, where we’re just hearkening
back to our religious roots in Africa. But what I’m hesitant
about, Evelyn, is using that as a kind
of a sufficient condition for identifying what is an
expression of black religion. [INAUDIBLE] I know. And if I were conceded,
it would have been a performative contradiction. But 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 is all of this overlap
and interpenetration. So Pocomania in Jamaica,
is that black religion? Candomble, is it black religion? If so, why? What political
work is that doing? And so part of what I want
to do in the beginning of this writing that would
become the book if it ever is written, 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 petering
out in the face of that. Yes? Yes? Thank you. That was great. This ties into a
conversation I was actually having with Ernie the
other day while we were watching the political returns. And it’s somewhat of
a political question. OK, excellent. We were talking about
Du Bois and the question of 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 as
something, a tragic narrative, but with these
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 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 they are nobly working towards 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 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 a version of
this question all the time. Last time I think I was in– I was telling you,
Ron, about it. I was in Alabama, and I
gave a version of this talk. And this cat just stood up. And he had a PhD, but he
forgot that he had one. And he said, what
the hell would make you think we’re ready to be
so attentive to complexity and nuance? Too many people catching hell. These stories 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’re asking? It’s in a sense, I
just wanted to see if you thought that there is
enough room for you to have the freedom to go
back and reassess those complexities of religion
that are without a doubt there. I think so. And part of it has to do
with a political motivation, to be honest with you. And it’s a political
motivation that proceeds from this assumption. 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. And that narrative
doesn’t quite– it’s always in some interesting
sorts of ways, in my view, undermining the
political ambitions to which appeal
to the narratives, that motivate the appeal to the
narrative in the first place. Does that makes sense? And so part of it,
for example, there is this desire to understand
the African-American religious landscape. And it’s a perennial
preoccupation. What is the role of
the black church today? If you want to know
where black people are, let’s look to the black church. How black people are doing? Let’s look at the black church. Is the black church
still relevant? Let’s answer that question. I keep looking at you. I’m sorry. 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 that the center. What if we begin to
tell a different story about that institution and
about black life as such? Maybe that question is not
as pressing as it once was. We’ve had this
discussion before, right? And in addition,
in addition, I do believe that these post-soul
babies, those of us born in the aftermath
of the civil rights and the black power
movement, we have to wrap our minds around the
implications of the successes and failures of that movement,
and what it has opened up, and what it has constrained
at the same time. And part of that
analysis will require, in interesting sorts of ways,
in my view, an attention to complexity and nuance,
precisely because our politics go back to where I
began, are continuously running up against a brick wall
in the face of that complexity. Because we’ve 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 our communities with the presumption
that they necessarily have certain kinds of political
interests that are singular. And all the time,
we’re finding out why isn’t it working
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, the Dean, gotta
have the Dean. [INAUDIBLE] 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 that
or 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, this would be parallel to a lot
of Said’s perceptions, but on a very different track. It’s been used a
lot to, in a way, disqualify Islamic religiousness
as anything original. Because you– and of
course, the Christians first did it with the Jews to begin. I mean, Paul starts is. I mean, this goes
a long way back. 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 Anne referred to, part of this
originology that has bedeviled the study of
religion much more broadly. You could talk about the same
thing in the Indian case. You could talk about 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. How do you see that
now playing out in either the reappropriation
of African origins for African-Americanism,
and which is, I mean, I understand it’s what
you’re talking about. But I wish you would maybe even
think forward a little bit. What are the political
dangers and possibilities in the distinction you’re
trying to make between– and maybe I’m not understanding
that distinction– between an origin not
really being enough, but choosing which beginning
you’re 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 the origins. Does that make any sense? Absolutely. I mean, part of
what I want to do is to make explicit
the political stakes at the heart of these sorts
of narratives that we tell. And that is to say
that these become– that where we begin
constitute tremen– extraordinary sites
of contestation, that the stakes are high
because we begin in this way as opposed to that for certain
purposes and certain interests. And so it’s to make explicit
the very political work that certain stories that
are naturalized are doing. I mean, this is rather old now. But the whole idea is
to kind of understand what theologized
knowledge is doing in terms of reproducing meanings
that, interestingly enough, coerce and discipline. And so part of what I want
to do, and particularly in the context of
African-American religious studies, 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, may redound 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 history altogether. I should just think about
these problems in the abstract. But I don’t hold that view. I think stories matter. Stories matter because
the stories single out certain issues that
tend to preoccupy us. And so the kinds of
stories we tell ourselves– if we tell bad
stories, we oftentimes wind up being bad people. But the kinds of stories
we tell ourselves 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 Said was notorious
for this in his own way. And I think it’s
very clear that Said had some political interest
at heart in what he was doing. 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
or cultural 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 emplot us, as opposed to us emplotting 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 to Eddie Glaude. [APPLAUSE] Every time And asks a question– Oh, yeah. Anne, every time
you raise your hand, I’m just going to run from you.

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