Scholars have written a lot about the difficulties in the study of religion generally. Those difficulties become even messier when we use the words black or African American to describe religion. The adjectives bear the burden of a difficult history that colors the way religion is practiced and understood in the United States. They register the horror of slavery and the terror of Jim Crow as well as the richly textured experiences of a captured people, for whom sorrow stands alongside joy. It is in this context, one characterized by the ever-present need to account for one’s presence in the world in the face of the dehumanizing practice of white supremacy, that African American religion takes on such significance.
To be clear, African American religious life is not reducible to those wounds. That life contains within it avenues for solace and comfort in God, answers to questions about who we take ourselves to be and about our relation to the mysteries of the universe; moreover, meaning is found, for some, in submission to God, in obedience to creed and dogma, and in ritual practice. Here evil is accounted for. And hope, at least for some, assured. In short, African American religious life is as rich and as complicated as the religious life of other groups in the United States, but African American religion emerges in the encounter between faith, in all of its complexity, and white supremacy.
I take it that if the phrase African American religion is to have any descriptive usefulness at all, it must signify something more than African Americans who are religious. African Americans practice a number of different religions. There are black people who are Buddhist, Jehovah Witness, Mormon, and Baha’i. But the fact that African Americans practice these traditions does not lead us to describe them as black Buddhism or black Mormonism. African American religion singles out something more substantive than that.
The adjective refers instead to a racial context within which religious meanings have been produced and reproduced. The history of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States birthed particular religious formations among African Americans. African Americans converted to Christianity, for example, in the context of slavery. Many left predominantly white denominations to form their own in pursuit of a sense of self- determination. Some embraced a distinctive interpretation of Islam to make sense of their condition in the United States. Given that history, we can reasonably describe certain variants of Christianity and Islam as African American and mean something beyond the rather uninteresting claim that black individuals belong to these different religious traditions.
The adjective black or African American works as a marker of difference: as a way of signifying a tradition of struggle against white supremacist practices and a cultural repertoire that reflects that unique journey. The phrase calls up a particular history and culture in our efforts to understand the religious practices of a particular people. When I use the phrase, African American religion, then, I am not referring to something that can be defined substantively apart from varied practices; rather, my aim is to orient you in a particular way to the material under consideration, to call attention to a sociopolitical history, and to single out the workings of the human imagination and spirit under particular conditions.
When Howard Thurman, the great 20th century black theologian, declared that the slave dared to redeem the religion profaned in his midst, he offered a particular understanding of black Christianity: that this expression of Christianity was not the idolatrous embrace of Christian doctrine which justified the superiority of white people and the subordination of black people. Instead, black Christianity embraced the liberating power of Jesus’s example: his sense that all, no matter their station in life, were children of God. Thurman sought to orient the reader to a specific inflection of Christianity in the hands of those who lived as slaves. That difference made a difference. We need only listen to the spirituals, give attention to the way African Americans interpreted the Gospel, and to how they invoked Jesus in their lives.
We cannot deny that African American religious life has developed, for much of its history, under captured conditions. Slaves had to forge lives amid the brutal reality of their condition and imagine possibilities beyond their status as slaves. Religion offered a powerful resource in their efforts. They imagined possibilities beyond anything their circumstances suggested. As religious bricoleurs, they created, as did their children and children’s children, on the level of religious consciousness and that creativity gave African American religion its distinctive hue and timber.
African Americans drew on the cultural knowledge, however fleeting, of their African past. They selected what they found compelling and rejected what they found unacceptable in the traditions of white slaveholders. In some cases, they reached for traditions outside of the United States altogether. They took the bits and pieces of their complicated lives and created distinctive expressions of the general order of existence that anchored their efforts to live amid the pressing nastiness of life. They created what we call African American religion.
Headline image credit: Candles, by Markus Grossalber, CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.