What is the Black Study of Religion?

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Some theorists, which include scholars of religion, philosophers, and critical theorists, have conceptualized the so-called Black Studies of religion. This area of Religion Studies is clear concerning its agenda which is to study the historical realities of black persons and to analyze the themes of power, domination, and hegemony, particularly in the sphere of black religious life and experience (1). This marks the beginning point from which theorists begin to explore and ask questions.

The motivation for a Black Study of Religion

Over a period of time there developed an increased awareness in the discipline of Religious Studies of how historical, European theorists of religion deliberately used their roles of power to justify racism. One might refer to some of the 19th century theorists who employed colonial terminology to describe the religions and cultures of non-Europeans, many of whom were being discovered by Europeans for the first time during the Age of Exploration. Predominantly white, European theorists, such as David Hume (1711-1776), E. B. Tylor (1832-1917), James Frazer (1854-1941), and others, referred to newly discovered peoples as “savages” and “primitives,” and often placed them on a lower rung of cognitive and social development than enlightened Europeans. A number of Christian theorists viewed newly discovered religions and cultures with contempt, which also coloured their methods, theories, and conclusions. Scholar of religion Ivan Strenski explains that,

“When the religions of non-Whites were studied, they were regarded in ways that typically disadvantaged them or overlooked entirely matters salient to the folk studied” (2).

Strenski says that it was these white scholars who set the agenda for non-whites by virtue of the fact that they owned the disciplines which studied others. Because many of these theorists theorized about religions it cemented a link between religions, power, and cultures. This is a salient point that scholars within post-colonial and Black Studies of religion have emphasized. Religions wield power in that they put power into the hands of a few selected people, some of whom claim to speak for God and who claim to have privileged access to God’s truth. Religion also influences people to accept beliefs, perform rituals, and abide by certain rules and guidelines in their daily lives. Some religious institutions have also had a long history of wielding political and economic power and have enforced such power upon others through imperial and colonial conditions. One need not look much further than apartheid South Africa where theories of racial supremacy dominated, and were often justified by religion or supported by religious theorists and theologians, which itself has opened avenues for scholarly research (3).

Some Notable Theorists in Black Religion Studies

Given the legacy of slavery within American history, much of the work within the Black Study of religion has been on this topic. According to historian Anthony B. Pinn (b. 1964), noted for pioneering the study of slave auctions as religious rituals of subjugation, this is because of religions relevance to the topic of slavery,

“History is marked by resistance to this mutation into objects. Perhaps the best example, certainly the most comprehensive, is found in the form of black religion. Put another way, the story of black religion is one of resistance to this objectification, a wrestling with history through which black subjectivity was asserted and black bodies reclaimed” (4).

This form of resistance has resulted in a proliferation of work on the subject. Historian Albert Raboteau’s (b. 1943) book Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (1978) is an attempt to educate readers on the histories of blacks under the conditions of slavery. He pays special attention to the integral roles religion played in the lives of the slaves and how the slaves developed their own institutions of religious practices. Raboteau not only wishes to do away with misconceptions about the religion of black slaves but also intends to liberate black Americans themselves from their own conceptions of the past. His book has also opened up avenues for further study: Are there different classes of slave religion? Are there perhaps other slave religions than the ones Raboteau describes? And could one find such religions in cultures and spaces far removed from North America? A further investigation into black religion and slavery was undertaken by Pinn in his Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion (2003). Pinn contends that black religion has its origins in centuries long-suffering of black peoples under slavery. He also states that only through an awareness of the abuse and terror blacks experienced under slavery, notably through the likes of auctioning, threats of lynching, and being reduced to commodities without human dignity, can one come to understand black religion itself.

W. E. B. Du Bois (d. 1963) penned the books The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and The Negro Church (1901) which he intended to contribute to social reform and oppose racism. However, his books made little, if any, impact given the prevailing ideologies already held by mainstream sociologists, which led Du Bois to lament that the black person never belonged,

“… we remain unrecognized in learned societies and academic groups. We rated merely as Negroes studying Negroes, and after all what had Negroes to do with America or science?” (5)

Du Bois experienced how racial hatred was stronger than objective facts and he hoped that insights from social science would challenge white racism. However, he was disappointed given that racism was so deeply embedded within the American psyche it proved resistant to facts. This led him into the realm of moral and political activism where he delivered speeches on moral injustice, wrote for publications, and penned novels and short essays which were used for the cause of black liberation.

A more contemporary thinker in the form of James H. Cone (d. 2018) celebrated black power, black tradition, and the black church in his A Black Theology of Liberation (1970). Professor Manning Marable’s (d. 2011) Blackwater: Historical Studies in Race, Class Consciousness and Revolution (1981) challenges the idea of black submissiveness to slavers and provides a view of black liberty in the role played by the black church in defeating oppression. Founded in 1987, the African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project intends to produce a comprehensive history of African-American religion, from the earliest African-European encounters along the west coast of Africa in the mid-15th century to the present day.

White scholars have also contributed to this field. Historian Kenneth Stampp (d. 2009) published an influential text on American slavery called The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956) which challenged anti-black racial stereotypes.

The contemporary Cornel West (b. 1953) has a significant presence within Black Religion studies. He is one of the most influential black American public intellectuals and some of his central concerns have been on race and social justice which are found in his books Black Theology and Marxist Thought (1979), Prophecy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982), and more. West views himself as an activist for black liberation and his critiques are guided by his own Christian religious beliefs and moral ideals. He is also firmly entrenched and involved within the black church. West describes himself as a “man of letters in love with ideas in order to be a wiser and more loving person, hoping to leave the world just a little better than I found it” (6).

Concerns, and Recent Research Areas

Many scholars of religion are hesitant to consider the work of some proponents within the Black Study of religion as a legitimate scientific approach given their clear liberationist and theological convictions. Strenski explains that,

“While admirable in themselves, their liberation efforts are directed at inspiring action and conviction, not at stimulating curiosity and skepticism. They are a preaching not a teaching; they easily merge with ideology or creative theology, not with the patient quest for understanding proper the “science of religion” of years past. In this sense, liberationist studies of religion narrow our purview because they insist on creating a positive “freedom to” articulate a particular vision of the future” (7).

Expressing theological agendas within one’s work, which might include, for example, West’s goal of ridding domination from theology, cannot be strictly considered a scientific study of religion. As a secular discipline, Religion Studies makes no room for the theorist’s own personal value-laden investment within religion, religious dogma, and belief, and therefore requires that he or she avoid treading into this area. Other scholars in this field have conducted legitimate and valuable scientific research into black religious experience. These pursuits have fulfilled Religion Studies’ agenda, which is to understand religion itself and the experiences of religious persons. Scholars continue to study the religion of African-descended peoples worldwide and some have referred to ‘transatlantic studies’ as a major research area within the field that includes the religions of blacks living within the Caribbean and the Americas (8). There is interest in creole religions, which are syncretic religions found in the Caribbean characterized by the coming together of diverse beliefs and practices to form new beliefs and practices (9). Bringing slaves from Africa to Caribbean to work on sugar plantations resulted in a mixing of African traditional religious beliefs and the Christian beliefs of the European colonizers. This fashioned new systems of religious belief such as Vodou (in Haiti), Santeria (Cuba), Regla de Palo (Cuba), Obeah (West Indies), and more. Slavery in Jamaica resulted in a uniquely black interpretation of Christian scriptures, particularly in the form of Rastafarianism.

References

1. Pinn, Anthony B. 2003. “Black Bodies in Pain and Ecstasy: Terror, Subjectivity, and the Nature of Black Religion.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 7(1): 76-89.

2. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. p. 171.

3. Chidester, David. 2006. “Religion Education and the Transformational State in South Africa.” Social Analysis: The International Journal of Anthropology 50(3): 61-83.

4. Pinn, Anthony B. 2003. Ibid. p. 79.

5. Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. 1968. The Autobiography of W E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. p. 228

6. West, Cornel. 1999. The Cornel West Reader. p. 19.

7. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 186.

8. Stewart Diakité, Dianne. & Hucks, Tracey. 2013. “Africana Religious Studies: Toward a Transdisciplinary Agenda in an Emerging Field.” Journal of Africana Religions 1(1): 28-77.

9. Chireau, Yvonne. 2006. “Reviewed Work: Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santeria to Obeah and Espiritismo by Margarite Fernandez Olmos, Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert.” Church History 75(3): 705-706.

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