Year-End Best Books in Race and Religion in American History

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With all the memes wishing a good riddance to 2016, and John Oliver’s epic send-off to this annus horribilis, it may seem small comfort that this was a year that might be remembered as one of the most important in a long time in my corner of the scholarly universe: for works that illuminate race and religion in America, and for books reinterpreting African American religious history for a new, more disillusioned generation.

If you surmise this could be self-serving, very well, it is. My own attempt at a broad and readable narrative of the subject, Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History, was published just in the wake of the November counter-revolution.

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Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History
Paul Harvey
Rowman and Littlefield
November 2016

As I completed the book in January with an epilogue about the present, however, I fell prey to the historian’s trap – to play prophet rather than analyst of the past. And hence, in a couple of paragraph about Donald Trump’s campaign, which seemed in January destined to fizzle out at some point, I wrote that “Trump’s suggestion were less policy proposals than symbolic statements articulating the historic prejudices of great numbers of Americans, who feared immigrants generally, and he decline of white American nationalism particularly.”

And voila! Ten months later, and the primary enabler, publisher, and purveyor of those fears, Stephen Bannon, sits aside the President-Elect, while fake news outlets, white supremacist sites, and messengers of a populist ethno-nationalism have ascended to a central place in public discourse. As noted above, “Bad: Everything else.”

Perhaps it’s small comfort, but it’s true: Epic disasters can produce wonderful writing. As this year of woe unfolded, I was working my way through a plethora of wonderful historical works that did not improve my predictive abilities, but did deepen my sense of the longevity and complexity of the struggle. So I’ll make a “top five” list for you here of works on race and religion in America, focusing here particularly on books focusing on people of African descent.

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African-American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom
Sylvester A. Johnson
Cambridge University Press
October 2015

The first one is not for the faint of heart, and not for anyone who wants the comforting story of “from slavery to freedom” reaffirmed. Sylvester Johnson’s African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom. But mostly, as it turns out, colonialism.

This ambitious book aims to reshape the field of African American religious history. Long dominated by a narrative pointing towards freedom, civil rights, and justice, Johnson audaciously proposes to point it in another direction: towards empire. Rather than a narrative history, Johnson surveys, in an erudite and tough-minded way, key moments connecting the themes of colonialism, democracy, and freedom. The subjects range from the interaction of African kingdoms and European slaving companies in West Africa, to settler colonies in North America, to nineteenth-century settler-colonies in Liberia and elsewhere, to Marcus Garvey and the dream of a black empire in the twentieth century, to black “ethnic religions” such as the Moorish Science Temple, to state-sponsored surveillance and harassment of civil rights activists, and finally to the national security state and the racialization of Islam over the last generation. The result is a landmark work in the field, and the creation of a new paradigm that will initiate conversations and foster intense arguments.

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Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Spiegel & Grau
July 2015

The latter portion of the book focuses on state-sponsored harassment of civil rights leaders. COINTELPRO, not surprisingly, plays a major role. The important point here, though, is not that the FBI invented anti-black surveillance and repression, but that it “reorganized and militarized that violence into a larger network of collaboration under the national security paradigm.” We can, one might assume, see a lot more of that in the coming years of a law-and-order President.

Johnson’s work is a sort of scholarly accompaniment to an age dominated by the ascendancy of the public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the pessimistic take that he powerfully explores in Between the World and Me. A parallel perspective (but one more deeply rooted in African American religious thought) emerges in Eddie Glaude’s Democracy in Black: How Race Enslaves the American Soul.

This work comes from the Princeton religious studies scholar known particularly for deep works on nineteenth-century history. Here, however, he looks at the present and devastatingly drills down into what he calls the “values gap,” the fact that “white people are valued more than others in this country, and that fact continues to shape the life chances of millions of Americans. The value gap is in our national DNA.” Some of this comes from “racial habits,” which are “the things we do, without thinking that sustain the value gap.” Glaude also indicts the history of black liberalism, concluding that by the 200s the “grassroots organizing and the array of political organizations that made that fight [the civil rights movement] were reduced to a bland liberal politics with a charismatic preacher at its head.”

Glaude concludes that “remaking American democracy is going to require a revolution in value to transform our habits.” Published early in 2016, that reads especially poignantly today, as a resurgent white ethno-nationalism has gone mainstream in the towers of power.

If Sylvester Johnson’s epic production may change the nature of history to come, Julius H. Bailey’s Down in the Valley: An Introduction to African American Religious History provides the average reader an entering point to see where studies are now.

This useful survey and analysis of African American religious history, meant for introductory classrooms and general readers interested in getting the lay of the land, represents what I would call the fourth generation of scholarship now in the field.

The first began with the “race historians” and early denominational chroniclers of the nineteenth century, and extended through DuBois, Benjamin Mays, and others who wrote in a sociological vein about “the black church” and “the Negro’s God.” The second came out of the civil rights years, and produced works of black church history (more critical than the earlier generation’s) and black theology from the likes of Gayraud Wilmore, James Washington, and James Cone. Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (1978) typified the work of the third generation.

We are now, I believe, entering a fourth generation of work, including this thoughtful and engaging survey text as well as powerful recent specialized academic works such as Sylvester Johnson’s, discussed above. The influence of questions from the discipline of religious studies (and that discipline’s constant grappling with the question, “what is religion?”) on this work is clear, as it is in Bailey’s text.

Another landmark text for those searching for alternative histories is Emily Clark’s A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans. I previously interviewed the author of this wonderful work of historical excavation here. Clark’s work comes from the archives of the Afro-Creole Spiritualist group Cercle Harmonique from 1858 to 1877. By focusing on Afro-Creole Spiritualism in New Orleans, we get an extended, as well as intimate, look at how one very particular group, mostly men and free people of color, envisioned their ideal society through the voices of spirit mediums. In doing so, they drew from French thinkers and historical experiences (including everyone from Rousseau, Robespierre, and Lamennais to the French and Haitian Revolutions), and applied those to the construction of what they referred to as “the Idea”—a republican society that would achieve liberty, equality and fraternity even in an American society burdened by slavery and racism since its birth.

And finally, Judith Weisenfeld’s New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration is, I think, an instant classic. It resurrects worlds of black American new religious movements from World War I to the mid-twentieth century, including the Moorish Science Temple, Father Divine, the Black Israelites (or Black Hebrews), and the Nation of Islam. Here, the emphasis is on what ethnic and religious identities people created for themselves, versus those that were handed down to or thrust upon them. As she puts it, “we cannot begin to understand the racial identities of these women and men without exploring their religious sensibilities, and we cannot take full account of how they understood themselves religiously without engaging their racial self-understandings.” While most emphasize white people’s agency in making race, Weisenfeld’s work shows how “people of African descent in the United States have often contested racial categories, worked to reshape racial meaning by challenging racial hierarchy, or sought to dismantle race altogether, seeking other bases for collective identity still rooted in shared African descent.”

 

One could easily draw up a similar list with studies of other peoples and groups who have had to live behind the veil; I might recommend in particular Anne Blankenship’s remarkable study of religious life in the Japanese internment camps, Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II. Among other revelations, Blankenship shows how Christians ministering to Japanese in the camps learned to “challenge the constitutionality of government policies on race and civil rights.” That’s a lesson to be taken to heart in these challenging and dispiriting days at present, with more to come.