I have written elsewhere about a set of contemporary experiences and observations—although now aged by roughly two decades—that provided the first sparks of interest in the questions that led to my first book, Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. Travels back and forth between church services, on one hand, and open mics and poetry readings, on the other, during the 1990s provided the initial impetus for my efforts to bring religion and literature in conversation in the form of the longer story that Spirit in the Dark narrates. Admittedly, the religious history of black letters from the 1920s to the early 1970s that I offer is colored by “presentist” concerns.
To state the matter differently, Spirit in the Dark grew out of my desire for a better historical understanding of how things—things religious and things literary—came to be the way they are. So another way to account for (rather than obscure) the play between past and present, the personal and the historical, in Spirit in the Dark is to acknowledge the kinds of theoretical questions that animate my study of religion and the arts in twentieth-century (black) America.
As I was moving through doctoral studies, immersing myself in the fields of African American literary/cultural history and American religious history, two specific intellectual developments captured my imagination. Just one year before I began my PhD, the journal Social Text published a special issue focused on, “World Secularisms at the Millennium,” edited by Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini. Just as I was finishing my degree, this journal issue was republished in book form simply titled, Secularisms (2008); not long after the publication of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and the launch of The Immanent Frame. Indeed, during my time in graduate school, the study of secularism was beginning to grow into the vibrant interdisciplinary conversation that it is now. As a student in a new PhD program in African American Studies, I found myself attempting to locate the study of African American religion and culture in relationship to this burgeoning set of debates.
Importantly, race seemed noticeably absent—at least as an explicit line of reasoning—in most studies of the secular. Meanwhile, scholarship on African American religion largely seemed to embrace the idea that modernity’s normative sacred/secular distinction (read as white and Western) did not make sense when studying black life. Sacred/secular fluidity, or permeability, was taken for granted as evidence of the distinctiveness of black religion. Moreover, with the exception of Anthony Pinn’s important work on African American humanism, the idea of a tradition of black secularism seemed implausible. That is, despite a long history of claiming the United States as home, African Americans were largely understood as foils, as the collective exception, to the secularizing telos of the Modern West. Certainly, the relationship between sacred and secular in the context of modern black life was more complicated than this rendering suggests.
A second theoretical concern that captured my attention centered on countering what Henry Goldschmidt and Eliza McAlister referred to in their 2004 anthology, Race, Nation and Religion in the Americas, as the “far reaching—though never quite complete—Christian hegemony.” Within the context of my own subfield of African American religious history, this took the more precise form of an investment in decentering “The Black Church” that dated back at least as far as Charles Long’s now-classic 1971 essay, “Perspectives for the Study of African-American Religion in the United States.” For Long, Christian hegemony was as much a matter of method (i.e. theology) as it was the sources, site, or object of inquiry (i.e. church). Studying (black) religion through the instrumentalist metrics of the social sciences and the confessional categories of Christian theology, Long averred, left much to be desired. His critique, in turn, encouraged humanistic and phenomenological approaches to the religious dimensions of black culture, especially outside of Christian churches.
As an initial step toward weaving together African American religious history with the now robust field of secularism studies, I set out first to historicize claims of black “sacred/secular fluidity.” This research led to an essay that came out last year as a chapter in the first book to figure race (really, blackness) as central to the making of secularism, Race and Secularism in America, edited by Jonathon Kahn and Vincent Lloyd. But the larger problem of how to think (historically) about the play between sacred and secular in the context of African American life remained the meta-question behind the literary history of African American religion that I narrate in Spirit in the Dark.
African American literature (and the larger set of debates about the very idea of black art and culture) appeared to present a rich set of sources that were both outside of the institutional and ideological bounds of Christian churches and typically had been understood under the sign of the secular. That is, with regards to the latter point, theories of black literature tended to follow the secularist orthodoxies of English departments.
Additionally, several recent books on black religion(s) in the United States—Yvonne Chireau’s treatment of the African American conjuring tradition, Eddie Glaude’s analysis of the nineteenth-century Negro convention movement, and Tracey Hucks’s study of Yoruba traditions, to name just a few—followed Long’s call to examine “extra-church orientations.” Meanwhile, great new work on religion and American literature, such as Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature, suggested a space for the literary to intervene in the history of American religion.
Inspired by each of these works (and so many others), I found the African American literary tradition especially appealing in that it required me to think across the terrain of American religion and culture, including African-derived religious practices, the African American conjuring tradition, and “secular” forms of black social life. As I argue in Spirit in the Dark, a wide range of religious ideas, practices, and traditions were essential to efforts to define black art and culture—a set of debates that I refer to simply as “racial aesthetics.” To be sure, Long’s “extra-church orientations” were key. Yet, perhaps a bit more surprising, so was “The Black Church.”
As I understand it, Spirit in the Dark is a historical project that engages with literary sources to grapple with questions in the study of religion. What I attempt to do is track the evolution of a debate about black art and culture—which I refer to as “racial aesthetics”—from the New Negro movement of the 1920s up through the Black Arts movement (circa 1970), recasting this well-known literary history by placing “religion” at the center of the story. Black religious pluralism is a constant (if consistently changing over time) even as “The Black Church”—not a monolith, but instead a shifting constellation of ideas, institutions, and practices—manages to maintain a place of prominence. As such, I follow the pairing of “church” and “spirit,” as an analytical frame apparent in the primary sources, across roughly five decades to provide a provisional map of the multiple ways that religion has animated black literary visions even in their most avowedly secular forms.
In this view, racial aesthetics offers not an escape from, or secular counter to, Christian hegemony. Rather, Spirit in the Dark is an invitation for scholars of religion and literature, respectively (and other readers as well), to reconsider (African American) literature and (American) religious history—secular and sacred, race and religion—as entangled as they are, more often than not, in real time. In this view, black artists and intellectuals cultivated a spiritual grammar to advance an expansive and diverse vision of blackness of even as they extended (and witnessed to) the persistent powers of a familiar Afro-Protestantism.