More than twenty years ago, Jenny Franchot diagnosed a “studied neglect of religion” in American literary studies—especially when concerned with race, class, and gender: “We discuss these safer conditions as if they operate independently of ultimate questions of meaning and purpose.” Religion, she claimed, had become “invisible”—a domain not recognized, but most certainly present. Similarly, studies of African-American religious culture have tended to focus more narrowly on overtly ecclesial expressions or explicit matters of faith in cultural production, eschewing potentially rich investigations of religious or theological dimensions in presumably secular sources.
Josef Sorett’s Spirit in the Dark strikes against this twin legacy of neglect, drawing on what he calls “Afro-Protestantism” to excavate invisible religiosity in twentieth-century black literature as yielded through an ongoing process of “racial aesthetics” in America (and beyond). Afro-Protestantism functions as a kind of reanimated secularism, managing diversities of racial ideology and identity within black modernity’s many valences in service of a religious unconscious in twentieth-century African-American literature. Sacred, secular, and profane realms exist not as vacuum-sealed entities but in fact circulate amid the vagaries of human experience, amplifying one another, generating meaningful and purposeful articulations of such experience (for Sorett this registers specifically as racial experience) within which these variable strands cannot be disentangled.
I welcome Spirit in the Dark for the seriousness with which it opens new prospects for the study of religion and literature in African-American contexts. Toward these ends it represents the right book at the right time, prescient of so much work in ferment during its own preparation, and occupies a rising curve of renewed interest in religious dimensions of cultural production. Religion and literature is not new, of course, though its locus within respective fields of religious and literary studies (their own intellectual borders often stringently patrolled, even if artificially demarcated) has tended to focus on European traditions. Or, when thinking more broadly, it considered issues of comparativity across East and West rather than the racial matters so historically resonant during the subfield’s former prominence—roughly coterminous with Sorett’s periodization from the Harlem Renaissance to Motown. Spirit in the Dark offers a corrective for this historical omission and a template for forward progress.
Sorett’s focus, however, remains “guided by historical questions rather than constructive concerns.” In this way it offers a descriptive account of Afro-Protestantism’s racial aesthetics. In this forum I want to begin conceiving of broader implications for the book’s constituent concepts of race, religion, and literature. To do so I focus on a prominent black scholar deemed by his contemporaries as perhaps the most significant academic practitioner of religion and literature during Sorett’s timeframe. Nathan A. Scott, Jr. wrote voluminously on religious and theological dimensions of so-called secular texts, maintained an intimate and long-standing friendship with Ralph Ellison (among many others featured prominently in Sorett’s book), and today offers rich context for Sorett’s ambition to delineate “a religious history of racial aesthetics.” It just so happens that Scott makes no appearance in Spirit in the Dark. I was intrigued by this oversight in an otherwise fulsome genealogy of twentieth-century African-American religion and literature. Yet, to be clear, my aim is not to chide Sorett for any sin of omission but to complement his achievement by building on, and teasing out, through Scott, one reading of its rich constructive implications. In this reflection I’ll introduce this now largely invisible African-American intellectual and consider why he matters for Sorett’s study and its forward trajectory for “racial aesthetics.”
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An Episcopal priest, canon theologian, and professor of theology and literature, Nathan Scott was born in 1925, raised in Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan, and studied under Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Lionel Trilling at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University, where he earned a BD and PhD. Following early appointments at Virginia Union and Howard, Scott joined the faculty at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1955, where he stayed until a final move to the University of Virginia in 1976. He retired in 1994 and died in 2006. Along the way, Scott authored or edited (as one source estimates) some twenty-five books and published “a couple hundred substantive essays and articles” focused almost exclusively upon existential religious and theological dimensions of secular twentieth-century literature. Themes of “alienation and reconciliation,” “climates of faith,” “craters of the spirit,” and “broken centers” characterize his work. A 1967 Time magazine profile explains, for example, that Scott considered William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury “religious,” despite its “agnostic” authorship, because “behind the novel’s secular façade” resides Kairos—“the divine gift of time span.” In this way Scott’s early work shows debt to Tillich’s theology of culture, though around 1970 Scott’s orientation turned to Martin Heidegger, flanking growing criticism of his Tillichian worldview. Scott described his work as focused on a “theological horizon” that proves “centrally important . . . in the literary landscape of our period”—a landscape alternately hostile and ambivalent to “religion.” Borrowing Sorett’s words, Scott accounted for “religion as revealed in critical debate” that is “populated by presumably secular sources.” A la Franchot, and via Ellison, Scott made the unseen seen.
Scott’s own present-tense invisibility owes to a number of issues, the most central of which—a race problem—stems from the perceived limits of his archive as an African-American intellectual working with European literature through Eurocentric Christian theology. He did so during the rise of black studies in American universities, black theologies of liberation in seminaries, and black arts and power movements in the public sphere. He was a racial pioneer, to be sure—the first black faculty member at the University of Chicago Divinity School and, along with his wife, the economist Charlotte Scott, one of the first two tenured black faculty at the University of Virginia. Some may argue that these distinctions owe considerably to Scott’s relative political safety, his willingness to maintain institutional status quo. By chafing against more revolutionary racial politics Scott, like his close friend Ralph Ellison (whose friendship with Scott I’ve detailed elsewhere), found disapproval from the racial vanguard highlighted in chapters five and six of Spirit in the Dark. In this way Scott suffered uniquely—“too black” as he endured the indignities confronting those who “integrate” historically white institutions, yet “not black enough” for the revolutionary set.
Despite this reputation, Scott had much to say about African-American religion and culture and acted on it. He marched in clerical collar at Selma, published on Richard Wright, Ellison, and the artist Romare Bearden, obsessed over Fats Waller, and composed a magisterial essay on “Black Literature” in the Harvard Guide to Contemporary Writing (1979) that covers much of Sorett’s waterfront. Still, by the end of his career, Scott would feel alienated not only from his “ancestral community” but the academy at large: “There are those who think of me as a kind of trahison,” he reflected. “I have not specialized in what is spoken of as ‘the Black Experience.’” Charles Long, standing up for Scott’s racial bonafides in a remembrance at the 2008 American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting (Scott served as AAR president in 1986), recalls an unnamed fellow colleague at Chicago in the 1960s who dismissed Scott simply because “[Scott] was not his kind of black man.”
Where does Nathan Scott fit into Sorett’s grand religious narrative of racial aesthetics? I don’t want to make too much—or too little—of his absence. Spirit in the Dark proves generously inclusive in scope across the half-century-plus that it covers. No one can attend to every base and it remains unfair to hold authors to specific “ways” we might approach a given topic ourselves. On the other hand, Spirit in the Dark proves generously inclusive in scope, and so Scott’s absence feels more like omission than oversight, or at least like a symptom of his present invisibility.
How, then, might Scott’s example matter for Sorett and for the broader trajectories so many of us look forward to building from his work? Beyond emphasizing his historical prominence, which now seems so improbable, I’ll focus on two concluding points: 1) Scott’s methodological coherence with Sorett’s aims, and 2) The constructive possibilities he presents to Afro-Protestantism’s synthesis of racial aesthetics.
First, whatever his racial treason, Scott’s corpus offers systematic justification for reading unambiguously secular literature through lenses afforded by the study of religion. For Scott, “religion” primarily meant Christian theology, but focusing as he did on Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Norman Mailer, or Franz Kafka should prove every bit as jarring as Sorett’s incorporation of Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, and others—precisely because they are “secular” authors. The notion that “one need not be IN an actual church to be OF the church,” reinforced by Aretha Franklin’s signal grammar of performative double (or even triple) entendre that opens up not only “spirit” and “dark” but also obliterates socially constructed boundaries demarcating where, between whom, and in what darkness such a spirit may move, proves apt. “Spirit” and “dark” resonate recursively in sacred, secular, and profane registers, the form and substance through which culture becomes generated through wranglings over ultimate concern, or “meaning and purpose.” For Scott such an allowance remains intellectual, yet the analogy holds: If Franklin doesn’t need to sing in church to generate an Afro-Protestant aesthetic, must Scott write on specifically “black” literature?
Such a question raises a second valence for Afro-Protestantism: How might this black theologian who was no Black Theologian fit Sorett’s category? Spirit in the Dark deploys racial aesthetics to manage Afro-Protestantism as a mode of racial secularism. Because a kind of church-ness has encoded black literary culture through antecedent forms, structures, and rhetorics/performances (in keeping with Kenneth Burke’s relationship between “words” and “Word” in The Rhetoric of Religion), such expression is always already religious (here “Protestant” does the ecumenical work)—no matter what its authors may have specifically claimed or believed. “Racial aesthetics,” then, becomes the cultural form of ongoing normative wranglings among this managed diversity of perspectives united through common Afro-Protestant legacies rooted in Franchot’s “ultimate questions of meaning and purpose.” In this way race and religion, through literature, become models for one another—matters of ultimate concern within intellectual and aesthetic systems that make meaning by negotiating vagaries of political experience.
We might, then, play on Sorett’s play on Franklin’s play on “spirit” and “dark” through the words “black” and “theologian” as superabundant signifiers for racial aesthetics. James Cone or (without intending to gloss over complications raised by womanism) Katie Cannon are “Black Theologians.” Scott probably qualifies as a “black Theologian.” Might we call Kwame Ture and Ta-Nehisi Coates “Black theologians” or Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston “black theologians”? None of these need to stand as final adjudications yet, in context, they illustrate provisionally how Afro-Protestantism, as a capacious racial secularism, doubles, binds, and manages aesthetic debates concerning race as characteristically religious, even absent any agreement on the practical or conceptual relationship between race and religion. Negotiation drives its affirmation.
In the process of reading and writing on Spirit in the Dark, I’ve returned with relish to Franklin’s album, noting that its opening track, “Don’t Play that Song,” might double as a refrain resonant with Nathan Scott’s erasure for “treason” against regnant intellectual norms. “Don’t play that song for me,” sings the Queen of Soul over gospel chords, “’Cause it brings back memories / The days that I once knew / . . . I can’t stand it no more.” The singer wishes to efface this problematic song because it calls to mind some romantic violation or abandonment (“You lied,” were “mean,” etc.). Simultaneously, though, this maligned song (like Scott) also serves as the affective generator of the music we now hear (and, as its first song, the album Spirit in the Dark itself). Its complaint becomes, ironically, a new affirmation (hear the backup singers trouble the song’s main conceit—“Darling, I love you!” “Darling, I need you!”). “Treasonous” antagonism cooperates with aesthetic construction to articulate the complicated motives that attend a “spirit in the dark.” If not playing that song means no Spirit in the Dark, then put your hand on your hip, cover your eyes, and move!
I look forward to working more extensively with Sorett’s book and to collective discovery of the important implications it raises for African-American religion and literature.