. . . with spirit at our sides, we seek its signs . . .
How does one bind, or draw the boundaries around, an inquiry into the term “spirit,” or “spirits”? Perhaps this is the challenge with all words. Any and every word, an iteration or artifact of language and culture. I’m stating the obvious here, hence the importance of a project such as this, “A Universe of Terms.” Yet even within the rubrics of an installation that revisits Mark C. Taylor’s 1998 edited volume, Critical Terms for Religious Studies, spirit(s) would seem especially unstable. Promiscuous in its refusal to be pinned down. We seek its signs, says Joe Wood, circa 1992. The spirit moves in mysterious ways, they say.
So much so that spirit somehow evaded inclusion in that original volume. How could that be possible, given the centrality of the term to the history of Western philosophy and theology? And thus to the field of religious studies? How do we account for its absence in Critical Terms, which was published the same year as the sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s now classic work, After Heaven, on American spirituality—a certain sign of the term’s prominence, which has only grown since, from discussions of spirituality to spirit possession? Important queries, but I’ll leave these for another day, I guess.
If not with the original volume or the state of the field, then where might one begin? Perhaps by returning to the particular iteration of this term that has preoccupied much of my own research: spirit preceded by the racial modifier. Or, as Joe Wood put it: black spirit. How might this configuration help (or hinder) our efforts to seek the signs?
First, a confession (and spoiler): I tend to loathe when dictionaries anchor an analysis. Yet I find myself making precisely this move, hoping to find a fixed point to begin (or conclude) this short reflection. Unsurprisingly, consulting Merriam-Webster at once confirmed my suspicions and frustrated me all the more. Fourteen different senses, several with two or more sub-senses within them; from “enthusiastic loyalty” to “an inclination, impulse, or tendency of specified kind: MOOD.” Twenty-three definitions of spirit in total; that is, for the noun form of the word. Spirit, it seems, is defined by a surplus of meanings. Spirit, then, is quite similar to the fourth definition of promiscuous: “composed of all sorts of things.” Spirit’s second sense, maybe, makes the most sense in the context of religious studies: “a supernatural being or essence.” Or not; as even this “essence” is broken down into four smaller sub-senses.
So, I turn to my bookshelves for better clues. Or at least a helpful prompt. A scholar of religion and African American culture, my books should at least limit the field:
- William L. Andrews, Ed., Sisters in the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (1986)
- Jason Berry, The Spirit of Black Hawk: A Mystery of Africans and Indians (1995)
- V. F. Calverton, The Newer Spirit: A Sociological Criticism of Literature (1925)
- Judith Casselberry and Elizabeth A. Pritchard, Eds., Spirit on the Move: Black Women and Pentecostalism in Africa and the Diaspora (2019)
- Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question (1987)
- Pamela E. Klassen, Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity (2011)
- Barbara Dianne Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (2008)
- Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art and Philosophy (1983)
- Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904)
No such luck. Random and unscientific, and by no means representative, this sampling shows much and tells little, in terms of settling us down. These nine titles, old and new, do offer a sense of how expansive the terrain, even as subtitles suggest clear paths that spirit has traversed.
What happens when spirit(s) is tethered to an adjective? A racial modifier, for instance? Does making spirit black help to clarify things? Or confound us further? No term has figured so prominently in the substance of my own work as spirit. The primary sources pushed me in this direction. So many of the artists and intellectuals I encountered in researching my first book, Spirit in the Dark, availed themselves of what I eventually came to call a “grammar of spirit.” Spirit, spirits, spiritual, spiritually. Negro spirit, race spirit, racial spirit, black spirit. Old-time spirituality and new spirituality. These were just some of their terms of choice. In turn, I argued that spirit (and this constellation of related terms) provided a grammar through which to debate black art and culture, and the very meaning of blackness, across much of the twentieth century.
Each time I’ve given a talk about my book I’ve been met, almost without fail, with a series of similar questions. How am I defining spirit? Is spirit, for me, a real thing? Am I talking about the Spirit? Do I understand spirit on literary terms, rather than literally (if such a distinction makes sense)? Is it a metaphor? A trope? My response has often been a simple, “Yes.” Better yet, “All the above.” Just as often, I’ve provided no answer at all. Redirecting attention back to the sources. Borrowing from Rainer Maria Rilke: “Love the questions!” But perhaps this refusal is unfair, or inadequate. Though I’ve imagined it as serving a pedagogical purpose—an invitation to think further, deeper, closer—maybe sometimes a simple answer is merited. Recalling my students’ abiding frustration with this approach, I reconsider. Even still, a hope was that, if by indirection, in attending to a grammar of spirit that has typically been marked as racial, we might find a novel, or distinct, entrée into our thinking about religion.
Much scholarly ink has been spilled in recent years concerning the co-constituted nature of race and religion. For instance, in her most recent book, New World A-Coming (2017), Judith Weisenfeld insightfully analyzes new black religions that emerged during the first half of the twentieth century, which she names as “religio-racial.” Or one might consider how Robert Jones calls attention to, for a more popular audience, the (often unnamed) long racial shadow cast by Christianity in the United States, in his 2016 book, The End of White Christian America. As Weisenfeld rightly notes (and Jones’s title suggests), all religions are racial formations. It’s just that the white ones tend not to be named as such.
At the risk of being called reductionist, the more I think about it I’ve come to believe that the study of religion in America is the study of race. Cited in the epigraph to this essay, meditating on Malcolm X and black identity and culture in the 1990s, the late writer and editor Joe Wood likened spirit to, most simply, “a shared ethos.” Notably, Wood’s definition overlaps with not one of the twenty-three offered by Meriam-Webster. Moreover, he writes, “Black spirit has never meant one thing, or anything concrete, which is its great power and failure.” Blackness and spirit, in Wood’s telling, befit one another. Spirit—in black and white—is perhaps the term that best mediates this fundamental entanglement of race and religion, as well as the asymmetries that animate and provide context for the term’s place in American history. It both illuminates and frustrates our best efforts to understand its countless configurations. And ourselves. Better yet, you could (and by that I mean, I would) say that the spirit of religion in America is, as one historian put it, “the encounter of black and white.”