In Black Lives and Sacred Humanity Carol Wayne White accomplishes two important things with regard to querying normativity and the natural world. Black Lives resonates with the largest protest movement in US history, Black Lives Matter, delivering scholarship in 2016 that anticipated the larger, catalytic power of BLM to challenge racist norms. Secondly, she announces a constructive concept, “sacred humanity”—her contribution to the field of religious naturalism. She builds this concept upon the deep and powerful traditions of an African American religious practice of humanizing Black life despite the dehumanizations of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism. White identifies a will at work in African American religiosity: a human practice of making bodies sacred. The “I” of “I can’t breathe” is both particular to Black lives in their historic will to life and a universal, biotic, and connected nexus of sentient cognition and human recognition called sacred humanity.
Since the 2002 publication of Postsructuralism, Feminism, and Religion: Triangulating Positions (Humanity Books), readers have turned to White to think about intersectionality and religious lives. Since then, White’s particular niche in the landscape of critical theory, new materialism, and religious naturalism is her concern for articulating the positions from which people determine what is of ultimate value, which she calls “religious valuations.” White’s attention to the historical disparities of religious valuations visited upon bodies that are embedded in racialized and gendered relationships delivers critical perspectives on normativity. Those who emerge in systems designed to put them in their place, or to remove them from their places, have a clear, critical perspective on those who kneel upon their necks.
White pursues a genealogy of Black lives and the ecological interfaces of their coemergence with life on Earth. This history includes the scandals not only of the European slave trade, but also of imperial religious studies. White tracks the historical legacy of “natural order” as a construct of Enlightenment racism that bolstered the slave trade. She resists and protests against this history by locating sacred humanity in nature amidst myriad forms of life. White tracks the intellectual roots of an African American religious naturalism in the works of Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin. Such lineage attests to the humanizing power of natural connectedness, strengthens the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement by restoring rigorous and reflective intellectual heritage, and promotes a humanist homeland in ecological wildernesses. Neither Cooper, DuBois, nor Baldwin were satisfied in their wild thoughts with the solace offered by the Christian and Muslim traditions of Black America. Like Du Bois, White aspires toward a “new religious ideal” that includes the satisfactions and solace of ecological and evolutionary sciences as they interact with new materialist thought from whence emerges sacred humanity.
White does not focus on defining nature or the natural order, but rather moves forward in the tradition of humanist methodologies as practiced by religious naturalists. I found it useful to turn to the Oxford Handbook of Religious Studies in order to query how nature was functioning in White’s text. In Adrian Ivakhiv’s chapter on nature he quotes Raymond Williams. I suggest that White uses “nature” to refer to an “inherent force which directs either the world or human beings or both” and “the material world itself, taken as including or not including human beings” (Ivakhiv, citing Williams). These two meanings of nature appear in three distinct ways. Most important in White’s book is how the concepts of nature and the natural order relate to the term sacred humanity. She writes, “The capacious notion of sacred humanity I introduce in this chapter is grounded in scientific theories advanced by the tenets of religious naturalism. I envision humanity as a specific life form, as nature made aware of itself.” Implied in that sentence is a force that directs nature toward “greater complexity and consciousness,” as Stephen J. Gould and other scientists have noted.
If I understand this correctly, White’s religious naturalism is working with evolutionary biology and cognitive sciences in discerning a teleology of awareness that leads to sacred humanity. This natural teleology is correlated to the empirical fact of increasing biological complexity unlike the force that drives the Hegelian Spirit. A world spirit is the racist teleology that led Hegel to argue that Indigenous cultures were purely natural cultures that “had to perish as the spirit approached it.” Where Hegel valued as superior the inevitable domination of others powered by Spirit coming to know itself, White and religious humanists retain their commitment to nature as the foundation and realization of consciousness. Humans have a particular niche in nature with regard to their consciousness, including their consciousness of death, discussed further below.
Nature functions in a second way: as the demonstration of African American religiosity in its drive to construct, preserve, and grow the full humanity of African Americans. To the extent that African American religiosity has adopted Christian, monotheistic concepts of God, it does so differently than white American Christianity in that its practices encourage liberation and transformation of self and society to overcome oppression. White slavocracy sanctified the oppression of Black life in the name of a transcendent natural order. In this order, white supremacy was the realization of God’s will. The humanization accomplished in African American religious culture is derived from a natural force to secure human lives here and now. I quote at length to illustrate the methodology of this functionalist analysis:
I am viewing African American religiosity primarily through the lens of religious functionalism, which, as Loyal Rue has suggested, places the proper focus on who actually creates and uses religion: humans. Religious functionalism in this context is a method of analyzing and interpreting religious experiences and expressions as natural events having natural causes. This naturalistic approach seeks to understand religious phenomena by using categories . . . and methods compatible with the ones normally applied to nonreligious domains of human behavior. In advancing this theoretical orientation, I do not presume that religious phenomena can be completely explained; rather, I suggest that the extent of our understanding is contingent on efforts to grasp these phenomena in terms of underlying natural processes.
The underlying natural processes are within the grasp of a humanist study of religion.
And finally, there is an emergent natural order in White’s argument. Nature is “ultimately real.” Her concern is with the human in its “most concrete, basic terms: as a material process of nature in relationship with other forms of nature.” She views “humans as a biotic form within a complex matrix of interdependent natural entities. Attempting a thoroughgoing naturalism that can also be equated with a meaningful or good life, I also view this fundamental kinship as sacred.” When she elucidates the human as a material nexus whose interrelationships are sacred, she means that they “are imbued with the quality of ultimacy within the confines of what religious naturalism affirms: nature as the realm in which we move, live and have our being.” Here we see that humans have a distinctive experience in the natural order because of the meaning making and storytelling they entertain as animals with symbolic language. Important to storytelling humans within the natural order is the temporal constraints of death or a human “finite naturalness.” For White, humans appreciate their place in the natural order more correctly when they understand “death as a necessary condition of having a destiny.”
The timeliness of Black Lives and Sacred Humanity arrives with dissonance to my ear. I see the ghastly role played by those of us in the United States who inherited stolen Indigenous lands and inherited capital from the plunder of Black bodies. We rank in the top ten percent of per capita fossil fuel emissions globally, from which we generate 50 percent of consumerist emissions in this time of accelerating, catastrophic climate crises. The “we” of which I speak therefore also carries the potential to relinquish power, delivering the swiftest and most effective reduction of emissions. Yet, I feel unholy and incapable of turning the Titanic as I ride upon its deck. So far, white people and white capital have never willed such a transformation. Only the coronavirus has stopped our desecrating emissions. Only a microbe has succeeded in getting us to stop throwing fuel on the fire. My current misanthropic bent is toward damning the humanity responsible for the crisis. Is sacred humanity a story with the power to forge alliances toward a moral future? Might whiteness move with greater speed to collaborate at global scale having learned from nature’s microbe the speed with which it can shut us down?
I conclude by triangulating again. I am compelled by LeAnne Howe’s advocacy for “tribalographies,” stories with the power to link Indigenous and non-Indigenous memories. What happens when tribalography meets sacred humanity? Indigenous communities have been seeking alliances to counteract injustice informed by their understanding of human relationships with nature for decades. For example, in the 1978 Basic Call to Consciousness we find the “Haudenosaunee Message to the Western World,” a message delivered when the first international Indigenous peoples alliance addressed their calls for ecological justice to the United Nations:
We believe that all living things are spiritual beings. Spirits can be expressed as energy forms manifested in matter. A blade of grass is an energy form manifested in matter—grass matter. The spirit of the grass is that unseen force that produces the species of grass. . . . We believe that man [sic] is real, a part of the Creation, and that his duty is to support life in conjunction with the other beings. That is why we call ourselves Onkwehón:we—Real People.
Arguing that “spirituality is the highest form of political consciousness,” the Indigenous experts describe matter as an energy form—spirit. The question might be, “What happens when a humanist encounters grass spirit?”
I invoke Winona LaDuke’s Recovering the Sacred as a gesture to tribalography, bringing sacred humanity and Indigenous figurations of spirited grass close to each other. LaDuke tracks distinct Indigenous figurations of living mountains, sacred waters, and animal spirits, the relations of humans to which she upholds as grounds for building a moral future. White has woven Cooper, Du Bois, and Baldwin into the fabric of a North American religious naturalist tradition, describing the complexity of human consciousness as evidence of sacred humanity toward the goal of realizing a moral future. Triangulating with international Indigenous realities restores a link to the Indigenous roots of Black Lives. The Indigenous traditions of North America and Africa together deliver religious valuations of lives that matter. We are seeing correctly if we see that co-mingled African and American Indigenous stories willed Cooper, Du Bois, and Baldwin to become themselves. With triangulation, we understand the possibility held forward by Nick Estes, a historian and member of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe, that Our History is the Future. Perhaps it is time for sacred humanity and Real People. Perhaps this will lead others swiftly toward a moral future.