Spirit in the Dark

Spirit in the Dark is a historical project that engages with literary sources to grapple with questions in the study of religion. Josef Sorett (Columbia University) attempts to track the evolution of a debate about black art and culture—which he refers 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, Spirit in the Dark follows 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.

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 short forum, scholars reflect on Sorett’s most recent work and look at the history of racial aesthetics through different lenses.