“Religion” has been used within African American studies to identify the sacred rituals, symbols, traditions, and worldviews to which black folks adhere and to distinguish them from the ordinary, informal, and nonsacred principles that structure black life. Inherent in the etymology of “religion” and its subsequent genealogy is its connection to formal, identifiable traditions. The word “religion” immediately invokes an organized system on which sacred beliefs are placed and subsequent behaviors are enacted. Within African American studies, this includes, most prominently, Christianity and, less popularly, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, African traditional religions (ATRs) such as Yoruba, Santería, and Candomblé, and African-derived religions (ADRs) and folk traditions such as voodoo, conjure, and hoodoo.
It is impossible to understate the conceptual significance of religion—the effervescent, ethereal, and expressive faiths—to the experiences of African Americans. After all, whether called “African American religion” or, as interchangeably deployed here, “black religion,” the psychic, soulful expressions of black folks have influenced key moments of American history. The experience of the Middle Passage cultivated burgeoning spiritual identities and practices for blacks in America (and in the black Atlantic world), shaped by the trauma of forced bondage, honed by the demands of the plantocracy, and refined beyond institutional enslavement. Hush harbors housed the sacred diasporic cosmologies that were transported during the transatlantic slave trade and morphed into the unique expressions of spirituality exemplified in the emergence of Negro spirituals. The features of black religious expression that emerged in those clandestine spaces of “slave religion” have yet to be fully uncovered (Raboteau 1978). They are the foundations of what has become African American religion.
Central to the civil rights movement, for example, were the music and sounds—including the call-and-response style—that emerged from the hush harbors of North America. Black religious groups and organizations aided black Americans through tumultuous eras—abolitionism, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow among them—and helped usher in the broadest institutional and legal applications of equality for African Americans. Some of the most visible figures within African American history—Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Jarena Lee, Maria Stewart, “Gullah” Jack Pritchard, Septima Clark, Clara Muhammad, Marcus Garvey, Nat Turner, Fannie Lou Hamer, and others—emerged from black churches, temples, mosques, and spiritual movements. Even as the “great leader” model is not the most effective or accurate means of understanding black religious, political, social, historical, and cultural change (E. Edwards 2012), it is notable that there is no single space, sole tradition, or particular locale that produced these leaders.
This is a fairly straightforward conceptual framing of religion, and yet, as it is common to black experience and black expression, this claim to meaning is not without its irony. At the root of the connotation of “religion” in its Latin (religare) and Old French (religio) origins is the assumption of bondage, where one binds oneself to—or is bound by—a sense of obligation, intimacy (i.e., bond), or reverence to a holy other. Considering those faiths that the enslaved held onto during the Middle Passage, then, gives us a new way of interpreting the meaning of a double bind, for as they were being subjugated, they wrestled with holding onto the beliefs that would allow their survival. This active wrestling between bond and bondage, agency and submission, is too an instrumental part of African American religion and has resulted in a shift of how the term “religion” has been used over time. Put another way, the keyword “religion” reflects the intimate struggles that black folks face as they strive to loosen the strongholds of imposed bondage while acquiescing to the agency inherent in choosing their own gods. Hence, various idioms including “faith,” “belief,” and most recently, “spirituality,” have been appropriated in place of the religion. Yet they largely convey the same thing, even as the terms all point toward the idea that what black folk believe in is no longer exclusively or predominantly tied to formal traditions or practices. Rather, these concepts all tap into a sacred undercurrent, so to speak—of how African Americans structure their lives and actions around what they deem holy, irrefutable, and sacred. In essence, “religion” for African Americans has always been, as William D. Hart describes, “a conceptual tool, a historically and discursively informed way of categorizing a heterogeneous ensemble of cultural practices in the Black Atlantic world” (2006, 476).
Mapping the contoured meanings of religion for blacks in the United States thus poses a distinct challenge, as one result of enslavement was an active dismantling of ATRs, ADRs, and folk religion. Christianity, a religion of “the masters,” took its own roots in black life, which resulted in a perception of its becoming synonymous with black religion. From the earliest iterations, literature on black religion has been focused on its Protestant, Christian expressions. One need only turn to the famed sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1903 articulation of African American religion in The Souls of Black Folks or, a century later, the incomparable sociological work presented by C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya (1990) to see how the creation of seven mainline Protestant denominations between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries left a remarkable impression on the formation of black religion in America. It was within these denominations that the largest numbers of enslaved, formerly enslaved, and free blacks publicly participated and that documented accounts of African American religious expression were most readily made.
Even as history has revealed that the complexities of black religiosity are not—and have never been—just Christian, the impact of Christianity on African American religion is quite significant. The visibility, centrality, and predominance of black Protestantism within historical presentations have resulted in the treatment of black religion as synonymous with the formation of the black (Christian) church. This move, which William Hart (2008) calls the “Standard Narrative of Black Religion as the Black Church,” has diminished the robust and dynamic features of black religion that do not fall within the confines of Christianity. Hart has provided a more comprehensive way of thinking about the “Three Rival Narratives of Black Religion” that disrupt popular reductions of black religion to the black church. To Hart, black religion is as much the typical notion of the black (Protestant, Christian) church as it is the “souls of black folks,” or an existential phenomenology shaped by racial identity and the condition of antiblack racism. Black religion, to Hart, is also relegare, meaning “ancestor piety,” in which one celebrates the names of all ancestors, including those “who invoke the gods of Africa,… who invoke other gods,… who invoke no gods at all, who are indifferent to the gods, or curse the gods” (2006, 490).
Hart’s inclusive treatment of black religion in America should not be viewed as a counternarrative. Historically, the Christianizing thread is in fact disingenuous to the origins of black religion in America. When one examines the earliest iterations of what has become African American religion, it is evident that blacks spent nearly two centuries on the shores of North America before Christianity took root. Instrumental, then, to any understanding of black religion is the notion of religious syncretism, the merging of distinct (or conflicting) practices, rituals, and traditions into a single system of belief. Inherent to the idea of religious syncretism is the fusing of multiple religions. African American religion is, at its core, the blending of traditions created from practices, rituals, and cosmologies that originate from places throughout the black Atlantic. Inherently, then, the plurality of African American religions has necessitated multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to their examination.
A small number of early works on black religion disrupted the Christocentric narrative of black religion, including especially Arthur Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis (1944) and Lincoln’s The Black Muslims in America (1961). In the tradition of those forebears, contemporary scholarship in the field has increasingly (and rightly) moved further away from the overwhelmingly Christocentric focus that has dominated popular notions of black religiosity and has focused more readily on the syncretic aspects of African American religion. Works such as Yvonne Chireau’s Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (2006); Tracey Hucks’s Yoruba Traditions and African American Religion Nationalism (2012); Jacob Dorman’s Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions (2013); Manigault-Bryant’s Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (2014), and Eddie Glaude’s African American Religion: A Very Short Introduction (2014) are indicative of this shift. Judith Weisenfeld’s (2017) recent exploration of religio-racial formation among black participants in the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and Ethiopian Hebrew sects takes the fluid intersections of religion and race as the framing traditions for which to consider and imagine the vast diversity of black religious expression in the United States. As a collective, these works suggest that any routine reflection on black religion must begin with the knowledge that African American religion is as diverse in its expression as it is vast in its appropriation.
The increase of more syncretic approaches to understanding African American religion is not the only development that has altered our understanding of black religion. A more explicit focus on gender has also expanded notions of black religion beyond places where men are the preeminent religious participants and authorities. Admittedly, this is a shift in the scope of African American religion that has taken unnecessarily long to unfold. Critical analyses of black women’s roles within (Christian) sacred spaces were led by the deployment of Alice Walker’s (1983) terminology into the establishment of womanist theology. Jacquelyn Grant, for example, was particularly critical of the invisibility of black women within black theology in her landmark essay “Black Theology and the Black Woman” (1979) and subsequent text White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response (1989). This intervention, along with Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s (1993) extensive historical work on black women’s activism within the Baptist church, led to an extensive scholarly collection on black women’s religious histories that harks back to the powerful narrative of the African Methodist Episcopal church’s first female preacher, Jarena Lee (b. 1783), and has continued into the present. Notably, however, black women’s stories are still largely framed within the context of Christianity. Modern communities of black folks are increasingly turning away from formalized religion. Similarly, female members of the faith (who continue to hold the largest membership within black churches) ruminate aloud, as Eddie Glaude Jr. (2010) did in his (hotly contested) public obituary, whether “the black church is dead.” This suggests that engendered exposés of the confines of black religion and the question of the efficacy of Christianity for black women will continue to be a point of critical reflection.
Another important development within African American religion has been an increased focus on the black body and sexuality. This too is a more recent shift within the field, demarcated by the work of Kelly Brown Douglas (1999), Horace L. Griffin (2006), Ashon T. Crawley (2008), and Roger Sneed (2010). The limited focus on the black religious body and its engendered and sexualized manifestations is particularly intriguing considering the role that black corporeality played upon the arrival of blacks in North America. Moreover, the placement of black bodies at the lowest rung of the global racial-hierarchical ladder has meant that within religion, sacred corporeality has given way to diminishing misperceptions of the black body as deviant and hypersexual. These silences around the black body and black sexuality within religion are diminishing as increased focus on how the body facilitates communication and encounter with the sacred continues to complicate any perceived “normativity” within black religious expression.
These modern shifts in the field come from a long-standing practice of critiquing the cultural implications of black religion, laid bare in the prolific, scathing critique of black Pentecostalism in James Baldwin’s classic text Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and in the less publicized folk practices made infamous by the inimitable griot Zora Neale Hurston in The Sanctified Church (1981) and Tell My Horse: Voodoo Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1990). Black women and gay-, lesbian-, queer-, and transgender-identified bodies have radically altered our perceptions of the spaces in which black sacred altars are erected. The emergence of womanism and queer and sexuality studies have simultaneously transformed what we now know or think of as African American religion.
To fully understand the connotation of religion within African American studies, then, is not to explore the what or who of black religion but to revel in the why. Even as it is important to understand what African Americans believe and who has contributed to that understanding, knowledge of which religious traditions black folks adhere to and whether they are Christian, Jewish, African, nationalistic, folk, and so on is less meaningful to religion’s place as a keyword. Rather, it is more consequential to comprehend why religion matters in the most rudimentary sense, which is expressly connected to the wrestling between narratives of bondage and narratives of freedom and the black believing bodies that struggle with the agency of choice in a world that frequently deems it as “other.”
African American religion has always been shaped by its people, geographies, and contexts. In the mid-nineteenth century, the spiritual desires of black people demanded the creation and cultivation of their own spaces, which became black churches, mosques, temples, and sacred sanctuaries. This current moment is no different, and the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is a modern example of the dialectical interplay between American political and social environments and black religion. The movement formally began in 2012, in response to the controversial, racially polarizing case in Sanford, Florida, where George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. The outcry and protest surrounding Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal certainly stand in the black activist tradition of Ida B. Wells and are reminiscent of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) of the 1960s. What distinguishes the #BlackLivesMatter movement from others is the current context in which it has emerged. Social media, digital technologies, and hashtag activism have immediately placed it within a global, diasporic conversation. That one of the founders and leaders of the movement—Patrisse Cullors—is the embodiment of black religious syncretism as a self-identified queer polyamorous practitioner of the Yoruban divination tradition called Ifá further differentiates this moment and this movement from its historical antecedents (Farrag 2015).
#BlackLivesMatter exemplifies the permeability of the term “religion” within African American studies to mean more than just formal tradition or adherence to a neatly outlined system of belief. Even as it is designated as a “political movement,” its sacred undercurrents are palpable via its leadership and its calls for black agency and the removal of the contemporary forms of political, structural, and social bondage that threaten to deem black lives irrelevant. The #BlackLivesMatter movement reminds us that the killing of unarmed black bodies is not exceptional or unique. Rather, the movement confirms more names to be added to a disturbing litany of lynchings, murders, and deaths of black women, men, and children, including Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Yvette Smith, Tamir Rice, Michelle Vash Payne, Sam DuBose, Aiyana Jones, the Charleston Nine, and Sandra Bland. #BlackLivesMatter further affirms that the spilling of black blood on American soil is more normative than not, and black religion has always had to grapple with—and respond to—that reality. This is the why. Even when black religious organizations have not formally responded to these deaths, it is within sacred spaces that the grieving families and loved ones are comforted, that communities are rallied to action, and that the bodies of the dead are ceremoniously laid to rest. Black religion, in all of its variants, contours, traditions, cosmologies, and histories, forces us to grapple with what it means to believe in anything within a country that frequently leaves its black citizens questioning the meaning of their lives.
Black religion is as much the heart-wrenching angst communicated in the Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” as it is the visual representation of the Baptism of Sue Mae by the South Carolinian artist Jonathan Green (1986). Black religion is as much the sacred significance communicated in hip-hop culture (Miller and Pinn 2014) as it is the creation of a protest sign by Daniel José Camacho (2015), influenced by black liberation theology and resulting in the trending hashtag #JamesConeWasRight. Black religion is deeply historical yet simultaneously influenced by its current contexts. Black religion is Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Pan-Africanism, agnosticism, atheism, humanism, conjure, folklore, call-and-response, musical, oral, aural, visual, activism, protest, soul, death, life, and eternity. To acknowledge the significance of black religion means that one accepts that there has always been an active wrestling with the meaning of religion in black life and that experiences of spirituality, faith, and ritualized expression among African Americans are as diverse, broad, and purposeful in their scope as they are in their function. Taking religion seriously means recognizing that any consideration of social identities, social movements, history, and cultural production that has impacted African Americans likely has had black religiosity or spirituality at its core. In sum, the complexities of African American religion and spirituality are as vast and diverse as are the millions of black folks who contribute to its formation—past, present, and future.