Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Burden of Black Religion with Curtis J. Evans, Part 2

Today we continue the interview with Curtis Evans, and move into a discussion of the opening chapters of Burden of Black Religion.


Baldblogger (BB): I wonder if you can discuss the transformation of The Burden of Black Religion from dissertation to book manuscript? Also, what did you have to leave out of Burden that is relevant and interesting to the narrative you construct? Looking back, what about Burden would you rewrite, restate, or revise (if anything)?

Curtis Evans (CE): I had to leave out much of the material on the historiography of slavery and early studies of black religion in the 1970s. Although I talk about some of these in the footnotes in the book, much of this material was foregrounded in the dissertation. In some ways, I added material in the book or expanded sections that I did not have in the dissertation (for example, thinking more about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s attempt to ground varieties of black religious experience in a distinctive African psychology). There are several things I would do differently, but I state these tentatively because I am still unsure if this would have been the best way to go about framing the book. I would try to cut back on some of the many figures I treat. Some readers have complained about the vast number of figures and studies that I summarize and critically evaluate. I take that to be a call for more summary and critical analysis by heightening my own voice and stating more forcefully what all of this stuff means rather than narrating so many disparate voices. I have mixed feelings on how to respond to this because I wanted to give readers a sense of history in part by quoting disturbing voices from the past to unsettle our contemporary moment and to evoke the difference and pastness of the past. I include many voices because I wanted readers to be exposed to a variety of approaches to this broad topic, but more importantly, I hoped to convey dissenting voices that challenged a dominant paradigm. History is quite messy and takes many unexpected turns and so I did not want to silence or overlook voices that were relevant to the project at hand. Sometimes the only way to do this was to summarize, quote and analyze the work or ideas that addressed the topic under discussion rather than subsuming them to my interpretative voice.

There is also a concern about framing the relationship between the actual history of African American religion and churches and the ideas, interpretations and cultural images that I describe. Should I have intervened to point out how one person, for example, distorted history for a particular political agenda? How often should I try to intervene, if at all, and point the reader to the realities of what we know about African American religion at a particular moment? Should some of these voices, especially the disturbing ones, remain unchallenged? I tried to deal with this in part by presenting contrary voices from the same historical moment. My “intervention” would have been not only awkward, but of little use given that many of the presuppositions discussed I do not share. Still, I realize that many questions probably remain unanswered to some readers because I have left my narrative in its current form. How were these texts, ideas and cultural images received, appropriated or rejected by black church leaders and members? Why did I not address this process more fully? All of these are important issues and I struggled with them. Ultimately, I concluded that important as these concerns were and are, they would have made an already broad project even more unwieldy. The reader will have to judge if my choices were appropriate.

Perhaps I should have tried to link more explicitly how ideas related to institutions (black churches, universities as producers of knowledge about black culture, etc.) and the social and political worlds in which such ideas were being articulated. I am open to the criticism that I do not often enough ground the persons and ideas I discuss in local contexts and social networks. I am reminded of George Fredricksons’ remarks in the 1987 preface to his book, The Black Image in the White Mind (1971), in which he notes how he wanted to demonstrate how ideas become instruments of group advantage or domination (more clearly than he did in his first book). Though I think my topic made this easier in some ways, I take this comment as a challenge to my own work. Clearly, when I cite early psychologists and liberal Protestants asserting that black religion is pathological emotionalism and predisposes them to erratic actions and sexually aggressive behavior against white women, it takes little imagination to understand the accusatory and sinister meaning of this claim in the context of public debates about the prevalence of lynching in the South. In fact, some of the critics were quite explicit about the need for discipline and the restraining power of the state for such an allegedly emotional and unstable race. What these ideas or cultural images mean is quite often clear enough, but how they relate to or translate into reality or public policy is a different issue.

Doing intellectual and cultural history always runs the risk of slighting social, political and economic situatedness and giving the impression that ideas and cultural images have an independent or detached existence apart from lived experience and material reality. Although I did not adequately portray the interaction between culture and social structure, I tried to focus particular attention on debates that emerged at moments of cultural transition and the actual movement of blacks. Thus I made note of black mobility, black movement from the South to the North, the rise of black leaders who were able to take advantage of limited educational opportunities and use these as tools to critique pervasive racism in various disciplines, and proximity and distance in the spatial relationships between blacks and whites (a topic to which I have become especially interested since reading the works of Arnold Hirsch, Thomas Sugrue, and David Freund). I saw all of these issues as crucial in shaping the nature and intensity of debates about black religion and culture. Ultimately, however, I defend my general approach to the history I narrate by arguing that I wanted to insert or recover a missing element in an array of studies on black political, social and cultural history. I hope to heighten the salience of religion for critics of black religion and let readers see how on a deep cultural and theological level the division between blacks and whites was in some ways just as significant as legal and political forms of segregation (though recent scholarship is complicating even these neat distinctions between the political, legal, and cultural). I also wanted readers to imagine how this overlooked reality might shed some light on another level of separation that would persist even after legal segregation had ended: the enduring cultural divide, which in part is an outgrowth of this longstanding animus against black religion. The moral and religious critique of black culture has powerful and deep roots in American history and this requires attention from historians of the black experience. I wanted historians to ponder this as a serious and real concern even if it may not seem as important as economic, political and social concerns, which by their nature have a concreteness to them that is seemingly lacking in the moral and religious issues that I narrate and analyze.

I felt that the religious history of African Americans, though obviously much work remains to be done, had already been told in broad contours. Similarly, the development and nature of slavery, the history of the origins and evolution of legal segregation in the South, and the course and contested nature of the black freedom struggle and the civil rights movement—all of these topics have attracted lots of necessary attention and we have some excellent studies on most of them. I just did not feel a pressing need to retell these stories. Let me state this clearly: yes, much work remains to be done on many of these issues, but for my purpose, I wanted to insert a missing element into or provide a different angle on already existing narratives about African American history and culture and histories of Jim Crow segregation and race relations in the North. Although this may sound overly ambitious, I see my work as a supplement to the work of different kinds of histories: African American religious history, political and cultural histories on various facets of American history, and the history of race relations more generally. I deliberately made this a story of interracial debate, dialogue and fierce argumentation. All of these ideas about black religion involved back and forth debates and shared discussions between blacks and whites, though clearly blacks did not possess the power, cultural authority or the luxury of “dispassionate” inquiry as did their white counterparts. I am not making a claim of parity in these debates as though blacks were on equal terms with whites. No one who is aware of the history of violence in the South and North and the depth of racial oppression in America would take this view. Yet, I tried to show how blacks and whites, though often separated by space, power, and various institutional and informal forms of segregation in the South and North, were in actuality in an ongoing sparring match, with both of them trying to craft a more compelling narrative about the meaning of black religion and the cultural contributions and place of blacks in the nation. Sometimes these debates were face to face and directly dealt with black religion and thus involved some degree of mutuality and sharing. At other times, blacks were handed a narrative or had to deal with an imposed vision, which they tried in various ways to appropriate, amend, subvert, or reject. But they could not opt out of this debate because it was such a pressing one about the tortured and painful history of racial oppression and the future prospects of blacks and whites sharing in a multiracial democracy (which was envisioned by a small minority before the period at which my book ends).

BB: Discuss the book’s cover.

CE: There is nothing terribly significant about the book’s cover. It was taken from a reproduced image in Harper’s Monthly in 1865. Various other publications carried similar portrayals of black religious revivals. The cover shows the preacher delivering a sermon to a crowd of believers, mostly women, who are falling to the ground in religious ecstasy. These kinds of images were used to portray a caricature of black religiosity as excessively physical and emotional. Yet, this image can also be seen as that intense moment in the worship experience where blacks felt released from their burdens and sensed a palpable relief from the troubles and struggles that they endured through the week. It conveys one of the senses in which I mean the burden of black religion. I was casting about for a different cover to match more fully the title and subject matter of the book, but my editor favored and we settled on this one.

BB: You spend the first two chapters detailing the ironies and contradictions of white notions of Black religiosity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What are the most pertinent conclusions from this period about carrying the “burden of black religion”?

CE: First, I was especially interested in how debates about the nature and morality of slavery ended in terms of their reflections on slave capacities and ultimately the issue of what African slaves could perhaps contribute to American culture (particularly at a moment when discussions about American character and America’s relationship with Europe became so salient). My argument is that slave religion (as practice and cultural expression) was a crucial component in the national imagination about Africans’ potential place in the United States. Let me say a word about Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to develop this point. This work was written when the sectional conflict between the North and South was deepening and debates over slavery were raging. This was the first American novel to sell over a million copies. Regarding this influential and important work, historians and literary scholars rightly point to Stowe’s conflicted portrayal of black characters. Yet, I was particularly interested in how Stowe’s corporate conception of American black slaves and Africans rendered “poor Africa” as under God’s chastisement, groaning for relief from oppression and suffering. For Stowe, God had chosen poor Africa for some inscrutable reason to be put in the “furnace of affliction,” though she remained hopeful that this was a chastening work that would prepare Africans for a great work in the future (about which she did not offer specifics except to say that Africans would exhibit a higher and different kind of Christianity than whites were used to practicing). Because she was an antislavery activist, I do not mean to diminish Stowe’s powerful contribution to the critique of slavery as an institution. But I find it striking that suffering and affliction become for Stowe and other romantic racialists peculiarly suitable for Africans and are attached to their religious expression as though they are racial traits. Resignation under suffering is valorized as a distinctive contribution of Africans (and this view is forwarded at a historical moment of transition when some liberal and evangelical Christians bring graphic attention to the bodily pain of slaves and reject unmerited suffering as willed by God, as Elizabeth Clark notes). This puts American blacks into a cultural space in which they become exhibitors (as if on a stage) to whites of how to suffer and endure adversity. Ironically, suffering becomes a necessary condition for black religion to reach its highest potential. To link black religion to suffering and hardship has the effect (whether intended or not) of limiting reflection on its potential role among freed persons. It valorizes suffering and slaves’ religiosity in connection with it to such an extent that it is hard to imagine how one can forward a vision of free and independent persons if this suffering and dependency are so necessary. The black religious experience, which capaciously rendered is the entire black experience in America in all its tortured forms, becomes a cultural receptacle or the national unconscious repository in which are stored fears, fantasies, desires, and longings that come to the surface at moments of cultural stress. Talking about blacks then is a safe way to express deep fears, worries, and anxieties about issues that seem inappropriate or improper in polite conversation. Here we enter the realm of psychoanalysis and we are forced to reflect on the cultural work that is being performed by what Fredrickson calls the “black image in the white mind.”

Second, my first and second chapters try to detail the transition from debates over slave religion to perceptions of and discussions about the religion of the freed persons. Proximity is important here. The lofty language about the redeeming qualities of slave religion, and its putative softening influence and gentle beauty, disappears among the Northern Protestants working among blacks in the South following the Civil War. Many of these men and women made great sacrifices to work among blacks in the South and played a major role in establishing secondary and postsecondary institutions in the South. I want to note this fact because my comments about their views of black religion may give the wrong impression, that I am somehow depicting them as unfeeling racists who consistently denigrated black culture. That would be a simplistic and one-sided analysis of their relationship to Southern blacks. My argument is that if we pay careful attention to white Northern Protestants’ evaluations of black religious practice from the 1860s to the 1870s it appears that geographical proximity increased the degree of hostility against black religion. I am not certain if this is a controversial thesis, but it does lead me to disagree with Ed Blum, who argues in his impressively researched Reforging the White Republic that persistent interracial contact tended to melt whites’ stereotypes and prejudices. I should like to believe that Blum’s arguments are in fact true, but I just do not find evidence (on the whole) for his views, though it should be noted that one point of disagreement has to do with focus. Blum looks at private writings, journals and diaries, and he is more interested in the work of political figures. So his reading is broader than my focus on written and published missionary reports, newspapers, and Northern journals. My concern was the public discourse surrounding black religion, not private reflections. No one, it seems to me, has examined this material with such thoroughness as Blum has. Judging from his footnotes and bibliography, he seems conversant with all of the relevant secondary scholarship on this crucial period of transition. Therefore, I state the following point with some degree of hesitation: If we understand the formation of independent all-black churches as one of the most important social developments in the post-Civil War context and recognize the crucial role that churches and religious culture played among blacks in the South, would our understanding about the prospects of segregation emerging in the late 19th century change? If the churches were a central component of black life and were the object of such a powerful moral and cultural critique even among Northern Protestants who came to work among blacks, does this not add another layer of explanation to why race relations deteriorated in the late 19th century?

Perhaps I am making too much of this and it can be argued that I am exaggerating the importance of black churches. One has to acknowledge that other factors were at work and maybe other historians will say that these critiques of black religion, especially denigrations of black culture by white Southerners, were rationalizations for the oppression of blacks in the South. Perhaps, but it does not appear to me that there were any good “other” reasons for white Northern Protestants to make up rationalizations for black oppression if they are working to help blacks and engaged in a project of racial uplift. This is not to deny that Northerners often expressed sympathy for the alleged plight that white Southerners had on their hand or that they escaped ethnocentric biases against Southern white and black culture. My point is that if we take seriously their critiques of black religious and moral life then we can better appreciate how profoundly ambivalent was the legacy of Christianity for blacks. While a system of slavery separated black families and often allowed slave owners to sexually assault black women with virtual impunity, white Northerners apparently did not see the irony in criticizing black Christians for their alleged inability to honor the sacredness of marriage or to uphold proper sexual morality. Because of black professions of Christian faith, Northern and Southern whites judged blacks deficient in religious and cultural practice precisely because they shared a common Bible and (in theory) a common faith. The qualities for which black Christians were lauded in slavery (patience, fortitude, forgiveness, etc.) had lost their salience. Now, the abolitionists were just as concerned as slave masters of the late 18th century that Christianity was a disruptive force in that it inhibited slaves’ capacity to labor. In the post-Civil War context, however, thrift, industry, and discipline (variously called the Protestant ethic or bourgeois values) were seen as the necessary effects of Christianity and the crucial virtues that would lift freed persons from their slave past. Black Christianity was seen as a both a central part of their culture and as a signal failure in inculcating the virtues necessary for a free people. Christianity, in my view, was one of the central divides between blacks and whites, especially Northerners, in the late 1860s and the 1870s.

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