Saturday, December 26, 2009

John Hope Franklin's FBI File

I've been pouring through W.E.B. Du Bois's FBI files for my current writing project, and so Mark Anthony Neal's post about John Hope Franklin caught my eye. Talking Points Memo Muckraker discussed federal vetting for one of Dr. Franklin's appointments in the 1960s, and it also appears that J. Edgar Hoover--modeling the U.S. government's surveillance of Black Americans particularly during the Cold War period--examined some of Franklin's "ties" to communism.

It is now well acknowledged, of course, thanks to the work of scholars such as Robin D.G. Kelley, Gerald Horne, Brenda Plummer, and Mary Dudziak, that the demise of Jim Crow in the mid-twentieth century came via Black America's long-standing ties to the Communist Party, and the losing propaganda battle the U.S. tried to fight in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s as Moscow pointed out the U.S. anti-democratic practices at home while claiming to fight for democracy abroad.

Of particular interest in reading the file--excerpted here by TPM Muckraker--is the commentary about Dr. Franklin's praise for Du Bois's life, work, scholarship, and activism the year following Du Bois's death. Franklin said: "Dr. Du Bois has been an inspiration to me and to most members of my generation. ... His impeccable scholarship, his fearlessness as a leader,and his determination to secure freedom for all peoples, were the hallmarks of his great and illustrious life."

About Du Bois's 1951 arrest and trial, Franklin recollected: "I wish I could eradicate from my memory the picture of Dr. Du Bois, handcuffed like some common thief, accused at eighty years of age of being the agent of a foreign power. Even his later exoneration cannot obliterate from my mind the impression that, perhaps he was the victim not merely of the fanatacism that characterized those years, but that he was being punished for what he had represented for more than half a century."

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Spending the Holidays with Horne, Part 1: Interview with Gerald Horne

The next interview at Baldblogger--which comes in two installments--features an extended conversation with University of Houston historian Gerald Horne about his latest book, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography (2009).

In addition to his professorial duties at UH, Horne is a regular writer and commentator at Political Affairs. One may find him on-line with the "The Blackberry Interview" as well as an interview about his book on connections between East Africa and the United States Mau Mau in Harlem?: The U.S. and the Liberation of Kenya (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Other resources include a 2002 video lecture on reparations for African Americans. Horne also appears on YouTube, in a 3-part presentation from The Long Civil Rights Movement conference in April 2009.

In this interview Horne discusses his extensive research on Du Bois, important and salient points about W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography, working in the archives, and books he is currently writing.


Baldblogger (BB): There are a number of biographies on Du Bois currently available—namely the early works of Elliott Rudwick and Francis Broderick from the 1950s and 1960s, David Levering Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2-volume study, published in 1993 and 2000, respectively (now available in a condensed one volume offering), Manning Marable’s readable W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat (1986), and Edward Blum’s W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet (2007), among many others. Put simply, why the need for another biography on William Edward Burghardt Du Bois?

Gerald Horne (GH): Good question: I would say that my biography has a particular interpretation of Du Bois' life, previously unavailable. I would also add that the political experiences I have had are congruent with those of Du Bois, giving this particular biography a notable resonance, also unavailable elsewhere.

BB: Several distinguishing marks about your Du Bois biography merit mention. One is that you situate Du Bois’s life and times in an international context—relating his assaults on white supremacy at home to the color line that belted the world (to use the title of a 1906 Du Bois article). You also spend considerable time discussing the last two decades of his life (particularly chapters 10-12)—an important period that has received little scholarly attention. Moreover, you open the book’s introduction with the story of Du Bois’s 1951 arrest—not an insignificant place to begin the biography. On a related note you state in at least two places in the book that Du Bois became more politically radical with age, whereas conventional wisdom suggests that individuals tend in a more conservative direction as they advance in years (pp. 104, 163). I wonder if you might elaborate on these important features of your book?

GH: There is a saying, as you well know, that "all politics is local" and that we should "think globally, act locally." If you meld these two aphorisms you arrive at the point that in order to comprehend the ostensibly domestic--e.g. a man, Du Bois, born in the U.S.--one must understand the entire context (including the global context) that enveloped him. It is now well-established that a signal reason why Jim Crow began to crumble when it did--i.e. in the 1950s--has everything to do with the Cold War and the difficulty the U.S. had in presenting itself as a paragon of human rights virtue in the ongoing conflict with Moscow, as long as it was enmeshed itself in horrific human rights violations. The trade-off, little recognized--I'm afraid--is that in exchange for civil rights concessions, those of the left (e.g. Du Bois) had to be further marginalized. In other words, seeking to understand Du Bois' life without understanding the entire context in which he operated (including the global) would be quite short-sighted.

Opening the book in 1951 highlights this point--i.e. this was arguably the low point of his life: being arrested. But he was arrested not because of a moral failing, I would argue, but due to a changing political scene. I think that the nation was moving to the right, as Du Bois' life proceeded---then the nation made the extraordinary leap of moving to the right as civil rights were expanded. Du Bois could have accepted this civil rights bargain, as so many others did, but refused. As I argued in my book, Black & Red, these salient points are best illustrated in the last decades of his life--arguably the most important of his important life.

BB: A related question concerning Du Bois's twilight of years: for those so interested, what are some of the most important of Du Bois's writings, circa 1934-1963, you would direct readers to and why?

GH: Black Reconstruction, of course, is yet to be surpassed in explicating a critical era. In Battle for Peace--indispensable in understanding the question posed above. His Autobiography too is indispensable in the latter regard. [BB: The latest critical edition of Du Bois's writing--published under the editorship of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and a series to which Horne contributes--came out in 2007 with Oxford University Press. Equally indispensable is the 35-volume collection of Du Bois's works compiled and edited by Du Bois's comrade and the indefatigable Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker.]

BB: Relative to Du Bois’s work with the NAACP, you note his role as editor of The Crisis, the NAACP’s official magazine. It seems to me that the early issues of Crisis—under Du Bois’s editorship from 1910-1934—presents the interested scholar with a virtually untapped archive of early twentieth-century history. You write that, along with Du Bois’s earlier journalistic efforts in Moon and The Horizon, Du Bois sought both to assault white supremacy and inform readers about Africa, among other aims. Can you comment more about Du Bois and his work in/on The Crisis?

GH: The Crisis remains unsurpassed to this day. Without being invidious, compare this journal to its current iteration and you will find that it is not easy being radical--as Du Bois' iteration surely was--even today when the price to be paid is not as high as it was in 1910. Compare how Du Bois' version handled global matters with today's, where this weighty matter is largely absent.

BB: In chapter 7, you contextualize Du Bois’s 1924 book The Gift of Black Folk: Negroes in the Making of America, by discussing its publication under the auspices of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic outfit. You rightly point out that Du Bois roundly criticized the church’s support of white supremacy and segregation. While this is the only place in W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography you address religion, I wonder if you might assess the surging scholarly interest in Du Bois and religion?

GH: Religion has been huge in the Black American Experience and it is only natural that this interest seeps into a consideration of an important figure e.g. Du Bois.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Satan in America: Scott Poole Interview, Part 3

Baldblogger (BB): As writers, it is inevitable that some of what we write along the way ends up on the cutting floor. What did you have to leave out of Satan in America? What great stories are readers missing?

Scott Poole (SP): Lots, I’m afraid, ended up being left out and I’m sure you understand how painful that can be. This is why I wanted to include “Hunting the Devil: A Bibliographic Essay” at the end of the book to point readers to other resources. The book I originally proposed to write was much larger, in fact coming in at around 600 pages instead of 300. My publisher really felt that this was too hefty and agreed with me that, even writing a book of that size could not mean I would give my subject an exhaustive treatment.

So, I did not examine American literature to the degree I wanted to. The reader will get bit on Hawthorne, Melville and Twain in the 19th century but only a brief mention of Flannery O’Connor in the 20th. I wanted to say a good bit on O’Connor who stared into the American heart of darkness perhaps more directly than any of our great writers. This was a section that could be cut because other scholars have done this really well, including Jeffrey Burton Russell in Mephistopheles.

Another area that had to be cut significantly was my discussion of the “satanic panic.” I felt ok about this, in part, because other books had dealt with the details. I do hope I managed to convey the sense that American demonologies created a kind of moral crisis in American life during that period and that these beliefs found expression in the larger moral crisis of the Reagan years.

BB: Now a question about teaching: What is Satan’s reception in your classroom? In other words, how have students responded to the subject of Satan/evil in the classroom? (In my experience, students seem endlessly fascinated with the various incarnations of “Satan” in American culture.)

SP: College students love Satan! At least they love to talk about him and consider how popular beliefs about him complicate existing narratives of American religious experience. I teach a course on the History of Religion in the United States and really try to push students, usually successfully, to consider how stories we already know are changed when we factor in the Satan variable. I think it further illuminates everything from the Great Awakening, to the rise of the Methodist movement, to emergence of sectarianism in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

Certainly the connections I make between pop culture and theological belief hold a lot of interest for students who are, we all know, media saturated. As a teacher, I really believe that helping them to read “The Exorcist” or “Rosemary’s Baby” as an important document in American religion rather than just a scary movie with some interesting themes can help them interact with and interpret pop culture in a sophisticated way.

I have also found that “media saturated” doesn’t always mean media savvy…scholars need to help students look at pop culture in some depth, to read it as a set of documents that help us to explain American history and culture just as much as text we might locate in the archives. I love watching students be amazed to realize it can be done legitimately. After all, the goal is to help them become fully independent, fully rational and very interesting people who can interact with all sorts of information in a sophisticated way…its not to hit them over the head with some historical master narrative while telling tell them to memorize it or they don’t get any pudding (I guess that last comment really dates me).

BB: You’ve written extensively on the nineteenth century, politics, religion, and culture and now a long, historical look at Satan. Any new projects in the works that interested readers can keep our eyes peeled for?

SP: My collaboration with dark powers continues. In fact, I’m not even done with Satan yet. Although its too soon to give any details, I’m having early conversations with an accomplished documentary filmmaker about the possibility of turning the book into a film, perhaps a documentary series.

For my next book project, I hope to use the massive amounts of material I cam across on the idea of monsters and monstrosity in American history to again consider some of these connections between religious belief, popular culture and American identity. I think we need a historian’s take on American Monsters as well as the American Satan and I hope to be able to provide that.

I enjoyed talking about this with you Phil, thanks for taking the time with me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Satan in America: Scott Poole, Part 2

Today is the second installment of Baldblogger's interview with Scott Poole.....

Baldblogger (BB): One of the thoughts that came to mind as I read Satan in America was “fate” of God/gods according to the secularization thesis/narrative. Many of the foremost supporters of the secularization thesis have recanted in recent years (e.g., Peter Berger), writing about the endurance of religion and faith in the technological age. From one perspective, it seems that Satan “survived” the secularization thesis; few seemed to question the existence (and/or reality) of the Prince of Darkness even as many doubted the viability of belief in God/gods. Is this an accurate observation, and if so, what does this say about Satan in American religious history?

Scott Poole (SP): I don’t think the secularization thesis is at all tenable for American society. I actually make the case mushrooming beliefs about Satan from the 60s until today underscore the idea that not only is America not becoming more secular, its becoming more religious all the time. Berger has, as you note, recanted. Its as telling to note that the author of The Secular City, Harvey Cox, has published books on Pentecostalism and another called When Jesus Went to Harvard in the last few years.

Along these lines, part of my own intellectual background was a book that made a huge impression on me in the mid-90s called The Death of Satan. Written by the brilliant cultural historian and commentator Andrew Delbanco, the book argues that, as beliefs about Satan and the world of spiritual evil declined throughout American history (especially in the 20th with what he calls the birth of a “culture of irony”), Americans lost the ability to talk bout evil in meaningful terms

It’s a profound book but, in my mind, profoundly wrong in certain respects. Americans have not lost the language to talk about evil—they have a lurid, gaudy and intemperate language with which they do talk about it. What Americans have never been able to face, at least Americans who are white and of middle class and upper class status, is the way the national experiment is profoundly entangled with historical evil.

I hope that readers are struck, as I still am, by how frequently the Devil has been the ghost at the American banquet. My own experience as an author was to feel like I was on a guided tour of an American inferno, where beliefs about demonology seemed to be creating horrors at every turn. This didn’t cease in the 18th century, or the 19th century or t an point in the 20th. Indeed, one of my last chapters is entitled “Lucifer Rising” to convey the sense that , for specific historical reason, post-Vietnam, post-Nixon America became fertile ground for lurid beliefs about the Devil.

BB: Is has been interesting to read Satan in America during the opening months of President Obama’s tenure. As many are aware, some on the Right have presented the President as an incarnation of evil, with a few even claiming that Barack Obama is the Antichrist. This is a striking contrast to depictions of Obama as a messiah-like figure during the campaign. To what extent do these contemporary depictions relate to the arguments you make in Satan in America?
SP: I was completing the book in the final months of Bush presidency with the campaign well under way. Some bits were actually added during the revision/editing process after Election Day. I’m pleased you bring this up because, as an author, you always wonder if your book will be immediately dated, so much “of the moment” that it has little meaning once that moment passes. I, for example, wondered (and in some ways hoped) if the closing chapters of the book were so pessimistic and angry that it would seem very out of place in an America where hope seemed a the national sentiment.

I’m sorry to say that, if I were writing those final chapters today, I suspect that they might be even darker and angrier. The book argues throughout that the a desire to do violence to the Other has been one of the cycles hardwired into the structure of American historical experience, the process of demonization followed by an unleashing of terrible violence. In the last twelve months, the rhetoric of irresponsible individuals like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh , the pathological paranoia of the “tea baggers,” the fact that a recent poll of New Jersey Republics found almost forty percent of them saying that Obama was definitely or at least maybe the Antichrist points to a rising tide of darkness in American public life.

The book deals with the portrayals of Obama as the antichrist, as well as Sarah Palin’s connection to an exorcist who worries about the influence of Satan in the media and believes himself a witch-hunter. This is worth pondering: some of our fellow citizens believe the President to be a supernatural creature possessed by Satan and leading the world to the end-times. A recent vice presidential candidate has an exorcist as a spiritual mentor.

In 1836, Hawthorne wrote of Gallows Hill in Salem that it was overgrown and covered in weeds, just as the place “where superstition won its darkest triumph” should be. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Hawthorne was too optimistic. I don’t think that we have yet seen superstitions darkest triumph in our national history yet.

BB: I was particularly intrigued by some pointed and poignant comments you make in the closing paragraph in the Epilogue: “American historians have not, as of yet, been able to speak meaningfully about the reality of evil in national history . . .This is a failing in the profession. For too long, allegedly rejected notions of “American exceptionalism” and “American innocence” have blinded both the amateur public and the professional historian to the darker chapters of our history. . . Only when American historians reject the vestiges of national myth and equally acidic myths of “historical objectivity” can American historiography undergo a much needed exorcism.” I wonder if you can elaborate briefly on these thoughts?

SP: I think that American historians, especially those who deal with the American South, have dealt with individual evils and have been willing to discuss those in some detail. There is a powerful and moving historiography of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and treatment of the native peoples. What I was hinting at (it is not fully developed in the book) is that most Americans, historians and otherwise, do not have a sense of collective guilt over collective evil. We are all aware of the evils committed by the American nation-state throughout its history, we even are aware that the boundaries of the west were carved out by mass slaughter while prosperity was built in the east on the brutal subjugation of four million African Americans. And yet, we still have a major debate in the Texas school system over American history textbooks (and its thus a national debate since Texas purchase so many textbooks that it will effect what is published and what isn’t) with conservative leaders arguing that our schools should teach “American exceptionalism” and an optimistic notion of American achievement while avoiding any negative portrayals of American history.

Of course, the knee-jerk reaction for many would be to write this off as the ranting of an “anti-American” That is also an example of the refusal to face our collective past. Don’t the American people have a deep well of moral and spiritual tradition that calls us to some degree of penitence or at least mourning over our national atrocities? If not, doesn’t that mean there is something rotten at our very center? Either we are morally clueless or like Satan himself, filled with a kind of Miltonic triumph over our war against the good.

I don’t believe in the Devil that so many of those I have studied believe in. But I do believe in massive, collective historical evil, trans-human in its ability to incite violence and then encourage apathy about the result of that violence. And I think it has us just where it wants us.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Satan in America: Scott Poole

This week Baldblogger interviews Scott Poole, a history professor at the College of Charleston and author of the new book Satan in America: The Devil We Know, just out with Rowman & Littlefield. Today is the first post of three. So while this week is filled with trick-or-treating, ghosts and goblins of various kinds, fall festivals, and haunted houses, give Satan his due by reading Poole's great new book (or surprise those unsuspecting trick-or-treaters by passing out copies of Satan in America!)

Baldblogger (BB): Satan seems to be an ever present interest, preoccupation, even obsession in American history and culture. What inspired your interest in this subject? What were the origins of this fascinating project?

Scott Poole (SP): I have joked with my parents that I probably would never have needed to write a book about Satan if they had let me get ticket to that Ozzy concert in 1986 or not cut off access to Ghost Rider comics around the same time. I don’t know if I’m entirely kidding. I did grow up in the 80s when, as I describe in the book, a wave of irrational paranoia about the influence of the Devil in popular culture, a “satanic panic” swept the country. Evangelicalism’s rather gaudy and dark symbolic world that imagines Satan in the lyrics of heavy metal music and heading up a worldwide conspiracy that will lead to the emergence of the Antichrist held and still hold, enormous fascination for me.

I also think that scholars of American religion have avoided this topic for too long. It seems to me that beliefs about the Devil shaped American religious practice as much, and sometimes more, than beliefs about God. Some wonderful historians, including some that have been very influential on me like Christine Heyrman, have looked at this as part of their larger work.

Finally, I have to confess that I’m an inveterate consumer of low and high-grade pop culture, in massive, possibly unhealthy, quantities. It makes me happy to connect my scholarly life with this other pretty important part of my life.

BB: A central tenant of Satan in America is that Satan, the diabolical, and the Other/Evil flexes and changes over time, depending on the historical context as well as the cultural needs of the moment. In your estimation, what is the most striking of these moments in American religious history?

SP: I was astonished at what I learned about the 18th century. This is not a period where, as a historian, I spend a lot of time and so I quickly became fascinated with how much power was attributed to the Devil in this era, even over and above what even the Puritans had given him. The whole notion of “spiritual warfare” becomes a primary part of the evangelical narrative in the 1740s and this makes Satan a constant shadow across their path.

Its interesting to note that, for many Puritans, seeing the Devil or having an encounter with him was evidence that an individual had made a “satanic pact” and was active as a witch. For the first generation of American evangelicals (and later generations as well) an encounter with Satan meant that were on your way to becoming a spiritual hero, a spiritual warrior. I tapped into some unused primary sources that I think show what a powerful and ever present force the Devil became for many Americans.

By the way, it is ironic to me that most people who hear about this book assume that I focus primarily on the Salem Witch trials. I don’t, in part because I believe the understandable focus on that episode tends to blind us to the larger role that beliefs about the Devil play in the American narrative.

BB: I was particularly intrigued by the multiple manifestations of Satan as a male, as well as the Devil as a female. I wonder if you could discuss the gendered dimensions of Satan in American religious history?

SP: Well, of course, gendered representations of the Devil are part of a much longer history of misogyny in the western world. Throughout most of that history, Satan has been gendered as a male but his chief servants and avatars have been gendered female. I think that this is generally known but I think that it is less well known that these representations have remained incredibly powerful in American religion and popular culture. Most of your readers have likely heard of the story of the Jersey Devil who haunts the piney woods with its moans and shrieks. Few probably know that these stories originate in the 18th century with tales of a monstrous birth connected to a woman accused of both witchcraft and sexual misconduct. I explore this in the book as part of a larger story I tell about the relationship between diabolical beliefs and efforts to restrict womens’ political and social agency.

Another aspect of this same theme is the rather surprisingly numerous appearances of the Devil in the silent film era and how, almost always, these were connected with the screen vamp. Theda Bara and Adele Farrington consistently played women who either made a pact with Satan to deceive men or were themselves deceived by him, either because they were sexually voracious or materialistic or both. Clearly this gendered imagery pointed to cultural anxiety over “the new woman” although throughout the book, in every period, you’ll be struck by how often women are linked with demonic evil. I recently commented on this in a discussion of American misogyny and the recent film “Jennifer’s Body.”

BB: Unfortunately, there are no images of Satan—artistic depictions of the Devil—in the book. In your opinion, what are some of the more striking, or enduring images of Satan in American culture?

SP: I think that in one sense some images of the American Satan do appear in the book. A central theme in the book is that “Satan has always been someone” for Americans and so when Thomas Nast creates an image of feminist Victoria Woodhull as “Mrs. Satan” then we are getting a good glimpse of American demonology. The book also contains a harrowing image used in the rather trashy late nineteenth century rag “The National Police Gazette.” Entitled “The Female Abortionist” it shows a young, middle class woman whose vitals are being literally consumed by a demonic imp. The message there is clear.

A lot of the images I wanted to include (but couldn’t because of the sometimes extravagant price my press would have had to pay for permission) include a lot of contemporary pop culture images that illustrate both the continued power of older images of the Devil (such as Linda Blair from the Exorcist) and newer, alternative Devils that I discuss in the book who often subvert older, more conservative paradigms. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an interesting example of the latter. I am really intrigued at how that show played with traditional concepts of misogyny and apocalyptic to deliver a very different message than these older narratives. I also look at Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” and Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” for similar reasons.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Fall 2009: W.E.B. Du Bois

As I'm preparing to take up a new teaching position this fall, beginning to revise my dissertation into a book manuscript, preparing several conference papers, and otherwise make steady progress on several other writing projects, recently I came across some books I'm looking forward to reading this fall.

As the title of this post suggests, these are works about W.E.B. Du Bois.

1. The first is from American studies scholar and College of New Rochelle historian Amy Bass. Well-known for her historical analysis of recent Olympics games, her first book Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete (2002) is a serious study with enduring relevance. (See also the recent documentary on Black Power, the quest for justice, and the 1968 Olympics, "Salute.") Professor Bass's new book, titled Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle Over W.E.B. Du Bois, due out in October, is a study of the memory of W.E.B. Du Bois. The University of Minnesota Press's website contians this summary of the book:

On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois died in exile in Ghana at the age of 95, more than a half century after cofounding the NAACP. Five years after his death, residents of Great Barrington, the small Massachusetts town where Du Bois was born in 1868, proposed recognizing his legacy through the creation of a memorial park on the site of his childhood home. Supported by the local newspaper and prominent national figures including Harry Belafonte and Sydney Poitier, the effort to honor Du Bois set off an acrimonious debate that bitterly divided the town. Led by the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, opponents compared Du Bois to Hitler, vilifying him as an anti-American traitor for his communist sympathies, his critique of American race relations, and his pan-Africanist worldview. In Those About Him Remained Silent, Amy Bass provides the first detailed account of the battle over Du Bois and his legacy, as well as a history of Du Bois’s early life in Massachusetts. Bass locates the roots of the hostility to memorialize Du Bois in a cold war worldview that reduced complicated politics to a vehement hatred of both communism and, more broadly, anti-Americanism. The town’s reaction was intensified, she argues, by the racism encoded within cold war patriotism.Showing the potency of prevailing, often hidden, biases, Those About Him Remained Silent is an unexpected history of how racism, patriotism, and global politics played out in a New England community divided on how—or even if—to honor the memory of its greatest citizen.

2. One of my former professors, UH's Gerald Horne, has a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois coming out later this fall. I'm on a panel with Horne at the 2010 American Historical Association Annual Meeting in San Diego about the NAACP's magazine The Crisis, so I look forward to getting the full scoop on the new book there. Already an accomplished scholar and author, this newest biography comes from one of the leading Du Bois scholars today. Published in Greenwood Press's Biography Series, here is a blurb about Horne's forthcoming work, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography:

This revealing biography captures the full life of W.E.B. Du Bois—historian, sociologist, author, editor—a leader in the fight to bring African Americans more fully into the American landscape as well as forceful proponent of them leaving America altogether and returning to Africa. Drawing on extensive research, Gerald Horne, a leading authority on Du Bois and a versatile and prolific scholar in his own right, offers a fully rounded portrait of this accomplished and controversial figure, including the often overlooked final decades without which no portrait of Du Bois could be complete. The book also highlights Du Bois's relationships with and influence upon other leading civil rights activists both during, and subsequent to, his extraordinarily long life, including Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglas, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson.

3. Just out, religious studies scholar Jonathon Kahn's book, Divine Discontent: The Religious Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois, adds yet another layer to our understanding of W.E.B. Du Bois and religion. Here's a bit from Oxford University Press's website:

W. E. B. Du Bois is an improbable candidate for a project in religion. His skepticism of and, even, hostility toward religion is readily established and canonically accepted. Indeed, he spent his career rejecting normative religious commitments to institutions and supernatural beliefs. In this book, Jonathon Kahn offers a fresh and controversial reading of Du Bois that seeks to overturn this view. Kahn contends that the standard treatment of Du Bois turns a deaf ear to his writings. For if we're open to their religious timbre, those writings-from his epoch-making The Souls of Black Folk to his unstudied series of parables that depict the lynching of an African American Christ-reveal a virtual obsession with religion.

Du Bois's moral, literary, and political imagination is inhabited by religious rhetoric, concepts and stories. Divine Discontent recovers and introduces readers to the remarkably complex and varied religious world in Du Bois's writings. It's a world of sermons, of religious virtues such as sacrifice and piety, of jeremiads that fight for a black American nation within the larger nation. Unlike other African American religious voices at the time, however, Du Bois's religious orientation is distinctly heterodox--it exists outside the bounds of institutional Christianity. Kahn shows how Du Bois self-consciously marshals religious rhetoric, concepts, typologies, narratives, virtues, and moods in order to challenge traditional Christian worldview in which events function to confirm a divine order. Du Bois's antimetaphysical religious voice, he argues, places him firmly in the American tradition of pragmatic religious naturalism typified by William James. This innovative reading of Du Bois should appeal to scholars of American religion, intellectual history, African American Studies, and philosophy of religion.

4. David Levering Lewis, noted Du Bois biographer, has a new one-volume version of his two-volume biography coming out.
It is hard to tell is this is a revised and updated version of his previous work, or a repackaging of selected portions of his previous books. Either way, Lewis's W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography I'm sure will be well worth the read.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Burden of Black Religion with Curtis J. Evans, Part 3

Today's post concludes my interview with Curtis Evans.

Thanks, Curtis, for giving your time, and your extensive, extended commentary about your book, and the state of the field in American religious history. This has been another enjoyable interview!

Baldblogger (BB): As you impressively show in chapters 3 and 4, the professionalization of many academic disciplines and fields of inquiry around the turn of the twentieth century profoundly shaped understandings of race and religion (and by extension, one could say, nationalism). Bolstered by “scientific evidence,” white social scientists essentialized conceptions of Black religious emotionalism. You argue that W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Negro Church (among others scholars and other works), in response, represented a virtual watershed in terms of creating the idea of a single “Black church” and providing a theoretical and terminological foundation on which subsequent analysis of African American religion was built. I have several questions related to this line of argument: first, how does Du Bois’s analysis of Black religious life in The Negro Church compare to his voluminous commentary on African American religion found in countless essays and articles in places such as The Crisis magazine? Edward Blum documents in W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007) that Du Bois’s religious reflections showed up in short stories, plays, prayers, novels, and other works such as Souls of Black Folk (1903). His study suggests that Du Bois’s work on religion expanded beyond a monolithic Black church. I wonder if you could respond to this? Also, I wonder if you might comment on Barbara Dianne Savage’s recent analysis of Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and Benjamin Mays as the leading triumvirate of early Black sociology of religion in Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (2008)?

Curtis Evans (CE): It is true that Blum’s book suggests that Du Bois’s work on religion expanded beyond a monolithic black church, but his study of Du Bois takes a longer view and a broader range of sources than I and Savage examined. I was particularly interested in Du Bois as a formative figure in the study of black religion as a disciplinary endeavor (in the social sciences). Where Blum and I differ is that I was not trying to demonstrate what Du Bois’s personal approach to religion was or how religious language figured in his entire corpus of writings. Nor did I deal with his more polemical critiques of black religion in the Crisis and other publications, though I briefly discuss his reengagement with black religion in the 1930s. In my book (and in a separate essay), I write about how Du Bois set out explicitly trying to undermine overly abstract and generalized conceptions of a static Negro problem or singular black culture. I try to attend to the tensions in his thought as a social scientist detailing the nuance and complexity of black life as he produced studies of particular black communities in various parts of the South and chided white scholars for failing to examine different local communities among blacks (to challenge their generalizations). My point is that his more potent and enduring legacy was a discourse of the Negro Church that was a normative and instrumental usage of black religion for social, political and economic ends and that, as Savage notes, “treated black people’s churches chiefly as social institutions and paid little attention to their religious mission.” It is not so much that I disagree with Blum’s rich analysis of Du Bois, but I was interested in Du Bois’s explicit goal to provide a detailed and local analysis of variant expressions of black religion (particularly during his time at Atlanta University from 1896 to 1910). What Blum and I focused on, I think, led us in different directions. Indeed, like Blum, for example, I note that The Souls of Black Folk is a rich and complex text and I attend not simply to the varieties of genre in the book, but also to its nuanced approach to black culture in the South. I conclude by saying that in some ways it demonstrates Du Bois’s rather conflicted approach to black religion. After all, Du Bois eventually abandoned his early quest for a dispassionate social scientific analysis of black religion and one finds a number of polemical and critical essays in The Crisis and other publications. I am not as inclined as Blum to take Du Bois’s many criticisms of black religion at face value or to assume that they correspond to reality in some direct sense. I feel that the quest to make the church into an agency of uplift consumed early interpreters of black religion and led to a dominant instrumentalist understanding of black churches (to use Milton Sernett’s apt expression), which labored under exaggerated expectations about what they could accomplish.

I have no substantive disagreement with Savage’s discussion of Du Bois, Benjamin Mays, and Carter G. Woodson as foundational figures in the study and critique of “the Negro Church.” I see Du Bois as different from Mays and Woodson in that he was engaging in a more profound manner many of the monographs and theories that were produced in a period when scientific racism reach its zenith and he reacted to these in the specific context of the university, in part, as a way of legitimizing social scientific analysis to counter racist theories. Not only that, but I find no evidence that Woodson or Mays sought to valorize social science in the way that Du Bois did, and from the very beginning of their studies, they were deeply involved in attempts to transform black religious life. Though Du Bois clearly desired a reformation of black religious and moral life, I see his early project as more directly enmeshed in a social scientific paradigm of putting the study of various social and cultural groups on a firmer academic foundation. His aspirations for scholarly legitimacy, in my view, set him apart from Woodson and Mays, though their final conclusions about “the Negro Church” converged in important ways. For example, each desired a more literate ministry as crucial to the uplift of the race, called for a reduction in emotional and otherworldly forms of religious expression, felt that the church should have a more structured and enlightened program for educating members in civic duties and social uplift, and urged churches to improve the moral and ethical lives of blacks. Here again, my assessment of their criticisms of black churches is the same as that of Savage, who writes: “So beneath all of their complaints about the churches and their hopes for reconfiguration lay the sad reality that these small local institutions could not bear the enormous political responsibilities being laid on them.” This quotation encapsulates powerfully what I mean by the burden of black religion, which was saddled with enormous duties and responsibilities by black leaders with implicit assumptions about the function of religion that often put them at odds with members who saw churches as more than social and civic institutions charged with uplift. That these demands were made at a moment when African Americans already had limited resources and faced extraordinary social and personal hardships make it all the more evident how heavily they weighed on black people (to the extent that they were even aware of some of these debates).

BB: Chapters 5 and 6 continue to break new ground in African American religious history. You astutely detail the work many Black social scientists did on religion and explore the role that theatre and drama (namely the play The Green Pastures) played in “displaying” or “staging” ideas about Black religiosity. How did these sorts of representations compare to earlier notions of innate Black religious sensibility? I wonder, also, if it is accurate to talk about the religious history of the New Negro Movement/Harlem Renaissance?

CE: To the extent that we can judge what intentions historical actors have and to the extent that most of our intentions are manifest to ourselves, we may plausibly assert that Connelly’s GP was an honest and sincere attempt to demonstrate how Christianity had sustained blacks through a long night of oppression and he hoped to present a picture of what missing values a modern industrial America might mine from its own minority in the rural South. These representations reproduced older images, but diverged from them in important ways. Here I must make a distinction between “innate religiosity” and other claims about black religion as primitive and simple. Innate religiosity was a particular scholarly concern, it seems to me, for social scientists, who were also addressing anthropological and sociological notions of a racial temperament. This debate took place from the 1920s to the 1940s. A parallel debate, in the cultural realm, was not so much about innate religiosity as about a natural or primitive religiosity that black people allegedly possessed, though admittedly sometimes it is hard to make neat distinctions between the two. In responses to Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures critics and reviewers wrote approvingly (and sometimes condescendingly) about the primitive, emotional, simple and concrete (as opposed to abstract) religion of illiterate blacks in the South. This reminds me of Stowe contrasting Uncle Tom’s simple and unquestioning faith with that of the troubled and contested faith of literate whites. The questions arises: is it their condition (slavery or oppression in the Jim Crow South) that explains their peculiar religious practices and beliefs or is it their Africanness or blackness (hence racial difference) that is responsible for their religious differences (or perhaps both)? Blacks in these cultural works are always on a kind of stage to teach various lessons about suffering to white Americans. One reviewer of GP credited blacks with bringing a quality of kindness to Christianity. He believed that black Christianity helped blacks to triumph over temptations to hatred. He agreed with Connelly’s black God who gathers from his human creation that mercy is learned through suffering. By discussing Connelly’s play and social scientific studies in the same period, I was trying to do several things. First, I hoped to alert readers to how interesting it was that GP was in a sense heightening attention to black religion in the South (and calling for a retrieval of its best elements) at a moment when many black leaders were deeply troubled by what they saw as widespread emotionalism, otherworldliness, and overchurching. Second, I wanted to show how social scientific theories often overlapped with and sometimes mirrored cultural images of black religion. Robert E. Park, a noted sociologist at the University of Chicago and one of the leading theorists of race relations, espoused ideas about black culture as fundamentally artistic and rooted in expression (and based on a racial temperament) that seemed eerily similar to popular images of black religiosity as a spontaneous emanation from a tropical temperament (these images also converged in their elevation of spirituals as fundamentally expressive of a deep emotional bent of African peoples).

I do not feel comfortable talking about a straightforward “religious history” of the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement. I want to take seriously the claims and personal beliefs of many of the leaders who rejected Christianity and who in some instances abandoned religious belief and practice entirely. A topic I find compelling, however, is an aestheticization of religion in the dramatic productions, novels, poems, and art of many of these figures. I write a bit about James Weldon Johnson’s profession of agnosticism in the book and his sensuous portrayal and powerful evocation of black religious practice in the South. One finds this in his early work, such as his Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), but this is also to be found in his writings in the 1920s. I think it is quite remarkable that Johnson and others were very critical of actual black churches, organized religion, and religious beliefs and doctrines as they existed in the rural South or urban North (especially the latter), but they also provided some of the most moving artistic and literary portrayals of black religious music, ecstatic revival meetings, and preaching (particularly the chanted sermon). One could argue that this is a new way of experiencing and understanding religion and hence one could take a more capacious notion of the “religious” as a way of examining African American culture at this significant historical moment of transition. Or one could argue that this development was a corollary to arguments that the dramatic nature of black life was uniquely suited to plays and written portraiture. New technologies and ways of disseminating images (sound movies, radio, etc) were then factors in conceptualizing and thinking about religious experience. There were figures in the New Negro Movement who sought to mine the folk traditions of black culture and dramatize the aesthetic and religious dimensions of African American life. It was a new and powerful way of depicting black life and writers like Johnson explicitly tied this project to the quest for social and political justice, hoping that literature, drama and art would smash stereotypes of blacks and forge a new conception of black culture. GP complicated this picture and demonstrated powerfully that drama could mold and shape public perceptions in a number of different ways. It also indicated that the very images that black leaders wanted to consign to the past had a way of resurfacing before white audiences. There was no way to control the discourse of race and religiosity, especially in view of the tortured history of race, blacks’ relative lack of control of the means of producing culturally authoritative portrayals of black life, and the potent ways in which fantasies, longings and fears could be expressed in the new media of the 1920s and 1930s.

BB: In chapter 7 and the Epilogue you detail that social scientific study of Black religion throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s (and beyond), coupled with the long history of the Great Migration and Black urban life, and, ultimately, skepticism about Blacks’ innate religiosity. These chapters provide a robust (and I think enduring) narrative of a crucial period in African American religious history. In this context you call for work that offers more complicated pictures of African American religious life, analyses attuned to social location, historical situatedness, and multiple contingencies that shape human existence. What, then, does the future hold for the study of African American religion—in an age of globalization, and an era of megachurches and religious celebrities, etc.?

CE: I am very encouraged at the new work that has been produced in the last few years. The following works explore various dimensions of black religious history in helpful and nuanced ways: Wallace Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 (2005), Edward E. Curtis, Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975 (2007), Anthea Butler, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World (2007), and John Giggie, After Redemption: Jim Crow and The Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915 (2008). Savage’s book is both an example of a work that provides a new angle on older histories of African American religion and a history of black religious persons’ private and public lives. Agency, black religious diversity, complicating notions of a “black church,” religious practice and meaning—these and many other topics continue to evoke lively discussion and debate. They are enriching and complicating our narratives on African American religious history. When you speak about globalization, I must mention James T. Campbell’s Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa (1998). Here is a rich work that explores the relationship that AME church members had with Africans as they did missionary work in South Africa and took on the Christian project of bringing civilization to Africans. Campbell’s book plumbs to their depth the ambiguities in what “Africanness” meant for early leaders in the AME church and how powerful the impulse to spread Christianity was among black converts to Christianity. It refutes simplistic notions of black nationalism that ahistoricize the relationship between Christianity and black Americans and the implicit claims in much of the literature on the seeming incompatibility between a nationalist black-based Christianity and a missionary project of spreading Christianity and civilization (deeply-inflected by Western culture and values).

As to megachurches and religious celebrities, Jonathan Walton’s Watch This! The Aesthetics and Ethics of Black Televangelism (2009) represents the kind of work that demonstrates the changing nature of black religious practice in a late capitalist society. Walton’s book also notes the importance of television and personalities in both the production and dissemination of religious values in an age of internet, cell phones, and various other electronic and miniaturized media. In some ways, he only touches on issues that Marla Frederick’s Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith (2003) engages in depth. Frederick notes the interracial nature of televangelism, in which black women are increasingly drawn to broadcasts by white preachers. Many of these programs deemphasize race and place emphasis on individual achievement and potential. It remains to be seen how much impact these types of ministries will have on the salience of racial identity in the future.

BB: A final question: What are your present and/or forthcoming projects?

CE: I am currently doing research on the origins and development of Race Relations Sunday, an annual event held on the Sunday in February that was closest to Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. These were founded in 1923 under the auspices of the Federal Council of Churches. At the time, George Edmund Haynes, an African American with the first doctorate from Columbia University, was executive director of the FCC’s Department of Race Relations, and for the next two decades he remained one of the leading innovative figures behind the planning for and participation in RRS. The stated goal of the RRS was to demonstrate the sufficiency of Christianity to solve the race problem in the United States. One practical event was to swap pastors, whereby a black pastor preached in a white congregation and a white pastor in a black congregation. Often black spirituals were sung in national venues (events were promoted in local contexts, but there was a national event in a different city each year, as I understand it). Promoters hoped to create an environment where each group would be allowed to make its deepest theological and spiritual contribution to racial brotherhood. Suggested liturgies, outlines for sermons, and printed materials were disseminated in mass numbers for local churches. Because I am in the early stages of this project, it is difficult to get a sense about how widespread these events were. How many churches actually participated? Did they lead to other events throughout the year that specifically addressed racial divisions? Why did the amount of material published and the attention devoted to RRS decline in the 1950s (based on my research in the FCC’s files and notes of the administrative and executive committees of the Department of Race Relations)? These and other questions demand answers and I am hoping that these will become clearer as my project proceeds. I am interested in this project for several reasons: First, it allows me to continue research into the interracial nature of race relations and the fraught relationship between blacks and whites who are committed to the Christian faith. Second, I am particularly interested in the intersection of the social sciences and theology. It is clear to me that Haynes (a Congregationalist) and other leaders in the FCC articulated a theology of brotherhood and inclusiveness as the foundation and rationale of their project. Yet, the FCC’s reports and field workers were profoundly committed to an activist and applied social science that sought to uncover the wellsprings of prejudices, violence and inequality. Field reports on lynchings, interracial seminars and training sessions, and suggested readings of leading books on social psychology and sociology are some of the ways they expressed their faith in the power of the social sciences to unmask taken-for-granted aspects of social reality, though much of this material seemed so focused on the “peculiar” problems of racism in the South that one wonders why so little attention was paid to Northern problems. Third, I hope I can provide a thick description of what it was like for blacks and whites to join in worship in these seemingly artificial settings. Can we get a sense of how people experienced these events? Did some write about how these events affected their views of race and did they disrupt previous notions? Who were the kinds of people who attended these meetings? Fourth, I think more work remains to be done on African Americans (individuals and denominations) who were members of predominately white denominations. I am intrigued by Haynes’ work and the place of figures like Haynes in what the late Bill Hutchison used to call the Protestant Establishment. How did these African Americans view themselves in relation to the black experience? In what way did they see their role in advancing racial and social justice? What did they feel about black churches? This project allows some limited answers to these kinds of questions.

There is much work to be done. I am aware that James Findlay’s Church People in the Struggle (1997) examines the FCC and the National Council of Churches’ increasing activism and involvement in the black freedom struggling the 1960s. Findlay was not interested in RRS and only devotes a few sentences and a footnote to these events. Similarly, RRS are mentioned in passing in books such as David Reimer’s White Protestantism and the Negro (1962) and Thomas J. Sugrue’s Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (2008). But no one has taken these up as the subject of a monograph. I think they are worth such a study.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Historians on TV: YouTube Lectures

The other day I came across some great lectures from a recent conference, "The Long Civil Rights Movement: Histories, Politics, Memories," sponsored by the Southern Oral History Program at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Here is the conference website, and a YouTube channel with lectures from the conference. One of my former professors, Gerald Horne, delivered a stunning lecture, full of history and informed critiques of U.S. history and public policy. I've included Horne's lecture below, as well as segments from several others.

Here's part of a lecture from Kevin Gaines, whose books on Black leadership and African Americans and Ghana are must reads. His talk is followed by a segment from Mary Dudziak, whose recent books should be on your reading list as well.

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.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Burden of Black Religion with Curtis J. Evans, Part 1

The next summer interview with Baldblogger comes to us from Chicago. The University of Chicago Divinity School's Curtis J. Evans will share his thoughts about scholarship, teaching, and his first book, The Burden of Black Religion. Please join us for this important conversation.

Evans has made some cyber rounds lately, engaging Georgia State historian David Sehat in a dialogue and discussion about Booker T. Washington and American religion in the Journal of Southern Religion. Read the concluding remarks here. Also, Paul Harvey recently posted a review of Evans's book at Religion and American History, and the University of Chicago Magazine published an on-line piece about Evans's new book in its May-June 2009 issue.

This is the first of several posts of my interview with Evans.


Baldblogger (BB): If you don’t mind, briefly trace your academic journey through your undergrad years and grad school. Any formative teachers? Why were they so influential?

Curtis Evans (CE): As an undergraduate at the University of Houston, I was forced to declare my major by the end of my sophomore year. I had taken a variety of courses, but I was still not sure about deciding on a particular major, though I knew that I had immensely enjoyed all of the courses that I had taken in the field of history. After I declared my major in history, which was partly just to satisfy the university requirement, I began taking almost a rough parity of courses in American and European history. The lectures, discussions and paper assignments in classes by Bailey Stone (a specialist on modern European history and the French Revolution), Richard Jackson (medieval history), and Hannah Decker (modern German history) all had a profound impact on my thinking about political, religious and social developments in the West. Decker’s readings on and discussions about the Holocaust indelibly affected my mental world and raised questions about how to explain and understand violence and oppression at particular historical moments. Probably no course had such a long-term effect on me more than Cheryll Cody’s “The Old South,” which was both a history of the Old South and a detailed analysis of historiography on antebellum Southern history. This was a small open honor’s class that had a heavy reading load, but I enjoyed few courses that were so demanding. Cody was passionate about the subject and brought us into a very different world through the readings and class discussions. Here was a person very fluent in popular culture and yet who was also immersed in the 18th and 19th century South. There was something about this white woman that was new and different. She walked around with her Coke in hand making odd remarks about Eddie Murphy’s jokes from time to time and yet she had full command of her subject. Coming as I did from a small town of about a thousand people (and we were living in the countryside among a few families amidst fields of cotton and soybeans!) and having had such a limited experience of the world before moving to Houston (which was overwhelmingly large for a country boy), Cody struck me as a person who did not fit the field of history as I had imagined it. Her very presence presented me with a different model of who is qualified to study and teach history, to the extent that I was self-conscious about my own aspirations to teach and study history one day. After all, I grew up on a small farm in Louisiana with a father who received a third grade education and a mother who had only completed the tenth grade. I was a first generation college student and had no model in my family or upbringing about the kind of work I was doing at the university. Though Cody served as a source of intellectual stimulation and personal inspiration (particularly through her feedback and encouraging comments on my papers), it was not until Hannah Decker and Gerald Goodwin (a historian of American religion) asked me to come to their office and gave me detailed advice and encouragement about going to graduate school that I began seriously thinking about becoming a historian.

BB: What inspired your interest in American history, and why race and religion?

CE: Taking courses in history at the University of Houston is what initially inspired my interest in history in general. I took courses in various areas: for example, I continued learning more about the Reformation when I took an independent study course on the Radical Reformation at Gordon Conwell. Decker and Goodwin helped me imagine a specific career as an American historian, but that immediate goal was postponed because I went off to seminary because of a number of personal issues that I will simply list here: a church split, stumbling toward and grasping for a broader theology in my personal life, and trying to find out precisely where I wanted to end up professionally. At seminary, I was unsure about what I wanted to do, though I think my wife felt I was training to be a pastor. Eventually, after acceptance and enrollment in Harvard’s doctoral program, I resumed my study of American history, though during my first year I was still not quite settled on precisely what my focus would be. I initially wanted to keep working on a topic that I had written on for my master’s thesis: how white neo-evangelicals, a group of second generation “reforming fundamentalists,” engaged race and civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. [BB: see Evans's recent article on this topic in Harvard Theological Review.] After further study and conversations with my advisors, it was not clear to me that I had much more to say about this topic or if it warranted a dissertation-like study. I was particularly intrigued by a course taught by David D. Hall on the emergence of liberal Protestantism in the 19th century, especially as it related to New England prison reform, anti-slavery and women’s rights. The religious foundations of many of these reforms caught my attention. I went to David’s office to talk about a point that intrigued me in Daniel Walker Howe’s The Unitarian Conscience. I remember discussing with David Howe’s argument that the rise of organized philanthropy among New Englanders was related to the decline of the sacramental functions of the church. This led to a number of other discussions and I was trying to link this specific insight in Howe’s book to other topics in which I had an interest. Somehow that conversation led (apparently circuitously) to a suggestion by David that I look at sociological studies of black religion in the 1930s and 1940s, a period that was a heyday for the sociological study of black culture. David mentioned a few issues that were raised by these studies, but I was not all that interested in this specific literature. When I began looking at these texts, I was fascinated by what I saw as underlying worries among social scientists studying black culture that there were those who continued exaggerating the religiosity of blacks and that the notion of innate religiosity for blacks seemed to be an implicit assumption among some scholars and within realms of popular culture. Social scientists were distressed by these persisting ideas and it appeared to me that they were eager to discredit them. I wanted to know why. What began as an initial and hesitant probing of this literature led me to dig deeper into the specific sources that they cited to try to get a handle on the popular or cultural images of black religion that troubled them. What resulted was continued reading, trying to trace back in time how African American religion was understood and conceptualized. Eventually, it was not clear to me where to stop. How does one locate an origin of a particular discourse? David and I talked a bit about this problem of finding origins. Howe and George Frederickson in different ways wrote about romantic racialists and liberal New England Protestants who emphasized a religion of feeling and emotion and I found that many of these people had much to say about slave religion and seemed to particularly map feelings, affection, and a “religion of the heart” on slave Christianity. When I began talking to my advisors, I sensed I had a massive project on my hand, but our talks convinced me (though some of them were a bit worried about the size of the project) that I would have to engage in an analysis of the evolution of historical ideas, theories and cultural images of black religion if I were to make sense of the long-term historical trajectory of the kinds of issues that black sociologists and other social scientists were addressing in the 1930s and 1940s. In this way, my area of special interest became this complex intertwining of race and religion in American history. I am quite struck now by how much I took up issues that seemed to be addressed foremost in different ways in scholarly works of the late 1960s and into the 1970s: Winthrop Jordan, Fredrickson, Eugene Genovese, Lawrence Levine, and Albert Raboteau.

BB: What is a “typical” day for you as a professor, scholar, and writer? Similarly, I wonder if you can comment on moving from a state university (Florida State) to a divinity school (Chicago)—why the change and in what ways, if any, does the change modify how you teach?

CE: I am not sure any of us has typical days. During a regular quarter, teaching and leading seminars and class discussions occupy a great deal of my time. I spend much of the week meeting with students and reading and reflecting on lecture material because I give two lectures one day of the week and on another day we discuss the reading and topic of the week. At Chicago, we have the quarter system and teach two courses per quarter (that is, a total of four courses per academic year—my sympathies to all of you who have a much heavier teaching load. I am acutely aware that I am quite fortunate!). I am teaching some courses for the first time and these require lots of reading, attention to recent debates and new areas of research, and thinking about how to frame themes and central topics. But there are always “side” projects for me: trying to write an article here or there to address a longstanding concern or to engage in a more self-conscious analysis of what it is that we do as scholars (such as my recent debate with David Sehat in the Journal of Southern Religion), and attending regional conferences to see what leading and senior scholars are saying about our field and where we should be going from here.
One notable difference between FSU and UofC is that the latter has a lot of master of divinity students who are going into ministry and social work. They often have a different set of issues and concerns than doctoral students in history and religious studies. This is challenging for those of us trained as historians and who feel the effects of the older paradigm of objectivity and dispassionate inquiry (which I think was still an ideal based on some of the courses I took in history at the University of Houston). Although I did graduate work at a seminary, I am still wrestling with how to appreciate more explicitly theological questions students often ask or seem to have in their heads and how to address some students’ more urgent desire to acquire practical skills and tools from history to enrich their ministry or social work. I do not have any easy answers to these concerns and I find myself talking with senior colleagues and friends for advice about how to bridge the gap (if indeed it can be bridged) between a traditional approach to history, where we at the very least try to suspend questions about current applicability and contemporary relevance as we engage in our research and writing, and more practical questions about social and personal utility and relevance that seem to characterize ministry studies and social work.

I am not sure that my actual teaching has differed all that much, though, as noted above, the ministry student cohort does make me more aware of different reasons why people study history and religions and this very process is forcing me to sense the need for wider reading in what it is that defines our study of history and how it should or does differ from other fields such as constructive theology. Perhaps too this is another variation of the debate in the field of religious studies framed as a division between those who take a theological approach to the study of religious phenomena and those who engage religion from a social scientific perspective.

BB: You have an undergraduate degree in history, and you were trained in theological disciplines as well as religious studies. This gives your work a decidedly interdisciplinary character with considerable depth. How do these three fields overlap, interrelate, and/or otherwise manifest themselves in your work? What does the future hold in terms of interdisciplinary work on American religious history?

CE: I suppose my graduate study in a seminary context makes me more attentive to the salience of theological language and religious beliefs. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s reading and citation of Scripture to reflect on blacks’ role in America and history, for example, cannot be understood without due attention to Protestant interpretations of Scripture in the 19th century and speculations about prophecy. Understanding Stowe’s theological worldview is absolutely crucial, but it is just as important to understand how Stowe is drawing upon contemporary racial theories to formulate her conceptions of blacks. Making sense of a complex figure like Stowe requires close scrutiny of theological language, historical analyses of developing racial theories and ethnology, and tracing the nature of incipient debates about challenges to received understandings of the Bible. This latter point is especially important when attending to Stowe’s contrast of Uncle Tom’s simple faith with Cicero as a representative of literate whites who are struggling with the truth and veracity of the Bible as a result of emerging questions in historical criticism and textual analysis, to which Stowe would have been acutely attuned in part because her husband, Calvin, taught Sacred Literature at Andover Seminary. A broad angle and some knowledge of different areas are required to get a firmer grasp on some of the figures in my book.

Perhaps also my recognition of white Northern Protestants’ constant critiques of black religious practice as deficient in adherence to the Ten Commandments is due to my familiarity with the significance of these normative theological commitments even for many Protestants who had moved beyond traditional or orthodox Christianity. My attention to theology also made me more attuned to a shift from a specifically theological and normative Christian critique of black Christianity to the language of psychopathology in the late 19th and early 20 centuries, which, while still normative and grounded in moral concerns, lacked the theological and moral specificity of Northern Protestant critiques propounded in the 1860s and 1870s. I think that my work in religious studies and history and my training at a seminary heightened my recognition of the intersection of changes in language (when theology figures less significantly) with the rise of the disciplines as generative of new questions and issues, and of different conceptions of religious practice as they emerged and impinged on interpretations of black religion. Perhaps my training made me more open to exploring not just change over time and how ideas and debates evolved in different historical and local contexts, but also to cast a broader net in placing professional sociologists and anthropologists alongside clergymen, activist critics of churches, and cultural productions such as plays and novels on African American religion (though I am not sure if this is because of formal study, temperament and inclination or the nature of the subject matter). In other words, the study and analysis of African American religion were never solely or primarily confined to any one discipline or field of study, but black religion was debated and discussed in a host of changing historical contexts, especially during moments of cultural stress and transition, and within a number of venues and settings (universities, churches, novels, plays, etc.). One then is required to be interdisciplinary by the very nature of the subject matter and also because black religion as an object of analysis was addressed by blacks and whites. This was so in part because it was broader than just religion (though religion figured centrally, in my view, in these discussions) and these issues were crucially about the place of blacks in America. One finds oneself grasping for a broader set of tools, different angles and a variety of approaches to come to terms with this kind of study.

I do not think that I am in a position to make confident predictions about the future of interdisciplinarity in the field of American religion. This topic was a major part of a recent discussion at a conference on Religion and American Culture. My good friend Lin Fisher has blogged about this conference on Paul Harvey’s Religion in American History site. There was not much consensus, as I recall. David Hall and others suggested that European historians (particularly British historians) have practiced a form of social and interdisciplinary history that has no comparable American parallel. The few examples given of interdisciplinary work were not only those written by European historians, but also about topics that were in another era in Europe (for example, Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars was cited by Dennis Dickerson). In general, I sensed that people were quite content with disciplinary boundaries, though open to doing discrete interdisciplinary projects.