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.