When we are talking about religion, we are always already talking about race; and vice versa.
“Religion and the arts are anything but mutually exclusive or inherently opposed to each other.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Josef Sorett. Sorett is Associate Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Columbia University. His book is Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Josef Sorett: Spirit in the Dark tries to tell a story that brings religious history and literary history together by calling attention to the ways in which a number of prominent (and some not so prominent) black artists and intellectuals have tried to think through the relationship between race and art across the twentieth century. More specific, the book looks at a longstanding debate about the idea of black art (and negro art, before that). As it relates to our current political and social climate, I think that Spirit in the Dark can help by providing a bit of historical context that illustrates the truth that when we are talking about religion, we are always already talking about race; and vice versa.For instance, in the contemporary moment we have witnessed the public resurgence of an overt language of white supremacy, and we should not be surprised that such language has found support from a range of white Christian leaders. Nor should we be shocked that a number of black preachers have been enlisted to legitimate a president at the very moment he is voicing racist (and racially-coded) language and advocating for policies that squares well with such rhetoric. Religion has always been appealed to articulate racial (and racist) ideologies. Race has also found a ready resource in religious ideas, institutions and practices. And this truth is also quite evident in the set of debates that are front and center in Spirit in the Dark.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I’m not sure that there’s much in the book, by way of practical resources, that activists and organizers will find useful. That said, the story told in Spirit in the Dark does capture a couple of things that may be relevant. For one, the backdrop for the debate around black art, for much of the twentieth century, is the social and political reality of racial segregation. That is, people have often assumed a direct relationship between the creative work that black artists do, the lived experience of black people, and the political exigencies of white supremacy. As such, a key question in the debate has been concerned with whether or not the arts should or can be a tool in the battle to end Jim Crow, to secure the full citizenship of African Americans and, more recently, in addressing the persistence of racial inequality. To put it another way, one of the recurring concerns for black artists and intellectuals (and others as well) is how best to understand the relationship between art and politics. And then, accordingly, is black art “good” only when it is lent in clear service to race politics? This age-old question, about the relationship between art and politics, should then raise a host of other questions that should invite more close and careful reflection on the relationship between the norms that guide our political aspirations and aesthetic visions.
“Is black art “good” only when it is lent in clear service to race politics?”
At the same time, another point of interest (related to the first) may be about the ways in which activists and artists (and others as well) turn to the arts as a form of spiritual practice. One of the main arguments in Spirit in the Dark pushes back against common assumptions that position the spiritual in opposition to the religious. We are all familiar with the now cliché’ expression, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” So much is at play in this juxtaposition, including a prioritizing the new over against the traditional, the authority of an individual over the institution. In addition to insisting that spiritual and religious are entangled and require each other, part of what Spirit in the Dark does is capture a longer history of appeals to the arts as a site of spiritual authority. In this way, perhaps the stories told in my book can be a resource for activists and organizers as they think about the ways in which art, religion and/or spirituality inform their practical work as well as the practices that they embrace to sustain them in that work.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
As I mentioned above, one of the main ideas that I am pushing back against is the popular understanding that spirituality and religion are fundamentally opposed to one another. Hopefully, by highlighting the common and persistent pairing of “church” and “spirit,” Spirit in the Dark makes it a bit harder to hold to this line of thought.
Another idea I was trying to challenge is the caricature of black people as naturally religious, as somehow immune to the larger advances of science and reason associated with life in the modern West. This reading of the West takes for granted a narrative of historical progress that includes the gradual triumph of reason over religion. Closely tied to this narrative (or the inverse of it) is the claim that black people have not made (and still do not make) distinctions between sacred and secular. In this view, black life is perceived of as a foil to the West.
“I was trying to challenge is the caricature of black people as naturally religious.”
I try to challenge this idea by focusing on a number of black artists and intellectuals who have, more often than not, been understood as atheist, agnostic or secular. One way to read Spirit in the Dark is as a novel history of African American religion through the thinking and writing of so-called “secular” black artists and intellectuals. Part of what this history does, then, is insist on and capture the degree to which religion has been very much a point of contestation within African American communities. For black people, much like in the broader society, one of the key questions asked of modern life concerns to what degree religion (or, better yet, what kind of religion) is a helpful resource or relevant form of identity and community formation in the face of a new set of social constraints and possibilities. And just as there is now a scholarly and popular consensus that about the wrongheadedness of histories of the West that assume secularization, we can also tell more complicated stories about the changing role of religion in modern black life. There has never been a single way for reconciling the relationship between sacred and secular; and this is no less true for black people.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I finished college, and was just beginning to consider graduate school, in the mid-1990s, which was a period that witnessed the growing popularity of a group of black public (some would say, celebrity) intellectuals. This phenomenon was chronicled well in Robert Boynton’s 1995 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “The New Intellectuals.” So, on one hand, my earliest understanding of myself as an aspiring intellectual was informed by the work of scholars such as Derrick Bell, bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Patricia Williams. Reading this work during the 1990s was, by all counts, a personal awakening for me.
I still have vivid memories of reading an autographed copy of Cornel West’s Race Matters, now celebrating its 25thanniversary, during lunch breaks on my summer job in downtown Boston. For so many scholars in my generation—especially those of us who chose to study both religion and African-American Studies—Cornel West was an inspiration. And, on a more personal level, it was my mother, Patricia Wallace, who first inspired me. She purchased that copy of Race Matters for me; just one example of the ways she encouraged my intellectual development. As a nurse and a midwife with graduate training in public health, our conversations about her work in the areas of health disparities and cultural competency planted some of the earliest seeds of inspiration for my trajectory.
“For so many scholars in my generation, Cornel West was an inspiration.”
Of course, as I entered into graduated school, I began to better learn the lay of the land, which is to say the academic literatures that were closest to the questions I was asking and the intellectual work I wanted to do. As I was figuring out the dissertation topic that eventually became Spirit in the Dark, I was inspired by the work of Nathan Wright and his pioneering role in the field of religion and literature at the University of Chicago and elsewhere. And, as it relates to Spirit in the Dark specifically, the book that came to be the biggest inspiration was Benjamin Elijah Mays’s The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature (1938). Although not typically credited at such, Mays’s book could be read as a prehistory to the formal emergence of Religion and Literature as a field of inquiry at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, which is where Mays wrote the dissertation that became The Negro’s God. In bringing together theology, ethics, sociology and literature, Mays was doing work—what we now refer to as “interdisciplinarity”—that was incredibly novel and ambitious. Although the book had different goals and drew different conclusions, it certainly inspired my efforts to bring African American religious and literary histories together.
Finally, many of the black artists and intellectuals I wrote about in Spirit in the Dark—Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, too many more to name—were and continue to be an inspiration. The visions and criticisms they rendered of black life challenged and inspired me as I was deciding to pursue an intellectual path on professional terms. And they still do, as I think about the kinds of questions that matter most to me as a scholar of African American Studies.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Spirit in the Dark reflects my efforts to bring together the disciplines of American religious history and African American literary history. In doing so, on an intellectual level, I hope that the book helps to imagine a new world for scholars who do their work in either of these respective fields, academic literatures that have typically been taken been up as mutually exclusive (i.e. the scholar of religion over here, and the scholar of literature over there). And hopefully this new world of scholarship serves to help move us closer to more fully capturing the so-called “real” social world, in which literary and religious lives are entangled and mutually informing. After all, it is very often the case that many of the same people who attend a literary salon or art exhibit also find themselves participating in some kind of religious community and/or spiritual practice. Religion and the arts are anything but mutually exclusive or inherently opposed to each other.
At the same time, Spirit in the Dark calls attention to a history that is abundant with examples that illustrate how both religion and literature—and black art and culture, specifically—have always, at least in part, been about the business of imagining new worlds. The history of what I refer to as “racial aesthetics,” is a history replete with artists and intellectuals attempting to imagine new and more beautiful worlds: a social world freed from the scars of enslavement; an art world unconstrained by the politics of Jim and Jane Crow; a literary world not bound by the binary of black and white. So, on one level, Spirit in the Dark is concerned with understanding the place of religion and/or the spiritual in debates about black art and culture. Yet, at the same time, a central aim of the bookis with capturing a spectrum of black artists and intellectuals as they both imagined and theorized a set of artistic, religious and spiritual practices that spanned the fullness of the black social world, in all of its ugliness and beauty.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for thePolitical Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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