Author Archives: Mackenzie Poust

James H. Cone

Perhaps a lot of people see religious history or studying religions in purely “past” ways. They don’t see it still a part of the world presently around them, don’t see the effects of historical movements and the implications. I really enjoyed James H. Cone’s excerpt, because I liked the theme of “Where Do We Go from Here?” I think he made a lot of great points about the religious history of African-Americans, and also emphasized that it was not yet over. I think this idea can be seen in so many places, with so many religions…Once the history books end and the documentaries stop, where do you go as a community? The choices made will likely either preserve survival or guarantee its failure.

Another large theme in Cone’s work was the idea of religion being seen through the lense of freedom. He first described himself and his community as “descendents of a black religious tradition that has always interpreted its confession of faith according to the people’s commitment to the struggle for earthly freedom.” Like some others we’ve read and discussed, Cone sees it time not only to continue with African-American religions, but also to take back control of its narrative. It’s his religion, his community’s religion, and because of that, it cannot be dictated or managed by an outsider.

Black theology, for him, was a “theology of black liberation…not created in a vacuum…born in the context of the black community as black people were attempting to make sense out of their struggle for freedom.” It’s all about the black experience, shaped by the past and prepared to shape the future.

I think that Cone was a piece to end on because of his message of a future of change and taking back identity. “To dream is not enough,” he wrote. “Since humanity is one, and cannot be isolated into racial and national groups, there will be no freedom for anyone until there is freedom for all.” I don’t believe it could be better said.

African-American Islamization

“I don’t think we should run around trying to love somebody who doesn’t love us.”

Malcolm X, February, 1965.

Like Christianity, many African-American Muslims find their religious histories rooted in Africa. In all of the readings, there are links to Africa. Though they varied, depending on the branch. For Nation of Islam, seeing the black man as the “original man” is instrumental to the faith. Also within this “black consciousness movement” are the ideas of “Yacub’s History” seen in both the Curtis essay and in the words of Malcolm X. In Malcolm X’s later speech, after his conversion to orthodox Islam from Nation of Islam, he said there were “four different types of people in the Western Hemisphere who all have Africa as common heritage.”

There are an estimated 660,000 – 825,000 African-American Muslims (~23%) in the United States. Predominantly, they practice Sunni Islam (orthodox). There are also those that follow teachings of the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple of America, the Five-Percent Nation, the United Nation of Islam, and Ahmadiyya. Muslims in the United States are diverse. African-American Muslims, specifically, have “constructed what is ultimately an imagined communal identity…this is dynamic, not stable; negotiated, not given” (Curtis, 661). We’ve also discussed the idea of identity, and using Africa as an identity-marker, but some Muslims decided to use their religion as their first identifier: “Islam solves the identity crisis.” The idea is that religion is so powerful it is the only thing needed, because it’s all that God asks of you.

Last year, I went to a local mosque for a paper. While I was there, I discussed orthodox Islam with the woman I met, Aishah Hassan. I remember her telling me that in the United States, a lot of mosques have been converted from Nation of Islam places of worship to that of orthodox Islam. She made a comment along the lines that they realized they were not the “true” Islam. This could have a connection to Malcolm X’s own conversion and transformation from Nation of Islam to orthodox Islam. I’m also left wondering the connection between orthodox Islam’s history in the United States, its high concentration in the Midwest, and the origins of Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple in Detroit and Chicago. But at the end of the day, who are we to decide which is right and which is wrong? If it answers questions people have, gives them something to believe in, are we right to claim they are wrong for believing in it? 

———————————————————————

Nation of Islam Comic Strip by Majied

Illustration by Majied

Santeria and Vodun

Called “mysterious Afro-Christian syncretized religions,” in the Fanthorpe reading, Santeria and Voodoo (Vodun) are much different than what people expect. Perhaps people’s misconceptions and misunderstandings lie in the lack of real written histories and material. The traditions are still largely oral, passed from generation to generation. Some people see these traditions, Santeria and Vodun, as witchcraft or satanic, but that assumption is largely false. The two are also seen as synonymous, which would also be wrong to assume. Just because they are both African Diasporic Traditions does not mean their belief systems and structures are even close. I located the Santeria Church website, and they identify the differences between the two faiths, for a further explanation to what the chapters given explained.

While Christianity has the idea of “good versus evil dualism,” Santeria does not. Instead, the “universe is subject to opposing forces such as expansion and contraction (which are not of themselves good or evil)…everything in the universe has positive attributes (Ire) and negative attributes (Ibi).” When I read this, I thought it made more sense than what I’ve largely been taught or read through Christianity. It’s easy enough to say in Christianity that God is good and the Devil is bad, and you either are saved or a sinner. There is no room for gray areas. Though as we’ve seen, it’s much harder to put this into action. But with this Santerian idea, that the universe, and subsequently humanity, are on this spectrum of positive or negative, giving or taking, it allows for the inevitability of some people to be human. It’s about creating “right character,” and living a right life. This is a very Christianized idea, the idea of living a Christ-like life, but Santeria seems to give it a more community-oriented, human-oriented spin, likely connecting to the African roots of it.

Both of the chapters also discussed the idea of religion and studying religion in general. The Fanthorpe chapter described religion as “an attempt to understand and explain the universe and the vast forces within it, to control or influence those forces, and to influence human thought and behavior.” I found this an incredible definition, because it includes everything, and it doesn’t necessarily assign divinity. I also thought the idea presented in the chapter from “Where Men are Wives and Mothers Rule,” that religion has a “presumption of maleness until otherwise said,” is something people don’t tend to think about. Abrahamic religions assign male attributes to God, and all important, frequently-discussed figures are males. The role models offered are all essentially male. Santeria’s practice of creating this instead female-normative system is something that I’m sure caused its controversy, but also gained it some powerful, strong women to work and lead within the community.

Haitian Altar

 

Religion’s Role in the Civil Rights Movement

In high school social studies classes, when we were taught the Civil Rights Movement, it was all about social concerns and politics. They were given as reasons, means, and ends. But as Chappell pointed out, the role religion played cannot be ignored. “The words of many participants suggest that it was, for them, primarily a religious event, whose social and political aspects were, in their minds, secondary or incidental” (Chappell, 87).

Chappell also goes into some detail about several important religious (and even non-religious) leaders. Sernett does the same, including four religious leaders besides the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I think that when students are taught about the Civil Rights Movement, the dialogue is entirely of the Rev. Dr. King, Malcolm X, and boycotts, marches, and sit-ins. I think that Chappell’s goal in his chapter was to show that there were important things behind the scenes. Religion, spirituality, and how people connected to their religious and movement leaders. The Sernett readings were attempting to do the same, to show that there were so many elements that came together to become stronger, from religious conventions to powerful music.

The idea that the Civil Rights Movement was also a revival has an important implication — that it changed not only the United States politically through court cases and laws, but also spiritually. The goal became not “to bring politics into our morality but to bring morality into our politics” (Chappell, 90). The word choices of righteousness, truth, and miracle echo the ideas of changing not only how the country was doing things on the surface but  how the actual people were beginning to see things underneath — seeing past skin color. Billy Graham even started a dialogue on the color of Christ, an argument of seeing Jesus Christ in a new way, one that made it so Christianity truly could become a religion for anyone who wanted it and saw in it, hope.  

The Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, from the Library of Congress

 

 

Religious Movements in American Cities and “Beyond”

I think that a lot of generalizations are made about African-American religions, and I will admit that I fell into such a category before taking this class. African-American religion is not just Christianity, and it’s not just Protestant denominations like the Baptists or Methodists. As we’ve studied and will continue to discover, African-American religious thought is so much more than that — it’s Catholicism, indigenous African traditions, Christian denominations like COGIC, it’s Islam, Nation of Islam, and Santeria and Vodun; it’s rural, it’s urban, and it can’t clearly fit into societal lines.

In Weisenfeld’s two chapters, she had two related, but separate theses. In the first she discussed Arnold Ford and the Ethiopian Hebrews, Noble Drew Ali and the Moorish Science Temple, and Arthur Matthew and the Commandment Keepers. In the second, she explained the origins and evolution of the Nation of Islam under WD Fard and Elijah Muhammad, as well as Father Divine and the Peace Mission.

Her thesis for the first chapter was that regardless of how far from the “norm” these religious traditions were, like many African-American Christians of the time, they connected their religious heritage to Africa. The two groups even were in dialogue together — they “participated in a shared discourse with many black Christians that linked racial identity and spiritual destiny to their homeland [Africa].” The roots of Africa grounded believers with a deep significance put place especially, a sacred geography. This connection to Africa served as a foundation for the identity they formed for themselves as believers and as black people in the United States.

While the second chapter also emphasized connections to Africa, WD Fard and Elijah Muhammad did not create such relationships with the Christians around them. They went so far as to say the Bible was a “poisoned book.” However, they still used the ideas of Africa and heritage to forge identities for their followers. They did reject ideas of “American,” in favor of “Asiatic.” Their emphasis was on black people’s being a nation, “which has no beginning or end.” Father Divine also had ideas that would have not agreed with mainstream Christian thought, since he saw himself as the embodied manifestation of God.  The traditions in this chapter seemed to go beyond just America, and even beyond Africa, and had believers see themselves in a different time and place, and the place of the divine and the individual within human history.

The second chapter closed with the idea that “the power of the narratives to draw blacks in the urban north into new identities that did not rely on slavery as the experience that created black peoplehood.” Blacks became the “religious agents,” rather than the “objects of missions.” I think that sentiment is powerful, in that we’re beginning to see the development of religious thought and identity on a group’s own terms, rather than them trying to fit within an already pre-determined mold.

The Great Migration

 

 

 

In high school, when we learned about the Great Migration, we focused mainly on the economic aspects, and then the social ones in terms of standards of living. Never did we talk about religion, and the impact that the Great Migration had on both the religious institutions of the north and of the south. Harvey even argues that “one of the most significant forces shaping the black experience was the Great Migration…[it] shifted the center of African American religious life” (Harvey, 87).

One of the things I love about the two books we read is that Harvey explains these movements, these huge religious events and ideas in broader terms, and in Sernett’s collection, we’re able to put personal experiences, faces, and testimonies into the bigger picture. Harvey mentions Holiness/Pentecostal movements, Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, the beginnings of mass community work, the Church of God in Christ, and Marcus Garvey. We then read these ideas from the actual people themselves, and they no longer become just ideas, they become a lived experience and reality.

Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, became the largest Protestant church in the United States, with a membership close to twelve thousand by the 1930s. It’s very clear that without the Great Migration, this would not have been possible. It likely would have remained the First African Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. This really shows what Harvey discussed, about the shift in the center of African American religious life. What’s more, though, about Olivet is the massive nature of their community outreach and service programs. It seemed to me that Olivet was a precursor to the modern megachurch, not only with size but with these programs.

Mattie Fisher and Mrs. Jessie Mapp are very religious in their language and focus heavily on the idea of service. They are part of hundreds of missionary meetings, services, prayer meetings, the Baptist Young People’s Union, and Sunday school. They see religion as a way to serve the growing, urbanizing community around them, and use that to attract members. The last line of Mapp’s excerpt struck me: “We need a trained ministry to teach our people. They need more teaching than preaching. They need to be taught the Word of God” (Sernett, 370). Despite their newfound service commitments, these women are still Baptist (and Protestant) in nature — the Bible is the Word of God, and it’s all a true believer needs. When it comes down to it, the Bible will not fail and is the best method to attract and keep followers.

Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, circa 1938

(clicking on this will take you to the Vimeo site to watch the video)

W.E.B DuBois and Booker T. Washington

Before this class, I had not read W.E.B. DuBois’s Credo. I found it very powerful, with the nine paragraphs, all starting with “I believe.” It was very reminiscent, for me, of the Nicene Creed, though in that, the paragraphs start with “We believe.” I’m sure there was a reason for this distinction, of DuBois using only “I.” He seems to definitely set himself apart from others, as is evident in the Sernett reading of his, “Of the Faith of the Fathers.” There, he made several points to scholarly assess “black religion,” while not including himself into it. Despite the first claim in Credo, “I believe in God,” DuBois does not seem to categorize himself into the religious ideas of  

DuBois words were very well put, and that kind of ties into (though opposes) Booker T. Washington’s argument, that “no race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” Booker T. Washington places hands-on work and manual effort above belief, words, or the “Talented Tenth” DuBois advocates for.

The Sernett chapter of DuBois made me think of a conversation I had with my boss. She’s African-American, and was raised in Brooklyn and New Jersey. The church that she went to was very much like the church DuBois mentioned on page 325, “stiff and formal…very quiet and subdued.” She said she wore white gloves, pressed dresses, and sat quietly in the pew every Sunday. There were no loud “Amens!” or the third part of DuBois’s “religion of the slave” — “Frenzy.” I think that it just shows what we were talking about on Thursday, the differences between classes, forms of worship, and location. 

DuBois just had a lot of powerful statements and claims in his writings, and they were all very thought-provoking. From the statement, “North is greed and South is blood,” in his Litany of Atlanta, to the “beauty of its [the Negro race] genius and the sweetness of its soul.” Perhaps I need to read more of both men to fully understand and appreciate their viewpoints, but I believe WEB DuBois to have a very effective and clear way of communicating his arguments, a much more book way of doing things.  

Another Great Awakening and the Power of Women in Ministry

“The enthusiasm with which black women of all educational backgrounds and ages claimed their right to theological interpretation was characterized by Virginia Broughton as part of the ‘general awakening and rallying together of Christian women’ of all races.”

Righteous Discontent, page 127.

With the readings of this week, I couldn’t help but reflect on something I learned in history classes. There is the idea that women are, though not always recognized as such, the forerunners of revolutions, and the backbone that holds up a society’s ideals. The reason for this is simple enough: (most) women have and raise children, and they raise their children with the ideals, values, and morals they wish to exist in the future of society. Christian women, therefore, raise their children to be good Christians, living Christ-like lives, and spreading the Word of God.

Virginia Broughton and Mary Cook discussed these ideas in their writings and speeches. They talked about motherhood, wifehood, sisterhood, and daughterhood. All these different roles women had, and were able to wield influence in. I really enjoyed this reading, because it made me reflect on things that I’d never considered before. The idea of Eve coming from Adam’s rib, symbolizing women as man’s companion, close to their side and heart. Eve was not of his head or feet, subjugating and subordinating women to the “power” of man. The idea of women’s relationships with Jesus was also intriguing. No women, Broughton and Cook explained, had betrayed Jesus. And women had the “unique capability to cleanse immorality, indecency, and crime.” God had used women in every capacity in the Bible, and most importantly, chose a woman to carry and mother His son, Jesus. Mary, mother of Jesus, exemplifies the faithful Christian woman.

Women were able to use their roles in society to reinterpret theology, and the act of theologizing became “not limited to formally trained male clergy.” Women spoke out in conferences, wrote, and shared their voices with the country. They also focused on the “feminine power” of Christ, and that there was the emerging idea of double gender consciousness, expanding on ideas of WEB Du Bois’s double consciousness. There was another great awakening, this movement of femininity in Christianity, and the power of women within the church. 

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham closed out the chapter with an idea that seems quite powerful. She said, “The feminist theologians had operated ‘from a stance of ‘radical obedience’.’ And indeed it was this vantage of orthodoxy that compelled the brethren to listen.” The women of this movement realized that more would be accomplished if they both took a stance for what they believed in, and remained within the lines of society. It just shows that some battles are won, some are lost, but thankfully, in the end, their efforts paid off and (most) branches of Christianity see the whole sphere of their religion, inclusive of gender, race, and everyone who shows a belief in Jesus.   


http://berkeleyjournal.org/2016/01/three-great-revolutions/

This links to an article discussing WEB Du Bois’s views on African-American women.

“At the 2015 conference of the American Sociological Association, five eminent scholars of W.E.B. Du Bois came together to discuss his works and his contributions to sociology. This essay has been adapted from the ASA panel discussion. ” 

 

African-Americans and Catholicism

Catholicism as a religious tradition in the United States has been the minority since before the country was independent. Going to school in Maryland, I was taught that George Calvert founded the state as a “haven” for Catholics persecuted in England. In reading books, and in knowing about the historic nature of John F. Kennedy’s presidential election, I understand that despite having approximately 20% of the United States population, Catholicism still pales in comparison to Protestant denomination numbers. Black Catholics, therefore, would be a minority within a minority.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishop released this information on the demographics of African-Americans within the Church. There are currently 3 million African-Americans within the United States that identify as Catholic, mostly in the South. This makes sense, though, to me, because of the Spanish presence in Florida and the French in Louisiana and the surrounding areas.

I find it unique how the Catholics took a step back from their normal proselytizing within the United States. The Catholic Church converted much of Latin and South America upon arrival, and yet, we’ve discussed in class that this wasn’t so much the case in the United States. The Catholic Church feared marginalizing themselves further from the mainstream Protestant society. In the Sernett book, there was a section from the First African American Catholic Congress in 1889. At it, they recognized the Reverend Father Augustus Tolton, a “trusted and worthy brother in race as in creed” (Sernett, 297). The conference continued to discuss the idea of education, which we haven’t really talked about a lot this semester. I think that church-run education institutions can be very effective at increasing membership, especially if the education is “the great and fundamental means of elevating it to the higher planes to which all Christian civilization tends” (Sernett, 298). If these schools offer the best education, and if the Church also offers other social programs, like orphanages, hospitals, and other places, they give themselves a much better face for the country. And in turn, they also receive more members. 

I think that even though African-American Catholics are not always thought of immediately when discussing African-American religions, or when discussing religion in the South at this time, they are an important part of the religious culture of our country. I think something interesting about the church in the video has is their powerful music, a unique approach to Gospel and the Word, in a way that both connects their African roots and their Catholic elements.