Editor's Corner

                        High Anxiety: African American Religious History’s Future

                                        Anthea D.  Butler, University of Rochester

 

            Since starting graduate school, I have had a reoccurring anxiety dream. I am walking down a staircase into a room that is filled with books that are musty, dreary, and old. I look at the books with awe, and panic all at the same time. And there is a voice that usually chimes in, although the voice seems to be internalized inside of my body. The voice says the same phrase in every dream “Who is going to take care of the black books?”

            I am sure many of you could give a rip about my dreams. The dream, however, I think has floated from my subconsciousness to the forefront of my mind. Who is going to take care of the black books, I wonder? Or more specifically, who is going to take care to write the books in African American Religious History? To some of you, this dream and my question may seem far-fetched. Within the last twenty years, many universities and colleges have at least one course in African American Religion, and most of those courses have some type of historical component to them. Books continue to proliferate on aspects of African American Religion, although those that reach back to the eighteenth and seventeenth century are few and far in-between. (one recent and notable exception however, is Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World by Jon Sensbach) Yet for all of the progress, and writing, there is still, like my dream, something missing. What’s missing is our “foundational” book in African American Religious history, a cohort of younger scholars in the field, and a permanent, in-print journal that exists to further the field. As co-editor of the journal, I believe that the North Star has been and will continue to be a space that is dedicated to both the advancement and permanence of the field of African American Religious History, as well as conduit and custodian for the work of our fellow scholars. In order to live up to the task, we must take a hard look at where we are.

                Let me take first the issue of a newer cohort of younger scholars. Founder of the journal and former editor Judith Wiesenfeld and I have often lamented in our various conversations about the lack of the second generation of scholars such as herself at institutions that grant doctoral degrees. Many of the scholars who worked with senior scholars in the field like Albert Raboteau, Lewis Baldwin, Larry Murphy, and others are tenured at wonderful liberal arts colleges and universities that do not produce graduate students. Students interested in the field usually circumvent Religious Studies programs and go directly into History, African American studies, Anthropology, or other related fields that are not entirely religion, or so theologically oriented that they end up emphasizing only the theological or ethical aspects of African American Religious history, without the proper training in history. If you make it through this gauntlet and still want to pursue a Ph.D with an emphasis in African American Religious history, there are only a few places I would recommend at present where student would have a thorough training in the field. Consequently, our field is not replenishing itself. Over the next twenty-five years, the field of African American religious history has the potential to become populated by scholars without a sufficient background in the historical aspects of African American Religion (or religions of the diaspora). If you think that this is a dire prediction, then begin to note the number of repeat job postings in the field, and also the reduction of job postings in African American Religious history. More often than not, now position postings are for African Diaspora Religion (very much needed as well), or scholars of American Religious History who can also teach a course in African American Religious history, or the more ubiquitous “African American Religion and Culture”. The current trajectory does not bode well in recruiting, retention, and reproduction of scholars.

            With that realization comes that after twenty five to thirty years of university courses in African American Religious History, there is still not one definitive book that is a good, historical overview for teaching at the very least, a basic introduction to African American Religious history.[1] Anthologies are plentiful however, but do not serve the overarching purpose of a text that can act as an anchor in teaching.   What I would not do for a book that was concise, to the point, not overtly detailed but a good narrative in the vein of recent books on American religious history.  The elusive book does not exist, I believe, in part because the younger generations of scholars are either trying to get tenure, the mid-range scholars have attained tenure and are burnt out, or both groups are too busy to see the broader picture. Where are the established professors in this enterprise? What happened? Perhaps that does not seem respectful, but in a sense, it is an honest question.  At least we have a newer revised edition of Slave Religion so that my students do not gaze on the first 1970’s cover of the first edition. Until we have the one volume, any volume, good, bad, or indifferent, we can content ourselves with such older volumes as Carter G. Woodson’s the Negro church.

            The study of African American Religious History also deserves a print journal. Once again, my gratitude goes out to Judith Wiesenfeld, who single-handedly ran the journal with an editorial board since 1996. The North Star is now well known in our field, and online access is a definite plus. However, one sign of a field’s maturity is the appearance of a print journal that is both conversation piece and resource for junior and senior scholars in the field. Journals also highlight new research methodologies, interrogate old assumptions, and introduce current books in the field.  The North Star will continue do this online, but the eventual leap that we hope to make from the internet to both print and electronic access within the immediate future will help us to broaden the Journals scope.

So, I ask, what should we do for the future of our field?  I offer below a few points for you to engage with. These are not exhaustive by any means but are some food for thought.

 1. It is time to start grooming students in order to insure the health of the field and its future. However, there are few places where one can go to focus on African American Religious History in a Religious studies context are few. Here are the institutions I think are viable at present: Princeton University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of North Carolina. Help me expand this list, please !

2. Who will have the fortitude, academic chops and courage to write a usable history of African American Religious history for classroom use? Until we get a volume, (good, bad, or indifferent) our field of study will continue to be idiosyncratic, and increasingly marginalized.

3. It is time to start to make lasting connections between the academy and the religious practitioners. Many of the historical records of African American Religious history are being thrown away daily by relatives disposing of recently deceased relatives hoping to clean out attics. Because of this, repositories of important materials are being lost daily. Much of African American Religious history is not in traditional archives but in private hands. We must begin to consider non-traditional means in order to obtain research materials for continued research.

4. We need a “clearinghouse” for scholars to connect on research and projects so that we can foster a sense of camaraderie for our field. There are several American Religion blogs at present (see) that talk about new books, etc. Perhaps the North Star or some other entity could be used to support this endeavor

.5. Will the African American Religious History Documentary project ever see the light of day for public use? (http://www.amherst.edu/~aardoc/menu.html)?  These materials are VITAL for future research and scholarship. With so much work and time having gone into this project, it is PAST TIME to move forward so that the next generation of scholars can begin to use these materials for research and teaching.These documents should also accessible online, for maximum accessibility.

6. Finally, is our field destined to be assimilated into the larger rubric of American Religious history, a field that is thriving, not abating, and leading the cutting edge of many theoretical issues surrounding gender, race, culture, and other important theoretical constructs?

These thoughts are just a beginning, but I am tired of talking to myself. I want to hear from you. Our field needs our collective efforts to revitalize it. Please write to me at northstarjournal@gmail.com. I will post your responses as received. Even if you think the field is fine, say that too. I am anxious for the conversation to begin. After all, I want to get good nights sleep, and quit having this anxiety dream. Eventually. That will only come about however, if we work together to make our future as a field secure. 

[1] Anthony Pinn’s book, scheduled for release, is entitled . The African American Religious Experience in America (The History of African-American Religions) , University of Florida Press, Nov. 2007.  I am happy to see this book being released, even though  it may not be the comprehensive Sydney Alstrom type book I am longing for.

 
     
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