Anxiety: African American Religious History’s Future
D. Butler, University of Rochester
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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 email@example.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.
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.