Experiencing Interfaith in African American History
January 13, 2023
The following essay was adapted from remarks give at the Black Interfaith event at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on November 3, 2022.
I want to thank Fred Davie, Alexis Vaughan and Eboo Patel for the invitation to offer a few reflections on the history of interfaith work in the context of African American life. As articulated on the Interfaith America website, the Black Interfaith Project spotlights the longstanding diversity of Black religious life and the many ways Black Interfaith engagement has contributed to American spiritual and civic life.
We can all, I think, recognize that this description is, more or less, a statement of fact even as the pairing of black and interfaith into a single formation — Black Interfaith — suggests a kind of fixity not always apparent.
The black experience in the Americas has always been defined by its diversity, including an incredibly heterogeneous array of religious ideas, institutions, performances, practices, etc. You get the picture. Plurality, with regards to black religion and culture, has always been the norm even as churches have maintained a certain kind of prominence and visibility. As much is true of America, more generally.
Even still, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my own initial uneasiness in signing on to a project that braided together interfaith activism and African American religious traditions. And that it because, at best, black people have historically been an ill fit within the history of the interfaith movement in America. More pointedly, the black experience within the recognized history of interfaith work has ranged from a romanticized alterity to one of outright exclusion. Interfaith America’s recognition, and explicit naming, of the fact of this uneven-ness — an asymmetry that abides to the present — is an essential dimension of the Black Interfaith Project’s viability and promise. This posture of institutional humility helped persuade me to join the project’s group of advisors.
Beyond my own uneasiness, to glimpse the uneasy fit of black folks in interfaith history one need look no further than what is typically taken to be a founding moment for the movement: the first Parliament of World Religions, held in Chicago in 1893. In a convening that brought together representatives from religious traditions the world over, two “colored Americans” — an odd invite on racial terms, rather than religious affiliation — were invited to address the assembly. The Right Reverend Benjamin Arnett, a leader in the oldest independent black denomination, and Fannie Barrier Williams, an educator and activist within the black women’s club movement, advanced two different arguments. An African Methodist (AME) Bishop, Arnett offered a revisionist account in which black people were recognized as central to the making of Christian history. Williams, a Unitarian, put forward a view in which the measure of “true religion” — “Jew or Gentile, Protestant or Catholic” to borrow her language — was determined by the degree to which it aided in human flourishing, and of black life, specifically. Both speeches were guided by this rather simple idea, which by the 1890s was a guiding principle for black leaders. Perhaps nobody codified this logic as powerfully as Frederick Douglass, who several decades earlier had drawn a clear line between “Slaveholding Christianity” and “the Christianity of Christ.” Douglass also attended the historic Parliament as a guest. Then the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, as an elder statemen he was invited to address the body. Notably, his impromptu remarks highlighted “the great question of human rights instead of human religions.”
Taking cues from Douglass, Arnett and Williams at the first Parliament of World Religions, perhaps another way to imagine black interfaith engagement is as a set of individual and collective movements within and beyond, betwixt and between, across and in collaboration, but also reforming and reimagining … the full plurality of ideas, practices and institutions that comprise the black experience. Put otherwise, interfaith in the context of African American life might be understood as the pursuit of a form of religion, Christian or otherwise, that aligns with and supports a vision of black flourishing and pursues a set of laws, policies and practices – indeed, a social world – that affirm the fullness of black life.
Black life, as such, has always been inter-faith.
I’ve tried to account for this complexity in my own research and writing, including in my first book, “Spirit in the Dark,” and in my forthcoming new one, “Black is a Church: Christianity and the Contours of African American Life.” In both cases — and in general, I would argue — the arts, activism and intellectual life offer sources for thinking with the diversity of the black religious experience and an occasion to think through the prominence (and some might say, dominance or hegemony) of certain black religious traditions over against others.
Such an account could begin no more fittingly than with the story of Omar Ibn Said, who arrived in chains on American shores. To read Said’s narrative is to witness an educated and devout African Muslim man — who was converted into property in the “New World”— attempt to both make sense of and mobilize the Christian language of the men in this Christian land who claimed ownership over his person. Omar Ibn Said’s narrative is but one early episode in the longer story of black inter-faith experience.
Black Interfaith is … Rebecca Cox Jackson, who was born in the city that signaled national independence and raised in that city’s independent black church tradition of African Methodism. Jackson recognized the limits imposed by the gender politics of the pulpit in the AME Church so she set out for new spiritual horizons within the Shaker movement. Later she returned to Philadelphia, having found herself on the outside of Shakerism’s implicit racial order, to found a community of black Shaker women.
Black Interfaith is … Victoria Earle Matthews, a leader in the Settlement house movement and one of the first people to theorize what we now name as African American literature. Matthews insisted, in 1895 at the first Congress of Colored Women of the United States, that race literature would reveal black people’s “true heroism” and “unappreciated contribution to Christianity.”
Black Interfaith is … W.E.B. Du Bois, not only predicting that THE “problem of the twentieth century is the problem color line,” but also calling for and modeling what he named as a “new religious ideal” in his classic work “The Souls of Black Folk” — a book that DuBois rendered as a spiritual meditation and one which closed with a prayer.
Black Interfaith is … a Mississippi Baptist preacher, Charles Price Jones, falling on the outs with his local association because he embraced a new and foreign doctrine, of a second Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Jones followed the spirit and in doing so helped inaugurate a new Protestant tradition now named as the modern Pentecostal movement and went on to found a black Holiness denomination.
Black Interfaith is … the Presbyterian laymen and first black Ph.D. from Columbia University, George Edmund Haynes. Years before serving as the Federal Council of Churches longtime secretary on Race Relations, Haynes penned an essay “The Church and the Negro Spirit,” which drew connections between the cultural and literary flourishing of the Negro Renaissance and what was going on in Harlem’s black churches during the 1920s.
And Black Interfaith is … Zora Neale Hurston, daughter of a Southern black preacher and ethnographer and novelist extraordinaire of the black vernacular. Hurston drew on extensive fieldwork in the American South and the Caribbean to write now-classic novels like “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” During the 1930s Hurston also concluded that, “The Negro is not a Christian, really.”
From the first Parliament of the World Religions, in 1893, to our present day gathering in the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History, these are just a few illustrative examples in the longer and deeper history of the inter-faith experience in the context of black life.
This is Black Interfaith, as I know it.
Josef Sorett is Dean of Columbia College and Vice President for Undergraduate Education at Columbia University, where he is also Professor of Religion & African American and African Diaspora Studies.
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