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Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

In this podcast, Judith Weisenfeld talks to Brad Stoddard about her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Depression. In this book, Weisenfeld explores several social groups in the early 1900s who combined religious and racial rhetoric to fashion new identities. These groups include the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and various Ethiopian Hebrews. These groups are not new to scholars of American religious history; however, Weisenfeld’s original analysis combined with her use of previously overlooked sources combine to tell a new and compelling story about these familiar groups.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

Podcast with Judith Weisenfeld (26 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Weisenfeld – Black Religious Movements 1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS): Hello, this is Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Judith Weisenfeld, who is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton. And she joins me today to talk about her new book, New World a-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Judith Weisenfeld (JW): Thanks, Brad.

BS: You write in this book that,“This book is the study of the theologies, practices, community, formations and politics of early 20th century black religious movements, that fostered novel understandings of the history and racial identity of people conventionally categorised as negro in American society.” Which specific groups do you address, and which story do they collectively tell?

JW: The book is a comparative study of the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and a number of congregations of Black Hebrews. And I pursue this comparative study in order to think about the ways in which they each engage with questions of racial identity through a religious frame. They all emerged at the same time in the early 20th century, founded by migrants from the south to northern cities, or immigrants from the Caribbean to these same northern cities. And I was interested in, again, the ways in which they were all thinking about black racial identity history and doing so in ways that insisted that religion was to be part of these discussions. And so, taken together, we get a sense of a really vibrant conversation going on in black American life, in these groups and beyond these groups, about race and peoplehood – who we are. And I think one of the ways in which people have conventionally approached race and racial identity is to understand race as reality – race exists: people are of this race, that race, another race. With the rise of Critical Race Studies and thinking about race as a social construction, scholars have begun to talk more about race – not as a biological fact, but as socially produced. And in that kind of discussion, which informs much of my work, people who are not white are often presented as the objects of racial construction. So race is a social construction that produces hierarchy. It provides tools for controlling, otherising and so on. And so, people who are so racialised rarely appear as agents in discussion about race. And in looking at these groups together it became clear to me that, again, in these groups and in broader black public culture, people were asking these questions about who we are, racially. And these groups presented a really profound challenge to the conventional category of negro and the ways in which Christianity had become the kind-of assumed “appropriate” religion. And so, taking them together, we see black religious subjects talking about race, producing race, rejecting, changing and so on.

BS: Most of these groups, not all of them, emerged or were founded or created within a relatively short time period. What is significant about this time period in American history and why was it so ripe for the production of so many diverse religio-racial identities?

JW: These groups all come out of the period of the Great Migration, which begins around World War I: the movement of rural southern African-Americans, to urban contexts – the Urban South. And also the largest element of that was a northward migration. And so northern cities see huge increases in the black population over those decades, through . . . and there a various waves of it. I focus from the early ‘20s to the late ‘40s. (5:00) And so, people are moving to cities and on the East Coast in particular, in New York and Newark and Philadelphia, they are also interacting with immigrants from the Caribbean – mostly from the British West Indies but also from Danish, French and so on. And these urban contexts become a laboratory for the production of all sorts of new cultural movements. So we get the Harlem Renaissance and the cultural productions of Chicago, where black films, for example, get produced and exhibited; music and literary productions. And religious transformation is also one of the components of the social changes and the cultural changes of the Great Migration. And while these groups remain in the minority, it’s in these urban laboratories . . . . And there are political changes as well: we see the rising of Socialists and Communists. And Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association is based in Harlem, and it is also a kind of engine for thinking about black peoplehood in new ways. And so, these are people who are moving. They’re born – the members who join, and also the founders – they’re born at the end of Reconstruction, some of them at the beginning. They’re born as Jim Crow segregation really locks down life in the South. And then they’re part of this Great Migration. And I think one of the things that they’re struggling with is, “We’re no longer slaves,” and there was the potential of reconstruction, “but things are not . . . things are different, but things are not different in important ways”. And so [there’s] a kind of questioning of this hopeful trajectory of the Exodus, for example – questioning the degree to which black churches can be agents of liberation. And what’s really so powerful in these groups – for me I found really interesting – is just questioning the very terms of identity, who we are: is this who we are? “If this is who we are”, a lot of them say, “I don’t necessarily want that”. There’s a story of a man, who’s named only as Horace X, and he encounters the Nation of Islam, in Chicago, in the ‘40s. And he had tried out, he had grown up in the Church, he had tried out different . . . all sorts of different groups: political groups that had promised migration to Africa, and other kinds of religious groups that he’s joined – the Freemasons. And in the story he tells to a Sociologist, he heard someone preaching on the street: “This is not who you are. They told you you were a negro; they told you you were a Christian. That’s not true: I have the truth.” And he said, “I was ashamed to have been born a negro before this, and when I heard that, everything changed for me.” And it’s that kind-of rethinking of identity that I found so compelling and wanted to know more about. And I think it’s precisely the convergence of all of these things in the urban context that makes that possible.

BS: When you were describing Horace X it reminded me of what scholars refer to as the “seeker mentality”, but it’s alive and well, in different communities, much earlier – as you’re describing it.

JW: Yes, I found a number of cases like that in all of the groups, where people said, “I tried this, I tried that.” Sometimes they’re doing multiple things at the same time. And, when I started the research, I was revisiting some of the secondary literature and things I had read many times before, but hadn’t thought about it in relation to writing about these groups. And I looked back at a document by Miles Mark Fisher, who was an African-American minister and also a University of Chicago PhD after he wrote this. He wrote a piece called “Organised Religions and the Cults”, and he was advocating for the inclusion of some of these newer movements in the US census of religious bodies that was coming up in 1935, I think it would have been. And he was making the case that these are not numerically powerful groups, but that they spoke about something that was going on in African-American life. And in order to understand religion in American life, the Census Bureau should survey them. (10:00) And he also told a story. He said, “It’s very hard to tell . . . to draw a line between churches and the cults”, as he called them. And he told the story of his Sunday School teacher, who had also been a member of what he characterised as a cult. And he did that and was also a Sunday School teacher, and was buried out of the church. And so, returning to that piece sparked for me this sense that, as he made clear, the line is not that sharp between them; that people are moving sequentially through these or trying them out at the same time. And the other thing that became really important for me was to think about members of these groups, and the kinds of conversations they are engaged in, as part of a broader set of conversations in the black life at the time. So, not to marginalise them as strange people who put on fezzes and rejected all sorts of things to move off on their own – they were boundaried in lots of ways. But the kinds of questions they were asking were not strange, for that period. They were, actually, very much a part of what I call the kind-of public culture of race in black America.

BS: Scholars have discussed all of these groups before. In your book you bring, of course, your unique analytical lens to it, but you also bring new sources and new groups of people. So can you speak – and when I think of new people, you focus a lot on Caribbean people and their impact on these movements – also can you speak to your sources, and the groups of people who are included in your narrative?

JW: Sure. One of the . . . . As you said, scholars have written about these groups, the Moorish Science Temple and its’ founder Noble Drew Ali, the Nation of Islam and W D Fard and Elijah Mohammad, Father Divine and also scholarship on black or Ethiopian Hebrews. And all that . . . . Those are texts that consider these groups individually, and focus primarily on the leaders and the theologies that they promoted. And I was interested in what it would mean to put them together in one study and think about, as I’ve said, the way they talk about race – reimagine race in a religious frame. And I ended up calling that ‘religio-racial identity” because, for them, as all the founders preached, religion and race are inextricably linked.And once you understand your religious identity – be it as an Asiatic Muslim, as the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple would talk about it; or an Ethiopian Hebrew; or for Father Divine’s movement, raceless – once you know that, you know what your religion is supposed to be as well. So Islam, for the Nation of Islam, was created for the Asiatic; you can’t separate those things. And I felt, in reading some of the secondary literature, that people were . . . scholars were really interested in how to talk about the religious transformations that these groups represented, but didn’t really take seriously these claims of Asiatic or Ethiopian identity. And I wanted to know (I see them – in reading the primary sources – for these people, inextricably linked ) and I wanted to know how – if you are Horace X and you hear a minister of the Nation of Islam preaching, “You are not a negro Christian, you are an Asiatic Muslim” – how did Horace X go about being that thing that he came to believe he really was? And so finding what the average members did was really a challenge. (15:00) And this is, I think, why most of the texts really focus on the theologies of the leaders. And so, I ended up benefitting from some recent archival sources. Emory, for example, has a Father Divine collection that has a huge number of letters to and from Father Divine that give the texture of life in the movement – though those are not unconventional. But I ended up using vital records: the census and government documents like draft cards that are, many of them, available at ancestry.com. And reading those kinds of documents – I just kind of stumbled on them as a way into this – showed me how profoundly important it was to members of these groups that they be represented in public, in official documents, with the religio-racial identity they had claimed and, in some cases, the names they had chosen to reflect their true identities. And so we see, in the draft cards of these men going in, there’s a pre-printed category or column of racial categories listed. And it’s white, negro, Asian Filipino, Indian – it says Oriental on the 1942 form. And these men say, “None of those categories fit me.” And so you have to write Moorish American. And they were successful in doing that. And those kinds of documents were, again, a completely unexpected way of finding names of average members, but also an unexpected source for finding out ways to kind-of calibrate the stakes and their investment in it. So, if you’re potentially being drafted into the military, and you’re struggling over how you’re represented racially on this form, it means a lot to you. And I see it on the census and things like that. I learned all kinds of things from the census about residential patterns of these groups. So I spent a lot of time on ancestry.com!

BS: (Laughs) Excellent.

JW: On the topic of both new sources and new social actors, I was interested in the role of immigration from the West Indies from the Caribbean in this story. Because they are there. It is Marcus Garvey’s . . . . He was a Jamaican immigrant who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and proposed a sense of global black identity. He did embrace the label negro, but he really generated a sense of black pride, a connection to Africa, investment in collective political engagement in a ways that was new for the period, and in a lot . . . . He was from Jamaica and a lot of the people in the movement, when it was headquartered in Harlem, were from the Caribbean. And this gets erased a lot – very often, I think, in African-American history – that these were people who come from a very different social and political context, in many ways, to the US – and religious context as well. There are commonalities, but they have cultural differences and they’re negotiating them. And these movements emerge, in part, out of those cultural negotiations across communities. But it also turns out that most of the Ethiopian Hebrews are Caribbean immigrants, the vast majority of people in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam are African-Americans, and Father Divine’s movement has a mix. And so this project was interesting, to me, to think about, again, black racial identity across not just African-American, but thinking about how these groups were in conversation with one another. I didn’t do as much as I had hoped to attend to the cultural specifity of West Indian immigrants in the story, so I hope somebody else will pick that up.

BS: As I read your book, you’re suggesting that membership in one of these groups required the person to undergo a rather thorough process of reimagining. And I have a couple of questions about that reimagining. How did membership of one of these groups – and I know it varied from group to group – but what were some of the major ways that it involved them reimaging their sense of self and even their bodies? (20:00)

JW: That was one of the ways I tried to answer the question of: if yesterday you thought you were a negro Christian and today you have been persuaded that you are a raceless child of Father Divine, or Ethiopian Hebrew – how do you do that? And so I looked at these practices of self-fashioning that are different, as you said, in each of the groups. But I did find some patterns in that, for many of them, changing their names was important and, in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, rejecting the name, the . . . . Well, in the Nation of Islam, rejecting the slave name and reclaiming (what they talked about as) a kind of “tribal” name or “true” name – for both the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam – was an important step of kind-of separating from old self and moving into the new self. And in Father Divine’s Peace Mission they rejected their (what they talked of as) “mortal names” and took spiritual names that reflected their new status. So these processes of separation from the former identity and taking on a new one that reflects your true history, as they talked about it, was important. Some of the groups took on forms of dress that also spoke about that history, that lineage. The Moorish Science Temple were the most notable one with adopting Moorish dress: the fez for men and turbans for women. And, again, the draft cards were really interesting sources for me for thinking about the meaning of that, and the ways in which men who were registering for the draft thought of that fez as, actually, part of their bodies. And it was Nobel Drew Ali who enjoined them to wear the fez at all times. But when you see on the draft cards that they list that as a physical characteristic, by which they can be identified . . . . You know it’s: they have a scar, or a missing digit, or something like that. It revealed, again, how much they saw as kind-of reimagining their body, in a profound way, into this being that could be recognised as its true self, now. Names, dress, some of the group reimagined skin colour, adopted different kind of terminology for talking about the surface of the body. Moorish Science Temple, again, used the term “olive”. They talked about themselves as olive-skinned Moors. And it didn’t matter that there might not be a correspondence between what the beholder might think they looked like, but it was a theological way of talking about skin colour as connected to Allah and scripture, and the catechism explained that. And then practices of diet, again, they kind of separate you from your old self and you take on a true diet that remakes you and keeps you healthy. All of these groups actually had a deep investment in longevity, and thought that – in different ways – the poison diet – the wrong diet of enslavement and negro-ness and Christianity, to a certain extent, had debilitated black people as individuals and black people as a whole. So they developed certain dietary practices: either feasting or fasting, in different cases; certain foods; and also they all had investments in healing, sometimes through medicine, sometimes through diet. And they all, actually, believed that black people could live for a very, very long time, if not – in Father Divine’s group – for ever, and that enslavement in the Americas had made that impossible, but they were being restored to that possibility.

BS: Part of that reimagining also involved them reimagining their sense, not only geographically, but also historically. It seems that the dominant narrative at this time, in African-American communities, was to understand their position in history relative to slavery. And these new religious movements in this period provided a whole new understanding of history. Can you speak to that? (25:00)

JW: That was one of , I think, the great appeals of these movements. And collectively they do the same kind of work. And in some ways saying, “You are not a negro” is saying the same thing: “Your history did not begin with slavery.” The negro is, all of them would argue, a racial category that was produced only in America – or through slavery in the Americas – and that it was a containing trap to imagine yourself that way, and that God didn’t make you that way. So then one has to say, “Well, who are we?” Right? “What is our history?” And so they all insist that, in one way or another, black history began before slavery – which of course we know – and fill that in. And so in some cases they’re arguing that . . . . So, the Moorish Science Temple says: we are actually the descendents of . . . we are Moroccan, born in America. And then [it] also uses the Bible to trace back even further, so that there is a Biblical connection. But the Moorish Science Temple wants to orient people to the geographic space of Morocco, and use that as a way of talking about the beginning of history. Ethiopian Hebrew congregations again use the Bible to talk about Biblical history as African history and African history as Biblical history. They are interested in Ethiopia but there are also other geographic locations in Africa they they’re interested in. And for Father Divine’s Peace Mission and the Nation of Islam, it’s less a geographic connection – although the Nation of Islam is very interested in Mecca. And for the Peace Mission, Father Divine’s kingdom on earth is where . . . he is there and he’s created this Utopia. But their approach to rejecting the history of negros and enslavement involved not geography, but time – is how I came to think about it. So the Nation of Islam, there’s a lot of . . . . In African-American Christians, and also in the Ethiopian Hebrew groups and the Moorish Science Temple, there’s a lot of engagement with the Bible, and looking for where we are, and how to fit our history there. And the Nation of Islam says: “ Lets just throw that away. Because even from the beginning of time, from the moment of creation, that’s where we are. We have to get rid of . . . .The Bible tells us the whole story wrong.” And Father Divine – time approaches to say: “Race is a product of the devil, I’ve returned to usher in a new heaven and new earth. Heaven is not some far-off thing; it’s here now. And so we start from now. You can enter my kingdom if you do all of these things. And you’re not a negro, that’s from the past. And being a negro is why you die. And if you reject all of that you can live with me for ever.” So the Nation of Islam projected back to the moment of creation and Father Divine projected forward into an eternal future. There’s a great . . . . He would send out this Christmas and New year’s card, in the late ‘40s, that had his image and Mother Divine, his wife, and it said : “One eternal Merry Christmas, one eternal Happy New Year!”

BS: Very good! Thank you. Well, I’d like to say that this is a phenomenal book. And I can imagine it finding a home in quite a few Religious Studies courses, actually. So, best of luck with the book, and thank you so much for your time and your insights. I appreciate it.

JW: Thank you.

Citation Info: Weisenfeld, Judith 2017. “Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/black-religious-movements-and-religio-racial-identities-during-the-great-migration/

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On Reading Ralph Ellison Theologically

Ralph Ellison, famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, eschewed religiosity personally. His works mainly concerned race, artistry, and democracy in America. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (2017), Cooper Harriss seeks to uncover what he sees as the theological dimensions of Ellison’s secular conception of race. Because religion is a neglected topic in Ellison scholarship, Harriss’ reading presents an opportunity for fresh insights.[1]

Most scholars examining invisibility in Ellison’s novel consider it a social metaphor: the novel’s protagonist is made invisible by people’s refusal to really see him. Yet Harriss claims invisibility is also a theological trope, with roots in biblical materials, Protestantism, and Kongo traditions, antecedents that establish it as an unmarked religious category. More than the social marginalization of black bodies, Harriss contends invisibility is metaphysical, too.

To read Ellison as a theological thinker, which is also to read him theologically, Harriss calls upon Schleiermacher and Tillich, primarily, to expand the notion of religion. He explains that, to him, the terms “religion” and “religious” refer not to particular things but to “processes through which antagonistic cooperation between universals and particulars generates human quests for meaning” (16). Furthermore, “Ellison’s concept of race is foundationally religious because it is rooted in the relational, systematic interplay between, and the consequent aggregation of, the particular and the universal” (17).

Great authors like Ellison create characters and stories that are both particularized yet universal. The particularity gives a literary work its fully-fleshed characters and immersive world, while its universality connects it to readers’ own lives. In Invisible Man, after we hear the unnamed protagonist’s particular life story as a black man in America, he asks his famous universalizing final line, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” This interplay between particular and universal, is religious, in Harriss’ terms. Ellison is thus a theologian because he makes meaning out of this particular-universal relation.

The heart of Harriss’ argument is his claim that Ellison’s secular conception of race is an “invisible theology.” For Harriss, theology refers not to “God-talk” but to “meanings and significances generated by religious negotiations of universals and particulars,” or “faith seeking understanding” (16). Ellison’s work is religious because it is “meaning-making” and it is theological because it offers practical import for human living (16). These elements are inseparably linked: “the religious and the theological” are “critically cofunctional—never segregated (as they have become in contemporary academic discourse) but absolutely dependent upon one another” (17). Here Harriss is not just making a descriptive claim about the history of these distinct discourses, but asserting his desire to “annihilate” the wall between theology and religious studies, as he says in this interview. He wishes to “dislocate theology as ‘mere’ belief, prescription, or data and refashion it as a critical apparatus” that can help us solve contemporary challenges (192). Accordingly, Harriss argues that “the religious aspects of Ellisonian conceptions of race as a secular property—its invisible theology—may help us” to assess today’s political contexts (179). There is a social prescriptivism in this theological claim-making; Harriss hopes the invisible theology he’s unveiling—and creating—might save us.[2]

There is good evidence, Harriss claims, for reading Ellison theologically. Ellison derided what he saw as racial essentialism in the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s-1970s, which relied on materialist conceptions of race. Harriss asserts Ellison’s critical project worked against such materialisms, opening space for metaphysical speculation. He also relies on the coincidental publication of major works by three Protestant intellectuals to place Ellison in their midcentury American theological context. Over two chapters, Harriss connects Ellison’s ruminations on racism as America’s “original sin” to American civil religion as a form of residual Calvinism in a post-Protestant society. In a critical chapter, he argues that Ellison’s long friendship with Nathan A. Scott, Jr., literature professor and canon theologian, was really a “theological apprenticeship” for Ellison (96).[3] Cooper uses previously unpublished material to shed light on Ellison at several points, and provides provocative interpretations throughout.

Harriss’s book stands in the tradition of Scott’s scholarship—called Theology and Literature, Christianity and Literature, or Religion and Literature—albeit augmented by recent critical studies of race, religion, and secularism. Relying on a Tillichian theology of culture, Scott explored how a “religious unconscious” permeates cultural productions, even avowedly secular ones, and provides insight into how we ought to live. Harriss admits his own “Tillichian orientation” and states that Scott’s earlier work on Ellison “anticipates the premise, if not the thesis, of this book” (88, 98). Like Scott, Harriss seeks to uncover hidden religious dimensions in Ellison’s secular work to help us navigate the modern world. Both scholars utilize liberal Christian definitions of religion to find exactly these kinds of religious articulations in Ellison.

Harriss employs scholarship showing the theological and Protestant production of concepts like race and the secular to justify framing Ellison as a Protestant theologian (3, 41). Ellison would not recognize himself as such. Despite Ellison’s critiques of social science and Marxist materialism, he did not turn toward supernaturalism. Harriss rejects Ellison’s naturalism by insisting that we need to take “certain religious and theological dimensions seriously in their contention with what believers understand to emanate from invisible, supernatural realms” (14). This approach distinguishes secular from religious, recognizes Ellison as secular, and then rewrites him as religious anyway. Such theological caretaking confuses categorical entanglements with their identity. By yoking religious studies with theology and the secular with the religious, Harriss erases any difference. Arguing that secular writers are really theologians in disguise enacts a theological agenda. At stake is what we do as religious studies scholars.

Outside theological contexts, I am not convinced that the category “invisible theology” provides us greater analytical purchase on Ellison’s work. As someone who loves Ellison and studies religion, I was excited to encounter Harriss’ ideas. As a religious studies scholar, however, I found Harriss’ insistence upon a theological reading of Ellison’s work forced and unnecessary. In a spirit of antagonistic cooperation, a favorite phrase of Ellison’s, I find myself both affirming and resisting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology.

Notes

[1] Most recently, Josef Sorett locates Ellison’s Afro-Protestant racial aesthetics in the black church (2016, 141-149). Sorett and Harriss both claim religion underlies black secular artistic expressions, but their methods and conclusions differ.

[2] In Race and Secularism in America, Vincent W. Lloyd exhorts “the recovery of the religious, beyond secularism,” for its transformative potential (2016, 15). He adds that “remembering the religious—or the theological, as the unmanaged religious is sometimes called—points to traditions of imagining otherwise.” In Harriss’ work, I hear a similar normative voice, one that promotes Protestant theology as a useful mode for reading secular literature and for envisioning an “otherwise” that seems beyond our material reach.

[3] I found the evidence for such “instruction” to be thin (98). Harriss reads a lot into a letter Ellison wrote to Scott wherein Ellison laments the loss of the “sacred” in modern literature; Ellison saw that loss as muting moral assertion and forcing “depth and resonance” underground (97). Harriss repurposes Ellison’s “depth and resonance” as “shorthand” for religion (98-99, 116, 147).

References

Harriss, M. Cooper. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology. New York University Press, 2017.

Lloyd, Vincent W. “Introduction: Managing Race, Managing Religion.” In Race and Secularism

in America, edited by Jonathan Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, 1-19. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Scott, Jr., Nathan A. “Black Literature.” In Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing,

edited by Daniel Hoffman, 287-341. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” The Carleton Miscellany 18.3 (1980): 41-50.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” Callaloo 18.2 (1995): 310-318.

Sorett, Josef. Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. Oxford University

Press, 2016.

 

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology

harriss comps.inddIn this interview, M. Cooper Harriss, author the book Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, discusses his thoughts on the unseen theological dimensions of Ralph Ellison’s writings. Harriss begins with the figure of Ellison, whose novel, Invisible Man, offers a now-classic metaphor (“invisibility”) depicting the socio-cultural and political issues and obstacles that African Americans experienced in the mid-twentieth century. By claiming the invisible not simply as a materialist term but a metaphysical one as well, Harriss contends that despite—or even because of—his status as a thoroughly “ secular” novelist and critic, Ellison’s writing reflects important theological trends and issues that mark his age and the cultural inheritances of his literary production. Harriss also identifies the scholars and thinkers who inform the methodological moves that he makes in the book, and he reflects on the abiding relevance of Ellison’s life and insights. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology troubles regnant assumptions surrounding the religious and theological dimensions of racial identity and, indeed, the very fraught relationships between the terms “religion” and “theology” in contemporary academic discourse.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology

Podcast with M. Cooper Harriss (12 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Harriss-_Ralph_Ellison_s_Invisible_Theology_1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS) : Hello. This is Brad Stoddard of the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Cooper Harriss. Cooper is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University and he just completed his first book, entitled Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, soon to be published with NYU Press. Cooper – welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Cooper Harriss (CH): Thank you so much for having me, Brad. It’s a delight to be here.

BS: Thanks. Will you introduce your book to the listeners?

CH: Yes. I’m delighted to – thank you all for listening! Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology is a book that examines what I would call overlooked, or under appreciated, religious and theological dimensions of the concept of race. The concept of race, as we now know it, emerges somewhere around the mid-twentieth century where, you know, these two turns [took place], one to a kind of materialism and, on the other hand, a turn to critical theory: you have the rise of black studies in the 1960s; you have the emergence of political sensibilities that defines race according to these terms. It has remained a popular way, you know: of the ways that we talk about American culture; the ways that we think about our political process; the ways that we imagine marginalisation of people. We often do this in political, materialist and economic terms. What I’m interested in is the way that Ellison’s term “invisibility” – The Invisible Man, 1952, was his novel – the term invisibility has come to signify this kind of marginalisation. If you go to your institution’s library and punch in “invisible” in a title search you’re going to get hundreds or thousands of titles back: invisible women, invisible children in our Houston Schools. . . title after title, after title, that deals in terms of a political, materialist marginalisation. That’s great. My question becomes: why is it that we’re using. . . why is it that invisible carries that valence when it also is a metaphysical property – you might even say a ghost – or these kinds of things. So I work from that. And I think about how Ellison is actually working from an alternative understanding of racial dynamics in American culture, or even broader cultural systems of the West. He was very much at odds with the emergence of this definition of race. He is trying to think humanistically at a time when everybody else is turning to the social sciences. He’s aghast at the Moynihan Report which defines poverty in sociological systems. He is dissatisfied with the kind of activist, political mentality that goes into the production and the criticism of African American culture. And so, what I see him doing is actually trying to work through this in an alternative way. And one way, really, to strike hard back at that materialist move is to think theologically. So, what is it about this concept of race – and for Ellison this means blackness – what is it about it that has an alternative prime dimension? And so I began by looking at . . . these four or five ways of looking at Invisible Man. We look at biblical invisibility; we look at invisibility of puritan sources – Cotton Mather and Hutchinson; we look at Luther and Shakespeare; we move onto Kongo religion and think about invisibility and Death and the Invisible Powers and its relationship to Racecraft – this fantastic book by Barbara and Karen Fields, that compares the way that the new scholars think about race with a kind of magic. So, racecraft and witchcraft. These kinds of things. On the other hand, I look at more contemporary things: Clint Eastwood’s empty chair, drones. What are the. . . spectacular imaginaries, the profound scary secrets of this world that we live in? How does something like the gaze of the drone that’s chasing down – the legacy of the colonised other, right, that is invisibly hovering here – (5:00) what is the relationship between that and what Ellison’s understanding to be in play at the very end of the Jim Crow era? And, in between that, I offer a kind of chronological assessment of Ellison’s career, using various lenses or methods that I draw from religious studies. I think about poetic justice, I think about the notion of poetic justice as it relates to racial identity in the renaissance; I look at Invisible Man, published in 1952, in the context of three other important books that are out that year: one by Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be; one by Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, and then Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness which is – he published it before, but delivered it at Brown University in ‘52. I also uncover Ellison’s close relationship with Nathan A. Scott Junior, who was a Professor of Theology and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity school. He and Ellison became great friends when Ellison was on a visiting assignment there. And what I’ve found in their correspondence – in Ellison’s papers in the Library of Congress – is that Scott recognises a kind of sensibility in Ellison; a kind of religious sensibility. He tries to get him involved in what we would call “religion and literature”, he called it “theology and literature”. But he sees Ellison as a writer who is invested in these kinds of issues and questions. Ellison was also a huge fan of 19th century American literature. In fact, when he was asked to come teach places – he taught at Rutgers; he had a Schweitzer Chair at NYU; he taught at Chicago; he had other, sort of, shorter appointments – it was often assumed that a famous African American novelist would come and teach, maybe, African American literature. And he would say, “No! I want to teach a course on Civil War literature, or a course on 19th Century American literature”, which at the time was very white-core. He’s drawing on larger influences, but he’s also flummoxing a lot of the expectations. So he’s teaching Melville and Hawthorne, instead of these expectations. I’m also interested in Ellison’s second novel, which he never finished. He started writing almost immediately after Invisible Man was published in 1952, and he never finished it. He saved it, for the last time, on his computer December 31st 1993. He died in March of ‘94. He’s writing, and writing, and re-writing. And he says that he’s trying to capture something about race in America. The problem is, he’s doing it from roughly 1954 to 1994. He’s doing it from, basically, Brown v. Board to the Million Man March. What does race in America mean during that time? Well, it’s constantly changing: you can never get a hand on it. And so, I use the kind-of changing dynamics of American civil religion as a way to pin down what it is that he’s unable to capture. Because he was, he was invested in a highly centripetal understanding of what we would call American civil religion. I use the trope invisible theology in a couple of ways: on the one hand, it is the fact that this theological sensibility has largely escaped the attention of scholars. If you look at most writing that talks about Ellison at all, in what we would call religious terms, it talks about his preachers , who are cultural figures – who may as well be Jazz players! Not that that’s not important, but it’s a different. . . but nobody really understands him to draw on these kinds of, this strong theological, historical and cultural legacy. And so invisible theology is the theological dimension that has not been seen. But also, it is a theology of invisibility. (10:00) Which is to say that the condition of being black in America – the concept of race itself, as a condition of invisibility – taps into a longer religious and theological genealogy of the concept of invisibility. And, actually, you can see ways that it passes through Ellison, and it’s really helpful for understanding both the present and the future tense.

BS: Are there any relevant biographical details about Ellison that we should know about?

CH: Well, I’m so glad you asked about the biographical details! One thing about him is that he falls outside many of the major narratives that we use to talk about African American culture. Often we fall into the rural south / urban north binary. Ellison was from Oklahoma. He’s been into this migration through Alabama and Tuskegee into Harlem, where he lives the rest of his life. But he understands himself to be outside of the major migration narrative of the 20th century. He’s outside of many of the major arguments, as well. He’s not a social scientist: he dislikes that approach to culture; he feels like it’s demeaning – that it takes away human elements. He believes that human beings are capable of extraordinary actions, even if they don’t always and can’t always fulfil them. And so, he becomes a bit of an outlier. He’s a bit of a pariah. He’s sometimes called Uncle Tom. But he fights back and lashes back against that with, I think, a very clear cultural sensibility which is something like this: whatever it is that our experience and our life is, whatever the cruelty or the dispossession, or the exclusion, or the violence may be, that there’s a sensibility of a kind of exception to these conditions – that we are human being, and we are meaning-making creatures, and there are ways in which we take these situations and imbue them with a kind of meaning that goes beyond material realities in the present. You might say that – 65 years earlier – he was taking lemons and making lemonade, if you catch my drift.

BS: I have a question about your methodology.

CH: Yes.

BS: Early on, in your introduction, you identify Ellison as a secular writer. So, methodologically, how do you get from secular writings to theology? How do you make that interpretive move? And what scholars of religion provide you with the methodological tools to make that move?

CH: Yes. So Ellison is what we call a secular writer. He had no specific religious commitments. He’s not writing out of a specific tradition, he’s not identified as such. And yes, what I see is a kind of analogy here. I actually go with Schleiermacher – though I think it goes. . . we could think about it through Schleiermacher, through Geerz and Durkheim and on. . . And what I’m interested in is this relationship between particularity and universality. And of course Schleiermacher’s definition of religion in the second discourse in On religion: [Speeches] to its Cultured Despisers, defines religion as this kind of aggregation between universal and particular. And what I do is, I take Ellison’s concept of race which. . . race itself is, of course, a secular concept. It’s one which comes out of the social sciences, in terns of its definition. And I say that, actually, what Ellison is doing with racial identity, within cultural expression, is analogous to Schleiermacher’s understanding of his definition of religion: that to be . . . that African American cultural expression is highly particularised for Ellison. It is what he grew up with, it’s what he knows. It’s what any person can gather from the kind of the mother wit of their early existence, and their ongoing interaction with other people in the world. It’s highly particularised. And yet, it also interacts, corresponds to, comes into contact with, must negotiate a larger sense of being human. And so, for him, the notion of the human is something of a universal. Now, what he wouldn’t say is that. . . often this turns into: “The human is the white and the universal.” He would say, “No!” He would say that, actually, this set of correspondences applies to everybody. He has a lovely way of putting it. It’s one of my favourites. (15:00) He says that, the negro writer – this is his term – the negro writer writes out of a sense of a specific wound. The wound for us is the experience of being black in America. We think about slavery, we can talk about these other aspects . But he said, “All novelists deal with this kind of sensibility. All novels are about outsiders. All novels deal with a kind of wounded. . . all novels deals with. . . ” – I’m blanking the specific term he uses here, but all novels are about. . . . So, what he says is, “I write out of my experience and I am creating something meaningful out of disaster, calamity, love, awesomeness – but it is directed specifically at my context.” Ellison was often asked, “Why don’t you write protest novels?” By that, what the questioner would mean is: “Why don’t you put in your novels that racism is bad, and give very clear instances of that to display, to show it?”And what Ellison said to that was, “Actually, every novel is a protest novel. Every art protests against something.” He says, “For me, I can write novels within my particular mode. And so, that is a particular rendering of a more universal genre or form. But it is not unique to African American writers.” Dostoevsky is protesting against the limits of 19th century nationalism; Don Quixote protests against the things that Cervantes is invested in. He goes back to Sophocles and says, “Sophocles is protesting against something. We may not know what it is, but what unites Sophocles, Shakespeare and Cervantes to me is that we are addressing something about a human condition”, which Ellison understood to be a universal that we have to enter through the highly specific, through a sense of particularity. And so, what I say is that Ellison’s understanding of literature, or even cultural production, has this religious sensibility here. And so, this is the how the secular writer writes religiously. And then, the question also becomes: “So how does it become theology?” Right? And I sit smiling,here, that this is the Religious Studies [Project] podcast! One of the things I’m really interested in is, well, annihilating this hard-fast wall that’s erected between theology and religious studies as these kinds of signifiers. So, one of the things that I say is that “religion becomes the process, theology becomes the meaning”. So, in other words, if the process is about the aggregation of the particular and universal, the theology is: what is the meaning that arises out of that? And what I hope your peers will see is that there is a kind of co-functionality between religion and theology: that they require one-another to make sense of one-another. And I don’t mean this in a highly confessional sense, but I also think that there can be more. . . an understanding, and more inter-play to be in play between them, within the process. And I think Ellison gives us a fantastic vehicle for understanding that.

BS: Which contemporary scholars influence your methodological moves?

CH: So, I have a couple of books, there are two outstanding recent books: one is J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, which does the kind of deep excavation that I don’t pretend to do, but that inspires me. It’s a gesture to the hard digging that he’s done and, in a way, also of understanding the particularities of race to draw from these longer kinds of traditions. So again, it’s not a universality per se, but it’s certainly more universal than we had previously imagined longer legacies of race. Another one is Willie J. Jennings’ Christian Imagination. And I see these as . . . they may not be in actuality . . . but for me, I read them close together and again, this kind of excavative project that looks at the depth, and resonance, and meaning of this concept that is taken on, with almost scientific valences. (20:00) I think two other scholars who strongly inspire me are Tracy Fessenden in her book Culture and Redemption (and just in case I got that wrong I’ll say Tracy Fessenden in her book Redemption and Culture). Because I see, in my own project, a sense of having established the terms of social history, having established the terms of the kind-of focussing in on not the grand narratives but the smaller details. Not focussing on the grand narratives, but in certain moments, and being sensitive to the exclusions that are caused by the grand narratives. So focussing more on the micro-histories. What she does, or what I understand her to be doing – and I love this move – is: OK, so we have established that grand narratives are over with, because they exclude. So what happens if we create grand narratives that, actually, are built of this stuff that has been excluded? And that’s what I see. . . . It’s part of what Jennings is doing, in a way, and it’s definitely what I want to do.

BS: In the book, you recall a common question that is asked about Ralph Ellison and that question is, something along the lines of: “Is he a negro writer or is this a book about negroes?” – some version of that question, right?

CH: Yes.

BS: What’s at stake in that answer? Let me ask it that way.

CH: Sure, and you did a nice synopsis of the two versions of that question. One is, are you a negro writer, or a writer who happens to be a negro? Or is this Invisible Man a negro novel or a novel that happens to be about a negro? And then I think the question becomes, or the way that I answer that question, is “Yes.” Right? Because that is the particular and that is . . . Schleiermacher’s two poles. What is at stake in the question is, I think, a sense of how you understand, or how you want to understand. . . within these historical questions – historical people asking it. Would I have understood a negro novel to protest, to offer a very clear. . . to say very clearly, “racism is bad, oppression is bad, I’m going to give you endless horrific details that’s going to illustrate this in so many ways and then I’m going to give you a nice little lesson”, right? And that is overstating things – but something like Native Son, which is a much more complicated novel than that, but Ellison didn’t necessarily see it that way; that would be the negro novel. The novel that happens to be about a negro – I think the problem with that question is that it underestimates the power of the particular. In other words, in saying that the Invisible Man just happens to be a negro, it presumes that that element – the racial element – that particularity is not important. And so somewhere between those determinations is where I think we should be looking. And that’s where Schleiermacher’s particulars and universals become important. Because it’s not about being particular. Nobody’s all particular and nobody’s all universal, right? We’re all caught in the midst of this messy cloud of identity. And for Ellison that was precisely the point. And I think that is also what is so effective about his notion of invisibility, is that we’re always constantly aggregating and changing and there’s a kind-of sense of play that takes place within the process. Like, within the formation and within the production of culture through novels, but certainly other things as well.

BS: A final question for you. We are conducting this interview, we are having this conversation in the early phase of the changes associated with President Elect Trump. Do you see any relevance to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology?

CH: Yes, absolutely. I think, for a couple of reasons. (25:00) One, I think that it shows, first of all, I mean the. . . . I think that the fact that people are even remotely shocked at the outcome of this election shows how potent this concept of invisibility is: I mean, people were blindsided by it. And you listen to the responses and: “It’s economics”, and “It’s this”, and “It’s that”, and “It’s the Press”. But at the end of the day, we exist within this kind of structure of reality that is very old and imbued with a kind of realness that permeates the culture. And so, the fact that the kind of racial logic that has produced the results we see, I think, are in a different shade, perhaps, in a different hue: whiteness? Nell Painter had this great piece in the New York Times this weekend, saying that whiteness is now a race. It’s not just an unconscious thing, it’s a race. And so we see this with the invisible theology. That whiteness has become, in a way, this kind of racial dispensation and the election shows that for certain.

BS: Well thanks so much ,Cooper! This has been a fantastic conversation. And let me complement you, it is a superbly researched and meticulously well-read book. And it’s an enjoyable read. So, congratulations on your first book!. And thanks for your time.

CH: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. And I hope that your listeners enjoy!

Citation Info: Harriss, M. Cooper 2017. “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ralph-ellisons-invisible-theology/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 14 March 2017

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Can Religion Explain the KKK?

Describing the story of the Ku Klux Klan as “lovely”, as Kelly Baker does in her interview with David Lewis, is initially perplexing.  Fortunately, Baker goes on to clarify what she intends, noting that the Klan’s history of racism and violence in no way qualifies as “nice.”  Her description of the Klan’s “story” as “lovely,” according to Baker, does not refer to the Klan’s violent history, but to a vast print culture that enables methodological access to the ways Klan members constructed their “ideologies” and “worldviews” in the years spanning from 1915 to 1930. Citing her own motivation for studying the group, she tells Lewis that “lots of people say things about white supremacists, but understanding their motivations and why they’re drawn to these ideologies was not so much the context [or goal].”

In her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011),  Baker uses the “second Klan’s” newspapers and magazines as “an invaluable entrée into the Klan’s worldview…”[1]  Importantly, her endeavor to understand the Klan’s “worldview” and “ideology” aims to problematize scholarly and media representations of the group as primarily uneducated, rural, male, and southern.  Despite the persistence of these representations, Baker shows that Klan membership consisted of southerners and northerners, men and women, the uneducated as well as “bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, ministers businessmen, and teachers.”  Rather than a “fringe” movement, then, Baker points to the widespread appeal of the racist and gendered agenda of the Klan leading up to the 1930s.

While much of the interview involves a discussion of the representations of the Klan in popular media, Baker’s book emphasizes scholarly representations of the group.  In her work, she makes an intriguing and important argument regarding specifically the omission of the Klan’s “religion” from scholarly analyses.  Scholars have, according to Baker, focused on economic, social, and political factors in explanations of the Klan, diagnosing it primarily as a movement motivated by “populist” anxieties and fears in a changing national environment.  Against the trend of dismissing the Klan’s “religion” as “false”, “inauthentic”, and thus analytically irrelevant, Baker finds it a necessary component in understanding how the group organized and mobilized a particular self-identity and national vision in the early twentieth century.

Baker emphasizes that a failure to take seriously the religious motivations and worldview of the Klan not only limits our understanding of the group.  More than that, the designation of their “religion” as false serves to conceal the uglier aspects of Protestant hostility and power in U.S. history.  Put simply, “true” Protestantism is preserved through the delineation of “false” appropriations of it by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.   Arguing that the Klan’s anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic national vision possessed wide, non-fringe, appeal from 1915-1930, she asks, “How might narratives of American religious history be told if the Klan was integrated rather than segregated? If a white supremacist movement proves pivotal rather than fringe, then what might happen to our narratives of nation?”[2]  She suggests that a religious studies approach helps to make sense of Klan “religiosity”, as well as scholarly de-legitimizations of it.

Baker’s focus on the mechanisms through which scholarly representations participate in desired definitions and tellings of “religion” in “American” “history” is important work.   Indeed, the project that Baker mentions of separating “true religion” from “false religion” has a heavy presence in U.S. history and historiography.[3]  Yet, while Baker’s interventions regarding the need to take seriously the “religion” of the Klan is noted, I question whether she does not herself reinforce problematic epistemological and methodological assumptions about “religion.”  More precisely, does her search for the “worldview” and “ideology” of the Klan through its newspapers — absent a rigorous situating of these texts and their readers in particular economic, political, and geographic contexts — reproduce reductive and essentializing definitions of “religious” causation?

The project of distinguishing “true” from “false” religion, referenced by Baker, has most often referred to the normative and racist assumptions of such projects.[4]  Scholars have traced how religious theorization, definition, and comparison of “true” and “false” religion emerged in the context of colonial encounter and economic domination.   More precisely, these scholars have argued that theories of religion have been and continue to be connected to racist anthropological assumptions that deem racialized “others” incapable of rational “belief”[5] — whether in the writings of E.B. Tylor or in, arguably, the persistence of definitions of Protestant religiosity as more “liberal” and “democratic” than, say, Islam.

Baker’s invocation of the project of religious definition is quite different.  She does not point to how constructions of “true religion” are linked to racist anthropologies.  Rather, the argumentative implication of her work is that the scholarly denial of the Protestant “religion” of the Ku Klux Klan — a white supremacist group with its own racist anthropological theories — actually helps contemporary Protestants to conceal and forget the prevalence of Protestant racism in U.S. history.   It appears that her book, then, is in some way aimed at — even though she does not state this — helping readers recognize the prevalence of racist “worldviews” and “ideologies” through the un-fringing of the Klan’s Protestant religiosity.

The connections between religious theorization and imperial racism, however, might lead us to bigger questions regarding the extent of the relationship between Protestant religion, its definitional assumptions, and racism.  I say all of this not to dismiss Baker’s argument that we need to take seriously how the racist ideologies and worldviews of the Ku Klux Klan extend beyond those wearing white hoods and carrying torches.  We should take seriously, indeed, her argument that the dismissal of the Klan’s “religion” as false and inauthentic plays into the desire to occlude the ugly moments of Protestant and American racism.  Yet, she attaches this ugly history to a particular and identifiable ideological formulation, a particular worldview — whether found in the Klan of the early twentieth century or in the contemporary Islamophobia of the Tea Party.

Considering the long relationship between religious definition and racist anthropologies, we see that Protestant racism not only exists in the form of conservative “ideologies” and “worldviews.”  More importantly, and perhaps dangerously, it pervades the most well-intentioned and “enlightened” disciplinary practices.  Instead of locating white supremacy only in the persistence of the Klan’s “brand” today[6], it might be more productive for scholars of race and religion to consider the challenge posed by Black Lives Matter and other groups.  For, as they are showing in their confrontation of police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and the capitalist exploitation of black and brown bodies, U.S. racism runs deeper than a “worldview” that we can easily recognize and help others to see.  These challenges demand a self-reflexivity that goes beyond identifying racism in a worldview we do not possess.  More significantly, they call us to examine how our own institutional, disciplinary, and economic practices help to perpetuate a racist system.

[1] Kelly Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKKs Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (U Kansas Press, 2011), p. 22.

[2] Ibid, 19.

[3] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, p. 17.

[4] For a helpful overview of this issue in regards to the disciplinary subfield of American Religious History, see Finnbarr Curtis’s essay “The Study of American religions: critical reflections on a specialization” in Religon, no. 42, issue 3, 355-372 (June 21, 2012).  Found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0048721X.2012.681875#.VuNZYJMrL-YFor another helpful work on the assumptions of religious comparison and the construction of the category “world religion”, see Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Inventions of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (U Chicago Press, 2005).

[5] To hear more about the distinction between race and ethnicity, as well as the co-construction of religion and race as social categories, it will be helpful to listen to Rudy Busto’s podcast interview on The Religious Studies Project titled “Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions,” found here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-and-religion-intertwined-social-constructions/.  Also, see his book King Tiger:  The Religious Vision of Reies López Tijerina (U New Mexico Press, 2006)

[6] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, 249.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 October 2015

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Assistant Professor of Religion: Buddhist Studies

Bard College, NY, USA

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Senior Research Associate: CREST

Lancaster University, UK

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Doctoral positions: Muslim Cultures and Societies

Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

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Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.

Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions

Race is a neglected category in Religious Studies. When race is included at all, it is often conflated with ethnicity or else its study is limited to a few typical examples, such as black/white binaries, the “Black church” or various “ethnic churches,” or the racialization of Muslim minorities. In this interview, Rudy Busto discusses problems and possibilities in the study of race and religion: how it has been examined (and overlooked) in the field of religious studies, how it has been confused with ethnicity, how race and religion have been theorized as mutually constitutive, limitations and occlusions in the study of race and religion, and why race is a category scholars of religion cannot afford to ignore. The racial/religious co-constitution of collective identities is an ever-present double-marked boundary which produces real effects on actual bodies, an empirical fact structuring people’s experiences. As such, scholars render their scholarship incomplete and do a disservice to their students and readers when they ignore race. Ranging from work on the social construction of race and religion as scholarly categories, the challenges of analyzing syncretism and authenticity, and the necessity of highlighting unmarked categories (e.g., Protestant, white), Busto argues that it is impossible to get an accurate and comprehensive understanding of religion (and non-religion) without taking race into account.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, ant farms, pot pourri, and more.

Podcasts

Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

In this podcast, Judith Weisenfeld talks to Brad Stoddard about her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Depression. In this book, Weisenfeld explores several social groups in the early 1900s who combined religious and racial rhetoric to fashion new identities. These groups include the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and various Ethiopian Hebrews. These groups are not new to scholars of American religious history; however, Weisenfeld’s original analysis combined with her use of previously overlooked sources combine to tell a new and compelling story about these familiar groups.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Silly Putty, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

Podcast with Judith Weisenfeld (26 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Weisenfeld – Black Religious Movements 1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS): Hello, this is Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Judith Weisenfeld, who is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton. And she joins me today to talk about her new book, New World a-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Judith Weisenfeld (JW): Thanks, Brad.

BS: You write in this book that,“This book is the study of the theologies, practices, community, formations and politics of early 20th century black religious movements, that fostered novel understandings of the history and racial identity of people conventionally categorised as negro in American society.” Which specific groups do you address, and which story do they collectively tell?

JW: The book is a comparative study of the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and a number of congregations of Black Hebrews. And I pursue this comparative study in order to think about the ways in which they each engage with questions of racial identity through a religious frame. They all emerged at the same time in the early 20th century, founded by migrants from the south to northern cities, or immigrants from the Caribbean to these same northern cities. And I was interested in, again, the ways in which they were all thinking about black racial identity history and doing so in ways that insisted that religion was to be part of these discussions. And so, taken together, we get a sense of a really vibrant conversation going on in black American life, in these groups and beyond these groups, about race and peoplehood – who we are. And I think one of the ways in which people have conventionally approached race and racial identity is to understand race as reality – race exists: people are of this race, that race, another race. With the rise of Critical Race Studies and thinking about race as a social construction, scholars have begun to talk more about race – not as a biological fact, but as socially produced. And in that kind of discussion, which informs much of my work, people who are not white are often presented as the objects of racial construction. So race is a social construction that produces hierarchy. It provides tools for controlling, otherising and so on. And so, people who are so racialised rarely appear as agents in discussion about race. And in looking at these groups together it became clear to me that, again, in these groups and in broader black public culture, people were asking these questions about who we are, racially. And these groups presented a really profound challenge to the conventional category of negro and the ways in which Christianity had become the kind-of assumed “appropriate” religion. And so, taking them together, we see black religious subjects talking about race, producing race, rejecting, changing and so on.

BS: Most of these groups, not all of them, emerged or were founded or created within a relatively short time period. What is significant about this time period in American history and why was it so ripe for the production of so many diverse religio-racial identities?

JW: These groups all come out of the period of the Great Migration, which begins around World War I: the movement of rural southern African-Americans, to urban contexts – the Urban South. And also the largest element of that was a northward migration. And so northern cities see huge increases in the black population over those decades, through . . . and there a various waves of it. I focus from the early ‘20s to the late ‘40s. (5:00) And so, people are moving to cities and on the East Coast in particular, in New York and Newark and Philadelphia, they are also interacting with immigrants from the Caribbean – mostly from the British West Indies but also from Danish, French and so on. And these urban contexts become a laboratory for the production of all sorts of new cultural movements. So we get the Harlem Renaissance and the cultural productions of Chicago, where black films, for example, get produced and exhibited; music and literary productions. And religious transformation is also one of the components of the social changes and the cultural changes of the Great Migration. And while these groups remain in the minority, it’s in these urban laboratories . . . . And there are political changes as well: we see the rising of Socialists and Communists. And Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association is based in Harlem, and it is also a kind of engine for thinking about black peoplehood in new ways. And so, these are people who are moving. They’re born – the members who join, and also the founders – they’re born at the end of Reconstruction, some of them at the beginning. They’re born as Jim Crow segregation really locks down life in the South. And then they’re part of this Great Migration. And I think one of the things that they’re struggling with is, “We’re no longer slaves,” and there was the potential of reconstruction, “but things are not . . . things are different, but things are not different in important ways”. And so [there’s] a kind of questioning of this hopeful trajectory of the Exodus, for example – questioning the degree to which black churches can be agents of liberation. And what’s really so powerful in these groups – for me I found really interesting – is just questioning the very terms of identity, who we are: is this who we are? “If this is who we are”, a lot of them say, “I don’t necessarily want that”. There’s a story of a man, who’s named only as Horace X, and he encounters the Nation of Islam, in Chicago, in the ‘40s. And he had tried out, he had grown up in the Church, he had tried out different . . . all sorts of different groups: political groups that had promised migration to Africa, and other kinds of religious groups that he’s joined – the Freemasons. And in the story he tells to a Sociologist, he heard someone preaching on the street: “This is not who you are. They told you you were a negro; they told you you were a Christian. That’s not true: I have the truth.” And he said, “I was ashamed to have been born a negro before this, and when I heard that, everything changed for me.” And it’s that kind-of rethinking of identity that I found so compelling and wanted to know more about. And I think it’s precisely the convergence of all of these things in the urban context that makes that possible.

BS: When you were describing Horace X it reminded me of what scholars refer to as the “seeker mentality”, but it’s alive and well, in different communities, much earlier – as you’re describing it.

JW: Yes, I found a number of cases like that in all of the groups, where people said, “I tried this, I tried that.” Sometimes they’re doing multiple things at the same time. And, when I started the research, I was revisiting some of the secondary literature and things I had read many times before, but hadn’t thought about it in relation to writing about these groups. And I looked back at a document by Miles Mark Fisher, who was an African-American minister and also a University of Chicago PhD after he wrote this. He wrote a piece called “Organised Religions and the Cults”, and he was advocating for the inclusion of some of these newer movements in the US census of religious bodies that was coming up in 1935, I think it would have been. And he was making the case that these are not numerically powerful groups, but that they spoke about something that was going on in African-American life. And in order to understand religion in American life, the Census Bureau should survey them. (10:00) And he also told a story. He said, “It’s very hard to tell . . . to draw a line between churches and the cults”, as he called them. And he told the story of his Sunday School teacher, who had also been a member of what he characterised as a cult. And he did that and was also a Sunday School teacher, and was buried out of the church. And so, returning to that piece sparked for me this sense that, as he made clear, the line is not that sharp between them; that people are moving sequentially through these or trying them out at the same time. And the other thing that became really important for me was to think about members of these groups, and the kinds of conversations they are engaged in, as part of a broader set of conversations in the black life at the time. So, not to marginalise them as strange people who put on fezzes and rejected all sorts of things to move off on their own – they were boundaried in lots of ways. But the kinds of questions they were asking were not strange, for that period. They were, actually, very much a part of what I call the kind-of public culture of race in black America.

BS: Scholars have discussed all of these groups before. In your book you bring, of course, your unique analytical lens to it, but you also bring new sources and new groups of people. So can you speak – and when I think of new people, you focus a lot on Caribbean people and their impact on these movements – also can you speak to your sources, and the groups of people who are included in your narrative?

JW: Sure. One of the . . . . As you said, scholars have written about these groups, the Moorish Science Temple and its’ founder Noble Drew Ali, the Nation of Islam and W D Fard and Elijah Mohammad, Father Divine and also scholarship on black or Ethiopian Hebrews. And all that . . . . Those are texts that consider these groups individually, and focus primarily on the leaders and the theologies that they promoted. And I was interested in what it would mean to put them together in one study and think about, as I’ve said, the way they talk about race – reimagine race in a religious frame. And I ended up calling that ‘religio-racial identity” because, for them, as all the founders preached, religion and race are inextricably linked.And once you understand your religious identity – be it as an Asiatic Muslim, as the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple would talk about it; or an Ethiopian Hebrew; or for Father Divine’s movement, raceless – once you know that, you know what your religion is supposed to be as well. So Islam, for the Nation of Islam, was created for the Asiatic; you can’t separate those things. And I felt, in reading some of the secondary literature, that people were . . . scholars were really interested in how to talk about the religious transformations that these groups represented, but didn’t really take seriously these claims of Asiatic or Ethiopian identity. And I wanted to know (I see them – in reading the primary sources – for these people, inextricably linked ) and I wanted to know how – if you are Horace X and you hear a minister of the Nation of Islam preaching, “You are not a negro Christian, you are an Asiatic Muslim” – how did Horace X go about being that thing that he came to believe he really was? And so finding what the average members did was really a challenge. (15:00) And this is, I think, why most of the texts really focus on the theologies of the leaders. And so, I ended up benefitting from some recent archival sources. Emory, for example, has a Father Divine collection that has a huge number of letters to and from Father Divine that give the texture of life in the movement – though those are not unconventional. But I ended up using vital records: the census and government documents like draft cards that are, many of them, available at ancestry.com. And reading those kinds of documents – I just kind of stumbled on them as a way into this – showed me how profoundly important it was to members of these groups that they be represented in public, in official documents, with the religio-racial identity they had claimed and, in some cases, the names they had chosen to reflect their true identities. And so we see, in the draft cards of these men going in, there’s a pre-printed category or column of racial categories listed. And it’s white, negro, Asian Filipino, Indian – it says Oriental on the 1942 form. And these men say, “None of those categories fit me.” And so you have to write Moorish American. And they were successful in doing that. And those kinds of documents were, again, a completely unexpected way of finding names of average members, but also an unexpected source for finding out ways to kind-of calibrate the stakes and their investment in it. So, if you’re potentially being drafted into the military, and you’re struggling over how you’re represented racially on this form, it means a lot to you. And I see it on the census and things like that. I learned all kinds of things from the census about residential patterns of these groups. So I spent a lot of time on ancestry.com!

BS: (Laughs) Excellent.

JW: On the topic of both new sources and new social actors, I was interested in the role of immigration from the West Indies from the Caribbean in this story. Because they are there. It is Marcus Garvey’s . . . . He was a Jamaican immigrant who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and proposed a sense of global black identity. He did embrace the label negro, but he really generated a sense of black pride, a connection to Africa, investment in collective political engagement in a ways that was new for the period, and in a lot . . . . He was from Jamaica and a lot of the people in the movement, when it was headquartered in Harlem, were from the Caribbean. And this gets erased a lot – very often, I think, in African-American history – that these were people who come from a very different social and political context, in many ways, to the US – and religious context as well. There are commonalities, but they have cultural differences and they’re negotiating them. And these movements emerge, in part, out of those cultural negotiations across communities. But it also turns out that most of the Ethiopian Hebrews are Caribbean immigrants, the vast majority of people in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam are African-Americans, and Father Divine’s movement has a mix. And so this project was interesting, to me, to think about, again, black racial identity across not just African-American, but thinking about how these groups were in conversation with one another. I didn’t do as much as I had hoped to attend to the cultural specifity of West Indian immigrants in the story, so I hope somebody else will pick that up.

BS: As I read your book, you’re suggesting that membership in one of these groups required the person to undergo a rather thorough process of reimagining. And I have a couple of questions about that reimagining. How did membership of one of these groups – and I know it varied from group to group – but what were some of the major ways that it involved them reimaging their sense of self and even their bodies? (20:00)

JW: That was one of the ways I tried to answer the question of: if yesterday you thought you were a negro Christian and today you have been persuaded that you are a raceless child of Father Divine, or Ethiopian Hebrew – how do you do that? And so I looked at these practices of self-fashioning that are different, as you said, in each of the groups. But I did find some patterns in that, for many of them, changing their names was important and, in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, rejecting the name, the . . . . Well, in the Nation of Islam, rejecting the slave name and reclaiming (what they talked about as) a kind of “tribal” name or “true” name – for both the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam – was an important step of kind-of separating from old self and moving into the new self. And in Father Divine’s Peace Mission they rejected their (what they talked of as) “mortal names” and took spiritual names that reflected their new status. So these processes of separation from the former identity and taking on a new one that reflects your true history, as they talked about it, was important. Some of the groups took on forms of dress that also spoke about that history, that lineage. The Moorish Science Temple were the most notable one with adopting Moorish dress: the fez for men and turbans for women. And, again, the draft cards were really interesting sources for me for thinking about the meaning of that, and the ways in which men who were registering for the draft thought of that fez as, actually, part of their bodies. And it was Nobel Drew Ali who enjoined them to wear the fez at all times. But when you see on the draft cards that they list that as a physical characteristic, by which they can be identified . . . . You know it’s: they have a scar, or a missing digit, or something like that. It revealed, again, how much they saw as kind-of reimagining their body, in a profound way, into this being that could be recognised as its true self, now. Names, dress, some of the group reimagined skin colour, adopted different kind of terminology for talking about the surface of the body. Moorish Science Temple, again, used the term “olive”. They talked about themselves as olive-skinned Moors. And it didn’t matter that there might not be a correspondence between what the beholder might think they looked like, but it was a theological way of talking about skin colour as connected to Allah and scripture, and the catechism explained that. And then practices of diet, again, they kind of separate you from your old self and you take on a true diet that remakes you and keeps you healthy. All of these groups actually had a deep investment in longevity, and thought that – in different ways – the poison diet – the wrong diet of enslavement and negro-ness and Christianity, to a certain extent, had debilitated black people as individuals and black people as a whole. So they developed certain dietary practices: either feasting or fasting, in different cases; certain foods; and also they all had investments in healing, sometimes through medicine, sometimes through diet. And they all, actually, believed that black people could live for a very, very long time, if not – in Father Divine’s group – for ever, and that enslavement in the Americas had made that impossible, but they were being restored to that possibility.

BS: Part of that reimagining also involved them reimagining their sense, not only geographically, but also historically. It seems that the dominant narrative at this time, in African-American communities, was to understand their position in history relative to slavery. And these new religious movements in this period provided a whole new understanding of history. Can you speak to that? (25:00)

JW: That was one of , I think, the great appeals of these movements. And collectively they do the same kind of work. And in some ways saying, “You are not a negro” is saying the same thing: “Your history did not begin with slavery.” The negro is, all of them would argue, a racial category that was produced only in America – or through slavery in the Americas – and that it was a containing trap to imagine yourself that way, and that God didn’t make you that way. So then one has to say, “Well, who are we?” Right? “What is our history?” And so they all insist that, in one way or another, black history began before slavery – which of course we know – and fill that in. And so in some cases they’re arguing that . . . . So, the Moorish Science Temple says: we are actually the descendents of . . . we are Moroccan, born in America. And then [it] also uses the Bible to trace back even further, so that there is a Biblical connection. But the Moorish Science Temple wants to orient people to the geographic space of Morocco, and use that as a way of talking about the beginning of history. Ethiopian Hebrew congregations again use the Bible to talk about Biblical history as African history and African history as Biblical history. They are interested in Ethiopia but there are also other geographic locations in Africa they they’re interested in. And for Father Divine’s Peace Mission and the Nation of Islam, it’s less a geographic connection – although the Nation of Islam is very interested in Mecca. And for the Peace Mission, Father Divine’s kingdom on earth is where . . . he is there and he’s created this Utopia. But their approach to rejecting the history of negros and enslavement involved not geography, but time – is how I came to think about it. So the Nation of Islam, there’s a lot of . . . . In African-American Christians, and also in the Ethiopian Hebrew groups and the Moorish Science Temple, there’s a lot of engagement with the Bible, and looking for where we are, and how to fit our history there. And the Nation of Islam says: “ Lets just throw that away. Because even from the beginning of time, from the moment of creation, that’s where we are. We have to get rid of . . . .The Bible tells us the whole story wrong.” And Father Divine – time approaches to say: “Race is a product of the devil, I’ve returned to usher in a new heaven and new earth. Heaven is not some far-off thing; it’s here now. And so we start from now. You can enter my kingdom if you do all of these things. And you’re not a negro, that’s from the past. And being a negro is why you die. And if you reject all of that you can live with me for ever.” So the Nation of Islam projected back to the moment of creation and Father Divine projected forward into an eternal future. There’s a great . . . . He would send out this Christmas and New year’s card, in the late ‘40s, that had his image and Mother Divine, his wife, and it said : “One eternal Merry Christmas, one eternal Happy New Year!”

BS: Very good! Thank you. Well, I’d like to say that this is a phenomenal book. And I can imagine it finding a home in quite a few Religious Studies courses, actually. So, best of luck with the book, and thank you so much for your time and your insights. I appreciate it.

JW: Thank you.

Citation Info: Weisenfeld, Judith 2017. “Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/black-religious-movements-and-religio-racial-identities-during-the-great-migration/

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On Reading Ralph Ellison Theologically

Ralph Ellison, famous for his 1952 novel Invisible Man, eschewed religiosity personally. His works mainly concerned race, artistry, and democracy in America. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (2017), Cooper Harriss seeks to uncover what he sees as the theological dimensions of Ellison’s secular conception of race. Because religion is a neglected topic in Ellison scholarship, Harriss’ reading presents an opportunity for fresh insights.[1]

Most scholars examining invisibility in Ellison’s novel consider it a social metaphor: the novel’s protagonist is made invisible by people’s refusal to really see him. Yet Harriss claims invisibility is also a theological trope, with roots in biblical materials, Protestantism, and Kongo traditions, antecedents that establish it as an unmarked religious category. More than the social marginalization of black bodies, Harriss contends invisibility is metaphysical, too.

To read Ellison as a theological thinker, which is also to read him theologically, Harriss calls upon Schleiermacher and Tillich, primarily, to expand the notion of religion. He explains that, to him, the terms “religion” and “religious” refer not to particular things but to “processes through which antagonistic cooperation between universals and particulars generates human quests for meaning” (16). Furthermore, “Ellison’s concept of race is foundationally religious because it is rooted in the relational, systematic interplay between, and the consequent aggregation of, the particular and the universal” (17).

Great authors like Ellison create characters and stories that are both particularized yet universal. The particularity gives a literary work its fully-fleshed characters and immersive world, while its universality connects it to readers’ own lives. In Invisible Man, after we hear the unnamed protagonist’s particular life story as a black man in America, he asks his famous universalizing final line, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” This interplay between particular and universal, is religious, in Harriss’ terms. Ellison is thus a theologian because he makes meaning out of this particular-universal relation.

The heart of Harriss’ argument is his claim that Ellison’s secular conception of race is an “invisible theology.” For Harriss, theology refers not to “God-talk” but to “meanings and significances generated by religious negotiations of universals and particulars,” or “faith seeking understanding” (16). Ellison’s work is religious because it is “meaning-making” and it is theological because it offers practical import for human living (16). These elements are inseparably linked: “the religious and the theological” are “critically cofunctional—never segregated (as they have become in contemporary academic discourse) but absolutely dependent upon one another” (17). Here Harriss is not just making a descriptive claim about the history of these distinct discourses, but asserting his desire to “annihilate” the wall between theology and religious studies, as he says in this interview. He wishes to “dislocate theology as ‘mere’ belief, prescription, or data and refashion it as a critical apparatus” that can help us solve contemporary challenges (192). Accordingly, Harriss argues that “the religious aspects of Ellisonian conceptions of race as a secular property—its invisible theology—may help us” to assess today’s political contexts (179). There is a social prescriptivism in this theological claim-making; Harriss hopes the invisible theology he’s unveiling—and creating—might save us.[2]

There is good evidence, Harriss claims, for reading Ellison theologically. Ellison derided what he saw as racial essentialism in the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s-1970s, which relied on materialist conceptions of race. Harriss asserts Ellison’s critical project worked against such materialisms, opening space for metaphysical speculation. He also relies on the coincidental publication of major works by three Protestant intellectuals to place Ellison in their midcentury American theological context. Over two chapters, Harriss connects Ellison’s ruminations on racism as America’s “original sin” to American civil religion as a form of residual Calvinism in a post-Protestant society. In a critical chapter, he argues that Ellison’s long friendship with Nathan A. Scott, Jr., literature professor and canon theologian, was really a “theological apprenticeship” for Ellison (96).[3] Cooper uses previously unpublished material to shed light on Ellison at several points, and provides provocative interpretations throughout.

Harriss’s book stands in the tradition of Scott’s scholarship—called Theology and Literature, Christianity and Literature, or Religion and Literature—albeit augmented by recent critical studies of race, religion, and secularism. Relying on a Tillichian theology of culture, Scott explored how a “religious unconscious” permeates cultural productions, even avowedly secular ones, and provides insight into how we ought to live. Harriss admits his own “Tillichian orientation” and states that Scott’s earlier work on Ellison “anticipates the premise, if not the thesis, of this book” (88, 98). Like Scott, Harriss seeks to uncover hidden religious dimensions in Ellison’s secular work to help us navigate the modern world. Both scholars utilize liberal Christian definitions of religion to find exactly these kinds of religious articulations in Ellison.

Harriss employs scholarship showing the theological and Protestant production of concepts like race and the secular to justify framing Ellison as a Protestant theologian (3, 41). Ellison would not recognize himself as such. Despite Ellison’s critiques of social science and Marxist materialism, he did not turn toward supernaturalism. Harriss rejects Ellison’s naturalism by insisting that we need to take “certain religious and theological dimensions seriously in their contention with what believers understand to emanate from invisible, supernatural realms” (14). This approach distinguishes secular from religious, recognizes Ellison as secular, and then rewrites him as religious anyway. Such theological caretaking confuses categorical entanglements with their identity. By yoking religious studies with theology and the secular with the religious, Harriss erases any difference. Arguing that secular writers are really theologians in disguise enacts a theological agenda. At stake is what we do as religious studies scholars.

Outside theological contexts, I am not convinced that the category “invisible theology” provides us greater analytical purchase on Ellison’s work. As someone who loves Ellison and studies religion, I was excited to encounter Harriss’ ideas. As a religious studies scholar, however, I found Harriss’ insistence upon a theological reading of Ellison’s work forced and unnecessary. In a spirit of antagonistic cooperation, a favorite phrase of Ellison’s, I find myself both affirming and resisting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology.

Notes

[1] Most recently, Josef Sorett locates Ellison’s Afro-Protestant racial aesthetics in the black church (2016, 141-149). Sorett and Harriss both claim religion underlies black secular artistic expressions, but their methods and conclusions differ.

[2] In Race and Secularism in America, Vincent W. Lloyd exhorts “the recovery of the religious, beyond secularism,” for its transformative potential (2016, 15). He adds that “remembering the religious—or the theological, as the unmanaged religious is sometimes called—points to traditions of imagining otherwise.” In Harriss’ work, I hear a similar normative voice, one that promotes Protestant theology as a useful mode for reading secular literature and for envisioning an “otherwise” that seems beyond our material reach.

[3] I found the evidence for such “instruction” to be thin (98). Harriss reads a lot into a letter Ellison wrote to Scott wherein Ellison laments the loss of the “sacred” in modern literature; Ellison saw that loss as muting moral assertion and forcing “depth and resonance” underground (97). Harriss repurposes Ellison’s “depth and resonance” as “shorthand” for religion (98-99, 116, 147).

References

Harriss, M. Cooper. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology. New York University Press, 2017.

Lloyd, Vincent W. “Introduction: Managing Race, Managing Religion.” In Race and Secularism

in America, edited by Jonathan Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, 1-19. Columbia University Press, 2016.

Scott, Jr., Nathan A. “Black Literature.” In Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing,

edited by Daniel Hoffman, 287-341. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” The Carleton Miscellany 18.3 (1980): 41-50.

—. “Ellison’s Vision of Communitas.” Callaloo 18.2 (1995): 310-318.

Sorett, Josef. Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. Oxford University

Press, 2016.

 

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology

harriss comps.inddIn this interview, M. Cooper Harriss, author the book Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, discusses his thoughts on the unseen theological dimensions of Ralph Ellison’s writings. Harriss begins with the figure of Ellison, whose novel, Invisible Man, offers a now-classic metaphor (“invisibility”) depicting the socio-cultural and political issues and obstacles that African Americans experienced in the mid-twentieth century. By claiming the invisible not simply as a materialist term but a metaphysical one as well, Harriss contends that despite—or even because of—his status as a thoroughly “ secular” novelist and critic, Ellison’s writing reflects important theological trends and issues that mark his age and the cultural inheritances of his literary production. Harriss also identifies the scholars and thinkers who inform the methodological moves that he makes in the book, and he reflects on the abiding relevance of Ellison’s life and insights. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology troubles regnant assumptions surrounding the religious and theological dimensions of racial identity and, indeed, the very fraught relationships between the terms “religion” and “theology” in contemporary academic discourse.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology

Podcast with M. Cooper Harriss (12 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Harriss-_Ralph_Ellison_s_Invisible_Theology_1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS) : Hello. This is Brad Stoddard of the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Cooper Harriss. Cooper is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University and he just completed his first book, entitled Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, soon to be published with NYU Press. Cooper – welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Cooper Harriss (CH): Thank you so much for having me, Brad. It’s a delight to be here.

BS: Thanks. Will you introduce your book to the listeners?

CH: Yes. I’m delighted to – thank you all for listening! Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology is a book that examines what I would call overlooked, or under appreciated, religious and theological dimensions of the concept of race. The concept of race, as we now know it, emerges somewhere around the mid-twentieth century where, you know, these two turns [took place], one to a kind of materialism and, on the other hand, a turn to critical theory: you have the rise of black studies in the 1960s; you have the emergence of political sensibilities that defines race according to these terms. It has remained a popular way, you know: of the ways that we talk about American culture; the ways that we think about our political process; the ways that we imagine marginalisation of people. We often do this in political, materialist and economic terms. What I’m interested in is the way that Ellison’s term “invisibility” – The Invisible Man, 1952, was his novel – the term invisibility has come to signify this kind of marginalisation. If you go to your institution’s library and punch in “invisible” in a title search you’re going to get hundreds or thousands of titles back: invisible women, invisible children in our Houston Schools. . . title after title, after title, that deals in terms of a political, materialist marginalisation. That’s great. My question becomes: why is it that we’re using. . . why is it that invisible carries that valence when it also is a metaphysical property – you might even say a ghost – or these kinds of things. So I work from that. And I think about how Ellison is actually working from an alternative understanding of racial dynamics in American culture, or even broader cultural systems of the West. He was very much at odds with the emergence of this definition of race. He is trying to think humanistically at a time when everybody else is turning to the social sciences. He’s aghast at the Moynihan Report which defines poverty in sociological systems. He is dissatisfied with the kind of activist, political mentality that goes into the production and the criticism of African American culture. And so, what I see him doing is actually trying to work through this in an alternative way. And one way, really, to strike hard back at that materialist move is to think theologically. So, what is it about this concept of race – and for Ellison this means blackness – what is it about it that has an alternative prime dimension? And so I began by looking at . . . these four or five ways of looking at Invisible Man. We look at biblical invisibility; we look at invisibility of puritan sources – Cotton Mather and Hutchinson; we look at Luther and Shakespeare; we move onto Kongo religion and think about invisibility and Death and the Invisible Powers and its relationship to Racecraft – this fantastic book by Barbara and Karen Fields, that compares the way that the new scholars think about race with a kind of magic. So, racecraft and witchcraft. These kinds of things. On the other hand, I look at more contemporary things: Clint Eastwood’s empty chair, drones. What are the. . . spectacular imaginaries, the profound scary secrets of this world that we live in? How does something like the gaze of the drone that’s chasing down – the legacy of the colonised other, right, that is invisibly hovering here – (5:00) what is the relationship between that and what Ellison’s understanding to be in play at the very end of the Jim Crow era? And, in between that, I offer a kind of chronological assessment of Ellison’s career, using various lenses or methods that I draw from religious studies. I think about poetic justice, I think about the notion of poetic justice as it relates to racial identity in the renaissance; I look at Invisible Man, published in 1952, in the context of three other important books that are out that year: one by Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be; one by Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, and then Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness which is – he published it before, but delivered it at Brown University in ‘52. I also uncover Ellison’s close relationship with Nathan A. Scott Junior, who was a Professor of Theology and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity school. He and Ellison became great friends when Ellison was on a visiting assignment there. And what I’ve found in their correspondence – in Ellison’s papers in the Library of Congress – is that Scott recognises a kind of sensibility in Ellison; a kind of religious sensibility. He tries to get him involved in what we would call “religion and literature”, he called it “theology and literature”. But he sees Ellison as a writer who is invested in these kinds of issues and questions. Ellison was also a huge fan of 19th century American literature. In fact, when he was asked to come teach places – he taught at Rutgers; he had a Schweitzer Chair at NYU; he taught at Chicago; he had other, sort of, shorter appointments – it was often assumed that a famous African American novelist would come and teach, maybe, African American literature. And he would say, “No! I want to teach a course on Civil War literature, or a course on 19th Century American literature”, which at the time was very white-core. He’s drawing on larger influences, but he’s also flummoxing a lot of the expectations. So he’s teaching Melville and Hawthorne, instead of these expectations. I’m also interested in Ellison’s second novel, which he never finished. He started writing almost immediately after Invisible Man was published in 1952, and he never finished it. He saved it, for the last time, on his computer December 31st 1993. He died in March of ‘94. He’s writing, and writing, and re-writing. And he says that he’s trying to capture something about race in America. The problem is, he’s doing it from roughly 1954 to 1994. He’s doing it from, basically, Brown v. Board to the Million Man March. What does race in America mean during that time? Well, it’s constantly changing: you can never get a hand on it. And so, I use the kind-of changing dynamics of American civil religion as a way to pin down what it is that he’s unable to capture. Because he was, he was invested in a highly centripetal understanding of what we would call American civil religion. I use the trope invisible theology in a couple of ways: on the one hand, it is the fact that this theological sensibility has largely escaped the attention of scholars. If you look at most writing that talks about Ellison at all, in what we would call religious terms, it talks about his preachers , who are cultural figures – who may as well be Jazz players! Not that that’s not important, but it’s a different. . . but nobody really understands him to draw on these kinds of, this strong theological, historical and cultural legacy. And so invisible theology is the theological dimension that has not been seen. But also, it is a theology of invisibility. (10:00) Which is to say that the condition of being black in America – the concept of race itself, as a condition of invisibility – taps into a longer religious and theological genealogy of the concept of invisibility. And, actually, you can see ways that it passes through Ellison, and it’s really helpful for understanding both the present and the future tense.

BS: Are there any relevant biographical details about Ellison that we should know about?

CH: Well, I’m so glad you asked about the biographical details! One thing about him is that he falls outside many of the major narratives that we use to talk about African American culture. Often we fall into the rural south / urban north binary. Ellison was from Oklahoma. He’s been into this migration through Alabama and Tuskegee into Harlem, where he lives the rest of his life. But he understands himself to be outside of the major migration narrative of the 20th century. He’s outside of many of the major arguments, as well. He’s not a social scientist: he dislikes that approach to culture; he feels like it’s demeaning – that it takes away human elements. He believes that human beings are capable of extraordinary actions, even if they don’t always and can’t always fulfil them. And so, he becomes a bit of an outlier. He’s a bit of a pariah. He’s sometimes called Uncle Tom. But he fights back and lashes back against that with, I think, a very clear cultural sensibility which is something like this: whatever it is that our experience and our life is, whatever the cruelty or the dispossession, or the exclusion, or the violence may be, that there’s a sensibility of a kind of exception to these conditions – that we are human being, and we are meaning-making creatures, and there are ways in which we take these situations and imbue them with a kind of meaning that goes beyond material realities in the present. You might say that – 65 years earlier – he was taking lemons and making lemonade, if you catch my drift.

BS: I have a question about your methodology.

CH: Yes.

BS: Early on, in your introduction, you identify Ellison as a secular writer. So, methodologically, how do you get from secular writings to theology? How do you make that interpretive move? And what scholars of religion provide you with the methodological tools to make that move?

CH: Yes. So Ellison is what we call a secular writer. He had no specific religious commitments. He’s not writing out of a specific tradition, he’s not identified as such. And yes, what I see is a kind of analogy here. I actually go with Schleiermacher – though I think it goes. . . we could think about it through Schleiermacher, through Geerz and Durkheim and on. . . And what I’m interested in is this relationship between particularity and universality. And of course Schleiermacher’s definition of religion in the second discourse in On religion: [Speeches] to its Cultured Despisers, defines religion as this kind of aggregation between universal and particular. And what I do is, I take Ellison’s concept of race which. . . race itself is, of course, a secular concept. It’s one which comes out of the social sciences, in terns of its definition. And I say that, actually, what Ellison is doing with racial identity, within cultural expression, is analogous to Schleiermacher’s understanding of his definition of religion: that to be . . . that African American cultural expression is highly particularised for Ellison. It is what he grew up with, it’s what he knows. It’s what any person can gather from the kind of the mother wit of their early existence, and their ongoing interaction with other people in the world. It’s highly particularised. And yet, it also interacts, corresponds to, comes into contact with, must negotiate a larger sense of being human. And so, for him, the notion of the human is something of a universal. Now, what he wouldn’t say is that. . . often this turns into: “The human is the white and the universal.” He would say, “No!” He would say that, actually, this set of correspondences applies to everybody. He has a lovely way of putting it. It’s one of my favourites. (15:00) He says that, the negro writer – this is his term – the negro writer writes out of a sense of a specific wound. The wound for us is the experience of being black in America. We think about slavery, we can talk about these other aspects . But he said, “All novelists deal with this kind of sensibility. All novels are about outsiders. All novels deal with a kind of wounded. . . all novels deals with. . . ” – I’m blanking the specific term he uses here, but all novels are about. . . . So, what he says is, “I write out of my experience and I am creating something meaningful out of disaster, calamity, love, awesomeness – but it is directed specifically at my context.” Ellison was often asked, “Why don’t you write protest novels?” By that, what the questioner would mean is: “Why don’t you put in your novels that racism is bad, and give very clear instances of that to display, to show it?”And what Ellison said to that was, “Actually, every novel is a protest novel. Every art protests against something.” He says, “For me, I can write novels within my particular mode. And so, that is a particular rendering of a more universal genre or form. But it is not unique to African American writers.” Dostoevsky is protesting against the limits of 19th century nationalism; Don Quixote protests against the things that Cervantes is invested in. He goes back to Sophocles and says, “Sophocles is protesting against something. We may not know what it is, but what unites Sophocles, Shakespeare and Cervantes to me is that we are addressing something about a human condition”, which Ellison understood to be a universal that we have to enter through the highly specific, through a sense of particularity. And so, what I say is that Ellison’s understanding of literature, or even cultural production, has this religious sensibility here. And so, this is the how the secular writer writes religiously. And then, the question also becomes: “So how does it become theology?” Right? And I sit smiling,here, that this is the Religious Studies [Project] podcast! One of the things I’m really interested in is, well, annihilating this hard-fast wall that’s erected between theology and religious studies as these kinds of signifiers. So, one of the things that I say is that “religion becomes the process, theology becomes the meaning”. So, in other words, if the process is about the aggregation of the particular and universal, the theology is: what is the meaning that arises out of that? And what I hope your peers will see is that there is a kind of co-functionality between religion and theology: that they require one-another to make sense of one-another. And I don’t mean this in a highly confessional sense, but I also think that there can be more. . . an understanding, and more inter-play to be in play between them, within the process. And I think Ellison gives us a fantastic vehicle for understanding that.

BS: Which contemporary scholars influence your methodological moves?

CH: So, I have a couple of books, there are two outstanding recent books: one is J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account, which does the kind of deep excavation that I don’t pretend to do, but that inspires me. It’s a gesture to the hard digging that he’s done and, in a way, also of understanding the particularities of race to draw from these longer kinds of traditions. So again, it’s not a universality per se, but it’s certainly more universal than we had previously imagined longer legacies of race. Another one is Willie J. Jennings’ Christian Imagination. And I see these as . . . they may not be in actuality . . . but for me, I read them close together and again, this kind of excavative project that looks at the depth, and resonance, and meaning of this concept that is taken on, with almost scientific valences. (20:00) I think two other scholars who strongly inspire me are Tracy Fessenden in her book Culture and Redemption (and just in case I got that wrong I’ll say Tracy Fessenden in her book Redemption and Culture). Because I see, in my own project, a sense of having established the terms of social history, having established the terms of the kind-of focussing in on not the grand narratives but the smaller details. Not focussing on the grand narratives, but in certain moments, and being sensitive to the exclusions that are caused by the grand narratives. So focussing more on the micro-histories. What she does, or what I understand her to be doing – and I love this move – is: OK, so we have established that grand narratives are over with, because they exclude. So what happens if we create grand narratives that, actually, are built of this stuff that has been excluded? And that’s what I see. . . . It’s part of what Jennings is doing, in a way, and it’s definitely what I want to do.

BS: In the book, you recall a common question that is asked about Ralph Ellison and that question is, something along the lines of: “Is he a negro writer or is this a book about negroes?” – some version of that question, right?

CH: Yes.

BS: What’s at stake in that answer? Let me ask it that way.

CH: Sure, and you did a nice synopsis of the two versions of that question. One is, are you a negro writer, or a writer who happens to be a negro? Or is this Invisible Man a negro novel or a novel that happens to be about a negro? And then I think the question becomes, or the way that I answer that question, is “Yes.” Right? Because that is the particular and that is . . . Schleiermacher’s two poles. What is at stake in the question is, I think, a sense of how you understand, or how you want to understand. . . within these historical questions – historical people asking it. Would I have understood a negro novel to protest, to offer a very clear. . . to say very clearly, “racism is bad, oppression is bad, I’m going to give you endless horrific details that’s going to illustrate this in so many ways and then I’m going to give you a nice little lesson”, right? And that is overstating things – but something like Native Son, which is a much more complicated novel than that, but Ellison didn’t necessarily see it that way; that would be the negro novel. The novel that happens to be about a negro – I think the problem with that question is that it underestimates the power of the particular. In other words, in saying that the Invisible Man just happens to be a negro, it presumes that that element – the racial element – that particularity is not important. And so somewhere between those determinations is where I think we should be looking. And that’s where Schleiermacher’s particulars and universals become important. Because it’s not about being particular. Nobody’s all particular and nobody’s all universal, right? We’re all caught in the midst of this messy cloud of identity. And for Ellison that was precisely the point. And I think that is also what is so effective about his notion of invisibility, is that we’re always constantly aggregating and changing and there’s a kind-of sense of play that takes place within the process. Like, within the formation and within the production of culture through novels, but certainly other things as well.

BS: A final question for you. We are conducting this interview, we are having this conversation in the early phase of the changes associated with President Elect Trump. Do you see any relevance to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology?

CH: Yes, absolutely. I think, for a couple of reasons. (25:00) One, I think that it shows, first of all, I mean the. . . . I think that the fact that people are even remotely shocked at the outcome of this election shows how potent this concept of invisibility is: I mean, people were blindsided by it. And you listen to the responses and: “It’s economics”, and “It’s this”, and “It’s that”, and “It’s the Press”. But at the end of the day, we exist within this kind of structure of reality that is very old and imbued with a kind of realness that permeates the culture. And so, the fact that the kind of racial logic that has produced the results we see, I think, are in a different shade, perhaps, in a different hue: whiteness? Nell Painter had this great piece in the New York Times this weekend, saying that whiteness is now a race. It’s not just an unconscious thing, it’s a race. And so we see this with the invisible theology. That whiteness has become, in a way, this kind of racial dispensation and the election shows that for certain.

BS: Well thanks so much ,Cooper! This has been a fantastic conversation. And let me complement you, it is a superbly researched and meticulously well-read book. And it’s an enjoyable read. So, congratulations on your first book!. And thanks for your time.

CH: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. And I hope that your listeners enjoy!

Citation Info: Harriss, M. Cooper 2017. “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 12 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ralph-ellisons-invisible-theology/

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Can Religion Explain the KKK?

Describing the story of the Ku Klux Klan as “lovely”, as Kelly Baker does in her interview with David Lewis, is initially perplexing.  Fortunately, Baker goes on to clarify what she intends, noting that the Klan’s history of racism and violence in no way qualifies as “nice.”  Her description of the Klan’s “story” as “lovely,” according to Baker, does not refer to the Klan’s violent history, but to a vast print culture that enables methodological access to the ways Klan members constructed their “ideologies” and “worldviews” in the years spanning from 1915 to 1930. Citing her own motivation for studying the group, she tells Lewis that “lots of people say things about white supremacists, but understanding their motivations and why they’re drawn to these ideologies was not so much the context [or goal].”

In her book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011),  Baker uses the “second Klan’s” newspapers and magazines as “an invaluable entrée into the Klan’s worldview…”[1]  Importantly, her endeavor to understand the Klan’s “worldview” and “ideology” aims to problematize scholarly and media representations of the group as primarily uneducated, rural, male, and southern.  Despite the persistence of these representations, Baker shows that Klan membership consisted of southerners and northerners, men and women, the uneducated as well as “bankers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, ministers businessmen, and teachers.”  Rather than a “fringe” movement, then, Baker points to the widespread appeal of the racist and gendered agenda of the Klan leading up to the 1930s.

While much of the interview involves a discussion of the representations of the Klan in popular media, Baker’s book emphasizes scholarly representations of the group.  In her work, she makes an intriguing and important argument regarding specifically the omission of the Klan’s “religion” from scholarly analyses.  Scholars have, according to Baker, focused on economic, social, and political factors in explanations of the Klan, diagnosing it primarily as a movement motivated by “populist” anxieties and fears in a changing national environment.  Against the trend of dismissing the Klan’s “religion” as “false”, “inauthentic”, and thus analytically irrelevant, Baker finds it a necessary component in understanding how the group organized and mobilized a particular self-identity and national vision in the early twentieth century.

Baker emphasizes that a failure to take seriously the religious motivations and worldview of the Klan not only limits our understanding of the group.  More than that, the designation of their “religion” as false serves to conceal the uglier aspects of Protestant hostility and power in U.S. history.  Put simply, “true” Protestantism is preserved through the delineation of “false” appropriations of it by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.   Arguing that the Klan’s anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic national vision possessed wide, non-fringe, appeal from 1915-1930, she asks, “How might narratives of American religious history be told if the Klan was integrated rather than segregated? If a white supremacist movement proves pivotal rather than fringe, then what might happen to our narratives of nation?”[2]  She suggests that a religious studies approach helps to make sense of Klan “religiosity”, as well as scholarly de-legitimizations of it.

Baker’s focus on the mechanisms through which scholarly representations participate in desired definitions and tellings of “religion” in “American” “history” is important work.   Indeed, the project that Baker mentions of separating “true religion” from “false religion” has a heavy presence in U.S. history and historiography.[3]  Yet, while Baker’s interventions regarding the need to take seriously the “religion” of the Klan is noted, I question whether she does not herself reinforce problematic epistemological and methodological assumptions about “religion.”  More precisely, does her search for the “worldview” and “ideology” of the Klan through its newspapers — absent a rigorous situating of these texts and their readers in particular economic, political, and geographic contexts — reproduce reductive and essentializing definitions of “religious” causation?

The project of distinguishing “true” from “false” religion, referenced by Baker, has most often referred to the normative and racist assumptions of such projects.[4]  Scholars have traced how religious theorization, definition, and comparison of “true” and “false” religion emerged in the context of colonial encounter and economic domination.   More precisely, these scholars have argued that theories of religion have been and continue to be connected to racist anthropological assumptions that deem racialized “others” incapable of rational “belief”[5] — whether in the writings of E.B. Tylor or in, arguably, the persistence of definitions of Protestant religiosity as more “liberal” and “democratic” than, say, Islam.

Baker’s invocation of the project of religious definition is quite different.  She does not point to how constructions of “true religion” are linked to racist anthropologies.  Rather, the argumentative implication of her work is that the scholarly denial of the Protestant “religion” of the Ku Klux Klan — a white supremacist group with its own racist anthropological theories — actually helps contemporary Protestants to conceal and forget the prevalence of Protestant racism in U.S. history.   It appears that her book, then, is in some way aimed at — even though she does not state this — helping readers recognize the prevalence of racist “worldviews” and “ideologies” through the un-fringing of the Klan’s Protestant religiosity.

The connections between religious theorization and imperial racism, however, might lead us to bigger questions regarding the extent of the relationship between Protestant religion, its definitional assumptions, and racism.  I say all of this not to dismiss Baker’s argument that we need to take seriously how the racist ideologies and worldviews of the Ku Klux Klan extend beyond those wearing white hoods and carrying torches.  We should take seriously, indeed, her argument that the dismissal of the Klan’s “religion” as false and inauthentic plays into the desire to occlude the ugly moments of Protestant and American racism.  Yet, she attaches this ugly history to a particular and identifiable ideological formulation, a particular worldview — whether found in the Klan of the early twentieth century or in the contemporary Islamophobia of the Tea Party.

Considering the long relationship between religious definition and racist anthropologies, we see that Protestant racism not only exists in the form of conservative “ideologies” and “worldviews.”  More importantly, and perhaps dangerously, it pervades the most well-intentioned and “enlightened” disciplinary practices.  Instead of locating white supremacy only in the persistence of the Klan’s “brand” today[6], it might be more productive for scholars of race and religion to consider the challenge posed by Black Lives Matter and other groups.  For, as they are showing in their confrontation of police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and the capitalist exploitation of black and brown bodies, U.S. racism runs deeper than a “worldview” that we can easily recognize and help others to see.  These challenges demand a self-reflexivity that goes beyond identifying racism in a worldview we do not possess.  More significantly, they call us to examine how our own institutional, disciplinary, and economic practices help to perpetuate a racist system.

[1] Kelly Baker, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKKs Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (U Kansas Press, 2011), p. 22.

[2] Ibid, 19.

[3] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, p. 17.

[4] For a helpful overview of this issue in regards to the disciplinary subfield of American Religious History, see Finnbarr Curtis’s essay “The Study of American religions: critical reflections on a specialization” in Religon, no. 42, issue 3, 355-372 (June 21, 2012).  Found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0048721X.2012.681875#.VuNZYJMrL-YFor another helpful work on the assumptions of religious comparison and the construction of the category “world religion”, see Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Inventions of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (U Chicago Press, 2005).

[5] To hear more about the distinction between race and ethnicity, as well as the co-construction of religion and race as social categories, it will be helpful to listen to Rudy Busto’s podcast interview on The Religious Studies Project titled “Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions,” found here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-and-religion-intertwined-social-constructions/.  Also, see his book King Tiger:  The Religious Vision of Reies López Tijerina (U New Mexico Press, 2006)

[6] Baker, The Gospel of the Klan, 249.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 October 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest, booming with calls for papers, events and job opportunities!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

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Calls for papers

Conference: Religious Materiality and Emotion

February 17–18, 2016

Adelaide City, Australia

Deadline: October 31, 2015

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Conference: Hermeneutics, symbol and myth and the Modernity of Antiquity in Italian Literature and the Arts

December 1–2, 2015

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano, Italy

Deadline: November 10, 2015

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Conference: Shia Minorities in the Contemporary World

May 20–21, 2016

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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Conference: Esotericism, Literature and Culture in Central and Eastern Europe

May 27–28, 2016

Belgrade, Serbia

Deadline: December 1, 2015

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Conference: Religion and Revolution

June 16–17, 2016

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: January 21, 2016

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Conference: Dialogue among religions as strategy and means for peace

July 12–15, 2016

Havana, Cuba

Deadline: November 20, 2015

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Conference: Anticipating the End Times: Millennialism, Apocalypticism, and Utopianism in Intentional Communities

October 6–8, 2016

Salt Lake City, UT, USA

Deadline: May 15, 2016

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Conference: Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits

July 5–7, 2016

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 10, 2015

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Colloquium: Translating Christianities

December 7, 2015

University of Stirling, UK

Deadline: October 30, 2015

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Symposium: The End of the World: A Universal Imagination

June 8–10, 2016

Nantes, France

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Symposium: 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2015

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: December 7, 2014

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Symposium: Oxford Symposium on Religious Studies

December 7–9, 2015

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 6, 2015

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EASR panel: Nonreligion and Atheism in Central and Eastern Europe

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

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Journal: Preternature

Special issue: Delineating the Preternatural: Modern Occultism in a Scientific Context

Deadline: December 15, 2015

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Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Religion and Racism: Intercultural Perspectives

Deadline: January 31, 2016

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Events

Conference: Religion, Addiction and Recovery

November 2, 2015

University of Chester, UK

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Seminar: Islamic Studies in Scotland: Retrospect and Prospect

October 23–24, 2015

University of Edinburgh, UK

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Jobs

4 PhD positions: “Communication and Exploitation of Knowledge in the Middle Ages”

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: October 15, 2015

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Assistant Professor of Religion: Buddhist Studies

Bard College, NY, USA

Deadline: November 1, 2015

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Senior Research Associate: CREST

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

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Doctoral positions: Muslim Cultures and Societies

Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.

Race and Religion: Intertwined Social Constructions

Race is a neglected category in Religious Studies. When race is included at all, it is often conflated with ethnicity or else its study is limited to a few typical examples, such as black/white binaries, the “Black church” or various “ethnic churches,” or the racialization of Muslim minorities. In this interview, Rudy Busto discusses problems and possibilities in the study of race and religion: how it has been examined (and overlooked) in the field of religious studies, how it has been confused with ethnicity, how race and religion have been theorized as mutually constitutive, limitations and occlusions in the study of race and religion, and why race is a category scholars of religion cannot afford to ignore. The racial/religious co-constitution of collective identities is an ever-present double-marked boundary which produces real effects on actual bodies, an empirical fact structuring people’s experiences. As such, scholars render their scholarship incomplete and do a disservice to their students and readers when they ignore race. Ranging from work on the social construction of race and religion as scholarly categories, the challenges of analyzing syncretism and authenticity, and the necessity of highlighting unmarked categories (e.g., Protestant, white), Busto argues that it is impossible to get an accurate and comprehensive understanding of religion (and non-religion) without taking race into account.

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