Liberating Black Church History: Making It Plain

Liberating Black Church History: Making It Plain

by Juan M. Floyd-Thomas

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This book lays out how the lessons of the dark pastshaped apeople’s religious quest for liberation and their long struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. The bookbears witness to the story of a liberating faith in action in three moves.

First, the book narrates the transformation of Black faith and culture in the North American context from enslavement to emancipation.

Second, itdiscussesBlack people’s confrontation with the crisis of segregation and how it led to the culmination of the civil rights struggle in the United States and beyond.

Finally, the author focuses on the contemporary developments in the religious experience of African Americans as they moved from the Black Power era to the Age of Obama.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780687332755
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 05/20/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 174
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

JuanFloyd-Thomas is Associate Professor of African American Religious History at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee.

Read an Excerpt

Liberting Black Church History

Making it Plain

By Juan M. Floyd-Thomas

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-33275-5


Waking the Nations Underground

The Black Church Tradition from Enslavement to Emancipation

You'll hear the trumpet sound to wake the nations underground looking to God's right hand when the stars began to fall Traditional spiritual, "My Lord, What a Morning"

Anyone familiar with the slave spiritual "My Lord, What a Morning" might know that the song's title has been called alternately "morning" and "mourning." In describing this particular spiritual, musicologist John Lovell Jr.'s masterwork, Black Song: The Forge and the Flame, says that using the term mourning as a homophone for morning was a marker of the complex reality experienced by enslaved Africans and their American descendants. They used it to express both "the beginning of a great day of justice, accompanied by falling stars, moaning sinners, thundering trumpets, nations waking underground, and of course shouting Christians gliding toward heav'm [sic]." In its call to "wake the nations underground," the song boldly alerts everyone—not only the living but also the dead and as-yet- unborn—about the imminent arrival of God's eternal justice in the earthly and heavenly realms. Embedded within the dual image of "mourning" and "morning" at the heart of this song is the bittersweet quality of the sacred Black musical tradition that historian W. E. B. DuBois dubbed the "sorrow songs." Recognizing the critical insights and creative genius of spirituals such as this, DuBois contends that the spirituals "are the articulate message of the slave to the world.... They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways."

In a similar vein, this chapter utilizes this duality to illustrate both the horrible and hopeful dimensions of African American religious faith from its inception to emancipation. This faith took shape long before Africans landed on American shores, a perspective that is often eschewed in historical treatments of Black women, men, and children's progression from enslavement to emancipation. The signature feature of this era was the realization of freedom. Moreover, whereas the "nations underground" invoked in the song's lyrics could easily be considered the deceased being raised from the dead on the day of final judgment, the interpretation that comes to mind by talk of the morning suggests the awakening of the spiritual power of all African ancestors—the living, the dead, and the as yet unborn—on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean through a reclamation of our cultural heritage and sacred worldview as our undeniable birthright. Therefore, "waking the nations underground" asserts that writing a history of Black faith in our present moment is very much a process of reuniting and reawakening contemporary generations of readers (most particularly those of African descent) to their own hidden histories before, during, and after slavery, so that they can chart a clear course forward through the murky haze of the past.

Black Religion and the Middle Passage

To understand the history of Black religion in America, it is important to return to its origins. For all intents and purposes, the Black Church arose from the deepest, darkest depths of the slave ship. As millions of enslaved Africans were forced to travel across the Atlantic Ocean during the Middle Passage, aboard vessels ironically named King of Dahomey, Brotherhood, The Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist, their fervent prayers and pleas to the Almighty Creator marked the start of a radically different religious enterprise in the New World. As historian Charles Long asserts,

The Middle Passage ... was never forgotten by the Africans, neither during slavery nor in freedom. The watery passage of the Atlantic, that fearsome journey, that cataclysm of modernity, has served as a mnemonic structure, evoking a memory that forms the disjunctive and involuntary presence of these Africans in the Atlantic world.

From the bowels of those dreaded wooden ships, untold millions of African women, men, and children began to shed many of the social, ethnic, and psychological distinctions that had kept them divided in their native lands on the continent. In the hull of any given slave ship, en route to the most dehumanizing and devastating form of enslavement known to humankind, millions of Africa's children turned their souls to an unknown, unnamed God who might hold the answer to their present fate.

For the women, men, and children brought to the New World in the holds of slave ships, religion was a central, albeit contested, reality for those Africans and their offspring. Although some of the captives had been introduced to various expressions of religion—particularly Christianity—long before the arrival of European slave traders, the development of the Middle Passage did foment a crisis of faith for the enslaved. Vincent Harding describes this predicament in heart-wrenching terms:

This ambivalence is not new. It was ours from the beginning. For we first met the American Christ on slave ships. We heard his name sung in hymns of praise while we died in our thousands, chained in stinking holds beneath the decks, locked in with terror and disease and sad memories of our families and homes. When we leaped from the decks to be seized by sharks we saw his name carved on the ships' solid sides. When our women were raped in the cabins they must have noticed the great and holy books on the shelves.

As Harding suggests, viewing the Middle Passage as the first encounter of enslaved Africans with American Christianity is deeply problematic in nature. In the process of dehumanizing Black people en route to an uncertain fate, slave traders and slave masters were motivated to introduce Christianity to African captives, not for Christian charity or benevolence but rather to indoctrinate them into subservient obedience. Nevertheless, as Africans underwent what Albert Raboteau refers to as the "death of the gods," their collective encounter with Christianity helped galvanize their desperate agony into a new level of faith and spirituality.

Early African American religion was an effort by enslaved Africans to safeguard themselves against the disruption of their religious worldview. Enslaved Africans gradually merged their composite African religiosity with Western notions of Christianity through complex cultural processes of enculturation, adaptation, and assimilation. Whether enslaved or free, African American converts to Christianity in colonial America subordinated European sacred rhetoric and symbols to their own hermeneutical interpretation of personal salvation, conviction of sin, charismatic praise and worship, the equality of all peoples, and the divine promise of heaven.

No matter how distinctive and uniquely identifiable it might be, the Black Church tradition shares deeply significant connections with the other spiritual traditions held dear by people of African descent. Much like the other religions of the African diaspora, the Black Church tradition clearly has its roots in Central and West African cosmological systems that migrated along with women, men, and children of African descent as they made their captive passage across the Atlantic Ocean headed for the New World. Much like its analogous faith traditions within the African diaspora, the Black Church tradition derived much of its unique heritage in terms of beliefs, values, and rituals from a seemingly discordant array of African, European, Native American, and countless other sources. Nevertheless, one definitive aspect of African American Christianity as it has been passed down to successive generations has been its special emphasis on the believers' collective spiritual rootedness to their African ancestry, however broadly conceived or narrowly construed.

Despite however many great differences that are manifest in their respective recognition and celebration of that spirituality, each African diasporan tradition—including African American Christianity—lays claim to this common inheritance. In his consideration of the significance of the longevity of cultural practices within the African diaspora, poet and cultural critic Amiri Baraka contends that

music, dance, religion, do not have artifacts as their end products so they were saved. These nonmaterial aspects of the African culture were impossible to eradicate. And these are the most apparent legacies of the African past, even to the contemporary Black American blues, jazz, and the adaptation of the Christian religion, all rely heavily on African culture.

Arguably, the diversity of worldviews and worship styles of the various African diasporan traditions can be understood by tracing the separate paths of historical development they undertook in the slave and post-emancipation societies of the Western Hemisphere. For instance, Haiti declared itself a free and independent Black republic and ended slavery in 1804. Although abolition of slavery in Jamaica officially took place in 1834, the island remained a British colony until 1962. In the American South during the antebellum era, freed Black people were a miniscule fraction of the overall population, whereas roughly a third of the Black inhabitants in pre-abolition Cuba were free. Home to the most people of African descent outside the African continent, Brazil did not outlaw the peculiar institution of slavery until 1888, making it the last New World society to do so. Using this brief historical comparison, one can get a glimpse at how each African-derived spiritual tradition developed its own unique expression in light of the varied challenges each faced in terms of geographical and historical context. Thus we have Vodoun in Haiti, Obeah in Jamaica, African American Christianity in the United States, Santería in Cuba, and Candomblé in Brazil, among a host of others. Each of these African diasporan traditions shares a common history of enslavement, disenfranchisement, exploitation, and dehumanization in the New World. Yet for the faithful adherents of these traditions, each belief system also served as a sacred site where they could engage in an extraordinary struggle for survival and ultimate victory over the brutality of inhuman bondage in its myriad forms. Moreover, although divided by geography, language, and political system, these traditions are linked by a heightened sense of solidarity against injustice and preservation predicated upon their embrace of the spirit.

Having said all that, the study of African American religious history has much work to do in order to balance and integrate our appreciation for the diverse religious traditions within the African diaspora. Much like the spirit that invigorates and guides them, these traditions are many, and yet they are one simultaneously. However, within the historiography of African American religion, there have been typically two dialectical modes of analysis at work in examining Black religious traditions. The first dialectic focuses on similarities of Black Protestant denominations to one another in contradistinction to the white mainline Christianity of Europe and North America, using race as the primary source of identity and distinction. The second dialectic juxtaposes the beliefs, practices, and institutions of Black religious believers within a given religious community to another (i.e., assessing Black Pentecostal churches in comparison to their Black Baptist and Methodist counterparts), essentially using religious denomination or doctrine as the line of demarcation. Much less common is a historical purview that actually holds the Black Christian experience in tandem rather than in tension with the other religions of the African diaspora, both Christian and non-Christian alike.

To refine this point even further, this expanded outlook would also require looking at both the Black Church tradition and other African-derived religious traditions in new ways. On the one hand, thinking about the Black Church tradition would have to relinquish some of the acceptance of American exceptionalism that has been informed partially by an inherently Eurocentric Christian theology that arose over the last five centuries. Doing so would thus entail envisioning the members and institutions of the Black Church tradition in modes of comparison, competition, and even conversation with the Other in their own midst (whether this reflects people of different faith backgrounds, nationalities, sexual orientations, political ideologies, and so on). On the other hand, looking at the religions of the African diaspora in more meaningful ways would dictate understanding that they are recognized as historical and theological contemporaries rather than monolithic artifacts frozen in time and space. First, while they are similar, all African-derived faith traditions are not identical or interchangeable. When we look at the African continent, the varieties of indigenous communities and traditions—whether we talk about the Yoruba, Wolof, Akan, Mande, Ibo, or Fon peoples—are as distinct and specific in their respective spiritual beliefs and practices from one another as they are from the Black religions scattered across the Black Atlantic. Similarly, just because we talk about Haitian Vodoun, Cuban Santería, or Jamaican Obeah as religions "from the islands" (in other words, having Afro- Caribbean origins) in reductionist, overly generalized terms denies the fact that these traditions are profoundly different in terms of vitality, diversity, and internal dynamics.

Additionally, in discussing the religions of Africa and the diaspora, we should also be mindful of addressing these traditions in contemporaneous as well as in historical terms. For instance, according to recent estimates, there will be an estimated five hundred million—yes, a half billion—Africans who self-identify as Christian by the year 2030, far exceeding the anticipated growth of the church in Europe and the United States. Not only does this represent a demographic that is roughly 1.5 times the current size of the entire US population, it also reflects a mode of modern Christianity that is not on the decline as is visible in Europe. Moreover, with its dizzying mélange of religions ranging from the most traditional to the most modern, how the African continent deals with its wealth of spiritual diversity moving into the future might serve as an exemplar on issues of religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue for decades to come. However, such lessons can never be gleaned if our attempts to describe Africa and Africans perpetually render them as the land and people that time has forgotten.

Over the long haul, the study of change and continuity within the Black Church tradition paradoxically has much to learn from the heterogeneity and adaptability that formed the Black religious experience in it earliest moments from Africa to America. In an effort to embrace new ways of looking at African American religion, there is a need to go back to its roots. This point suggests that we must examine and scrutinize long- standing assumptions and conventional views of the Black Church tradition in light of critical insights and new scholarship, with a keen eye both to its contemporary utility and future effectiveness.

This process of assessing the present and of rethinking long-held assumptions about faith involves looking both backward and forward. At times like this, students of history need to reflect on what churches and other faith communities are currently doing but also look back to the formative eras of the past. At the start of this century, historical research is committed to taking a fresh look at the complexity of the periods from ancestors all over what Paul Gilroy has dubbed the "Black Atlantic." Even though we academics like to imagine ourselves as open-minded and forward-looking, there is an aversion to envisioning change within the Black Church tradition. In a context in which so much seems to be either uncertain or set adrift in so many ways, the ways we view the Black Church tradition, the basis of our worldview and source of our faith, is expected to remain static.


Excerpted from Liberting Black Church History by Juan M. Floyd-Thomas. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Lessons the Dark Past Has Taught Me 1

Chapter 1 Waking the Nations Underground: The Black Church Tradition from Enslavement to Emancipation 21

Chapter 2 Making America Again: The Black Church Tradition from Segregation to the Civil Rights Movement 69

Chapter 3 We Have Been Believers in the New Jerusalem: The Black Church Tradition from Black Liberation Theology to Barack Obama 107

Notes 143

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