The Forging of Races: Reviews and Responses



Vol. X of the Journal of Southern Religion is up. Among many reviews and articles is a forum on Colin Kidd's The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge University Press, 2006), featuring extended responses by Ed Blum, Rebecca Goetz, and Randal Jelks. All three respondents give the author his due while taking substantive issue with particular arguments and approaches in the book, leading to an outstanding discussion. Blum summarizes the work as follows:

According to Kidd, the Bible was used on multiple sides in the race making (and unmaking) projects of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The idea of one unitary human creation (as told in the book of Genesis and referred to as monogenesis) provided a great bulwark against racialized thinking. Yet, for those intent on creating notions of racial difference, the Bible became a storehouse of useable prophecies and predictions, truths and tells. Ultimately, in an innovative argument, Kidd suggests that Protestantism did as much (if not more) to inhibit racialized thinking as it did to promote it.

The work focuses pretty exclusively on intellectuals; it is intellectual history in that old-fashioned sense. About this approach, Blum asks,

The focus on scribblers and intellectuals leads to serious problems in the study of race and religion. When studying race, should one focus on what people say or what they do? How many “I’m not racist” whites in the United States would refuse to allow their children to marry a person of color or would be irked if too many black families moved into the neighborhood? More importantly, perhaps, is religion mostly an aspect of the mind, a game of ideas disembodied from emotions, lived experiences, material and popular culture? Is there a way to approach religion as more than just cerebral? Can we integrate it with culture, community, social power, psychology, and material life?

Kidd's stress on the importance of the Christian tradition of monogenesis in contradicting racist ideas drawn from polygenesis draws some questioning from Rebecca Goetz:

Kidd's optimistic reading of the intellectual developments of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries seems to belie what happened in the New World in particular. The particular brutality of the dispossession (and often the enslavement) of Indians as well as the establishment of hereditary, lifelong servitude for Africans in the American South were both largely a product of the seventeenth century, precisely when Kidd argues that the Biblical defense of monogenesis was at its most powerful and persuasive. The English-trained Anglican minister Morgan Godwyn, who ministered to congregations in Virginia and Barbados in the 1670s, later lamented the "Hellish Principles, viz. that Negroes are Creatures destitute of Souls, to be ranked among Brute Beasts..." Godwyn's encounters with Anglican parishioners in the second half of the seventeenth century suggest that English planters were more likely to deny the humanity of their slaves than to uphold it—perhaps English intellectuals' particular attachment to monogenesis was not as popular or powerful on North American and Caribbean plantations.

Randal Jelks also praises the book's extensive survey of western theology and race, but ponders some issues in the final portion of the book, where Kidd explores how black theologians dealt with racialist theologies:

And here's where we see the great problem of Kidd's book. He is not familiar enough with the varieties of black theologies or the histories of African Americans to make a fully convincing argument. Those black activists, intellectuals, and religious thinkers to whom he refers were not, in the end, trying to support a form of Protestant Christendom, or any other kind of state religion, as they critiqued the racist propensities of their white counterparts and lifted up the justice and the spiritual concerns of African Americans. For the most part, they were trying to develop a truer Christianity in response to state enforced racism, both during slavery and its wake. It is amazing that one of the founders of the AME church, Richard Allen, converted his own slaveholder to Christianity and paid him for his freedom. This radical evangelical tradition of liberating black people from the bonds of oppression is even seen in the theology of James Cone, the chief proponent of Black Theology. In Cone's work, blackness is a metaphor for the humanity of those who suffer injustice in North America. Cone argued that African Americans' sufferings needed to be of paramount concern to black churches. He further contended that if white American Christians truly wanted to understand the gospel they had to know suffering or be "black." This is certainly dissimilar to the subtext of Kidd's book which shows that biblical theology was one of the main instruments that Protestants used in their efforts to gain control of European Christendom and have dominant power over the non-European world.

The entire exchange here is worth extended time and attention, as is Kidd's excellent book. This kind of forum, published so soon after the book itself, shows what kinds of contributions online journals can make in promoting timely scholarly discussion, so congratulations to the editors and contributors.

There's also an extended review in the new Books and Culture -- not online, so click to subscribe.


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