The State of African American Religious History


In lieu of an article for the Fall edition of the North Star, Anthea Butler provides an insightful opinion piece on the state of the field for African American Religious History. She writes:

Since starting graduate school, I have had a reoccurring anxiety dream. I am walking down a staircase into a room that is filled with books that are musty, dreary, and old. I look at the books with awe, and panic all at the same time. And there is a voice that usually chimes in, although the voice seems to be internalized inside of my body. The voice says the same phrase in every dream “Who is going to take care of the black books?”

I am sure many of you could give a rip about my dreams. The dream, however, I think has floated from my subconsciousness to the forefront of my mind. Who is going to take care of the black books, I wonder? Or more specifically, who is going to take care to write the books in African American Religious History? To some of you, this dream and my question may seem far-fetched. Within the last twenty years, many universities and colleges have at least one course in African American Religion, and most of those courses have some type of historical component to them. Books continue to proliferate on aspects of African American Religion, although those that reach back to the eighteenth and seventeenth century are few and far in-between. (one recent and notable exception however, is Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World by Jon Sensbach) Yet for all of the progress, and writing, there is still, like my dream, something missing. What’s missing is our “foundational” book in African American Religious history, a cohort of younger scholars in the field, and a permanent, in-print journal that exists to further the field. As co-editor of the journal, I believe that the North Star has been and will continue to be a space that is dedicated to both the advancement and permanence of the field of African American Religious History, as well as conduit and custodian for the work of our fellow scholars. In order to live up to the task, we must take a hard look at where we are.

Her article provides a candid look at the state of the field, which proves useful to anyone who works in this area as well as American religious historians generally. What does it mean that there is not a "foundational" book in African American Religious History? Moreover, what does her larger commentary suggest about the place of African American Religious History in the larger field of American Religious History?


Brian said…
There may not be a definitive work on African-American religious history, but such a related work has just been released on African-American theology: Thabiti Anyabwile's "The Decline of African-American Theology." The foreword is written by Mark Noll.