What (and When and Where) are Africana Religions?
by Matthew John Cressler
by Matthew John Cressler
The National Office of Black Catholics (NOBC) inaugurated their magazine on Black liturgy, Freeing the Spirit, in August 1971. They dedicated the first issue “to all Black people who have rediscovered their imprisoned souls / Also, this book is a prayer for those Blacks who still have not found themselves; who have not discovered their Beautiful Black Self.” The magazine hoped to actualize its title. The NOBC was literally invested in freeing the spirits of African American Catholics, spirits imprisoned by the assumption that being Catholic necessitated worshipping in European (read: white) ways. Black Catholic contributors worked to identify the essential elements of “Black Liturgy,” so that African Americans across the country might integrate them into Catholic worship and thereby discover their “Beautiful Black Selves.”
Right at the start, this process turned toward Africa and Africans. The NOBC interviewed one Tanzanian and two Nigerian priests for their first issue, asking them about Church and liturgy in Africa. These African Catholics agreed that “African peoples” are a spiritual and religious people, insisting “European missionaries had nothing new to teach Africa” by way of God or religion. One priest spoke at length about the persistence of African-ness in the face of European missionaries. When missionaries presented Africans with an ultimatum – cease being African if you want to be Christian – most rejected the false dichotomy. The majority of those who became Christian, according to this Nigerian priest, “did not lose their identity as Africans. After going to mass on Sunday and listening to what the priest had to say from the pulpit, they said O.K. Father, you said what you have to say, and they went back home and did their own thing.” This deeply resonated with the NOBC, which likewise argued that black Catholics could be truly Catholic while still expressing themselves musically and liturgically as a Black people. A growing number of African American Catholics in the 1970s argued that what it meant to be Black, and thus how one should be Black and Catholic, was deeply rooted in Africa.
American religious history, along with the subfield of African American religious history, has long been defined by the boundaries of the U.S. nation-state. More than that, certain assumptions about what constitutes “religion” have also inflected those historical narratives. African American religious history, until recently, was the domain of Christianity and “the Black Church.” How, then, should American (and African American) religious historians approach the exchange above? What can we make of African Americans Catholics asking Africans what it means to be authentically “Black” in the United States? What is the relationship between Africa, Africans, and African American Catholics? Can Catholicism in the United States be considered an Africana religion?
Fortunately, Sylvester Johnson and Edward Curtis IV have co-founded the Journal of Africana Religions (JOAR), which hopes to address precisely these kinds of questions. The journal is a forum for scholars across the humanities and social sciences “who think about the meaning and function of religion in the lives of African-descended people” throughout Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The editors are refreshingly self-reflexive regarding their constitutive terms, insisting that “the terms Africana and religion as heuristic and generative. They are dynamic intellectual categories whose meanings will be shaped by the ways in which our authors define and contest them in the these pages.”
Anyone present for the JOAR’s inaugural symposium, “Africana Religions: Theorizing Traditions, Geographies, and Temporalities,” hosted March 8-9 by Northwestern University, had the privilege of witnessing these dialogues and debates in real time. Prominent scholars from a variety of disciplines joined the editors to discuss (and contest) the ways “Africana religions” can open new interpretative avenues for African American religious studies. As the symposium’s title suggested, the conversation was structured around three themes and their concomitant questions. Traditions: what (and who) constitutes Africana religions? Geographies: where are Africana religions? Temporalities: when are Africana religions?
Throughout the weekend the scholars, in collaboration with each other and the audience, generated a number of productive tensions. For example, over the course of the weekend it became clear that “what” and “who” constitute Africana religions depended on the scholar, leading to dramatically different conclusions. Some scholars conceived Africana religions expansively as the religions of Africans and African-descended people. Others insisted on more specificity, discussing religious communities that actively associated themselves with the African diaspora and “Africa,” either the actual territory or the idea. Some scholars referenced religions usually imagined as derivative of “African traditions,” such as Yorùbá religion in Africa or Santería in the Americas. Others insisted that Islam in the Americas should be understood as an Africana religion. Paul Christopher Johnson (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) offered the most provocative example, for my money, noting that in contemporary Portugal a number of white Portuguese practice African-derived Candomblé while most Afro-Brazilians are Pentecostal. Should we consider Pentecostalism an Africana religion, even if it conceives itself as superseding the “paganism” of Africa?
These questions, and others like them, unearthed anxieties percolating in the room. Kathryn Lofton identified these anxieties and pointed to the “particular pain” around Africana religions, inasmuch as the term itself recalls the genocide, involuntary migration, and commodification of human bodies that produced the African diaspora. Do scholars risk trapping people in a category not of their own making, flattening diversity with a singular second-order term? (As an aside, Lofton argued that this is a question we should ask ourselves about “American religions” as well.) The consensus among the panelists, even in the face of these anxieties, seemed to be that the conversation itself indicated the productivity of the concept.
As JOAR insists, “Africana religions” is a heuristic device, one that provides new temporal and geographic spaces to think about the dynamic relationships between African and African American religious communities – back, forth, and across the Atlantic. Sylvester Johnson acknowledged the dilemmas and anxieties Lofton addressed, but nonetheless insisted on forging ahead with the most rigorous scholarship we can muster. By studying Africana religions, he reflected, we may come to find that “territory is already map,” that we are participating the very imagination of “Africa” we study in Africana religions. Charles Long summarized the advantages of an “Africana religions” framework well when he argued that it points to a new mode of temporality and geography that illuminates things often obscured by modern Western history. It offers not just new data, but more importantly a new rhythm for understanding the ways human beings act on and in the world.
Returning to my opening historical anecdote, can Catholicism in the United States be considered an Africana religion? I have come to think this is the wrong question. Instead, I could ask whether the interpretative framework of “Africana religions,” emphasizing the transnational and diasporic, helps me think productively and creatively about black Catholics? Absolutely! The JOAR is now one of the premier places to read (and submit) cutting-edge studies of religions across the African diaspora. Any and all American religious historians exploring the boundaries (and limitations) of U.S. and Christian exceptionalism in our scholarship should tune in!