Matthew J. Cressler
I currently have the pleasure to be teaching African American religious history for the first time and, as I do with most of my classes, I began the semester with an exercise in free association. Since my objective is always to press my students to think critically - with specificity, sophistication, self-reflection - about "religion," the exercise serves at least two purposes. It makes all of us in the classroom aware of the working conceptions and definitions of religion (and religions and religious) we carry with us, though most of the time we don't stop to name them. But it also - and this is what is the most fun for me as a scholar-teacher - provides a preliminary map of some of the most popular and pervasive images and ideas about a particular topic.
What first comes to mind when you hear "African American religion"? The map my students made included "awesome choirs," Baptist, T.D. Jakes, "instrument of liberation," music, Christianity, and Martin Luther King. As you can see, the words that sprang to mind tended to have one thing in common: they were, in varying degrees, associated with "the Black Church." (Though, I'm happy to note that Nation of Islam and "voodoo" did make the list.)
I'm sure this revelation surprises few, if any, of you - those words may be akin to what first came to your mind, or, they may be what you would have expected to hear from most students. They certainly corresponded with the results of a quick Google search (because yes, of course I Googled "African American religion"). My students and I catalogued the images Google produced for this search and quickly noticed the preponderance of Christian churches, choirs in exuberant son, preachers exhorting crowds, and bodies (especially women's bodies) in motion. Wikipedia ostensibly has two entries on "African American religion." The entry on "Afro-American religion" will introduce readers to a chart of African diasporic religious traditions in Latin America, the Caribbean, and New Orleans. If you want to learn about the religious life of African-descended peoples in the United States (beyond New Orleans), you'll have to see "Religion in Black America" instead. There, aside from one use of the word "Catholic" and an odd sentence noting how the Nation of Islam eventually "added a Muslim factor," what you will find is a history of Black evangelical Christianity.
Now, apart from illustrating why we admonish students not to rely on Wikipedia as their sole source of information, and apart from suggesting a fun digital class assignment to edit the pages themselves, what I found most fascinating about our exercise is that it confirmed what many African American religious studies scholars have been arguing for the past decade or so - what is meant by "African American religion" is usually "African American Christianity" and, more specifically, the collective institution of "the Black Church," and that this concept is burdened and overdetermined in a number of ways. What is more, this conception of African American religion bears at least four implicit assumptions: 1) that African Americans share a special (perhaps even natural) inclination to the religious; 2) that African American religiosity is evangelical and Protestant; 3) that African American worship is spontaneous and emotional; and 4) that (at least in the post-civil rights era) African American religion is politically progressive. (These four points represent my synthesis of what a number of scholars have argued in recent years, many of whom I discussed in a piece I posted on the History of Christianity blog a few years ago.)
Though I could go on and on about this exercise (and where I'm going to take it in my class), I'd love to hear if any of you use similar exercises in your classes - whether it be on African American religion, American religion, "religion," or something else. How do you get your students to unearth their own operative assumptions about the subjects you're teaching? I'd be interested to hear both how they may have worked and when they might have backfired. And, of course, if you do something like this on "African American religion," I'd love to add to that map I'm continuing to make in my mind of what - if anything - people think of when they hear those pregnant words.