Free Associate with Me



5 comments
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.

5 comments:

Tom Van Dyke at: February 1, 2015 at 2:09 AM said...

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,

This is sociology, then, except for 3), which is subjective and more fit for movies, like "The Apostle"[which I enjoyed very much].

The liberal arts, the "humanities," also offer themselves as social "science."

So which is to be, then, art or science? What are y'all doing here?

Respectfully submitted.


Matthew Cressler at: February 1, 2015 at 8:47 AM said...

Point of clarification: what I am arguing here is that the concept "African American religion" usually bears these four assumptions. I am definitely not arguing that "African American religion" actually is constituted by these four things. The scholars I allude to in that paragraph - along with myself - are, in fact, challenging this common conception as much too limited, not to mention burdened by many problematic implications.

As for the humanities v. social science comment, I'm not sure I'm clear on your question. But the blog is home to a scholars with a variety of different disciplinary commitments.

esclark at: February 2, 2015 at 5:03 PM said...

Sounds like an interesting way to start off the semester with them. I'm wondering how the demographics in the classroom might shape that conversation. I teach at a very white school in the Pacific Northwest.

Last semester in my African American Religions class, we had a few conversations about the topic of our course. In other words, what are African American religions? At the beginning of the semester, they were very uncomfortable with defining it themselves and no one wanted to speak up. There was one African American student in the room.
By the end of the semester, they had opened up and begun to think about what makes an African American religion. They wanted an expansive category, that while perhaps based on ideas about race, wasn't bound by ideas about race. For example, due to his rhetoric and life experiences, they considered Father Michael Pfleger to fall under the category.

Tom Van Dyke at: February 5, 2015 at 9:28 PM said...


As for the humanities v. social science comment, I'm not sure I'm clear on your question. But the blog is home to a scholars with a variety of different disciplinary commitments.


Thx for the reply, Matthew. I'm asking whether the inquiry is useful without some attempt at statistical rigor.

Except for 3) that African American worship is spontaneous and emotional, which I suppose is self-evident since I've never heard gospel music as dreadful as well, if you've ever heard Eddie Izzard explain it...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuEuY4BUMfM

Matthew Cressler at: February 8, 2015 at 12:13 PM said...

Definitely an important point, Emily. My class is small, but quite diverse - comprised of African, African American, and white students. This definitely allows them to answer these questions (and me to ask them) in particular ways. I love the expansiveness of your students' definition - Father Pfleger certainly raises an interesting set of questions.

I find Eddie Glaude's differentiation between the diversity of African American religious life and "African American religion," as a category of analysis, quite convincing. In _African American Religion: A Very Short Introduction_ (Oxford, 2014) he argues, "in short, African American religious life is as rich and as complicated as the religious life of other groups in the United States, but African American religion emerges in the encounter between faith, in all of its complexity, and white supremacy" (6).

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