Your Spirits Walk Beside Us

Paul Harvey

Congratulations to my friend Barbara Savage for the publication of her new book, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion. This promises to be an important work in African American religion, not least because of the nuanced and complicated relationship it explores of black churches (plural) and public life, as well as the history of blistering criticism of black intellectuals and social activists directed towards the same churches that they knew were instrumental to their community -- a delicate balancing act that she traces through figures such as DuBois, Benjamin Mays, and many others. Here's a bit from the book's website:

From the 1920s on, some of the best African American minds—W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Mays, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Mary McLeod Bethune, Charles S. Johnson, and others—argued tirelessly about the churches’ responsibility in the quest for racial justice. Could they be a liberal force, or would they be a constraint on progress? There was no single, unified black church but rather many churches marked by enormous intellectual, theological, and political differences and independence. Yet, confronted by racial discrimination and poverty, churches were called upon again and again to come together as savior institutions for black communities. The tension between faith and political activism in black churches testifies to the difficult and unpredictable project of coupling religion and politics in the twentieth century.

Savage's work is similar in some respects (different in others) as Curtis Evans's recent The Burden of Black Religion
. Evans covers a longer time span, but the latter part focuses on some of the same intellectuals and activsts as does Savage, and provides a complementary perspective towards their conflicted relationship with black religious thought and expression in American culture.

The publication of both is great news for African American religious history, as the field is advancing into new and provocative arguments. Next year's collection of essays The Souls of W. E. B. DuBois, edited by Ed Blum and Jason Young, will be another landmark -- more on that when the book's publication comes closer.


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