The Burden of Black Religion

Paul Harvey

Last year I had the privilege of reading and preparing a short review of Curtis Evans, The Burden of Black Religion. I believe that review has been published now, so I'm going to reproduce it here for those who are interested in this important book.

Curtis Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (2008), xvii + 372 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, $24.95 paperback).

This book is not a history of African-American religion, or black Christianity, but rather a history of the concepts by which African American religious expression in any form have come to be understood. These concepts -- ranging from the romantic racialism of the nineteenth century (by which African-American people were understood to embody certain cultural traits, especially a simplistic but sincere evangelical emotion that made them counter to the crasser forms of American materialism and also made them ‘naturally religious’), to the social-science defined abstraction of the ‘Negro Church’ used by black scholars starting with DuBois, to the psychological concepts of the ‘pathology’ of ‘compensatory religion’ that dominated the literature of the interwar years, to the neo-romantic racialist concept of ‘soul’ in the 1960s -- have all in their own ways been distorting mirrors by which Americans have used black religion to reflect back upon themselves. For example, the romantic racialists of the nineteenth century, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, created the image of the ‘naturally religious slave’ who was docile, receptive to the divine, and had an ‘intuitive sense of the transcendent’ (41). But such a character was ill-suited to fit into free American society, but instead was an example of how a ‘primitive race’ did not ‘possess the intellectual and moral equipment’ to compete in a modern society (103). Later scholars, especially DuBois, created the idea of the ‘Negro Church’ as a ‘normative discourse’ designed to ‘mine these new tools of social science to radically transform the nature of black religious life’, even while ‘Northern white artists and dramatists sought to mind the folk wisdom and alleged primitive religiosity of this rural black Southern culture’ (176).
Through all periods of American history, the ‘burden’ of black religion has been that it has been forced to carry too much weight; it has produced ‘overly robust notions of agency’ which ignore the ‘difficult and constricting social spaces in which African Americans have practiced their religions’ (280). Evans would have scholarship ‘move beyond the black church and free up scholars to construct more interesting and empirically grounded narratives’, stories that would not be forced into dichotomous straitjackets of ‘protest versus accommodation’ (280). Evans’s book is a dense scholarly study that should impact the field precisely for its cautious but devastating survey of the conscious and unconscious biases that have fundamentally shaped the study of African American religious expressions.


Gerardo Marti said…
Thanks for leaving this. I'll be at the Religion and Culture conference later this week and look forward to hearing Evans speak. I'm convinced this book will have a featured spot in my current book manuscript on the issue of African Americans and worship.
Christopher said…
Thanks for the review, Paul. I read through the book a couple of months ago and found it to be insightful and provocative.

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