The complicated intersections of race, racism, and religion and the generational impact these intersections have had on African-Americans are a fertile field for study and for scholarly religion publishing, as witnessed by the number of new and forthcoming books dealing with that fraught intersection. Major university, academic, and trade presses are exploring the journey from the religious conversion of enslaved men and women before 1865 to the Bible’s continuing profound influence on people of color at crucial moments of American history. The books range through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and the Black Lives Matter movement birthed by controversial police killings and demands for an end to systemic racism.
The Early Impact
University of North Carolina Press’s list this year includes three books based on archival research that flesh out the experiences of blacks and whites at crucial moments in American history, uncovering knowledge to help “us understand our present condition—aiming, you might say, to create a more perfect union,” UNC senior executive editor Elaine Maisner says.
The End of Days: African American Religion and Politics in the Age of Emancipation by Matthew Harper (Univ. of North Carolina, out now) shows how black Southerners’ theology shaped nearly every major economic and political decision made in the South from emancipation to the early years of Jim Crow. An assistant professor of history and Africana studies at Mercer University, Harper demonstrates how African-American Protestants cast themselves into biblical narratives as a way to see their own struggle for racial justice as part of God’s plan for humanity.
A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans by Emily Suzanne Clark (Univ. of North Carolina, out now) argues that Afro-Creole Spiritualism—which through séances summoned messages from such departed souls as Abraham Lincoln—provided a forum to criticize injustices and promote political activism at a time when free blacks endured violent resistance to racial equality. In this first detailed history of the Cercle Harmonique—a group of educated African-descended men from Creole Catholic families—Clark, an assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University, maps how religion mediated New Orleans’ cultural, political, and social changes from the late antebellum period through Reconstruction.
Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland by Bridget Ford (Univ. of North Carolina, out now) reveals an instance of surprising political unity during the Civil War. Ford, who teaches history at California State University, East Bay, writes about religious, racial, and political attachments of people living in the Ohio-Kentucky borderlands on the Ohio River, uncovering the work that went into bridging stark differences among the inhabitants, efforts that contributed to slavery’s end and the Union’s persistence.
“These books, based on astonishing archival research—Clark uncovered the actual minutes recorded over 20 years of séances held by the men in the Cercle Harmonique—bring alive the experiences of blacks and whites at crucial moments in American history,” Maisner says. “They reveal how such major American identifiers as race and religion have intersected and influenced each other in the past and continue to do so in the present.”
In America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Brazos, out now) Jim Wallis delivers a prophetic and personal call to action to overcome the racism so ingrained in American society. Activist Wallis (God’s Politics) urges Christians—particularly white Christians—to work for racial justice and healing; he asserts that honest, grown-up conversations can lead to change.
The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved by Emerson B. Powery and Rodney S. Sadler Jr. (Westminster John Knox, out now) analyzes how the Bible functioned in pre–Civil War freedom narratives and explores how enslaved African-Americans used Scripture as a source of liberation, empowerment, and literacy. Powery is a professor of biblical studies at Messiah College. Sadler is an associate professor of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Orbis Books continues its long history of publishing black and womanist theology with No Crystal Stair: Womanist Spirituality (out now) by Diana L. Hayes, professor emerita of systematic theology at Georgetown University. The collection of essays, prayers, and meditations is intended to lay the foundation for a womanist spirituality that is rooted in the abiding faith of African-American women, a faith that has long inspired them as they struggle to support their families and build their communities.
Forging a Free Identity
Brand New Theology: The Wal-Martization of T.D. Jakes and the New Black Church by Paula McGee (Orbis, Mar. 2017) critiques the popular health-and-wealth message targeted especially to black Christian women. A self-described public theologian, McGee argues that the preaching and writing of Texas megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes is representative of the New Black Church, which offers a new form of prosperity gospel and signifies what she calls “the Wal-Martization of religion.” McGee’s book “offers a critical window on the emerging New Black Church, a phenomenon of broad significance for American religion and culture,” says Orbis publisher Robert Ellsberg.
From Chalice Press comes Nobody Cries When We Die: God, Community and Surviving to Adulthood by Patrick B. Reyes (Dec.). Author, theologian, educator, and institutional strategist and organizer Reyes tells how—with the support of family, clergy, educators, friends, and neighbors—he survived childhood in an impoverished community infested with gangs and rife with economic and racial oppression. Writing to engage young adults of color, Reyes shows how navigating violence redefines one’s sense of purpose and shapes leaders.
“We continue looking for stories from those on society’s margins as these previously disenfranchised communities find their voices and become empowered and encouraged to speak and write,” Brad Lyons, president of Chalice Press, says. “Race factors into so many of today’s issues—interfaith relations, mass incarceration, law enforcement and crime, immigration and refugees, education, income inequality. The list goes on and on.”
The Ground Has Shifted: The Future of the Black Church in Post-Racial America by Walter Earl Fluker (New York Univ., Nov.) explores the dilemmas black churches must resolve if they are to remain central in black life. Fluker, professor of ethical leadership at Boston University School of Theology, argues that the older race-based language and metaphors of religious discourse have outlived their uses in the era of Black Lives Matter. He suggests ways for a new generation of church leaders, scholars, and activists to reclaim the black church’s historical identity and to infuse character, civility, and a sense of community among congregants.
From Baylor University Press comes Lynched: The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror by Angela Sims (out now). Rooted in oral histories, Lynched chronicles the history and aftermath of lynching in America. Ethicist Sims, dean of academic programs and a professor at Saint Paul School of Theology, uses the stories of African-American elders to show how, in a culture of violence, domination, and fear, lynching functioned as a form of domestic terrorism.
Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics by Josef Sorett (Oxford Univ., out now) shows that religion was an essential influence for black writers and intellectuals from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement. By examining people and movements typically cast as “secular,” Sorett, an associate professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University, offers insights that trouble the boundaries of what counts as “sacred” in scholarship on African-American religion and culture.
Forthcoming race-themed books for 2017 also explore contemporary issues. Things Not Seen: Race, Religion, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology by M. Cooper Harris (New York Univ., May 2017) argues that diverse iterations of religious traditions offer lenses to understand the work of a prominent and problematic thinker. This is the first book for Harris, an assistant professor in the department of religious studies at Indiana University.
New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration by Judith Weisenfeld (New York Univ., Feb. 2017) shows that many black southern migrants and Caribbean immigrants rejected conventional American racial classifications. Weisenfeld, a professor in the department of religion at Princeton University, explores how these alternative visions of black history and racial identity reshaped the black religious landscape.
Race and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation by David P. Leong (IVP, Feb. 2017) reveals the profound ways geographic structures and systems sustain racial divisions. Leong, associate professor of missiology at Seattle Pacific University and Seminary, uncovers systemic problems that maintain de facto segregation and are rarely addressed in conversations about racial justice.
Robin Farmer is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post and elsewhere; she also writes screenplays and short stories and is working on a debut YA novel.