Coming Soon: Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics

Over the weekend I was feeling buoyed by all of the words of encouragement in response to the announcement of my forthcoming book, Spirit in the Dark, which is now available for pre-order online. I'm even more excited now that the Cover image and Table of Contents are posted on the website of Oxford University Press, along with the blurbs, which are also up on Amazon. The book's official release date is September 1, 2016, with a ship date of August 1st.


I'm pleased to share the blurbs now, with much appreciation and gratitude to four scholars whose work has influenced my own and for whom I have deep admiration and respect:

"Spirit in the Dark is a finely honed compendium of black American writers and the breadth of their religious influences. That black intellectuals and artists were also sometimes dogmatic religious adherents, eclectic spiritualists, and irrepressible agnostics is not an unknown observation, but what these identifications meant for modern black expressive culture has gone mostly unsaid. Until now. A richly historical study, Spirit in the Dark is a valuable resource indeed." --Maurice Wallace, English and Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, University of Virginia (and author of Constructing the Black Masculine)

"An exciting and innovative intervention that deftly melds African American religious and cultural studies." -- Barbara D. Savage, author of Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion

"In this magisterial book, Josef Sorett takes us into those black literary spaces that have heretofore been described as secular and reveals how those who reside therein imagine the beautiful in light of the religious. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement, Sorett pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the workings of the 'spirit' and, in doing so, unsettles our understanding of black religion and literature. This SPIRIT moves in this book. It is a must read!" --Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University (author of, most recently, Democracy in Black)

"Even at their most assertively secular, black expressive arts over the last century have riffed on Afro-Protestant church structures that they in turn attenuate, revise, and sustain. In this venturesome book Josef Sorett traces the 'celebratory ambivalence' that animates and infuses African-American cultural production from the Great Migration to the present. Spirit in the Dark is the best single-volume work I know of on the arts and fictions of Afro-Protestant modernity." --Tracy Fessenden, author of Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature

Faith in a New Black Future (HuffPost)

When it's not being derided as pathological (eg. overly emotional and absent of ethics) or antiquated (eg. hyper-homophobic and anti-women), the black church is just as often taken as the embodiment of a prophetic tradition of Christianity (eg. Martin Luther King, Jr.). Though this might initially seem contradictory, black churches often confound easy categorization, which perhaps fuels a popular fascination all the more. For example, in recent marriage equality contests--and debates about LGBTQ equality, generally--black preachers have figured significantly in the media for their roles on both sides of legislative campaigns. Some might even say that black churches, and the clergy who lead them, have received an undue amount of scrutiny (and celebration), given that African Americans have never comprised more than roughly 10% of the United States population.

Even still, the prophetic is perhaps most commonly understood as a method of critique or community formation that stands in opposition to the powers that be. The prophetic, in short, lives and speaks truth to power. So, to side with the prophetic is to stand in solidarity with, and in service to, "the least of these." We can find much evidence of this kind of prophetic activism in the contemporary movement for black lives. Preachers such as Traci Blackmon, Starsky Wilson and Osagyefou Sekou--who earlier this month was vindicated in the courts after being guilty of "praying while black"--have each marched and spoken powerful and beautiful truths to the powers of a police state that appears able to discard with black bodies with impunity.

To continue reading, go to Faith in a New Black Future

Don’t Read Too Much Into the Numbers (New York Times, "Room for Debate")

We’re seeing one more chapter in a story that began when religious minorities tried to join a shrinking majority. The entree of Judaism into the mainstream of American culture during the 20th century was, at least in part, a process of Protestant-ization. The same held true for Catholics, Mormons and other ethnic and religious outliers, who often remade themselves in the image of a Protestant elite for a chance at the full protections and privileges attached to U.S. citizenship...

To read my essay and the entire debate, go to Room for Debate

Public, Compared to What?

Let’s face it: In our guild, more often than not, the term “public” is akin to a four-letter word. For many, placing the word public in front of intellectual, at best, creates a lesser species, and at worst, invokes an oxymoron. A rather crude academic orthodoxy — we all pick it up in graduate school — is that to go public is to dumb down. One can’t possibly address the public — read: be popular, accessible, etc. — and still be smart (or maintain intellectual integrity), the logic goes. Still, even if such thinking is widely accepted as the norm, socialization into the academy is anything but consistent in this regard...

To Continue Reading, go to the American American of Religion's "In the Public Interest" column.

Do Black Intellectuals Need to Talk About Race? (New York Times, "Room for Debate")

I had the privilege of helping to curate this ensemble of provocative essays for the New York Times' "Room for Debate" webpage. Do Black Intellectuals Need to Talk About Race? Two decades ago, The Atlantic Monthly chronicled the rise of black academics, including Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Patricia Williams, who had vigorously taken on the role of public intellectuals, stirring debate on issues of importance to African-Americans. Today, more African-Americans hold more positions at colleges, not always involving subjects that have particular relevance to black people.

Do these academics still have a special obligation to address the nation’s social and racial issues? Are there particular challenges or opportunities faced by intellectuals who talk to the public about social issues?

To read the lively dialogue, go to Room for Debate.

Generational Shift in Black Christianity Comes to Harvard (New York Times)

This post comes as a congratulatory shout out to my colleague, good friend and brother, Jonathan L. Walton, on the occasion of his installation in Harvard's Memorial Church. What follows is Samuel Freedman's coverage in the New York Times of the broader significance of Jonathan's appointment -- as tenured faculty and minister -- for the landscape of Afro-Protestantism, in particular, and American Christianity, more generally, at this moment in time. Generational Shift in Black Christianity Comes to Harvard By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN Published: November 11, 2012

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — More than 60 autumns ago, a young Atlantan named Martin Luther King Jr. arrived to start graduate school at Boston University. There, he fell under the influence of a theologian, Howard Thurman, who taught him about Gandhian nonviolence. That concept became one of Dr. King’s guiding principles in the civil rights movement.

On a brilliant fall morning this Sunday, a torch of black Christianity was passed to another minister, scholar and son of Atlanta, who was born five years after Dr. King’s death, the Rev. Jonathan L. Walton. In a combined worship service and installation ceremony, Mr. Walton took on the position of Pusey minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard, a pulpit of importance inside and outside the university.

Mr. Walton’s appointment, which also includes an endowed professorship of Christian morals, forms part of a generational transition in the African-American church. Ministers and theologians who came of age during the civil rights era are being supplanted by those, like Mr. Walton, 39, of elite universities, the diversity movement and hip-hop culture. To underscore how much else has changed at Harvard, Mr. Walton was formally given the pulpit Sunday by Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first female president...

To continue reading this story, go to: The New York Times

Nuance in Black Churches’ Approaches (New York Times' "Room for Debate")

Black churches and black people, in general, continue to be portrayed as especially anti-gay, but we should remember that these organizations and individuals are not static. First, in the realm of activism, there is the stubborn idea that race and sexuality are competing or mutually exclusive. And it is certainly true that lobbyists against gay marriage (mostly white and from the right) have tried to reinforce a vision of gay rights and (presumably black) civil rights as inherently at odds with one another. But many black Christians are now having more nuanced conversations about the significance of sexual identity and expression in determining the measure of full citizenship. Some black churches are seeing shared commitments with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists, even as these churches affirm that the African American struggles of the 1960s were unique...

To continue reading this article and the debate to which it contributed, click on the following link to the: New York Times.

New Summer Institute: Religious Worlds of New York

I am excited to be on the faculty of a wonderful new Institute funded by National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which will be held on the campus of Union Theological Seminary in New York City for the first time this coming Summer (July 16-August 3, 2012). Please spread the word to educators you think might be interested - applications for this year's Summer Institute are due on March 1. What follows is an introduction and a link to the project's website.


Explore the Religious Worlds of New York, and the Religious Lives of Your Diverse Neighbors

The religious landscape of the United States has shifted dramatically in recent years, with the arrival of new Americans from every corner of the globe and every faith tradition. If America's K-12 students are to become truly educated, fully engaged citizens of our multicultural democracy, they need to understand this rich religious diversity. The Religious Worlds of New York summer institute will contribute to such understanding by helping public, private, and parochial school teachers teach more effectively about the everyday lives of American religious communities.

The institute is a project of the Interfaith Center of New York and Union Theological Seminary, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In July of 2012, it will bring thirty teachers from throughout the United States to New York City, where they will engage with leading scholars of religious studies and a wide range of local religious leaders. The institute will introduce these teachers to six religious traditions that are part of the fabric of American life. It will help them distinguish between academic and devotional approaches to the study of religion. And it will give them the pedagogic tools they need to teach their students about "lived religion," in addition to the conventional "world religions" curriculum. This website will introduce K-12 teachers to the Religious Worlds institute, and offer them a range of resources to enrich their teaching on American religious diversity.

To apply and/or find out more about the Institute, go to: Religious Worlds of New York

Black Churches and a New Generation of Protest (New York Times, "Room for Debate")

Many argue that activism within black churches has declined (if not disappeared) since the days of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But last month, on his birthday, a group of African American faith leaders called for Americans to “Occupy the Dream” with protests at Federal Reserve banks. If black churches are renewing their tradition of activism in this post-civil rights era, what are the most pressing issues for them to address? To read the debate, go to the New York Times "Room for Debate"

The Spirit of "The Harlem Renaissance" (Frequencies)

When discussing religion, today it is quite common (perhaps cliché) to hear people say, “Well, I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” Even in churches it is not uncommon to hear something along the lines of, “I don’t believe in religion, but I believe in a relationship with God.” A favorite at the church of my youth was, “I’m not religious, but I love the Lord!” Numerous scholars and journalists have directed energies to analyzing this phenomenon. One of the more popular interpretations attributes the emphasis on personal spirituality to novelty in the contemporary historical moment. In this view, younger generations are seen to display an increasing skepticism towards organized religion, even as they embrace an ethic of personal choice in the face of a global cultural marketplace. In contrast, others have persuasively linked this novel neoliberal spiritual impulse to a long tradition of religious liberalism. For instance, Leigh Schmidt has argued that liberalism, more generally, “was always as much a religious vision of emancipated souls as a political theory of individual rights… For religious liberals, unlike their secular cousins, a deepened and diversified spirituality was part of modernity’s promise.”

Alongside of the grand narrative of religious liberalism that has helped to produce the personal vision of spirituality so popular today, there is a vibrant tradition of African American cultural expression that has cultivated a similar concern with spirituality. In the poetry, prose, performances, visual culture and criticism that comprise this history, one can readily observe what might be called a grammar of spirit (i.e. spirit, spiritual, spirituality). That is, black artists and intellectuals—men and women, alike—have persistently engaged in spirit-talk...

To continue reading, go to: Frequencies

The Religious Right, the Religious Left (New York Times, "Room for Debate"

In recent history, the right has dominated public use of religious language, and mostly applied it to social issues, so that only hot-button topics like abortion or same-sex marriage tend to be viewed as clearly decided by religious beliefs. On such issues, Christianity and “conservative” positions often end up conflated. But neither the “pro-life” position nor opposition to gay marriage is the only viewpoint that follows from a Christian perspective. On issues like gay marriage, a Christian perspective could lead voters to conservative or liberal stances.

Christians who believe that the state should be bound to a literal reading of certain biblical passages might vote for a candidate who seems to agree. Yet there are also Christians who, for example, find in the scripture good news of a God who affirms all humanity, regardless of sexual orientation. These Christians might be more inclined to vote for a candidate who has supported legislation that seeks to protect the rights of gay and lesbian citizens. Such diverging positions are apparent on even most polarizing issues, and this holds for religious communities across lines of race and ethnicity. And there are a range of Christian perspectives on issues, including education, military and economic policies.

With the Occupy Wall Street movement looming large, more people are raising concerns about the growing divide between the rich and poor. Christians active in these protests might be taking cues from the biblical tenet that one’s faith is measured by how we treat “the least of these.” In this view, there is a religious responsibility to hold government accountable — on everything from federal budgets to corporate bailouts.

Ultimately, there is no simple or singular formula for applying Christianity such that a clear candidate emerges.

Read the entire conversation at "Room for Debate" on the New York Times website.