The Burden of Black Religion.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Banner-Haley, Charles Pete
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: The Burden of Black Religion (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Evans, Curtis J.
Accession Number: 230778726
Full Text: The Burden of Black Religion. By Curtis J. Evans (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. xi plus 372 pp.).

During the primaries for the 2008 presidential race there was a period of controversy when presidential hopeful Barack H. Obama had to deal with some past statements made by his pastor in Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright. Reverend Wright, operating out of the Black Liberation Theology school of thought that became popular in the late Sixties, condemned America for its racist practices and beliefs. For many African Americans, either during the heady days of the Black Power movement or afterwards in the Post-Integration era of the late twentieth century such sermons were not unusual. But in the oft-times heated presidential primary, and for most white Americans not exposed to the Black Church, the sermons took on a sensational tone that once again laid bare the festering racial tensions in the nation.

To his great credit, Obama used the moment as an educative one and in a brilliant turnaround demonstrated how the anger of African Americans can be soothed through the understanding of their historical experience; a realization that the Black Church has a critical role in addressing the racial problems of the nation; and that, in the end, there is a decided multicultural caste to the American enterprise that must be embraced if the nation is to move forward. Thus one might say that, that in contemporary times, the burden of Black religion must he turned to the reconciliation, the reconstruction, and, ultimately, the redemption of America.

In The Burden of Black Religion, Curtis J, Evans, an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has provided us with an excellent history, and thereby the tools, for understanding how this challenge of Black religion came about .. Moving from the early nineteenth century to the the twentieth century, Evans demonstrates how black religion was perceived and conceptualized in the minds of whites and blacks. Where black religion was initially identified in the "nature of black people," over time with the rise of a black, interpretation and the emergence of the social sciences "the creation and normative description of an entity called "the Negro Church' took, place." (8)

Interestingly, the locus of that black interpretation came from black intellectuals who were not necessarily that close to the roots of a mainly Southern black religious experience but who based their analyses and interpretations in the social sciences of sociology, anthropology, and history. This occurred more, Evans concludes, in the sociological studies by black scholars in the 1940s.

Again some key components here are the complex shifts in how black people were perceived and placed in American society. During slavery, religion was thought to be "natural" to blacks either by white romantic racialists in the North or by Southern divines and slaveholders who believed converting slaves to Christianity would enhance their natural tendency to spirituality. But emancipation brought on a whole new set of circumstances. The fears of whites about the alleged immorality and violent tendencies of blacks among other theories gave rise to a vicious and malevolent white supremacy that sought to oppress and ultimately consign black people to a segregated existence.

Evans is very sharp and on task in explicating these complex changes and he does not miss the importance of the Great Migration in aiding the transformation of black religion into a more urban and modernistic experience from its more rural roots. Likewise, Evans is very attuned to how black religion is intricately tied to black culture.

This is tricky territory as it can easily slide into arguments for racial essentialism on the one hand, while on the other hand a denial of black religion/culture can lead to statements that blacks have no culture or history worth studying. On this latter point, Evans is very good at at dissecting and critiquing Gunnar Myrdal's conclusions about black religion in An American Dilemma.

The Burden of Black Religion is a very rich and rewarding book. Although Evans wants more studies that take us beyond tired and often sterile formulae about race and racial formation, his own book is an excellent start in that new direction. It certainly bears repeated readings and in these times when religion in general has attained the spotlight it can be profitably read for understanding how African Americans have created, expressed, and conducted their religious experience. In the end, one can only hope that America can eventually come to embrace the spiritual multicultural diversity that is embedded within its history, especially that of African Americans.

Charles Pete Banner-Haley

Colgate University
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