A Catholic Case for Reparations

12063775_880628641625_220248543911893373_nI recently had the honor of giving the Fr. Jerome Kelley Lecture at my alma mater St. Bonaventure University. There I served as the invited guest for SBU’s Francis Week festivities. I took the opportunity to make my first (public) foray into what will be one of my “next projects,” research exploring the entanglement of Catholics, race, and white supremacy in the United States. In this lecture, I blended autobiography and history to make the case that white Catholics bear a particular responsibility to make reparations for racial injustice in America. Watch me make “A Catholic Case for Reparations.”

Race and White Supremacy in the making of “American Catholicism”

My latest for Religion in American History is essentially me extending an invitation to you to join a conversation on the role of race, racism, and white supremacy in the making of this thing we scholars call “American Catholicism.” Check it out below.

It’s October the 31st, so you all know what that means… Just twenty-one days until the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting kicks off in Atlanta! (It also means my daughters will soon be Nemo and Marlin, but that’s a post for Facebook.) As you sit down and start planning out your time in Atlanta I want to call your attention to a roundtable conversation I’m especially excited about. Yes, I’m excited about it because I organized it, but I know it’s something many of you will be interested in as well. I want to invite you to join me and a group of stellar scholars for a roundtable conversation on “Race and White Supremacy in the Construction of American Catholicism” at 9AM on Monday, November 23 (Marriott L-405-406).

What will we be talking about? Well, here’s the short version. On the morning of Monday the 23rd, Emma AndersonShannen Dee WilliamsFelipe HinojosaKristy Nabhan-Warren, and M. Shawn Copeland will join me to think through at least two questions. What would the study of Catholicism look like if it included a sustained consideration of the ways race and white supremacy have shaped the very idea of “American Catholicism”? What consequences would such a consideration have for Catholic studies? Full disclosure: I think it would have far ranging consequences not just for the study of Catholics, but for the study of American religion writ large. Continue reading

Charleston Bound

Over the past year I have had the pleasure and privilege to teach religion and African American studies at Earlham College. Surrounded by passionate students and committed colleagues, I learned more about teaching than I thought possible in such a short time. I feel especially blessed to have been at an institution with justice at the heart of its mission as the #BlackLivesMatter movement rose to the fore. It was without a doubt a deeply transformative year. I cannot thank my students, colleagues, and Friends enough.

Now, as spring moves to summer, I am thrilled to announce that my family and I are embarking on a new adventure. Beginning in August, I will serve as an assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston (South Carolina). In the fall I’ll be teaching courses on African American religions and Black Nationalism – religion in America and conversion in the spring. I am so excited to join all my future students, colleagues, and friends in the Low Country. South Carolina, here we come!

Here’s the department spotlight if you’d like to read more.


“the Religious” and (is?) “the Political,” or, why the Nation of Islam bamboozles my students

My latest on Religion in American History, a pedagogical rumination on failures to communicate and teaching the line between the “religious” and “political,” so-called.

What we usually call “the religious” and “the political” have been practically inseparable in my course on African American religions this semester. After all, how can students think about practices, communities, institutions, and experiences born in no small part of involuntary migration and servitude – born of Atlantic world empire and slavery – without thinking about power, governance, and resistance? I would venture to guess that this is true of many (maybe most) courses on American religions and it carries special weight in African American religious studies. One way I tried to impress this upon my students was through a discussion of Eddie Glaude’s “very short introduction” to African American Religion (Oxford, 2014). In it, Glaude argues that, if the category is to have any usefulness, the study of “African American religion” must be more than simply the study of the ways African Americans happen to be religious. Instead, Glaude draws on J.Z. Smith and others to insist that

“African American religion is the invention of scholars who, with particular aims and purposes, seek to describe, analyze, and theorize the religious practices of African Americans under a particular racial regime [white supremacy in the United States]” (8).

Glaude’s approach, as well as that of my course, thus “assumes that the political and social context in the United States is a necessary though not sufficient condition of any study of something called African American religion” (7). To this end, we have examined and entered into debates about the inseparability of Christianity, slavery, and slave revolt; imaginings of “Africa” and the construction of African American (religious) identity; and black churches as a counter-public sphere, among other topics. All this is to say that, for my students and myself, the realms of “the religious” and “the political” have never been far from each other.

Then we came to the Nation of Islam and these blurred boundaries were built back up in no time. What better example, I had thought, of the impossibility of separating the religious from the political than the Nation of Islam (NOI)? Yet our discussion of Elijah Muhammad and the NOI, along with other “black gods of the Metropolis” as Arthur Huff Fauset termed them, revealed that students were not completely comfortable callinNOI Fruit of Islamg the Black Muslim movement “religious.” What they read about the NOI struck them as more “political” and “cultural” than “spiritual.” What they saw in the images I provided, such as this one of the Fruit of Islam, seemed to militate against (pun intended) their instinctive understanding of “the religious.” When I asked them to categorize “the religious” – to better articulate what they thought the NOI contained less of – the words brainstormed included morals, belief, worship, faith, and, again, spiritual. Once these words were on the board and out in the open, so to speak, students seemed to waver a bit in their initial assessments. The NOI did, of course, include all of these things. Their point had been made, however. The NOI challenged their working definitions of “religion,” particularly with regard to the boundaries between what constitutes “the religious” and what constitutes “the political.” It left them, in short, bamboozled. Continue reading

Free Associate with Me

Here’s my latest post on Religion in American History, where I take you into my first day of class in the History of African American Religious Experiences and we explore the most prevalent images and ideas about “African American religion.”

I currently have the pleasure to be teaching African American religious history for the first time and, as I do with most of my classes, I began the semester with an exercise in free association. Since my objective is always to press my students to think critically – with specificity, sophistication, self-reflection – about “religion,” the exercise serves at least two purposes. It makes all of us in the classroom aware of the working conceptions and definitions of religion (and religions and religious) we carry with us, though most of the time we don’t stop to name them. But it also – and this is what is the most fun for me as a scholar-teacher – provides a preliminary map of some of the most popular and pervasive images and ideas about a particular topic.

What first comes to mind when you hear “African American religion”? The map my students made included “awesome choirs,” Baptist, T.D. Jakes, “instrument of liberation,” music, Christianity, and Martin Luther King. As you can see, the words that sprang to mind tended to have one thing in common: they were, in varying degrees, associated with “the Black Church.” (Though, I’m happy to note that Nation of Islam and “voodoo” did make the list.)

I’m sure this revelation surprises few, if any, of you – those words may be akin to what first came to your mind, or, they may be what you would have expected to hear from most students. They certainly corresponded with the results of a quick Google search (because yes, of course I Googled “African American religion”). My students and I catalogued the images Google produced for this search and quickly noticed the preponderance of Christian churches, choirs in exuberant son, preachers exhorting crowds, and bodies (especially women’s bodies) in motion. Wikipedia ostensibly has two entries on “African American religion.” The entry on “Afro-American religion” will introduce readers to a chart of African diasporic religious traditions in Latin America, the Caribbean, and New Orleans. If you want to learn about the religious life of African-descended peoples in the United States (beyond New Orleans), you’ll have to see “Religion in Black America” instead. There, aside from one use of the word “Catholic” and an odd sentence noting how the Nation of Islam eventually “added a Muslim factor,” what you will find is a history of Black evangelical Christianity.

Now, apart from illustrating why we admonish students not to rely on Wikipedia as their sole source of information, and apart from suggesting a fun digital class assignment to edit the pages themselves, what I found most fascinating about our exercise is that it confirmed what many African American religious studies scholars have been arguing for the past decade or so – what is meant by “African American religion” is usually “African American Christianity” and, more specifically, the collective institution of “the Black Church,” and that this concept is burdened and overdetermined in a number of ways. Continue reading