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A Chosen People

A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History

By Albert J. Raboteau


224 pp.; $23

African Americans and salvation history.

There has never been any lack of focus-however unintelligible or unflattering that focus may have been-on the religious faith, or perhaps more precisely, the religious consciousness or religious nature of the African American. On the one hand, for instance, Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson-two leading black intellectuals-are, in fact, ordained ministers, and their style of reflection owes as much to the black church as it does to any European philosopher. Indeed, it is the fusion of "black" spirituality with "white" intellectualism that gives much of their purely polemical writing its appeal and its urgency, especially with a general black audience. (Even a Marxist-feminist critic like bell hooks knows how to ladle out the syrup of redemptive love as the answer to society's ills, because she knows, in part, that is what her largely female audience-particularly her black female audience-wishes to hear.) Doubtless, it is the distaste that blacks have generally for atheism in relation to any form of their political struggle that explains why the unbelief of such race heroes as W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and A. Philip Randolph, for instance, is never seriously discussed, and why a good many black people still dismiss Richard Wright's Black Boy as a misguided Marxist puncturing of the myth of black family happiness and holistic black southern folk life.

On the other hand, and perhaps even more significantly, since the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, the religious inclination of the African American has been a vital subject in American popular culture. This has led, thanks in no small measure to the curious fate that befell Stowe's novel when it became a stage production both before and after the Civil War, to whites often being amused or entertained by the religious practices and ...

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