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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 rhetoric of blacks. The black minister became in both white and black minstrelsy circles an ambivalent figure of the ethnic stereotype. (The prolix black preacher, the "holy rolling" sister, the hypocritical church deacon still remain stock figures in the repertoire of many black comedians. But blacks find them funny for reasons quite distinct from white amusement.)

To be sure, James Baldwin's essay "Everybody's Protest Novel," the work that put Baldwin on the American literary map, sees Uncle Tom's Cabin as a political interpretation of the African American's religious position in the Euro-American cosmology. For Baldwin, the elaboration of that interpretation, romantically racist and theologically constricted-as the African becomes, by virtue of his skin color, the personification of both damnation and redemption-is the true subject of Stowe's novel. It was that interpretation, Baldwin argues, that gave Stowe's novel its extraordinary power and made it, in truth, inseparable from the pop culture manifestations of the book that appeared for more than 60 years after its publication.

But it could just as persuasively be said, from Baldwin's vantage point, that Stowe's novel offers a religious interpretation of the African American's political position in the Euro-American system. In this case, it is a distinction without a difference. What is crucial for Baldwin is that the African symbolizes a certain horror and encapsulates a certain contempt in the theological preoccupations of the white mind that can only be exorcised through an amusement that aspires to be, and often realizes itself as, a form of admiration. To the white mind, on one level, it hardly matters whether African Americans are naturally Christian (or spiritual), or naturally sensual, as long as their experience as human beings in nature and in civilization can be framed not in any sort of profundity but as pure pathos. The African American unquestionably sees his religious experience, his Christian experience, very differently, but he cannot help being haunted by his knowledge of the way white people have customarily seen his religious experience and evaluated its worth and its meaning.

Albert J. Raboteau's long-awaited new book, A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History, is not quite the black equivalent of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience that I had expected. Such a book is still urgently needed, and Raboteau's brilliant first book, Slave Religion, will have to stand in its stead for now. A Fire in the Bones is surely a good collection of essays (most of them, I would imagine, originating as lectures). In his prologue, "Praying the ABCs: Reflections on Faith in History," Raboteau explains the need for recognizing the particularity of the religious experience of African Americans in the context of a larger understanding of American history. If an awareness of the ways in which American history is shot through with eschatological pretensions is important to understanding the nature of the culture itself, then an awareness of how African Americans affected this salvation narrative of American history is essential.

In part, Raboteau's argument here is couched in standard multicultural terms, invoking the identity politics of inclusion ("history functions as a form of self-definition"). Yet this seems the weakest justification for the extremely important discussion that Raboteau wishes to pursue: that somehow talking about blacks as agents is part of a noble democratic impulse to make a richer and truer America. That may be a fine wish but seems not to be exactly the point. African Americans are an essential component of any consideration of the American salvation myth because their destiny (both theologically and politically considered) will be determined by that myth, not only in their own eyes but in the eyes of whites as well, and this determination, with chiliastic finality, will judge America's worth as well as their own.

The Bell Curve is clearly one type of response to this assumption; Derrick Bell's Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism is distinctly and significantly another. It is the genius of America to hold with equal fervor two entirely contrary ideas about how the meaning of race is tied to the meaning of its national destiny and to be unable entirely to believe either of them.

The great strength of Raboteau's book is his consideration of the black interpretation of America's salvation history. There are solid, informative essays here about Richard Allen (1760-1831), the pioneering leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; about Ethiopianism; about African American Christianity's connection to social and political dissent.

Yet there are important elements missing-subjects a reader cannot help wishing that someone with the literary skill, academic knowledge, and nonpatronizing sensitivity of Raboteau would tackle forthrightly. In his essay on black Catholics, for instance, Raboteau does not discuss George Stallings and his separatist Afro-Catholic movement and how this has affected both black and white Catholics. There is no essay on Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam or Wallace D. Muhammad and his Muslim community, nor on Father Divine or Jesse Jackson or Howard Thurman. (They all are, of course, mentioned in various essays throughout the book.) An essay on black involvement with Promise Keepers or the obsession of so many black religious figures with rescuing black manhood would have been useful and appreciated. In Raboteau's essay on "The Chanted Sermon," there is no discussion about how toasts, rap, and other purely secular black chants may have derived from the chanted sermon or how the chanted sermon may have changed as a result of these forms. Was the black personality disc jockey of the post-World War II era a secular version of the black preacher?

In a strong essay on "The Conversion Experience," Raboteau observes that "conversion was a major social method for initiating adolescents into the community for generations of African Americans. In the process, black children endured the pressure of adult expectation, but they enjoyed the encouragement, guidance, and affirmation of their elders." As Raboteau suggests, the church conversion experience has lost some of its authority in the black community because the passage from childhood to adulthood has become so overwhelmingly secularized and sexualized by a consumer-oriented popular culture. Yet this essay, which ends with a lengthy discussion of conversion in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, makes the reader wish that Raboteau had written an essay on Baldwin himself and his own quarrel, left unresolved, with black Christianity. Such an essay might illuminate the profundity of conversion by examining the problem of the erosion of religious authority in the black community through Baldwin's own life and writings.

Despite these absences and complaints, there are many riches in this book-not the least of them Raboteau's personal reflections on his Catholic boyhood. The epilogue, "A Fire in the Bones," is deeply moving in this regard, perhaps the best piece in the book. The title of this essay comes from the recollections of a former slave, describing the presence of the spirit of God in the "old meeting house" where he and his fellow believers worshiped. For Raboteau, this image of "a fire in the bones" serves as "a metaphor of the distinctive character of African-American Christianity, a mood of joyful sorrow, sorrowful joy, or, more accurately, sorrow merging into joy."

The epilogue interweaves historical analysis of African American Christianity with a series of brief, italicized passages written in a different register: scenes from Raboteau's spiritual autobiography, at once reticent and self-revealing:

I grew up without knowing the full story of my father's death. My mother and my stepfather decided not to tell me until I started college because they did not want me to grow up hating white folks. As a result, I wondered if the story were shameful-otherwise they would have told me. I never knew my father. I had no memories of him-only one blurry picture. I knew only his absence.

Raboteau understands that the centrality of the religious experience is personal; his quest for the absent father becomes his quest for meaning in the light of death, disappointment, and absurdity. He is able, in the end, to tell his own personal salvation story without pandering pathos to his reader, underselling or masking his own intellectualism, or endorsing a triumphalistic faith. That achievement alone makes this book well worth reading.

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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