(Almost) all about African American religious history, with Julius H. Bailey
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. What do you know about African American Religious history? Julius H. Bailey joins us in this episode to talk about his new introduction to the subject. It’s a book called Down in the Valley. The book operates on a few different levels. Its ground floor is sort of a general history that begins with African traditional religions and moves through slavery and religion, the rise of black churches and other religious movements like Islam, through the Civil Rights movement, and up to the present time. Another level of the book focuses on how that historical story has been told by different people at different times. This episode is about the diverse history of African American religions and the diverse histories of that history.
Send questions and comments to mipodcast.byu.edu and don’t forget to rate and review the show on iTunes or leave some comments on Facebook or YouTube or wherever else you listen to the show. It’s Julius H. Bailey on African American religious traditions on this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
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HODGES: We’re speaking today with Julius H. Bailey. He’s a professor of religious studies at the University of Redlands in California. He joins us via Skype this morning. Welcome to the show.
JULIUS H. BAILEY: Good morning.
AFRICAN AMERICAN RELIGIOUS HISTORY IS MORE THAN CHRISTIANITY
HODGES: I’m excited to talk about your new book Down In the Valley: An Introduction to African American Religious History. When I first hear that phrase, “African American religious history”—when I saw this book, my mind instantly went to Christianity in particular, and I think a lot of listeners are probably thinking the same thing. So I thought we should start off by talking about some of the reasons why that’s the case, and we can obviously consider my own white-middle-class background, but I’d also would like to hear more about people like W. E. B. Du Bois and other scholars, many of them black, who’ve kind of talked about the histories—why people think of African American religious history as Christianity to begin with.
BAILEY: Well, that’s a great question to start with. I guess one important thing to note even at the outset is that Christianity definitely plays an important role in African American religious history. The Black Church has played an important role for instance in strengthening and encouraging people. And as you mentioned. W. E. B. Du Bois and others have talked about the power of African American worship services, observing them during slavery, or in the South, and how powerful it is to have kind of a black preaching style, and the call and response, and the gospel music and it has such a profound impact on American culture. So I definitely want to acknowledge that for sure. And even a few years ago if you were going to take a class in college they might have called it “The Black Church” not even “black churches.” So definitely that’s a central part of African American religious history.
So yeah, part of what the book tries to do is to acknowledge that important history, but also to look at the diversity of African American religious history, because it is very diverse. It’s not only Christianity. Islam has played an important role, there have been a number of black new religious movements that have emerged in America. And the African history and religious traditions have played an important role in influencing traditions like voodoo and Santeria and those kind of traditions as well. And so part of it, too, is one reason I called it “African American religious history” is to broaden that out a little bit; to go, that it’s not just black church history, although that’s a part of the book for sure, but to also think about the diversity of African American religious history and the variety of traditions that make that up.
A DECLENSION NARRATIVE
HODGES: You start the book off with W. E. B. Du Bois and his research on African American worship services. Introduce people to him a little bit and what he was after.
BAILEY: Yeah, well W. E. B. Du Bois—clearly a profound thinker and Harvard scholar and one of the first to really take seriously African American religious traditions. And so for him, it was—and I was always struck by his observations of when he saw this sort religious service in the backwoods, and he talked about the frenzy that took place, and the call and response that he saw and he was like, “what is this thing that I’ve seen?” He was trying to wrap his mind around it. And he tried to get at that dynamic of “what is different about African American religious history, African American religious services?”
And so for him it was probably going back to that sort of early Southern roots, drawing back to Africa in some cases, but there’s something about being nurtured in the South and the oppression of slavery that produces a particular kind of religious expression that African Americans express through spirituals, and the sort of emotion and movement of the services. And so part of his challenge was trying to figure out “well, what is this all about?” And to try to study what’s distinctive about African American religious traditions from other traditions by European, American, or other traditions in America.
HODGES: One of the things that you call attention to through his studies also is this idea of American religious history being framed in terms of “declension,” is the term that you used. Talk about that a little bit.
BAILEY: Yeah, I think Du Bois does it as well, I guess. There’s this sort of tendency of always pointing back towards a glorious age, as sort of something previously that happened. So for Du Bois, coming from a North Eastern American context, he looks back at the South as like, “oh wow, this is the moment where there was authentic worship, and it’s not as professional and measured as something like the Fisk Jubilee Singers,”—the Opera troop that travels around the country. And so he’s like, “well, there’s that, but there’s something authentic about this Southern experience, and oppression, this sort of untouched moment in the backwoods, in the Southern territories in America, that are sort of the authentic black culture.” And then for others they go, “oh no, it was in Africa where there’s this authentic African religious tradition and it declines over time the further you get away from Africa, and as more and more generations are born in America and further away from that African traditions,” some have said, “well, that’s less authentic.”
And so there’s this constant moving of the dynamic. I use the Puritans as an example as well. They had a similar thing. Each generation sort of felt like the world was getting worse, that the previous generation was more authentic or more devoted or more faithful to their tradition. And so you see that in Puritan culture as well—the second-generation trying to live up the first generation of John Winthrop and the others. And I saw a similar dynamic in African American religion—and among the scholars as well—there’s always sort of pointing backwards, that African American religion is not necessarily getting better, right? It’s always “the past as a glorious age,” and as for African American religion we sort of see that tendency in American religious history as well, that things are always better in the past, that’s their gold standard.
STUDYING RACE AND ETHNICITY IN THE ACADEMY
HODGES: I thought that was a really important part of the book, talking about how these studies of African American religious history are really representative of these wider studies that you talked about—the Puritans with sort of this look toward the nostalgic past. I really liked that a lot. And in talking about that, also, the idea of boundaries in general comes up. There’s a condescending question that will come up sometimes where people will say, you know, “a study in African American religious history? Well, where’s the Caucasian American religious history?” sort of thing. Do you encounter that at all? And if you do, how do you usually respond?
BAILEY: Yeah, for sure. There’s definitely that dynamic of “well, why there is even a need for African American religion?” or “what do we do with religious traditions that have a racial or ethnic marker at the beginning of their tradition?” So African American religion, Native American traditions you might hear about, but as you mentioned, people don’t let’s say talk about Caucasian religion or “white religion” or “the white church tradition” or something. And so, one answer is that, generally speaking in terms of studies of American religious history, many white churches or other traditions are seen as the mainstream. They’re sort of normalized so that “normal” Christian religion is white mainstream, you know, Baptist, Methodist stuff, and everything else is sort of on the margin or has to make a case for being included in that narrative.
And so I think in that way there is a sort of privilege that comes with being able to just talk about “mainstream Evangelical tradition in America,” and it’s sort of understood that that means white mainstream traditions in America. And so for me, part of it is trying to wrestle with that question as to why—why do certain traditions have that sort of racial or ethic marker, or what do I mean by “African American religious traditions,” who constitutes African American? What do I mean by that?
And so, traditionally that’s been traditions of people of African descent, that emerge from primarily African American religious traditions like the black Baptist church tradition or the black AME [African Methodist Episcopal]. And so part of what I do is say, if you’re talking about African American religious history, maybe we should also include members of traditions that aren’t necessarily primarily majority African Americans. So what about African Americans who stayed as Presbyterians or identified as Roman Catholic? Why would they be less a part of that African American religious narrative than groups that emerge from within the tradition?
DIVERSITY WITHIN AFRICAN AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY
HODGES: This is a powerful part of the book—the idea that really explodes the stereotypes about there being a singular black religious experience. What kind of factors contributed to that assumption that there was this “The black church,” “The black religious experience” and how did you hope to address them in such a short overview?
BAILEY: Sure and it’s really a difficult question. Because oftentimes I’ll have students as part of my classes who will go to an African American church to experience it firsthand. And even today, just like with Du Bois, it’s—Again not all African American traditions, right? There’s lots of variety and some are more sort of cerebral or more conservative in their approach to worship, others more emotional or more static in their worship, so there’s definitely diversity. But there is something striking, that if you went to, generally speaking, a tradition of a different ethnic group and then went to an African American service, you would say, “wow, there’s something really distinctive about it.” And so there’s something like “I want to put my fingers and wrap my mind around what’s distinctive about it!” But how do you do that without necessarily, you know, evoking a bunch of stereotypes like I almost just did? Like how do you talk about a black preaching style that’s distinctive without then setting up a kind of normalized black style that then if an African American preacher doesn’t perform that way then somehow they’re less African American, or less at the core of that authentic tradition, however it’s framed.
And so yeah, it’s a really, a really difficult dynamic. And so what I try to do is try to walk that line between talking about, “yes, generally speaking, there is some general characteristics that many, if not most African American churches will likely exhibit if you went there today and how they change over time historically.” But to also somehow acknowledge that diversity and say, “wait a minute, but they’re not all that way.” And so what do we do with that, with these traditions that don’t fit those particular traditions. It seems unfair. It seems like historically many studies will sort of exclude them from the narrative, or just sort of talk about how they’re, you know, really conservative or somehow not…Like the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church gets this a lot. They’re conservative politically and they’ve kept the term “colored,” and so they’re sort of—and many people at the time in the nineteenth century call them the bootlick organization, or “you’re just a sellout” or Uncle Toms. And to me, I think that’s such a problematic way to talk about difference and we can’t replicate that in our scholarship. I think we have to continue trying to find the language to acknowledge both the general characteristics that many churches hold, while also saying, “wow, what do we do with this diversity?” And there’s a way to talk about “yeah, they’re just as much a part of the tradition. They’re not less African American because they’re conservative in their approach.”
STUDYING THE HISTORY OF THE HISTORIES
HODGES: And we’ll see that kind of play out throughout the book. I think there’s kind of a subplot to the book. Because it’s an introduction to African American religious history, I also detected an undercurrent of addressing religious studies in general and how different scholars will tell different stories based on different questions they ask, based on different assumptions that they bring. I think you do a good job of reviewing the literature from the past on research on the African American religious history. I really liked how you brought that in. So the book serves to introduce people to African American religious history, but also to different perspectives, I think, within religious studies to call attention to the fact that religious studies is a conversation and not a declaration.
BAILEY: For sure and that’s part of—and again, I don’t want to say that my book is the comprehensive, you know, the final study—
HODGES: —No, it’s the one, man. Go for it! [laughs]
BAILEY: [laughs] But it is like you said, it’s to find a way to try to pull all these threads together, at least to raise the questions that you mentioned earlier, we wouldn’t talk about a white church, but we feel comfortable talking about a black church as a category, even though there’s all this diversity. And so part of it is to talk to about the ways the scholars talk about “why is Christianity the main narrative when there’s clearly,” you know—current research talks about how important Islam was to many slaves, and they found that just as empowering. Or how do we deal with these narratives that have these very interesting creation stories, that some would call these “myths” that are created, that talk about the glorious African past without necessarily having a lot of the historical data to back it up. How do we talk about myth, or slave religion, and the sort of ways things change over time?
We find ways to acknowledge that diversity, and to raise the questions. So I think the book tries to raise more questions maybe than it answers. But it’s talking about “why do we assume that slaves have this particular dynamic” or “why is the narrative of Christianity such a strong pull? Why have scholars found that to be a satisfactory narrative?” And so part of me is raising these questions. What do we do with groups that don’t fit that model, or groups that choose not to move to independent African American churches in nineteenth century but choose to stay in the predominantly white Methodist church? What do we do with those experiences? And I think those should be just as much a part of the narrative as well.
THE MIDDLE PASSAGE
HODGES: That’s Julius H. Bailey. We’re talking about his new book Down In the Valley: An Introduction to African American Religious History.
I wanted to go now to the Middle Passage. For those who aren’t familiar with the terminology, this will take us to a point in history, kind of a big turning point that sets the stage for African American religious history. So take a moment for people who aren’t familiar with the terminology here to talk about what the Middle Passage is.
BAILEY: Well the Middle Passage is a term that scholars have coined to talk about the ship voyage from the enslavement of Africans, primarily in the West coast of Africa, and that Middle Passage on the ship that could take, depending on the destination, between three and six months in some cases to arrive either at South America or North America, wherever the final point of debarkation was. And it is that moment. And so for many scholars there’s this question of what impact did this voyage have. Because you have people ripped from their culture, packed tightly into the ships—chained, you know, side-by-side, having very little to eat, very little water to drink, you know, abuse in some cases, people who died just being thrown overboard, and so sickness—all this sort of terrible experience, horrific experiences on the ship voyage.
And so part of what many scholars have wrestled with is “well, how do we think about this experience?” And so for some—one famous scholar, E. Franklin Frazier, a sociologist, really made the case that this voyage was so traumatic that it basically caused African Americans to lose all of their culture in Africa. That it was such traumatic experience that when they arrived in America they were basically a blank slate. That they didn’t have much of African culture then. And so when you think about African American religious history or the formation of African religious culture, that people then built it from the context of oppression in America.
So this story of African American religious history really starts on the shores of the early colonies, while someone like Melville J. Herskovits, another scholar, an anthropologist, makes an argument that, “No, in fact, while the Middle Passage was traumatic and a horrific experience, out of the trauma Africans would have held even more tightly to their culture. So to think about African American religious history is really a story about the transformation of primarily West African religious culture. So for Herskotvits you could see preaching styles or the way the people spoke in Africa, and see those same kind of motions in black preaching styles. Or the dances of many West African religious traditions, you could see that in African American religious traditions in America. While E. Franklin Frazier again, he maintained the idea that while it might look similar, that it’s really more about the way that African Americans created something in America, and it wouldn’t necessarily go back to an African culture that things originated from.
HOW HISTORIANS EVALUATE SOURCES ABOUT THE DURABILITY OF AFRICAN CULTURE
HODGES: Herskovits and Frazier kind of set up a dynamic that would be debated for a really long time. This idea of—was it just completely built from the ground up because of this complete break with the past? Was it something that was transformed? What survived? How to tell?
What kind of sources are historians working with as they debate these types of questions?
BAILEY: Sure. I guess even the question of what sources count is—there’s sort of this typical ongoing debate. So for someone like Herskovits, he almost had like a feel for things. He’d go, “well, you know, wow! I don’t really have…I can’t track that, yes, this culture from West Africa came to South Carolina and performed this particular dance.” But when he saw the ring shout and the way that people moved he goes, “wow, that’s reminiscent of cultures like Yoruba in Africa. It looks so similar that there must be some connection.” So for Herskovits, it was almost an observational kind of thing, that he could look across cultures and see that there’s a connection even if you couldn’t necessarily substantiate clear historical records linking those.
While someone like Frazier and others, their question is really more about—and now they have this great slave trade databases where they document this slave voyages—and so for others it’s like, “well, no, if you want to make an assertion about South Carolina, you need to find the way the ship traveled and then track the way those slaves were then sold, you know, go through all the slave records, locate them in a particular city in South Carolina, and then you could talk about a comparative dynamic between what survived in South Carolina and what came from something like Nigeria or something, so that it would be much more concrete.
And so even what counts as sources, or what’s persuasive, is even part of the debate. And probably not surprisingly depending on where you fall, the records tend to shake out the way that you…that’s up to your presumptions. So Herskovits, yeah, for sure is much more open minded when it comes to the retention of African culture.
HODGES: It’s funny because in a way I’m more drawn to Herskovits in the sort of conclusions he’s reaching. But also looking at Frazier’s more analytical approach, it seems more disciplined and so I’m seeing that as a better practice. I’m saying like, “I like this guy’s conclusions, but I like this guy’s methods a little bit more…” [laughs]
AFRICAN AND AMERICAN IDENTITIES CHALLENGE THE NARRATIVE OF AMERICA AS LAND OF THE FREE
HODGES: The story that a lot of Americans grow up with we’re already confronting here. It’s this: America was founded as a nation where freedom of religion, alongside other things, would be championed. And this is an especially acute area where African American religious history complicates that simplistic narrative. On the one hand, we have eighteenth century Great Awakening stories with instances of interracial harmony, black people worshiping alongside white people and vice versa, and on the other hand, we have the obvious issue of slavery. So how do you approach these tensions in the book?
BAILEY: Yeah, there’s definitely that tension, as you mentioned, the narrative of—and many books on American religious history, sort of “the canon,” will talk about freedom as being this key dynamic in understanding religion in America. And the Great Awakening is seen as a time when that sort of “freedom” comes from religious worship and from a more expressive emphasis on heart and emotion, versus head knowledge and long theological training or something—some have argued that it’s the freedom of the Great Awakening that actually leads to that notion of freedom that leads to the push for independence, and those sorts of issues.
And so part of the challenge of African American religion is, where does that fit in the narrative? Because what does freedom mean for people who come to America not voluntarily but, you know, in chains? And they come to America and they’re oppressed and they’re enslaved and treated as property. And so how do we think about this theme of freedom? And so really, in many ways African American religions really challenge that. So even as African Americans are currently in Christianity, many white Christian traditions have to wrestle with this question of “what does that mean if I baptize my slave, and do they become free like us? What does that mean?” What does religious freedom mean in a context where people don’t have actual lived freedom and social and economic freedom in America?
And so you track these laws in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and it’s just so striking as many states like Virginia begin to make a distinction between religious freedom and civic freedom, so that they’ve passed these laws that say, “yes, you’re baptized and you’re religiously free and it’s going to be great, but that religious baptism doesn’t have any impact on your day to day life. You’re still a slave.” And so as you see people like Frederick Douglass will make a distinction between slave holding and Christianity and what he calls true Christianity, because there’s this seeming hypocrisy that slaves see of a master that beats them six days a week, who attends church and they’re seen as these great people. And so part of it is this sort of wrestling with things.
I think many cases of African American religious history are African Americans trying to advance their own agency and trying to assert a kind of freedom, and sort of pushing America, calling America—that Martin Luther King Jr. would do many years later—of calling them to account on these questions of freedom, like “you say it’s a free country but what does that mean?” Or “you say that Christianity is a religion of empowerment and freedom and to be empowered in Christ, but then what does that mean if that’s not going to have any impact on your day to day life?” You still have to work for the master. You’re still not being able to work for your own wellbeing and your own happiness.
And so I think that we then sort of see that playing out over time with Reconstruction and calls to go back to Africa, just sort of calling America to account. In that period after the Civil War there is that moment again where African Americans are saying “wow, we’re going to have this freedom that people have asked us…the Emancipation Proclamation. We’re going to have this freedom and America is going to live up to it to dream!” Reconstruction ends, all this sort of violence in the South, and African Americans again are discouraged and trying to figure out what’s going on. And again we see that sort of rise of “Back to Africa” movements, where they would maybe need to leave the country in order to live up to that freedom.
And so you start to see this recurrent pattern in African American religious history, of African Americans asserting a kind of freedom, in some cases getting some advances, but then when those doors get shut, trying to figure out what’s next. We see that sort of recurrent dynamic over and over throughout African American religious history.
HODGES: And it really plays out in identity. You talk frequently about this relationship between the African identity and the American identity, and that for a long time scholars have tried to, or have understood these sort of opposing forces. But you propose a different way to approach it—the idea of “hybrid.” So on the one hand we have African American religious studies that’s looking for African retentions. “What can we identify in African American religious worship that looks like something that came over through the Middle Passage?” Then there are studies that look at the evolution. “Okay, how did it change through time?” You propose looking at a hybridization process.
BAILEY: Yeah, and again it’s an attempt to sort of think about…Because there’s this tendency to, as you mentioned, to work in binaries when it comes to African American religious history. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case. And so it’s often the case that you think about slave religion; it’s either Nat Turner, the rebellious slave who takes up arms against the oppressive white infrastructure, or there’s the Uncle Tom who’s just happy about the way things are going, or there’s the field slave, or there’s the house slave, or there’s Booker T. Washington being more conservative and W. E. B. Du Bois asserting a more forceful call for Civil Rights.
And so there’s this sort of tendency to do the binary. And part of what I try to think of with this sort of hybridization approach is, again, trying to think about the complexities of culture and identity. That maybe people aren’t static entities. It’s not like Martin Luther King Jr. held the same position his entire life, or Malcolm X was unchanging. Like people are like people today. We are complex and our thoughts change over time and we don’t necessarily hold to exact positions as we mature, or grow, or encounter different ideas that challenge what we previously thought.
And so part of what I thought about as this hybridization model is to think about, well maybe there’s a way to think about this differently than as being African-or-European, or even W. E. B. Du Bois’ idea of a “double consciousness,” sort of that struggle between the American and African sides. Instead, to think about it as “well, maybe there’s just almost like this range that people draw on different cultural elements depending on the situation, that they change over time.”
I’m thinking about how sometimes people will contrast Martin Luther King Jr. with Malcolm X, and Malcolm X is radical and Martin Luther King Jr. has a sort of more conservative approach. But if you track their careers you can almost make an argument toward the end of their lives that Malcolm X was more conservative in terms of approach and the sort of Muslim organization that he founded, versus Martin Luther King Jr. advocating for the poor people’s movement and advocating for all these things beyond just racial Civil Rights, as well.
And so part of what I do is say, “if we can move out of the binaries, maybe there’s other kinds of questions that would emerge, if people didn’t fit so clearly and neatly into each of these boxes, if we make the boundaries of those boxes a little fuzzier, that maybe there is a sort of a greater complexity, or better underlying questions that might emerge in our study of African American religious history.
WEST AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGIONS
HODGES: And again, that just speaks to the strength of an introductory book like this, because not only does it complicate people’s simplistic views of American history but it also complicates histories of African American religious history more specifically as well. And you talked about some of the contrasting figures that are often focused on and we will talk a little bit more about that as we go.
Let’s talk West Africa tradition religion. This is your opening chapter, it gives us an overview of some of the religions that came through the Middle Passage and that weren’t completely over-ridden or sort of taken in by Christianity. Here’s a quote from you; you say, “African religions were transported to the Americas in the hearts and minds of captured slaves despite harsh conditions and often stringent laws designed to strip away cultural and religious connection to their homeland.” What are few examples of religion that was brought over?
BAILEY: Yeah, there’s a number of West African traditions and I think that’s…Again, one of the challenges…again I want to first acknowledge the diversity of West African tradition and don’t want to suggest that there’s one way of approaching them. You know we’re looking at this huge area of West Africa and using that as context, and even at the local level, and there’s just so much diversity. But many of the traditions that come through, such as the Yoruba, have certain markers that are characteristic of many of the traditions. Maybe not all West African religious traditions. But most of them have, like in the Yoruba tradition, they have a high God, or they’ll have divinities that have specific areas of influence that they’re focused on, or spirit, sort of, lesser divinities that are below the high god who might be the central figure. The central figure is often responsible for the creation of the earth and other elements of nature; a medicine person, drums, rituals—music being really important. These are some of the markers that many West African traditions hold. And so I guess as you can see in the chapter that I sort of lean Herskovits, right, because I do say that it comes in the hearts and minds of individuals.
And again, it’s difficult because many of the times we’re trying to observe early slave culture, since African’s can’t record what happened in their own journals, often times what historians are looking at are, what white observers said about what this person likely came from. I think some of the more interesting sources are bills of sale. Or people apparently would have a call for, in some cases, people with certain African religious traditions would have I guess skills in certain agricultural products, or they were believed to be good housekeepers. Again very stereotypical stuff. People would have these bills of sale that we talked about “this Mandingo from this particular location.” And so part of what that does is it at least gives us an idea that, yes, there are people of the Mandingo culture in these particular areas of the south.
So I again, it’d maybe not get us to the place where Frazier would want to have, with exact mapping routes. But it does at least give us a sense that there are these West African traditions, and people apparently are still self-identifying with whatever ethnic group that they came from Africa from. And so we have at least a starting point to talk about, “yeah, well there might be definitely this diversity within the traditions,” but it does seem like many of these West African traditions were still apparently practiced by many of the slaves who came and were imported to America in the seventeenth century.
EFFORTS TO CONTROL SLAVE RELIGION IN AMERICA
HODGES: What kinds of measures were taken to suppress that religion, and did people openly say “We’ve got to squelch this culture out of existence here”?
BAILEY: Yeah and there are different approaches, but in many cases there was this—and again, scholars debate and go back and forth—but on the one hand, some have argued for what they call the seasoning process, when they arrived in America, that many people in the early colonies actually actively tried to move a Mandingo away from a Wolof, or something. So actively trying to separate people from their culture so they wouldn’t have that ability to communicate in order to bring about the sort of rebellions that would take place, because they were able to communicate and identify an African solidarity. So some have argued that many in the south actually played up ethnic identity to try to keep Africans from uniting and trying to overthrow the whole system of slavery. So there’s that one…
HODGES: I mean how would the slaveholders even know, to recognize a religious practice of a traditional African religion?
BAILEY: Yeah. That’s a great point. So I guess in terms of legislation—so laws against reading, for sure, laws against African Americans meeting in larger groups than five after sunset, right? Very monitored kind of things. Which again, is pretty striking because on the one hand you have this narrative of “these Africans are property; they’re not really people; they’re inferior.” But on the other hand you’re making all of these restrictions, because it seems like if you really think these folks are inferior you’ll be like, “try to teach them all day to read, they won’t be able to read.” But it seems like even in this early period there’s this sort of really conflicted reading or conflicted narrative of saying “yes, these folks are property and they are inferior. But we also have to restrict what they do,” almost as if there is a way that religion can almost sort of see the power of religion. That if you let a bunch of Africans meet together and really start praying or doing their traditional practices, that that’s gonna be empowering thing. So it seems like it’s almost an awareness that we have to limit their religious stuff, even though they’re sort of using this narrative of property, and so that’s what’s really striking.
In Al Raboteau book on slave religion, The Invisible Institution, he makes this argument that Africans actually “stole away,” and had this secret practice that they focused on in their tradition. And so they really worked to have their religion thrive and be empowered by it because the masters themselves gave them this narrative of “slaves be obedient to your masters.” So all the narratives that they received, particularly in the Christian context, was to religion as kind of a means of control and to obey your master. So there’s this whole other practice of slaves risking their lives in hush harbors or out in the woods, to practice their own tradition in the way that they saw fit, and in many cases melding Christianity to that religion as well, for empowerment so that there’s these two things, the public nature of African religion and this sort of private narrative, trying to get at “what does it mean that these private worship services took place?”.
CHRISTIANIZING SLAVES AND SLAVES REFASHIONING CHRISTIANITY
HODGES: It’s such a fascinating part of the book—and tragic. It’s just so…so interesting to read these stories. Here you have slave masters and people that are putting these restrictions on slaves—they can’t be taught to read, they can’t gather together and this sort of thing. But we’re also going to try to Christianize them, we’re also going to evangelize them. And some people would use that as a justification for slavery to begin with, like “Ah, we’re doing them a favor, we’re bringing them into this true faith.” Other people understood Christianity as a way to just mollify and pacify people who would otherwise want to rebel or escape. And so you also point out how demographics ended up playing a huge role in this story because of these dynamics. Puritan New England had an African population of about three percent. South Carolina by 1750 was over sixty percent African. In the face of these types of dynamics—you have some populations where you have more than half the populations as African. How did demographics play into the Christianizing of slaves?
BAILEY: Sure, that’s part of my narrative of this diversity, and as you mentioned, for African American religious history geography matters, demographics matter. So in a place like Puritan New England where, like you mentioned, there’s a very small—three percent of the population in the mid-eighteenth century was African American. And being such a small population, you don’t have the same kind of issues. There are issues like, “where will my slave be buried,” right? And so this question like, “where should my slave be buried, should we have a separate black cemetery? Will, you know, Africans be in heaven with me?” Those kind of issues. And in South Carolina where it’s almost sixty percent African Americans you have a whole different dynamic where you have these large populations of African Americans, really difficult to supervise, and it’s there that you see a number of rebellions that take place. Well Virginia was about forty percent I believe, that’s where Nat Turner’s rebellion took place, and Gabriel Prosser. And then in South Carolina there were a number of rebellions as well.
And so to this question about the retention of African culture, when you have these large populations that extend, you see much more—in the islands of South Carolina—a lot stronger retention of language and particular rituals from West Africa that you can see there. And so there’s the anxiety of whites in South Carolina with sixty percent, so presumably being outnumbered, that in any moment these folks could gather together and they really could overthrow things. And so you see that anxiety and these debates about, “well, what impact is Christianity gonna to have? If we Christianize the slaves will that actually more likely to rebel because they’ll see this religious freedom? Or if we give them a message of ‘slaves be obedient to your master,’ will that actually make slaves more controllable? Does religion make people docile?” And you see these kind of arguments amongst different missionaries, amongst different Christian groups is, what impact would Christianity have, and you even see that as African Americans begin to form their own churches in the nineteenth century. The AME church, AME Zion, black Baptist churches, all these churches being formed, there’s again this sort of ongoing question, about, “well, we don’t really want them in our churches a whole bunch, but if we leave them unsupervised then what’s going to happen in those churches?” So you see this really difficult tension about “what impact is religion going to have on this African population” and for many African Americans they are clearly seeing it as a way to empower themselves. And one of the really striking parts of history, of being able to see through what they saw as hypocrisy of a master who treated them very poorly, beat them, were very vicious, but saw themselves as good Christians—to be able to see beyond that message to go “well, there’s a whole another message of Jesus as the second Moses that’s gonna rescue us from our oppression,” or “Jesus as this sympathetic friend or close brother who knows what you’re going through because he rescued the Israelites; he knows that he’s gonna rescue us as well from slavery.” So the power of being able to take that theology that was meant to oppress African Americans, and for them to turn that into something that actually empowered them, is for me one of the MOST remarkable points in history, so TO see that reworking of that dynamic, to me it’s just amazing.
HODGES: Yeah, this is where we see spirituals, music, coming into play, where the images that are used in the songs that slave sang stand in marked contrast to the sort of religious images that some white Christians would draw on. Where there would be a focus in some white Christian denominations on repentance and salvation through Christ, and these spiritual songs are about “stealing away,” about being made free, about these types of ideas. It’s very interesting—different types of Christianity that grow out of these markedly different circumstances.
BAILEY: Sure. And again, so much variety. You have African American Episcopal Church, that could be a little bit more formal, you have Black Baptist traditions—a little bit more expressive. Or the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church—a little bit more conservative in their polity, they don’t necessarily wanna get involved in politics and those kinds of issues. So much diversity, and again, how do we sort of read those narratives?
And even spirituals is a really complicated dynamic. You mentioned the song “steal away,” right, and all these narratives. And so, as people have noted and in the book I go through all these double meanings or multiple meanings that these songs have. So on one hand you might watch African Americans singing and go “Wow! They’re so content, they’re so happy, they’re singing about the stealing away or about the afterlife,” but on the other hand they have this other message about stealing away, “we’re gonna steal away to the North” and “we’re running away tonight to leave the master,” right? So you have this really subversive message as well. So how do we read this sort of public/private dynamic, and how do we look at these really complicated spirituals and complicated musical devices that are functioning on all these different levels.
THE RISE AND DIVISIONS OF BLACK DENOMINATIONS
HODGES: And then you start to see denominations actually dividing, splitting. Talk a little bit about that, as more and more blacks were becoming Christian, some would become preachers, there were questions about the propriety of that, and those sort of things. So all these questions are cropping up that cause some denominations to split.
BAILEY: For sure, and early on there’s the black Baptist churches that emerge in the late eighteenth century and the African American Episcopal church emerges in 1816. And there’s that dramatic—I talk about in the book as well—that dramatic moment when African Americans are in this white Methodist Episcopal church in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century, and in the section they used to sit in there’s construction going on, so they can’t sit there, and they keep getting moved to these different locations, until finally prayer starts, so they just kneel down in the white section just to pray because the prayer is started, and all these ushers come and pull the African Americans off their knees, saying “you can’t kneel here, you gotta go, you can’t be in this section with the white congregants.” And Richard Allen and others have that famous statement of just saying, “Let us finish praying and then we’ll leave the church and you won’t be bothered with us again.” And so that powerful moment of just saying there’s just a point where you just can’t—you want to worship the way you want to worship, that sort of frustration when racial dynamics are impacting your spiritual life and your existence in church, and how your life is there. And there’s just a point where many African Americans go, “we just have to find a place. This is too important to just be segregated in these churches, we need to have our own place, we need to have our own preachers, we need to have our own churches our own sort of dynamic so we can worship in the way that we want to.” And so you see that emerging over and over, with the AME church in 1816, a few years later the AME Zion church emerges, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, right? All these different churches emerging out of that.
And again the narrative is in many cases of this independent black church movement, which again is really important. African Americans asserting a kind of agency and wanting to worship in the way they want worship. But again, it’s like “well what we do with those groups that don’t say, what about those African Americans that go “No, actually I’m empowered by remaining in this predominantly white church.” What do we do with those? And oftentimes they’re sort of excluded from the narrative, right? It’s more about this sort of independence—it’s a powerful narrative, but part of what I want to do is go: What about African Americans who were powered by Roman Catholic churches? or by Presbyterian, or who stay in these churches? And part of what I do in the book is to try to diversify that narratives, to definitely acknowledge this important moment historically where African Americans are asserting an independence. But is there also a kind of power in staying in the churches that you’re in? Or how do we address those particular narratives as well?
WOMEN IN AFRICAN AMERICAN CHURCHES
HODGES: The place of women also comes up these conversations too, and I think it’s easy to project back…It’s easy to look at some of these early figures as being “progressive” in the way that people think of progressivism today. So if a church wants to be sort of more open to a diverse array of voices, then we would expect that they would look the same. But the place of women in some of these churches remained traditional in the sense of questions about whether women should be preaching, or be ordained, or these types of things.
BAILEY: Yes, it’s really striking because you might think: historically, because African American men had just experienced being—and African American woman as well—being segregated in churches, not being able to preach. In some cases, white ministers wouldn’t pick up African American babies to baptize them, or African Americans having to wait till all the white congregants took communion so they can take communion. All these really difficult dynamics, and so you might expect that when African Americans form their own black churches, right— AME churches, “we finally to have a voice,” they’re gonna set things up—then African American men took the leadership roles. If you compare the official doctrines and statements of the different traditions, the AME church doctrine is pretty close to the ME church. I mean they change like whether choirs can wear robes and some other minor changes. But no changes to that patriarchal narrative of men being in front and “women should be in the home,” or “women should teach children,” and all these traditions—it’s pretty striking—initially when the churches are formed out of a movement there is some more flexibility, so you have these accounts of black woman preaching, and coming to revivals, and having these sort of greater roles. But when African Methodist Episcopal Church, and others, black Baptist churches as well, began to put in their official doctrine they begin to replicate that patriarchal structure.
Which again is—maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising, but to me it’s pretty surprising, that you would think that African American men had just experienced not being able to preach, had experienced the pain of being not able to practice what they felt God was calling them to do, that they would have a little bit more open structure for women. But in many cases it was pretty much the same. That African American woman, they were allowed to take a doctrine, so they can get up and speak briefly, but they couldn’t be preachers, they couldn’t be pastors and hold their own congregations, in missionary work they had the accompanied by their husbands if they had one, so black women couldn’t do missionary work. And so in some cases, like Amanda Smith—she wanted to do missionary work, she wasn’t married, she actually went to white churches and they allowed her to do the missionary work that she wanted to do. So it’s a really striking dynamic. I think you might expect historically that African Americans would be more open to gender stuff, but even African American men who has just experienced oppression a few years earlier—at least a restriction in their ways that they could practice their religious tradition—they basically replicate that same kind of, framing women’s roles in a very narrow way in their traditions as well.
BACK TO AFRICA MOVEMENTS
HODGES: And we also kind of see African American missionaries doing “Back to Africa,” this is sort of some movement that begins in this direction. What’s a little bit of the story there?
BAILEY: I mentioned a little bit earlier that when things are sort of harsh in America, this sort of political climate that doesn’t seem very welcoming African Americans, there are this sort of return movements that occur. And again, lots of diversity, so there are those like Paul Cuffee who wanted to return to Africa. Others that want to set up a kind of trade route between parts of American and Africa to try to establish a kind of black owned economic foundation based on a kind of trade relationships between Africa and America, and others who want to go particularly to do missionary work, to see themselves as sort of called, that God wants them to go to Africa to provide missionary work to Africans. You have all of these different dynamics going on, these different moments—even the American Colonization Society in the early nineteenth century out of the US government had this plan to get rid of what they call the quote “negro problem” is like, “let’s just send all these Africans back,” like they’re the problem. And so once that happens African Americans, at least in many cases, say “Wait a minute, we’re not going anywhere, if you’re trying to get rid of us then we want to stay.”
So we have this really complicated dynamic between African Americans in Africa, and even with missionaries going back, this idea that—as with your earlier question about the Middle Passage—many African Americans are trying to figure out, “well, why would a just God have allowed slavery?” And so many would have all these different answers to that question. But one is that, “you brought us to America so that we experience Christianity, and now we can go back and Christianize Africa.” And again, all kinds of problems with that kind of assumption. Christianity has been in Africa for centuries, right—
BAILEY: —and this sort of idea, but you sort of see that question of, “how do you—this horrific thing that happened to us as a people, for many African Americans—how do you make sense of that?” And in the nineteenth century, for some it was, “Well, maybe God has given us this Christian message because it’s our destiny to go back and then Christianize all these quote ‘heathen Africans.'” And again, there’s this really complicated dynamic of comparing African American missionaries to white missionaries, and their narratives about Africans are pretty close, “Heathens!” right? “They don’t have any culture, they’re uncivilized.”
And so what do we do with this dynamic of African Americans going back, having this fairly stereotypical—in many cases negative—view of Africans, but at same time loving Africa. So this difficult dynamic of, they love this American notion of Africa and going back, but not super thrilled about Africans themselves, and internalizing a lot of the pseudo-scientific rhetoric of the time, that African Americans are better suited for the harsh climate because of their African roots, like they can sort of connect, and many missionaries expecting an almost welcoming party, “Hey welcome back to Africa,” right? [laughs] And so there’s this really complex relationship with Africa, that on one is a really powerful symbol that many Africans draw upon, but they’re also really embracing many of the sort of dark continent negative stereotypes of Africa as well.
NON-CHRISTIAN AFRICAN AMERICAN TRADITIONS
HODGES: That’s Julius H. Bailey, he’s a professor of religious studies at the University of Redlands in California. And we’re talking about his latest book Down In The Valley: An Introduction to African American Religious History.
Julius, this also kind of ties into the next topic, which is new religious movements. And some of these are wound up in discussions about whether to return to Africa or what the place of an African American is today. So I thought it would be interesting for you to give us a quick overview, from Marcus Garvey up to the Nation of Islam—these are non-Christian traditions, African American religious examples.
BAILEY: Sure and again, it’s part of that diversity of African American religious history that’s so often that sort of Christian-centered narrative. We have all these groups emerging in the nineteenth and the early twentieth century that have a really different take on what African, or African American religious identity is. And it often goes back to that question of that harshness of the Middle Passage, the impact of slavery on African American culture, and so some are saying “Who am I? Where is our identity?” And because of the lack of resources to go, “well I’m actually a Wolof,” or “I was from the Yoruba culture,” without having those exact specifics about where you’re from, you see this emergence of these really interesting nineteenth century new religious movements where they try to answer those questions of “Who am I? My culture has been taken from me.”
For Marcus Garvey it is a response to that earlier stuff I talked about—that negative view of African culture in some cases—that Marcus Garvey says, “Wait a minute. African Americans won’t advance as a people. You have to get rid of all that negative view of Africa, that sort of self-loathing that he saw; that you have to embrace who you are. That you can’t see the race as being inferior. You have to be empowered. And so for him there was this idea of these triangulated shipping lanes, that he would sort of have these movements between Africa and America and Jamaica, and to have these connections, so that the African Americans could “do for self,” can be empowered. And so he started the Black Star Line, like the White Star Line which did the Titanic—he wanted the Black Star line, right? He wanted his own black enterprise. So black empowerment, black-owned businesses, black empowerment, to sort of see yourself empowered by that.
And so as part of that, too, even not seeing…That idea of seeing these images of a white Jesus, that he made this case that, “Wait a minute. How Americans view their divinity has a real impact on their psyche. And if you don’t see your God as like you, then that’s going to have a real impact on who you are.” And so you see that Garvey identity, that connection back to Africa, being really important for the rest for the Rastafarians, who see the rise of Haile Selassie as a marker. So the prophecy, the Lion of Judah is going back to Africa, so you see the emergence of Rastafarian culture, embracing that. You see there are Moorish Science Temple and Noble Drew Ali saying “Wait, who are we? Our history’s been stripped from us. Who are we? We’re this great Moorish Empire that we descended from—we’re Asiatic, we’re not of African descent.” Or the Nation of Islam making this case that they need a separate black nation, and this whole narrative of the ancient tribe of Shabazz, and the ways that races are created in this narrative of black superiority being really important.
And so you see this rise of these movements. And there’s something about that idea that you have a true identity, but either it’s been hidden from you, or whites have taken actions to try to keep that from you, because if whites knew who you truly were, then they wouldn’t be able to contain you. And that’s such a powerful dynamic, that sort of question of…That many immigrants come to America and they sort of lose their identity over time, or choose not to identify with their past culture from whatever country they came from. In African American religious traditions, it’s really tricky when it’s been taken from you, it seems like in many cases it does leave this void and this desire of “how are you going to identify? What is your history, if you don’t have the necessary historical documents to document it?” For many it’s these really fascinating stories of these glorious pasts.
And it’s striking that no one ever has a kind of normal, like “I just have an ordinary past,” right? It’s always “You’re descended from kings, and from queens,” and no one’s like “Um, I’m descendant from some ordinary Joe or Josephine,” it’s always a glorious past. And so, all these different traditions come up with an answer to “Who are we?” “We are the kings and queens, we have this great history, they just don’t want to know about it, and that’s the way to try to keep you down.” Or for Nation of Islam you don’t know what your true last name is, you only know your slaveholder’s last name, so we’ll put an “X” there for your last name as a marker to denote that. There’s this really powerful dynamic of what you eat, how you dress, what you call yourself—all these markers are seen as really important to African American religious identity, and so all of these groups come to some really creative understandings of what that means for that.
PRESENT-DAY STUDIES OF AFRICAN AMERICAN RELIGION
HODGES: It’s so interesting to see, the usability of the past. And I kind of see these mirror opposite stories. There’s the declension narrative where you’re looking back to pristine history, do you want to return to that that? There’s also the opposite of that, which is the idea of barbaric savagery, sort of like “back to Africa” as these people who are uncivilized who need to have civilization brought to them. These competing stories are just plays out throughout the entire book, and obviously beyond the book as well. But I think that people can get a taste just based on the quick things you described there of how many stories there are to be told in this introduction.
So the book focuses intensely on the point that there’s no singular African American or black religious story. What are some of the prominent areas you’d like to see scholars look at currently? What are scholars looking at and what would you like to see in research in the field right now?
BAILEY: People are doing some really great work today—I really appreciate your point, I always want to look at these threads like, “what do we do?” because there are so many really great individual books… Sylvester Johnson just came out with a book on African American religion and colonialism and power, and as I mentioned Al Raboteaudoes slave religion, and there’s some great—
HODGES: —I should we mention too, Sylvester Johnson, he also just published a piece in the Mormon Studies Review, reviewing Paul Reeve’s book on Mormonism and race, and added a corrective to it with his colonization views. It’s a fascinating piece.
BAILEY: Yes, he’s a wonderful scholar, yeah, I love Sylvester’s work. It’s great. Lots of great studies of slave religion. So individual stuff on new religious movements, on the Nation of Islam. And so there’s lots and lots of great books. And so part of what I was trying to do—and again, so tricky when you write a book, because then like Sylvester’s book comes out and it’s like you have to… You know, all this great stuff keeps happening—But part of it is just to point towards what people, I think people are sort of raising this questions. And so part of what my hope is that they’ll keep exploring, sort of diversify what they’re looking at. And there’s the tendency not to marginalize certain groups. So like these black new religious movements that I mentioned are often in the margins of narratives, and so it’s often this focus on Christianity or sort of what people consider “mainstream” traditions, which is really important for sure, but I think there’s something about being really self-aware about how we’re framing the mainstream and the margins that I think is really important. That it’s, “Well, why are these groups, why is the story of the Nation of Islam less important than black preaching in Georgia in the nineteenth century? How do we make these kinds of decisions?” which I think is really important.
And I think even the markers that we do—so I started with West African traditions, thinking about Africa and sort of the diversity of that, it’s part of what I try to do a little bit with the Herskovits and Frazier debate, and just say “why is Africa always held constant?” Like “there’s West African traditions and then how do they change over time?” But how do we move beyond this static view of Africa and comparing the ways that Africans are either moving away from those traditions, to have an ongoing dynamic of what’s happening in West Africa and other parts of Africa that African Americans have come from in the slave trade.
And I also think we could move more beyond the Civil Rights period. I think that so many books end in the Civil Rights period, Martin Luther King, Junior—which he is important, right, the black Civil Rights movement, really important. But as Sylvester and others have said, look, religion continues go on, right? There’s a post-Civil Rights religious tradition as well, and so part of what I tried to do was at least touch a little bit on Obama or a little bit on African Americans in other world traditions, just again to diversify, to sort of say that—and again, it’s is not all encompassing, but to just sort of point to these ongoing contemporary issues that don’t necessarily make their way into academic journals. Maybe people might give talks at conferences. But a way of talking about, “how do we talk about African American religious life after the Civil Rights movement?” as well.
BLACK LIBERATION THEOLOGY AND MODERN TRADITIONS
HODGES: Yeah. That kind of gets into black theology. I’m thinking, you talk little bit about James Cone who is a prominent theologian and you also talked a little bit about Jeremiah Wright, and people might remember that name from when Barack Obama was campaigning. This was a pastor that had said things about 9/11 and other things, that his political opponents sort of fixated on and exploited a little bit. And I thought it was good to get some of the context that you added. Maybe take a second to talk a little bit about that, talk for a minute about Jeremiah Wright and what people might learn about that that they’re not gonna get in some simplified coverage on CNN or whatever.
BAILEY: Right, yes, yes, so you may remember back, Jeremiah Wright. Obama attended his church and in part of his sermon he called America to account for some of the issues we talked about earlier in America, and said some things prior to talking about America, and people focused on that clip of, you know, “he’s disparaging America,” or “he’s not totally pro-America!” But it’s really that dynamic we talked about earlier. It’s “how do African Americans who are clearly a part of American history and part of American culture, but how can you do that…Can you be patriotic and still call out America on their promises if they’re still not living up to them, if the American dream doesn’t seem applicable to African Americans?”
And so Jeremiah Wright during Obama’s campaign made that statement about America. And again part of it is that tricky dynamic, and as you mentioned black theology going back to James Cone—and some would argue, back to the slave ships and back to West Africa—this idea of black preachers or religious leaders having a really important role in many African American religious communities of asserting for people, to be the voices of those who don’t have a voice. And so, for Jeremiah Wright there’s this sort of black prophetic tradition of calling America out, that you have a religious responsibility if God’s given you this is podium, to not only advocate for yourself, but to advocate for all of your people. And so for Jeremiah Wright it’s to call America out, it’s “why is America not still living up to the promises of the American dream for many African Americans?”
And again people were taken aback. And you sort of see that dynamic, you can imagine as you probably remember back, that during a political campaign you don’t necessarily want to be calling America out on their promises to America. And so you see Obama sort of distance himself from that, which you can see why politically that would be the case. But you also sort of see that dynamic, and our dynamic now, where people just take a clip from the sermon—they’re not playing the entire sermon right, they’re just giving you that clip. And so part of what I try to do is to frame that within the context of James Cone and others, of many black Christians who just continue to struggle.
James Cone talks about actually thinking about leaving Christianity because it just seemed like he was so disheartened about the way the white churches were dealing with race relations in the 1960s, he just couldn’t see, “how can I be Christian if it doesn’t have any impact on what’s going to happen for African Americans?” or “how do we address these questions?” So black theology is a way of talking about the ways that Jesus can sort of speak to a liberation theology that can be an empowering thing for African Americans, that Christianity and equality or Christianity empowerment is not at odds with an African American experience; it actually speaks to that experience.
Christianity has that power, but you also need to call America out, or call whatever context you are in out. That’s what God’s prophets do in the Bible. They call out people if they’re not living up to what God wants them to do, or giving what God wants for the people. And so you sort of see that trajectory. So Jeremiah Wright clearly is part of that. But I think you also see how those dynamics change; that when you have that kind of forum—you have a twenty-four-hour news cycle, you’re also running for president—how that dynamic is really going to shift. And so people say “Oh, wow this is totally out of context,” and part of what I was trying to do in the book is to say, “wow, that is pretty dramatic, but wow look at what black preachers have been doing for centuries!” Like they’ve always been calling white institutions out, or calling America out if he feels like they’re not living up to what God wants for his people in America.
DOMESTICITY AND TENSIONS IN FAMILY LIFE
HODGES: It’s a really useful way to contextualize it. Another thing that surprised me that I hadn’t really looked at all was domestic life. And this is something you’ve written another book about. There’s a book Around The Family Altar: Domesticity in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Talk about that for second, some of the tensions in black communities around family life.
BAILEY: It goes back to what I mentioned earlier about how women’s gender roles were pretty restricted in many nineteenth century black churches. And so part of that question for me was that question about “why are black men doing this?” or “how are women responding to this dynamic?” And so part of what I looked at initially is that they said “a woman should be a part of the home.” I started looking at all this different domestic literature describing what the perfect black home should look like, how should people raise their children, what does a good father look like, what’s a good mother look like? And so part of what I saw developing a nineteenth century were many women like Jarena Lee and others who started saying “well wait a minute! If women have this natural nurturing power, and God has blessed them with this nurturing that men apparently don’t have because they’re masculine, they’re men, they should be out in the world conquering business or industry or something, then why are you trying to restrict our dynamic? Why should we be restricted to the Sunday school if we have this natural nurturing power that’s greater than men, we should be the ones up front preaching and men should be nurtured in the pews!” Right?
BAILEY: And so I found this really I guess similar dynamic of slaves and Christianity, of many African American women making this case—this ideology of domesticity—saying “if we have this power then we should be able to preach. If we have this spiritual gift why are you restricting that gift?” And to be able to frame it, drawing on the Bible, drawing on this religious context to make the argument. And so again it took many years for women actually get the ability to be preachers and then to hold their own pastorate. And in the AME church for example only had their first bishop a few years ago ordained. And so it’s definitely taken a while, but I guess I was struck by this idea of taking an ideology that’s meant to oppress you like domesticity—keep you in the home—and many black woman saying “this actually why we should be doing missionary work, this is why our role should be extended.” And I found that to be a really fascinating and powerful argument that they were making in the nineteenth century.
THE CHALLENGE OF WRITING AN INTRODUCTORY OVERVIEW
HODGES: And there’s just so much. I mean, we’ve only covered just a drop in the bucket of the things you cover your book. How difficult was it to condense so much into one volume?
BAILEY: Really difficult! As you mentioned, all these things we mentioned, I could’ve…People have written books on all this sort of stuff, right? [laughs] But the idea was how can you…And much of it came out classes, I’ve taught on African American religious history for many years now, and it would come out of questions students asked me in class, where we wrestle with this stuff, and I thought, “there’s got to be a way”—I know to try to write a textbook is so difficult, but I thought “there’s got to be a way to write one where it’s about the questions,” it’s about the questions, it’s about raising the questions, give me some suggestions, but almost having a conversation with the reader. And I thought that’d be a pretty effective way to do it, because then it’s not about covering—it doesn’t cover everything, but I try to cover some central themes that at least keep that conversation going, so if someone was going to be reading it at home, or were gonna be in a classroom reading it, that they can chat with students and have some jumping off points for discussion. And so really difficult, but I’m happy with it because I think it does at least accomplish that. It raises some interesting questions I think, and so my hope is that it kind of keeps the conversation going.
STUDYING FAITH IN THE ACADEMY
HODGES: Do you have anything to say in conclusion—kind of personal reflections about how this project interacts with your own views on religion or your own experience in the academy?
BAILEY: Yeah. When I was beginning a religious studies major when I was an undergraduate at Occidental College I took a class on African American religion. And it was all these really interesting questions that my professor—Professor Naylor, Occidental, give him a plug—he was…I had never been in a context where people would talk about religion historically, not necessarily from a particular point of view, or advocating for, you know, “you must believe this,” or something. And so out of that context came these questions, I’ve been thinking about this stuff for many years. And so for me it really is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and I was able to sort of over the years put pieces together, and again try and adapt with changing scholarship, because just when you think “I got a sense of what the field is” it shifts again. So it’s definitely in that context.
But I hope that…I really enjoyed writing it. I think it’s really accessible. I think I wanted something that students could enjoy, people at home could enjoy—it’s not necessarily a strictly academic book, but it’s really meant for people who are saying “I’m just curious about African American religious history,” or “What is African American religion, what is it?” And so I sort of start with that question in the book, sort of think about “what is that I’m talking about?” And my hope is that you get this sense of “these are really interesting groups, there’s some really interesting stories there,” and my hope is that some people go “Wow! That’s really interesting. I want to learn more about the Nation of Islam!” or “I want to learn more about West African religion,” and will then sort of pursue that. So my hope is that it’s sort of this jumping off point for people interested in the different aspects of African American religious history.
HODGES: Thank you! That’s Julius H. Bailey, he’s a professor of religious studies at the University of Redlands California. His books include Around the Family Altar: Domesticity in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his latest book is what we talked about today, it’s called Down in the Valley: An Introduction to African American Religious History, and that’s from Fortress Press. Julius, thanks so much for taking the time to talk about the book today.
BAILEY: Thank you very much! I appreciate it.