What is Black Religion?
By William D. Hart
Ten Questions for William D. Hart on Black Religion: Malcolm X, Julius Lester, and Jan Willis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)
What inspired you to write the book? What sparked your interest?
I was inspired by the gap between the standard narrative of Black religion and the complexity of actual experience. Anyone who has bothered to look at the matter knows that there is religious diversity among Black Americans. That knowledge is often ignored in standard accounts. I describe those accounts collectively as the Standard Narrative of Black Religion as the Black Church. Black Americans are Christian and Orisha-worshiping conjurers, theists and humanists, and many other things as well. By analyzing the autobiographical narratives of three African Americans who made religious pilgrimages, respectively, to Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, I seek to accent that diversity.
As the most well-known Muslim in American history, Malcolm X represents a tangent in relation to the Standard Narrative, as does the Judaism of Julius Lester and the Buddhism of Jan Willis.
Writing this book was personal. I see myself as an intersection of the ways of being that I describe in the book.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
The relations among racial identity, religious affiliation, and political orientation are complex. Claims of a constitutive relationship between Black identity and a particular religious affiliation should be regarded with great suspicion. Likewise, Black identity and the religious affiliations of black people do not imply a specific kind of political orientation.
To put a sharper point on it: Islam is not the “Black man’s” religion and Christianity is not constitutive of Black identity. Furthermore, Black identity does not equal progressive politics. The intersection of racial identity, religious affiliation, and political orientation must be evaluated in context. Different contexts yield different meanings, different relations to the powers that be. Finally, an Afro-Eccentric perspective provides a line of flight from the totalitarian blackness that often characterizes Afrocentric perspectives.
Anything you had to leave out?
A reader of the book in manuscript form suggested that I shorten the text by removing a substantial amount of material that dealt with scholarly/theoretical deviations from the Standard Narrative of Black Religion. I plan to publish that material separately in a short monograph under the title Black Religion: Beyond the Standard Narrative.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
That black religion in America is reducible to the black church and is isolated from other traditions of Afro-Atlantic religiosity; that African American Islam is a foreign tradition when in reality it is deeply rooted in the history of African peoples in the New World; that non-Christian religious affiliations, especially Judaism and Buddhism, render Black Americans racially and culturally inauthentic.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
Every author wants to be read. My wish is for the broadest audience possible. One is often surprised by the audience that one receives or does not. I hope that there are a lot of curious readers. I hope that my expectations about who is likely to read a book about Black religion are met. I also hope to be surprised but readers I did not expect, even by readers I might find counterintuitive.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
The correct answer is all three. I view myself as an intellectual provocateur. My job, if I do it well, is to provoke, trouble, and disturb the peace. There is no way of doing that without pissing off someone.
Though I do not compare myself to him (I am not that megalomaniacal), I am reminded of Socrates who compared himself to a horse fly. Anyone who has had the misfortune of being bitten by one knows that they hurt. On the other hand pain captures one’s attention. I think that I rather like the horse fly metaphor. Knowledge and truth often hurt.
So yes, I want to inform my readers. But there is an irremediable interplay between pleasure and pain—even for those who (I won’t tell if you won’t) are not into sadomasochism. On the third hand, the pleasure of reading is irreducible for me. I strive very hard to produce a text that is pleasurable even if the reader is pissed off or otherwise disagrees with me. I suspect that there will be some readers angered by my construction of an object of critique called the Standard Narrative of Black Religion as the Black Church.
What alternate title would you give the book?
Dark Passages: Autobiographical Representations of Black Religion. In part, this would have been my tribute to Charles H. Long, whose work has influenced my own. In this case I would have been signifying on Long’s analytic category of “opacity” that he uses to characterize the experiences of black people in America.
How do you feel about the cover?
I like the cover. I would like the cover even more had it been red, Black, and green: the colors of Marcus Garvey’s flag. Over the years, these colors were widely regarded as a symbol of Black solidarity. Malcolm X the principal subject of the text grew up in a Garveyite household: his father was an organizer for the Universal Negro Improvement Association; his mother wrote for the organization’s journal—The Negro World. The cover I preferred would have communicated to those in the know on a strictly visual-symbolic level. However, the production folks told me that I could not have three colors: white—the color or non-color, as it were, of the cover title—did not count as a color. Funny thing: the cover has three colors—red, pink, and green. Alas, the shade of red and green were the shades I wanted.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
The Rites of Identity: The Religious Naturalism and Cultural Criticism of Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison (Princeton 2003) by Beth Eddy. The book is beautifully written, well argued, and comports with my own naturalistic views.
What’s your next book?
If you discount a short companion text entitled Black Religion: Beyond the Standard Narrative that pulls together the material I described in question three, then my next book is a study of human sacrifice in religion and statecraft.