James Coleman is professor of African American literature at my alma mater UNC-Chapel Hill (go Tar Heels!). He is a thought provoking writer and speaker and one of his central subjects is the sacred and the spiritual in the African American community. His recent work "Faithful Vision" Treatments of the Sacred, Spiritual, and Supernatural in Twentieth Century African American Fiction (LSU University Press, 2006) is just out. One of the subjects he explores is the intertwining of African religion, specifically hoodoo, the African American manifestation of voodoo with Christianity. It makes for fascinating reading.
Coleman grew up in a devoutly Christian (Baptist) community in Virginia, but there were also elements of hoodoo in the culture. If you've ever seen the movie "Green Mile" you will know what I am talking about. The African American figure in that movie with supernatural gifts is a practioner of hoodoo. Like voodoo, hoodoo involves various sorts of superstitions about curses and the like. For example someone might bury something under your front doorstep to 'conjure you' and put a spell on you. Perhaps you will remember the old blues classic "I Put a Spell on You" which comes out of this cultural background.
Coleman points out that not only is Christianity prominent in African American novels, whereas it tends not to be in novels written by whites (John Updike would be one notable exception) which are in some cases highly critical of it (see the works of Toni Morrison or James Baldwin) and sometimes draw on it positively (see some of the poetry of Maya Angelou), African American novels also reflect on hoodoo as an influence in the black community. In quest to recover some of the African heritage lost by African Americans (see the Kwanza movement) hoodoo has become a hot topic again.
Coleman's own story as an African American academic is a poignant one. He reflects honestly on the effect of going to overwhelmingly white secular universities. His experience is that they are soul numbing if not soul stealing. I understand this concern, but it all depends on how vital your faith is. I found it stimulating and challenging but not really threatening. In fact, I found especially the English literature courses wonderfully broadening and helpful in making me a more whole person altogether and therefore a more Christian person.
As Coleman says, literary critics in general don't put much stock in either superstition or in organized religion either. Absorbing all of this criticism, Coleman found himself adrift, alienated from his own faith background. Here is a telling quote from him: "I think that academia tends not to take religion seriously. I grew up in a community where not only the black people, but the white people too, were really serious about religion. Even the drunks and the reprobates. And people still are. As I moved further into academia, I moved further and further away from that whole spiritual and religious focus."
And yet clearly it still haunts him, as his new book shows. His book reveals, among other things that African American writers, even those critical of Christianity tend to take the subject very seriously because it is such a crucial part of African American heritage and current life, whereas white academics and writers often critique without taking it seriously or having a personal stake in it from their past or present. There is a difference. Coleman seems to classify himself in what appears to be an ever growing group-- the estranged black intellectual.
Coleman recognizes that faith is the main thing that got slaves through slavery in the old south, and interestingly he does not see the religious influence waining on African Americans or other students today. He says "In talking to my students, who have all kinds of contemporary influences, including hip hop, I find that particularly African American students are if anything more religious right now that they've ever been....It doesn't seem to me that the world is becoming any less challenging for anybody. The challenges are just different. Religion is just the fundamental way that many African Americans address the challenge."
One of the fundamental questions that the story of James Coleman himself raises is the issue of social location, especially in a dominantly Eurocentric culture like ours. America may see itself as a melting pot but it is really more like a salad bowl, and the largest ingredient in the bowl is European white culture. For those of us who are white Christians who grew up in that cultural stream it may not even be apparent that there is a difference between western European culture and Christianity-- which after all in its Biblical form is a Middle Eastern religion which does not presuppose many things that we would call western values (e.g. you will have a hard time finding free market capitalism in the Bible).
To African Americans the alien elements in white culture which seem non-Christian are sometimes more obvious to them than they would be to Eurocentric folk like myself. It of course raises the whole question about the relationship of Christianity and American culture in general, and more particularly white culture. Why is it, that Christianity so often seems to be more of a surface phenomena or cultural veneer in white culture but a soul phenomena in black culture? That's a question worth pondering. In the meantime it would be good if we thought about the effect of white educational institutions on gifted blacks coming out of devoutly Christian contexts. The story of James Coleman is not an isolated one, but it is a disturbing one which requires reflection.
[I have excerpted the quoted material from Professor Coleman for this blog from a fine article in my alumni magazine by Margarite Nathe entitled "A Culture Shaped by Faith" Endeavors Vol. 23 No. 1 Fall 2006 issue p.27. The quotes from Dr. Coleman are taken verbatim from this article, but the perspective, point of view and reflections in this blog are my own]