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]
Friday, September 29, 2006
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Fascinating post Ben. There are so many elements that I could comment upon. I have to agree with Professor Coleman that religion in general and Christianity in specific are not waning with black students in the academy. In fact, there was a recent survey (I cannot remember by whom, perhaps the Lilly Foundation) that gives hard data to what he is seeing with the students he is talking to. The survey also shows that religion is waning with all the other ethnic groups on camps, with black students being the sole exception.
I have seen this first hand myself as campus minister with IV and as a student at Morehouse.
Thank you for posting that.
Even though I am white, and was a philosophy and religious studies major in college, I took some courses in African American literature in part because of what you identified here - the religious and especially Christian content in much of African American literature. I even got to do an independent study on John Edgar Wideman's use of language in Hoop Roots which resulted in my first 25+ page paper. Your post brought me back to my days as a student, and reminded me of what I loved in some of the books I read in those classes.
Interestingly, in my own experience I've found a resurgence of religion among students, and not just the African American students. Of course that is an anecdotal observation, without the weight of a scientific study. But I have seen more than a few people begin to take their faith more seriously as the university inspires them to think critically. I'm not sure that there is a causal relationship there, but I know that my own faith has never been seriously challenged by education, even if some of my childhood assumptions about faith have been challenged.
That said, let me just echo what you've already said here, which is that religion and especially the Christian religion permeates much of African American literature in a way that it no longer permeates European and Euro-American literature. Almost every major black author is in some way responding to religion, be it their own religion, their childhood religion, or the religion of their culture. It is a dominant theme, and makes for some excellent reading.
Dear Dr. Witherington,
Your comments on Dr. Coleman's books were quite interesting, especially in his exploration of elements of folk religion in the African American community. I will definitely look forward to becoming more familiar with his writing in the near future.
I am reminded of having read Zora Neale Hurston's fascinating Mules and Men a number of years ago. This semi-autobiographical book dealt with Hurston re-entering Southern African-American culture (as an anthropology student of Franz Boas of Barnard College) to collect cultural data in the form of folk tales and the like. The second part, though, was a revision of an article she'd published a few years earlier called "Hoodoo in America", published in the Journal of American Folklore in 1931. There is a classic exchange towards the beginning of this section with an informant who is initially reluctant to admit knowledge of Hoodoo, until Zora makes a comment indicating that she believes in such things herself:
"Do you believe in dat ole fogeyism, chile? Ah don't see how nobody could do none of dat work, do you? She laughed unnecessarily. "Ah been hearin' 'bout dat mess ever since Ah been big enough tuh know mahself, but shucks! Ah don't believe nobody kin do me no harm lesson they git somethin' in mah mouth"
"Don't fool yourself, " I answered with assurance. "People can do things to you. I done seen things happen."
"Sho nuff? Well, well, well! Maybe things kin be done tuh harm ya, cause I done head good folks -- folks dat ought to know -- say dat it sho is a fact. Anyhow, Ah figger it pays tuh be keerful." (sic)(Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men, New York: HarperPerennial, 1990, p. 186)
How can these be addressed from a biblical perspective? I have wondered why these practices have persisted so long in the community in which many are genuine believers; and indeed, we currently work in an Asian context in which we face similar issues. Here folk practices tend to persist among believers because they are either not addressed at all, or they are addressed in such a way that merely emphasizes that such practices are “forbidden” without presenting faithfully Christian answers to the needs expressed by such practices (and which tends more to drive such practices at least slightly underground, as is evidenced in the exchange quoted above). Many people in our context rely on folk magic to meet perceived needs for spiritual power and protection, and in the New Testament I understand Jesus is portrayed as meeting those needs. Dr. J. Dudley Woodberry of Fuller teaches a study of Acts 19 entitled, “What Would Paul Say to a Folk Muslim?” and Rick Love’s work on applying this as well as the related lessons of Ephesians to the folk Islamic context in his Muslims, Magic and the Kingdom of God. I wonder how much those from or working in Asian contexts and those in such contexts as described by Coleman can learn from one another. How can these needs be met in a manner which is spiritually vital and yet remains culturally authentic?
Nice to hear from you Marc, and I am thrilled to hear your report from what is happening at Morehouse. You will be interested in knowing that I am doing a Veritas forum for IV at UMass. Amherst in November and one here at U.K. as well in October. I spent 11 years teaching in Cleveland and Detroit at Ashland's seminary extensions there, and found the African American students far more and better in touch with their religious roots, and seeing it as permeating their entire lives than many of the white students. I loved going and preaching in their churches. It was a blessings.
Sandalstraps I quite agree with you on most of what you said, except I think there are certanly Christians who are not well enough intellectually trained or equipped to sift the wheat from the chaff of a good deal of secular literature. I think we have to train Christians in critical thinking and opening their minds and reasoning their way to conclusions so they can do this better. But some have been trained to do the opposite of this--- just blindly follow their leaders. It isn't healthy.
And Matt, thanks so much for the additional resources you mention. I think that perhaps you would enjoy talking to my friend Dr. Darrell Whiteman, now with the Mission Society for United Methodists in Atlanta on the issues of dealing with folk religion and anestral customs. My own rule of thumb is that if the custom does not contradict some Christian truth or practice then one need not try and ban or correct it. For example, in Zimbabwe I am not going to tell my folks they need to stop dressing like their tribal ancestors and look more like me!! That's a matter of cultural sensitivity. More difficult however is deprogramming people from harmful customs and religious traditions which impede or even prevent their Christian lives. These have to be deconstructed carefully and something positive must be put in their places. Christians are often naive about the power of folk religions of various sorts, but indeed they do have power. The Bible never denies this-- its just not power that comes from the Holy Spirit unfortunately.
I had a Chinese student who became a Christian over here and went home to his family. He had not told his family at all of his conversion. When he got home, his grandmother, who was very much into ancestral spirits and the like met him at the door and accosted him like the demons accosted Jesus when he met the Gadarene demoniac. She had been in touch with the world of the 'unclean' spirits and had gotten wind of a spiritual change in him. These things are spiritually real, and they do not just involve religious customs. They are thus dangerous, which is why Paul tells his Corinthians not to eat in pagan temples at the table of demons. (1 Cor. 10). False gods are not gods, but this does not mean they are nothings. They can indeed be demonically inspired and driven.
Hey Dr. Witherington,
I was not aware that you are a Chapel Hill alumnus. I am hoping to get into their classics program next fall (I am only a senior in high school now).
Do you recommend their program, and if you don't mind my asking, what was your undergrad major?
Hi Robb: I do indeed recommend Carolina's classics department where I took Alexander the Great, Xenephon and other Greek writers, learned some rhetoric and got further interested in Greek and Latin classics (I had three years of Latin in high school). I was somone who dabbled in many majors before settling on an English major. It was a blessing. And as for Chapel Hill itself-- one of the best places in the world to study anything.
what about the movie 'the skeleton key'? is that hoodoo or voodoo?
Who knows about the Skeleton key? I don't. But if the stuff going on has to do with Haiti and what comes out of those island cultures, it is voodoo not hoodoo.
Fascinating post, and interesting comments too. I am encouraged to hear from marc and others that faith is alive and well in the African American community--students anyway.
My prison-chaplain husband has remarked about how many times a young incarcerated black man will talk to him about the mother or the grandmother, or other older relatives who have prayed for him. I have been concerned that the generation of genuine Christians was passing away, and VERY concerned about what that would mean to communities already struggling with some huge issues.
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