with Professor Curtis J. Evans
RCWF: How do you understand the term “the black church” as it has been and is being used by both scholars and non-scholars alike? How is it defined? What do people mean when they use it?
EVANS: I don’t think most people are conscious of how much work this expression is doing and in what ways it has become a standard catch-all reference to the diversity of African American religions. For non-scholars it is a shorthand reference to black churches that have publicly confronted racial inequality and any number of problems particularly affecting black communities. Although a bit similar, I think it is principally a theoretical construct for scholars, having emerged especially in the discipline of sociology in the 1930s. It was an attempt to understand what was distinctive about African American religious life, especially in its dominant Protestant denominational expression. However, all our present talk about “the black church” has been deeply influenced by the Civil Rights movement when key religious figures such as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. fought openly and directly against segregation and racism. But Parks was a Methodist, Malcolm X a Muslim, and King a Baptist. What careful historian would refer to their individual efforts and their distinctive religious traditions as “the black church”? I would go further in saying that Parks’ activism, for example, is more a product of her history with the NAACP and the Highlander Folk school than her association with and involvement in some amorphous “black church,” though this is not to discount the importance of her church work and commitments as a factor in her political activities.
So I think people usually mean “the black church” as a collective religious entity that has endured years of oppression and has a kind of admirable or heroic history that allows it to speak to issues of injustice. It is an implicit claim about what is distinctive in African American religion and normative association of progressive political reform with black churches.
RCWF: As a scholar of African American religions, what are your thoughts on the term “The black church”? What good or harm has it done?
EVANS: I understand that the history of African American life has been a powerful factor in the different ways in which black churches took on responsibilities and were held to great expectations than white churches, especially in view of the weakness of other institutions in many impoverished and oppressed neighborhoods. In general, however, I do not think the term “the black church” is helpful as an accurate description of the diversity of black religious life which ranges from Muslims to Catholics to members of the Black Israelite traditions. I also think it tends to essentialize black religions and elides individuality and diversity at a critical moment when all categories that were formerly regarded as stable and natural such as race, gender, and ethnicity are being questioned and problematized. In view of the essentialist and fixed identities that have been imposed upon peoples of African descent in the United States, I do not see how the continued use of this expression does justice to the varied meanings of black religious life. Furthermore, no historian who carefully studies the different denominational, theological, regional, etc. differences with black communities, even during the Jim Crow era, can with intellectual integrity use this term without either defining what is meant or noting why he or she uses it in a particular context. Doing so simply strikes me as good historical work and intellectual honesty.
RCWF: What, if any, alternatives would you suggest in place of the term “the black church”?
EVANS: I don’t have a single referent to replace the term, though I am uncomfortable with any singular expression. There are, properly speaking, African American religions. Many black Americans identify as Muslim, Jewish or Hebrew, pagan, Christian, Protestant, and on the list goes. Black churches exist in different forms and in different contexts. Context and place are crucial, but I hope that scholars in particular will be more careful and self-conscious about the terms that are employed to describe African American religious life. Nomenclature has been so important to the identities of black Americans. For years, W. E. B. Bu Bois struggled to get the “n” capitalized when the word Negro was used. Prior to the 1920s, the place of blacks in America was dismissively referred to as the “negro problem.” Only in the late 1920s would the more fluid conception of race, “race relations,” emerge as a viable option and not imply this singular static notion of blacks as being a problem for the nation. Our time and the complex nature of black religious life demand a more nuanced and richer rubric than “the black church.” Perhaps some are right that the time for a moratorium on the term has come.
Curtis J. Evans is an historian of American religions. His teaching interests are modern American religion, particularly since the Civil War, race and religion in US history, and slavery and Christianity. His first book, The Burden of Black Religion (Oxford University Press, 2008), was an historical analysis of debates about the role of religion in the lives of African Americans and the origins of the scholarly category of “the black church.” His research emphases are interpretations and cultural images of African American religion, examinations of religion as a force for and obstacle to social and political reform, and the question of how social problems become defined and addressed as moral problems at particular historical moments.
*Image: Clemetine Hunter