This study was first stimulated by my experiences as an overzealous assistant minister at the oldest and largest African American United Methodist church in the San Francisco–Oakland Bay area: Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church. When I asked Dr. Hill for more work, he had me lead the Wednesday night Bible class. This class was frequented by the oldest and most formidable members of the church. These were people who knew how to pray and how to work. This group, as well as another group I worked with—the Action Group—with some notable exceptions, was predominantly female. They were immigrants from the Deep South, mainly Texas and Arkansas, who came to northern California to work in the newly desegregated Navy shipyards and government installations during World War II.
It did not take me long to realize that my seminary education offered little help in interpreting their religious and social experiences. I was enthralled by their stories of life in the segregated South and prejudiced North. I frankly never had realized the excruciating price that my elders, men and women, had paid in carving out a place of dignity and humanity.
The women told their stories of having to wear dresses of an extraordinarily modest length in order to deflect the “attentions” of white men. This solution, however, seldom was satisfactory, and girls often found (p.viii) themselves on northern-bound trains and buses to protect their sexual choice and bodily integrity.
The men spoke of resisting the efforts of landowners who “suggested” that their wives should work alongside them in the backbreaking work of sharecropping with poor tools on poorer land. These acts of courage also tended to result in midnight train rides north, often just ahead of a lynch mob.
They all spoke of the northern promised land, but it had offered them discrimination, homelessness, and broken dreams rather than the milk and honey of FDR’s federal edict, for America was not yet willing to accept them on equal terms. America would accept their labor for the war effort, but the laborers still couldn’t buy a Coke at the ten-cent store in downtown Oakland or live in decent family housing.
I was startled to realize that their political sensibilities were closer to Malcolm X than to Martin King and that they had Christian beliefs not to be found in Tillich’s or Barth’s systematic theologies. It was this combination of deep feeling, resistance, and African-based religious concepts that I could not find in my black theological texts, either. So I was left with their powerful and profound stories without a method of interpretation that did them justice.
This work is an attempt at developing a method that adequately captures the essence of African American religious experience. It seeks to understand what the black religious community already knows yet is constrained from affirming. It was fortuitous that I found scholars at the University of Chicago and the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California, who were interested in narrative and dialectical ways of knowing. They helped me sort out various theories and finally engage in a hermeneutics of retrieval. Robert MacAfee Brown and Robert Michael Franklin allowed me to explore narrative theology in black and white. James Gustafson’s noted yearlong seminar in theological ethics gave me the opportunity to delve into the life of Nate Shaw and to reflect on the relationship of theology to the social sciences.
I rediscovered the earlier works of African American social scientists and those nameless bards of the African American spirituals who, due to their creative genius and religious and political sensitivities, developed a method that was contiguous with their lives. The writings of James Cone and Charles Long were fundamental in guiding me in the direction I needed to go.
(p.ix) In the following pages, I will give flesh to these ideas in the hope that those stories I heard at Taylor Memorial will have found a method worthy of their meaning and that others will develop better ways of telling and interpreting their story.
The concepts discussed in this book pre date the controversy over Afrocentricity. I hope that by showing the importance of African culture in the interpretation of black religion by scholars who predate the Afrocentric movement, I will demonstrate the misguided nature of the present controversy.
Chapter 1 is an introduction to some of the intellectual issues that this work addresses. In this chapter I outline the scholarly terrain concerning several of the key issues that confront the scholar of African American culture. I am concerned with the development of a truly dialectical methodology for the interpretation of black religion and literature. I compare a dialectical perspective with dualistic perspectives, which I believe are less adequate in their ability to capture the essence of black culture. The methodology of earlier scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston and Melville Herskovitz are championed as the trailblazers of a dialectical methodology that does justice to the cultural, political, and psychological nature of black narration.
Chapter 2 is a more specific presentation of a dialectical methodology as I examine research concerning the exemplar of African American narration: the spiritual. The spiritual serves as both metaphor and methodology in my interpretation of the cultural space generated by Africans in America. I discuss the cultural, political and ethnocentric dialectic of an African American interpretive framework.
Chapter 3 is my theological analysis of the spirituals from a structuralist and postmodern perspective. Although these may seem to be contradictory terms, I believe that African and African American discourse are best represented by a postmodern structuralist model that understands social reality as a fluid and changing phenomenon, yet formed by social and cultural structures. Black religion and literature reflect this postmodern emphasis on narrative creativity but they are always expressed by specific cultural structures in which we can see the imprint of Africa in form and meaning.
Chapter 4 examines the significance of black literary criticism to the black hermeneutic enterprise. I examine the role of religion in the interpretive works of several black literary critics and once again demonstrates (p.x) the relative adequacy of a cultural structural methodology that predates the present emphasis on post-strucuralism. I claim that this cultural structural methodology does justice to religious phenomena and the African nature of black religion and literature in ways that escapes contemporary black literary theory’s fascination with post-structuralist methodology.
Chapter 5 is the application of a “spiritual” cultural structural interpretation to a classic text of African American narration. I hope that this chapter makes clear the power of this approach for the study of African American religion and literature.
Chapter 6 and the postscript reinforce the relevance of the African cultural interpretive model and the need to understand the African American journey as captured in religion and literature as a part of the larger African diaspora that is still developing throughout our modern world.