Teaching Sylvester Johnson’s AFRICAN AMERICAN RELIGIONS, 1500-2000

The best part of teaching a graduate course is the excuse to read books you should have already read but never got around to. When Sylvester Johnson’s African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge UP, 2015) appeared last year I remember leafing through it, engaging the sections I needed for a chapter I was working on that dealt with colonization efforts during the early republic, and then putting it on my shelf for later perusal. (There’s a number of books on my shelves like that.) But I was impressed with it enough to add it to the syllabus for my master’s level seminar on American cultural and religious history.

I was surprised, however, when I finally sat down and read the book this week, in at least two ways. First I was surprised in how long it was going to take to read the text; I underestimated my ability to skim such a dense book. Johnson cunningly structures his project in a way where merely reading the introduction and conclusion of each chapter will not provide a quick roadmap for everything in-between. This is a book that you have to spend time digesting every paragraph and work for his insights. (It made me wish I had started the book earlier, because I ended up having to devote most of my free time mid-week to reading when I’m way behind on other projects.) And second, I was surprised at just how expansive the book is. You would think that a book that claims to cover African American religions over five centuries was broad enough, but that’s just cracking the surface: what he’s really after is a revisionist narrative of inter-empire contact, efforts of colonization, and democratic rule in the modern age.

From the very start Johnson insists that to understand African American religions you must place the tradition in both a transatlantic context as well as with an African diasporic perspective. Everything in the history flowed from the inter-colonial contact between the Portuguese, British, French, and Spanish empires and the West African coast, so he spends a couple chapters on how the birth of this commercial exchange fundamentally altered how people in the Atlantic world encountered not only trade but governance. He naturally has detailed (and innovative) discussion of fetish and its relationship to evolving European conceptions of materiality, but also–almost off-hand–offers brilliant observations of corporate bodies and their role in establishing new models of autonomous rule. His section on the American Revolution and early colonization efforts, predicated on the conscious construction of white freedom (which is as much an institution as the institution of slavery), made me revise my undergraduate lecture on slavery and the American founding. Of course, his most direct and provocative thesis, about how African Americans who led their own colonization efforts often replicated the patterns of imperialism from which they were fleeing, was persistent and convincing. But I especially loved his comparisons between people who both embraced and rejected colonization ideologies, whether Frederick Douglass and Martin Delaney during the nineteenth century, or Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr. in the twentieth. I don’t think I’ve read a book in recent years so packed full of fresh insights, deep analysis, and moving (if often disturbing) implications.

One thing that struck both me and my students was the, at times, lack of direct engagement with religion, at least as typically conceived. Johnson’s interests are wide and intertwined, so he moves from discussing commerce to governance, and from migration to surveillance, often without taking a breath to specifically connect it to, well, African American religions. Part of this is due to the nature of the book’s scope (five hundred years, many empires, and thousands of characters!), part is due to the implied audience of religious studies scholars assuming many of the religious insights (which draws on a background history grad students often lack), and part is due to the very expansive definition Johnson employs for “religion” itself. More than a set of beliefs, rituals, or practices, Johnson is more interested in societal interplay and the structure of power. That is, he is using religion to understand the process of colonization, and not the other way around. Once we discussed this in the seminar a lot of confused faces transformed into understanding.

Now, as phenomenal as the book was, I’m not sure I’ll assign it in the future. Very few of my graduate students are interested in a life in academia–most are going into teaching, museum preservation, or public service of some kind, or they’re a non-traditional student coming back to school after a long career in an unrelated field–so they’re typically not as interested with the deeply theoretical or intricately historiographical questions Johnson poses. (I assign a couple books that represent religious studies methodologies during the semester, but I have to be aware of my students’ backgrounds and limits.) The book is also exceptionally dense, which can make it difficult to make it through in a week. Most of the students arrived at the seminar frankly befuddled with a lot of Johnson’s more complex arguments, and it was only through discussion that the meaning became clear.

But even if I won’t assign it in the future, this was a book that will stick with me. (And I think, based on the conversation, it will stick with my students as well.) If you are teaching a graduate survey, and this text’s aims would fit your circumstances, I recommend considering it. And if you are a scholar of American religious, political, racial, or cultural history, don’t let this one just sit on your shelf.

[To whet your whistle, here’s an excellent Q&A with Johnson in Marginalia.]

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