Deciphering the Ancestral Common Ground of Black Religion

*This post is part of our online forum with the Pew Research Center.

Pastors, leaders and local church members held a prayer walk in wake of George Floyd murder, Bronx, New York, June 10, 2020, (Shutterstock)

Pew Research Center headlines herald, “generational patterns are changing,” regarding their recent report on Black American religious life. The generational changes Pew observes relate to questions of religious identity, such as whether one self-describes as Christian (Protestant or Catholic), MuslimJewish, or as unaffiliated — the so-called nones — tracked through such data points as how often one regularly attends worship service at a church, temple, or mosque. When viewed through this lens, older Black folks report more engagement with religious institutions, particularly the mostly-Protestant congregations that makeup the “Black Church,” relative to the Black Millennials and Zoomers whom Pew describes as “less religious,” since “fewer attend religious services, and those who do attend are less likely to go to a predominantly Black congregation.” But however “less religious” these younger cohorts of the Black community may be in comparison to their elders, when Pew describes their devotional lives, such as prayer habits, unaffiliated Black Millennials and Zoomers appear “a lot more religious than unaffiliated adults in the U.S. general population.”

That these Black nones can be both more and less religious, depending upon the point of comparison, reveals how the interpretation of such Pew survey data is contingent upon the ways in which Pew and survey respondents define the category of religion; while Pew includes a “Terminology” section with the report detailing important terms used throughout, the concept religion is conspicuously absent this list, so that interpretations of the report are left to whatever common sense notions of religion abound in society. Attuning to this archeology of knowledge, religious studies scholars Talal Asad and Tomoko Masuzawa have identified the Protestant bias that undergirded the construction of religion as an analytical category of both European thought and colonial administration during the long nineteenth century. Premised upon a universalism that espouses religion as transcendence, Eurocentric definitions of religion place[d] greater weight upon such rationalized, thought-oriented creeds and expressions of belief versus those kinesthetic, intuitive, ritual and habitual practices of piety that makeup the indigenous, and later Diasporic, traditions of Africa, Austral, Asia, and the Americas (and pre-Christian Europe for that matter, but I digress — this is not my scholarly project).

In looking to the particularity of the African-American experience, Yvonne Chireau has identified how the fault lines of this colonialist genealogy have placed a categorical cleft between religion and magic, rendering the integrated Black Christianist occult traditions of Hoodoo, Rootwork, and Conjure as illegible to Western reason. Stemming from indigenous West and West-Central African practices of Spirit / spirits, such “magical” notions that our material cosmos is an intimate assemblage of personhood, infinitely animated and dynamically interactive, responsive to humans and desirous of our healing, took on more critical resonance through the Middle Passage experience and the subsequent histories of antiblackness Transatlantic slavery incited/s. As Theophus Smith has pointed out, this conjurational expectation for a living God is yet maintained within even the Black Christian community, so that God’s power must manifest as an active working out upon the earth and within the body.

 This reconfigured definition of Black religion renders Black piety into a thoroughly sensuous and, at times, wonderfully-irrational phenomenon. While belief may properly belong to Eurocentric studies of religion, it remains a useful benchmark for reinterpreting the Pew data. Of the 8,660 Black Americans surveyed, almost all respondents – 97% — report belief in God, with Christians and Muslims more strongly imagining God through their scriptural tradition relative to unaffiliated Black folks who conceive of God as a “higher power or spiritual force.” But as the Apostle James preached to his Pauline brethren, “faith without works is dead,” so perhaps a more accurate measure of Black religion is found in tracking a practice such as prayer. The ontology of Black prayer is not an empty recitation of words bouncing off the ceiling, but consists of a conjurational practice that empowers humans to interact with divinity and effect some change upon the terrestrial plane in the here-and-now. When analyzed through this perspective, 78% of the Black community across all ages report that prayer can heal, and 33% of all respondents pray directly to their ancestors for protection. The importance of ancestors is further revealed through the 39% of all respondents who believe in reincarnation. But Black conceptions of the spirit realm are not only benevolent, with 73% believing that evil spirits can cause problems in a person’s life, echoing Zora NealeHurston’s anthropological observation: “among the Negroes of the North American continent the power of the dead to help or harm is common tenet” (emphasis added).

 If we widen our notion of prayer to connote all practices of dynamic encounter with Spirit / spirits, we can find more points of coherence among older and younger Black folks. In its most traditional manifestations, 60% of the Black Americans who routinely attend services report doing so in congregations where call and response liturgical patterns predominate, featuring the iconic expressions of “the shout” characterized by dancing, jumping, and other rhythmic bodily movements set against the sonic antiphonal vocalizations of preacher, organ, and congregation. 54% of Black Americans worship alongside folks who spontaneously speak in tongues, this heavenly language of nothingness, lacking semiotic referents, forms a hallmark of the Black pentecostal experience knowable through the irrationality of “nonsense,” a positive virtue when redefined by Ashon Crawley as “the refusal that sense has the final say” in determining Black forms of truth (217). Similarly “nonsensical” spiritual performances occur in the privacy of Black home environments, where 15% of all respondents pray before a home altar or shrine more than once a week, with 8% burning candles, incense or sage for a ritual purpose. And though many confessing Pentecostals might deny a metaphysical relation with their occult kin across the Diaspora, the necessity for Black folks to commune and communicate with Spirit / spirits is reflected by the 8% of Black Americans who explicitly consult a diviner or reader several times a week. 

And what can we say of those mostly youthful, so-called nones? While some of the specific questions above are not tabulated according to age cohort, Pew reports 90% of Black Millennials and Zoomers who more often eschew institutional affiliation with a religious community still profess belief in God or a higher power, 60% of them regularly pray, with 58% turning to prayer during a season of discernment before making a major life decision. And demonstrating their general consensus with Black elders regarding the reality of the unseen, 61% of unaffiliated Black folks who claim to practice “nothing in particular” believe in the presence of evil spirits, 40% pray to their ancestors for protection, and an even 50% fully expect to reincarnate following the death of their current form of life.

 As I have written on this blog previously, Enlightenment conceptions of linear, progressive time undergird arguments of History (so-received) that describe social patterns through the notion of “change over time.” But if progressive change is only an ideological perception, how do we properly articulate the historical dynamics by which social patterns persist? Intentional or not, Pew pronouncements that “generational patterns [of Black religion] are changing” might inadvertently cause readers to surmise the spiritual core of the Black community is weakening during an acute time of social mobilization, as the Movement for Black Lives demands the nation (re)consider the ontological reality of Black personhood. Though some younger Black folks are, indeed, making sense of their situation through emergent atheist and agnostic understandings, many more are generating a distinctly BLM-attuned religiosity that celebrates the beautifully tragic impossibility of Black lives, even if these Black youths no longer observe the “Sunday go-to-meetin” schedule maintained by their elders. If we modulate our sensibility of history to one in which time loops and layers, and strip away the identitarian labels that segregate Protestants from Catholics, etc., we can better appreciate that practices of ancestral re/membrance form a consistent metaphysical common ground of Black intramural life. Sensuous engagements with Spirit / spirits, such as the healing prayers and Pentecostal shouts cataloged by Pew, detail how these Black(ened) expectations for active encounters with the divine anticipate the indwelling and infusion of spirit through all forms of matter, especially the riven flesh of the Black body.

 In the kaleidoscope of demographic reconfigurations, then, perhaps the truest description of Black religion is discovered not through the quantitative data tables of the Pew Research Center alone, but in the qualitative sermons of literary characters like Beloved’s Baby Suggs, who admonishes: “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard….This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.”

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James Padilioni Jr

James Padilioni, Jr. is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College. His teaching and research foreground the ritual cultures and plantation lifeworlds of the African Diaspora, including magico-religious, ecstatic, and pharmacopic traditions, Afro-Latinx and Afro-American folk Catholicism, Black queer performance, and critical race theory. He is writing a book entitled 'Black Gnosis: San Martín de Porres, the African Diaspora, and the Problem of Knowledge,' Follow him on Twitter @ApontesGhost.