Dr. Albert J. Raboteau II died on September 18, 2021. He was the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion Emeritus at Princeton University, where he made an institutional home from 1983–2013 and where I met him. His memorials and obituaries tell the story of his accomplished academic life, foregrounding his contributions to the field of African-American religion. His foundational books Slave Religion and Canaan Land were followed by others, some more personally inflected, including A Fire in the Bones, and what I might call his spiritual biography, A Sorrow Joyful. He discussed his last monograph American Prophets, published in 2016, in an interview for this blog. What I share comes from taking his course on African-American religion years ago, revisiting what was kindled in that classroom, and returning to his work over the years. They are heartfelt reflections and sparse memories, but cherished ones no less.
It was my junior spring, 1998, and I watched this renowned scholar enter our classroom in 1879 Hall on the first day of class. I was struck by his serenity and the way he lectured without raising his voice. His audibility relied on our silence and stillness and the universe of thought and experience he evoked in the room compelled it. For a semester, I sat in awe of the ways Professor Raboteau, as I remember him, narrated the devotional life that Black people in the US had crafted that could carry a state of captivity, foster a collective imagination, and cultivate the daily faith needed to sustain and nurture Black existence. The formation of a Black Christianity, the affective soundscape of gospel music, the Black church as a social, spiritual, and political home—these were the historical and social realms I felt welcomed into all the while being educated about the persons, including Raboteau himself, that made it possible for us students to sit in a classroom and learn about this history. Never before had I heard in an institution Black folks spoken of with such care and dignity. Never before had I encountered a professor who showed me that you could think and write knowledgeably and soulfully.
I remember my TA, who was one of Raboteau’s graduate students at the time, suggesting that I read the final essay in A Fire in the Bones. This kind TA (whose name I woefully no longer recall) related that this book was a treasure in Raboteau’s writing and one that might help my own. What stays with me is retrieving the book from the library, returning to my dorm room, and reading this short epilogue — an essay that weaves the story of Raboteau’s father’s murder by a white man into a meditation on the long history of Black collective loss and undeniable love that animate Black reverence. Alone in my room with tears in my eyes and emotion I could hardly untangle, I sat transformed by the knowing that scholarship could sound and feel so exquisite, and that the melancholy within me had ancestry and impetus. Raboteau called it “a sorrowful joy” a term he returned to frequently in his writing, to make palpable the emotional landscape that underpinned African-American spiritual life. He named a mood and offered a concept for tending to the interior lives of Black folks, that I have since explored.
“Life in a minor key” was more of the language Raboteau conjured to convey the fullness and mournfulness of Black life. His work illustrated the tireless holding of paradox: joy and sorrow, bondage and freedom, the flawed and the sublime. He also demonstrated how scholarship could serve personal, if not sacred projects. Reflecting on his research and memory work, he wrote, “I felt that in the recovery of this history lay the restoration of my past, myself, my people.” He showed me how to write Black life into a web of emotional and psychic complexity, neither tragedy nor exemplary, but profoundly human in its search for meaning and home.
Several weeks ago, a colleague invited me to discuss some of my writing for his undergraduate course on race and the environment. He unexpectedly asked if there was anything from my own undergraduate education that had shaped the direction of my work. Raboteau and his course came to mind. The connection is far from linear, but what arose, and what I share more clearly now, was how Raboteau’s philosophical and personal approach had bolstered my ability to wonder about Black understandings of the sacred and take seriously the forces of beauty, peacefulness, and stillness that seem to tether our material experience to something greater. In reading his rhythms and prose, I felt like I recovered a desire in my voice to write richly and intimately about Black people and to have the courage to contemplate the spiritual dimensions of ecological thought.
This past January, Raboteau’s daughter Emily tweeted that her father had entered hospice care. This was my first awareness that he was ill. In the months since, I have reflected and waited from afar, revisiting the class I took years ago. I’ve pondered his imprints on my intellectual life, and how he had provided a well-trodden path for embracing his eventual loss, and in general, the bittersweetness of life itself, felt so viscerally in these past years of global grief.
With him gone, and allowing the sadness to sink in, I feel his “sorrowful joy” and am more acquainted with what he tracked slowly as “sorrow merging into joy.” The loss I feel with his passing is consoled by the contentment and grace I experienced in the brief period in which I sat in his presence and teaching. The long history and tradition of Black spiritual life he conceptualized and archived will remain a touchstone and companion for my continued work on Black people. May others, especially those who did not have the pleasure of encountering him in the flesh, explore the breadth and depth of his written legacy. May he hear my memory and praise.