Spirit in the Dark: A New Book on the Religious History of Racial Aesthetics

This post is part of a new and recurring blog series I am editing, which announces the release of selected new works in African American and African Diaspora History. Today is the official release date for Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics, published by Oxford University Press


j sorettThe author of Spirit in the Dark is Josef Sorett. Professor Sorett is an Associate Professor of Religion and African-American Studies at Columbia University, where he also directs the Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS). As an interdisciplinary scholar of religion and race in the Americas, Professor Sorett employs primarily historical and literary approaches to the study of religion in black communities and cultures in the United States. Professor Sorett’s second book — tentatively titled The Holy Holy Black: The Ironies of an African American Secular — is under contract with Oxford University Press. Additionally, Professor Sorett is editing an anthology that explores the sexual politics of black churches.

Professor Sorett’s research has been supported with grants from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Louisville Institute for the Study of American Religion, the Fund for Theological Education, and Yale University’s Institute for Sacred Music, where he is in residence as a senior fellow during the 2016-2017 academic year. Under his leadership, CARSS’s work has received generous support from the Arcus, Carpenter and Ford foundations. Professor Sorett’s scholarship has been published in academic journals and anthologies. His writing and commentary have also appeared in a range of popular media outlets, including ABC News, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BBC, and NPR.

spirit in the dark

Most of the major black literary and cultural movements of the twentieth century have been understood and interpreted as secular, secularizing and, at times, profane. In this book, Josef Sorett demonstrates that religion was actually a formidable force within these movements, animating and organizing African American literary visions throughout the years between the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts movement of the 1960s. Sorett unveils the contours of a literary history that remained preoccupied with religion even as it was typically understood by authors, readers, and critics alike to be modern and, therefore, secular.

Spirit in the Dark offers an account of the ways in which religion, especially Afro-Protestantism, remained pivotal to the ideas and aspirations of African American literature across much of the twentieth century. From the dawn of the New Negro Renaissance until the ascendance of the Black Arts movement, black writers developed a spiritual grammar for discussing race and art by drawing on terms such as “church” and “spirit” that were part of the landscape and lexicon of American religious history. Sorett demonstrates that religion and spirituality have been key categories for identifying and interpreting what was (or was not) perceived to constitute or contribute to black literature and culture. By examining figures and movements that have typically been cast as “secular,” he offers theoretical insights that trouble the boundaries of what counts as “sacred” in scholarship on African American religion and culture.

Ultimately, Spirit in the Dark reveals religion to be an essential ingredient, albeit one that was always questioned and contested, in the forging of an African American literary tradition. Exploring the work and lives of the some of the most celebrated black artists and intellectuals — including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Lorraine Hansberry; Ralph Ellison, Roi Ottley, Ann Petry and Richard Wright; Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka and Toni Cade Bambara — from a new angle, Sorett reveals the complicated, and at times contradictory, ways that religion shaped their literary visions. In doing so, Spirit in the Dark captures a spiritual impulse at the center of the black literary imagination.

“An exciting and innovative intervention that deftly melds African American religious and cultural studies.” —Barbara D. Savage, author of Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion


Ibram X. Kendi: Tell us a little bit about how you produced Spirit in the Dark. What were your source materials, intellectual approaches, and writing style?

Josef Sorett: Most concisely, Spirit in the Dark is a historical project that engages with literary sources to wrestle with theoretical questions in the study of religion. My primary academic audience, in this regard, is comprised of scholars of religion in North America and African American religious history, in particular. Yet most of the sources I’m working with in the book are materials that have been engaged primarily by literary historians. So, in this way, I’m appealing to African American literary history to rethink the sources and narratives of American religious history at the same time that, by focusing on “religion,” I hope to join with other scholars who are complicating the secular orthodoxies that tend to guide literary criticism, in general.

As for sources, more specifically, this work has involved a re-reading of popular essays and anthologies like The New Negro, The Negro Caravan, The Black Aesthetic and The Black Woman, reading through black and white newspapers and magazines (which are increasingly accessible on-line), and archival research at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (NYPL), and the Beinecke Library at Yale, among other places.

In terms of approach and writing style, at least as I imagine it, my research and writing are informed by a desire to play with the tensions between history and theory. Most of the models of scholarship–across disciplines–that inspire me do this in some form or another. Of course, there are too many scholars to name in this regard; but I’d be in denial to ignore the influence here of my two dissertation advisors, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Robert Orsi. Albeit in very different ways, both Evelyn and Bob have a way of elegantly weaving theory and history together to great effect.

At least with Spirit in the Dark, I’ve leaned more toward the history side of this tension, offering a clear chronology that tries to track change over time. Yet I’m keenly aware of how many other stories could have been told about the same time period and source materials. To put it another way, the history I’ve provided is no doubt also a reflection of my particular “theoretical” questions and concerns. I’m hopeful that the more theory-inclined readers will see how it animates the historical narrative I’ve cast. And, if not, my second book swings the pendulum a bit more freely toward the other side.

Still, at the end of the day, I’m more concerned with telling interesting stories and gaining greater historical clarity than with theoretical jargon or constructive abstractions; and I hope this comes through in both the content and form of my writing. To be sure, I want to speak to experts in the above fields in ways that are recognizable. Yet I also think that there is enough of a general academic interest (and perhaps beyond) in the subject of black literature and cultural expression (i.e. the Harlem Renaissance)—and in black religion, for that matter. As such, while I’m not sure if I pulled it off, I’ve at least tried to write Spirit in the Dark in such a way that is not geared just toward the “experts” and “specialists,” and is cognizant of this range of potential readers.

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Ibram X. Kendi

Ibram X. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a New York Times Best Seller. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

Comments on “Spirit in the Dark: A New Book on the Religious History of Racial Aesthetics

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    Most of the major black literary and cultural movements of the twentieth century have been understood and interpreted as secular, secularizing and, at times, profane.

    This is a remarkable and puzzling statement. I guess I will have to read the book in order to understand in what way this could be true. Congratulations Josef!

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    Excellent methodological approach. It is what I began to do in Honoring the Ancestors: An African Cultural Interpretation of Black Religion and Literature” Oxford Press 1998, 2012. Congratulations! I look forward to reading it.

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