Anthony B. Pinn. Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. xiv + 274 pp. ISBN 0-8006-3601-5. Reviewed by A. J. Scopino, Jr., for the Journal of Southern Religion.

Anthony Pinn's objective in Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion is to locate "the heart and soul of black religious life" (2).  From the beginning, the African in North America was defined by color and by cultural differences. The "negro," according to Pinn, was a white construct (2). Informed by "negative color symbolism," the African was vilified as inferior, evil, dangerous, repulsive, and ultimately, less than human (4).  By the mid-nineteenth century there had emerged a host of social, psychological, and legal ramifications and restrictions that reinforced this process of dehumanization.  Enslavement on the shores of Africa, the Middle Passage, and auction blocks became "rituals of reference" or instances and reminders of shame and degradation for blacks in North America (71).  Following emancipation, southern whites were determined to maintain the social order and relegated Freedmen and Freedwomen to a state of ignorance, poverty, and dependence, which perpetuated the dehumanization of earlier decades. In addition, whites frequently employed violence when they felt threatened in any way. Citing Michel Foucault's analysis of punishment in society, Pinn explains that "Through terror and torture of either lynching or the prison system as described by Foucault, the body is torn, literally or figuratively, into mementos---objects in which and through which the meaning of white supremacy is played out" (70). The status of the black as "object" was reinforced well into the twentieth century. Pinn's book examines both the dehumanization process and black attempts to overcome it.

". . . for more than 250 years the Black Church has been addressing terror, dehumanization, and objectification through what Pinn calls 'liberative activism.'"  


In response, black religion developed its own manifestations of religiosity that sought to combat the processes of dehumanization and objectification. Pinn asserts that the tribulations experienced by blacks sparked "the development of practices, doctrines, and institutional structures earmarked for historical liberation from terror" (81). Blacks formulated a "theology of history" that enabled them to make sense out of their suffering (85).  In essence, for more than 250 years the Black Church has been addressing terror, dehumanization, and objectification through what Pinn calls "liberative activism" (88). Accordingly, blacks made their churches agencies for combating racial hostility. In fact, following the Civil War, many joined independent churches as a "visible affirmation of their independence and personhood: humans make choices, select their social arrangements, and act upon their beliefs" (86). In so doing, southern blacks experienced a "rebirth" and entered into a new relationship with Christ (87).

Christianity, however, was but one means in confronting the dehumanization process. The Nation of Islam has also been liberative.  It has struggled against economic and political dependence, has created a religious aesthetic, has developed religious ritual, and has promoted positive self-image among African Americans.  Furthermore, the Nation's elaborate theology, cosmology, and mythology hold that "White superiority is a regressive behavior, and black inferiority is the residue of terror that must be rejected" (131). The Black Church and the Nation of Islam are both examples of "religion as a historical wrestling with dehumanization" (132).

It is in this struggle against dehumanization that Pinn locates the core of black religion: "the quest for complex subjectivity" or "a desire or feeling for more life meaning" (173).  His interdisciplinary approach taps Jamesean psychology in which the conversion experience is essential. Through conversion the "self" is made whole thereby permitting the oppressed to make choices freely and without fear. In addition, the author employs art criticism which reveals an empowering aesthetic in black religion. This aesthetic, both expressive and decorative, further serves as a mechanism for instilling self-worth. Finally, he utilizes relational centralism, an interdisciplinary methodology, which permits students of black religion "to decipher patterns and layers of meaning and movement" and examine both universal and particular traits, past and present, in the religions of African Americans (196).

Pinn's work is a welcome addition to the study of the black religious experience. Especially helpful is the new vocabulary and language that adds a varied understanding of African American religion. Building upon the seminal work of Deotis Roberts, James Cone, and Gayraud Wilmore in identifying blackness with suffering and oppression in the United States, Pinn succeeds in locating the "heart and soul of black religious life" (2). Perhaps the most important contribution of the book, however, is Pinn's methodology. The struggle and ultimate triumph of black religion is analyzed through an interdisciplinary perspective, which not only adds fresh insight, but also provides new strategies for all students in religion. This approach is invaluable to readers of this journal and others who seek a more comprehensive understanding of religious life in the American South. 

 A. J. Scopino, Jr., Central Connecticut State University

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