Response to Reviews

Barbara Dianne Savage
Professor of History, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought
University of Pennsylvania

All writers need readers if the books we write are to have lives of their own.  Thanks to the close attention and astute critiques of Professors Jennings, Sanders, and Dorman, I have that rare opportunity to remind myself of where and how the book began, what I hoped it would contribute, and what remains to be done (and what I was unable to do).  I am especially grateful to this forum because I see this book as being primarily about black southerners.

When I remember the beginnings of this project, now a decade ago, I recall my trepidation in entering a field in which I was not trained.  That is, as a scholar and teacher of twentieth century African American history, my primary interests are in political and cultural history, with particular attention to the relationship between black intellectuals and activists and the masses of people they often claim to represent.  My first book explored that in the unlikely context of radio programming on race relations during the World War II era, permitting me to examine the shifting conflicts between black people, the mass media, and the federal government.  More than that, the book chronicled the search for an institutional basis for black political power in an era of enlarging institutional forces.

It was in the end stages of that book that I found recurring evidence in the late 1940s of the idea that black churches were insufficiently political and disengaged from public duties to “the race.”  As a child of the civil rights movement, and someone who had imbibed its familiar narrative of religion and politics, I was surprised to find that concern expressed so closely to the 1950s.  So it began, a search backwards to see how ideas about the nexus between black politics and black religion – what that relationship was and what it ought to be – had evolved, or as historians are required to do, how those ideas changed over time.  For me, this was a story about the continuing search for a politically potent black-controlled institution before, during, and after the civil rights movement.

I read my way into the field of black religious studies, not just in the contemporary period, but retreating to the canonical works in the field as both primary and secondary sources for the debates I wanted to chronicle.  Increasingly interested in the lives of the intellectuals and scholars I was studying, I also became painfully aware of the differences in the circumstances under which they wrote and taught – and the relatively luxurious circumstances under which I now was able to study them.  The immediate conundrum for me, however, was the way in which their focus on clerical leadership and its flaws neglected attention to the people in the pews, specifically the women who constituted the majority and the driving force in the churches being studied. 

If I stayed within the traditional definition of “intellectual” and the standard locations of “ideas,” I would be replicating that conundrum in my own work, especially if I focused only on people privileged to write books.  Black women intellectuals and activists rarely had that opportunity in the periods I was studying, but they were prolific writers, speakers, and organizers; they had their own ideas as well on contemporary issues of the day, including on black religion and politics.  During my work on a collaborative book on women, religion and the African diaspora, I had come to appreciate the importance of “lived religion;” I wanted in this book to include women who “lived” out their intellectual ideas, sometimes in print but as often in lives of service and commitment.

So the divisions within the book reflect the evolution in my own thinking.  The first two chapters are more traditional intellectual history but raise questions about the sociology of knowledge or about power and knowledge.  The exploration of Bethune, Burroughs, and Mays use the narrative arc of their long lives to capture the key political and religious debates of their times.  The chapter on memoirs was written with my students in the mind; that is, I wanted them to “hear” from people of their own age who joined the movement and its southern black religious culture.  Little did I know that then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama would capture their young imaginations so fiercely or that he and Rev. Jeremiah Wright would walk into a story I felt I was already telling.  So a planned epilogue on black theology evolved into a final chapter on the Obama/Wright controversy instead.  There was no teleological plan to reach that moment; it just intruded in the middle of copyediting.  Books not only have their own lives, but book writing does, too.

Now on to the reviews themselves.  Taken together, all three reviewers generously and gracefully point out the most salient parts of the book; in other words, they “get” what I was trying to do, thanks to their close and attentive readings.  For me, the primary audience for this book – much to my editor’s regret – remains students and teachers, whether in colleges or seminaries or within religious institutions or wherever thoughtful people gather and argue with one another.  I wanted this to be a teaching book; it is written in an accessible style because that is the way I think, and if that works for a general (and patient) reader, all the better.

I most wanted the book to be a contribution to the field of study that has welcomed me, African American religious history.  Out of necessity and with authorial license, I raised some questions that I could not answer and ignored others as reflected in the excellent comments on “the margins.”  Yes, yes, and yes again; yet I wanted to pay attention to the black Baptist and Methodist traditions precisely because of their hegemonic influences on how we think about the rich panoply of black religious beliefs, cultures, organizations, and theologies.  Whenever I speak about the book, I am always asked “what about ‘the Muslims’ or Islam?”  Truly synthetic and comprehensive work on twentieth century black religious history – and mine lays no claim to that – should challenge even the tropes of “center” and “margin” in the same way that we have moved away from notions about “cults and sects.”  I look forward to that work as eagerly as anyone and I hope that this book can be helpful to the scholar or scholars who undertake it.

My book has been mentioned in recent public debates about the continued relevancy of black churches.  I spent way too many hours of my childhood and my adult life in churches full of black people to ever claim or imply that that these institutions are a mere “construction.”  What I did argue is that “the black church” is an intellectual and political cliché that always obscures more than it reveals.  I advised caution and suspicion when that term is used to evoke a monolith that does not exist.

Is “the black church” dead?  In the Wizard of Oz, when the munchkins sang “Ding dong the Wicked Witch is dead,” they were relying on the evidence right in front of their eyes.  Yet, by every measure, all of the facts point to the persistent growth and vitality of black churches, including a recent Pew Research Center survey on religion and public life.  So what gives with that claim?  Nothing that would be otherwise newsworthy if we were not now living in an age of “pseudo-events,” a term that Daniel Boorstin presciently coined in 1961 to define staged controversies that masquerade as news and then as reality.  It was then as now easier to attract popular attention by making over-simplifications than by doing the harder work of engaging historical and contemporary realities with rigor and specificity.

Much remains to be done on both the possibilities and the restraints which religious belief and practices bring to black communities and their political engagements.  To diminish that reality through hyperbole does a disservice to those millions of black people for whom religious belief and faith remain alive, well, and real.  Then again, these recent debates are themselves yet another example of the persistence of the politics of black religion. 

Thanks again to Professors Jennings, Sanders, and Dorman for their careful engagement with my work and for their continued scholarly pursuits of our shared interests.


Volume XII, Table of Contents


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