In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s authors are Yolanda Covington-Ward and Jeanette S. Jouili. Covington-Ward is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Jouili is Associate Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. They are editors of the book, Embodying Black Religions in Africa and Its Diasporas.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Yolanda Covington-Ward and Jeanette S. Jouili: The chapters in our book address issues around race, blackness, collective action in a context of religion & spirituality (as discourse and practice). Religion can be a source of healing from racial trauma; it can be a mobilizing force to resist racism; but religion can also become a prism through which blackness is devalued and populations are stigmatized. In our current climate of racial reckoning, it is important to remind readers of the long histories of racist-inflected religious discourses while also recognizing the liberatory potential of religion that Black people have harnessed across the globe in past and present.
In Embodying Black Religions in Africa and Its Diasporas scholars from different disciplines examine similarities and differences in embodiment and relationality across diverse religions within Africa and its Diasporas. Bringing these different areas of research together is not merely a response to this geographic disconnect, but it bears many important analytical questions. Africans on the continent and throughout its many diasporas are dealing with corresponding historical and current social and economic challenges, related to colonialism, enslavement, racial oppression, and social exclusion and marginalization, both within nation-states and within larger global systems of power. Especially within the context of neoliberal reforms, such as structural adjustment programs, the reduction of social services, and the outsourcing of industrial jobs, people of African descent have borne the brunt of massive social transformations. In these contexts that have deteriorating affects on the social fabric of vulnerable communities, religion has come to play a major role, both historically and in the contemporary moment, in coping with these changes and also affecting larger social transformations.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
We hope that readers learn to appreciate the diverse experiences and contexts across Africa and its diasporas where black people are using religion in a wide variety of ways to deal with their social realities. The diversity addressed in the book should also remind the reader that Black religious expression is not monolithic.
We also want readers to recognize the crucial role of the body and embodiment in these productive engagements with religion and spirituality. We also want to show to what extent these engagements are social in nature and not individualist, playing a significant role in the creation of communities and shared identities. We also want readers to recognize that, despite the diverse contexts and experiences, and despite the variety of religious and spiritual traditions (from Pentecostalism, to Ifa divination, to Islam), the global racial hierarchies also create certain continuities and comparable conditions with which Black people must grapple.
The book also highlights the agency and initiative of Black communities. The volume shows how members of Black communities define and engage with religion and spirituality on their own terms and use embodiment to shape both their individual lives and interpersonal relations within larger spiritual and religious communities. Embodied religions can be a form of open protest but also can take more subtle forms of shaping social worlds and realities.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
One important thing we want readers to un-learn is the powerful, insidious Enlightenment ideology that has separated the body from the mind, established a hierarchy between them and defined the civilized (white) man as endowed with a mind (I think, therefore I am). As a consequence, the rest of the world has been relegated to an epistemological state of non-being (the primitive can’t think, is held prisoner by his/her body). This ideology has justified slavery, colonization and racial discrimination is still very much relevant in civilizational discourses. These discourses have also informed scholarship for quite a long time, where indigenous religious traditions did not count as true religion and other non-Western, and non-White religious traditions were considered as religions with a defect; for all these traditions were judged to lack true interiority–because inappropriately preoccupied with the body and/or lacking the white Protestant ideal of bodily restraint. Even today, in public discourses, these ideas simmer through regularly. They are used—consciously or unconsciously—to negatively represent people of color in the US and globally, or to limit their opportunities or rights. Thus, the different contributions in the volume all argue in one way or the other that to rethink the role of the body for understanding interiority and spirituality has political consequences.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Because this is an edited volume with multiple authors, the intellectual heroes are many. But the names that have come up repeatedly in the different chapters were Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter, W.E.B DuBois, Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Yvonne Daniel, Michel-Rolph Trouillot among others.
Fanon was important for the authors to understand the intersections of racism and mental health issues–issues that would often be healed through embodied religious practices. Fanon, as much as Wynter, were also referred to when discussing the existence of racial ontologies historically used to structure humanity into hierarchies. W.E.B DuBois was also invoked by authors to discuss racism and the color-based value systems that value whiteness and despise and denigrate blackness, even down to values associated with each color as concepts.
The work of Evelyn Brooks-Higginbotham was valuable for demonstrating how embodiment in terms of dress and bodily conduct was central to racial respectability politics during the era of segregation. Several of our authors built upon the research of Yvonne Daniel, a renowned scholar of African diasporic dance, by showing how embodiment problematizes the boundary between the sacred and the secular, and also the role of embodied dances in creating transcendent states. Michel-Rolph Trouillot also provided new ways of looking at the politics of history and memory, highlighting the tensions between what happened in the past and the stories that people tell about the past.
Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood were relevant thinkers in the recent shift in the anthropology of religion to deconstruct the implicit or explicit Enlightenment bias that valorized the interior mind as the key site of spirituality to the detriment of the body.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Because many chapters are engaged with processes of community building, the communities under investigation are by definition already looking to the future. These communities expose different possibilities of being in the world, of relating to the self and to one another. The people discussed in these chapters provide us with models for engaging in processes of (individual and collective) self-definition, of (individual and collective) self-reform, and most crucially also, in (individual and collective) work of healing. All these chapters gesture toward alternative worlds where Black people are agents in transforming the world around them–a world that has usually not been kind with them–to shape it in ways that make it more livable for them, where their dignity is respected. The different chapters of our volume also show how Black religious and spiritual communities imagine new worlds in various ways everyday–worlds free from racism, poverty, and xenophobia; worlds in which they are centered rather than marginalized, worlds where they can be the agents of their own destinies. Thereby, they also show that these future-oriented worlds in the making are never without conflict or simply utopian but have to constantly grapple with a range of power dynamics and political claims, internal and external.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.