Books by Wilson
Golden Age of Black Nationalism,
1850-1925 (1988) /
The Wings of Ethiopia
Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent
Destiny & Race: Selected Writings, 1840-1898
Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary
Manipulations of a Religious Myth (1993)
Liberian Dreams: Back-to-Africa
Narratives from the 1850s
Afrotopia: The Roots of African American
Creative Conflict in African American Thought (2004)
* * *
Defining Religion, Describing
A Conversation with Wilson
Rudy: Topics like church and religion
make me uneasy, and especially when one talks about individual
beliefs and faith and how well they have been absorbed and
lived. It gives me no pleasure at all in taking up the
subject of how blacks actually live out their religion and how
the “Black Church” actually operates in our lives.
course, as black women, you probably are much more familiar with
those intimate matters than I. I say that only because it is
primarily black women who make the numbers in the “Black
Church.” I am like most black men at odds with and outside the
But the role of the black church in
liberation struggle is a necessary topic. It needs more poignant
reflective thought than it has been given in the last several
decades. In my humble view the so-called Black Church is
probably one of the most reactionary, perverse institutions
within the black community, and have become more so since the
deaths of Martin and Malcolm. There was hope when it retained
its congregational, community, agrarian oriented aspects. As it
manifests itself in urban centers now in the South, North,
elsewhere, they are harbors for sycophants, demagogues, and
scoundrels—now educated and trained in the best seminaries,
and thus loaded down with well-honed dogma and doctrines which
they hoist by force upon the people
They are more akin to ceos and censors than
the poor prophet from Nazareth, as they recline in their luxury
cars on making their entrance among the populace. So I am not surprised that the
emotional ills derived from racial oppression are not getting
healed and served there. These male religious leaders
(primarily) are aligned with the status quo. They get served and
Their primary message is the “gospel
of success.” You can be as comfortable as I, they say, if you take the
gospel road as I. Pyramid schemes thrive in these institutions. Let
me remind you: institutions by nature are conservative. That for
which they were created becomes secondary. Much of the energy
and resources are spent on preserving the institution rather
than the service it symbolically represents. That means the
preachers and their clique gain more than any from this kind of church
activity. The cult of personality is alive and well in the
From my view black church authorities are the
primary purveyors of the worst in black thought when it comes to
moral, social, and political views. Du Bois didn’t trust them.
I have not trusted them since I was baptized. Most of them did
not support King and the Civil Rights Movement. That was why
King created SCLC, a necessary alternative. The Black Baptist Convention and its
leaders were a hotbed of reactionary acts and conservatism. But
all these authorities received benefits from the Movement. Most of
these religious did not support the Black Consciousness Movement. But they all
received benefits from those sacrifices.
The "Black Church" is dead and it has been dead
for sometime. It was stillborn but it has been propped up as if
it were a real living being. That’s the great deceit. This
Great Lie has been propagated too long about the vitality and
creativity of the Black Church. That notion only serves the
interest of the preachers and their handlers. These fellows have
to be brought down a peg or two, or even farther. They are
excellent functionaries. But as far as the social, moral, and
political their voices are in reality very small and rather
insignificant in that they are ventriloquists, rather than
prophets of the Lord, liberators of the poor and the powerless.
Religion and church are sustained and
fostered by the interrelated activities of the people on a daily
basis. It is not in ritual. It is not in romanticization of
institutions. It is not in glorifying he who created the largest
edifice. It is not in whether your church is on radio or TV. It
is not in the cut and quality of cloth you wear to church. It is
not in how well the preacher speaks. Religion and church are not
in any of these superficialities.
What is called the Black Church today is a
collar and a chain around our necks. In the last several decades
we have experienced atrophy in the development of black religion
in America. That has resulted from an excess of black
theologians and doctors of divinities. It is they who have
driven a stake in its development, and purely for reasons of
self aggrandizement and self promotion. They want the people
totally dependent on them.
We must not only wake up, we must grow up.
Each of us much be experts in our own religion. We must realize
that real religion is a growing, living thing. Individuals
acting as community create and sustain religion, not
institutions. In this new world, we must be open to thoughts and
ideas of all religions and philosophies of life, as we are in
our literature, in our music, in our art. We must liberate
religion and church from the priests. And in this, women have a
great role to play.
That black women do not run the Black Church
today is an extraordinary absurdity and sign of the
oppressiveness of the Black Church and black religion. Black
women need to free themselves from the church as it is now
organized and find religious rapprochement with the men in their
lives. This process will go a long way to reviving the spirits
and women now in the Black Church.
There are many steps between
"implosion" and "explosion." We do not have
to confine ourselves to negatives. There are many little steps
one can take.
Wilson: Religion is seldom a unifying
force; often a divisive force. African Americans are
united only when someone seeks to practice overt racial
discrimination. We are not united on matters of
religion. Some of us accept Jesus as our savior and
others do not. Some of us accept the Koran as the word of
God; others do not. Most black Christians on this
planet are under the authority of the Pope (Brazil, Angola,
Congo, Haiti, Cuba, Mozambique, etc.). Religion is a
point of division; not a point of agreement among us.
Rudy: Religion is often divisive but not by necessity. There's a
Savannah Jew who has written a book with the title "The
Home of God" or something to that effect. He points out how
Cyrus the Persian (the "messiah") freed the Jews from the Babylonians.
Cyrus welcomed 25 different nations and all their varying
religious views in his empire.
These religions and cultures were in conversations with
each other and were the better for it. And man was the
better for it. I submit that it is not the divisiveness of
religions that is problematic. But rather it is the divisiveness
of religious and political leaders that generate divisiveness
among the people in their religious sentiments.
Here is what Johns Hopkins News-Letter reported
one leader, James Carville said in a speech, his recommendation to the 2008
Democratic presidential candidate:
faith, predominantly Christian faith, would be essential
to this New Patriotism, Carville said. He asserted that
the wisdom of the Old and New Testaments is relevant to
the modern practice of compassionate government in
Here he courts the Churches and their
leaders, challenging Republican dominance. Religion as religious dogma
and doctrines (created by priests or other censors for religious purity), as
religious institutions, which sustain dogma and doctrines, acts
as the source
of divisiveness. This dogma and these institutions
are promoted and sustained by a privileged elite. There is a need for a liberation of black religion.
The church cannot promote a liberation theology until it first
liberates itself and returns the church to the congregants
themselves. Until that happens I cannot have any faith in
institutions that specialize in divisiveness and
While taking a course in theology I asked a young
Catholic priest how he knew that salvation can only occur in the
church. What proof did he have of that? Or was he stating his
own prejudice? For such questions I was reported to the dean,
who later called me into his office and began to grill me and
wanted to know whether I had read the student handbook
carefully. He thought me some uncontrollable
heathen. I dropped out of the program. It was just not worth the
Wilson: First point: Religion
divides people into institutionally separate categories.
It need not place them in positions of violent opposition.
To say that peoples are divided is not to say that they are at
one another's throats. Indeed, religiously separated peoples
have sometimes been able to live in harmony and friendship, but
this is in spite of, not because of their behavioral and
Second point: I shall never be able to accept your
definition of religion. I apply the term exclusively
to social institutions. I do not apply the term
"religion" to individual faith or personal creeds.
Third point: While some religious people may be moral (whatever
that means) and while some moral people may be religious
(whatever that means), I see no logical or empirical basis for
confusing the concepts of morality and religion in attempts to
define either one.
Rudy: I'm not sure that I altogether
follow the argument you make. It seems logical and fair. But it
does not correspond to my experience, that is, your equation of
religion with institution. I'm not sure that that
view corresponds to the Protestant experience. I'm not
sure that it corresponds to the black experience, which I view
as primarily a protestant experience.
I'm not sure that it corresponds with the
Muslim experience, at least, not that experience as taught by
the prophet, in which there is no priesthood. If there is no
priesthood, there is no institution. If there is no institution,
religion becomes a portable thing. It changes and alters, grows
or diminishes in how it is practiced in relations to others.
I suspect your definition of religion is a
Catholic view, which holds that salvation can be had only within
the institution, not outside the Church. There are however
Catholic theologians that allow that Buddhists and Muslims can
be saved not by being in the Church, but rather by the exemplary
lives they lived.
To equate religion with institution
(dogma, doctrine) is to kill it instantly.
Wilson: Religion can be defined by
anybody to mean anything. I can merely be clear about what
I mean. For purposes of clarity I define
religion as "the observance of common prayers and pious
rituals institutionalized within an organized social group whose
members profess common beliefs regarding the supernatural."
I don't expect people to agree on my
definition. Most people define religion purely in terms of
their subjective emotions; others define it in terms of mystical
revelations, etc. In practical terms: people who call
themselves Muslims will never agree on what is essential in the
teachings of the prophet; Christians will never agree on what is
essential in the message of Jesus; Jews will never agree on what
is essential in the teachings of Moses. All three groups
disagree among themselves, hence there are both sectarian
differences and individual deviations within each of the groups.
Sometimes each of these groups is divided by
internal hatred and bloodshed. Perhaps you feel
comfortable declaring what the prophet taught. Over the
centuries and at present Muslims themselves exuberantly kill one
another because they cannot agree on what the prophet taught.
Christians have the same propensity.
Remember Itzhak Rabin was killed by a Jew. I don't pretend to understand what is meant by Christian
teaching. I have no idea of what constitutes
Christian teaching, and I see nothing resembling any consensus
among Christians as to what Christianity means.
Yours is a very tight definition that curls up
in itself. If that is what religion is--"an
observance"-- it is not a bother or a concern at all.
Surely, mere observance is not a divisive act.
Wilson: Rudy, you define religion in
terms of a set of moral principles that you personally endorse.
I define religion broadly enough to include both behaviors and
beliefs that I accept, and also behaviors and beliefs that I
Fred has a personal moral code, including the principle
"Thou shall not steal." Bob observes the
rules of an institution that prescribes prayer three times a
day, along with human sacrifice, and temple prostitution.
My definition would be too narrow to include Fred's admirable
principles, but broad enough to include Bob's despicable
practices. In my view, institutionalized worship is the
only essential feature of religion.
Your second point: The Oxford English Dictionary
vol. X, page 661, defines observance as: "The keeping of a
prescribed ritual; the performance of customary worship or
Your third point: Any social group that distinguishes
itself by its observances clearly divides, distinguishes, and
separates itself from other groups that do not follow those
Rudy: You might have an advantage on
me in this discussion in that half of the time I have no idea
what I'm saying. I did not know that I was confining religion to
"a set of moral principles." In practice, for me, I
know, religion is more than a matter of what one thinks,
that is what "principles" one may hold on an
intellectual level. I allowed, initially, as I recall, that
religion is an interrelated daily activity. That is, it is what
one does, not restricted by periodical "observances."
That when it comes to just “observances”
religion is dead, it has been placed in a box, which requires a
tribe of officials to attend to it and requires those periodical
observances which you have noted. When it reaches this stage of
"development," it is true, I want nothing to do with
it. That is indeed a principled response, for I am not really
into worshipping the dead.
The prophet of Nazareth says,
"Let the dead bury the dead, and you follow me."
Religion is much more portable than you allow. He says further
that where two or three of you gather in my name, there I am.
True worship is not a periodical,
ritualistic, institutional activity. That is the shadow, the
mere ghost of real worship and thus not real religion. Your
definition of religion is a planned, orchestrated activity
that requires a corps of specialists and tricksters who
restrict, manage, abuse true religious activity, an activity
that makes no extraordinary division between the mundane and
sacred, between the profane and the holy.
That things are separate and distinct do not
make them "divisive." By definition, for me, religion
reaches out and embraces all. Religion it cannot be at odds with
itself; whenever that occurs it is not religion at all but
rather something else
parading as if it were. These are the ghosts and shadows of
which I have spoken.
don't know what the Prophet of Nazareth said. All I know
is that certain statements are attributed to him by the same
institution that produced the Bible. We have no
knowledge of his teachings outside of that Bible, which is the
creation of an established institution known as the Church.
The Church created the Bible, and the rituals prayers and other
observances that go along with it under the name of religion.
Jesus is the property of the church and his teachings are
exactly what the Church says they are. Sort of like the
Supreme Court and the Constitution.
Religions are always
exclusive and Christianity, separates the sheep from the goats
and sends the non-believers into eternal hellfire. At
least that's the doctrine that is attributed to Jesus. But
of course we can always pick and choose.
Rudy: That's where I am, the place I
will stand: I'm for picking and choosing and that is what I
recommend to others. Free yourself from these institutional
worshippers. If there is no picking and choosing I want no
part of it. And I recommend that stance for others. That the
priests and the managers and ceos of these institutions might
have done certain work necessary but they do not altogether know
what they do, what they have done, and especially not in all of
its particulars. They were and are mere men. We have a history
of their errors and misjudgment.
We the people are no longer the people we
were. We have no need of these specialists any longer. We can
make those decisions and the interpretations for our selves now,
especially in defining what religion is. We know the letters, we know how to interpret the letters, the words, even the
spirit of the words. We have grown up. We are more awake than we
have ever been. And we see more clearly than ever the charlatan
character of these "priests."
You are on point when you note the
arrogance of the priests and the institutional managers
when they gather the Bible and Jesus as their property
and from such an exalted height they pass and distribute the "truth"
therein. Well, nobody who has a head on their shoulder will
accept that lying down. From what I understand of it we have a
religious history that mirrors the struggles against such
outrageous arrogance. The people will have none of it.
I cannot wholly agree with you that it is
impossible to "know" what Jesus of Nazareth said or
says. It may indeed be unlikely. It may indeed make for the
charlatans I spoke of earlier, a situation that makes me wary of
the Church and its henchmen, and their spiritual thuggery. I for
one do not fully discount those who have had
conversations with God, I mean just mere men.
I was raised in a culture in which religion
is viewed and experienced in a way different from how you have
described it. It is not uncommon to hear such expressions as,
"God told me," "God said to me," and
"The Lord told me to give you this message." There are
numerous other expressions that I could put forth as evidence
that there are numerous reports of ordinary fellows, speaking
And I suspect that in these conversations the Lord
affirms or denies those words found in the
Bible, or how to interpret. All this I believe
occurs much more frequently than you imagine.
Nathaniel Turner reports he had such
discussions with Christ. And I have no reason not to believe
that the report is not true. Now, as a historian and social
scientist, I know this kind of matter does not set well with
you. It makes you uncomfortable that such phenomena could
be in all truth.
We read such
reports as a problem of diet, too much acidity in one's fluids, hallucinations
caused by depression, vain apparitions. Instances this type of diagnosis
may prove right. I cannot believe, however, every
instance such visions are the products of material dysfunctions.
I asked Mama about Kierkegaard's dilemma, his
reflection on the situation of Abraham and Isaac. How do you
really know? My questions were nonsense to her sensibility. She
knew with a conviction so deep and rooted that her faith in what
Jesus had done for her could not be moved. It rendered me
silent. Yes, reasoning to the contrary would have been mere
nonsense indeed. So I concluded I was an errant knight and
Recall the religious rhetoric of King,
"I think I hear him saying." He was speaking of
Amos, I think. For King, the personages in the Bible were
not dead: the words on the page are living, they converse, they
speak for those who have ears to hear, and appear for those who
have eyes to see. In short, this is the essence of black
religious experience, as I know it, as I understand it, and, I
think, it is also how I experience it. I will allow that I may
be mistaken, that this what I describe is not “religion” at
all, that I have misnamed it, and that it is something other
I will accept that I am manipulating the
dictionary definition to make it into something that is not, and
never has been. I want to be agreeable. It is quite possible
that which I speak of is something that I desire, that my
writings are mere apparitions of my fancy, a waking dream
world. But I submit to you this madness is the norm.
Okay. Fair enough. You are interested in
the practice of religion. I am only interested in
defining a term.
Jeannette: Depending on the mood I'm
in, I may talk to any one of God's three personalities (as I
understand them) at any given moment, anywhere. Most
often I talk to Jesus, probably because I was introduced to him
first by my mother. (One of the earliest stories I heard
was about how she heard his footsteps coming down the hall to
heal her when she was ill.) I'm never fancy, proper or studied
when I talk directly to Jesus. He's just like a best friend, so
I can be plain old me. I'm don't have to pretend or choose my
words carefully. I can just "be," without exception.
When I am in the mood for being childish or
adolescent, I talk to God, the Father. Katrina hurt. I
cried and cried until I was tired of crying. It was hard to eat
and sometimes sleep. There was nothing else left for me to do
except talk to God, the Father. In those intimate moments the idea for the purple ribbons
came from Him, but not until after I had expurgated some of the
anger and sadness by writing an ugly poem. The poem, though
fairly well-written, I think, was not enough. It did not really
help. In the quietness, kneeling beside my bed, God, The Father
told me that this was not just about my feelings. The idea
to make the ribbons was born.
Now when it comes to the third aspect of
God's personality (as experienced by Christians,) The Holy
Spirit/Ghost, everything, at least for me, becomes a little more
complicated. I've learned that The Holy Spirit is nothing with
which I want to play. It is energetic, powerful and
"magical." I have yet to come to a full
understanding of its power. What I have learned is not to treat
For example, if I begin a day by asking the
Holy Spirit to guide me, I end up doing all kinds of things that
I personally have not planned on, such as asking perfect
strangers if they need a ride or if they would like for me to
write them an affirmation. Not once has it ever been the wrong
thing to do. I have never been endangered by this behavior.
However, since I don't necessarily want to
spend my time in street ministry (not preaching,) I have, in
very recent years, decided that a better way for me to talk to
the Holy Spirit is simply to ask questions, like "what is
the priority for today?" This quieter (more closed) way of
asking for guidance gives me more "space" to do things
my way as opposed to being propelled by this incredibly,
mysterious energy. I'm still learning how to be
comfortable and choose my questions wisely with the Holy Spirit.
I don't know how all of the above may or may
not be related to the institution of the church. What I have
learned about what works best in my life comes, to a large
degree, through conversations with God, dreams, a few good
sermons that caused me to think and theological discussions. I
need to revisit the biblical text because for the most part I
stopped regularly reading scripture when I went to college. I
was very happy to have the freedom not to attend church,
although at Hampton Institute vespers were still required on
This Katrina purple ribbon project does not
belong to me. It is God inspired and I am "called."
For some time my dreams have informed me of my role as servant.
It will be intriguing to see how this all evolves.
Depending on my daily moods, I will always
hold plain talks with Jesus, and/or God, the Father and/or the
Rudy: Religious experience is always
personal and unique. Yours call to mind those of Methodist
women in early 19th-century America. If you have not,
read William L. Andrews’ Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black
Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (1986).
Andrews' book reports the experience of three women
evangelists who were in some way or another barred from certain
Church activities or assigned secondary roles in the
In response to their trivialization by the
male church ministry, each of these women reports her
unique revelatory experience with the three persons of Christ to
demonstrate indeed their worthiness as a servant of the Lord.
These women suffered the compromise that from the congregation
they could act only as "exhorters." Of course, their
exclusion from the pulpit was not an invention of the AME, which in
the 19th century was probably the largest and most
influential "Black Church." After Jesus liberated
them, the priests under the influence of Paul’s teachings
adopted the doctrine of female inferiority and concluded that
the fair sex was much more receptive of deviltry than men.
So their enthusiasm had to be kept in check.
Thus regular church attendance under a male ministry was
necessary to keep them in order. The ecclesiastic who works
the "miracle" of hysterical abasement before the
pulpit (throne), says H.L. Mencken in his In Defense of
Women, tend to be "a fair and toothsome fellow, and a
good deal more aphrodisiacal than learned. . . . in transactions
far more suitable to the boudoir than to the footstool of the
Almighty." Though possibly influenced by the Church,
I suspect your religious experience is quite genuine and far
more valuable than the exhibitions prevalent in such church
behavior as can be found in male-led churches here in Baltimore.
Your Katrina inspired "ribbon
project" is a worthy response to the New Orleans tragedy
and expresses, in my mind, God's love, care, and mercy for the
poor and powerless. Whatever cynical view of religious
emotionalism you may encounter, I say ignore it, and be assured
of your own conviction. Paul was great but he was not Christ,
and the same experience that was opened to him, was/is indeed
opened to all.
Jeannette: Actually I have recorded
dialogues with God in one or two manuscripts.
Unfortunately, unlike one popular white male writer, I have not
been able to find a publisher for my Conversations With God.
I suspect that black women, like Sojourner Truth, your mother
and mine, have been holding dialogues with God for a long time.
posted 19 October 2005
* * *
* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the
rosy picture of race embodied in Barack
Obama's political success and Oprah
Winfrey's financial success, legal
scholar Alexander argues vigorously and
persuasively that [w]e have not ended
racial caste in America; we have merely
redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial
segregation has been replaced by mass
incarceration as a system of social
control (More African Americans are
under correctional control today... than
were enslaved in 1850). Alexander
reviews American racial history from the
colonies to the Clinton administration,
delineating its transformation into the
war on drugs. She offers an acute
analysis of the effect of this mass
incarceration upon former inmates who
will be discriminated against, legally,
for the rest of their lives, denied
employment, housing, education, and
public benefits. Most provocatively, she
reveals how both the move toward
colorblindness and affirmative action
may blur our vision of injustice: most
Americans know and don't know the truth
about mass incarceration—but her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
* * * *
Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late
1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of
Carter G. Woodson and
Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as
well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations
were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early
essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish
medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an
historical context for understanding 20th-century
creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone
writers, such as Cuban
Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist,
Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the
significance of Negritude in Latin America. This
collaborative text set the tone for later
conferences in which writers and scholars worked
together to promote, disseminate, and critique the
literature of Spanish-speaking people of African
descent. . . .
Cited by a
literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the
field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which
most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 9 September