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Battered by dehumanizing experiences of slave cruelties, but already primed by their native

 spirituality, Negro spirituals became the folk expression of a Black Theology – whose themes

are laced with liberation motifs, undaunted courage in the face of hardship

 

 

 

Religion and Society By Rose Ure Mezu

Preface  

Black Creativity and the State of the Race

By Dr. Rose Ure Mezu

 

These essays are selected from the many excellent papers presented at the 1998 Morgan State University Second Annual International Interdisciplinary Conference, “Writers of African Descent Speak: Black Creativity and the State of the Race,” which took place from April 2-3, 1998 at the University. The focus of the 1998 conference was “Religion, Politics, and Literature.” During the 1997 Conference, the crux of the discussion centered on of the multiple ills plaguing the black community and the role of the Black Church. Since its traditional relevance is undeniable, it became imperative to re-examine the Black Church’s place in the contemporary Black Community. Hence the 1998 Black Creativity Writer’s Conference chose “Religion and Society” as its main theme.

As in the preceding year, speakers came from academic institutions and from the community. There were eighteen general and five plenary sessions. The five keynote speakers included the Pan-Africanist scholars Dr. Ali Mazrui and Black Arts Movement popular poet Sonia Sanchez and three religious leaders – Rev. Dr. Wyatt Walker, Pastor, Canaan Baptist Church, Harlem; Rev. Dr. Ann Farrar Lightner-Fuller, Pastor, Mount Calvary A.M.E. Church of Towson, Maryland; and the Banquet Speaker, Rev. Dr. Vashti McKenzie, Pastor, Payne Memorial A.M.E. Church, Baltimore, Maryland.

The second day of the two-day conference was spent reconsidering the influence and validity of the Black Church in America, Africa, and the Caribbean. The Black Church had become the primary base of cultural and economic development as well as political empowerment in the Black community. The early African American Church was the seedbed of revolutionary radicalism as most of the fiery abolitionist preachers provided leadership and response to the inhuman slave system.

Dr. Walker reiterates this legacy of service in his lecture, “Roots-Musically Speaking,” and attributes the longevity of the African American Church to the urgency with which that institution has responded in every era of change and transition to the perceived needs of the people it serves. “Roots-Musically Speaking” becomes a paradigm for providing wholeness and healing to a people’s broken spirit.

African authentic cultural and religious experiences, directly traceable to African religious tradition through its music, recentered black people within the warm bosom of a black church. Rev. Walker asserts that the character, structure, and tonal qualities of the sacred music of the African-American religious experience are the most glaring examples of the American fruit of an African root. West African religion, highly transcendental, with its innate principle of monotheism, has a parallel kinship with the New Testament thought of Jesus. Walker therefore insists Africans were not Christianized, rather “the ancestors of Africans Africanized European Christianity” (Religion and Society, 15).

Battered by dehumanizing experiences of slave cruelties, but already primed by their native spirituality, Negro spirituals became the folk expression of a Black Theology – whose themes are laced with liberation motifs, undaunted courage in the face of hardship and bolstered by an enduring faith in God – all elements of resistance that acquired a universalism whenever people are faced with injustice and oppression. Thus the music of African Americans with all its transformations and phases became the baseline music, art form, and further became the root of not only the music of Black Americans but of all music indigenous to America, and beyond America, the world.

Rev. Gabriel Ezewudo, C.S. Sp., takes up that motif with “Christianity, African Traditional Religion, and Colonialism: Were Africans Pawns or Players in the Cultural Encounter?” Reverend Ezewudo insists that although Western missionaries came looking for souls, “they could not take away the African Soul” (Religion and Society, 41). Rev. Ezewudo confirms what Rev. Wyatt Walker describes as cold sterility and lack of emotional warmth of the sacred-worship mode of the Western Church:

[Ironically, the older churches in the West are experiencing empty pews and membership apathy. Instead the industrialized West is swinging to seemingly secular attractions that are reinstating the “gods of nature.” In the West, what used to be “animism” is coming back with vengeance in the advocacy of respect to nature. This appears to be a vindication and validation of African traditional religious beliefs and practices. The earlier blanket condemnation of these practices therefore either derived from ignorance or was a manifestation of belief in the superiority of Western colonial values (Religion and Society, 42).

Thus Africa’s ready acceptance of Christianity rather than be seen as evidence of imperialistic imposition points to the acculturative disposition of the traditional faith of the African ancestors. Therefore, Africa’s traditional ancestors, far from being mere pawns, can equally be seen then as players who “contributed to the rediscovery of lost reverences.”

The late 1990s can be classified as the age of the women in religion, the latter, traditionally a bastion of masculinity. Black women preachers and leaders are presently making the same incursion that the feminist ideology has made in every human sphere. Rev. Dr. Ann Farrar Lightner-Fuller’s interpretation of the teaching role of the Black Church completes the male religious worldview. Her womanist interpretation of the biblical story of Sarai and Hagar in their competition for Abram’s love delineates the feminist principles needed for a self-fulfilled existence: self-awareness, self-definition, compassion towards fellow women or sisterly bonding, clearly defined goals and reliance on God rather than on others.

The thread of continuity knitting the essays together again resurfaces in Dr. Ali Mazrui’s “Africa and Other Civilizations: Conquest and Counter-Conquest” as he takes up Reverend Ezewudo’s theme of Africa’s ready acceptance of Western religion and mores as both an illustration of the continent’s strength and weakness. To this, he introduces a third dimension of the boomerang element of the conquerors becoming in turn the conquered. The fight and competition between the two alien “conqueror” religions – Islam and Christianity – underscore the peaceful nature of African Traditional Religion (ATR), tolerant of other religions and never seeking to impose a religious point of view on a neighbor or another ethnic group. But a reciprocal conquest ensues as Africa begins to reform Islam, acculturate the Christian religion, and revitalize even the French language (shrinking in usage) by providing the largest French speaking population worldwide.

With the Africans entrenched in America, the vista becomes hopeful that in the coming millennium, just as musically, Blacks have influenced the world, African American may (as they effectively advance technologically), also share those skills with the rest of the black diaspora. They could well become to Africa, in the intellectual and technological sense, what the Jews of the world are to Israel. Thus counter-penetrating one’s conquerors, in Ali Marui’s visionary praxis, appears an exciting an enticing possibility.

Society and literature commanded an equal attention during the conference. Dr. Rose Ure Mezu’s “Women, the Black Race, and Pan-Africanism” traces the history of womanism and memorable womanist activists projected into various leadership positions as redeemers of their race. These women epitomize self-knowledge, confidence, and self-reliance as they show compassion towards members of their sex and total commitment to their missionary quest for service to the black race.

Rita Dandrige extends this praxis as she advocates that black women must enter the theoretical landscape in order to keep instep with the changing black fictional mode that is progressively eschewing Eurocentrism in favor of Afrocentricity. She exemplified her revisionist theory with Terry McMillan’s female models – caught up in a confluence of ambiguous values – but who defeat oedipalizing (Deleuze and Guttari’s term) hegemonic myths to reach a liberatory phase of self-definition and self-actualization. Theirs become a womanist cultural consciousness of the urban cultural collectivism that encompasses the black community and embraces a race consciousness. This race consciousness becomes the agent capable of transforming Black America from powerlessness to power.

In turn, Dr. S. Okechukwu Mezu provides the general historical overview of black activism as its progress and survival intersect with the fortunes of publishing. The black publishing industry – past, present, and future – is revisited as the platform for Black Aesthetics and other Afrocentric values advocated alike by black ideologues, artists, and activists. In decrying the dearth of black publishers, he underscores the ironic situation where even in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), black scholars looking for promotion and tenure sink or swim depending on if their books are published by white publishers with vast resources or by black publishers with limited or no resources for glossy covers, and even less for marketing and promotional activities.

This theme of the dearth of viable black publishers is reiterated by Tracey Walters as she compares and contrasts American and British Black Arts Movement (BAM). Tracey Walters regards the movement as the aesthetic and spiritual sister to the more revolutionary Black Power concept that advocates self-definition and auto-determination of the Black masses. BAM remains ongoing in Africa and its diaspora since marginalization and sub-categorization will always provide the fuel needed for revolutionary agitation.

With Black Arts Movement highlighting the plight of the black masses, Wavie Gibson wades into the controversy regarding their manner of speech, namely, Ebonics or vernacular Black English (BEV) and its validity vis-à-vis standard English. Gibson’s insightful analysis synthesizes the core arguments and finally isolates pride, fear, and shame as the crucial factors polarizing the black community over this issue. He advances the theory that given the Negro’s problematic situation in America, blacks were forced to capitulate to “well-designed image manipulation” by those who sought to instill in them shame for their blackness, their culture, and their language. This cultural and psychological imperialism, he insists, can be countered by what he calls “code switching.” This would involve thoroughly re-educating African Americans on the issue of Ebonics so as to uncover “the real reason for African-American students’ academic failure” (Religion and Society, 165).

Anthony Mark Neal evinces similar concern for blacks, especially black youth, as the  victims of spatial displacement of the post-industrial urban space. This regional and spatial dislocation within the Black Public Sphere is fraught with dangerous economic, cultural, and political dangers, for it connotes the “death of the community” to the young blacks. As the middle-class blacks flee to the suburbs, the deprived urban Black youth become displaced humanity severed from the aesthetic and political sensibilities of the Black Public Sphere. Into this vacuum steps a young black constituency seeking a communal discourse across a fractured national community.

And so Hip-Hop recordings and videos become vehicles of “Ghetto Noir” aesthetics – a critical discourse of the lifestyle and experiences of urban black put in musical forms that is increasingly fusing with jazz (hip-hop/jazz fusion). Neal reveals that in keeping with prevailing mores, black females’ insurgence into hip-hop reveals a two-fold intent: first, as a form of black female nationalist challenge to the exclusionary larger society and, second, to respond to the unresolved gender and sexuality tension pre-existing within the black family, community, and labor force. And so since this mirrors the core ailments prevalent within the contemporary black life, hip-hop, in the final analysis, must not be blamed as the sole repository of such maladies.

Thus “Religion and Society” as the issue of The Second International Interdisciplinary Conference – “Writers of African Descent Speak” Black Creativity and the State of the Race” continues the already established tradition, begun by ideologues such as W.E.B. Du Bois and other black nationalists, that of preserving African intellectual, cultural traditions, and mythopeia – a goal that will be delved into in depth during the 1999 Black Creativity Writers’ Conference with its focus on “Reconsidering Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T. Washington, and Kwame Nkrumah.”

My sincere thanks go to Morgan State University for encouraging and sponsoring the Black Creativity conference, to Dr. Burney J. Hollis, Dean, College of Liberal Arts and to Dr. Clara Adams, Vice President for Academic Affairs, for their continued support of the project and to all the participants for their almost religious belief in our aims and objectives.

Religion and Society (1999) was published by Black Academy Press, Inc. / P.O. Box 619 / Randallstown, MD 21133

posted 7 November 2007 

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According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Ancient African Nations

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