“The black religious intellectual tradition has a practical and theoretical end. The practical end has focused on offering leadership that fuses religious-ethical and political concerns. These include the many clergymen and women in black religious institutions over the past three centuries…” --Lewis Gordon from "Black Intellectual Tradition"
Lewis Gordon explores the evolution and development of religion in the essay “Black Intellectual Tradition.” In the section entitled Black Religious Thought, Gordon explains that black religion is a “diverse tradition” that has evolved from weapons of protest to reflective identity. From the writings of historical figures such as David Walker and Nat Turner to theoretical intellectuals such as James Cone, Gordon expounds on how religion has transformed from a religious practice into an intellectual one.
Religion has always been an important part of African American experience, and religious institutions have fulfilled essential educational purposes in black communities. For instance, black women often practice the act of “laying on of hands” as an expression of stimulating healing in one another. Black women authors such as Toni Cade Bambara, Octavia Butler, and Ntozake Shange, to name a few, use the religious tradition of laying hands on the physical bodies of as a way of ushering an inner recovery. This spiritual exercise originated in the Yoruba culture and has been seen in black churches as well as on television (I am thinking of the current television show Iyanla Fix My Life with Yoruba priestess Iyanla Vanzant).
The early practices of Frederick Douglass and Charles Lenox Remond that focused on abolitionist work were also rooted in Christian morality. Similarly, political movements such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement have benefitted from black religious ideologies. These activists utilized the fact that African Americans have the inclination to convene over religious issues that are rooted in political ones, whether it is Christianity, Islam, or black autonomy.
Overall, “black suffering” has been used as the framework of theoretical and theological studies of religion. The idea of liberation for the black race, and an internal healing, both serve as moving points in key political and personal crises.
Briana Whiteside is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.