—Xavier Pickett is the Founder and President of Reformed Blacks of America, a Philadelphia based think tank, and a Ph.D. candidate in Religion & Society at Princeton Theological Seminary.
In Chapter 3, I take Carter to be unmasking the implicit theological claims of Albert Raboteau’s magisterial work, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South and unraveling their full import for thinking about subjectivity, historiography and religion. Specifically, he enters the historical debate about the nature and history of slave religion through Slave Religion in order to bring into focus ‘meaning in history’ that “point[s] towards a theology of history—toward an account of history suited to the phenomenon of black faith generally and Afro-Christianity particularly” (126). However, for Carter, there is ambiguity regarding Slave Religion and specifically, “at it pertains to the issue of meaning in history” (126). Such ambiguity has left the door open for
problematic appropriations and readings whereby black religion is interpreted as nothing more than a cultural reflex. Understood in this way, race, culture, and religion, are imagined as hermetically enclosed, sealed within themselves, and “opaque” to any exteriority. Black folks can only speak as “black.” In the parlance of critical theory, they become “reified” or made “essential.” The ambiguity of Slave Religion, therefore, is this: Raboteau’s attempt to offer a historical narrative of the coming-to-be and subsequent early development of slave religion and black faith could be read—and, indeed, has been read—to say that at their ground is the citadel of “Africanity,” the impervious domain of a cultural “blackness” itself (126).
For Carter, “the central question is this: Is Christianity but the reflex of an identity or consciousness that is more primal or fundamental than the Christianity taken and performed by those who ‘made Jesus their choice’? Is it but a religious expression of a pragmatic and democratically pious response to a racialized and enslaving modernity?” (127)
In the first two sections, Carter introduces us to the Herskovits-Frazier cultural anthropology debate into which Raboteau is seeking to intervene. Here’s the crux of the debate: “How do we account for the difference in cultural sensibilities (i.e., religion, music, and art) among peoples of African descent against the dominant and enslaving culture of the New World? With respect to slave religiosity, as Lawrence Levine put it, this is really ‘a question of origins’: Did the cultural and religious distinctiveness of diasporic African peoples reside in the presence or absence of certain African retentions or Africanisms?” (128) In short, E. Franklin Frazier’s position is that “the process of enslavement destroyed everything identifiably African about African people” (129) whereas Melville J. Herskovits’ position is that slavery did not eliminate the traces of African cultures or Africanisms from enslaved African folks.
In route to explaining the differences between Frazier and Herskovits, Carter briefly lays out another debate behind that of African retentions among enslaved folks of African descent. This background debate, influenced by anthropologist Franz Boas, has to do with what constitutes culture. One strand of the Boasian tradition views culture as basically “in terms of universalizing homogeneity” (129) whereby culture is primarily understood in the singular, whereas the second strand views culture in the plural. As a student of Boas, Herskovits is closer to the second. This debate about culture is important for Carter because
it remains somewhat open as to the extent to which the discourse of cultures succeeds in actually decentering race as a strong or founding category of thought and life. The significance of this for reckoning with Raboteau is this: theoretically speaking, Raboteau situates the history told in Slave Religion within the framework of “low-flying” culture, within the discourse on cultures, as a way of historically articulating how black faith sought to break out of the constraints of modern racial reasoning (132).
It is Raboteau’s “framework of ‘low-flying culture’ ” that “presses him to go beyond Herskovits, who because of a more static approach to Africanity and religious consciousness is unable to sufficiently account for [the] Christian element” in antebellum slave religion (134). However, “the Christian element gets lost insofar as it becomes the husk within which a more primal, even if ‘traditioned,’ African consciousness functions. This consciousness is more or less the cultural core of blackness. And in the end, black Christian folks, insofar as they might be understood as theological subjects, are quarantined within African consciousness” (137). To be sure, Carter’s “claim…is not that Raboteau collapses his distinctions between content and style such that the African gods live on but only wearing Christian clothes. Yet it is precisely the ambiguity that leaves the argument he advances in Slave Religion perilously close to arguments made by others in which the fatal, reifying step about African retentions is actually taken” (138).
The last two sections have to do with the relationship between historiography and (religious) faith. Here Carter examines Raboteau’s dialectics of history and faith for doing history. First, “history sequentially arranges events, ordering them as a world process that reveals their structure, meaning, and consequence or how they hold together. As a science beholden to the particularities and concreteness of events, history ‘[tells] stories about the ways that people lived in the past’ ” (143). Second, faith, “like history, structures the events of human experience into ‘a coherent pattern,’ religious, particularly Christian, faith contends that the source of the meaning of life’s events ‘ultimately lies outside of history in the will and providence of God’ ” (144). However, history is not without its own “faith-based perspective, the fact that it, too, is an endeavor rooted in faith” (144) of some kind. With such distinction, Carter is much more able to track the role of religious faith in history and the academic discipline of history in the formation of whiteness via the obscuring of blackness. Carter argues:
Indeed, religious faith has often aided and abetted history by validating the skewed, exclusionary plotline advanced as the history of America. Faith’s difference from history, however, is that it has promulgated the storyline of America in the idioms of religion. Yet, whether one speaks of history as functioning through a national myth of whiteness or through a Christian mythologization of whiteness, what has united both religious faith and history is whiteness (145).
But what happens when history is renarrated by enslaved persons of African descent of Christian faith? Carter claims vis-à-vis Raboteau that “the faulty historical foundations on which the plotline of American manifest destiny” (147) will be destabilized, thereby revealing an invisible history that demonstrates “how the slaves and former slave children pulled together the fragments of their existence in America into a story of historical wholeness. They dismantled the myth of America as New Israel and out of its fragments forged a new story of their existence, a new religious history of themselves and of America as well” (147). Theologically, Carter in quoting Raboteau says, “Identification with Israel, then, gave the slaves a communal identity as a special, divinely favored people. This identity stood in stark contrast with racist propaganda depicting them as inferior to whites, destined by nature and providence to the status of slaves” (148). However, for Carter, this new identification with Israel by persons of African descent “avoids the modernist problem of supersessionism because that identity is mediated through the worship of the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth” (148-49). Therefore, “Black flesh comes to inhabit Israel’s covenantal story…with YHWH as non-Jews (or Gentiles) through the Jew Jesus. In this way they imagined and live into a history of Exodus, a history of exiting the ways in which whiteness racializes all flesh. This history is nothing less than the history of YHWH-God” (149).
In returning to the relationship between history and faith, Carter seems to follow Raboteau in thinking about such relationship in terms of analogy, instead of dialectics. Carter suggests, “ ‘Analogy’ assists Raboteau to work toward what might be termed an incarnational understanding of faith and history, of Christian consciousness and African heritage, an understanding that integrates the two sides through the plotline of the person of Jesus in his Jewish humanity” (150). “Analogy, therefore, does the important work of grounding the claim that Africanity and Christianity are mutually inhering living traditions” (151-52). This analogy (or what can also be called “iconic”) view of history can move “toward the possibility of a theological engagement with history” (152). Such view “can be summarized as follows: Black existence and black faith relate to the eternal Logos as an icon relates to that which it represents. In this way, the invisible becomes visible even as it retains its invisible depth, a depth rooted in a freedom (for God the Creator), which cannot be policed and thus enslaved” (152). When history is understood in this way, it brings into view the significance of faith in the ways it “began to weaken modernity’s discourse and pseudotheology of race. It opened up a new disposition on history. Thus, far from being anti-historical, faith becomes history’s telos—or, better, a realization, even if not yet a thoroughgoing one, of the eschaton” (155).
I conclude with a few questions to get our discussion going: First, for Carter, race could easily be (and has been) reified in Slave Religion, but to what degree does Christianity become reified in Race? Undoubtedly, he views Christianity as a tradition that can be “re-traditioned” (139), thereby seemingly being able to forestall reification. However, specifically, how might we think about the search for the “Christian” element or reality as being different from the (potentially) reifying search for African retentions, especially in “offer[ing] a more cogent account of Afro-Christian life as a Christian emergence” (139)? In other words, is the problem of reification reproduced in that before “black folks can only speak as ‘black’ ” whereas now they can only speak as “Christian?” Second, is it possible to avoid supersessionism when any (people) group claims identification with Israel other than Israel itself, regardless of its worship/acknowledgement of and union with the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth? Third, how can an “analogy/iconic” view of history avoid oversacralizing the meaning and the constitutive human agents of history?