As African Americans faced first slavery and then Jim Crow, they nestled in the black church as a haven. In the 1950s and ’60s, blacks congregated to fight legal oppression. In The Color of Christ, American religion historians Edward Blum and Paul Harvey argue that blacks and whites were once unified under the mantle of Christianity in efforts to combat societal vice and ills. Yet in more recent decades, black religiosity has shifted.
Though many within the black community continue to showcase their religious conservatism, others have slowly drifted away.
In some spaces, stories are told of glass ceilings but with no mention of those stuck in the basement. Many African American Christians tell stories of driving while black or other times they’ve personally experienced racial profiling. But they are silent when it comes to the devastating impact of police brutality and mass incarceration on poor black communities. Some love to point people’s attention to how their presence has too often caused white people to cross the street or to clutch their purse, but yet turn their faces away from how young black people are stereotyped and criminalized as thugs and jezebels.
2014 demonstrated that, whatever the significance of Barack Obama’s two terms as our first African American president, we have hardly moved beyond national struggles over race and class. Failures to indict white policemen accused of the unjust killings of black men precipitated protests and online shouting matches about racial inequality, or just how to talk about race. Christians participated in (hopefully) profitable discussions such as the December 16, 2014 “A Time to Speak” event, hosted by Pastor Bryan Lorritts of Fellowship Memphis, at the Lorraine Motel and National Civil Rights Museum.
December 16 was also the 300th birthday of George Whitefield, the most important evangelist of the Great Awakening of the 18th century.
To fully celebrate the life and legacy of Maya Angelou, we must contextualize her 86 years of living within the black religious traditions that influenced her and birthed her deep spirituality. While countless scholars have analyzed her literary, political, and cultural contributions, few have situated her work within the scope of black religious life, particularly the African-American Christian tradition.