June 6, 2016

Coming Soon: Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics

Filed under: Arts,Higher Education,Personal,Race,Religion & Spirituality — JSorett @ 10:56 pm

Over the weekend I was feeling buoyed by all of the words of encouragement in response to the announcement of my forthcoming book, Spirit in the Dark, which is now available for pre-order online.

I’m even more excited now that the Cover image and Table of Contents are posted on the website of Oxford University Press, along with the blurbs, which are also up on Amazon. The book’s official release date is September 1, 2016, with a ship date of August 1st.


I’m pleased to share the blurbs now, with much appreciation and gratitude to four scholars whose work has influenced my own and for whom I have deep admiration and respect:

“Spirit in the Dark is a finely honed compendium of black American writers and the breadth of their religious influences. That black intellectuals and artists were also sometimes dogmatic religious adherents, eclectic spiritualists, and irrepressible agnostics is not an unknown observation, but what these identifications meant for modern black expressive culture has gone mostly unsaid. Until now. A richly historical study, Spirit in the Dark is a valuable resource indeed.” —Maurice Wallace, English and Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, University of Virginia (and author of Constructing the Black Masculine)

“An exciting and innovative intervention that deftly melds African American religious and cultural studies.” — Barbara D. Savage, author of Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion

“In this magisterial book, Josef Sorett takes us into those black literary spaces that have heretofore been described as secular and reveals how those who reside therein imagine the beautiful in light of the religious. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement, Sorett pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the workings of the ‘spirit’ and, in doing so, unsettles our understanding of black religion and literature. This SPIRIT moves in this book. It is a must read!” —Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University (author of, most recently, Democracy in Black)

“Even at their most assertively secular, black expressive arts over the last century have riffed on Afro-Protestant church structures that they in turn attenuate, revise, and sustain. In this venturesome book Josef Sorett traces the ‘celebratory ambivalence’ that animates and infuses African-American cultural production from the Great Migration to the present. Spirit in the Dark is the best single-volume work I know of on the arts and fictions of Afro-Protestant modernity.” —Tracy Fessenden, author of Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature

October 27, 2013

Don’t Read Too Much Into the Numbers (New York Times, “Room for Debate”)

Filed under: Personal,Politics,Religion & Spirituality — JSorett @ 10:06 pm

We’re seeing one more chapter in a story that began when religious minorities tried to join a shrinking majority.

The entree of Judaism into the mainstream of American culture during the 20th century was, at least in part, a process of Protestant-ization. The same held true for Catholics, Mormons and other ethnic and religious outliers, who often remade themselves in the image of a Protestant elite for a chance at the full protections and privileges attached to U.S. citizenship…

To read my essay and the entire debate, go to Room for Debate

September 19, 2013

“Religion, Spirituality and Africa” in the August Wilson American Cycle Talk Series at The Greene Space

Filed under: Arts,Music,Personal,Popular Culture,Race,Religion & Spirituality — JSorett @ 5:13 pm

November 12, 2012

Generational Shift in Black Christianity Comes to Harvard (New York Times)

Filed under: Hip Hop,Personal,Politics,Race,Religion & Spirituality — JSorett @ 10:52 am

This post comes as a congratulatory shout out to my colleague, good friend and brother, Jonathan L. Walton, on the occasion of his installation in Harvard’s Memorial Church. What follows is Samuel Freedman’s coverage in the New York Times of the broader significance of Jonathan’s appointment — as tenured faculty and minister — for the landscape of Afro-Protestantism, in particular, and American Christianity, more generally, at this moment in time.

Generational Shift in Black Christianity Comes to Harvard
Published: November 11, 2012

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — More than 60 autumns ago, a young Atlantan named Martin Luther King Jr. arrived to start graduate school at Boston University. There, he fell under the influence of a theologian, Howard Thurman, who taught him about Gandhian nonviolence. That concept became one of Dr. King’s guiding principles in the civil rights movement.

On a brilliant fall morning this Sunday, a torch of black Christianity was passed to another minister, scholar and son of Atlanta, who was born five years after Dr. King’s death, the Rev. Jonathan L. Walton. In a combined worship service and installation ceremony, Mr. Walton took on the position of Pusey minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard, a pulpit of importance inside and outside the university.

Mr. Walton’s appointment, which also includes an endowed professorship of Christian morals, forms part of a generational transition in the African-American church. Ministers and theologians who came of age during the civil rights era are being supplanted by those, like Mr. Walton, 39, of elite universities, the diversity movement and hip-hop culture. To underscore how much else has changed at Harvard, Mr. Walton was formally given the pulpit Sunday by Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first female president…

To continue reading this story, go to: The New York Times

April 16, 2012

Nuance in Black Churches’ Approaches (New York Times’ “Room for Debate”)

Black churches and black people, in general, continue to be portrayed as especially anti-gay, but we should remember that these organizations and individuals are not static.

First, in the realm of activism, there is the stubborn idea that race and sexuality are competing or mutually exclusive. And it is certainly true that lobbyists against gay marriage (mostly white and from the right) have tried to reinforce a vision of gay rights and (presumably black) civil rights as inherently at odds with one another. But many black Christians are now having more nuanced conversations about the significance of sexual identity and expression in determining the measure of full citizenship. Some black churches are seeing shared commitments with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists, even as these churches affirm that the African American struggles of the 1960s were unique…

To continue reading this article and the debate to which it contributed, click on the following link to the: New York Times.

February 13, 2012

New Summer Institute: Religious Worlds of New York

I am excited to be on the faculty of a wonderful new Institute funded by National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which will be held on the campus of Union Theological Seminary in New York City for the first time this coming Summer (July 16-August 3, 2012). Please spread the word to educators you think might be interested – applications for this year’s Summer Institute are due on March 1.

What follows is an introduction and a link to the project’s website.


Explore the Religious Worlds of New York, and the Religious Lives of Your Diverse Neighbors

The religious landscape of the United States has shifted dramatically in recent years, with the arrival of new Americans from every corner of the globe and every faith tradition. If America’s K-12 students are to become truly educated, fully engaged citizens of our multicultural democracy, they need to understand this rich religious diversity. The Religious Worlds of New York summer institute will contribute to such understanding by helping public, private, and parochial school teachers teach more effectively about the everyday lives of American religious communities.

The institute is a project of the Interfaith Center of New York and Union Theological Seminary, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In July of 2012, it will bring thirty teachers from throughout the United States to New York City, where they will engage with leading scholars of religious studies and a wide range of local religious leaders. The institute will introduce these teachers to six religious traditions that are part of the fabric of American life. It will help them distinguish between academic and devotional approaches to the study of religion. And it will give them the pedagogic tools they need to teach their students about “lived religion,” in addition to the conventional “world religions” curriculum. This website will introduce K-12 teachers to the Religious Worlds institute, and offer them a range of resources to enrich their teaching on American religious diversity.

To apply and/or find out more about the Institute, go to: Religious Worlds of New York


February 2, 2012

Black Churches and a New Generation of Protest (New York Times, “Room for Debate”)

Filed under: Personal,Policy,Politics,Race,Religion & Spirituality — JSorett @ 10:18 pm

Many argue that activism within black churches has declined (if not disappeared) since the days of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But last month, on his birthday, a group of African American faith leaders called for Americans to “Occupy the Dream” with protests at Federal Reserve banks. If black churches are renewing their tradition of activism in this post-civil rights era, what are the most pressing issues for them to address?

To read the debate, go to the New York Times “Room for Debate”

November 28, 2011

The Spirit of “The Harlem Renaissance” (Frequencies)

Filed under: Personal,Race,Religion & Spirituality — JSorett @ 3:01 pm

When discussing religion, today it is quite common (perhaps cliché) to hear people say, “Well, I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” Even in churches it is not uncommon to hear something along the lines of, “I don’t believe in religion, but I believe in a relationship with God.” A favorite at the church of my youth was, “I’m not religious, but I love the Lord!” Numerous scholars and journalists have directed energies to analyzing this phenomenon. One of the more popular interpretations attributes the emphasis on personal spirituality to novelty in the contemporary historical moment. In this view, younger generations are seen to display an increasing skepticism towards organized religion, even as they embrace an ethic of personal choice in the face of a global cultural marketplace.

In contrast, others have persuasively linked this novel neoliberal spiritual impulse to a long tradition of religious liberalism. For instance, Leigh Schmidt has argued that liberalism, more generally, “was always as much a religious vision of emancipated souls as a political theory of individual rights… For religious liberals, unlike their secular cousins, a deepened and diversified spirituality was part of modernity’s promise.”

Alongside of the grand narrative of religious liberalism that has helped to produce the personal vision of spirituality so popular today, there is a vibrant tradition of African American cultural expression that has cultivated a similar concern with spirituality. In the poetry, prose, performances, visual culture and criticism that comprise this history, one can readily observe what might be called a grammar of spirit (i.e. spirit, spiritual, spirituality). That is, black artists and intellectuals—men and women, alike—have persistently engaged in spirit-talk…

To continue reading, go to: Frequencies

July 26, 2010

Forecasting Black Church Futures (Washington Post’s “On Faith”)

Filed under: Personal,Politics,Popular Culture,Race,Religion & Spirituality — JSorett @ 2:17 pm

Although we are only about halfway into 2010, it has already been a year full of rich public conversations about religion in America. Much of the credit can be given to the emergence of several new blogs and web portals that direct concentrated attention to the topic. Indeed, there is much material to mine as we think about “The Future of Religion,” in general, and of The Black Church, in particular.

With regard to the latter, to restate a common theme this year, it must be acknowledged that such a conversation can move once and for all from the singular to the plural. There has always been a range of black churches, in terms of theology, polity, politics, aesthetics, etc. So it is also impossible to speak of any one future for the array of institutions lumped together under the rubric, “The Black Church.” That said, there are several things that should be considered in efforts to forecast the futures of black churches…

To continue reading, go to: Washington Post’s “On Faith”

Also, check out the series of essays from which the above was selected, at: Patheos

March 25, 2009

A Celebration of Life: A Historian for the History Books

Filed under: Personal — JSorett @ 8:10 pm

Published: March 25, 2009

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — John Hope Franklin, a revered Duke University historian and scholar of life in the South and the African-American experience in the United States, died Wednesday. He was 94.

Duke spokesman David Jarmul said Franklin died of congestive heart failure at the university’s hospital in Durham.

Born and raised in an all-black community in Oklahoma where he was often subjected to humiliating incidents of racism, he was later instrumental in bringing down the legal and historical validations of such a world.

As an author, his book ”From Slavery to Freedom” was a landmark integration of black history into American history. As a scholar, his research helped Thurgood Marshall win Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case that outlawed the doctrine of ”separate but equal” in the nation’s public schools.

”It was evident how much the lawyers appreciated what the historians could offer,” Franklin later wrote. ”For me, and I suspect the same was true for the others, it was exhilarating.”

Franklin broke numerous color barriers. He was the first black department chair at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College; the first black professor to hold an endowed chair at Duke University; and the first black president of the American Historical Association.

to continue reading go to: New York Times.com