Conversations in Black: Sylvester A. Johnson

Monica Miller and Christopher Driscoll talk with Sylvester A. Johnson

Dr. Sylvester A. Johnson is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Religious Studies in the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University. Sylvester JohnsonJohnson received his Ph.D. in Contemporary Religious Thought in 2002 from Union Theological Seminary, New York City. Before arriving to Northwestern, Johnson held previous teaching positions at Indiana University and Florida A&M University. Some of his research and teaching interests include African American religious history; Race, Religion and COINTELPRO; and Religion and colonialism in the Black Atlantic. A prolific writer and researcher, Johnson is author of fifty publications, including two monographs: The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), and African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Johnson is also founding Co-Editor of the Journal of Africana Religions, the first peer-reviewed journal to publish research on the global religious traditions among African and African-descended peoples. Find him online at his Northwestern Faculty Page and on Twitter.

In the fields of African American religion and American religious history, Johnson is regarded as a leader, innovator, and rigorous researcher with a keen sense of where the fields have been and where they are headed in terms of knowledge production, theory and method, and professional development. There is little wonder that the Journal of Africana Religions editorial advisory board reads as a “who’s who” of American religious studies, in that Johnson—and his co-editor Edward E. Curtis IV—have worked tirelessly in helping to shape the field in recent years.

In keeping with his reputation for scholarly excellence and range, Johnson’s latest book, African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015) is a groundbreaking, ambitious effort to “examine the intersection of black religion and colonialism over several centuries to explain the relationship between empire and democratic freedom.” Although American enslavement and anti-black racism are widely understood as related to colonialism, the relationship between African American religion and colonialism has received only sporadic attention until now. Arguing that the history of African American religion demonstrates an intrinsic relationship between empire and freedom, colonialism and freedom, and freedom and bondage, African American Religions blends historical methods with postmodern ideas about governmentality and existential assessments of the social limits of the very notion of freedom so part and parcel to Euro-American exceptionalism and black religion as it has developed in the shadow of settler colonialism. Furthermore, the book tells the story of increasing colonial surveillance of black religions, spending considerable time exploring the relationship between black religion and the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. Through such attention, Johnson offers an ominous truth: That the white Euro-American religious, social, and political establishment has perceived black religion as a threat, and no manner of black complicity with empire could offset the overwhelming white suspicion of black bodies.

African American Religions is a testament to Johnson’s interdisciplinary dexterity, in that the historical accounts presented are balanced with ongoing attention to the philosophical and theoretical implications of these accounts on the work of scholarship and political possibilities, alike. Quite simply, Johnson has produced one of the most far-reaching and exhaustive surveys of black religion to date. In our estimation, the book is an “instant classic” and “must-read” for anyone interested in race, religion, empire, and democracy.

MM/CD: Dr. Johnson, thank you for taking time to talk with us about your brilliant new book. Your efforts in this volume are determined, vital, and inspirational. From our read, there are multiple levels of analysis at work: On one level, you turn to the stuff of black religion to add to an on-going conversation about the overall costs of western notions of freedom. Similar to the work of Orlando Patterson, Robin Kelley, and others, you seem to be suggesting that the U.S. experiment of democratic freedom has been predicated on colonialism; consequentially, a kind of valorization of this freedom has shaped much of African American religion. In fact, you refer to colonialism as the “matrix” within which both colonizer and colonized lay claim to notions of democratic freedom. At another level, you argue that black religion has not necessarily been a marker of the best of American democratic principles or expression, but rather, a mechanism for ensuring that such principles only ever remain principles, never actualized because they are undergirded by a colonial enterprise that transmutes freedom into a disciplinary “institution.”

Could you speak a bit to these multiple levels of analysis, both in terms of the difficulty of forging multiple conversations at once, but also in terms of the content of each conversation. Methodologically, how were you able to manage these multiple registers of analysis? What are some of the specific ways that the study of black religions adds to our understanding of western democracy and its attendant notion of freedom? And in terms of black religion as a kind of governmentality, what might such a claim mean for those interested in the texture, the “nature and meaning” of black religions?

SJ: Thanks so much for your incredible response to the book. It means a lot that you have given it such a meticulous read. Yes, you’ve homed in on a range of subtleties at work in the text. So, the book examines five centuries of Black religion at points of intersection with colonialism in order to explain how democracy, freedom, and colonialism have been related. At the heart of the demonstration is the argument that democratic freedom, perhaps the most vaunted and celebrated of values, is not merely a “value” or innocent virtue. Rather, freedom is preeminently an institutional social system, in the sense that we are accustomed to understanding slavery not as a value but as an institution. I aim to demonstrate through multiple examples in a diachronic fashion how freedom was constituted as a colonial project. Freedom and colonialism, in other words, work together. One product of this demonstration is the argument that Black religion is not merely marked by the history of slavery. Colonialism is no less an urgent dimension of Black religion.

I also attempt to show that Black religion has been an ambivalent formation, sometimes opposing colonialism and at other times investing in the same to realize certain objectives. So, this is not an attempt to portray Black religion as a pristine space of moral redemption or political naïveté. Like other forms of religious agency, African American religions have been complicated by a range of entanglements with colonialism. These entanglements have been enabling, generative, and productive in an ambivalent sense. Among the most troubling part of the book for me was examining the history of African American efforts to settle Liberia during the 1800s. The result was a settler state that bore deep resemblances to another settler democracy—that of the United States.

There are multiple conversations running concurrently throughout the book, yes. I wanted to write a book about religion and empire that took empire/colonialism seriously instead of merely referring to this form of political order. I also wanted to show how religious formations have obtained through the material structures and political practices of empire, racial states, and settler rule. Black religion is by no means reducible to any of these. But the urgency of accounting for how empire has shaped African American religions is tremendous, and this book aims to respond to precisely that analytical imperative.

MM/CD: African American Religions covers and examines the incredibly fascinating and complicated stories of significant, yet underexplored, figures such as Dona Beatriz and Olaudah Equiano, among others. And later chapters in the book work to situate more well-known narratives about figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Marcus Garvey in terms of their respective projects, and the assumed threats these figures posed to American colonial interests. Could you discuss the importance of telling and re-telling these stories for the growing archives of African American experience and black religion, for both historical and contemporary contexts?

SJ: Yes, you’re right. At a time when big narratives have come under great suspicion, I think it is important to underscore that understanding multiple periods and analyzing transnational linkages over significant stretches of time is essential to giving a rigorous account of social power. To accomplish that, I wanted to familiarize the “obscure,” which I attempt to do by explaining the overwhelming significance of Dona Beatriz, Philip Quaque, and others. Scholars such as John Thornton have helped to recover important sources on Dona Beatriz, who led a religious and political movement rooted in Black theology during early 1700s. I think Dona Beatriz (also known as Kimpa Vita) offers unique insight into fundamental problems of empire, religion, and race in ways that may surprise those unfamiliar with her story. On the flip-side, I wanted to exoticize the familiar by explaining Marcus Garvey’s brilliant apprehension of why imperialism was essential to anticolonialism (this is not a contradiction). With Martin Luther King, Jr., particularly, I wanted to foreground the significance of anticolonialism and the security state for interpreting his legacy. There is actually a sub-story about J. Edgar Hoover here that did not surface as much as it could have in the book. (I hope to deal a bit more explicitly with this in a forthcoming book on religion and the FBI.) Suffice it to say that Hoover was wrong for all the right reasons. King was a threat to the social order of the United States. And contemporary Americans should stop parlaying King’s legacy into a harmonious element of US democracy, as a specimen of sentimental proof that American democracy has triumphed.

MM/CD: Historian of Religion Dr. Charles Long, whom many regard as the father of the academic study of African American Religion, has long argued that American religion and Euro-American religious impulses and discourses cannot be adequately understood without specific, focused attention to black religion. In other words, until (all) scholars of American religion take a long look at black religion, something will be missing from “their” work, and the story of American religion more generally. African American Religions works to cover much of this ground, conclusively demonstrating that the story of black religion is a story as much about Euro-American empire, as it is counter-narrative and response to empire and colonialism. As the book developed, who did you have in mind as your primary audience, and in what ways does African American Religions deconstruct long-held, uncritical, and racialized assumptions that tend to treat black religion with a kind of disciplinary segregation—as only significant for black people or scholars of black religion? What, if any, sorts of disciplinary interventions are made possible by the numerous epistemological interventions posed in and made by your book?

SJ: I wrote the book with scholars of religion in the Americas and African American Studies in mind. I also intended the book to address important questions about the material history of democracy and empire that might be of interest to political theorists. Because the book focuses on the intersection of religion and empire, it is meant to invite scholars of religion to consider the inextricable ties of that subject to colonialism, and vice versa. At the same time, the book is meant to deliver an overarching account of African American religions. Thus the title. I suspect that many people who might find the book quite relevant to their own work will forego doing so because of the title if they assume they are not interested in Black religions. As you indicate in your question, that is an unfortunate consequence of treating White religion as an unnamed universal (viz., American religion) while conceptualizing Black religion as overly particular, as a more provincial object of intellectual study.

A-A ReligionsMM/CD: The early chapters of the book forcibly articulate the economic roots of African American religion in colonialism, and the economic roots of black dispossession within (and from) Atlantic empire, more generally. At once, through your attention to Elmina and Cape Coast, which had thriving centers of trade that were by many standards fairly cosmopolitan, you persuasively demonstrate that many Africans were complicit and/or actively engaged in empire, in that empire involved the trade of a host of commodities, including but extending beyond human cargo. Hence, Africans were a vital component of the establishment of trade networks. Yet, a racialized social hierarchy ensured that even this African involvement would never “pay off” for them in a way on par with Europeans. Why has it been difficult for historians to tell the story of Euro-American empire in a way that does not flatten or erase African involvement in empire? And what is gained from fuller historical portraits like the one you present here?

SJ: A terrific question, one that demands multiple layers of response. Among the reasons is the routinization of foregrounding Europeans as agential subjects par excellence. With rare exceptions, we have been conditioned to thinking about trans-Atlantic slavery through a moral lens that impugns Europeans for exercising power malevolently and while viewing Africans as mostly hapless victims. It is certainly true that this process ended with Europeans inflicting massively destructive conquest and domination against Africans. But that’s not how the story began. I open the book with a focus on the Kongo empire because this kingdom was older and more powerful than that of the imperial Portuguese merchants who wandered into its territory in the 1400s (those from Lisbon). The Kongolese adopted Christianity as a luxury import of sorts, not so unlike yoga or pilates for high-brow Americans of the present. It was for elites. For their part, Europeans were simply unable to dominate Africans, since the latter were militarily superior and ably defended their own territory. I frame the beginnings of these imperial relations within an account of commercialism because Africans and Europeans were mutually willing (even eager) trade partners who both profited handsomely from conducting business.

Europeans may have invented a virulent form of racism, but they did not invent slavery. Nor did they invent colonialism. In fact, I am compelled to conclude that Europeans were not the first to develop a system of racism. Europeans did, however, remake slavery as a racial institution. My aim is not to get Europeans off the hook. Rather, I want to explain how the world of Atlantic history came to be, and that requires taking seriously the fact that power is not the exclusive preserve of Europeans.

Think of it this way. There is a relationship between treating Europeans as the sole arbiters of conquest and domination and treating Europeans as the sole or essential arbiters of history and civilization (think of how Georg Hegel understood history). In actual fact, they have been neither. If it is no secret that Africans were already conducting a thriving slave trade before the 1500s and had their own empires, then that knowledge needs to become data for interpreting the history of power. I think Marcus Garvey understood this, and I think this is partly why he was conscientiously a self-proclaimed imperialist. Not only did some Africans willingly enslave other Africans with no sense of remorse, but also Blacks from the United States colonized and subjugated Africans through a process of racial domination. As a result, these Americo-Liberians enjoyed the sweet fruits of democratic freedom (they were really free in the way we are accustomed to thinking of White Americans as having actual freedom) while Blacks in the United States were in chattel slavery or were being decimated under White terrorist rule following the abolition of chattel slavery. I also explain how some Black Americans participated in US wars of genocide and colonialism against Indigenous American nations following the Civil War. This was a critical factor for Black efforts to integrate into the political community of the United States.

Power is not and will never be the special preserve of the White race. But for too long, we have become comfortable with the image of Blacks as sacrificial lambs bumbling along under the regime of slaughter at the hands of Europeans. There is a type of comfort in interpreting Black religion under the sign of innocence. This is a narrative perversion, a way of reading Black religious history to achieve a mythopoeic account of good versus evil that defangs the ambivalent militancy of Blacks while succoring Christian triumphalism. At this point, we have entered the poetics of race history. African American Religions is an attempt to demythologize racial Blackness and racial Whiteness by taking what we know—power is not the special preserve of Whites, and Africans administered empires, slavery, and conquest—as useful and essential data for interpreting the history of freedom and empire to show how they have been mutually constitutive.

MM/CD: Without giving away too much from the book, or at least giving you the option of what to offer here, you make some incredible, groundbreaking suggestions about the relationship between European mind/body, spirit/body ontology (i.e. duality) and the rise of the “fetish” as a popular and philosophical topic of interest for Europeans. Furthermore, you bring ontology to bear on economics and discuss the “spiritualization of money and the secularization of finance” as significant for the growth of the slave trade. You even draw some incredibly compelling genealogical connections between the European interest in the African “fetish” and Marx’s turn to the fetish for his theorization of political economy. What do you have in mind by the turn to “spiritualization of money” and “secularization of finance”? What are the implications of this section of the book for understanding the economic roots of Atlantic empire, the relationship between economics and black religion, and the limits of economics for ensuring black entry into the “marketplace” (broadly construed)?

SJ: Yes, that’s a great question. By the “spiritualization of money” I mean to denote the transformation of money from material entities (coins, bullion, other material commodities such as ivory and gold) to immaterial entities such as insurance, interest, and debt. These instruments of finance capitalism were invented as practical solutions for conducting the African slave trade. This accomplished a reinvention of money that transformed it into a spiritual (i.e., non-material) technology. So, today, it is no big deal to recognize that money has to be accounted for as wealth that can be tracked on a balance sheet. In fact, the money held by the wealthiest individuals and companies is not material cash but capital such as a share of ownership of a company, which is itself an immaterial entity. Even our cash is now typically a dynamic pattern of data that allows us to access it while traveling simply by authenticating our identity using a bank card or biometrics on a smartphone.

This exists in necessary apposition to what I call the secularization of finance. In the context of the fetish, I try to explain how finance came to be formed as an enterprise that could incorporate Christian subjects who viewed capital and commercial obligation in ways that resisted and ultimately defied the religious oaths that grounded African commercial practices—the latter bound commercial parties under threat of injury or death from an Orisha, a powerful extraordinary entity in African indigenous religion. Another prominent example of this is that loan interest (usury) became routinized as a Christian practice in Western Europe, rather than being treated as a religious breach suitable for only Jewish financiers.

The cultural history of so-called fetish religion, as William Pietz demonstrated in a pioneering series of studies, cannot be separated from material practices of commerce and the global trade in the millions of Africans who were abducted and forced into regimes of domination that dispersed them thousands of miles from their homelands. So, another take-away is that no study of Western capitalism is complete without attention to its intersectional history with African indigenous religion. (I should probably add that this is not a reductive claim. It is also essential to study South Asia and East Asia, for instance, to understand the full history of Western capitalism.)

Johnson bookMM/CD: Your first book, The Myth of Ham (Palgrave 2004), was hard on black American Christians, in the sense that, historically, many black American Christians often used the Hamitic narrative for strategic ends, even as such reliance reinforced the social veracity of the myth, and therefore, the subordinate status of African Americans. African American Religions 1500-2000 continues in that same critical vein, in that black American religion is rendered increasingly morally complicated and steadily complicit in western and American colonialism and empire. And for what it’s worth, the book does a great job of demonstrating one of the tragic ironies of black religion—increasing complicity with empire would not stave off the tide of anti-black racism or surveillance. The book’s explicit characterization of black settler colonialism as colonialism is one (of many) instances where you seem much more interested in telling hard truths rather than repackaging easy assumptions that render the socially oppressed as somehow immune to the practice of oppression. How would you characterize the legacy of black Christianity as it is expressed from 1500-2000, and what might the current historical moment suggest about the current/future social impact of black Christianity, more specifically?

SJ: Yes. I learned a lot from writing this book, and much of what I learned was rather difficult to stomach, to accept. I think many who read the book will surmise that my account of Black religion is rather harsh when it comes to explaining the role of Black Christians. I understand why people might say this, but the account only seems particularly fierce if one assumes a type of racial innocence of Black Christians (or Black non-Christians for that matter). This is a big problem that lies at the heart of Christian triumphalism. I am convinced that many scholars who are supposed to devote objective analysis to these events truly believe that Black people are better off because they were Christianized. I almost (but not quite) don’t know where to begin in rebutting such a sentiment. We should start by recognizing that missionary Christianity has invested in multiple strategies of religious hatred against African indigenous religion in order to constitute the imperative for conversion. To appreciate the scale of this, one must first realize that it is not natural to assume that Blacks should have been Christianized. Think of celebrating a world in which no Muslims exist because they have all been converted into Christians. Think of the same for Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. This type of ethnocidal fantasy is a historical achievement of a deeply perverse and destructive project of conquest. As Gil Anidjar has recently noted in his Blood, Christianity might be a religion, but it is not just a religion. Among other things, it is also a civilization, and it has been racialized.

At the same time, any objective reading of the book must consider that there are no simplistic heroes or villains. Dona Beatriz was a Christian (she was also an Orisha devotee, significantly), as was Philip Quaque. So was Sojourner Truth. So were Martin Delany and Martin Luther King, Jr. I tried to render these subjects with as much complexity as their actual history demanded.

I suppose one way to view this is to recognize that many people might be disturbed by reading the book. The violence of European Christianity is on full display, as is the violence of Black Christianity. The brutality of slavery is portrayed in fidelity to its vicious nature. But the same is true for freedom—it has been for the free, and it has dealt a bloody and murderous hand to the unfree. Democracy is in great measure the product of settler colonialism and corporatism. And so on. If I have succeeded, then no one comes out of this story looking “good.” It is all very troubling, as it should be. If we can study this history and walk away feeling good, something is terribly wrong. Moreover, this is not a claim about the moral equivalence of genealogies of destruction. I certainly don’t claim the Blacks exercised the scale of violence and destruction that Whites did—they simply lacked the ability to operate on the same scale. Nor do I try to claim that the Christian West is some uncomplicated, unalloyed monotone of destructive violence. What scholars have been calling modernity was, among other things, an Afro-European partnership that emerged as a fully mutual enterprise. But I do argue that we have become enamored of democracy and freedom precisely because we have elided its provenance. The sooner we begin to reckon with how we derived freedom, arguably our most cherished and most singularized institution, the sooner we can began to devise a corrective response that is on par with the scale of the problems we are actually facing.

What does this have to do with the present? Well, I’ll just name one example that may or may not be obvious. I end the book by talking about the racialization of Islam and its linkages to anti-Black racism and the security state’s repression of certain African American religious movements. This is a major crisis of our time. We have lived to see a Black president as the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military, with over 1,000 military bases outside the United States. The political project of the United States, however, has remained deeply racist and imperial. Presently, Muslims throughout the world are racially profiled and murdered by drones on a weekly basis. Former US Attorney General Eric Holder, an African American, made his mark in 2012 by publicly defending extra-judicial killings. I think it is fair to say that the majority of African Americans in the present have little devotion to an anticolonial critique of US power. This is not an accident. This condition is a product of state repression from the 1930s through the 1970s that targeted and devastated African Americans who challenged US colonialism. We laud a fabricated, deracinated image of MLK (ignoring his anticolonialism) while whispering barely a word about Paul Robeson and Florynce Kennedy. We keep rereading W.E.B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, which he published in 1903, while having virtually nothing to say about the fact that he was targeted as a state enemy by the US government during the 1950s and that he left the United States.

It is with this analytical urgency in mind that I have attempted to explain religious formation and politics in African American Religions.

MM/CD: As a kind of ancillary follow-up to the previous question, what of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, the Movement for Black Life? As we read African American Religions, we couldn’t help but draw connections between the constant and chronic political withdrawal and/or resistance that marks black religions historically and that seemingly marks black political activity now. We find ourselves in a moment of racial unrest, with both increasing racialized violence and increasing black political response. But this movement/movements look a lot different from the Civil Rights Movement or Black Power movement in a number of ways, including the focus on intersectionality and the rejection of various sorts of respectability politics. Further, atheism/non-theism seems to be a viable and powerful religious option for many young activists and black folks, more generally. Could you draw out some of the ways your new book helps elucidate some of what we’re seeing today, giving attention to the similarities and differences between Black Lives Matter and past movements for racial justice? And supposing the book ended in 2015 as opposed to 2000, what (if any) additional content or claims might you include?

SJ: Today, the Black Lives Matter movement has focused important attention on the necropolitics that guides the way Blacks are governed—as an enemy population. This is what race actually is. But our general assessment of democracy is so mythologized and out of touch with empirical data—we mostly carry on as if democracy were an innocent, virtuous inheritance—that we are typically at a loss to explain why we are where we are.

One of the overarching arguments of the book is that race is not meanings about phenotype. Race is actually how people are governed as enemies of the society, as a domestic population who are treated as though they can never belong to the political community of the governing state. It is a set of state practices that can certainly give rise to emotions and meanings. But race is not phenotypic meanings. Ultimately, it is the necropolitical administration of state power to render legitimate the domination, containment, and killing of those deemed enemies of society. Contemporary promoters and defenders of racism from Rudolph Giuliani (former mayor of New York City) to James Comey, Jr. (current director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation) have repeatedly attacked Black Lives Matter by claiming that it is a form of racism against Whites or that it jeopardizes the lives of police officers. Even the celebrity artist Beyoncé has captured the ire of Giuliani because she has used her music to promote the Black Lives Matter movement and call for an end to police killings of unarmed Blacks. The devotion of these White leaders to their racial right to destroy the lives of Blacks, Hispanics, and Muslims with impunity should be taken very seriously by those who oppose genocide, ethnocide, colonialism, and other manifestations of the racial state. As we approach an inflection point in the demographic constitution of the United States, we are seeing a rapid escalation among Whites to defend their racial state from encroachment by non-Whites and non-Christians. If Whites become a numerical minority, I fear we will see a massive acceleration of vicious assaults, detentions, deportations, and state killings (extra-judicial or not) of non-Whites. One might consider the history of Mississippi under White-minority rule. From the 1840s to the 1940s, Blacks were the majority population in Mississippi, and Whites were a minority (Indigenous peoples were the majority until their removal in the 1830s). During the century of White minority rule, that state developed the most draconian measures of terror and naked brutality to ensure that Whites were able to preserve exclusive political rule.

The impending minority status of Whites promises to unleash a similar reign of brutality. Anyone who doubts this possibility should take very seriously the fact that prominent White leaders from Antonin Scalia to Ronald Reagan have institutionalized an epistemology of White besiegement during the time of White-majority rule. By this logic, Whites must now be protected from so-called reverse racism, despite continuing to dominate non-Whites, monopolizing wealth, building White paramilitary units, controlling policing practices, and defining national security paradigms based on a racist political project. How likely is it that this dynamic will be attenuated with the coming demographic shift?

Democracy has enabled the populist formation of necropolitics. The problem is not some hegemonic fascist squirreled away in a war room with a few advisors. We have, in other words, a mass level of racism that has achieved the militarization of police with the singular mission –  justification of targeting and decimating those who are enemies of the society. When high level officials brazenly attack Black Lives Matter and other movements that oppose literally murderous forms of racism, we should heed the cue and recognize the scale of what anti-racists are up against. So, this is something that would need to be engaged were the book to extend to 2015.

Another over-arching argument of the book is that internal colonialism is a real and veritable category that explains the formation of racism in the contemporary nation-state. I think we have to understand the war on American Muslims, the war on drugs (i.e., the mass incarceration of Blacks and Hispanics), and the expanding security paradigm as very much a part of colonial governance. Using the term colonialism will seem bizarre to those readers accustomed to interpreting “modern” Western societies as civilized zones of reason and enlightened tolerance that have no truck with such violent things as colonies, state murder, and racial conquest. This is precisely why the book engages with multiple vectors of analysis and a deep history of evidence. We have to develop an account of power that can explain the data constituting the actual history of democracy.

MM/CD: Can we escape the association of black religion with black political action or the fight for social justice? In many respects, African American Religions seeks to give a much more capacious and even-handed historical account of this relationship, responding to classic texts like Gayraud Wilmore’s Black Religion and Black Radicalism and Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion. These texts, also representative of trends in the field, might be critiqued for overdetermining black religion as black political action, and in at least Wilmore’s case, he also laments that such a radical impulse is now missing from much of black religion. Of your efforts here, you suggest that “the golden age whose passing Wilmore lamented was not nearly as progressive as he claimed” (335), but on the other hand, your argument still seems to draw some sort of link between black religion and black political action. In fact, there are scores of pages where “religion” is not discussed explicitly at all, and this tendency seems to be more than the result of following a lived religious methodological paradigm. In certain ways, you still seem to be suggesting black religion is intrinsically connected to active political involvement, while remaining attentive to demonstrating that the relationship between religion, political involvement, and colonialism/empire is much more complicated than previous accounts suggest. Where is the line, if one exists at all, between black religion and black politics?

Expounding on the theoretical implications of the previous question, in many instances of African American Religions, you make clear what religion is not—it is more than ideology and belief, as both institutional and lived (109). But in light of your study of African American religions, and with these issues in mind, what is African American religion? By extension, what is Atlantic religion? Further still, what is religion, and what does the disciplinary/discursive naming of “Atlantic” religion—as somehow distinct from “black religion” accomplish for long-standing assumptions about the “black” in “black religion?”

SJ: Big questions, and good ones. Ok. So, to begin with the first set of questions, I should first point out that this book does not aim to be a comprehensive account of African American religion in all its aspects. It is not a survey of Black religion. Rather, the book examines Black religion at its point of intersection with empire in order to examine the relationship between colonialism and democratic freedom. In other words, because of the very aim of the book, religion and politics lie at the center of the work. This might give the impression that I think Black religion is essentially political. But that is not the case. As scholars such as Judith Weisenfeld, J. Lorand Matory, Marla Frederick, and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith have shown, Black religion comprises a range of aesthetics, domains, and practices that often have little or no concern with anything explicitly political. So, I hope readers will keep in mind that this is a monograph that focuses on a particular configuration of themes.

Having said this, however, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that the overwhelmingly devastating conditions of domination and destruction that have constituted racial Blackness have not been merely incidental to the lives of African Americans. Politics is not just one more aspect of Black life. Because race is politics and because the social reality of African Americans has never been non-racial or post-racial, it would be naïve to think that Black religion would not be particularly (though not exclusively) marked by political conflicts and aspiration. If any reasonable observer, for just a moment, takes seriously the day-to-day reality that the United States governs Black people primarily through the juridical necropolitics of racial policing to produce the many intricate forms of death and repression that Michelle Alexander so eloquently and persuasively explains in The New Jim Crow, it would seem absurd not to expect that these condition would somehow impinge in a particular way on Black religion. The same goes for considering the religious lives of Blacks during the era of chattel slavery or under the terrorist regime of lynch mobs and “sun-down towns” that James Loewen has detailed in his scholarship.

Alternatively, one might say that African American religions have frequently operated under the sign of freedom precisely because these conditions of unfreedom have been constitutive of Black life, by design, on an overwhelming scale. In understanding this, we have to maintain a level of sophistication that enables us to proffer and absorb such claims without distorting this analysis into reductionism. African American Religions is not a reductionist project. It is a non-reductive assessment of how Black religion has been formed at its points of intersection with empire. That’s the focus.

Now for the second part of that question. Definitions of religion are myriad, and none have been embraced wholesale in a strictly comprehensive fashion. This is true despite the tremendous variety of definitions that has emerged, focusing on the management of affect (per Thomas Tweed) or the structuring of community, relationships, and collective identity (per Emile Durkheim or Robert Orsi) or the formation of cognitive and subjective modes (per Stewart Guthrie or Clifford Geertz). I find compelling and probing critiques that Talal Asad has rendered. He rejects conceptualizing religion in a transcultural, diachronic fashion to presume there is any such thing in all times and all places. But I don’t think this means we should not explain our terms or define central concepts. I think the most rigorous approach to conceptualizing religion requires us to employ what Anne Taves calls a “building-blocks approach.” With this in mind, there is nothing inherently religious per se. Humans constitute religious formations of entities, practice, and agency through what she terms singularization and assemblage—endowing the otherwise mundane with a sense of specialness that sets it apart (singularization) and connecting this with other singularized forms. Assemblages of these formations are frequently and particularly encoded and shaped through relations between humans and extraordinary entities such as gods, Orisha, ancestors, and saints. Theology is also part of the this. But other matters such as government, health, and the management of death are important as well. Jacob Olupona’s City of 201 Gods, which examines divine kingship (monarchy) in Yorubaland, is a forceful demonstration of the secular dimensions of religion. Furthermore, my attention to the racialization of Islam is meant to demonstrate among other things that creating political community has been a racial project that relies on religion. One paradigmatic example of this is the juridico-political system of limpieza de sangre that operated in Iberia and the Americas for hundreds of years.

So, one take-away is that religion is not necessarily separate from politics. It is at times, but at other times religion is literally constituted through singularizing political formations. The long history of Christendom is a case in point. Christendom was not a church. It was a worldly empire. This should not come as a surprise, as Christian theology invests richly and productively in the political grammar of empire—a divine sovereign with military hosts involved in a cosmic drama of armed conflict. I hope readers of the book will consider the myriad ways politics has been essential to making religion, as this means we cannot account for religion fully without attending to politics in a serious way.

You also asked about defining African American religions. I employ this term to refer to the systems of transnational religion that emerged among racially Black peoples (i.e., peoples racialized as Black) in the Americas through Atlantic contacts and exchanges. To a limited degree, this also applies to Black peoples in Africa, to the extent that American Blacks have traversed and settled throughout Africa (think of Liberia). I realize that most readers are accustomed to employing the term “African American religions” to mean strictly “Black religion in the United States.” I have something more expansive in mind, although my book devotes considerable attention to the United States to deal explicitly with US empire. I think it is overwhelmingly the case that Black religion in the United States has always been a diasporic, transnational phenomenon. (The same is true of White American religion.) This is not legitimately debatable. Recent studies of diaspora theory by Kamari Clarke, J. Lorand Matory, Richard Iton, and others have clarified that the racial Blackness is not a nation-state formation but a global one. More specifically, examining the actual history of Black religious movements “in the United States” underscores this point. To take one example, it is no accident that the first independent Black Christian denomination in the United States was created as an “African” denomination—the African Methodist Episcopal Church. These Africans understood that they were stateless and were thus fighting to be included in the political community of nation that ruled them (the United States). They did not come up with the idea of being African on a whim, of course. This was a consequence of European colonialism.

There is another point of argument that becomes relevant here. I attempt to explain in Part 2 of the book why the entire struggle over chattel slavery in the United States was burdened by the imperative of Black settler colonialism. In hindsight, this should be obvious, but it is rather difficult to understand what was actually happening in the 1800s because we have become so accustomed to narrating the history of abolition though the ideological lens of a liberal integrationist paradigm. My point, however, is that the transnational frame has never been absent from African American religions. Rather, it has been fundamental to its constitution.

MM/CD: Lastly, we want to thank you again for your time, and more importantly, for this inimitable volume, African American Religions. It is an incredible resource for so many scholars, young and seasoned alike, and we’re grateful for this unmatched, much-needed contribution to the field. But as one amazing book always whets the appetite for more, could you tell us a bit about where you’re headed next?

SJ: Well, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to discuss the book. Right now I am finishing a book on religion and the FBI. It is tentatively entitled “True Faith and Allegiance,” drawn from the FBI’s motto. My co-editor Steven Weitzman (of U Penn) and I are excited that this volume might provide an encompassing account of how religion and national security have been deeply interwoven for about one century. This is, among things, an important aspect of religion and state matters that is all too relevant today. In addition, I am editing a book with Tracy Leavelle (of Creighton University) on religion and US empire that will bring together the work of approximately fifteen collaborators doing work on the subject.

Finally, I have begun researching the relationship between humans and intelligent machines. This is a new area of scholarship that has resulted from my work on a project to create a digital scholarly edition of Samuel Purchas’s Purchas His Pilgrimage (1626). Machine intelligence is raising fundamental challenges to how human ontology has been conceptualized in the West, as we engineer machines to think and reason with increasing sophistication. I think this provides a unique and compelling opportunity to mine a variety of theoretical approaches (including philosophies of materiality that feature in African indigenous religion).

MM/CD: Thanks again for your time, Dr. Johnson! Looking forward to many more conversations to come.