- Reviewed by
[Editors' note: The first review offered here explores a new "form" of sorts—a slightly longer, collaborative review of one title from two "categorically-perceived," diverse perspectives—which has its contributions and limitations, to be sure. I simply note here, with sacred-holding, the significant synchronicity of this collaboration amidst the national turmoil, cultural shadows, and resisted awakenings about matters of race instigated by the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman.]
Our author, Diana L. Hayes, grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal tradition, became a Roman Catholic theologian, taught systematic theology at Georgetown University and is now professor emerita at Georgetown. In Forged in a Fiery Furnace, she begins her study of African American Spirituality in Africa, highlighting the important aspects of African religious culture that root contemporary African American spirituality. Hayes uses the universal symbol of the tree to hold the whole of African American spirituality and deftly weaves together insights from contemporary scholarship to give a helpful picture of the African roots and African American spirituality today. Drawing on recent studies, she enumerates the foundational gifts of the African heritage, values that mesh well with the teachings and values of Christianity, whether introduced to African peoples in their homeland or America.
Community, a foundational pillar of African religious culture, proved to be dauntingly challenging in the New World. Bought and sold with no recognition of, or regard for, their spousal, familial, or community relationships, slaves forged new relationships with people from other regions of Africa and thus built community. In her treatment of community as a continuing value, Hayes highlights the forging of unity within diversity.
The development of the unique expression of Christianity amongst the slaves most often took place "out of sight." In many different ways Hayes points out that Black slave Christianity was not just an acceptance of white Christianity with its white-supremacy based distortions. It was based on a deep faith in God, a God who valued them, and would lead them to liberation. This transforming faith enabled them, in the face of unspeakable circumstances, to maintain interior dignity, to focus on survival and liberation and often to resist.
African American spirituality developed orally. The sorrow songs (spirituals) were key elements of the transmission of the strengths and insights of this spirituality to future generations. Referring to the work of James H. Cone and others, Hayes relates how many of these songs were both compensatory and revolutionary, supporting the soul while often camouflaging hidden messages. The spirituals highlight strong characteristics of God, deeply felt longings for freedom and justice, and social consciousness. The Black gospel music of today extends this tradition.
With the official declaration of freedom for slaves, the Black Church emerged despite Jim Crow, continuing discrimination, and inequality. Hayes' brief treatment of the development of the Black denominational groupings features mainline protestant, Roman Catholic, and independent Black churches including the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion [End Page 272] Church (AMEZ). In order to survive in the racist culture in the United States, these African American church communities had to walk a fine line, sometimes radical, sometimes compromising. In her post-slavery treatment of the development of Black spirituality, Hayes includes a helpful summary of post-emancipation African American history and experience thus situating the development of the Black Church within the prevailing culture.
Because the contribution of women is often overlooked in the Black Church, Hayes includes a separate chapter on the spirituality of African American women. Women became the bearers of culture and formation for future generations since the slave men were often separated from their families. In describing the spirituality that continues to strengthen African American women today, often in extremely harsh circumstances, she writes: "It is a spirituality that arises from a deep and abiding faith in a God of love, a wonderworking God who walked and talked with them, giving them the strength to persevere" (141). In the Scriptures they find women...