restricted access God and Blackness: Race, Gender, and Identity in a Middle Class Afrocentric Church by Andrea C. Abrams (review)
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Reviewed by
Andrea C. Abrams, God and Blackness: Race, Gender, and Identity in a Middle Class Afrocentric Church. New York: New York University Press, 2014. 186 pp.

inline graphic Middle-class religious commitment has been an under-explored topic in studies of African American faith traditions. This engaging study helps to fill the gap by exploring the Afrocentric beliefs of middle-class blacks in the US who tackle problems of identity through religious practice. For members of the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church, located in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, Afrocentrism holds the promise of resolving the predicament of “double consciousness” outlined by W. E. B. Du Bois (1903) by providing specific tenets that define the meanings and practices of authentic blackness. Such essentialist conceptions are complicated by heterogeneous constructions of blackness that contribute to popular ambivalence about what counts as more or less black. Abrams succeeds in demonstrating that “this tension between essentialism and heterogeneity is not a problem to be solved; rather, it is a fundamental and necessary aspect of racial identity” (9) that gives meaning and form to First Afrikan members’ religious commitments.

Lucidly composed and free of polemic, God and Blackness explores “the myriad…questions blackness raises” (7) through interviews conducted with First Afrikan members, attendance at services, and readings of church leaders’ publications. While never failing to foreground informants’ voices, Abrams engages cogently with important debates in critical scholarship on blackness in the US, in particular Algernon Austin’s (2006) thesis that Afrocentrism represents a project on the part of the black middle class to uplift the black poor by changing their values. The premise of Afrocentrism that one of white racism’s worst consequences has been to injure the self-esteem of black people in America has, [End Page 331] according to Austin, contributed to assumptions that the problems of their communities might be alleviated if they were to retain African cultural values, as immigrants from Europe and Asia have ostensibly done with theirs. Abrams agrees with Austin that members of First Afrikan are invested in demonstrating the parity of what they call “African culture” with “European culture,” but finds that they were not dismissive of the culture of poor black people. Instead, they tried to use middle-class resources to improve the welfare of the black poor in suburban Atlanta by providing educational services (124).

Yet on the whole, Abrams’s response to Austin’s critique takes the form less of a riposte than of a shift in focus to the numerous ways in which embracing Afrocentrism is a means of “situating the self” (43), specifically by aligning subjectivity with understandings of identity. In Chapter 1, Abrams considers the ways in which the leaders of First Afrikan draw on the “recovery projects” of Afrocentric thinkers such as Molefi Kete Asante in order to “define themselves as subjects rather than objects of history” (27). Chapter 2 presents church members’ reflections on the forms of speaking, dressing, and hairstyling that they regard as marking them authentically black, comparing the process of acquiring an Afrocentric consciousness to that of a “recently recovered amnesiac” (65) who must learn to think and act in accordance with his or her true, yet newly acquired, identity. Chapter 3, on race and religion, focuses on how members of First Afrikan frame Jesus and other biblical personages as phenotypically black. They argue that God is black in the sense that he identifies with the sufferings of black peoples, thus standing in contrast to white racist oppressors as the only legitimate object of worship. Members of First Afrikan make reference to an “ancestral memory” (91) that denotes a collective consciousness specific to the culture and history of African-descended peoples, and that may be eclipsed by an “exiled” or “enslaved” consciousness (93). In Chapter 4, Abrams proceeds to issues of class, exploring how Afrocentrism may be an element of the “black middle class tool kit” (Lacy 2007), attractive as an “authentically black African identity that can hold its own when compared to the black cultural capital associated with poorer African Americans” (119, original emphasis). Finally, in Chapter 5, Abrams explores the tensions between historically patriarchal elements of Afrocentric thinking and womanist theology, and shows that ideas...


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