- Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism by Carol Wayne White
It speaks to the illogic of our public life that the slogan “All Lives Matter” has come to stand directly against “Black Lives Matter” within contemporary discourse on race. Carol Wayne White’s Black Lives and Sacred Humanity, among its other achievements, confirms the absurdity of such an opposition. White shows how historic efforts to defend and define the humanity of African Americans offer a vision in which all human lives do not simply matter but are in fact sacred within nature. White’s effort to marshal elements within the black tradition to develop her notion of sacred humanity succeeds; in fact, the entailments of her arguments go further still. In addition to undermining the binary of black lives/all lives, the book effectively trespasses across such oppositions as humanism/naturalism, science/poetry, and nature/African American religiosity. Though Black Lives and Sacred Humanity arguably overextends its antimodernism by leaning on historicism in opposition to metaphysics, the book will be of interest to anyone wishing to engage key figures with the African American intellectual tradition, seek out new intellectual territory for religious naturalism, or grapple with the concept of sacred humanity as sensitive to critical theories of social justice.
White locates her effort to develop a distinctly African American religious naturalism in relation to key figures from the black intellectual tradition, focusing on Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin. Without claiming these figures as full-bore religious naturalists themselves, White sees each thinker as making a distinct contribution to her project. From Cooper, she finds inspiration in the use of richly naturalistic metaphors to support a communal ontology, such that the experiences affecting any one person or culture redound to the experience of all. As White puts it, “For Cooper, if any part is held back, then the whole is diminished” (53). From Du Bois, White highlights the ability to creatively appropriate the symbols of black religiosity, in that Du Bois draws upon religious symbols to explore what it means to be human within raced living. And from Baldwin, she examines how reflection on the symbolic meaning of whiteness and blackness within religious and cultural [End Page 96] systems supports Baldwin’s argument that embracing blackness is essential to human flourishing, nationally as well as personally. White argues that, taken together, Cooper, Du Bois, and Baldwin demonstrate the ways in which black religiosity can be a vehicle for something more fundamental than transcendental theism: life affirmation. By embedding within nature the struggle for self-actualization amidst prejudice, exploring religiosity semiotically, and claiming a distinct subjectivity for African Americans, these three writers lend credence to a sense of “black humans as lovers of life and vital centers of value at a critical time in American history” (94). This shared affirmation of life is relevant to White’s project for at least two reasons. First, life affirmation within the black tradition is relevant because all traditions are relevant; simply by expressing a distinct form of being human, these black intellectuals have contributed to the sense that humans are sacred centers of value. Second, the black tradition is relevant in a unique way because of the all-too-common attempts to deny the full humanity of African Americans, a fact which renders these creative expressions of black humanity especially instructive.
White’s engagement with the African American intellectual tradition is complemented by her understanding of religious naturalism. White’s naturalism sees religiosity in functionalist term, in which religiosity is predicated through constellations of symbols that enlist cultural categories and demonstrate the human capacity both to value and to be of value. From value comes a sense of wonderment at the relationships that intersect within every person and extend across cultural and natural contexts. As with naturalism more broadly, White’s vision makes no appeal to transcendental theism. Rather, the book draws from process philosophy to articulate senses of relationality, value, change, and natural accounts of...