- Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics by Josef Sorett
There is an enduring assumption in the Western academy that modernity introduced a stable division between the religious and the secular—or, between the sacred and the profane. According to this view, secularism renders religious commitments private and subjective, enabling science and reason to govern interactions in the public sphere. This widespread assumption about the transparency of the secular regime occasionally permits an exception regarding black people and African American religiosity. In other words, black religion, and black Protestantism particularly, is described as a space where the sacred and secular are indistinguishable or at least where the boundary is fluid. Josef Sorett's provocative, beautifully written text, Spirit in the Dark, examines the relationship between black religion and literature to test, expand, and revise the assumptions about the sacred/secular fusion in black life and experience. Motivated by Aretha Franklin's refusal to separate her political and spiritual music (she recorded the eponymous "Spirit in the Dark" in 1970) and Benjamin Mays's premature concerns about Harlem Renaissance writers' abandoning theological concerns, Sorett's book aims to show how Afro-Protestant motifs strongly inform black literary and aesthetic practices. Consequently, Spirit in the Dark provides both a "literary history of African American religion and a religious history of black literature" (7).
In opposition to those who would describe the Harlem Renaissance or the Black Arts Movement as secular, Sorett claims, "African American literature has since its advent and across its history been cut from religious cloth. … In fact, the very organizing logics, aesthetic practices, and political aspirations of the African American literary tradition have been decidedly religious. In short, black literature is religious. Better yet, it is an extension of the practice of Afro-Protestant Christianity" (2). For Sorett, the intersection between black literature and religion is most clearly seen in ongoing discussions about a unique black aesthetic and in related appeals to the "spirit" of black people. As the author points out, religion has been a "consistent and vital—yet always contested—ingredient in efforts to define (as well as debunk) the idea of a distinctive black literature and culture" (4). Black artists and writers within both the Harlem Renaissance and the later BAM discussed and debated the significance of religion as they each developed and contested versions of a racial aesthetic. Even though many of these writers did not attend a religious institution—and many rejected official doctrines associated especially with Afro-Protestantism—Sorett shows how black religion was often the discursive terrain that enabled and constrained discussions about the uniqueness of black culture. Connected to the matter of a distinctive black aesthetic is the grammar of spirit, a grammar that provides a strong link between black religion and art. For Sorett, paying attention to the different uses and connotations of the term "spiritual" within black art and literature—as it relates to black harmony and conflict, black [End Page 155] authenticity, and the transcendence of racial categories—enables us to track competing visions of black life, struggle, and liberation.
Each chapter in Spirit of the Dark contributes to the aim of "retelling the history of African American literature from the 1920s to the end of the 1960s with religion … at the center of the story" (16). And, as Sorett demonstrates, this story is layered, discordant, and full of characters that contest how this story should be told. In chapter one, the author shows how the New Negro movement, or the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance, emerged through debates that often included the grammar of "spirit and church." Whereas some figures in the nascent movement (Alain Locke) urged black people to abandon, or at least distance themselves, from black Protestantism and embrace African-derived forms of spirituality, other writers like George Haynes and James Weldon Johnson contended that "churches ought to function as agents of social service and racial uplift" (51). (It is important to keep in mind that Locke's suspicion toward Protestantism was motivated by his embrace...