On the Lived Theology Reading List: Spirit in the Dark

A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics

From Dante Stewart’s reading list

Josef Sorett is interested in the ironies of secularismso much so that his next book, The Holy Holy Black, will carry the subtitle The Ironies of an American Secular. In his first book, Spirit in the Dark, he is interested more specifically in how the ostensibly secular and secularizing literature of Black cultural movements in America in the years between the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts movement of the 1960s was inextricable from religion.
Sorett, professor of religion and African American and African diaspora studies at Columbia University, traces what he sees as the false conflict between African American literature and religion back to Benjamin Mays, whose first book, The Negro’s God (1938), lamented what he (Mays) saw as a increasing tendency toward atheism in Black literature emerging from the New Negro Renaissance.
Sorett could not disagree more: “African American literature has since its advent and across its history been cut from a religious cloth”even during the New Negro Renaissance. Sorett goes even further, contending that “black literature…is an extension of the practice of Afro-Protestant Christianity.” Sorett confesses that he once hoped to find that Black writers offered an alternative to Christianity. Instead, he found that religion, specifically Christianity, has always been an essential ingredient in the distinctiveness of Black literature and culture. Hence Spirit in the Dark is A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics, and adds those aesthetics to an ever-growing body of inquiry into the ironically religious dimensions of secularism.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“Sorett unveils the contours of a literary history that remained preoccupied with religion even as it was typically understood by authors, readers, and critics alike to be modern and, therefore, secular. Spirit in the Dark offers an account of the ways in which religion, especially Afro-Protestantism, remained pivotal to the ideas and aspirations of African American literature across much of the twentieth century.”

— Reading Religion

Spirit in the Dark is a finely honed compendium of black American writers and the breadth of their religious influences. That black intellectuals and artists were also sometimes dogmatic religious adherents, eclectic spiritualists, and irrepressible agnostics is not an unknown observation, but what these identifications meant for modern black expressive culture has gone mostly unsaid. Until now. A richly historical study, Spirit in the Dark is a valuable resource indeed.”

— Maurice Wallace, English and Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, University of Virginia

“In this magisterial book, Josef Sorett takes us into those black literary spaces that have heretofore been described as secular and reveals how those who reside therein imagine the beautiful in light of the religious. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement, Sorett pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the workings of the ‘spirit’ and, in doing so, unsettles our understanding of black religion and literature. This SPIRIT moves in this book. It is a must read!”

— Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University

For more information on the publication, click here.

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