This post is a response to Professor Barbara Dianne Savage’s "The Myth of the Black Church." For those unfamiliar with this excerpt from Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion, Prof. Savage reflects on the lineage and diversity found in the "Black church". She characterizes the compilation of the many denominations and religious institutions that make up the black church as "a political, intellectual and theological construction." She grounds this conclusion in what she describes as the decentralized and idiosyncratic nature of those institutions that comprise the league of black churches. Prof. Savage continues in claiming that the notion of a unified community, a national entity, presumed under the idea of a "Black church", does not exist.
The academic part of me loves her argument and could even agree with it. For instance, her evaluation of the "Black church" as a social construct is more than admirable. In fact this kind of rhetoric appears throughout the discourse surrounding race in classrooms at Brown, so I can’t help but enjoy it. Yet, the Southern-born young man in me, raised in the Black churches of rural Alabama and Georgia leaves her article feeling disenfranchised.
While I do agree that the term "Black church" often propagates a false sense of homogeneity in the African American community, I cannot ignore my sensitivities toward a term that conjures such strong images of a distinct racialized religious experience. Yes, the idea of the "Black church" includes a variety of denominations and traditions; however, in conversations with my Black peers, we understand and use the term "Black church" to reflect on those traditions found only in our predominantly black spaces. The idea of the "Black church" has fostered a communal understanding about our music, the call and response nature of our praise and worship, and the colorful tradition of "Church fans" that decorate the pew seats on a warm Sunday in July for example.
These are our memories and reflections.
Are we imagining these similarities across all "Black church" denominations? Does the sense of the black experience in church, while they might not be identical, still ring familiar no matter the particular church affiliation? Of course! Our experiences inform and create this construction of the "Black church".
This term sets the lexicon that allows us to talk about our unique religions. I suggest we not dismiss the "Black church" as a myth. But celebrate its potential to incite conversations about our religions and our Black experiences.
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