Spirit in the Dark

Spirit in the DarkSpirit in the Dark is a historical project that engages with literary sources to grapple with questions in the study of religion. Josef Sorett (Columbia University) attempts to track the evolution of a debate about black art and culture—which he refers to as “racial aesthetics”—from the New Negro movement of the 1920s up through the Black Arts movement (circa 1970), recasting this well-known literary history by placing “religion” at the center of the story. Black religious pluralism is a constant (if consistently changing over time) even as “The Black Church”—not a monolith, but instead a shifting constellation of ideas, institutions, and practices—manages to maintain a place of prominence. As such, Spirit in the Dark follows the pairing of “church” and “spirit,” as an analytical frame apparent in the primary sources, across roughly five decades to provide a provisional map of the multiple ways that religion has animated black literary visions even in their most avowedly secular forms.

Racial aesthetics offers not an escape from, or secular counter to, Christian hegemony. Rather, Spirit in the Dark is an invitation for scholars of religion and literature, respectively (and other readers as well), to reconsider (African American) literature and (American) religious history—secular and sacred, race and religion—as entangled as they are, more often than not, in real time.

In this short forum, scholars reflect on Sorett’s most recent work and look at the history of racial aesthetics through different lenses.

July 19th, 2017

Don’t play that song, Nathan Scott

posted by M. Cooper Harriss

Spirit in the DarkI welcome Spirit in the Dark for the seriousness with which it opens new prospects for the study of religion and literature in African-American contexts. Toward these ends it represents the right book at the right time, prescient of so much work in ferment during its own preparation, and occupies a rising curve of renewed interest in religious dimensions of cultural production.

Religion and literature is not new, of course, though its locus within respective fields of religious and literary studies (their own intellectual borders often stringently patrolled, even if artificially demarcated) has tended to focus on European traditions. Or, when thinking more broadly, it considered issues of comparativity across East and West rather than the racial matters so historically resonant during the subfield’s former prominence—roughly coterminous with Sorett’s periodization from the Harlem Renaissance to Motown.

Spirit in the Dark offers a corrective for this historical omission and a template for forward progress.

Read Don’t play that song, Nathan Scott.
July 10th, 2017

Josef Sorett and the idea of a racial aesthetic

posted by Robert Gooding-Williams

Spirit in the DarkJosef Sorett’s Spirit in the Dark is a marvelous book, not least of all due to its meticulous, incisive, and historically informed treatments of the literary sources it assembles. Sorett says that the primary aim of the book is “to narrate the history of the idea of a racial aesthetic” and that the book is written, first and foremost, “with scholars of African American religious history in mind.” Sorett’s story is a specifically religious history of the idea of a racial aesthetic, the point of which is to relate that idea, in its various incarnations, to the evolution of African American and other religious practices in North America from the 1920s through the 1960s.

In addition to weaving together “history and literature,” Sorret tells us he hopes also to attend to “theoretical concerns.” In this essay, I take up those concerns, and some of the issues they raise, for I come to Josef’s book not as a scholar of African American religious history, but as a philosopher with an interest in literary aesthetics generally and in the idea of a racial aesthetic, specifically.

Read Josef Sorett and the idea of a racial aesthetic.
June 28th, 2017

Spirit in the Dark—An introduction

posted by Josef Sorett

Spirit in the DarkI have written elsewhere about a set of contemporary experiences and observations—although now aged by roughly two decades—that provided the first sparks of interest in the questions that led to my first book, Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics. Travels back and forth between church services, on one hand, and open mics and poetry readings, on the other, during the 1990s provided the initial impetus for my efforts to bring religion and literature in conversation in the form of the longer story that Spirit in the Dark narrates. Admittedly, the religious history of black letters from the 1920s to the early 1970s that I offer is colored by “presentist” concerns.

To state the matter differently, Spirit in the Dark grew out of my desire for a better historical understanding of how things—things religious and things literary—came to be the way they are. So another way to account for (rather than obscure) the play between past and present, the personal and the historical, in Spirit in the Dark is to acknowledge

Read Spirit in the Dark—An introduction.