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A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History.

Albert J. Raboteau. Boston: Beacon P. 1995. 235 pp. $23.00

Reviewed by

Dolan Hubbard The University of Georgia

A Fire in the Bones is a continuation of Raboteau's landmark study Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution "in the Antebellum South (1979), accented by the personal voice of this son of Mississippi who is "a minority within a minority," black and Catholic. Whereas Slave Religion focused on the changes the African Gods underwent in the transatlantic journey from the Old to the New World as blacks struggled to come to grips with their "otherness," A Fire in the Bones details "the social engagement of black Evangelical piety" with the idea of a unified American culture and how the black presence problematizes Christianity with its egalitarian impulse. Raboteau examines African American religion within the context of the institutional black church. tie devotes little attention to other areas of extra-church religious expressions such as music, folklore, and style of life. A Fire in the Bones is an excellent primer for the lay person in African American religious history; it is accessible, informative, and comprehensive.

Regardless of their denominational affiliation - Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Holiness-Pentecostal - black Americans have maintained an unshakable faith that God is an actor in their history. This faith has enabled them to challenge America's self-image as "The Promised Land" and to fight the institutions of racism. The unresolved tension over race and religion produced what Du Bois termed "double-consciousness" and is reflected in the recurrent themes of America as Israel or Egypt, dream or nightmare.

Framed by an intensely personal prologue-epilogue, A Fire in the Bones consists of nine essays and is divided into three parts: "In Search of the Promised Land: African-American Religion and American Destiny," "Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The Black Church," and "The Performed Word: Religious Practice." Part One introduces the central themes of the book and sets them in dialogue with the master narrative of America as the Promised Land, as is evident by the chapter titles: "African-Americans, Exodus, and the American Israel";" 'Ethiopia Shall Soon Stretch Forth Her Hands': Black Destiny in Nineteenth-Century America"; and" 'How Far the Promised Land': Black Religion and Black Protest."

In Parts Two and Three, Raboteau shows how each generation of African Americans challenged the myth of a unified national history that excludes them from "a set of interlocking stories that we tell one another about our origins and our past." Raboteau discusses Richard Allen, James Baldwin, black Catholics, the chanted sermon, Thomas Merton, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Except for an occasional reference, there is a deafening silence on the role of women in the church. Even as black men complain about racial oppression, one thread remains constant: Women may be head of the household but not head of the Household of God.

Clearly the two chapters that are closest to Raboteau's heart are "Minority within a Minority: The History of Black Catholics in America" and "A Hidden Wholeness: Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr." Raboteau, who "had wanted to be a priest," sets out to reclaim black Catholic history and demonstrate how this "minority within a minority" has had "profound implications for the religious and racial identities of black Catholics in the United States." In the Western hemispheric context, one is more likely to be black and Catholic; in the United States, one is more likely to be black and Protestant. Black Catholics trace their origins back to "free persons of color" in Louisiana, often with Caribbean roots; Maryland; pockets in Kentucky; and Mississippi. Though blacks have been part of the Catholic church since its inception in the Americas, they, like their black Protestant brothers and sisters, were forced to labor under the burden of blackness.

In "A Hidden Wholeness: Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr.," Raboteau gives a magisterial critique of two outstanding religious figures in America during the second half of the twentieth century. Though the Roman Catholic monk and the black Baptist preacher never met for their long-scheduled retreat, Raboteau recalls their "common struggle against the evils of racism, materialism, and militarism." Coming from "two very different locations and two very different traditions," these two intellectuals, inflamed by their active engagement with their faith, took a stand for justice and mercy. The path of these two apostles of freedom "met at the symbol of reconciliation and compassion - the cross."

In "The Chanted Sermon," Raboteau locates the performed word within "a traditional [European] genre" whose origins stretch back to the eighteenth century: "Africans and their descendants in Protestant America discovered analogues in revivalistic Evangelicalism to the religious beliefs and rituals of Africa, which turned out to be crucial for the process of reinterpretation that made Christianity intelligible and adaptable for large numbers of African-Americans." Black religion is more than a derivative of a European religious tradition, as Raboteau makes abundantly clear in Slave Religion. As the authorizing model for self-articulation in black America, the preacher elevates the self in relation to a given image of culture. The black sermon is a reminder that Africa never completely disappears.

Raboteau's discussion of blacks in search of the Promised Land, the emergence of the institutional black church, black Catholics, the performed word, and Merton and King must be viewed within the context of a national conversation on cultural pluralism whose most articulate proponents have been the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray. This brings into focus the recurring leitmotif of an African American exceptionalist tradition that culminates in Raboteau's stirring epilogue. In spite of many talented individuals who have beaten the odds, the black hole in the African American exceptionalist tradition is that blacks were made to suffer as a group. The individual cannot be separated from the group and recognized as an American who happens to be black. African American religious history teaches us to press on in order to defeat a theology of history that insists on black marginality.

Instead of troubling biblical waters, Raboteau takes his readers to the edge of the Red Sea that divides Americans along the lines of color and caste, Catholic and Protestant. He does not wade in the water and challenge the quiet consensus that has developed among Europeans and Euro-Americans that "the relation of Black people to the Bible is a post-biblical experience," as Cain Hope Felder notes in Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class, and Family (1989). Ultimately, students of African American religious history must recenter the Bible as an African text if New World Africans are to achieve wholeness. We must bring to the discussion of our comparative black identities, as Raboteau observes in his discussion of Merton and King, "the critical consciousness necessary for radical dissent from the religious and political status quo." In effect, we must get outside post-Enlightenment paradigms and illuminate the hermeneutic within the hermeneutic in order to tell the story within the Story to make the church universal relevant. Otherwise, studies such as A Fire Within the Bones, regardless of how illuminating, will be limited by the writer's acceptance of post-Enlightenment models of humanity and organized religion.
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Author:Hubbard, Dolan
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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