Black and White Communities

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In an ideal world, this chapter would end here, with a call for a complex subjectivity and a way of seeing myself as both inside and outside the condition of faith. My pragmatic side, however, insists on a conclusion that addresses how we might execute a way of life that refuses the paradox of belief and non-belief, one that embodies fragmented subjectivity. What follows from here does not (and cannot) detail that life in full, because, quite honestly, I haven't yet found such a reality. Rather, this ending stands more as a hypothesis or question, an intuition about the directions I intend to head in with my scholarship and life, to solve the problems that accompany the loss of faith.

At a practical level, one way of formulating this proposal would be to suggest that what I need really isn't a fine-tuned philosophy articulating the operations of unity and fragmentation, but rather a group of people around me who can see me both as a fully secularized subject, and as a fragmented subject for whom religion is part of who I have been and who I am. In other words, perhaps my problems can't be solved with Jameson, Baudrillard, or even Foucault himself; maybe they can only be addressed on the level of practice, in the ways that our cultures circulate inside of us and that people reflect back to us what is and isn't important. Maybe what I need is not abstraction, but a group of people around me saying "yes, we see you are rational and have left all that nonsense behind" one minute, and the next minute lend me a sympathetic ear about the value of faith; a group of people who will not see those positions as inconsistent with each other. Maybe what I need is a group of people who understand that faith, for any individual, comes and goes, that people are complicated and sometimes need to believe and not believe at the same time, and that self-identification isn't finally what matters anyway Maybe what matters is the struggle, and the people around you helping you through that struggle. Maybe what I need is not a three-dimensional theory, but a community.

What might this community look like? My intuitions tell me that certain kinds of marginalized communities are very practiced at refusing the distinction between belief and non-belief. While trying to avoid both romantic or essentialist implications, it seems important to ask how certain ethnic and racial enclaves inside US boundaries negotiate this paradox, and can maybe serve as a model for the kind of reflection and support I so long for. I want to think - for a moment - about the possibility that the practices associated with African-American communities, for example, might provide a design for coping with the three-dimensional fragmentation I have described here. The way religion and spirituality often operate in black communities, I believe, captures the kind of environment that would enable someone to both believe and not believe at the same time.

It is an indisputable fact that the black church operates as one of the central institutions in most black communities such that most African-Americans share a common perception that whether one believes or not, there is value in the church that cannot be denied. C. Eric Lincoln expresses it this way:

The Blacks brought their religion with them. After a time they accepted the white man's religion, but they have not always expressed it in the white man's way. It became the black man's purpose - perhaps it was his destiny - to shape, to fashion, to re-create the religion offered him by the Christian slave master, to remold it nearer to his own particular needs. The black religious experience is something more than a black patina on a white happening. It is a unique response to a historical occurrence that can never be replicated for any people in America. (Lincoln 1973: vii-viii)

Or, as Katie Cannon articulates it, "the Black Church expresses the inner ethical life of the people" (Cannon 1988: 1). Even among those who have rejected faith, there is rarely a sense of bitterness, and more often a sense of nostalgia for the good things that have been lost. As a former Duke student Kim McLarin depicts in her first novel Taming it Down:

There were no hymnals in my church. Everybody knew all the words to every song, even the youngest children, and if by some chance you didn't know the words, it was easy enough to catch on, because the chorus was always sung again and again, with such joy and purpose and driving rhythm that only a dead man could resist joining in. Unhappiness was impossible when the music was swaying the church. So was disbelief. I'd always believed in God, of course, the way I believed that night followed day, but the only time I really felt His presence, the way the elders of the church said they did every day, was when I was singing. After twenty or thirty or forty minutes of singing to glory, I'd sink down in the pew. Moist and happy, knowing that God knew who I was. If church had been just music, I'd have gone every day and gotten saved over and over again. (McLarin 1998: 172)

The church takes up its role in the black community in a way that rarely needs to be hidden or disguised. We almost always expect that a black person will have been part of the church, at least as a child; as a consequence, a religious past in black culture is never a secret that must be either hidden away or painfully revealed. There are no black memoirs (to my knowledge) about the loss of faith, no public confessions of apostasy. Faith comes and goes for African-Americans; not attending church for a period is not usually considered a disaster, the slack can be picked up by friends and family. It seems to me that most African-Americans have an easier time with the kind of fractures and contradictory identifications that seem to obsess me. For them, the ability to almost fluidly move back and forth and in and out is at least in part due to the way others around them perceive such movement as normal. There is no critical divide that must be traversed and explained, because at the very core of what it means to be black rests some association with religion.

Moreover, this fluidity flows both ways, such that African-American writers often express a deep interest in spiritual matters, even when all interest in institutionalized Christianity has been lost. Spirituality and belief have become a part of the culture such that even when association with institutions is gone, avenues for expressions of faith are present. Black writers - especially women such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Tonu Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, Octavia Butler, and Ntozake Shange - provide the stories that allow us to realize that ghosts and spirits are part of the operation of the world. As Akasha (Gloria) Hull writes:

Black women writers produce literature from historical-cultural specificities of black women's lives in the US, and more particularly, from African-American spiritual traditions, which include revering the dead, acknowledging the reality of ghosts and spirit possession, honouring "superstition" and the unseen world, giving credence to second sight and other supersensory perception, paying homage to African Deities, practicing voodoo and hoodoo, rootworking, and so on. (Hull 1998: 332)

Rather than living in a world that declares and devalues the spirit realm, black writers have addressed the ways that ghosts and spirits work in the lives of their communities, and in much the same way that subaltern studies seeks to represent the faith-world of the nonmodern subject. Rather than living in a world where loss of church means loss of faith, African-Americans recreate new and interesting relationships with spirits. They manage to hold on to, it seems to me, that which is essential. Even for those who no longer go to church, there are ways to believe.

I pick up, for example, Ntozake Shange's Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo (1982) and the book takes me into the world of sisters and spirits, where I glimpse the workings of transcendent beings. I set the book down, and imagine making the casserole or casting the spell Shange describes, negotiating with spirits for small things; the line between my life and her book grows thin, just as the line between spirit and materiality fades. I am transported and transformed and see the world differently I believe what she believes. And for a moment - even though I am not black - it almost doesn't matter precisely what I believe because there is someone out there able to articulate all of this so well.3

It is this tradition which seems absent from my white life. Virtually everyone I know is either inside the fold of church membership or outside it, either Christian or secular. The insiders can talk about spirits and saints, the outsiders can only refer to these entities metaphorically. Spirituality is something that exists inside the sanctuary of church or the privacy of homes; it is not something that, for white people, is supposed to be in our blood and bones.

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