“Yes, I reckon … But there ain’t no church like de Baptist, praise God! Is there, Sister?” observes Sister Williams in Langston Hughes’s 1930 first novel Not Without Laughter
. Williams opines further to Aunt Hagar, one of the novel’s protagonists, that “If you ain’t been dipped in the water an’ half drowned, you ain’t saved.” Hughes’ characters reflected an age when the specificity of one’s denomination was a distinguishing marker of daily life. Full immersion baptism, as well as other biblical interpretations, were markers of social class and ethical sensibility.
This is what I intended in exploring the faith journeys of four public personalities. What did their faith mean to them? What did it say about their way of living or being in the world? What did it say about their personal limitations? What did it say about the society in which they dwelled and challenged their humanity? Examining these four lives allowed me to think about faith without a sociological taxonomy or categorization. It allowed me to give voice to these individuals' humanity in the faith languages they used to express themselves.
Ethel Waters’ faith, one defined broader than Protestant or Catholic orthodoxies, allowed her to unflinchingly face the hurts and abuses of a society that cared little about the fate of black women and girls. Her faith gave her power. She used it to develop her performing skills that set the American stage and screen ablaze, including her years of singing with the evangelist Billy Graham.
For Mary Lou Williams, a Roman Catholic convert, her spiritual seeking and spirituality, paved the way for her to challenge the church with music deemed non-sacred by a European episcopacy. Was not “jazz” born of enslavement throughout the Americas and working-class sensual joys and exploitations sacred?
Eldridge Cleaver’s spiritual journey through Methodism, Roman Catholicism, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, Evangelicalism, Mormonism, and other faith practices can be seen as a spiritual pilgrimage.
Finally, Muhammad Ali, his journey from being a black Baptist to a Muslim with the Nation of Islam symbolized and challenged the American state’s global, racist, political domination. He became a globally recognized Muslim in a country that grew increasingly Islamophobic. Each of these public figures lived and was born in the context of highly democratized American Black Protestantism.
This Protestantism, though born in Europe, is an essential part of the national identity of Americans broadly. European Protestantism came out of doctrinal and national struggles that ultimately led to political fragmentation of Northwest Europe and England away from Roman Catholicism. Ironically, Martin Luther’s declaration about grace fueled civil wars and militaristic competition that reshaped the political cartography globally. Simultaneous to Luther’s challenge, Spanish and Portuguese sovereigns in conjunction with monarchial elites on the African continent corporately expanded slavery as an institution of exploited laborers in the Americas.
Systematized enslavement, which is at the root of capitalism, would be used by countries like England and Holland where Martin Luther’s revolutionary call for grace and spiritual self-determination would be turned on its head. Protestant theological ideology would deny freedoms of indigenous peoples of the Americas, all the while justifying the forcible shipping of human beings from Africa into the Americas.
Black Protestantism thus arose in the English-speaking Americas. It was birthed in the context of indigenous slaughter and an evangelical fervor that spawned human rights abolitionism. Black Protestants remade Luther’s radical call for grace in the face of brutal disjuncture of capitalist enslavement and the one hundred-year marriage of Jane and Jim Crow. This Protestantism created a variety of religious institutions. These institutions have been accommodationist, liberationist, and everything in between. Hence the constant debate about whether the “Black church” has been liberating or debilitating to communities coping with multiple stratifications dividing the American political economy. Black Protestantism is always the elephant in the room.
Whatever faults Black Protestantism has had, its grand strength is in its exercise of democratic debate internal to black Americans about the meaning of the good life and who gets a say in the shaping of that life, including perspectives from other faiths.
Institutionally, Protestantism continues to be the shaping force culturally and politically among African Americans, though most could not tell you what the theological specificity of their congregations or denominations means today. We live in the age of “non-denominational” mega-churches and theological amnesia. Neither theologians or parishioners appear to remember denominational histories and specificity of theological traditions that Hughes’s characters were steeped in. The type of discussion Aunt Hager and Sister Williams held about the merits of their denomination or faith tradition is rarely held today.
Today, Black Protestantism is amalgamated. The sharp edges of denominational differences are muted. Rarely is it heard from the pulpits why denominational tradition matters. I am not trying to romanticized Sister Williams or Aunt Hager from Hughes’s pages. However, Hughes was in touch with the dailiness of his characters’ lives and thus Black life. He recognized, perhaps more clearly, that faith language was how they explained parts of their existence.
Faith matters because black struggle matters. Faith struggles are representations of larger global struggles taking place everywhere. This exploration of the lived faiths of these four public individuals is a bold argument that the actual lives of black Americans have something to teach the collective citizenry more broadly about being ecumenical and democratic. This is especially important as I observe within the United States white American Evangelicalism becoming yet once again the religious cornerstone of reactionary white populism
, as well as observe other faiths globally being entwined with intolerant nationalisms. In my mind, these four journeys offer us profound wisdom into the grace of spiritual self-determination.