How Black Spirituality Has Shaped The Black Radical Tradition | Sojourners

How Black Spirituality Has Shaped The Black Radical Tradition

In January, Black Lives Matter restarted its #BlackWomenAreDivine project, asking people to nominate Black women or femme-identified people, 20 of whom will be honored by Black Lives Matter in March.

“We are the sacred mamas, builders, teachers, and lovers of this world,” the announcement reads. “The Creator speaks and works through us as we constantly make ways out of no way.”

Though the project, which started in 2020, is not sponsored by churches, its faith-rooted message is an example of Black spirituality and religion being interfused into the Black radical tradition.

The term “Black radical tradition” was coined by Cedric J. Robinson, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In his 1983 book, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, Robinson defined the tradition as “the continuing development of a collective consciousness informed by the historical struggles for liberation.” Robinson saw the tradition as encompassing a host of movements — including antebellum rebellions against slave owners, pan-Africanism, and Black Power. 

Central to Robinson’s work is the concept of “racial capitalism” — the idea that racism is embedded in the structure of capitalist economies as they developed out of feudalism. Robinson’s work challenged assumptions of traditional Marxism, but he did not limit his analysis to material conditions alone.

Robinson critiqued Western Christian thinking on redemption, which he said influenced politics so that “political society is no less a Salvationist or redemptionist paradigm than those theological paradigms out of which it emerged.”

Robinson’s work also honored the spiritual base of Black liberation movements, and he believed that Black spirituality helped spark resistance to enslavement and colonization.

Robin D. G. Kelley, a former student of Robinson’s and professor of American history at UCLA, told Sojourners to understand the Black radical tradition is “to understand the religious, the cultural, the ritual practices of the people who are oppressed.”

The tradition, Kelley said, began in the context of the enslavement of African people. In that context, Black people had cultures, experiences, and memories — rooted in their African origins — that affirmed that “no human being can ever be reduced to property.”

Importantly, while the Black radical tradition has fueled internationalist and socialist movements throughout history, the term itself is not meant to be strictly defined by individual thinkers and activists, Kelley said.

“The Black radical tradition isn’t an ideology,” he said. “It isn't a list of ideas. It’s a way of understanding what drives Black liberation.”

For Matthew Vega, a doctoral student focusing on liberation theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, the Black radical tradition helped to contextualize the circumstances of his upbringing.

“I grew up in a poor, low-income community of color,” Vega said. “I found myself pursuing literature to make sense of that and then the more difficult work of trying to make sense of that theologically.”

Vega, who has written theological essays on Robinson’s life and work, said that Black religion was a crucial component to the birth of the Black radical tradition.

Enslaved Africans didn’t necessarily read revolutionaries like Marx, Vega said. The religious and philosophical worldviews that came from their lives in Africa inspired them to rebel.

Vega quoted American historian and theologian Gayraud S. Wilmore, who said that “[B]lack folk religion contained a definite moral judgment against slavery and a clear legitimation of resistance to injustice.”

Terrence L. Johnson, an associate professor of religion and politics at Georgetown University, told Sojourners that Black churches have been key cultivators of Black leaders, including those who practice in the Black radical tradition.

“The Black church used religion and politics to advocate not simply for civil rights but for economic justice,” Johnson said, noting the Black radical tradition’s critique of capitalism.

Johnson also emphasized that Black religion and radicalism are “not simply about Black Christians.” Black radicals have valued interfaith work in the pursuit of Black liberation, and Black churches have hosted non-Christian leaders and activists like Malcolm X and Angela Davis.

“We have a common oppressor, a common exploiter, and a common discriminator. But once we all realize that we have this common enemy, then we unite on the basis of what we have in common,” Malcolm X, who at the time was a leader in the Black Muslim movement Nation of Islam, said during his 1963 “Message to the Grassroots” speech, given at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit.

The interfaith work, displayed in Black churches and among Black radicals, is the “ethos that informs political behavior,” Johnson said. The liberatory message of those who follow the Black radical tradition transcended any religious divide, he said.

Oluwatomisin Oredein, director of the Black Church Studies program at Brite Divinity School, told Sojourners that the relationship between the Black church and radical tradition expands beyond institutions of individual churches. Black people have used Christian messages and scripture to resist white enslavers, a tradition carried on in Black radicalism.

The thought was, “I’m going to take this Christian message in a different direction and use it as a catalyst for revolt,” Oredein said. “The message of Black church says our lives are valuable now,” Oredein said.

Kelley agreed, emphasizing that Black people used scripture to resist the ownership of people and land.

“[God said in Leviticus 25:23] ‘The land is mine and you are coming into it as aliens and settlers,” Kelley said.

The Black church’s influence on radical tradition can be seen in two distinct ways, according to Oredein.

First, Black religious institutions — local churches, denominations, and adjacent organizations — began as gathering places where enslaved people could explore Christianity away from white oppression.

Second, the institutional Black church gave birth to the spirit, energy, and values that have been used to sustain activists in resistance movements — an influence seen when spirituals are sung at marches or prayer is used as public protest.

Pan-Africanism — the goal of unifying all people of African descent in a global fight against white supremacy and imperialism — plays a key part in the Black radical tradition, according to Johnson.

“We see a solidarity among not only African Americans in the U.S., but also in the Caribbean, and also in [Africa],” Johnson said of the early developments of pan-Africanism in the 19th century.

That solidarity was emphasized in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Kwame Ture, at the time known as Stokely Carmichael, spoke passionately about such globalism, emphasizing in one speech, “If you accept Black Power, you must accept Pan-Africanism because it is the logical and consistent development. The highest political expression of Black Power is Pan-Africanism.”

Today, Black Lives Matter calls themselves “expansive,” and their about page says “we must move beyond the narrow nationalism that is all too prevalent in Black communities.” The expansive politics of the Black radical tradition is seen in the ever-expanding commitment to address all forms of oppression. The tradition, according to Kelley, isn’t about the self-serving interests of Black people alone; it’s about promoting liberation for all.

“The commitment to expand the very possibility of who is included in what justice might look like really undergirds the Black radical tradition,” Johnson said. “It’s the ethos that informs political behavior.”

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