Religion of the Field Negro

On Black Secularism and Black Theology

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Vincent W. Lloyd
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , November
     2017.
     304 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780823277643.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

With the publication of the late James H. Cone’s hard-hitting Black Theology and Black Powerin 1969, black theology issued a foundational challenge to the theological academy. Theology that did not account for the constitutive anti-blackness at the heart of theological scholarship and thinking was no longer acceptable. Black theologians were intent on not only reframing the theological discourse, but reconstructing theology as a whole. In dialogue with aligned movements such as Latin American liberation theology and Black studies, black theology generated an outpouring of constructive dialogue and critique that continues to this day. 

A recent entry into this vibrant yet contested terrain is Vincent W. Lloyd’s skillfully argued and theoretically nuanced Religion of the Field Negro: On Black Secularism and Black Theology. Inspired by Malcolm X’s dualistic typology of enslaved African Americans—the “house Negro” and “field Negro”—Lloyd argues that black theology must be properly understood in its original thrust as a revolutionary project grounded in the transformative power of African American people. The “field Negro” metaphor animates Lloyd’s effort to underscore the power of the original discourse of black theology in “challenging the ideas of the elite, of the house Negroes” (5). The problem that afflicts black theology and attenuates its theological vision is “an embrace of secularism,” by which Lloyd means “the exclusion or management of religion by the powers that be” (4). Over the course of twelve ambitious essays engaging a wide range of interlocutors—from James Cone and Giorgio Agamben to Sylvia Wynter and Gillian Rose—Lloyd takes aim at a hegemonic secularism that “confines black theology to one of many ways to pluralize theology” (5).

Religion of the Field Negro is arranged in three sections, each containing four thematically linked essays. The first section critically engages the thought of the foundational black theologian James H. Cone, the acclaimed African American writer James Baldwin, and an international coterie of theorists including Achille Mbembe, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, and Sylvia Wynter. Lloyd’s essays articulate a rich and robust theological criticism that underscores the limits of secularism while reflexively drawing our attention to the ways in which the secular imagination arrests the theological development and power of black theology proper. “The task before us,” as Lloyd writes, “is to effect a ‘revaluation of all values,’ to formulate ‘a new law and a new morality’ that will transform humanity” (38). Each of these thinkers serves as a critical resource for Lloyd in disengaging black theology from secularism and its anti-black and multicultural progeny while confronting the depth and complexity of blackness as the condition of possibility for an authentic black theology.

The second set of essays, grouped under the heading of “Questions,” interrogates the host of topics arranged under the questions: “What is Black Tradition?” “What is Black Organizing?” “For What are Blacks to Hope?” and “For What are Whites to Hope?” Kantian theory reverberates within these questions, which calibrate the epistemic, experiential, and ethical demands that are at stake in a revitalized discourse of black theology. Lloyd rethinks and reformulates stories of black life and black belonging in order to better envision forms of black sociality and black conviviality. The openness of the questions facilitates a probing of the unthought of black experience and existence in unfolding a “black theological aesthetics” that excavates new spaces for criticism and “life-giving work” (112, 146). A principled hope undergirds Lloyd’s open-ended, multivalent engagement with these questions as he argues for linking critique with hope. As Lloyd argues, “the virtue of hope is political because it is inextricable from such critique, but hope also fuels the activity of communities oriented to the future, committed to building new practices and institutions together” (146). 

The final essays highlight exemplary individuals whose thought, politics, and activism offer unique sources of theological insight for a renewed black theology. A disparate collection of individuals—Steve Biko, Huey P. Newton, Barack Obama, and Gillian Rose—allow for an unconventional rethinking of several key thematics that must continually be interrogated in any future black theological project. But inasmuch as black theology must continue to engage in a “politics without guarantees,” to appropriate the thought of the late Stuart Hall, it must also recognize its limitations. To be sure, to engage these exemplars of thought and action is to also engage in an ethic of theological humility. Such humility recognizes the limits of politics and the political itself while recognizing the infinite that is theology proper. In his moving and probing essay on Gillian Rose, Lloyd reminds us of this when he writes, “when the relationship between ethics and politics is understood in this way, minority political organizing that confronts majority power becomes a unique point of intersection between ethics and politics, at once an ethical and political practice” (230).

Religion of the Field Negro is an intellectual tour de force. Lloyd exercises a unique ability to bring conversational partners from diverse positions and discourses into dialogue so as to better obtain critical clarity on the future prospects and possibilities of black theology. He is intent on recovering the revolutionary goals of a black theology grounded in the lives, hopes, thoughts, and expressions of ordinary African Americans. It is a bit unfortunate then that the main thrust of Lloyd’s argument regarding the secularism that black theology forgot is framed on the foundation of the elegant yet flawed argument of John Milbank’s 1990 pioneering text Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Indeed, since Religion of the Field Negro serves as a prolegomenon to any future black theology, one would expect a thoroughgoing critique of the broader forms of thinking attendant to the fracturing of the mythos of European ontotheology. 

The theological protocols offered by Religion of the Field Negro, despite its polemical excesses, are promising. Lloyd’s desire to embark on a journey in search of recovering a truly organic black theology—critically attuned to the imperial designs of what Walter Mignolo has termed the geopolitics and theopolitics of knowledge, and deeply attentive to black creative genius that offers new visions of human being and belonging in the world—is the proper orientation for a renewed black theology. Indeed, Religion of the Field Negro: On Black Secularism and Black Theology may best be understood as a critical return to the forgotten revolutionary project of the late James H. Cone who disrupted the slumber of the North Atlantic theological academy in 1969 and reminded us that “the religion of the field Negro is orthogonal to the ways of the world, claiming sovereignty for blackness” (5).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Corey D. B. Walker is Vice President and Dean at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vincent Lloyd is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. His most recent books are Black Natural Law and a co-edited collection, Race and Secularism in America.

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