Spirit in the Dark

A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics

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Josef Sorett
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2016.
     312 pages.
     $34.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780199844937.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The title of Josef Sorett’s compelling new book, Spirit in the Dark, is also the title of a 1970 Aretha Franklin song. In her “Spirit in the Dark,” The Queen of Soul fuses soul grooves with the church organ, sexuality with spirituality, the profane with the sacred. Sorett begins and ends his book with this song, as it is a useful metaphor for the way he interprets African American literature from the New Negro movement of the 1920s through the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Sorett’s goal is to “offer a narrative in which religious and literary histories are understood as necessarily entangled” (3). He does this through biographical vignettes of important African American writers, artists, and intellectuals whose work constructed and debated a philosophy—a “racial aesthetic”—of what it meant to be black in America, Primarily, Sorett explores the construction of a racial aesthetic through a genealogy of “the spirit,” a category which nominally secular black writers frequently employed, often in contrast to “the church.” By tracing the category of “the spirit” as it emerges in novels, poetry, plays, and sociological works, Sorett reconstructs how African American artists and intellectuals understood the role of spirituality and the Black Church in defining the African American experience. What results is a reading of American literature from 1920 to 1970 in which nominally secular African American artists and intellectuals are not foils to the Black Church offering a way out of the false consciousness of Afro-Protestantism. Rather, in Sorett’s telling, when African American artists and intellectuals grapple with what it means to be black in America, they do so through a discourse delimited and defined by the institutions and theological commitments of Afro-Protestantism.

The book begins with the New Negro movement—a literary tradition which emerged in the 1920s associated with such writers as Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois. Sorett reads the New Negro movement as the emergence of a “racial grammar” through which black artists and intellectuals analyzed the peculiarities of African American religious life, such as the emergence of storefront churches, as well as the new political and spiritual possibilities wrought by the Great Migration. What made black culture in the 1920s distinctive to this cadre of black artists and intellectuals was a dichotomy between the Black Church and the “negro spirit”—a category they employed to make sense of the role religion and spirituality played in that historical moment. Chapter 2 follows a related literary tradition in the 1930s as writers including Zora Neal Hurston and Richard Wright sought to find the “spirit” in their anthropological investigations of the American South. In chapters 3 and 4, Sorett analyzes the decades between the New Negro movement and the Black Arts movement. Analyzing the work of Claude McKay, James Baldwin, and many others, Sorett argues that African American writers and intellectuals were exploring the idea that black culture was a universal culture—an idea that Sorett calls “racial catholicity.” Sorett suggests that this racial catholicity might have had something to do with the large numbers of African Americans joining Catholic Churches in the industrial cities of the North.

Sorett’s last three chapters—the core of the book—are devoted to the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the work of writers such as Toni Cade Bambara, Ralph Ellison, Larry Neal, and Amiri Baraka. Sorett argues that these writers were attempting to “fundamentally rethink the spiritual terms of black existence,” through the construction a “new black canon” (175). Whether these writers sought to remake Christianity without its commitment to white supremacy, or whether they imagined spiritual possibilities in Islam, African-derived religions, or in critical unbelief, Sorett argues that their project was to use art as a way of “conjuring new lives and social worlds for black people” (172).

While Sorett’s intervention in the scholarship on American religion and its relevance to African American history is obvious, his work also deserves the attention of scholars of secularism and secularity. Sorett’s argument that these African American artists and intellectuals worked within a discourse delimited by Afro-Protestantism. Even those artists and intellectuals who think they are trying to destabilize the centrality of Afro-Protestantism in African American culture, to Sorett, are actually “chasing the spirit in the dark.” That the emergence of Afro-modernity has been a religious project all along is the theoretical intervention that makes Spirit in the Dark so intriguing for students of secularism. Sorett observes “secular” African American writers engaging with the resonances of the Black Church in African American culture through categories including “the spirit” as evidence to suggest that there is no clear distinction between what we call the “Black Church” and “the range of other independent ‘secular’ black institutions” (217). As Sorett points out, “these allegedly secular artists and intellectuals…have had much to say about religion” (7).

But does that mean that we are mistaken to characterize the ongoing debate over racial aesthetics as an essentially secular one? Does writing in the “spiritual grammars” of Afro-Protestantism makes secular black literature religious? If so, can critique of religion ever be secular? It is one thing to read the messy distinction between secular and religious in African American letters as an indication that these categories are arbitrary. It is quite another to assert that the messiness between the religious and the secular means that this debate was never secular in the first place.

Spirit in the Dark is an eminently teachable book. Sorett’s prose is crisp and accessible. It is difficult to imagine in a course in the humanities to which this book is not relevant, and each chapter could stand alone if necessary. We can think of Sorett’s contribution as part of an ongoing project to denaturalize the “Protestant Secular.” Through reading religion into supposedly secular writing, Sorett’s book builds upon the work of Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, Robert Orsi, and others. In many ways, Spirit in the Dark could be read as a helpful analogue to Tracy Fessenden’s landmark Culture and Redemption (Princeton University Press, 2013), which takes on a similar task of denaturalizing the implicit Protestantism of nominally secular American literature. Josef Sorett’s Spirit in the Dark is an important, provocative, and necessary book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard Kent Evans is a doctoral candidate in teh Department of History at Temple University.

Date of Review: 
December 14, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Josef Sorett is Associate Professor of Religion and African-American Studies at Columbia University, where he also directs the Center for African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice.

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