The Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans

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Almeda Wright
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     2017.
     352 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190664732.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans, practical theologian and religious educator Almeda Wright investigates the fragmented state of African American adolescent spirituality and calls for an integrating spirituality. At first glance, Wright’s text reads as a presentation and critical analysis of her qualitative research data obtained with Emory University’s Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) Summer Academy. However, this text is a striking execution of practical theology methodology. Wright carefully engages the lived realities of young African Americans as a lens for theological reflection and theoretical analysis. This ultimately lends to fresh and improved practices that address the concrete experiences of African American youth. 

Wright’s accountability to African American youth is most noteworthy in this text. She privileges the experiences and wisdom of African American adolescents as the basis and as a focal point for her critical and constructive reflection. Wright accomplishes this task by incorporating the results of her qualitative study with her theoretical research in fragmented spirituality. In her study, Wright collected online survey data from fourteen Christian African American youth and conducted in-depth interviews with eight youth. Wright’s data set confirmed her hypothesis that many young African Americans experience a fragmented or fractured spirituality in “which youth subconsciously or consciously relegate God to the real of personal transformation and place societal change and systemic transformation in the realm of ‘utopia’” (6, 208). The downside of this study is that all of the participants identified as Christian youth and were self-selected affiliates of YTI, limiting the data collected. Although Wright acknowledges that this is a small sampling of young African American voices, the data was illuminating in that it offered insights into the complex spiritual lives of African American adolescents and the interconnected realities of violence, racism, and oppression that African American youth endure.

Wright’s engagement of these narratives is not simply one-dimensional. Instead, Wright offers a detailed analysis of the plight of African American youth accounting for the psychological and sociological dimensions of fragmentation. Her analysis hinges on her research in religious privatization and individualism, W.E.B. Du Bois’s articulation of “double consciousness,” and William James’s description of the “divided self.” Wright’s analysis presses further as she investigates how patterns of fragmented spirituality among African American youth develop. To this end, she employs a rhetorical analysis and critique of sermons and a national sample of African American Sunday school curricula. Wright discovers a glaring lack of education around God’s activity in social justice issues in these sources. 

According to Wright, a resounding theme from her data collection and analysis revealed the complex nature of young African American spirituality, particularly the dissonance between how and why these youths understand God’s activity in their personal lives and in the broader world. The majority of African American youth Wright surveyed saw God as active in their personal lives and yet did not see God’s work reflected in systemic issues such as racism and violence African American youth encounter every day. 

Although Wright recognizes that African American youth with fragmented spirituality are not necessarily at risk, she regards this fragmentation as problematic as she sees spiritual integration as essential for living an abundant life. In other life, Wright advocates that there is more to life than the realities of racism, violence, and oppressions that African American youth encounter every day. Wright clarifies that fragmented spirituality among young African Americans is a question of theodicy compelling us to wrestle with why a good God does not respond to the suffering of African American youth. Careful not to defend God or propose a theology that valorizes suffering, Wright suggests the creation of safe spaces for African American youth to freely question God’s activity in systemic issues while simultaneously learning how to persist and resist oppression. 

In search of models for helping youth learn how to persist and resist oppression faithfully, Wright looks to stories of social activists, such as Bree Newsome, Nyle Fort, and others involved in political activism and civil disobedience. Wright identifies these activists as exemplars of Christian social witness and carefully traces each activist’s involvement in social change movements and how they relate faith and activism. Wright’s exploration reveals a strong link between the activists, the history of Black Christian social witness, and the importance of networking, mentoring, and education for African American youth involved in activism. 

Wright’s analysis of these social change narratives foregrounds her vision of what an integrating spirituality might look like - a type of spirituality that she defines as "spirituality that empowers youth to hold together the seemingly disparate areas of their lives, to tap into the resources of their faith communities and learn from historical and current faith exemplars, in order to see themselves as capable of living abundant life by effecting change on individual, communal, and systemic levels" (6, 208).

Wright asserts that an integrating spirituality offers possibilities beyond our realities and opportunities to live life abundantly. She argues that an abundant life is a way of life where violence and racism are not the totality of existence and hope is limitless. This way of life requires a healthy sense of agency and security within one’s self and one’s community as well as a mindset shift that reminds young people that God offers more than our current realities. As a result, Wright offers a Critical Pedagogy of Integrating Spirituality. Wright’s critical pedagogy is two-fold in that it offers a philosophy affirming the potential for positive social change amidst the oppressive realities of young African Americans and proposes strategies and practices for helping African American youth live an abundant life. These strategies include ideas for helping African American youth reconnect with the African American legacy of faith and resistance through story-telling and reimagining worship practices in such a way that African American youth are valued and included. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kishundra D. King is a doctoral candidate in Religion, Psychology, and Culture at Vanderbilt University.

Date of Review: 
January 7, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Almeda M. Wright is assistant professor of religious education at Yale Divinity School. Her research focuses on African American religion, adolescent spiritual development, and the interesections of religion and public life. She is also the editor of Children, Youth, and Spirituality in a Troubling World, with Mary Elizabeth Moore.

Keywords: 

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