Televised Redemption

Black Religious Media and Racial Empowerment

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Carolyn Moxley Rouse, John L. Jackson, Marla F. Frederick
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , November
     2016.
     256 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479818174.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

For many scholars, there is always at least one book that has you excitedly anticipating its release date. Televised Redemption: Black Religious Media and Racial Empowerment by John Jackson, Marla Fredericks, and Carolyn Rouse rightfully deserves to be placed in that category. Televised Redemption is unique for several reasons. First, the book focuses on the religious media practices of three distinct groups of religio-racial faith traditions—Black Christian, African American Muslim, and African Hebrew Israelites—and examines the roles of religious media in empowering (and constraining) their adherents and audiences. Second, it provides the overall heuristic theme of redemption as a prism through which race and religion can be seen as co-constituent contributors to the historical African American struggle for citizenship in the United States. Lastly, the book provides histories and multi-site ethnographies of black religious media in the United States and abroad.

Televised Redemption centers its analysis on “the question of how African Americans have defined themselves, defined others, and been defined through electronic and digital mass media” (10). The book successfully argues that strategies of representation in and through media created by US African American religious groups and actors are shaped by religious commitments, informed by ideas on the rights and duties of American citizenship, and directed towards actions for personal redemption as well as racial redemption on local, national, and international levels.

As the authors note, the heuristic framework of redemption as an ethical imperative for African American religious traditions has been well trodden in the fields of African American religious studies and religious history. With references made to two of the field’s most compelling efforts by St. Clair Drake (The Redemption of Africa and Black Religion, Third World Press, 1970) and Curtis Evans (The Burden of Black Religion, Oxford University Press, 2008), Televised Redemption positions itself as both a continued engagement and necessary expansion of the redemption framework in studying Africana religious traditions and subjectivities.

The book is organized into two sections, which each contain three chapters. The first section delves into the media histories of African American Muslims, Hebrew Israelites, and Christians, their redemptive narratives, and their uses of media in “the battle to define national belonging and existential worth in the context of ubiquitous assumptions about black depravity and primitivity” (24). In the first chapter, Frederick provides a much-needed overview of African American Christian broadcasting over the past thirty years. Rouse’s chapter in the first section offers a truly innovative analysis of political cartoons featured in the Nation of Islam’s seminal mode of print communication, The Final Call newspaper, during the 1960s.

The second section offers media ethnographies of the three religious traditions, which include a range of fieldwork in very different contexts: interviews with African American women that incorporate Black televangelism into their everyday lives, an internet ethnography of African American Muslims as well as interviews with African American ex-pats living in Saudi Arabia, and research on a weekly radio show hosted by African Hebrew Israelites on WURD, an independent radio station in Philadelphia. Jackson’s chapter discusses how the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem make use of radio not only to discuss social and spiritual issues within African American communities, but also to shift public perceptions and public engagements of the Hebrew Israelites.  

Both Rouse and Frederick use gender as a lens to discuss how black women have historically and presently employed religious media in redemptive ways to resist racial and gender violence, re-imagine God’s work of personal redemption, and either reject or reinforce traditional female gender roles. Frederick, in her discussion of race, gender, and redemptive media as related to the rise of Neo-Pentecostal televangelists, emphasizes how prosperity gospel preaching “introduces languages of possibility that disrupt the economic and social limitations placed on black women” (27). Rouse’s discourse analysis of popular Muslim blogs, forums, and social media, on the other hand, interrogates how the online post-racial subject positions of African American Muslims are integral to their negotiations of racial identity, racialized stereotypes, gender norms, and faith. She notes that the struggle between audience popularity and religious authority that plays out within the online Muslim community can sometimes exacerbate the boundaries between conservative and progressive Islam and invigorate authenticity debates over “unorthodox” versus “orthodox” Islam (149).  

The takeaway after reading the book’s case studies is that the strength of black religious media lies in the diverse configurations of redemptive mediascapes. This diversity is reflected in the theme of perpetual economic uplift embedded within the transmediality of T.D. Jakes’s $400 million media enterprises; the politically critical stance of the Nation of Islam's national newspaper The Final Call against state-sanctioned anti-black violence and black self hate; and the glocal deployments of old and new media by the African Hebrew Israelites to persuasively educate others and circulate their claims concerning physical immortality and authentic Hebrew/Jewish belonging.

There are several contemporary debates in the field of religion and media that I wanted this book to address at greater depth. These suggestions are opportunities for a second edition. Theoretically, the book is more attentive to the topics of redemption and citizenship than it is to media studies. While it does discuss religious uses of the internet and new media, Televised Redemption only sparingly engages current academic debates within religion and media scholarship, such as mediation vs. mediatization debates and clarifications of relations between mediums within the theories of intermediality and media convergence (for example, the remediation and adaptation of images and archival film of Malcolm X by Al Qaeda) (9). The authors state from the onset that “this volume does not conflate the message with the medium” and that it does not support technological determinism (20). However, their theoretical engagements pertaining to the interactions between media as technologies and institutions are brief. The redemptive repertoires emerging from the Black Lives Matter, We Can’t Breathe, and #SayHerName movements, with their hybrid activist/religious uses of media in traditional as well as networked and digitized environments, are indicative of the complex forms redemptive mediascapes can exhibit now and will demonstrate in the future.

The authors’ engagement of Stuart Hall and cultural studies, while revealing, neglects critical scholarship on race and representation in the media. Literature on contemporary cultural politics of representation (Herman Gray, Watching Race, University of Minnesota Press, 1995; bell hooks, Black Looks, Routledge [1992] 2014) and “racialized regimes of representation” (Stuart Hall, Representation, The Open University, 2013, 243) might have shed additional light on media practices that incorporate redemption into their mode of presentation and representational strategies. US African American religious actors, as spectators to mass media’s function as a system of power that reproduces and maintains white supremacy, have become extremely adept in creating oppositional gazes to racial and gender stereotypes. The incorporation of these oppositional gazes within black religious media texts opens up opportunities for future research concerning both reception studies and remediation practices, as black religious actors are finding new possibilities to actively participate in mediated narratives and reconfigure their redemptive interventions.

On its own, this book stands as a herculean ethnographic effort and an innovative historical analysis of the uses of print, television, radio, sound technologies, and new media by African American religious actors in the United States and diasporic Africana communities. It lays the foundation for future investigations of how “black religious media continue to impact how blacks perceive themselves and are perceived by others” (29). It is a publication on black religious media that was definitely worth the wait!

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elonda Clay is a doctoral candidate in science and religion at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carolyn Moxley Rouse is Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University and the author of Uncertain Suffering: Racial Health Care Disparities and Sickle Cell Disease

John L. Jackson, Jr. is Richard Perry University Professor and Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Impolite Conversations: On Race, Politics, Sex, Money and Religion.

Marla F. Frederick is Professor of African and African American Studies and the Study of Religion at Harvard University and the author of Colored Television: American Religion Gone Global.

Keywords: 

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