Take Back What the Devil Stole
An African American Prophet's Encounters in the Spirit World
- ISBN: 9780231197168
- Published By: Columbia University Press
- Published: April 2021
Take Back What the Devil Stole: An African American Prophet’s Encounters in the Spirit World, by Onaje X.O. Woodbine, is an account of the life of Donna Haskins, a Black woman prophet living in Boston, and how she “creates meaning to address the problems of inner-city life,” including poverty, assault, and racism (4). The book is a powerful argument for the importance of the lived religion of “everyday” people.
Woodbine met Haskins after being introduced to her by one of the subjects of his previous book, Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball (Columbia University Press, 2018). At their first meeting, Haskins told Woodbine that she was his mother in a past life, made predictions for his future, and performed a blessing for him. Moreover, she spoke of her ability to visit the spirit world, where she wages war against forces of evil, as well as interacts with benign or even positive spirits. Woodbine recounted that he knew then and there that he had to return to learn more about Haskins and hear her stories.
For Haskins, the “spirit realm,” as she calls it, is a world where she is not bound by the constraints of the physical world. Taking on a different physical form and learning from the Holy Spirit how to navigate this new world, Haskins describes encountering both benevolent and evil spirits, protecting her loved ones and neighbors from harm, and brings solace to the souls of the departed. Woodbine embraces a radical openness in making his personal investment in his work clear, including his own experiences with Haskins and how she impacted his daily life while writing the book. This includes the author’s reflections on periods where he felt uncertain about his research, or when he worried that his own perceptions would shape his book in ways that would make it less faithful to Haskins’ understanding of the world.
Though seemingly small, another aspect of the book that reflects Woodbine’s broader approach is how he refers to Haskins. Throughout the book, he refers to her as “Donna,” except when he first meets her or when he needs to indicate her last name for a specific purpose, in which case she is “Ms. Donna Haskins” or “Ms. Haskins.” Donna Haskins is not “Haskins,” which would imply a distance between her and Woodbine that does not reflect their actual relationship. She is “Donna,” someone with whom he is on a first-name basis, or “Ms. Haskins,” someone with a title that reflects his respect for her.
Woodbine particularly excels at explaining Haskins’ world and experiences without explaining any of it away. He takes her explanations of events seriously, not shunting her narrations into easily digested categories, but instead inviting the reader to sit with the tremendous complexity of Haskins’ experiences and the multiple forces that provide their context. Woodbine’s analysis of the multireligious origins of Haskins’ worldview, which include Catholic, Baptist, Afro-Caribbean, and other religious frameworks, helps the reader understand these are not cut-and-dry categories with distinct boundaries; they are systems with porous borders that may overlap. Another important component of Take Back What the Devil Stole is Woodbine’s use of sociological, public health, and other scholarship of Black women’s experiences, particularly within Haskins’ Boston context. The incorporation of this scholarship never feels rote or pat; Woodbine does not merely recite statistics, but rather he uses this work to add texture to his account of Haskins’ experiences.
In his concluding chapter, “What If You Read Your Book to Your Subject(s)? Or, On Methodology,” Woodbine frames his methodology within Black feminist thought and a “positivist approach to Black women’s knowledge” (222). “For me,” he writes, “the methodological imperative to give voice to muted communities through ethnography, ultimately boils down to one question–do my research subjects understand and assent to the monograph I write about them?” (223). As suggested by the chapter’s title, Woodbine read the book with Haskins and took her reactions and suggestions into account. His recounting of this process and why he undertook it is a valuable contribution to much broader conversations in a variety of disciplines about how scholars should interact with the people they write about. This is a text that would work well in undergraduate or graduate courses on a wide variety of topics within religious studies, including (but certainly not limited to) religion and gender, African American religions, lived religion, or religion and cities/urban spaces.
Alexandria Griffin is visiting assistant professor of religion at New College of Florida.Alexandria GriffinDate Of Review:April 7, 2021