With This Root about My Person

Charles H. Long and New Directions in the Study of Religion

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Jennifer Reid, Davíd Carrasco
Religions in the Americas
  • Albuquerque, NM: 
    University of New Mexico Press
    , May
     356 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Reading Jennifer Reid and David Carrasco’s edited volume With This Root About My Person is an immensely bittersweet experience, as this anthology’s publication coincided with Charles Houston Long’s passing in February 2020. The timely collection of essays also arrives during a particularly historic moment in which there is both a global wave of Black Lives Matter protests against state-sanctioned racist terrorism and a widespread reckoning with the deleterious and devastating effects that unfettered white supremacy has had on diverse communities and cultures worldwide. There seems no better time to revisit and reconnect with Long’s vast contribution to the academic study of religion and theology.

A native son of Little Rock, Arkansas, Long’s storied and prolific career looms large across the landscape of religious studies and theological education. He served in the United States Army Air Force in World War II, was ordained as a Baptist minister, and raised a family of four children with his wife, Alice Freeman Long. In 1949, shortly after Long’s arrival in Chicago, he enrolled in the graduate program in religion, after a chance encounter with William Nelson Hawley, the dean of students at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He summarily earned his bachelor of divinity in 1953 and ultimately his PhD in 1962.

Under the tutelage and guidance of Mircea Eliade, Joseph Kitagawa, and Joachim Wach, Long wrote his doctoral dissertation, titled “Myth, Culture, and History in West Africa. He soon emerged as a preeminent figure in the study of the history of religions, specializing in the religions of the African diaspora and becoming a key figure in the framing of Religionswissenschaft (history of religions) in North America. Long subsequently was offered a faculty appointment at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he thrived for over a decade. As several of the essays contend, Long was a dynamic, albeit daunting, mentor as well as a genuinely charismatic teacher. He left the University of Chicago to accept faculty appointments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University (1974–1987), Syracuse University (1988–1992), and the University of California Santa Barbara (1992– 1996).

Long’s distinguished work as a scholar and researcher culminated in several landmark texts, such as Alpha: The Myths of Creation (Scholars Press, 1963) and Ellipsis … : The Collected Works of Charles H. Long (Bloomsbury, 2018), as well as his magnum opus, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Fortress Press, 1986). Additionally, he served as president of the American Academy of Religion (1973) and was also elected president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion (1987–1990).

By and large, this edited volume is a fitting, albeit overdue, tribute to Long’s legacy as a pioneering and premier historian of religion. When taken as a whole, the twenty-five essays that comprise this volume impressively provide a wide-ranging portrait of Long’s enduring contributions to the academic study of religion and theology. The volume is subdivided into four sections: methodological issues in religious studies, the coevolution of civil society and civil religion in North America, African and African diasporic religions, and the Chicago school in the history of religions. True to the book’s subtitle, the most exemplary essays in this volume—those penned by David Chidester, Tracey Hucks, Sylvester Johnson, Karen Fields, Victor Anderson, Jualynne Dodson, Vincent Wimbush, Rachel Elizabeth Harding, Jacob Olupona, James Noel, and David Carrasco chief among them—illuminate key dimensions of Long’s oeuvre, while also advancing his paradigmatic perspectives in new and necessary directions.

Nevertheless, with the notable exception of Yvonne Chireau’s Black Magic (University of California Press, 2006), however, there is an absence of consideration of contemporary scholarship that has seriously embraced as well as explored Long’s theories and methods. Taken further, deeper engagement by either the editors or the contributors with works such as Anthony B. Pinn’s Terror and Triumph (Fortrress, 20003), Allan D. Callahan’s Talking Book (Yale University Press, 2008), Dianne Stewart’s Three Eyes for the Journey Race (Oxford Universoty Press,2005) , Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination (Yale University Press, 2011), and J. Kameron Carter’s Race (Oxford Universoty Press,2008 , among others, would have more forcefully demonstrated the far-reaching resonance and relevance of Longian thought.

While there is no ignoring the vibrancy and vitality of Long’s contributions to Black religion and culture, there is an almost inverse relationship regarding the extent to which his influence within the history of religions has been largely obscured within the field as a whole. In many ways, this volume helps survey the incredulous damage done by contemporary adherents who claim to perpetuate the history of religions as a canonical tradition, yet actively exclude one of the foremost and formidable thinkers in the field. One can only conclude that, as Carrasco suggests, the “erasure” of Long from the annals of history of religions has been instrumental to the implicit domination of “whiteness” in the field to its own detriment, by forfeiting profundity for the sake of provincialism.

There is no shortage of irony that Long spent much of his career deconstructing the myriad ways the study of religion has played an integral role in the perpetuation of white supremacy, colonialism, elitism, capitalism, and paternalism in the modern world, and now the contributors are compelled to offer this volume as a critical intervention to play a key role in dismantling the insufferable whiteness of the field. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, when thinking about why this whitewashing has occurred, the Longian approach “has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” The refusal to acknowledge—much less accept—Long as a prime mover in establishing the history of religions within the realm of arts and letters is much more an indictment on the myopia prevalent in the field as a whole, rather than any shortcoming on his part.

On both a personal and professional basis, it is difficult even now to reckon with the fact that such an indomitable and iconoclastic intellect as Long has departed this earthly existence. Yet thankfully he left behind a rich and complex scholarly corpus that will be pondered for years to come. Moreover, given that far too many university presses currently shy away from publishing festschrifts, this book is truly a great boon for all scholars and students who will be introduced to the depths of Long’s scholarship in relation to both confessional theology and critical theories and methods in religious studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Juan M. Floyd-Thomas is associate professor of African American religious history at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion.

Date of Review: 
March 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer Reid is a professor of religion emerita at the University of Maine at Farmington. Her books include Finding Kluskap: A Journey into Mi’kmaw MythReligion and Global Culture: New Terrain in the Study of Religion and the Work of Charles H. Long; and Myth, Symbol and Colonial Encounter: British and Mi’kmaq in Acadia, 1700–1867. She is a 2015 John Simon Memorial Foundation Fellow.

Davíd Carrasco is the Neil Rudenstine Professor for the Study of Latin America at Harvard University. He is the author or editor of many books and the editor in chief of the award-winning three-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures. Carrasco received the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


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