An interview with Professor Josef Sorett on the occasion of the upcoming conference “Are the Gods Afraid of Black Sexuality?”
Professor Josef Sorett
Josef Sorett is Assistant Professor of Religion and African-American Studies and Associate Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia University (IRCPL). He is also the founding director of the Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARRS), which is located within Columbia’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS). He is an interdisciplinary scholar of religion and race in America who employs primarily historical and literary approaches to the study of religion in black communities and cultures in the United States. His latest book, Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics is forthcoming next year from Oxford University Press. Spirit in the Dark will “illumine how religion has figured in debates about black art and culture.”
Editor of The Revealer, Kali Handelman, interviewed Prof. Sorett about his work and the upcoming conference IRAAS is hosting, which will also launch the Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice, Are the Gods Afraid of Black Sexuality: Religion and the Burdens of Black Sexual Politics and will take place October 23-24, 2014 at Columbia University in New York.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
Revealer: Tell me about the new Center for African American Religion, Sexual-Politics and Social Justice that you’re launching this fall?
Sorett: The center is the latest iteration of work that began in 2008 when I was invited to serve as a researcher on a project that engaged, via interviews and focus groups, roughly 100 clergy and lay people who were connected to African-American churches around the country. This was in the immediate wake of the first go-round of Proposition 8 in California in 2008. The study was not initially an academic project, it emerged out of research I was doing in partnership with several organizations in the not-for-profit world. If you recall, in the aftermath of Obama’s election there was a narrative concerning the passage of Prop 8 that basically surmised that the legislation passed largely because of African-American opposition to same-sex marriage and was then attributed to an ethos of presumed uncritical religiosity. The impetus for the study was to turn that narrative into a question. We asked, basically, “What truth is there in this claim, in this narrative, of a religious-motivated black (hyper) homophobia?”
As academics, we’re often suspicious of exit polls, and rightfully so. In this case, of course, evidence confirmed that such suspicion was warranted. Certainly there is ample evidence of homophobia in some black churches, as is the case in American Christianity and Christianity more generally; but things are also much more complicated than the logic that was being supported by those exit polls.
Once that study was completed, it challenged the funder of the study, the Arcus Foundation, to think about what possibilities there might be for them to be working with African-American communities to advance a more progressive agenda around sexuality. After that study, with continued support from the Arcus Foundation, I worked for about three years to convene a group of scholars, activists, and religious leaders for a couple of purposes: the first, to survey how African-American communities were engaging broader social debates concerning sexuality (i.e. marriage equality) and, second, to think about potential spaces and structures for more inclusive and generative conversations.
At the end of a series of three convenings, we presented Arcus with several recommendations for thinking about how they might do that work of advancing a more progressive agenda around sexuality. One of the first steps that Arcus took in response to these recommendations was to provide seed funding for the launch of the Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics, and Social Justice (CARSS) and to, thus, play a particular role—as a site of intellectual leadership—in relationship to a broader funding strategy for engaging religious leaders, denominations, and the like.
That was about a year ago, since then CARSS also received another significant grant from the Carpenter Foundation. Carpenter has been a driving force behind helping the academic study of religion and theological study think about sexuality, so, we’re really excited about have their support. And now, this conference, Are the Gods Afraid of Black Sexuality: Religion and the Burdens of Black Sexual Politics, which is both IRAAS’ major Fall event as well as CARSS’ public launch! For the past year in our programmatic efforts we’ve been doing things on a small scale to lay the center’s foundation. Now, this conference is the public launch which will go along with the establishment of the Center’s virtual presence (carss.columbia.edu), which should go live on the web around the time of the conference.
Revealer: Where did the conference’s title come from?
Sorett: A few years ago, there was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “Who’s Afraid of Black Sexuality?” that called attention to the way in which sexuality was still often a taboo topic within African-American Studies. In unpacking an observed anxiety in relationship to sexuality, scholars usually invoked the “politics of respectability;” a term tied to the scholarship of historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (who happens to have been my dissertation advisor). She coined this term in her study of black Baptist women, and her arguments reveal the significance of black churches as incubators of a politics of respectability even as those politics were part of a deliberate political strategy for achieving racial equality.
The conference aims to bring together an interest in engaging a variety of issues pertaining to sexuality while also addressing the way in which religion often still remains marginal. Whether because of a sort of secular orthodoxy associated with the founding of Black Studies, or because religion is assumed to be so central to black culture that it’s often marginal, Are the Gods Afraid of Black Sexuality? aims to hold together concerns with both religion and sexuality with an eye toward the broader project of African American Studies.
Revealer: When you say “religion often still remains marginal” do you mean that, in some way, people think it’s too obvious to need to get talked about?
Sorett: Exactly! “The black church” is taken for granted as historically central. And black life is often assumed to be saturated by spiritual concerns even in the face of secularizing forces.
Revealer: Do you think that there’s already a shared vocabulary for people coming in to this conference, then? Or is this an exercise of building a shared vocabulary? In other words, how much inter-disciplinary translation will be necessary?
Sorett: I would say, probably, no. For me that’s more exciting than anxiety producing. I think that if we do have a shared language – and I think this is what foregrounds the relationship between scholarship and activism – it is a sort of awareness, an impossibility of ignoring the dominant language that has shaped recent public debates; namely, the popular opposition of “gay vs. black.” So there’s a whole host of assumptions we have to work through. For example, I’ve been asked on several occasions both, “Is this just a conference about LGBT stuff?” and “Will this conference address LGBT concerns?” So, one of our aims has been to make a claim about the centrality of questions of sexuality to the study of religion and African American culture in general, and invite folks to the table who don’t necessarily think of themselves, right out of the gate, as scholars of gender and sexuality. At the same time we want to account for (rather than obscure or elide) the asymmetries of power and inequality that are still mapped on non-normative sexualities, especially black LGBTQ folks.
Revealer: What’s gained by engaging religious leaders, activists, and scholars all on this equal footing? And what about the idea of scholarship as activism?
Sorett: That’s a broader meta interest of my own. We’re familiar with the implicit, if not explicit, academic orthodoxy of activism and scholarship as mutually exclusive, as one necessarily being divorced from the other; perhaps less so in African-American Studies, but often all the more so in Religious Studies. You know, we start putting preachers in the room and it reminds religious studies scholars of their field’s Protestant, colonial, missionary past in a way that is rightfully unsettling. In Religious Studies, activism has a different sort of theological anxiety attached to it that I recognize and respect, given the privileges still attached to Protestantism. At the same time, I think that we can consider religious leaders in a sort of Gramscian sense, as “organic intellectuals.” To think about religious practitioners as intellectuals and also to own the fact that, as scholars, whether we name them or not, we all come with a host of commitments that might also identify us as activists or as practitioners.
Revealer: How is the conference being organized? Is there anything different about it?
Sorett: There’s a narrative arc to the conference. The first day begins with a plenary that aims to simply put a host of issues on the table. There are folks on the plenary panel representing activism, African-American Studies, philanthropy (philanthropy with the question of resourcing this sort of work), writing, journalism, and religious leadership. The first day will then be about attending in really close ways to the historical and cultural narratives that we inherit, so panels two and three serve to interrogate and unearth the categories at hand. So, the first day lends itself more to what is traditional academic conference fare, although, all presenters have been invited both to think about their own work and to gesture toward connections to contemporary debates. In this way they have been encouraged to move outside of their disciplines. Day one ends with a public conversation at a church in Harlem, on the sexual politics of sacred music, which also signals the direction of day two.
When we come back the following day, the keynote conversation and morning panel will foreground the intersection of scholarship and activism; both in the academy and beyond. Then there’s a film festival of sorts which will attend to the ways in which these narratives, vis a vis media representations, are always a part of our everyday experiences. Lastly, there is a final plenary that aims to redirect the conversation back outwards as we close. We didn’t ask people to write manuscripts, we’re inviting them to make their presentations more conversational. Hopefully they’ll take us up on the invitation to conversation and the presentation style will lend itself to what we might call accessibility for a range of audiences.
Revealer: Can you tell me more about the Keynote Conversation, “Queering Racial Justice”?
Sorett: We decided we wanted to use the keynote to put forward an example of a conversational model. We’re interested in it being a conversation about the larger theme of scholarship and activism, but in a way that was organized around issues of race and gender, religion and sexuality, in tandem. We decided to feature Emilie Townes, an ordained Baptist clergy person, former faculty at Union Theological Seminary, and then Yale where, I believe, she was the first African American woman Dean at the Divinity School. She’s trained as a Christian ethicist and theologian, but her scholarship has always been interdisciplinary, reflecting as much on African-American history as on these larger ethical questions around race, gender, and sexuality.
We wanted to make sure that we brought in someone who knew Emilie well enough to have a rich conversation with her. Alondra Nelson was most recently the director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality at Columbia and is now the Dean of Social Science here. Before their most recent appointments at Columbia and Vanderbilt, though, Alondra and Emilie were colleagues at Yale. So there are both intellectual and personal connections that should help to make this a compelling conversation.
Revealer: The conference call for papers said that religion and sex are “marginal within the broader discourses of African-American Studies.” It seems as though the mission of your conference is to change that, to make them more central or get them circulating within the larger conversations already happening. Why is doing that so important?
Sorett: It’s important in doing this to insist both that religion has to be taken seriously, regardless of whether one’s religious or not, and also that there is no investment in converting anybody. Not taking religion seriously is often the default progressive position when religion is seen as synonymous with the moral majority and religious right. We need to invite more critical thinking about the role of religion in society. I think that shift is already taking shape.
There’s an intersectional approach that holds in African-American Studies, which has developed a discourse that accounts for race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and age, but which often says little engagement about religion. There’s a way in which Christian privilege is also so taken for granted, it is assumed or unquestioned. So we want to invite folks to think critically about how religion matters with in that intersectional frame.
Revealer: What do you mean by “taking religion seriously”?
Sorett: I mean recognizing, as I think we already have, the myth that is secularization. It means understanding that belief – or whatever other more precise term you want to use to locate or identify religion – is still very central to how human beings organize themselves and think about themselves. To study human experience and social life and not take seriously how human beings think of themselves as religious (under a variety of rubrics) is to miss a significant dimension of what we claim to be doing in the humanities and social sciences.
Revealer: So, if we are interested in race, class, gender, etc. and don’t consider religion, we miss a big part of what’s going on?
Sorett: Yes, and moreover, we need to recognize that whether or not we do much talking about religion, our intellectual frameworks, whether we recognize them as such or not, are deeply indebted to very modern, most often Protestant categories.
Revealer: Right, and that intellectual genealogy has often been one of making claims about who “has religion” and who doesn’t. The people who we study “have religion,” but we don’t.
Sorett: Yes. In some form or another, we are all wrestling with a religious inheritance.
Revealer: Is part of this idea of taking religion seriously also a kind of push back against narratives about secularization and presumed secularity?
Sorett: Before I knew anything about recent secularism debates this was the meta question in all of my research. There’s a default white normativity within secularism debates. Because, even when secularization narratives were in vogue, it was assumed that this didn’t so much hold in relationship to African-American communities. Which, again, is the same narrative behind the whole Prop 8 story, right? “Oh, you know, these folks are not fully modern, rational citizens.”
Revealer: Right, some idea that they are being “kept behind be their beliefs.” Which, of course, is somehow different from how those beliefs function for white members of the Christian Right…
Sorett: Yes, maybe it’s because of the way in which narratives around American blackness were so fraught, they assumed hyper-religiosity. African-American Studies has often, to my mind, taken for granted that secularist narrative and assumed it for itself. This is the argument in my own book, Spirit in the Dark, which places African-American literary history in conversation with American religious history and pushes back against the prevailing idea that takes for granted that twentieth-century African-American literature was a modernist, and therefore secular, project. There’s a certain secular, and secularizing narrative assumed of that literary history in way that does not bear out in the literary texts that populate that history.
In some form or another, we are all wrestling with a religious inheritance.
Revealer: That’s where African-Americans become secular, in modern literature?
Sorett: Right, and writers were often presumed to replace black preachers. Richard Wright more or less argued as much as early as 1938, with his “Blueprint for Negro Writing.” And Wright, is invoked by a whole host of writers in the 1960s when Black Studies is being formed. It’s almost as though Black Studies, in certain quarters, is understood as an, albeit secularized, sacred project. Sexuality is certainly one of the registers in which that secularizing argument was made. Part of the argument for, and evidence of, black people’s primitive ways was not just their religiosity but also their sexuality. These stereotypes went hand-in-hand. Blackness as other in its hyper-religious and hyper-sexual character.
Revealer: How do you capture what’s different in the assumptions made about black Christianity and white Christianity and how they’ve come to be thought about so differently and as having such different politics?
Sorett: One has to think about American evangelicalism more broadly, before evangelicals got flattened out to be just the Religious Right, there were also abolitionists and early feminists. Many of them were evangelical. It’s that genealogical question, it’s not just about who has it, who gets it, who believes it, but this is the story of the “New World.” Whether we name it as such. This is where someone like James Baldwin, one of many black modernist writers to bring together religion, race gender and sexuality, was spot on in talking about the intersection of Christianity and colonialism and its gendered and sexualized discourses.
Revealer: What are the short term and long term goals are for the conference and the center? What are you hoping folks take back to their respective scholarly, activist, and religious communities from this experience?
Sorett: The dialogue between scholars, activists, and religious leaders around the nation that the conference aims to foster is certainly consistent with aspects of the center’s work. We’ve just begun a series of what will in the next three or four years be a total of about twenty local closed-door conversations with scholars, activists, and religious leaders thinking about how questions around sexuality are hitting the ground. Those conversations both allow us to conduct research (i.e. collect data), but they also to help establish spaces for language to develop by inviting local actors to think together about a set of related issues. One of the center’s goals is also to support these kind of structures and spaces and build capacity for such conversations.
Then, in addition to the closed-door sessions, we will help host a series of public conversations, which will be more like academic panels geared to a broader audience. We envision these as following up on the smaller conversations, organized around the issues and concerns that were identified as significant in specific local contexts.
Revealer: I’m sure each place will have their own unique conversations that they need and want to have.
Sorett: Absolutely! In each instance, we’ll be partnering with local organizations in ways that are consistent with our research goals, but also address real questions and concerns as they emerge on the ground. To me, this work presents a really exciting, if intellectually challenging, intersection of scholarship and public engagement.