How have appeals to faith figured in the midst of a pandemic that has disproportionately taken black lives? And what role has faith played in view of the invigorated wave of protests that have emerged in response to the ongoing onslaught of anti-black violence, captured on camera yet again.
Funded with a $500,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and led by Josef Sorett, a professor of Religion and African American and African Diaspora Studies and chair of Columbia’s Department of Religion, the Art, Politics and Publics of Black Faith takes up such questions. In doing so, the project foregrounds the longstanding problem of how to go about studying African American religion and culture in a moment of protracted black death—a phenomenon that is pressingly current yet by no means novel.
The question of religion—and black faith, specifically—is something that has troubled the field of black studies for some time, according to Sorett. The language of faith has a long history in the study of black life. Scholars recognize the significance of black churches as a foundational institution, yet many are often reluctant to give the topic much air time—perhaps owing to the mixed history of religion in black life and the secular orthodoxies of the university. As Sorett notes, the idea of “faith” has functioned in both sacred and secular registers—most obviously in such contexts as gospel music and the Civil Rights movement. Yet various notions of faith have also been invoked by black activists, artists and thinkers who are typically identified as agnostic or even anti-religious.
A major part of this new project is a rapid-response grants program that will award funding to projects by scholars, religious and civic leaders, and culture workers (i.e. artists, critics, media makers) working in relevant fields, including a focused oral history initiative documenting the “faith" experiences of the black LGBTQ and same-gender loving community.
In addition to the grants program, other initiatives include a working group composed of scholars from Columbia and universities across the United States; a public conversation series; a media project that develops digital and audio-video resources; and a postdoctoral fellowship that will bring a junior scholar to Columbia’s campus for the 2021-22 academic year.
The “Arts, Politics and Publics of Black Faith” project both deepens and expands the work of the Columbia’s Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS), which was founded in 2014. Housed within the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS), which has a long history of bringing theory and practice together, CARSS advances research, education and public engagement, and has convened scholars, religious leaders and activists, to shape more inclusive conversations around gender and sexual difference in the context of black life. According to Derrick McQueen, CARSS’s associate director and the administrative lead on the grant, “This new project will help us think through the implications of CARSS’s work, and the role of “faith,” in general, for the field of black studies.” The Luce resources help to solidify CARSS’s work, and the study of religion, within Columbia’s recently founded African American and African Diaspora Studies department, a key partner on the grant.
“We are delighted to support this important new project at Columbia University,” said Luce Foundation Program Director Jonathan VanAntwerpen. “Building upon recent scholarship and seeking out fresh opportunities for public engagement, the project was initially conceived in response to an earlier Luce Foundation request for proposals. Its intellectual objectives and public ambitions have been brought into sharper relief by both COVID-19 and the rising tide of opposition to anti-black racism. Drawing on recent diagnoses of the disproportionate impact of the novel coronavirus on black communities, for example, Josef Sorett and his colleagues have pointedly asked: what does it mean to theorize ‘black faith’ in the midst of a ‘black plague’? The ongoing press of such questions has inflected the aims of the project as well as its programmatic design, creatively reimagined to address the demands of this period of protest and pandemic.”
The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to enrich public discourse by promoting innovative scholarship, cultivating new leaders, and fostering international understanding. Established in 1936 by Henry R. Luce, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time, Inc., the Luce Foundation advances its mission through grantmaking and leadership programs in the fields of Asia, higher education, religion and theology, art, and public policy.
This project is supported by funding from: