Kidada speaks with the Reverend and author about the evolution of the Black church in America, coming out of the numerous West and Central African faith traditions that were preserved and, in many cases, married with Christianity.
They also discuss the role of the church in African American communities over time, how Black women have been and continue to be prominent figures in the expansion of freedom and equality in religious institutions, and how to find comfort in the justice of God during times of struggle and pain.
Kidada Williams: Hi everyone. It’s Kidada. This is Seizing Freedom, the show where we dig into the archives to bring you stories about how African Americans freed themselves during the Civil War and built new lives during Reconstruction. And where we talk to the historians and artists who know the archives best.
In this episode, I speak with Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas, Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary. We talk about how African Americans adapted their African religious practices during enslavement, why many embraced the Christian faith, and why that faith persists today. We also talk about the power of the Black church, and where to find God in times of injustice.
What do we mean when we say African-American religion? Was there ever a time when it was only one thing?
Kelly Brown Douglas: No… (laughs) …is the short answer. No. Certainly that wasn’t the case in Africa and even if we just narrow it to West African traditions, we’ve got a variety of religious traditions and those would come here and influence the enslaved Africans as well and, of course, create a legacy. The other thing that we know is that there would be people who were of the Islamic faith tradition, who would also be enslaved…So no, it’s never been, uh, just one.
The majority probably became Christian during this period called the great awakenings in the late 17th and early 18th century. And so, then we get a variety of understandings of Christianity. So no, it’s never been one tradition because, you know, Black people aren’t monolithic.
KW: Do we know what parts of West and Central African spiritual and religious practices they hold on to?
KBD: You know, there was a time when some said, “Oh, there are no African carryovers.” Well, that’s absurd…but in terms of ritualistically and what one can see that you don’t have to be a theologian to see? You know you might see, for instance, what they used to call the ring shout, which is really a sort of a counter-clockwise kind of dance.
Well, that ring shout becomes “the shout” in the black faith tradition. The other thing that you see is the call and response; that is an African carryover. As well as you see the honor that they give to ancestors. So you see all of these little carryovers. The other thing that you see is this full, embodied kind of expression of worship, right? So you see these little rituals…these little things that take on–or have lost, perhaps, the original meaning–and take on new meaning. But what you’re seeing is this sort of African, uh, carry over.
The other thing, you know, in black faith traditions–in the black community– is this whole notion of the wakes after a person’s death and the significance of wakes. So these little things that you see that have become a part of black culture, of black religious culture…while we may not understand its original meanings, that the original imprint is in Africa.
KW: So, you know, as they absorb the faith–as they find their God in the faith–how do they modify and adapt it in their own interests–in their own voices–to suit their needs and realities, not only as African captives or their descendants, but as enslaved people?
KBD: Yeah. Because we know that if indeed their enslavers allowed them to practice Christianity, they had to do it within the eyesight, if you will, of their enslavers.
And so, how did they practice a Christianity that they made their own? Well, you know, they hid away at night in the hush harbors or in their cabins at night. And here’s the interesting thing: That, oftentimes, they would turn over a pot in the center…the sort of “overturned pot.” Now, we don’t know if that is a ritual that they brought from Africa and its meanings changed, but what the meaning became as they overturned that pot was the belief that it would absorb the sound of their worship. So they would sneak away.
The other way in which you see this manifest is in the spirituals that they sang. These spirituals had double meanings, right? On the one hand they would…might sing, a spiritual that would say that they’re going…going over yonder or something and, to their enslaver’s ear, they’re thinking about going to heaven, right? No, no. They are talking about their sort of spiritual needs, if you will, being met, but they’re also indicating that they are going up North. These spirituals are signals that “Hey, you know, it’s time to flee.” That’s their sort of understanding of Christianity: That it is always the…the sense of God’s justice is always manifest. God’s freedom, also on earth; it’s just not about heaven.
Then the other way in which, of course, it manifests itself in their practical daily lives is that it inspired them to be free and to fight for freedom. And even those who, who never breathed a free breath…never dreamt that they would breathe a free breath…but they fought for freedom anyhow, because they believed in the freedom that was the justice of God. And that’s why you and I can be here talking. This enslaved Christianity inspired insurrections of those like Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, et cetera.
After the antebellum period, it continued to function in the same way. Right? And we see that many of the leaders–for instance, of the 1960s civil rights movement–were faith leaders, and those movements for the most part centered…were centered in the church, right? The church was the center. As W.E.B. Du Bois would say, it was the religious and social center, taking care of not simply political needs, but filling in the gaps that a white supremacist, anti-black society does not.
That’s the way in which the Christianity of the enslaved–our enslaved ancestors–has continued to function, both practically (helping for survival, taking care of needs) and I guess we can say politically (inspiring people to move toward freedom).
KW: So how do you think that black folks reconciled the idea of Christianity being “the white man’s religion” with their own deep commitments to faith?
KBD: Yeah. You know, and this was Malcolm X’s critique in the 1960s, that black people adopted the religion of their enslavers. It’s not a new critique. Others have, uh, made the critique even during the antebellum period. I think what we have to understand is that they never believed that they did. They believed that the Christianity of their enslavers was not Christianity at all.
We will see from time to time throughout the history of the black faith tradition, that sometimes, you know, it loses that radical edge. It loses its…what I like to say, it loses its blackness. But for the most part, the black faith tradition has been grounded in this notion of a God who’s on the side of the oppressed and a God who is working with the oppressed toward freedom and liberation. Now that doesn’t mean the black church has always leaned into that, but that has, for the most part been its central theme, which is why the Exodus and the cross have been so important.
So, short answer, those who adopted the faith tradition would say that they did not adopt the white man’s religion.
KW: Could you tell us a little bit more about the kinds of stories–biblical or otherwise– they flock to, and why?
KBD: Well, the central story is the Exodus story, right? And if you simply look at the spirituals, you see that Exodus story coming up over and over again: “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land. Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go.” And then different stories that come out of that. “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? Then why not everyone?”
So they flocked to these stories that suggested a God who was liberating and freeing of people. In terms of the gospel witness, they flocked to the cross, to the story of Jesus on the cross, let alone the story of him being born in a manger. “Sweet little Jesus boy, sweet little Jesus boy, born in a manger world. Treats you so mean. Treat me mean, too.”
Or “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Now, have you ever heard that song sung in a black church and then sung in a non-black church? In a non-black church it sounds like an anthem. In a black church, you feel the pathos because through the cross, Jesus becomes one with the black oppressed, and the black oppressed become one with Jesus.
So when they say, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?,” they really mean they’re there. Right? And so, because the cross indicates Jesus’ utter solidarity with those who are of the–as I like to say–the crucified classes of people in our time, the oppressed, the least of these. So these would be the two sort of seminal, normative stories.
Black women would flock to the story of Hagar. And you see in poetry, as well as in song and testimonial, Hagar becoming central as Sarah and Abraham–the master and mistress–really exploit Hagar and Hagar’s body. And so, so you see also the Hagar tradition as a significant tradition that moves through the black faith tradition.
KW: So one of the things we tried to make clear in the show is that black church isn’t just the building, and infrastructure.
KBD: Oh my goodness, yes.
KW: Uh, indeed, many are formed before they even have structures. So what is the black church to you?
KBD: The black church…first of all, when we talk about the black church is as diverse and as rich and as complicated and complex as is, uh, the black community, and as are black people. However, when we talk about the black church, we are talking about a church that is accountable to the history of black faith that began in the hush harbors of slavery…that is rooted in that history of a people who understood not the Christianity of their slaveholders, but what Howard Thurman would say, the religion of Jesus. Or what Frederick Douglass would call the Christianity of Christ, the Christianity of the God of the Exodus, of the God of Jesus on the cross, that was a God toward freedom.
And so it inspired…it was a faith tradition that inspired a faith people to fight for the freedom of their people. That’s the first thing. So the blackness in the black church stands for an accountability to a history of a people who fight for their freedom as they are compelled by the freedom that is the justice of God.
It also signals a faith community that holds itself not only accountable to that history, but in so doing is accountable to the survival and the wellbeing of the entire black community. The black church has–when it’s at its best–always has tried to meet the needs of the community that society has ignored. It has filled in the gaps. For the black church, and indeed the black faith tradition, there has never been this separation, if you will, of sacred and secular realities, the political and the religious.
First of all such a separation, as far as I’m concerned, doesn’t take seriously what it meant for Jesus to die on the cross, because Jesus didn’t die on the cross because he prayed too much; He wasn’t crucified because he prayed too much. He was crucified because he resisted, forcefully, those systems–whether they were ecclesiastical, political, social–whatever kind of systems of oppression that indeed were not reflective of the just future that God promised us all. So the black faith tradition takes that seriously.
KW: One of the things we’ve been trying to do is make sure we balance the realities of life–sometimes the harsh realities of life–for black people with those moments of joy. And so, can you tell us about the joy in religious faith, specifically Christianity?
KBD: The joy is being able to, to say Hallelujah, and I mean that, and here’s what I mean by that: You know, to me, Hallelujah really doesn’t mean anything, but it’s like, God’s last laugh, right? It’s God’s last laugh on a world that would dare to think that it could destroy black life and destroy the black imagination for what life can be.
But again, I think the through line is that African-Americans have never, at our best, allowed ourselves to be defined by the limitations of the world. And my mother used to sing to us–my two sisters and brother and I–the song “Jesus loves you, this I know, because the Bible tells me so” and it is as if she wanted us to take that song in because she knew that her four children were going to grow up in a world that would not love them in all of their blackness. And she wanted us to be able to understand that, but Jesus loves you…God loves you, that you are not defined by the parameters of a white gaze.
And to me, the joy of black faith is a people coming together, praising and saying hallelujah to a God that is freedom. Because to me that is an affirmation of life in the face of death. It’s God’s “No!” to anything that would deny black life. And so to me, just black faith itself is joy because Black faith itself is a resistance, is…resisting and denying and saying, “Nope. Sorry, you don’t have the last word. God does. And God’s last word is freedom.”
KW: What progress is the black church making today that excites you the most?
KBD: These sparks that I see with where the black church remembers who it is. I am excited when black church leadership understands itself, not in the way in which it has to be in the forefront in some authoritarian manner, but in the way in which it makes a space and opens up the space for the creative imagination of those others.
And that…and I’ve seen that in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve seen that in terms of the movement that is black women that got us to this electoral moment. And I’m seeing that as the black church takes responsibility for the life and survival of…of its community in terms of this COVID crisis. Those are glimpses. Those are glimpses. But look, we know that the black church, as I said, it’s a complicated reality. Right? And it reflects all of the strands, all of the complications, the strengths and the weaknesses of the black community itself.
And we also see, of course, this generation of Black Lives Matter protesters and others that find themselves alienated from the institutional realities of, uh, the black faith tradition. And one of the reasons for that is indeed because of this adoption of a top-down hierarchical kind of model of leadership. If the black church is to survive, it has to indeed be led by the community itself, and be responsive to the voices, the needs, the leadership of the very people who are indeed struggling.
And so when it’s been at its best, that’s what it’s been. You know, the tension with the black church and within Christianity period–but certainly within the black church–is the reality, the tension between being church and being a social institution. And those two things aren’t the same.
And so the black church has to decide whether or not it’s going to be a black social institution that happens to be religious, or if it’s going to be a black church. And if it’s going to be a black church, then it cannot mimic the very hierarchical structures of racialized patriarchy that if indeed oppressed and enslaved black people. And I should add, not only racialized patriarchy, but heteropatriarchy that has enslaved black people. And when it does that, Kidada, as far as I’m concerned it’s betrayed its blackness and what it means to be a church.
KW: We’re going to follow up on that. How have black women’s roles in the church changed over time?
KBD: Yeah, first we should say black women have always been in positions of leadership, always given voice to their faith and have been more than simply the backbone of the church, whether or not the church has recognized it. And we know that without black women, there would just simply be no black church. But, this we do know: that they ignore women to their peril, because women are the ones in the pews and women are the ones that are leading the way.
We can see what’s going on politically. Now, it is always, as Anna Julia Cooper once said, uh, “when and where I enter,” meaning the black women, “the whole race enters with me.” All right. And so we see today that it is…It has been and are black women who are leading the way, whether we’re talking about, you know, a Jarena Lee or a Harriet Tubman or a Stacy Abrams, right? Or Alicia Garza or Patrisse Cullors. They are the Sojourner Truths and the Fannie Lou Hamers of our day. Black women have always been in the forefront and they’ve carried with them their faith or, I should say, it is their faith that carried them out there in that fight and in that struggle.
And so when the black church has been at its best, it’s because black women have led it there. When this country has moved toward being a democracy, well, it’s because black women have led it there. So the black church has to catch up with that if it’s going to be church. Sometimes it’s open to that and sometimes it’s resistant to the leadership of women.
KW: And how has the church changed, or not changed, the strength of its resistance to sexual minorities?
KBD: First of all, the black community, and the black church in some respects, has gotten a bad rap as being more homophobic and heterosexist and LGBTQ terroristic than the wider society. I don’t think it is more so; it is not, but there is a different kind of passion, if you will, which grounds it and almost makes it sometimes immovable. And so this is a struggle that is an ongoing struggle within the black faith community.
But here’s what I say, Kidada: One, it doesn’t make sense for a people who have been oppressed to use the tools of their very oppressor to oppress one another and to oppress anybody else. And so I always say to people, if you can’t figure it out theologically, then just look around and say–ask yourself–do you want to be in the same brown paper bag as the very people who would enslave you or the very people who talk about making America great again? Because those people ain’t your friends.
Then if we really believe in this God that we say is love and just and freedom, then how in the world are we able to, on the one hand, talk about that God, and then talk about a God that would indeed damn somebody that God has created? It’s inconsistent theologically and it’s a betrayal of our very faith.
KW: I always come back to whether or not people believe in justice. Because there’s just saying that you believe in justice, and then there’s the practice of believing in justice. And that should be guiding what we’re doing here.
KBD: Mm, yeah. You know…when, especially, I wrote my book “Sexuality in the Black Church,” there were voices–and there still are voices–who loudly proclaim me anything other than a child of God. And that’s all fine, and there have been times when I’ve been disinvited from places to speak.
I remember one time and I said, “Well, you know, that’s what you get for not doing your homework.” I was invited to a church to speak–by the women of the church–and my name, which is Kelly, the pastor…I don’t know, must have assumed that I was male. And so when I arrived to the church, there was this great sort of kerfuffle going on that I’m like, “what’s going on?” And they guided me downstairs into the undercroft of the church and like, you know…what’s the deal?
So women came to me crying and saying, you know, our pastor won’t let you preach from the pulpit. He didn’t know that you were a woman. And so I thought, hmm, now I could have decided, well, I’m not preaching at all…you know, I’m out. But the women really wanted me to stay and preach. So I did.
And the pastor probably didn’t like the message I preached either, but too bad. Obviously it was a message about freedom and women and empowering women and the significance of women’s voices and the sin of oppression and sexism–even as I had to preach from the aisle (laughs) in the church. So you know, things like that, and you know, what makes me persist? Because not to persist is to be held captive to the very sin that is racism, that is heterosexism, that is sexism, that is LGBTQ terrorism. And I refuse to be held captive to that.
And if I were to not persist, that would be to give in to the sin that would dare dehumanize and disrespect someone else’s sacred humanity, and let alone mine. I mean, my mother taught us, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” So I just sing that song and keep on moving.
KW: I love that answer. In your book, “Stand Your Ground,” you trace back the subjugation and following criminalization of black people, starting with the ideas of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. What made you want to write “Stand Your Ground”? Do you remember the moment you decided to do it?
KBD: Yes. And I didn’t decide; it was decided for me. I never expected that I would find myself tracing this notion of white supremacy back to the first century, and understanding the depth of the reality of white supremacy in this country. And so I was called into it.
I really…I had thought I had written all that I wanted to write and had no expectation of writing another book and certainly not “Stand Your Ground.” Then Trayvon was killed. Then Jordan Davis was murdered. Then Rekia Boyd was murdered, and it went on and it went on and, you know, I’m in my sixties. So I’ve lived through these things before, but for some reason I really couldn’t shake it. And I especially couldn’t shake Trayvon and–maybe because by that time I had a son of my own a couple of years older than Trayvon–but to see the way in which Trayvon was demonized? This young…I mean, if you see Trayvon, you know, this young, young looking teenager, right?
And to hear his mother pleading that he was a good kid and pleading for justice, I couldn’t shake it. And so I found myself asking the question, “Why? Why does this continue to happen?” And remember we…President Obama had been elected and…and all of that…all that did was take the killings and the brutality against black people to a new height. It’s like they “couldn’t get the man in the white house that wasn’t supposed to be there, but we’re going to get his people.” And this is nothing new. This has happened throughout history. So I was compelled to write it. And so I just followed…you know, I said, “Okay, I need to find out why,” and I just followed the story.
KW: In your work, you don’t just dwell on America’s founding sin, so to speak. You also explore black faith and resistance in the face of these injustices. When your congregation asks, “Where is justice? Where is God,” especially in dark times–dark times related to white supremacy, for example–what do you say?
KBD: First of all, I should say sometimes I’m asking that same question. And so the thing about faith is that faith is not the opposite of doubt and doubt’s not the opposite of faith. Faith always embraces doubt. Doubt is the other side of the same coin, if you will, of faith. And why? Because God is nothing we can readily grasp, right?
The movement, the force, the power that is God is beyond, in so many ways, our imagination. It’s beyond that which we have experienced when we talk about the justice that is the love of God. So there are times, Kidada, that I must say that I, too, ask that question: “Where is God? How is it that we can continue to proclaim belief in a just and loving God in the midst of so much injustice, so much hate, so much crucifying death?”
But on the other hand, I look around and I see that we are here, that I’m here. We’re here as testimonies in so many ways of faith to a people who–as I mentioned earlier–never experienced, never thought they would ever experience breathing a free breath. Yet, they continued to fight for freedom because they knew that God was there indeed fighting with them, alongside of them, moving this world toward the justice that is the justice of God.
So I find–and indeed this past summer in the time of deep despair for me in the midst of all of the black death that was not only the black death of police brutality, but the black death that was COVID, for which the black community was disproportionately and is disproportionately impacted–in the midst of that I’ve found myself questioning my faith and wondering about the justice of God.
At that moment, something pulled me down to Black Lives Matter Plaza, in Washington, DC, where I live. And when I went down there, I discovered the God that is moving through history, getting us to that just future that God promises for us all. I discovered that God in protest. And that’s what I tell the people of my congregation–that I tell my son, who asked that same question–that as long as people are still fighting for freedom, as long as there are people who still believe in a freedom in which all life will be sacred, then there is a God. Because it is that God that inspires us and keeps us fighting for a more just future.
KW: And I think that’s one of the things that we see historically with African-Americans. So even people who are held in bondage, they fight for a future they may not enjoy. During reconstruction through…especially with the betrayal of reconstruction, African-Americans continue fighting for a future that they themselves may not enjoy.
KBD: That’s right. But you know what, Kidada, it goes back really…when we talk about that and through the lens of faith, they wouldn’t fight for that if they believed that they were created, right, to be anything other than free. So it’s that God inside of them, that understanding that that’s not how they were created. And we know that through the stories– through various means–these…the African religious heritage, the African cultural heritage lives on in the black community, in our lives. And it’s handed down through generations in various ways. And I like to say “the spirit of freedom is within us.”
And that’s a spirit of freedom that is also beyond us…this innate understanding and belief that we were created in the image of God. And so I think that’s why, in spite of it all, black people keep on struggling because we know that we are not meant to be anything less than free sacred beings.
KW: I love that answer. Is there a question that we haven’t asked or that no one ever asked you, but you wish they would? Or a message that you’d like to end on that you don’t get much of an opportunity to deliver?
KBD: Yeah. And I’ve talked about this before and it’s become so real to me in these times…but I am the great grandchild of a woman that was born into slavery. I knew her; we called her Mama Mary, and she died when I was about maybe six or seven years old. Too young to appreciate what it meant to have Mama Mary in our life.
But when I think of Mama Mary–and it goes back full circle to what we’ve talked about–I think, and this is what I can hardly get my head around really, are those very people that did not have the privilege of Mama Mary, of seeing freedom and literally breathing a free breath, but they literally fought for freedom anyhow. And it is that which keeps me going. And it is that which gives me hope. And because of those people that did not have the good fortune to be free, I feel like I can never dare give up on the fight for those who will come after us.
And I really have little patience for those who have the privilege that we have–to think, to reflect, to have food, to have a home–I have little patience for those folk that are blessed with Ebony grace, with any modicum of privilege that is freedom, who give up and who despair and don’t fight for the next generation to be even more free than we are.
About the Guest
The Very Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas was named Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Theology at Union in September 2017. She was named the Bill and Judith Moyers Chair in Theology in November 2019. She also serves as the Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral and Theologian in Residence at Trinity Church Wall Street.
Prior to Union, Dean Douglas served as Professor of Religion at Goucher College where she held the Susan D. Morgan Professorship of Religion and is now Professor Emeritus. Before Goucher, she was Associate Professor of Theology at Howard University School of Divinity and Assistant Professor of Religion at Edward Waters College.
Dean Douglas is widely published in national and international journals and other publications. Her groundbreaking and widely taught book Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective was the first to address the issue of homophobia within the black church community. Her Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God examines the challenges of a “Stand Your Ground” culture for the black church. Her next book, Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter, is scheduled to be published in November 2021.
Douglas’ other books include The Black Christ; What’s Faith Got to Do with It?: Black Bodies/Christian Souls; and Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant, which seeks to move the black church beyond its oppressive views toward LGBTQ bodies and sexuality in general.
In addition, Dean Douglas is the co-editor of Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection. She has been a pioneering and highly sought-after voice in regard to addressing sexual issues in relation to the black religious community. She has been very active in advocating equal rights for LGBTQ persons.
Dean Douglas is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Denison University where she earned a bachelor of science summa cum laude in psychology. She went on to earn a master of divinity and a doctoral degree in systematic theology from Union Theological Seminary under James Cone, Ph.D., the premier black theologian. While at Union, she received The Hudnut Award for demonstrated preaching excellence and the Julius Hanson Award as the outstanding theological student.
A native of Dayton, Ohio, Dean Douglas was ordained at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in 1983—the first black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest in the Southern Ohio Diocese, and one of only five nationwide at the time. She also was the first to receive the Anna Julia Cooper Award by the Union of Black Episcopalians (July 2012) for “her literary boldness and leadership in the development of a womanist theology and discussing the complexities of Christian faith in African-American contexts.”
Dean Douglas was an Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. for over 20 years. She serves on the Public Religion Research Institute’s (PRRI) Board of Directors and is a member of the American Academy of Religion, The Society for the Study of Black Religion, and The Ecumenical Association for Third World Theologians.