Spiritual enlightenment can arrive in the unlikeliest of places. For Josef Sorett, it came at an open mic night in a dark nightclub.
It was 1997, and “spoken word was blowing up,” said Sorett, an associate professor of religion and African American Studies and director of Columbia’s Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics, and Social Justice. He was there because “I wanted to see how religion takes shape outside of the spaces we see as religious and how it informed debates on what modern black life should look like.”
A poet recited a piece titled, For All You Church-Going Black Folks. It was a criticism of churches and Christianity, said Sorett, “kind of like Malcolm X’s argument: ‘Christianity is the white man’s religion.’”
It struck a chord with Sorett, who was at Boston University getting a master’s degree in religion and literature. “I went home and wrote a poem as a rebuttal,” he said. It then became the inspiration for his dissertation at Harvard University. Now, those arguments have inspired his first book, Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics, which looks at the work of prominent African American authors who influenced black thought and culture from the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights movement.
“I argue that modern African American literature, though it’s typically narrated as being secular, is in fact fundamentally religious,” he said. “You have black writers as early as the late 19th century arguing that other black writers should take up the mantle that had been occupied by the preacher to create a new vision of black life,” Sorett said. “A whole host of artists follow that lead into the 1960s, insisting that it is the writer’s job to create new myths for black people.”
Richard Wright, whose bestselling 1940 novel Native Son was the first book by an African American author to be selected by the Book of the Month Club, is just one example. Native Son uses biblical allegory to demonstrate Wright’s familiarity with Scripture. A member of the Communist Party and outspoken critic of race relations, his political leanings overshadowed the novel’s religious themes and language for most literary scholars.
“Many of the figures I mention, like Wright, are the usual suspects for scholars of African American literature, but they were not typically understood as being religious, when many of them were,” said Sorett.
Even writers who were not religious or claimed to be atheists were influenced by religious ideas and practices, particularly Christianity, said Sorett. They used terms like “the spirit” to help reimagine culture for their community.
And while the myth that African Americans are more religious than the rest of the country persists, Sorett posits that this stereotype exists because of socio-economic politics in the early 20th century. “As America grew and increasingly saw itself as secular, modern and progressive, black people were cast as the foil to this progress. Their apparent hyper-religiosity was taken as evidence,” he said.
At this same time, the black intelligentsia, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Gwendolyn Brooks, were demonstrating that even as some African Americans were leaving religion behind, they were still deeply influenced by and attracted to religious themes.
Music plays an important role in Sorett’s book as well, as many artists and intellectuals have noted and valorized the spiritual nature of some black musical traditions. The book’s title was inspired by Aretha Franklin’s 1970 album Spirit in the Dark, which was released after she had solidified her status as the “Queen of Soul.”
Sorett hopes his book sheds light on the persistent influence of religion—from churches, mosques and botanicas to dancing, singing and trances—on modern black life. “Often we think of spirituality as in opposition to religion,” Sorett said. “To the contrary, there is an undeniable spiritual impulse—and often a distinctive Christian vision—at the center of the black literary imagination, even if it is complicated and, at times, contradictory.”