Faculty Feature – Josef Sorett, PhD

Spirit in the Dark: How African Americans Took Spirituality Mainstream

November 16, 2016
Josef Sorett

Photo by Gabriel Cooney

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.”

12/2/16 Conference – the caribbean digital III

the caribbean digital III

2 December 2016
Maison Française | Columbia University

Over the course of this day of multiform panel presentations, we will engage critically with the digital as praxis, reflecting on the challenges and opportunities presented by the media technologies that evermore intensely reconfigure the social, historical, and geo-political contours of the Caribbean and its diasporas. Presenters will consider the affordances and limitations of the digital with respect to a wide range of disciplines and methodologies. Discussions will pick up themes addressed in our 2014 inaugural event, our focused conversations at last year’s colloquium, as well as in a special section of sx archipelagos, the peer-reviewed Small Axe Project publishing platform dedicated to Caribbean digital scholarship and scholarship of the Caribbean digital.

Please take the time to explore our site. For each of the conference panels, our generous discussants have proposed differing “ways in” to their respective sessions – some engage pointedly the specifics of panelists’ interventions, while others evoke broader questions about the Caribbean (and the) digital. We have placed these discussion questions below the panel abstracts.

Also plan to join us on Thursday, 1 December, 4-6PM at the Studio@Butler for an information session and workshop devoted to multimedia mapping project In the Same Boats: Toward an Intellectual Cartography of the Afro-Atlantic.

#SXCD2016

This conference is free and open to the public.
Proceedings will be recorded and Livestreamed.

http://caribbeandigitalnyc.net

© 2016, Small Axe.

Reception Photos for Dr. Vanessa Agard-Jones, IRAAS MA ’06

Reception for Dr. Vanessa Agard-Jones, IRAAS MA ’06
The Institute for Research in African American Students Alumni Council (IAC) and IRAAS
Reception in honor of VANESSA AGARD-JONES IRAAS MA, ’06; (PhD, NYU ’13)
joining the faculty of the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University.

Friday, November 4, 2016 at the Garden Room at Columbia University’s Faculty House, 64 Morningside Drive New York, NY


Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University 

“Envisioning the academy as a site of critical engagement for social transformation. . .”

Share your alumni updates to Iraasalumnicouncil@gmail.com

Watch Amanda Seales ’05 on HBO “Insecure”

 

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(L to R) Issa Rae and Amanda Seales at Insecure Premiere. Photo credit: Jeff Kravitz. Courtesy of Getty Images

Comedian, host, content creator, and more, Amanda Seales doesn’t just want to make you laugh, she wants to make change!  With an uncanny knack for taking serious topics (racism, rape culture, sexism, police brutality, etc.) and with humor,making them relatable and interesting, she combines intellectual wit, enigmatic silliness and a pop culture obsession to create her unique style of smart funny content for the stage and screen.  In other words, she’s a witty woman working to upgrade the world. See more at http://amandaseales.com/bio

Modern-day black women might be described as strong and confident; in other words, just the opposite of Issa and Molly. As the best friends deal with their own real-life flaws, their insecurities come to the fore as together they cope with an endless series of uncomfortable everyday experiences. Created by co-star Issa Rae and writer/comic Larry Wilmore (“The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”), the comedy series looks at the friendship of two black women in a unique, authentic way. It features the music of both indie and established artists of color, and touches on a variety of social and racial issues that relate to the contemporary black experience. Source: HBO

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Cast of Insecure on HBO. Photo credit: Allen Berezovsky. Courtesy of Getty Images.

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Share your alumni updates to Iraasalumnicouncil@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11/9/16 Tenement Museum – The Women Who Made New York with Zinga Fraser, PhD

NOVEMBER 9, 2016

THE WOMEN WHO MADE NEW YORK

eventHillary Clinton’s historic run for the presidency of the United States offers an excellent opportunity to celebrate the women politicians who helped pave the way. Join Julie Scelfo, author of The Women Who Made New York, as she discusses three political trailblazers: Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in the US Congress, Bella Abzug, the second Jewish woman elected to Congress, and Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman from a major party to run for vice president. Liz Abzug, Bella’s daughter, Donna Zaccaro, Geraldine’s daughter, and Zinga Fraser, PhD, the Director of the Shirley Chisholm Project will join the conversation.

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Seating is first-come, first-served. Doors will open at 6 p.m. Books will be for sale with a 15% discount. If you have any questions, contact Laura Lee at llee@tenement.org or (646) 518-3032.

November 9, 2016
6:30-8:00 PM
Tenement Museum
103 Orchard Street, New York NY 10002
Contact Phone: (646) 518-3032
Contact Email: LLee@tenement.org
FREE
Source: © 2016 Lower East Side Tenement Museum | 103 Orchard Street, New York, NY 10002 | tel 877.975.3786

IRAAS Alumni Please RSVP – Cocktail Party honoring IRAAS Alum joining CU Faculty 11/4/16

The IRAAS Alumni Council (IAC) and IRAAS
cordially invites you to a cocktail reception in honor of
dr-vanessa-agard-jones
VANESSA AGARD-JONES
IRAAS MA, ’06; (PhD, NYU ’13)
joining the faculty of the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University.

Friday, November 4, 2016
5:30pm-7:30pm
the Garden Room at Columbia University’s Faculty House
64 Morningside Drive New York, NY
RSVP by Wednesday, November 2nd

For any questions please email IRAAS@columbia.edu or call 212-854-7080

 

Family Weekend 2016 – African-American Studies at Columbia…Envisioning, Engaging, and Transforming the World, Faculty and Alumni Panel

African-American Studies at Columbia…Envisioning, Engaging, and Transforming the World, Faculty and Alumni Panel
Join us for a panel discussion and casual reception to learn more about how the work and research of professors and graduates of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) is relevant to the contemporary moment. IRAAS alumni will discuss the importance of majoring and/or concentrating in African-American Studies and the many career paths that might follow.Come learn more about how African-American Studies at Columbia University is engaging with the on-campus community and beyond.

 

Featuring IRAAS alumnae:

  • Beaulah Agbabiaka, ’16, ’19
  • Dr. Christine Pinnock ’03

10/18/16 WHITE FACES, BLACK LIVES: RACE, REPARATIVE JUSTICE, AND THE DRUG WAR

whitefacesblacklive_101816
DATE & TIME:
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 18, 2016 6:30PM TO WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 19, 2016 4:30PM

By Drug Policy Alliance

LOCATION
Columbia School of Journalism, 3rd Floor Lecture Hall
2950 Broadway
New York, New York

Please join us for the White Faces, Black Lives conference, which will be held October 19 from 8:30am – 4:30pm at the Columbia School of Journalism (3rd Floor lecture hall, 2950 Broadway, New York, NY).
The evening launch event will take place October 18 from 6:30pm-9:00pm at The Center for Arts & Culture, Skylight Gallery, 1368 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY.
Both events are FREE, but you must register for each.

Eventbrite link:
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/white-faces-black-lives-race-reparative-justice-and-the-drug-war-tickets-27546229514

 

Source:  http://iraas.columbia.edu/Event/white-faces-black-lives-race-reparative-justice-and-drug-war