Life within the Veil: African American Christian Consciousness Pt. 2

Part of the Black Religion / Womanist Thought / Social Justice book series (BRWT)


The tragic mood of the African American emerges and crystallizes most clearly in her music and religious expressions. The deep substratum or Dionysian element was supplied by both the rich spirituality of the African heritage and the brutal encounter with the “peculiar institution” in the Americas. The suffering and pain of slavery, as well as the subsequent experience of oppression and marginalization, situated the African American firmly at his existential “limits.” The cultural taxonomies that defined black being, mediated explicitly through language, law, and social status and reinforced implicitly through styles of interaction, intensified the experience of fragmentation that conspired with the basic human desire to be free to create a profound sense of longing (melancholy, conceived of as nonpathological) and the surging Dionysian “Sturm,” kept just beneath the surface by fear and force. Using Du Bois’s tripartite division of the salient features of the liturgical expression of African American consciousness, the music, the frenzy, and the preacher (preacher expanded in this instance to mean mainly “preaching,” although the “person” of the preacher is by no means minimized), I hope to perform something of an excavation, laying bare its dynamic structure.


Christian Faith African Heritage Ritual Context Liberate Experience Great Poet 
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  1. 1.
    W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: NAL Penguin, 1982), 212.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford, 1977), 5–6.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972, 1979), 137.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    For more information on the relationship between music and “possession,” see Gilbert Rouget, Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (Boston, MA: New American Library, 1942), 165.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston, MA: Boston Press, 1967), 351. Kierkegaard also has a notion similar to this.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    See Peter Homans, The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychanalysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 37. He demonstrates, through an examination of the thought of Sigmund Freud and the development of the psychoanalytic movement in a sociocultural context, how persons respond creatively to the loss of significant cultural products and symbol systems.Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    For an interesting if not compelling statement of this misreading, see Louis A. Ruprecht, Jr., Tragic Posture and Tragic Vision: Against the Modern Failure of Nerve (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1994).Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    Ibid., 36–37, 40. See also Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1923; reprint, 1981), 34.Google Scholar
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    Paul Ricoeur, The Role of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies in the Creation of Meaning in Language (Buffalo and Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981). 43.Google Scholar
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    Howard Thurman, Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond: Friends United Press, 1975), 111.Google Scholar
  12. 26.
    Victor Turner, “Religion in Current Cultural Anthropology,” in Concilium: What is Religion: An Enquiry for Christian Theology, ed. Mircea Eliade and David Tracy (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), 70.Google Scholar

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© Matthew V. Johnson 2010

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