a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

the Harlem Renaissance

by Josef Sorett

church lady by <a href='' target='_blank'>Jenny Schulder Brant</a>
church lady by Jenny Schulder Brant

When discussing religion, today it is quite common (perhaps cliché) to hear people say, “Well, I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” Even in churches it is not uncommon to hear something along the lines of, “I don’t believe in religion, but I believe in a relationship with God.” A favorite at the church of my youth was, “I’m not religious, but I love the Lord!” Numerous scholars and journalists have directed energies to analyzing this phenomenon. One of the more popular interpretations attributes the emphasis on personal spirituality to novelty in the contemporary historical moment. In this view, younger generations are seen to display an increasing skepticism towards organized religion, even as they embrace an ethic of personal choice in the face of a global cultural marketplace.

In contrast, others have persuasively linked this novel neoliberal spiritual impulse to a long tradition of religious liberalism. For instance, Leigh Schmidt has argued that liberalism, more generally, “was always as much a religious vision of emancipated souls as a political theory of individual rights… For religious liberals, unlike their secular cousins, a deepened and diversified spirituality was part of modernity’s promise.”

Alongside of the grand narrative of religious liberalism that has helped to produce the personal vision of spirituality so popular today, there is a vibrant tradition of African American cultural expression that has cultivated a similar concern with spirituality. In the poetry, prose, performances, visual culture and criticism that comprise this history, one can readily observe what might be called a grammar of spirit (i.e. spirit, spiritual, spirituality). That is, black artists and intellectuals—men and women, alike—have persistently engaged in spirit-talk.

Obviously, it is impossible to cover the entirety of this story of spirit-talk. So, perhaps it is most productive to center my gaze on the most chronicled moment in this longer narrative; namely, the apex of the New Negro movement, aka the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1920s.

Early accounts of the Harlem Renaissance have framed this moment as an aesthetic intervention in race politics; an attempt at “civil rights by copyright,” according to the historian David Levering Lewis. At the center of such efforts were leading civil rights organizations in the liberal tradition of interracial activism, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League. The artistic energies of the two organizations were guided by, amongst others, two now familiar figures: W.E.B Du Bois and Alaine Locke, respectively. Du Bois, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, worked closely with Jessie Redmon Fauset in editing the NAACP’s Crisis. Alain Locke, the first black Rhodes scholar, received his PhD in Philosophy from Harvard in 1918. He played a role similar to that of Dubois; but he did so for Charles S. Johnson at the Urban League, helping to edit Opportunity and oversee its literary competitions. While they represented competing aesthetic positions and institutional interests, together Dubois and Locke had a hand in the publishing careers of most of Harlem’s literati; including the likes of Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay—the list goes on.

Perhaps appropriate to their educational pedigree, both Locke and Dubois cast their lots with science and reason. Still, even as men clearly on the side of “modernity,” much can be said of the import of religion to their aesthetic and political visions. One thinks of Herbert Aptheker’s collection, Prayers for Dark People, which includes a range of prayers written by Dubois over the course of his life. And there is Locke’s longstanding relationship with the American Bahai community, which included writing for its publications and advising its racial amity committees. More apropos for my purposes here is that both men also contributed much to what I have previously named as a grammar of spirit, especially as they theorized the aesthetics of the New Negro movement.

W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk is the most celebrated book about the black life in the United States, as well as it is a foundational text of the field now identified as African-American Studies. It is increasingly becoming a classic for religious studies as well. With the term “soul” Dubois invites readers within “the veil,” into the inner-worlds of black communities at the turn of the twentieth century. Writing against the grain just after the triumph of legal segregation, he affirmed black humanity by asserting black interiority. A small signal of Dubois’ significance, “soul” has since become synonymous with blackness. However, he developed a grammar of “spirit” to interpret religion in the United States, and black contributions therein. In his less heralded book, The Gift of Black Folk, Dubois insisted that the gifts that “the Negro” brought to America were singularly spiritual.

Of course, from a 21st century lens this smacks of essentialism. That said, however, Dubois’ arguments also enable an alternate reading of the Harlem Renaissance, illuminating its certain spiritual grammar. At the start of the book’s final chapter, fittingly named “The Gift of the Spirit,” Dubois argues, “Above and beyond all that we have mentioned, perhaps least tangible but just as true, is the peculiar spiritual quality that the Negro has injected into American life and civilization.” (italics mine) There are so many layers of significance to unpeel in this short sentence alone. Indeed, Dubois begins this task in the remainder of the chapter.

Yet beyond the author’s arguments, Dubois’ particular take on “The Gift of the Spirit” points to a spiritual grammar displayed by Alain Locke and others who sought to interpret the New Negro. Also in 1925, Locke edited what has come to be known as the “bible” of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro. In both the foreword and first chapter of an anthology that totaled almost five hundred pages, he framed the entire enterprise as spiritual. Spirit-talk pervades these pages. Attesting to both its great vigor and vacuity, in places this spiritual grammar appeals to Africa, taking inspiration from the “ancestral arts” of Ivory Coast, Congo and elsewhere. Other instances reveal an indebtedness to the rhetorics of German Romanticism. In this latter view, spirit-talk seems to evince a hedging of bets that the New Negro was evidence of a new racial zeitgeist. If nothing else, for Alain Locke the best of both worlds—Africa and Europe—were apparent in Harlem. This was the very spirit of the New Negro. “Harlem isn’t typical, but it is prophetic,” he insisted. Yet Locke’s arguments were more about race than geography. Harlem was but a key epicenter for the New Negro movement, a cultural, political and racial project that at its theoretical core was spiritual—it was about the forging of “a new race-spirit.” The final paragraph of Locke’s “Foreword” captured this best, “Negro life is not only establishing new contacts and founding new centers, it is finding a new soul. There is a fresh spiritual and cultural focusing… There is a renewed race-spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart.”

To return to where I began this brief essay, in conclusion, is to remember that the categories of religion and spirituality are never mutually exclusive. Rather they are porous, mutually informing, and often co-constitutive of one another. That is, many church-goers embrace spiritual grammars, and many “spiritual, but not religious” folks have formed their own institutions. This familiar fluidity—between church and spirit—was also present at the launching of the Harlem Renaissance, in a special issue of Survey Graphic on Harlem, which Alain Locke edited in 1925. Much of this periodical became the core of his larger, definitive anthology. However, in a piece that would not be included in The New Negro, George Haynes most directly addressed the church/spirit fault-line with his article, “The Church and the Negro Spirit.” Haynes was the first African American to receive a PhD from Columbia University, a founding member of the National Urban League, a longtime Presbyterian layperson, and a key contributor to the Federal Council of Churches’ race relations work. Fittingly, Haynes turned his gaze to Harlem’s churches to interpret the Negro Renaissance. In his view, churches did not constrain, censor or compromise the aspirations of New Negro aesthetes. Rather, he proffered, “The Negro churches of Harlem are visible evidence of an aspiring people to express the best of life within them.” Reading Haynes alongside Dubois and Locke allows for recognition of the place of churches in a standing, and expanding, aesthetic history. That is, in parlors, poetry readings, and political rallies, and in pulpits and pews, one could espy the spirit of the New Negro. At the same time, one was also privy to gifts of the spirit on display in racial aesthetics. As Haynes put it, each of these entities are, “channels of their spiritual life blood.”