Sylvester Johnson is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Religious Studies at Northwestern University. This interview is based on his new book African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write African American Religions, 1500–2000?
SJ: I wrote the book because my research on religion and race kept leading me back to two issues: the vast significance of colonialism—not just slavery and racism—in the formation of religions during the past few centuries and the ambivalent nature of the political order of democratic freedom.
Concerning the first, scholars of religion in the Americas typically devote scarce attention to colonialism. But several important works have engaged seriously with religion and colonialism—among these are studies by Charles Long and David Chidester. I wanted to reframe the narrative logics that typically guide research into studying Black religion and, by doing so, develop an account of religion and race insofar as they have been shaped by colonialism.
The second issue, freedom, is arguably the most important idea in contemporary global politics. But freedom is not merely an idea. It is a complex of institutions, practices, and regimes. And virtually every narrative account of Black religion handles freedom as a major touchstone of racial and religious history. Most of us are conditioned to think of freedom in opposition to slavery and the biopolitics of governing human populations through race. But enough work has been done by scholars such as Orlando Patterson and Michael Mann to demonstrate that freedom, like slavery, is an institution, and not a benign one. If freedom had hands, they would be coated with the blood of the unfree and less free. I wanted to explain how freedom has worked to shaped religion and politics in harmony with colonialism, slavery, and the creation of racial states that ensure life and prosperity to some through killing and dominating others.
This book, I hope, will contribute in a meaningful way to that larger aim.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of African American Religions, 1500–2000?
SJ: The central argument is that colonialism, not merely slavery and racism, has been a profoundly decisive factor in the formation of African American religions. The political order of colonialism has generated both state practices of racism and democratic freedom, which have become enduring themes in Black religion.
JF: Why do we need to read African American Religions, 1500–2000?
SJ: This book examines United States empire in a serious way within the context of Atlantic geographies to explain five centuries of Black religious history. This is not a survey but a monograph that proffers an extended argument about religion, race, and politics. It is fair to say that most of us are fans of democratic freedom. After completing the research for this book, however, I have been moved to tender my resignation as an uncritical devotee of democratic freedom. Freedom is actually a colonial project. That might sound absurd at first, but I hope readers will sit with the book and the related studies that other scholars have produced to understand what I think is the single most important institution of our time (freedom). I think that’s a good reason to read the book.
SJ: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JF: It’s obvious from my first two books that historical methods are very important to how I execute my research, but I also draw on other methods and disciplinary practices. I identify as a scholar of religion and of African American Studies. These are interdisciplinary disciplines that have been optimal spaces in which I have produced my work. I have found that the status of being a “historian” proper is largely reserved for history PhDs, which I am not. That said, it should be patent that studying the past is not the exclusive reserve of history PhDs; otherwise, there would be very little for everyone else to study. Since I was an undergraduate, I have enjoyed using archival sources and other forms of data contemporary to periods under study. It brings challenges, of course. It’s similar to piecing together a puzzle without ever seeing the picture on the puzzle box. It should come as no surprise that historical studies generate varied and at times conflicting accounts of “what happened.” There is another element that I enjoy as well—the interpretation of cultural history. It is easier to agree on isolated factoids but more difficult to discern the larger meaning of it all. This second type of work requires serious attention to social theory. This is how I approach the work of producing a historical study—as a theoretical contribution. My ultimate aim is to engage with the big questions that transcend specific disciplines and to offer some rejoinder that might advance our understanding of why, for instance, democratic freedom has been such a singular feature of racial states.
JF: What is your next project?
SJ: I am co-editing a volume on religion and the FBI (with Steven Weitzman of U Penn), and I’m writing a monograph on race and US empire. My collaboration with Tracy Leavelle (Creighton University) and over a dozen other scholars examining “religion and US empire” has been very generative for my research on that score. I have also begun researching the challenge that machine intelligence (commonly called artificial intelligence) is raising for theories of the human, concepts of objecthood, and the future of governing through race. It’s a new direction, but one that is quickly raising new questions for humanities scholars as the research and development of cognitive machines continues apace.
JF: Thanks, Sylvester. Great stuff!