Julius Bailey is Professor of Religions at University of Redlands. This interview is based on his new book, Down in the Valley: An Introduction to African American Religious History (Fortress Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Down in the Valley?
JB: Having taught the introduction to African American Religions course several times, I was always searching for a central textbook for the course. When I was unable to find one, I decided to write a textbook that would combine the latest research in the field of Religious Studies with the classic studies of African American religious life. My hope is that students will be excited about the vast variety and diversity of African American religious life. While the study of African American religious history has tended to focus on Christianity, my goal was to write a book that engaged the diversity within black churches, the various world religions that black Americans have been a part, as well as black new religious movements that have sometimes been marginalized in the study of African American religions.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Down in the Valley?
JB: Rather than trying to definitively define the boundaries of “authentic” black religion, searching for African retentions, or determining how “American” it is, employing a hybrid approach that blurs the boundaries of each of these identities allows one to move fluidly between the big picture umbrella term “African American Religions” and the amazing diversity across traditions and localities.
JF: Why do we need to read Down in the Valley?
JB: Down in the Valley provides an unprecedented comprehensive approach to the study of African American religious history beginning with the various theoretical frameworks that scholars have brought to the study of African American religions and moving historically from African Traditional Religions, the religious life of enslaved Americans including rare glimpses into the lives of black Muslims, African American religious institutions including spiritual churches and Roman Catholicism, enduring themes in nineteenth-century African American religious life like Back-to-Africa Movements, African American new religious movements such as the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple, and contemporary developments in African American religions like the rise of black megachurches. While many surveys of African American religions end with the Civil Rights Movement, Down in the Valley expands the time frame that most books cover beginning with African Traditional Religions and bringing the central themes and issues into the twenty-first century and Obama’s presidency.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JB: I decided to become an American historian as an undergraduate in college. Working on my senior research project that sought to think of creative and unexpected sources for the recovery of African American voices from the past that are all too often silenced or marginalized in the study of American history confirmed for me that it had to be my chosen profession.
JF: What is your next project?
JB: My next research project is on the history of black churches in the American West.
JF: Thanks, Julius!