Tomorrow, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC will open. On display will be religious artifacts from black history like Nat Turner’s Bible, Harriet Tubman’s hymnal and antique pews from AME churches.
The Center for the Study of African American Religion will be a significant part of the new museum’s mission. The $10 million project aims to further research on the role religion and spirituality has played in black America’s past and present.
Anita Little of Religion Dispatches spoke with the Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, chief curator of the Center about religion, race and resistance.
The Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce is an Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary and the Director of Black Church Studies.
What does the center’s existence say about the continued relevance of black religion, Christianity especially, in a cultural milieu that’s becoming more secular and averse to institutions?
It reminds us of what Pew and other studies have showed us, which is that within the African American context, there isn’t the downward shift that we’ve seen in traditional, mainline denominations. Religious faith is very alive and well, but it doesn’t necessarily look like how it did before.
If we only think of the religious as those who attend a weekly service of their choice, then we’re missing part of the picture. We’re missing people who find their faith in activism (movements like Black Lives Matter), or in educational institutions. In the center, I hope we can tell not only how deeply embedded religion is within the black context, but how diverse it has always been. It’s not just about where you go on Sunday morning, it’s about the communities you chose to live in, how you educate your children and how you protest.
Leaping off of that question, in what way is black history and black present inseparable from black religion?
A major question is: how do you separate out this story? For example, if we’re looking at 1968, and we’re studying the Black Panthers or Black Power, we tend to assume that story is different from 1964 with the story of Rev. Martin Luther King. But we forget the religious influence that happened in both of those. For me, all of this is really meshed together in how we talk about resistance.
On these most recent killings, we’re on Twitter talking about police brutality and violence, but we’re also talking about religious faith and theology—even if we don’t think that’s what we’re talking about.
How do we tell the story of the Good Samaritan when the person on the side of the road is killed? There are a lot of people in our current political climate and our current discussions about race who are really using theological language to help us think through some of these issues.
How does the center and the museum as a whole reconcile the role Christianity has played in black private and public life with the role Christianity has also played in justifying slavery and black oppression?
Well, we don’t really know yet because the place is brand new! My initial answer is that Christianity has been the dominant voice—not the only voice, but the dominant one. Even in the way we talk about the founding of the nation in general, we’re often tying it to Christian texts and Christian theology. We have to recognize the ways Christianity provided a beautiful language for resistance against slavery, but also the ways a pro-slavery theology reinforced oppression.
We also have to acknowledge how there have always been agnostics, atheists and humanists—that’s part of the African American tradition as well.
However, Christianity is the tool many black leaders have chosen, and for a long time many African American political leaders were also religious. They were ordained ministers, they were church women. We can’t tell the story of black women in freedom movements in the 19th century unless we’re telling the story of black church women. Christianity is constantly going to be intertwined in how we talk about our history and our heritage, and we have to let that story unfold while recognizing the multiplicity of other voices in the conversation as well.