Is it possible to speak definitively about “black religion” in the sense of religious history and doctrine, or as a religious response to an Anthropocene of human ecology? In the chapters that follow, I create an interpretive lens for reading the evolution of “black music” as a modern scriptural narrative of “black religion.” Lens materials are drawn from embodied sacred river ecologies of West Africa and placed in a “ring-shout” structure of both “music” and “religion” in the “invisible institution” of the African Diaspora. The 500-year musical evolution is well documented by extensive commodification of “black” people and culture by “white” American society.
The narrative begins with an “apocalypse” that stripped diverse African people of lands, identity, and dignity to create “black” disposable commodities for colonizing an entire hemisphere where the sacred ecology consciousness of indigenous civilizations was also being marginalized and exterminated. The narrative continues into a rainstorm “genesis” of enslaved Africans and their descendants creating “Blackamerican” identity, evidenced in Negro Spirituals. After emancipation, headwaters of “blues people” flowed in “exodus” from Jim Crow persecution.
This Great (rural-to-urban) Migration became a blues river that overflowed its banks and burst the Jim Crow dam with a global “gospel” of social change. The freshwater river emptied into a saltwater ocean of “New Jim Crow” massive incarceration, from which hip-hop arose in a “pentecost” of storm clouds spreading globally with post-modern “tongues of fire.” This paper concludes by creatively adapting Western music theory with a “black music” lens that centers human ecology as fundamental to Anthropocene.
Even though the summary above was originally written as an abstract for an academic paper, what follows is really a story. It’s a story that I’ve felt always felt intuitively and have been trying to articulate directly for more than a quarter of a century. Every previous version has always ended up with big holes in it. It simply involves interpreting American history in particular and the history of modern Western civilization in general as if the enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas and their descendants were all human beings. But telling such a story in either the sacred or the secular languages of modern Western culture is like trying to assemble a puzzle that is always missing half of its pieces.
The evolutionary narrative of “black” music over the past 500 years seems to tell that story quite easily, however. All you have to do is ignore the modern Western distinction between sacred and secular. As simple as this sounds, it has taken a tremendous amount of time and effort for me to clearly perceive and articulate in ways that both felt right and made sense. I’m actually still working on that part.
I like to think of what follows as offering a problem-solving hypothesis for the unfolding crises of our times. Then again, maybe I did all of this work just for my own benefit. Maybe it’s just a personal reflection upon what James Noel described as Black Religion and the Imagination of Matter in the Atlantic World. There’s no way to know without sharing it. That’s why there’s a question mark in the title.