BLACK THEOLOGY, BLACK BODIES, AND PEDAGOGY
by Anthony B. Pinn

The black body has both economic and religious importance in North America.

ANTHONY B. PINN is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Coordinator of the African American Studies Program at Macalester College. His current projects include a volume on theological method and a history of Black churches in the United States.

I have an interest in theologically thinking through what it means -- epistemologically, institutionally and ritually -- to be African American and religious. Much of my work speaks to my wrestling with this issue through historical and theological descriptions of the diversity that marks African American religious experience, the underlying assumption being that resolutions to the question of what it means to be African American and religious require comparative analysis. I am working from the belief that there are common elements within the various forms of African American religious experience that, when explored, can shed light on my above stated concern. My approach to this, in earlier work, particularly Why, Lord? (1995) and Varieties of African American Religious Experience (1998), revolved around the problem of evil as a way of moving theologians into a discussion of African American religiosity (in all its various forms) through attention to cosmology, doctrines of God, and theological anthropology. I am satisfied with the way in which the problem of evil functions as a way into the thought or belief of various traditions. However, I think there is more to ritual or enactment within African American religions that is not fully mined through attention to the problem of evil. What can those in African American religious studies use to address ritual or enactment?

Within the essay I make an effort to begin addressing this question in two ways -- theoretically and pedagogically: (1) I suggest that my understanding of cultural memory and archaeologically informed theology promote a rethinking of the body as a cultural artifact and as a ritualized space or item that enlivens our understanding of religious ritual; and, (2) I address the pedagogical challenges connected with this conception of the body. My goal is to think through the agenda of my earlier work and extend it.

I begin this discussion with a few contextual comments concerning the nature of Black liberation theology and the correctives I offer through a challenge of traditional assumptions concerning African American cultural memory and ways in which this memory is deciphered and represented. Liberation theology, generally speaking, is committed to the experiential nature of religious experience, and the connections between religious orientations and social transformation. As a natural outgrowth of this perspective, liberation theologies are committed to the cultural production of particular groups as vital material for the construction of theological reflection. That is to say, theological reflection, if it is liberating, must speak from and to the existential and cultural reality of the oppressed community addressed. The difficulties associated with doing this are many. For example, might not direct contact with the context of cultural artifacts, because time continues to move forward and representations replace realities, be lost?

Collective and individual cultural memory decays. Whether one argues that the present shapes our perception of the past (social construction) or the past shapes the present (construction through commemoration), the fact remains that a clear and uncontaminated link between the past and present -- the workings of collective memory -- is hard to establish. Cultural memory is again problematic because it is not only composed of cultural artifacts, we also use it to decode and interpret (place in meaningful context) those artifacts.

We have often failed to remember the warning the above should sound. Instead, we fill gaps that allow for the construction of a Black theological program that seems consistent, refined, undeniable. And although undeniably important, it appears to be in part based upon a misuse of cultural resources because it fails to hold in tension cultural memory that is best ruptured. The tendency is to essentialize cultural memory through the few cultural artifacts close to the surface that we grab in our haste to construct a useful theological stance.

Even theological agendas that bring into question normative assumptions within African American theological reflection do so, it seems, using only the resources offered them. For example, critiques of homophobia and heterosexism in Black churches and black theology tend to revolve around rereadings of scripture and the open nature of religious community. Why is not attention given, whether ultimately fruitful or not, to homo-eroticism in black musical expression? Why is not the assumed heterosexual norm of black slave communities and relationships explored? Does any one explore possible cultural artifacts that point to homosexuality in slave communities? I suggest that archaeology provides a way to acknowledge the fragile nature of the cultural memories from which we theologically draw without being held prisoner by this problem. A point of clarification is necessary before moving on. My use of the term archaeology is meant to be a symbolic appropriation of the term as a metaphor for the risk-filled "digging" for cultural and sociopolitical elements that point to a community's thought and way of life. Archaeological method applied to theology -- archaeological theology -- is useful because it facilitates and in fact requires the problematicization of assumed cultural history and findings. It understands the manner in which cultural memory is developed and forgotten; and as a result, is suspicious of implicit or explicit claims to certainty. New methodological insights generated by this approach relate to the manner in which artifacts function in a variety of concealed ways. It encourages an understanding of cultural memory and cultural artifacts as influenced by a variety of external facts such as sociopolitical and economic realities. These realities do not always destroy artifacts and memory, but they do force the hiding or concealing of cultural production; and so, the artifacts uncovered and explored are fragments of a larger cultural picture. Some of these artifacts are concealed in plan view -- captured in our physicality. As both Frantz Fanon and Hortense Spillers suggest, the most visible but overlooked artifact is the human body. With this in mind, I want to draw attention to the manner in which the body has held both economic and religious importance in North America. And, I will use this to move my argument from a general discussion of the body as cultural artifact to an understanding of the body as a complex religious presence -- both ritual item and ritualized space.

The importance of the body was recognized early in the context of North America. One need only reflect on various forms of evangelical and reform activities in the North American colonies and the young United States for evidence of this. During the early to mid-1800s many within the United States turned reformers attention to the importance of the body in the development of a strong and morally upstanding country. Fueled by the first Great Awakening, reformers such as Lyman Beecher recognized that the health of the physical body was connected to spiritual and societal renewal. In accordance the manual labor movement sought to enhance seminary training through attention to physical activity that kept the body strong and ministers alive. It was understood that the body served as both an outward sign of inner strength and vitality necessary to actually do the well of God. The religious, in other words, live through the body not in spite of the body. This attention to the human's physical presence continued in the efforts of the manual labor movement where concentration on the private sphere allowed some to argue that the body's health needed to be maintained as part of one's responsibility to God. For white reformers the body's importance was sure because of its real and symbolic value related to spiritual well being and connection to divine designs.

African Americans, during this period and beyond, would also embrace the importance of the body. Countering attempts to mark African Americans as a lesser form of life often entailed attention to the black body as important and beautiful over against society's claims regarding white supremacy based on genetic and physical features. The work of figures such as Henry McNeal Turner with respect to black humanity does not end with the turn of the century.

It strikes me that much of what has been produced with respect to various forms of African American theology, and Black religious studies in general, has addressed the importance of the Black body. This is clearly expressed in the early connections between the Black Power Movement and Black Theology and it is more recently represented in the work of Womanist scholars. The appeal made by Black theologians to African American literature encourages this attention to the body. One can see this, for example, in the use of slave narratives and conversion accounts that highlight the transformation of lives through a marked physical wrestling. That is to say, spiritual renewal is attested to through a travail seen in the movement of the body. An example of this is the ring shout through which the spirit descended and salvation could occur:

De folks git in er ring an' sing an' dance, an' shout; de dance is jes' a kinder shuffle, den hit gits faster, an' faster as dey gits wa'amed up; an' dey moans an' shouts; an' sings, an' claps, an' dance.

Not all African Americans embraced the Christian faith nor an "Africanized" version of this faith. Some maintained African practices from which the current traditions of Vodou, Santeria, etc., are drawn. These traditions also place an informative importance on the body. I will use a bembe or celebration for the gods within santeria to highlight this point. According to Joseph Murphy, the following took place at a bembe for Shango, the god of thunder:

The music seems to be coming from inside the people as if by their movement they are liberating the sound from within themselves. One woman in particular is carried by this energy, and others begin to channel theirs toward her. The dancing circle clears for her alone, and the drums focus directly on her. Her eyes are closed, and she is whirling and whirling. She bumps up against the human ring that encloses her and gently rebounds back to the circle's center. . . she falls to the ground.. . .Oshun has arrived. . . A few minutes later, the embodied orisha returns splendent in a gold gown. . . The drummers begin her praises, and all join a litany of her praise names. She dances her acceptance of these with grace.. . .Occasionally, she brings others out to dance with her. (Joseph Murphy, Santerķa: African Spirits in America [Boston: Beacon Press, 1988], 96-97)

What is the value of these depictions of the body as a ritual space in which the divine is manifest? Ritual celebration, such as possession in the above two examples, entails a sharing of information and roles that might be useful for those thinking through theological education in light of cultural studies. These ritual celebrations are important, for example, because of the manner in which they highlight the importance of more than written texts. In fact, the body becomes a primary consideration because knowledge is passed through the body and various gestures have tremendous significance for those involved. Within this final section of my paper, I'd like to provide some of my initial thoughts on the pedagogical challenges posed by attention to the physical body. My goal is not to provide a pedagogy that resolves this problem. Rather, I am interested in discussing the body as a component of the moment of learning and this, in turn, may be helpful in the later reformulation of pedagogy. Much of what follows remains problematically lodged in theory, but it is my hope that we can explore some of these issues in more concrete ways.

My intention is to give attention to physicality (and aesthetics) as a way of rethinking the classroom transference of information by giving brief attention to an extreme example of this -- attention to the body in the classroom. I will do this using two categories of investigation: (1) notions of the body provided by ritual studies as a way of extending my earlier comments and, (2) the classroom as ritual space and the body as a force in the educational process.

Scholars such as Ronald Grimes argue that traditional definitions of ritual offered by figures such as Victor Turner are helpful, but they do not allow for a good understanding of the important qualities of routines and events that are not somehow related to divine beings. Grimes talks of ritualization instead of ritual because the former allows for an investigation that is not limited to the liturgical. For Grimes, ritualized activities include overtly religious processes, and also events beyond the liturgical that are continuous yet do not result in structures commonly understood as "ritual."

Within the work of Grimes and others, the body becomes important because of the way in which it displays meaning and value through clothing, gestures, habits, mannerisms, postures or objects associated with it. Attention to the body is also important because the classroom understood as ritualized space means that there is an importance given to the sensory meaning of actions and words, which are experienced and expressed through physicality. The body is not incidental and the nondiscursive ways of knowing are valuable. Hence, the body should not be down-played nor denied. In short, attention to the body urges an appreciation for nonwritten forms of exchange within our approach to the classroom. This nonwritten text, when combined with other resources, can serve to enhance theological education by recognizing the importance of communication, exchange and understanding beyond the rationality discerned in written records. That is to say, students and instructors learn to appreciate the substance of religious expression and experience that is not captured in sacred texts.

When the body is given this sort of attention and importance within our pedagogical structures, it is useful to also discuss the various ways in which the body is presented. I will limit my discussion to a brief mention of "masking." This process of concealment involves a transformation meant to project the person as something "other," than the self. Within the classroom this might be understood as an attempt to enter ritualized space and approach theological issues in an objective manner -- to "don" anonymity. In my context, and perhaps in yours, this issue of masking or feigned objectivity surfaces with respect to questions such as: how much of one's own faith stance ought to be shared with students in the classroom, and what is the purpose of this sharing? Masking, in this respect, can allow the wearer to stand outside the circle, so to speak, and in this way control the action without personally risking anything. Nothing is risked because the person masked (teacher or student) gains, through pretense, the authority and voice of the dead -- Hegel, Kant, Du Bois and others. This is not to say that masking is necessarily "bad." Some masking may be unavoidable if not useful. In one sense, masking can help individuals develop a sensitivity to the sociocultural context of another which may, in turn, promote dialogue. Nonetheless, how and why we don masks might be a useful pedagogical question, one deserving more attention than I can give it here.

Education informed by attention to the body is enhanced in that the forms of exchange are broadened to include the physical presence of those involved. In this way, liberative education is forced to include an understanding and appreciation of the bodies involved in ways that move bodily representation away from oppressive -- status quo -- positioning. The teaching moment moves away from a strict appreciation for the mind and ideas and connects these realities to the physical presence and meaning of the body, thereby avoiding a mind/ body split. It recognizes that pedagogical issues must take into consideration not only curricular concerns, but must also understand that the learning experience is shaped by the "space" in which learning takes place, the cultural information brought to the experience by all participants, who reproduce through their bodies symbols of society with all their power and danger.

Scholars who seek to provide a scope for justice and liberation within their teaching should be mindful of what Mary Douglas notes as the manner in which the body serves as an image of the social system. In this way, the human's physical form becomes an important means of basic data related to the body-cultural existence. That is our basic experience through the body is always given cultural meaning, thus this culture is nicely explored -- in the classroom -- through refocusing attention on the body. An understanding of its role in the development and expression of meaning may form a more critical evaluation of the self, community and religious traditions in the classroom by giving attention to the full range of the body's meaning making process and content. This, then, requires a change in resources used in the classroom -- a broadened range of "materials" that enliven and add complexity to our discussion of religiosity and religious reality. In this way, through a recognition of the body's significance, the teaching and research of African American religion(s) is better equipped to explain what it means to be African American and religious.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.  Source: Cross Currents, Spring/Summer 2000, Vol. 50  Issue 1-2