She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism, and reported the following:
On page ninety-nine of Black Lives and Sacred Humanity, I discuss James Baldwin’s complex relationship with structured religion, exploring why he continued to be fascinated with it even as he remained a harsh critic of its perceived limitations.Learn more about Black Lives and Sacred Humanity at the Fordham University Press website.
One passage encapsulates this discussion:In select writings, Baldwin targets both dominant white Christian culture and the black holiness tradition of his youth, which he saw as permeated by problematic ideological aspects of the former. In both systems of meaning, Baldwin identified a root problem, manifest in various ways and on different levels: systematic vilification of blackness. Key religious ideas functioned (either explicitly or implicitly) in a racist culture essentially to devalue black bodies as unworthy and inherently inferior to white ones, and they generated deeply embedded black self-loathing among many African Americans. In To Crush a Serpent (1987), one of his final published essays, Baldwin sums up a theme that he had addressed throughout many earlier ones: “Race and religion, it has been remarked, are fearfully entangled in the guts of this nation, so profoundly that to speak of the one is to conjure up the other. One cannot speak of sin without referring to blackness, and blackness stalks our history and our streets.”Ford Madox Ford’s maxim that in reading page ninety-nine of a book, the quality of the whole will be revealed to one, remains enigmatic to me. What is clear to me, however, is that my discussion on page ninety-nine is neither representative of the fuller chapter on Baldwin, nor the book as a whole. First, the chapter illustrates Baldwin’s efforts during the mid-twentieth century to enhance race relations in the United States with an expanded view of humanity and our capacity to love each other.
Second, Black Lives and Sacred Humanity explores a new religious ideal within African-American culture that emerges from humanistic assumptions and is grounded in religious naturalism. Identifying African-American religiosity as the ingenuity of a people constantly striving to inhabit their humanity and eke out a meaningful existence for themselves amid culturally coded racist rhetoric and practices, it constructs a concept of sacred humanity and grounds it in existing hagiographic and iconic African-American writings.
The first part of the book argues for a concept of sacred humanity that is supported by the best available knowledge emerging from science studies, philosophy of religion, and the tenets of religious naturalism. With this concept, the book features capacious views of humans as dynamic, evolving, social organisms having the capacity to transform ourselves and create nobler worlds where all sentient creatures flourish, and as aspiring lovers of life and of each other. Within the context of African-American history and culture, the sacred humanity concept also offers new ways of grasping an ongoing theme of traditional African-American religiosity: the necessity of establishing and valuing blacks’ full humanity. In the second part, the book traces indications of the sacred humanity concept within select works of three major African-American intellectuals of the early and mid-twentieth century: Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Dubois, and James Baldwin. The theoretical linkage of select ideas and themes in their writings with the concept of sacred humanity marks the emergence of an African-American religious naturalism.
As an alternative to theistic models of African American religiosity and spirituality, this study is an unabashed celebration of religious humanism.