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Duke University Press Books
Pub. Date:
Duke University Press Books
Creating Ourselves: African Americans and Hispanic Americans on Popular Culture and Religious Expression

Creating Ourselves: African Americans and Hispanic Americans on Popular Culture and Religious Expression

by Anthony B. PinnAnthony B. Pinn
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Creating Ourselves is a unique effort to lay the cultural and theological groundwork for cross-cultural collaboration between the African and Latino/a American communities. In the introduction, the editors contend that given overlapping histories and interests of the two communities, they should work together to challenge social injustices. Acknowledging that dialogue is a necessary precursor to collaboration, they maintain that African and Latino/a Americans need to cultivate the habit of engaging "the other" in substantive conversation. Toward that end, they have brought together theologians and scholars of religion from both communities. The contributors offer broadly comparative exchanges about the religious and theological significance of various forms of African American and Latino/a popular culture, including representations of the body, literature, music, television, visual arts, and cooking.

Corresponding to a particular form of popular culture, each section features two essays, one by an African American scholar and one by a Latino/a scholar, as well as a short response by each scholar to the other's essay. The essays and responses are lively, varied, and often personal. One contributor puts forth a "brown" theology of hip hop that celebrates hybridity, contradiction, and cultural miscegenation. Another analyzes the content of the message transmitted by African American evangelical preachers who have become popular sensations through television broadcasts, video distribution, and Internet promotions. The other essays include a theological reading of the Latina body, a consideration of the "authenticity" of representations of Jesus as white, a theological account of the popularity of telenovelas, and a reading of African American ideas of paradise in one of Toni Morrison's novels. Creating Ourselves helps to make popular culture available as a resource for theology and religious studies and for facilitating meaningful discussions across racial and ethnic boundaries.

Contributors. Teresa Delgado, James H. Evans Jr., Joseph De León, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, Angel F. Méndez Montoya, Alexander Nava, Anthony B. Pinn, Mayra Rivera, Suzanne E. Hoeferkamp Segovia, Benjamín Valentín, Jonathan L. Walton, Traci C. West, Nancy Lynne Westfield, Sheila F. Winborne

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822345664
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 12/02/2009
Pages: 446
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Anthony B. Pinn is Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. His many books include Noise and Spirit: The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music, The Black Church in the Post-Civil Rights Era, and Varieties of African American Religious Experience.

Benjamin Valentin is Professor of Theology and Culture and Director of the Orlando E. Costas Lectureship in Latino(a) Theology at the Andover Newton Theological School. He is the author of Mapping Public Theology: Beyond Culture, Identity, and Difference and the editor of New Horizons in Hispanic/Latino(a) Theology. Pinn and Valentin are the editors of The Ties That Bind: African American and Hispanic American/Latino(a) Theologies in Dialogue.

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Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4566-4

Chapter One

Anthony B. Pinn


This essay, drawing from and building on earlier work, involves an effort to correct what I consider the troubled relationship to popular culture (i.e., signs, symbols, behaviors, postures, and frameworks recognized by and used to express meaning and place) that shapes black religious studies in general and theological discourse in particular. The corrective I propose involves a change in the conceptual posture revolving around the significance of religious "cartography" as a plausible theoretical framing of the study of black religion. In addition, I will also give some attention to thinking through this proposed reframing in light of the purposes of this book-namely, the dialogical possibilities between African American and Latino/a scholars of religion. As a context for this constructive work, I begin with a few descriptive thoughts on the purposes of African American cultural production.

The Changing Purpose of Popular Culture

Classic works by African Americans during the early formation of the United States are marked by an effort to address existential and ontological discomfort through apologetics in the form of expressive culture. One might explain in this manner the eighteenth-century sermonic-like prose of Jupiter Hammon, an early literary figure who sought to understand the presence of Africans in North America but did so in ways that did little damage to the religio-political and white supremacist paradigm used to structure the new nation. Cultural production in this case sought to make sense of a rather absurd situation through the tools available. This eighteenth-century literary apologetic, a verbal alchemy, usually discounted (or at the very least did not adequately recognize) the significance of black bodies and the rights of those bodies to occupy with comfort and freedom this space called the United States. Poetry and prose framed a process of alchemy to transform into a meaningful existence by creative manipulation the terror and dread that marked the realities of the death and rebirth of life as chattel. African Americans made use of their historical memory and the culturally derived materials available in order to do this work. An apologetic, yet one more self-assured and assertive, is present also in the nineteenth-century autobiographical writings of Frederick Douglass. Such is also the case with the visual arts during the late nineteenth century as provided by artists such as Henry O. Tanner, whose Banjo Lesson (1893), for instance, portrays the humanity of African Americans to an American audience that held such a possibility suspect.

Following the tracks of the Great Migration and other historic developments after the socioeconomic and political reckoning called the Civil War and Reconstruction, the psychosocial posture of African Americans changed radically, particularly after the first decade or so of the twentieth century. That is, the emergence of the twentieth century is marked by a change in perspective-a movement of both bodies and ideas-expressed in significant ways through the increasingly unapologetic language of cultural production.

While the expression of cultural sensibilities has always served as an outlet for African American reflection on pressing existential questions and dilemmas, the twentieth century involved a shift in this work based on a new ontology-what Alain Locke noted as the emergence of the "New Negro." Locke traced the rise of this new consciousness, this new personhood, via the cultural self-expression dotting the landscape of African American communities. This "New Negro," representing more than simply a cosmetic makeover, marked a changed relationship between African Americans and themselves, and African Americans and the larger population of the United States. "The migrant masses, shifting from countryside to city, hurdle several generations of experience at a leap," wrote Alain Locke in The New Negro, "but more important, the same thing happens spiritually in the life-attitudes and self-expression of the Young Negro, in his poetry, his art." There is something to be said for the paradigm shift noted with such brilliance by Locke: it represented a new cultural period and, like a category five hurricane, it cut an impressive if not systematic path through the landscape, forever changing what could and would grow on the exposed cultural soil.

Locke's Renaissance: The Texture of Cultural Epistemology

What Locke speaks to is a change in the nature of cultural production within African American communities-change that is marked in substantial ways by a move from apologetics, say in literature, to realism, to an appeal to the full range of emotions, thoughts, and activities framing African American life. For the purpose of this essay, of paramount concern is the manner in which this cultural creativity informed and was informed by the religious sensibilities and the religiosity of African Americans. Locke gave attention to the manner in which African American cultural production spoke to an alternate, defiant, and proud shaping of the geography of American life in spiritual terms. That is, "gradually too," according to Locke, "under some spiritualizing reaction, the brands and wounds of social persecution are becoming the proud stigmata of spiritual immunity and moral victory." As of the early twentieth century African Americans are, Locke continues, "at last spiritually free, and offer through art an emancipating vision to America."

Harlem, for Locke, was during the early twentieth century a "prophetic" place-a special geography marking cultural energy and creativity from the African diaspora. It is in New York, Locke reflects, that African Americans built "fuller, truer self-expression" beyond the confines of the racial status quo. Yet, this has not simply involved the reconstituting of individual self-recognition and understanding on the part of African Americans for African Americans. Rather, this renaissance-the period of this profound artistic growth-marking the intellectual terrain of African American communities involved the "enrichment of American art and letters and ... the clarifying of our common vision of the social tasks ahead." It called forth a reenvisioning of American life, one that recognized without flinching and as a matter of psycho-cultural realism the full range of life activities and of group promise and foibles.

There developed during the early twentieth century an alternate aesthetic by which African Americans understood the maturation of their sociopolitical, economic, and cultural selves as a project of "wholeness" and beauty. It exposes beauty embedded in "raw" life episodes rehearsed, celebrated, and at times lamented. And the dimensions of this aesthetic were presented in the various layers and levels of African American cultural production. Thereby African Americans began a transformation with deep ontological and existential consequences-a transformation that marked a revised sense of self, and of self in relationship to community and world.

No wonder Locke comments near the end of his foreword to The New Negro that "negro life is not only establishing new contacts and founding new centers, it is finding a new soul. There is a fresh spiritual and cultural focusing. We have, as the heralding sign, an unusual outburst of creative expression." And those coming of age during the period of which Locke speaks are credited with ushering in a new ontology and a radicalized reworking of existential themes and categories filled "with arresting visions and vibrant prophecies; forecasting in the mirror of art what we must see and recognize in the streets of reality tomorrow, foretelling in new notes and accents the maturing speech of full racial utterance." The shattering of old notions of African American life undertaken through these cultural developments spoke in graphic terms to the depth of the yearnings within African Americans for a fuller sense of meaning and "space." And this shattering and reconstitution of life is based on a deep feeling for and expression of the world as encountered by African Americans and as recounted for the benefit of African Americans.

Theological Imagination and Popular Culture

Scholars of African American literature and history, for instance, have mined African American cultural production, particularly the developments stemming from the two waves of the "Harlem" renaissance and the cultural geography of New York City. However, the significance of cultural production for an understanding of the religious yearnings and experiences of African Americans has not been lost on theologians and other scholars of African American religion.

One finds particularly intriguing examples of this recognition beginning in the late 1960s within the theological discourse known as black theology of liberation. In fact, this modality of theological discourse lists as a primary resource for the doing of theology the culture and cultural production of African Americans. In an effort to move beyond European theological models as well as to deconstruct American theology's relationship to the status quo, African Americans began to assert theological independence and to seek alternate modes of construction. Such a move involved a process of introspection-a searching through the "stuff" of African American life.

James Cone penned The Spirituals and the Blues after joining the faculty of the Union Theological Seminary in New York during the early 1970s. Within this text, his third major publication, Cone responded to the critics who argued that his first two books failed to specify a theological framework that was deeply connected to and grown out of the intimate details of the African American experience. That is, the critics lamented the lack in those books of a deeply recognized "blackness"-cultural and otherwise-as the organizing principle of theological discourse. According to his brother, Cecil Cone, James Cone's theological formulations were much more indebted to the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth than to the theological formulations found implicitly and explicitly in African American religious culture. Further, Cecil Cone notes, black theology during its early phase carried the imprint of European cultural and religio-theological sensibilities deep in its organizational matrix, in its "soul." Hence the question arises: What is "black" in and about black theology?

The apparent theoretical and methodological genealogy of black theology, the critique goes, made the religious sensibilities and outlook of white Westerners the lens by which the world was viewed. Consequently, white supremacy in the realm of religious reflection was reinforced. This move, from the perspective of the critiques, was odd considering James Cone's broad appeal to African American culture as a major source for the doing of black theology. For Cone black culture is "the creative forms of expression as one reflects on history, endures pain, and experiences joy. It is the black community expressing itself in music, poetry, prose, and other art forms." And, he continues, in order to be organic to the black community, black theology had to take seriously black cultural production because "black culture ... is God's way of acting in America, God's participation in black liberation."

With the critique made and its legitimacy recognized, Cone attempted to reverse this theological trend by turning attention to musical production-namely, spirituals and the blues. In doing so he sought to mine from these forms the theological insights and liberation agenda of the African American community prior to the development of formal modalities of theological inquiry (e.g., churches). According to Cone it was through these musical forms that African Americans expressed their theological and religious sensibilities and presented an alternate ontology and epistemology. While Cone gave little attention to the visual arts for their theological insights, music and literature of various kinds served to enliven his presentation of a black theological epistemology. In moving from the spirituals and the blues as modalities of theological discourse, Cone gives attention to literary genres such as the slave narratives, autobiographies, folk wisdom, and other "texts" outlining the relationship of African Americans to the world and the divine.

James Cone's students have continued this tradition of exploring various types of popular culture, particularly music and literature, for their theological wealth. James Evans, for instance, has given considerable attention to the theo-religious qualities and pronouncements of African American literature. More recently, Evans's work has branched out to include issues of the theoretical framework and methodological sensibilities informing black theology. Furthermore, Cone's student Dwight Hopkins has given consistent attention to an explication of the cultural sources (e.g., slave narratives) for black theology, at times to the exclusion of other vibrant source materials. Like Cone, Hopkins argues that the basic dimensions and characteristics of black theology as a formal enterprise are found in the nascent theological discourse of African Americans housed in their popular expressions and modalities of engagement. Hence, according to Hopkins, contemporary black theology in part must concern itself with mining early sources and thereby building a theological discourse that mirrors and is consistent with the development of the African American community. In this way Hopkins seeks to promote the doing of theology as a reflexive enterprise that is community committed and community responsive.

At times Hopkins's work implies a connection between African American cultural production and theological discourse so intimate and strong that no real distinction need be made-that is, cultural production is theological discourse. Literature and other forms of the arts thus become simple carries of a particular cosmic message. I believe this link is made, for example, because of the slippage between popular culture and popular religion found in some of his work. That is one way to interpret the following statement by Hopkins: "If religion suggests a sacred, comprehensive, and integrated style of being for all reality[,] and culture suggests the site of popular religious dimensions of black experiences, then black theology claims its God-talk and God-walk from the popular religion of the folk's total way of life."


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Part One. Thinking About Religion and Culture

Cultural Production and New Terrain: Theology, Popular Culture, and the Cartography of Religion / Anthony B. Pinn 13

Benjamín Valentín's Response 34

Tracings: Sketching the Cultural Geographies of Latino and Latina Theology / Benjamín Valentín 38

Anthony B. Pinn's Response 62

Part Two. Constructing Bodies and Representation

Memory of Flesh: Theological Reflections on Word and Flesh / Mayra Rivera 69

Traci C. West's Response 90

Using Women: Racist Representation and Cross-Racial Ethics / Traci C. West 95

Mayra Rivera's Response 114

Part Three. Literature and Religion

This Day in Paradise: The Search for Human Fulfillment in Toni Morrison's Paradise / James H. Evans Jr. 119

Teresa Delgado's Response 133

Freedom is Our Own: Toward a Puerto Rican Emancipation Theology / Teresa Delgado 138

James H. Evans Jr.'s Response 173

Part Four. Music and Religion

The Browning of Theological Thought in Hip-Hop Generation / Alexa Nava 181

Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan's Response 199

The Theo-poetic Theological Ethics of Lauryn Hill and Tupac Shakur / Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan 204

Alex Nava's Response 224

Part Five. Television and Religion

TV "Profits": An Examination of the Electronic Church Phenomenon and Its Impact on Intellectual Activity within African American Religious Practices / Jonathan Walton 231

Joseph De León's Response 249

Telenovelas and Transcendence: Social Dramas as Theological Theater / Joseph De León 253

Jonathan Walton's Response 271

Part Six. Visual Arts and Religion

Theology as Imaginative Construction: An Analysis of The Work of Three Latina Artists / Suzanne E. Hoeferkamp Segovia 277

Sheila F. Winborne's Response 302

The Theological Significance of Normative Preferences in Visual Art Creation and Interpretation / Sheila F. Winborne 306

Suzanne E. Hoerferkamp Segovia's Sresponse 331

Part Seven. Food and Religion

She Put Her Foot in the Pot: Table Fellowship as a Practice of Political Activism / Lynne Westfield 339

Angel F. Méndez Montoya's Response 356

The Making of Mexican Mole and Alimentary Theology in the Making / Angel F. Méndez Montoya 360

Lynne Westfield's Response 384

Bibliography 387

Contributors 405

Index 409

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