Why do African American perspectives matter when discussing religious freedom?
The answers are as simple — and complex — as recognizing an important voice around issues involving religion and as complex as unpacking centuries of bigotry, racism, the legacy of slavery and what it means to be a citizen in the United States.
The Freedom Forum’s Religious Freedom Center explored those issues and others in January, in a program funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.
In the second such program, more than 30 students from eight theological institutions, and faculty members representing academic partners, heard speakers explore the challenges, implications, opportunities and threats to religious freedom through the lens of marginalized or silenced voices.
In a panel discussion, “The State of Religious Freedom in America,” Melissa Rogers, former special assistant to President Barack Obama and director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, spoke of how the promise of religious freedom in America has fallen short of its practice.
Rahmah Abdulaleem, executive director of KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, wanted the students to know that religious freedom is recognizing all religious holidays on public school calendars, not only those observed by Christian traditions.
Larycia Hawkins, Ph.D., with the Religion, Race and Democracy Lab at the University of Virginia, who has personally experienced death threats for exercising embodied solidarity with Muslim women by wearing a hijab, stated that “We [Black Americans] must do the work of decolonizing ourselves to be effective… Our freedom lies in our truth telling.”
Teresa Smallwood, Ph.D., with the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative at Vanderbilt Divinity School, implored students to consider the role of religion in our democracy. She suggested, “We need to see how law is dispatched as a weapon and used as a tool.” In doing so, she shared the story of Peter Gordon, a formerly enslaved man from Louisiana whose brutally scarred back infamously depicted the horrors of slavery during the Civil War. One should never forget how the legalized institution of slavery was often promoted and supported by religious leaders and politicians. This includes founding framers of the Constitution who fought for the religious rights of many without consideration of the enslaved who sought human freedom.
In her lecture, Itihari Toure, Ed.D., with the Sankofa Center at Interdenominational Theological Center, said that despite one’s identities or social location in life, our being and humanness matters. Most importantly, we must examine what has been and continues to be the moral injury in the name of religion towards those with different religious beliefs and worldviews.
To this point, it requires that we revisit the year 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of Jamestown, Va. They were not seen as humans with families, histories, diverse cultures, languages and their own religions, but as cargo and eventually legal property. Yes, their own religions. Many scholars have noted that more than 30 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslim and some practiced the Yoruba religion among others.
Corey D.B. Walker, Ph.D., unpacked this history of the American democracy built upon the economic expansion of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It is well documented on the website SlaveVoyages.org that since the early 1500s more than 36,000 voyages took place transporting more than 12.8 million humans from West Africa and separating families by dispersing them among Asia, Europe, the Americas and Caribbean. And although the 1807 abolition of the Slave Trade Act would theoretically end slavery, these practices would continue well into the late 19th century.
History in America must be taught in a more critical and comprehensive way. Museum education is a great public and visual resource to engage the narratives of African Americans and people of the diaspora. Eric Williams, Ph.D., curator of religion at the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, explored the specter of violence as it relates to religious freedom in the stories and artifacts at the museum. He emphasized that “language deepens reality and paints the paradox” using the examples of Nat Turner’s Bible and the writings of Frederick Douglass. The Bible was used as a tool of oppression for enslaved communities; yet, courageous leaders like Nat Turner and Sojourner Truth used them as a source of liberation from slavery via their re-interpretation of it.
It is important to explore religious freedom through the lens of African American perspectives because we must lift every voice that has been impacted by religious discrimination and bigotry. As Walker said to the students, “You cannot have a conversation about religious freedom without black people.”
Discussing religious freedom via African American perspectives is significant to the larger conversation because African Americans of various religious traditions and none have been targets of racial and religious terrorist attacks. Whether it was members of the Moorish Science Temple of America in the 1920s and ’30s whose ethno-religious identities were reduced to being simply cultural, or the first documented attack on a Black church—Emanuel African Episcopal Church—in 1822, these violations of their freedom of conscience intended to demoralize their right to exist must be remembered, recognized and addressed.
If we are committed to protecting religious freedom as a constitutional and human right for all, then raise awareness about the experiences and perspectives of all.
Sabrina Dent, D.Min., is the director of programs and partnerships at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum and the program director for the Religious Freedom: African American Perspectives Project funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.