Grant to Support a Project on “The Art, Politics and Publics of Black Faith”

“The Art, Politics and Publics of Black Faith” is a new project at Columbia University’s Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice—supported by a grant from the Theology Program—that will focus on the role of African American religion in the field of Black studies. In addition to addressing questions of faith in relation to the pandemic—which has disproportionately affected Black communities—and recent anti-Black violence protests through scholarship, the project will also support work by academics, religious and civic leaders, and artists as they “document the ‘faith’ experiences of the Black LGBTQ and same-gender loving community” through rapid-response grants.

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How have appeals to faith figured in the midst of a pandemic that has disproportionately taken black lives? And what role has faith played in view of the invigorated wave of protests that have emerged in response to the ongoing onslaught of anti-black violence, captured on camera yet again.

Funded with a $500,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and led by Josef Sorett, a professor of Religion and African American and African Diaspora Studies and chair of Columbia’s Department of Religion, the Art, Politics and Publics of Black Faith takes up such questions. In doing so, the project foregrounds the longstanding problem of how to go about studying African American religion and culture in a moment of protracted black death—a phenomenon that is pressingly current yet by no means novel.

The question of religion—and black faith, specifically—is something that has troubled the field of black studies for some time, according to Sorett. The language of faith has a long history in the study of black life. Scholars recognize the significance of black churches as a foundational institution, yet many are often reluctant to give the topic much air time—perhaps owing to the mixed history of religion in black life and the secular orthodoxies of the university. As Sorett notes, the idea of “faith” has functioned in both sacred and secular registers—most obviously in such contexts as gospel music and the Civil Rights movement. Yet various notions of faith have also been invoked by black activists, artists and thinkers who are typically identified as agnostic or even anti-religious.

A major part of this new project is a rapid-response grants program that will award funding to projects by scholars, religious and civic leaders, and culture workers (i.e. artists, critics, media makers) working in relevant fields, including a focused oral history initiative documenting the “faith" experiences of the black LGBTQ and same-gender loving community.

In addition to the grants program, other initiatives include a working group composed of scholars from Columbia and universities across the United States; a public conversation series; a media project that develops digital and audio-video resources; and a postdoctoral fellowship that will bring a junior scholar to Columbia’s campus for the 2021-22 academic year.

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