The Anarchy of Black Religion: A Mystic Song

"In many ways, [J. Kameron Carter's] book is a prayer that brings about a childlike sense of imagination. It becomes more than an intellectual work and something I view as deeply pastoral," writes Jordan Burton.

J. Kameron Carter
Duke University Press, 216 pages | Published August 8, 2023

What is black religion? As an act of faith, J. Kameron Carter, professor of religious studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, attempts to answer this question in his book The Anarchy of Black Religion: A Mystic Song. Best suited for academics, this multidisciplinary work would serve as a useful addition to college and graduate-level reading groups hoping to understand the past, present and future of Black religion. Relying on Charles H. Long (scholar of religion known most notably for his work dealing with the history of Black religion) as its primary interlocutor, this book takes readers on a poetic, historical journey filled with many linguistic turns.

With the support of Black feminists, poets, racial theorists and mathematicians, Carter posits Black religion as anarchy, or more specifically, an-archē. Unsatisfied with what many would consider the archē (or initial principles of religion beginning with the theology of European Christians), this archē paves the way for a more complete understanding of religion as a socializing and alchemizing (forming) project. As an alternative cosmology, it disturbs what many would consider foundational in the study of religion and posits a new beginning of foundation for this field of study. Carter reads African peoples as a “materia prima” (first material) that have undergone “eucharistic transubstantiation.” In other words, they are cannibalistically consumed by the West in the transatlantic slave trade — and its afterlife — and are thus fetishized into Black (blackened). Black religion, or more precisely, “the black study of black religion” as archē, begins at the site of this fetishization.

Having examined the historicity of the Black study of Black religion in the first three chapters, Carter turns to Black religion as a poetic happening. He suggests that Black religion lives within an alternative cosmology that is not simply the “black version of religion” but “an open set of practices that operate out of a different orientation to matter and thus a different orientation to the earth and cosmos.” It is this alternative orientation that Carter tarries with. This portion of his work may be more difficult to reckon with because of its poetic and experimental nature, but Carter invites readers to rest in this discomfort. This site of mixed — if not negative — feelings is the very “anarchy” that Carter strives for. It is “anarchy” because it disrupts what we might consider constructive and it is also “an-archē” to the extent that it is the beginning of a multivolume series that attempts to do a new thing in the field of the study of religion. While acknowledging that this work is in many ways unfinished, he joins a long line of folks in the Black radical tradition who have stepped out in faith or “creative endurance under and through conditions of duress” to imagine something new for Black folk and the Black study of Black religion.

I see Carter inviting his audience into this new way of thinking and being. Black folk and Black religion, as anarchy, bring forth something that is wholly other than the present system while acknowledging their existence within it. This “other” is equally damming and prophetic. In this tension, there exists a beauty that Carter wants the reader to embrace. In many ways, this book is a prayer that brings about a childlike sense of imagination. It becomes more than an intellectual work and something I view as deeply pastoral. It refuses the “already” and strives for the “not-yet” while being fully content in not knowing what the journey will look like to the unknown “not-yet.”

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