The Spiritual Live of Young African-Americans: Book Review


Rev. Erin F. Moniz


Those of us who find ourselves ministering in the year 2018 might ask whether or not we need to consider the spiritual formation of students of color differently than white students. We might scratch our heads and ask: “Isn’t the goal of equality to treat everyone the same? In her book, The Spiritual Lives of Young African—Americans assistant professor of religious education at Yale Divinity School, Almeda M. Wright makes a case that ministers and educators should educate themselves on the distinct characteristics of the lives of students of color. Using ethnographic and historical studies, Wright creates a timeline of socio-religious ideological development in American society that is textured with anecdotal observations that allow readers to connect with the content on a personal level. The book seeks to demonstrate the “fragmented spirituality” of young African—Americans while providing insights into “the rich messiness of an integrated spirituality” available to these youth (246). Wright weaves a tapestry of young African—American spirituality by integrating threads of psychology, sociology, and history, as well as theology. She examines the perspectives of individuals without neglecting the importance of communities. Using Womanist history and theology as a framework, she outlines the need for a culturally reflective theodicy as well as a balanced but fearless integration of faith, witness, and activism.

Wright begins with one word: overwhelmed. Her study of African—American youth provides depth of insight into their narratives and even the voids that reveal what is not being said. Her hypothesis of fragmentation is complex in that it denotes not just a “fragmented concept of God” but also “a fragmentation in  … identities and lives” (2). Wright explains that these youth have a unique worldview and an abiding faith that is disconnected from some of their practices and questions about society and the economy of God. In essence, By unpacking the components of fragmented spirituality in young African—Americans, Wright seeks to clarify their experiences in order to explore possibilities capable of redeeming a more integrated spirituality (4). While never claiming to speak for all African—American’s experiences, Wright uses her sample to guide her in identifying what lies at the heart of spiritual/ideological fragmentation in African—American youth. Her sample demonstrates a faith identity of varied engagement and she notes that several individuals are active in their communities or demonstrate a desire to participate in change for the good of their schools or communities. Yet, there is no discernable tie between their faith and their actions or concerns. Reviewing sermons from African—American churches as well as Sunday School content she confirms her suspicion that “youth do not feel empowered to ameliorate things that concern them” (47) because educational content 1) presents God as having “very limited influence” (57), 2) teaches students that “faith should only address their personal or spiritual lives,” (63) and 3) tends to only refer to young people using negative examples. As a result, the fragmentation is glaring between faith and witness in communal engagement. Students do not seem to know that God cares about their everyday lives and experiences or that God cares about the things that break their hearts. Yet in the midst of these dissolutions and pains, the complex lives of African—American students need to be processed, but neither educational institutions or the church are bridging the gap or providing the space for such engagement and assistance.

Wright reveals this fragmentation as a tangible presence in the story of African—Americans extending back generations. She describes how W.E.B. DuBois noted a “fragmented consciousness” where blacks in America, like these youth have wrestled with “dueling notions of their selfhood” and God in order to make sense of their faith and lives (70). In addition to learning about their history, Wright suggests that African—American Youth recover a sense of self that is “both communal and relational” (80). She explores the work of Christian Smith and how marketed individualization and moralistic, therapeutic, deism have influenced black youth uniquely through the lens of race and discrimination. However, Wright believes that historic, black spirituality has components within it that will allow it to regain an integrated spirituality for black youth. Wright highlights the power of black spirituality to integrate the family, community, and the individual. She unpacks the value of worship and personal conversion in a dialogical model of church that encourages the engagement and empowerment of youth voices and testimonies. Wright calls out the foundations of an expanded understanding of God “who calls and expects our active participation normative alongside of an understanding of God that blesses us or rules over us” (110). Within these facets of the beating heart of black spirituality, Wright builds up the theme of hope as central to the black Christian integrated spirituality. She dedicates a whole of chapter four to theodicy which brilliantly unfolds a vision of lament and hope woven through testimony, poetry, spoken word, and music erupting from the heart of black culture. She then provides varied examples of youth activism before concluding with how mentors of black youth might participate in a vision and strategy for integrated spirituality.

It is difficult to summarize Wright’s book since it contains so many corridors of insight and careful study. This is the kind of book you read with a pen in hand so you can underline and circle all the well-articulated insights she brings. I was particularly struck by the chapter on theodicy. I was bracing for a traditional, cerebral treatment of God, evil, and suffering and was instead, met with lines of poetry, engaging questions, and spaces designed for honesty, lament, recognition of experience, and hope. My only critique of the manuscript is that some of the of her observations about African—American youth that took precedence over a robust engagement with faith. Being a feminist, I appreciated the way Wright used the Womanist history and experience as a model for youth activism and faith integration however, I was left wanting to hear more about the faith foundations that drove the activism and I felt lost at times in a parade of examples that, while providing dynamic pictures of activism, did not always reveal any connection to an integrated spirituality and deeper theology.

Overall, I found the book to be full of valuable insights that are particularly useful to anyone who feels as though they are fumbling around in an attempt to love, serve, and listen to their students of color. As a college chaplain, I often find myself in religious gatherings with predominantly white faces. I have African—American students who work in our office and lead on our campus, and this book has been immeasurably helpful in teaching me about what my students are experiencing and how I can help disciple them instead of hinder or harm them through well-intentioned, but ignorant actions. Wright’s attention to Smith’s work and the influence of Americanized individualism in Christianity helped me connect the struggles of many of my students (regardless of race) with the unique experiences of my black youth. In many ways, having now read Wright’s book I observe that while all of my students deal with a fragmented spirituality on some level, my African—American students do so with an added challenge of having to encounter and process immediate racial difficulties that interrupt their lives on a regular basis. Their theology and understanding of God are being shaped by the racism they encounter and how or whether or not they can process that tension in sacred spaces. I recommend this book to all educators, youth leaders, and anyone who is or plans on working with students of color. While it will not answer all our questions about integrated spirituality, it will force us to discern what is happening in the lives of African—American youth and how we as ministers need to be thoughtful and intentional in how we approach their discipleship.

Wright, Almeda M. The Spiritual Lives of Young African Americans. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Photo by Joshua McKnight from Pexels

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