Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Notes. After Redemption: Jim Crow & The Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta 1875-1915 by John M. Giggie

John M. Giggie's book, "After Redemption: Jim Crow & The Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta 1875-1915" is a bold attempt to re-asses a key period of American History. As is well known, the defeat of the Southern Confederacy in the US Civil War, lead to a re-unification of the United States, and the abolition of slavery. The period immediately following the war, known as "Reconstruction", was a time of rapid advance for African Americans in the South during which they gained an unprecedented role in public life. From the mid-1870s however, in the period known by white Southerners as "Redemption", sole Democratic Party control was re-established in the South which meant a reversal of many of these gains and the establishment of the segregated 'Jim Crow' system which would deny civil and voting rights to the Black populace, and which remained intact until the 1960s. The re-imposition of white-supremacy was not achieved without massive use of force, intimidation and violence; and this period is a bleak one in the history of American race relations.

During the so-called 'Redemption' period, it has traditionally been thought that in the deep South, African American culture was static as black people's attention was exclusively occupied with holding onto the Reconstruction gains, and coping with the violent onslaughts of white supremacist groups. It is precisely this view that John Giggie seeks to challenge in this book. His point is not to cast any doubt on the tragic history of violent repression that is well documented elsewhere - rather he wants to re-examine the nature of African American culture within that context. The results, he says are that far from a moribund and static culture; his research on African American Religion in the Delta 1875-1915 demonstrates that Black Religious culture was undergoing enormous and significant change.

It was this era that the railroad network effectively penetrated the Delta for the first time, connecting rural Mississippi and Lousiana with the national network for the first time. This had an effect on the whole of the culture. Giggie's first chapter describes the way in which this had profound effect on the religious imagination and vocabulary of southern Black people. The trains which took routes such as The Illinois Central Railroad which would later become a major artery in the great migration, became a powerful metaphor for both political and spiritual deliverance. Strangely while the research on this chapter is massive, detailed and impressive, little weight is given to assessing the impact of these changes to the lives of Delta Blacks especially in the part that they played in the longer-term development of Black aspirations and achievements. As such its probably the books least impressive sections, and a strange choice for an opening chapter.

More persuasive was the section upon the development of Black Fraternal Orders. These bodies, secret masonic-style societies such as the Oddfellows, developed across the Delta region in parallel to the all-pervasive influence of the Black Church. However, unlike their white counter-parts, they were not in-tension with the churches but sought to be overtly Christian organisations. They played a significant part in developing Black culture in terms of self-help (funeral plans, insurance schemes) as well as confidence through their parades and uniforms. Significantly they also played a role in Booker T. Washington's movement to advance Black interests by showing white America that the Black population could emulate their mores of respectability.

Two interesting chapters follow which explore the opening up of The Delta during this period to market capitalism. This was naturally related to the noted impact of the railroad; but also had significant effects on Black life and culture. Where share-cropping was the farming system which had replaced slave plantations in the cotton-lands, the plantation store was an instrument of control through which operated a monopoly of supply to the poor share-cropping families. The encroachment of a freer-market had implications for this system. Likewise, black salesmen, and preachers (or preacher-salesmen) were able to take their goods across country on the railroads. In turn a material culture of religion grew in which a vibrant trade in religious artefacts and increasingly elaborate church-building took place. All of these were significant changes in African American Delta culture.

The book ends with a look at the development of 'The Holiness Churches' - whose sanctified revivalism, challenged not just the traditional doctrines of the Methodist and Baptist churches, but who significantly altered Black religious life in America. Emphasising the cleansing that comes from an experience of sanctification, these Holiness churches rejected fancy buildings, formal education, religious artefacts and the black fraternal orders. Instead, their emotional services offered a heightened awareness of God, and an internal sense of freedom which contrasted starkly with the loss of political freedoms that their congregants were experiencing during this era. The foundations for the Black Pentecostalism which is a marked feature of 20th C. American religious life were laid here. While this chapter is a brilliant piece of research, and is nicely written, again I was disappointed that there was perhaps not enough analysis of the impact of this change. A pressing question is whether this movement was a galvanising force which was a building block towards the civil-rights movement, or whether this 'turn inwards' to the matters of the soul represented (at best) a relief from or (at worst) escapism from the political disaster they faced.

Every year the Oxford University Press has a sale in which there are usually great reads to be had at very good prices. This was a cracking good read from the summer sale this year. Although I have noted some reservations, Giggie's vast research and engaging writing style effectively open a window into this dark, perplexing and dangerous era in history. Although this is a serious work of academic research, it is also deeply evocative. The vast array or footnotes citing Black newspapers, minutes of meetings, sermons, lyrics, and memoirs do not bog the reader down; but anchor the work so deeply in the realities of the time that the reader can almost hear the voices of the black-preacher, the clanking railroad engines, the field-hollers and fore-runners of the first bluesmen, the church choirs and the uniformed marchers, all holding on to what freedom they could, while the 'Redemption' of the South, stripped them of liberty and threatened them with violence.

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