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Honoring the 50th Anniversary of Robert Farris Thompson’s Black Gods and Kings & the 10th Anniversary of Aesthetic of the Cool: The Black Body as Medium and Archive

More than fifty years ago Robert Farris Thompson in reference to, and in conversation with Melville Herskovits’ work, began writing and researching embodied African and African Diaspora sacred practices and traditions. Thompson looked first to the body as a medium and archive of indigenous knowledge. He raised questions of ecstatic possession, and the provocative break in time, consciousness, and rhythm across our expressive cultural practices fostering the power to make things happen. Examining Thompson’s contributions to the field, this session calls for a reflection on our embodied sacred-cultural practices, as well as critical dialogue with Thompson, and, between Thompson and Herskovits. Artistic and embodied critical reflections are welcome and even encouraged. 


Breath, Spirit, and the Soul: African Diaspora Religion, Popular Culture and Social Justice in the Public Sphere 

In 2014 Eric Garner, and again in 2020 George Floyd pleaded “I can’t breathe” to the police officers who extinguished their lives. These acts of state sponsored violence have galvanized people to take to the streets in the midst of the ongoing pandemics of systemic racism, environmental destruction, and COVID-19. This has brought to the fore a politics of breath, breathing, and the spirit. The righteous outcry that “Black lives matter,” is quite apparent when considering the parallels between: the death of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples at the hands of the police, the impact of pollution in geographies where predominantly marginalized communities reside, and the disproportionate death of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples to COVID-19. Breath, breathing, and the spirit are deeply political as well as spiritual. Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement states that the Black Lives Matter movement is, “a spiritual movement...Part of our calling as people who do this work for Black lives is to lift our people up, both in their living, but also in their death.... It is literally almost resurrecting a spirit so they can work through us to get the work that we need to get done” (Molina, Religion News Service, June 15, 2020).  In this session, we invite presentations and/or embodied engagements that examine how Africana religious cultures, spiritual systems and practices, artistic movements, and popular cultural forms uplift, re-member, and resurrect Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples as breath, soul, and “spirit,” what W.E.B. Du Bois terms the “souls of Black folk” (1961) and Charles H. Long reframes as “soul stuff” (2018, pp. 279-280), the life-giving force of our modern world. From Second Line funerary parades, to Ring Shouts, Xiré circle processionals, or the various interpretations of Janelle Monáe’s anthem, “Hell You Talmbout”, we engage with spirit through our bodies. We thus also invite presentations and embodied experiences that explore how Africana religious traditions’ understandings of breath, breathing, and the “spirit” and their popular cultural forms influence present-day social and environmental justice movements. 


Mission Statement:

Our unit explores broad geographies, histories, and cultures of people of African descent and the way they shape the religious landscape, not only in the Caribbean and the Americas, but also in Europe and Asia. We define “diaspora” as the spread and dispersal of people of African descent — both forced and voluntary — through the slave trade, imperial and colonial displacements, and postcolonial migrations. This Unit emphasizes the importance of an interdisciplinary approach which is central to its vision. The aim is to engage a wide range of disciplines and a variety of scholars who work on different aspects of African diaspora religions. It considers the linguistic and cultural complexities of the African diaspora, the importance of African traditional religions, Afro-Christianity, Afro-Islam, and Afro-Judaism, the way they have and continue to inform an understanding of Africa, and also the way they have and continue to shape the religious landscape of the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

Method of Submission:

INSPIRE, E-mail with Attachment (proposal is in attachment, not in body of e-mail)

Please note we would prefer INSPIRE as the primary method of submission.



Scott Alves Barton, scott.barton@nyu.edu

Elana Jefferson-Tatum, elana.jefferson_tatum@tufts.edu


Steering Committee:

Andrea Allen, dr.andreasallen@gmail.com

Elyse Ambrose, eambrose@drew.edu

Kijan Bloomfield, bloomfieldk@rhodes.edu

Maha Marouan, marouan.maha@gmail.com

Carol Marie Webster, webstercm@yahoo.com


Session Allotment: Tier 1 – Two 90-minute sessions

Next Review: 2025