"Pass the Mic" is a CCSR series featuring interviews with young scholars doing innovative work in the study of religion. Today's featured scholar is Ahmad Greene-Hayes, Assistant Professor of Religion at Northwestern University.
What is your current project?
I am currently working on my first book manuscript entitled "Gods of the Flesh: Black Atlantic Religion-Making in Jim Crow New Orleans," which is under advance contract with the University of Chicago Press in the Class 200: New Studies in Religion book series. My book examines the Black Atlantic religious cultures and sexual politics that emerged in New Orleans—a vibrant, American port city—in the early twentieth century, amidst Jim Crow policing and the migration of African Americans, West Indians, and Central Americans to the region. It tracks intraracial and intercultural conflicts among Black religious practitioners within “the Negro church” and between “Negro cults and sects.” It also considers the world of policing encircling Black people during the era of Jim Crow, a period in which “policing” included the jail cell and the state-sanctioned court of the lynch mob; and it centers on how Black people countered them through new and rescripted Black Atlantic religious, political, and sexual cultures.
What is a common misconception in your field?
I’m unsure if “misconception” is the right framing here. I would say, however, that a significant body of exemplary scholarship in African American religious history has been animated by the idea that most African Americans left the South during the era of the Great Migration thus inciting religious innovation in the North and the Midwest. While it is true that millions did leave the South over the course of several decades and that we did witness the development of many different religious movements and institutions in the North and Midwest as documented by such persons as Arthur Huff Fauset, E. Franklin Frazier, and many more, it is also true that many African Americans remained in the South and that many West Indians and Latin Americans also migrated to the South just as they did to such cities as New York during the early twentieth century. I argue in my own work that these multiple mass migrations to such places as New Orleans incited cultural cross-pollination, lots of in-fighting and political conflict, and produced a variety of religious innovations among people of African descent as a result.
Who are some of the key thinkers influencing you? What other sources influence you?
I consider myself to be a Hurstonian scholar of Black religion. I say “Hurstonian” to signal that I am, at once, a historian and a critical theorist, and also that my work is deeply shaped and influenced by the corpus of writer, filmmaker, and ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston, whose contributions until the 1970s remained largely overlooked due to a cultural obsession with powerful men. Indeed, Hurston had quite literally been buried in an unmarked grave. In 1975, for example, Alice Walker penned “Looking for Zora,” which appeared in Ms. Magazine and within she documented her own journey to find Zora’s final resting place, sequestered under moss and weeds in a segregated cemetery in Eatonville, Florida. Robert Hemenway has similarly noted that Zora’s unceremonious burial was “symbolic of the black writer’s fate in America,” and later described how Zora ended up poor, begging for publishing contracts before she succumbed to her last stroke. Zora’s body, like her literary canon, had unfortunately been forced into obscurity. As a scholar of Black religions and also as the descendent of conjurers, healer women, and preachers from Americus, Georgia, I am compelled to also look for Zora’s imprint on the field of Black religious studies. I do this work, having also been inspired by the contributions of such scholars as Judith Weisenfeld, Wallace Best, Yvonne Chireau, Dianne Stewart, Charles Long, and many more.
What are the most important points you think are relevant to the public?
Race, sexuality, and religion are everywhere and inform every facet of our society. If we move with this at the center of our analysis while amplifying the voices and lived experiences of those most harmed by the violent and dehumanizing constructions of these categories, we might be able to create a more just society and a new world where antiblackness, white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy are not everyday realities. We must also contend with the reality that much of what we think we know about Black religion in the public square and in popular culture has been fueled by caricature, the hyperbolic, and the exaggerated form. In order to truly know about Black religion, we must truly listen and take seriously what Black people believe, think, say, feel, emote, and experience in our everyday realities. In other words, to earnestly study Black religion is to care about Black people and the worlds we inhabit, commune with, and create here, there, and elsewhere. And, the inverse is also true: to stand in support of Black lives means sitting with the complexities of Black belief which undergird Black religious practices and institutions.
What are future trajectories for your research or avenues for expansion?
I am currently in the preliminary stages of research for my second book project which is a comprehensive survey of the history of sex, sexualities, and sexual ethics in African American religions from the era of enslavement to the emergence of sexually transgressive practices in early twentieth century new religious movements. I am hoping that this second book project will offer a new way to think about Black religion and sexuality that does not rely on the trope of the monolithic homophobic, cisheteropatriarchal black church, but instead encourages us to ask new questions about varying approaches to creating Black sexual ethics in the immediate wake of slavery, including but not limited to debates about birth control, premarital sex, and cross-dressing.
Dr. Ahmad Greene-Hayes is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Religious Studies at Northwestern University. He is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled “Gods of the Flesh: Black Atlantic Religion-Making in Jim Crow New Orleans,” which is under advance contract with the University of Chicago Press in the Class 200: New Studies in Religion series. His work has also appeared in The Black Scholar, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, and The Journal of African American History, and he has forthcoming articles in GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies and the Journal of Africana Religions. His research and teaching interests include Black Atlantic Religions, African American religious history, Religion in the Americas, Black critical theory, Black Queer Studies, and race, queerness, and sexuality. He is a steering committee member for both the Afro-American Religious History Unit and the Religion and Sexuality Unit at the American Academy of Religion, and he is also an advisory board member for the LGBTQ Religious Archives Network. In conversation with his research, he has consulted and collaborated with the Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice at Columbia University, the African American Policy Forum, Black Women’s Blueprint, and a host of other nonprofit organizations, churches, and other community institutions.