Thursday, January 29, 2015

Syllabus Project: "Signifying Religion: An African American Worldview"

By Richard Newton
(WCH) REL 170: Signifying Religion: An African American Worldview
My introduction to religious studies course emerged from a chance encounter and a deceptively simple question. I was making small talk with an academic editor who specialized in history.  In the course of our conversation, she felt comfortable enough to ask me, “Why would African Americans be Christians given the religion’s role in the slave institution?”
I could tell that the question came from a place of vulnerability. For starters, there was her whiteness and my blackness and all that could mean. Her hushed tone and inward lean suggested that this was one of those “anything you ever wanted to know about black people but were afraid to ask” kind of inquiries.
There were also the implications to consider. On the one hand, she was asking a point of information about a historical trend. On the other, she was trying to articulate the politics of meaning making. She could have asked why black persons would choose to stay in America given the nation’s role in the slave institution. But the idea of religion appeared to her more provocative and problematic. My course reframes her question and represents my fifteen-week long response.
“Religion” is treated as a signifier with which black slaves learned to identify effectual expressions in the modern West. Following the lead of Charles Long, we note that when African Americans have signified “religion,” the discourse has frequently entailed a mythic ideal (e.g. “Africa”), a monumental crisis (e.g. slavery), and a potential for transformation (e.g. God). Students test Long’s thesis for themselves by surveying primary sources—everything from FBI files on the Moorish Science Temple of America to Kanye West lyrics.
Along the way, students are introduced to various approaches to religious studies. Class time is devoted to nuancing their understanding of an emic worldview (i.e. the confessions of African Americans among others), but—more poignantly—to facilitate critical reflection on Homo religiosus. To be clear, we don’t invoke Eliade’s phrase to reinforce a sui generis understanding of religion so much as to historicize it. Black persons adopted “religion” to become Homo sapien in view of themselves and others in the New World. 
At the close of last semester, the class prepared essays informed by blog posts from Russell McCutcheon and Monica Miller of Culture on the Edge. Miller graciously joined us for our final discussion. By course’s end, students were accustomed to discussing religion in terms of the work humans make signs do for themselves and to others.
Course Description

As a historically marginalized people, African Americans frequently find their religious experiences discussed either too familiarly (e.g. “They are basically all Christians.”) or too abstractly (e.g. “They are so spiritual.”) by wider publics. But what if one were to begin the study of religion with the African American experience? In this class, we will study the diversity of African American life in order to enrich our understanding of the category, “religion.”

Student Learning Outcomes

By successfully completing the requirements of this course, you will be able to do the following:

(1)              Explain Charles Long’s three loci of African American religions.

(2)              Define religion in light of its social, material, and psychological features.

(3)              Characterize the shape of African American religiosity.

(4)              Distinguish insider/outsider perspectives on religion in primary and secondary sources.

(5)              Read critically— surfacing a work’s topic, research question, thesis statement, and argument structure.

(6)              Write cogently—holding forth about a single thesis while blending assertions, evidence, and commentary to persuade a reader.

(7)              Converse generously about the study of religion

And by successfully completing the requirements of the course, you will be able to demonstrate your ability to meet the following student learning outcomes, which are outcomes for the Western Cultural Heritage Core:

(8)              Explain the importance of the African American religious experience to understandings of Western Civilization;

(9)              Describe the broader historical context of African American religiosity;

(10)         Give illustrations of the complex and complicated relationship African Americans have with religion;

(11)         Give examples of ways in which the concept of African American religion has been subject to a variety of interpretations;

(12)         Analyze primary and secondary source materials related to African American religion
Required Course Materials


Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Fear of a Black President,” August 22, 2012, The Atlantic.

Troy Duster, “Ancestry Testing and DNA: Uses, Limts and Caveat Emptor,” The Council for Responsible Genetics, (n.d.),

Grey Gundaker, “The Bible as and at a Threshold: Reading, Performance, and Blessed Space,” pp. 754-772 in African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures, ed. Vincent L. Wimbush (New York: Continuum, 2000).

Thomas R. Gray, “The Confessions of Nat Turner as told to Thomas R. Gray (1831),” Documenting the American South,

Alex Haley, “Roots: An American Family’s Story of Survival and Triumph,” Alex Haley: The Man Who Traced America’s Roots: His Life, His Works, Originally Published in the May & June 1974 and April & May 1977 issues of Reader’s Digest (New York: Reader’s Digest, 2007), 96-156.

Christopher Johnson, “God, the Black Man, and the Five Percenters,” National Public Radio, August 4, 2006. story.php?storyId=5614846.

Shirley Ju, “The Five Percent Nation: A Brief History Lesson,” HNHH: Hot New Hip Hop, July 21, 2014,

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963,

Spencer Kulow, “Hip Hop, Five Percenters, and Food,” American Studies 2001: Introduction to American Studies, University of Virginia,

Sholomo Levy, “Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? How Many of Us Are There?”, (n.d.)

Charles H. Long, “Perspectives for the Study of Afro-American Religion in the United States,” History of Religions 11:1 (August 1971), 54-66

W.A. Matthew, “The Black Jews of Harlem,”, (n.d.)

Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies,” Working Paper (Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women 1988)

Paul O. Myhre, ed. Introduction to Religious Studies (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2009).

*This textbook will serve as our window onto contemporary perspectives in Religious Studies. It includes essays from scholars in various subfields.

Matthew Tittle, “Is God a White Racist?” Houston Chronicle, November 21, 2006,

Iyanla Vanzant, “Iyanla Vanzant: Begin Your Journey,”

David Walker, “ ‘I Ask You, O My Brethren1, Are We Men?’” excerpt from “Walker’s Appeal,” September 28, 1829, The African American Experience: Black History and Culture Through Speeches, Letters, Editorials, Poems, Songs, and Stories, ed. Kai Wright (New York: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2001), 144-152.

Jonathan Walton, “Invocation,” Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (New York: New York University Press: 2009), 1-17,

Malcolm X, “God’s Judgment of White America (The Chickens Coming Home to Roost),” December 4, 1963, edited by Imam Benjmain Karim,

This learning management software will house all of our written and submitted assignments. Through it, I will also share an array of e-resources to enrich your understanding of African American Religions. See this site as a digital representation of our classroom community. You can conveniently access it by selecting our course title under the “Teaching” menu at

Poll Everywhere

In order to facilitate efficient exchanges and evaluations in each session, we will use Poll Everywhere. Poll Everywhere is an audience response system with which you will be able to answer questions using SMS text messages, Twitter, web-enabled devices, or most smart phones.

Class Preparation

Our course is divided into thematic weekly units. Barring a few exceptions, you will prepare about 20 pages of reading for each class session. Each week you will receive a study guide to help you hone in on key concepts, vocabulary terms, and larger questions. Completing the reading and the study guide are essential for meeting the Student Learning Outcomes.


During Tuesday class sessions, we will spend the first 10 minutes reviewing your study guide. You should bring forth questions from the reading for small group and class discussion. From there we will launch into a hands-on activity related to the week’s unit focus and an example of African American religiosity.


For Thursday class sessions, we will begin with a Poll Everywhere quiz over the material on the week’s study guide. After clarifying any issues, we will have a seminar discussion over the prepared reading. It will begin with a short paper presentation by a pre-assigned student, followed by questions of clarification, qualification, and extension.


In lieu of a fourth-hour in-class meeting, we will continue our seminar virtually via Canvas. Everyone besides the week’s seminar facilitator will compose a response paper. These papers will show mastery of the week’s learning objectives by advancing a thesis that converses with the facilitator’s paper and the week’s readings. The facilitator will use these papers to revise his or her work. Together, these materials will provide an excellent review for midterm and final exams.

Assignments/Evaluations of Student Learning Outcomes

A. Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes

My assessment of student learning outcomes will derive from your performance on the following assignments:

-Study Guide Completion and Class Participation

Each class member is expected to participate in class activities and complete their study guides. I do not insist that a student master material on the first attempt, but I expect you to put forth a solid effort. That means contributing to our corporate review of the study guides and our Tuesday hands-on activities. Your study guides are due online by 8:00am on Tuesday unless specified otherwise.


Our Thursday quizzes cover material related to the week’s study guide. Each four-question quiz is multiple choice. These measure basic knowledge over the week’s material. If you are consistently scoring below 75%, see me immediately so that we may amend any problems with your preparation practices.

-Seminar Facilitator Paper

Each student is assigned a week where he or she will present a 4-5-page paper to guide our Thursday seminar discussions. Your paper should put forth a single thesis about the week’s unit focus (e.g. religion and violence) in relationship to the tradition or moment we studied that week (e.g. the Civil Rights tradition). In addition, you should provide three discussion questions to spur conversation about your paper. Your paper is due by Thursday at midnight (12:01am) on Canvas. You will also have a chance to revise your paper by the following Thursday at midnight. The revision will serve as your final grade for the assignment.

-Seminar Response Paper

Each week, students will complete a 3-page paper that builds upon on the foundation laid by the Seminar Facilitator Paper. This will give you a final opportunity to work through the covered course material. Your first page will introduce your thesis about the week’s content—readings, course discussion, and themes. The next two pages should defend your thesis, directly citing the week’s readings and the Seminar Facilitator’s Paper. This assignment is due on Canvas by Sunday at midnight (12:01am).

When I read your papers, I am looking for whether (1) your argument reflects a satisfactory understanding of the week’s learning objectives, (2) does it show appropriate mastery of signifying theory and (3) does it show appropriate mastery of critical expression (i.e. Get to the Point Introduction model and ACE model). Seminar Response Papers that do these three things will receive a 100. Those that do not will receive no credit pending revision by the student. You will have one week from the day you receive my comments to resubmit your revision in order to receive a 100. Otherwise your grade will remain a 0.

-Midterm Exam

The midterm exam will cover information from the study guides in addition to insights from our in-class meetings. The format will include multiple choice, matching, fill in the blank, short answer, and essay. If you keep up with the study guides, actively participate during class sessions, study the seminar papers, and attend the review session, you should perform well.

-Final Exam

The final exam will be a take-home essay and seminar discussion that tests your skills as a critical student of religion. While the exam will focus on content from the second-half of the course, you’ll be required to demonstrate the analytical skills that we have been developing thought the term.

B. Grading of Student Performance

12.5% - Study Guide Completion and Class Participation

12.5% - Quizzes

15% -    Seminar Facilitator Paper

15%-     Seminar Response Papers (Fourth-Hour)

20% -    Midterm

25% -    Final

C. Grading Scale

            59  >   =F        Unacceptable Performance

60-63  =D-      Insufficient Performance

64-66  =D       Needs Improvement

67-69  =D+     Adequate Performance

70-73  =C-      Acceptable Performance

            74-76  =C       Satisfactory Performance

77-79  =C+     Promising Performance

            80-83  =B-      Good Performance

            84-86  =B       Great Performance

            87-89  =B+     Commendable Performance

            90-94  =A-      Excellent Performance

           95-100 =A       Superior Performance

D. Class Schedule

Unit Focus



Week 1

What is Religion?





*For homework, please look over the syllabus and post any questions on the Course Q&A Discussion Board. You can find it under the Course Mechanics module on Canvas.


-Update your Profile Page on Canvas>People


What is (African-American) Religion?


-Myhre, 3-14


-Do your best to complete the study guide. You will not be penalized if you do not complete it, but it is good practice for what you will be doing throughout the semester. Upload it to Canvas before the beginning of class for extra credit (good for one required study guide).


-Watch the Get to the Point Introduction Video


*Bring (but do not read) the McIntosh essay to class.



Week 2

How is Religion Studied?



-Myhre, 15-26


-Watch the ACE Video




Black Theology & Black Religious Studies


-Long, 54-66


Week 3

Origin Stories and Religion: How are Religions Formed?


-Myhre, 27-34


*Note that you are not reading the entire chapter in preparation for class, just the first seven pages. I would like you to begin reading the next assignment, taking into account what Ratke has to say about origin stories, myth, and religion.


**Take a look at =>



In Search of Roots: Part 1


-Haley, 96-156


*This reading is a narrative, so it moves quickly. But give yourself plenty of time to complete it.


Week 4

Religion as Truth-Claims


-Myhre, 41-52




(Beyond) Ontological Blackness


-Tittle, 1-6

Week 5

Sacred Words, Stories, Writings, and Books


-Myhre, 53-66




Promised Land &

Black Hebrews


-Walker, 144-152




*Try to get a sense of “Exodus” in each essay

Week 6

An Aesthetic Approach to Religion


-Myhre, 67-78



Five Percenters






*Listen to the radio story by Johnson and the videos included in Shirley. Remember that you’re using an “aesthetic” lens in your study of religion. So reflect upon the role of the  senses in religion.




Week 7

Midterm Exam Week



Midterm Review




Midterm Exam






Spring Break

3/3 (No Class)

3/5 (No Class)

Week 8

Social Activism and Engagement



-Myhre, 115-135



Black Church & Civil Rights



-Malcolm X


Week 9

Violence and Religion


-Myhre, 97-114


*Take a look at =>


Righteous Anger





Week 10

Religious Ethics, Moral Values, and Standards for Human Conduct



-Myhre, 79-96



The Race(s) and Religion(s) of Barack Obama




Week 11

Ascetically and Mystically Removed and Engaged



-Myhre, 153-162






(Post)Black Transcendentalism




*Explore her website and record observations of her withdrawal from and engagement with the world





Week 12

World Religions: Environmentally Active


-Myhre, 135-152



Conjuring Culture


-Gundaker, 754-773


Week 13

Technology and Religion




-Myhre, 163-175







-Walton, 1-17



Week 14

Ritual Studies//

Studying Science and Religion



-Myhre, 194-210


-Study Guide for Extra Credit (Good for one required study guide)




Family Reunions


-Myhre, 176-193

Week 15

Studying Science and Religion


In Search of Roots: Part 2




Final Exam Q&A

Final Exam


Essay due by Thursday, 5/7/15, 7:00 on Canvas.

Meet for seminar discussion from 8-10:30AM