Sylvester A. Johnson, African American Religions, 1500-2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge, 2015).
The subtitle to Sylvester A. Johnson’s African American Religions, 1500-2000 is key to understanding the aim of the book. It isn’t a generic overview of the history of African American religion but a precise examination of how African American religion intersects with American ideas around colonialism, democracy, and freedom. The reader will encounter figures, events, movements, etc., that you expect, whether that be the Transatlantic slave trade, American slavery, the American Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, or major characters in those stories ranging from Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But the directions Johnson goes with those stories, and the stories he tells that may be less familiar, are what make this book an essential addition to your religious studies or American studies library.
Johnson’s history introduced me to pasts with which I had little familiarity, ranging from people like Dona Beatriz and her role within Kongolese Christianity to the rise and role of corporations, to the subversive interpretation of the Bible modeled by Olaudah Equiano, and on and on and one. I found myself encountering a history of which I knew little. Concepts like Black Settler Colonialism in relation to places like Sierra Leone and Liberia, or Marcus Garvey’s “Garveyism” as a philosophy of Black identity and a strategy for engaging White supremacy may be ignored in most American and American religious history textbooks but upon reflection appear to be essential elements to those histories. If you want an excellently written book with dynamic content that will give you a broader understanding of the worlds that shaped our own, then this book is a “can’t miss” read.