Are There Any Advantages to Racializing Hope?

A Study in African American Religion and Politics

  • Anthropology
  • Philosophy of Religion

Principal Investigators

Andre C. Willis
Willard Prescott and Annie McClelland Smith Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Department of Religious Studies, Brown University


After my first book, which included an extended discussion of Enlightenment hope, I am now turning my attention to a project that attends to African American religious forms of hoping (broadly construed). It asks two questions: first, what resources from within the rich and flawed ways that African Americans have approached the invisible realm remain viable today? Second, how might we marshal those ambiguous resources developed within black spiritual/religious traditions to improve the psychic status and collective well-being of African Americans today and expand American democracy at the same time?

The premise of his argument has four prongs: first, that ‘religion’ is always fully embedded in the contingencies of history, shaped via conventions that are developed in specific communities, and perpetually conveyed within the multiplicity of ever-shifting forms authorized by a particular culture. Second, that the incentive for political change and psychological transformation can come from shifts in philosophical mood and changes in theological disposition. Third, that African American spiritual perspectives and practices are distinctive, in part, due to the fact that they were largely forged under unique conditions of systematic dehumanization (accordingly, they are generally constituted by explicit political investments and clear psychic commitments). The fourth and final premise is that our ways of framing politics and society are products of historical processes. Thus, it is justifiable to inquire how we might best consider our political conditions. In other words, is “late-democracy” a viable and possibly valuable way to conceive of contemporary conditions? What about the term “post-democracy”?

I want to interrogate the ‘religious’ narratives of hope that African Americans have constructed on their historical journey in the US. Always constituted by both an “upward” and an “outward” dimension (that is, they appeal vertically to God--or the spiritual realm--and horizontally towards future, probable goods) these forms of hope are both political and religious. Out of that vast web of the totality of Black strivings of this sort, the hopes I consider are directly linked to citizenship. These different yet closely connected forms of hope have shaped the African American religio-politico vista. Of course, there is no thorough consensus regarding Black people and any claims about such a diverse group must be qualified. The consideration of their broad hopes for recognition, membership, inclusion, and success in the American democratic experiment, however, may shed light on the diversity of hope itself while avoiding any reductive essentialism.

My project attends to the “practical theism” research questions of the Hope, Optimism, and God Project. I hope to show that a very practical theism, or Afro-theistic hopes, have been part and parcel of Black spiritual traditions for as long as they have evolved in the US. Paying particular to attention to how these political hopes are inseparable from but not identical to feelings of ‘religious’ freedom (as derived from the modern concept of freedom), my analysis aims to supplement reflections on prophetic religion, liberation theology and black church studies.