Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Absence and the Presence of God in African American Culture

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Absence and the Presence of God in African American Culture

Article excerpt

The words of this familiar African American spiritual is a

source of inspiration for Dr. David Emmanuel book, Were

You There? Godforsakenness in Slave Religion. Both the

spiritual and the title of the book raise important questions

about God and humanity -- especially African American

humanity. They refer to critical issues such as commitment

and abandonment between God and humanity and within

interpersonal relationships.

On one hand, the song is a rhetorical selection that has

become a part of the African American religious witness to

the crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as the

Christ or promised Messiah. In it, we are asked if we can

attest to the life and ministry of Jesus on the basis of a

direct encounter with the suffering and death he experienced.

The question relates both to the historical events of Jesus's

life, death and resurrection as well as to the significance of

all of this for our contemporary reality. Therefore, "Were

you there?" also implies the question, "Are you willing and

able to bear witness to your faith in God here and now?"

On the other hand, the title of Goatley's text both

echoes the lines of the song and ponders the forbidden query

about how we understand who God is, what God does (or

does not do) and who we are. On one level, the title ("Were

You There?") is directed toward the reader as it seeks out a

witness to the faithfulness of God in the midst of African

American humanity and suffering. On another level, the

subtitle ("Godforsakenness in Slave Religion") points to the

disturbing experience of God's absence from all optimistic

claims about God's presence in the midst of the African

American experience of oppression;. In order to explore this

multidimensional query, Goatley turns to the history and

narratives of the African American slaves.

Goatley's book is divided into five sections. After; a

brief introduction that sets forth his rationale for pursuing

this query, he begins with an exploration into the African

American experience of Godforsakenness during the

Southern antebellum period. This is followed by similar

inquiry into the nature of spirituals as anguished

expressions of abandonment and hope. Next an

interpretation of the Gospel of Mark is rendered in order

to examine "a paradigm of the presence and absence of

God." Finally, in the concluding section, he suggests some

of the implications of this study for contemporary


The history and general narrative of African American

reality is rooted in the African tradition of oral discourse.

This inclination towards orality has been conveyed and

preserved through stories arid folklore that reach back to

a distant past. Ironically, the capacity to tell and recall

stories survived during slavery precisely because African

Americans were prohibited from reading and writing.

Storytelling became more than a means of survival; it

became primary vehicle through which a uniquely African

American narration was communicated.

According to Goatley, theology or discourse God has

been central to the African American experience.

Moreover, it has been the quest for "meaningful

existence" that has given rise to their

ongoing struggle for liberation. Thus, there

is a strong correlation between what is

thought and said about God as a supreme

being and the plight of a people who have

experienced situations of extreme

oppression as they continually strive For

complete liberation.

During the Southern antebellum period,

African Americans endured Godforsakenness. …

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