Faith in the Unseen: The Intersection(s) of Spirituality and Identity among African American Males in College

By Dancy, T. Elon | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Faith in the Unseen: The Intersection(s) of Spirituality and Identity among African American Males in College


Dancy, T. Elon, The Journal of Negro Education


The author explored spiritual identity constructions and intersections among 24 African American male undergraduate students enrolled across 12 different colleges and universities. The author drew on grounded theory, phenomenology, and case study approaches in all aspects of qualitative research design. After conducting semi-structured interviews, three major findings are reported: (a) spirituality is a source of support and dependency, representing one of few vulnerabilities about which participants are open in discourse; (b) spirituality anchors other identities; and (c) tensions exists among these participants' spiritual selves and the other selves they identify. Implications include college and church partnerships toward influencing educational outcomes among this participant group. Furthermore, faculty are offered suggestions regarding curricula, assignments, advising, and pedagogy while collegiate personnel writ large are offered strategies for campus diversity, mentoring, and service.

Keywords: African American males, identity, spirituality, higher education

Experiences among African American males in college are the subjects of a large literature (Allen, 1984, 1985, 1988; AUen, Epps, & Haniff, 1991; Astin, 1982, 1993; Cuyjet, 2006; Dancy & Brown, 2007; Davis, 1994; Feagin, Vera, & Imani, 1996; Fleming, 1984; Flowers & Pascarella, 1999; Harper, 2005; Jackson & Moore, 2006; Nettles, 1988; Palmer & Dancy, 2010; Palmer & Gasman, 2008; PascareUa & Terenzini, 1991; Strayhorn; 2008a, 2008b, 2010; Willie & McCord, 1972). Despite much work, little is actually known about spiritual identities among African American males in college. However, spiritual identity is an intriguing site for study as both African American men and women are found to filter decisions through strong spiritual and religious convictions (Berkel, Armstrong, & Cokley, 2004; Cone, 1990; Griffin, 2000; Herndon, 2003). Researchers argue that strong spirituality and religiosity among African Americans are grounded in African worldviews of communalism (i.e., human relationships and interrelatedness of people), unity, cooperation, harmony, balance, creativity, and authenticity (Constantine, Gainor, Ahluwalia, & Berkel, 2003; Constantine, Miville, Warren, Gainor, Lewis-Coles, 2002 Jackson & Sears, 1992; Myers, 1993; Utsey, Adams, & Bolden, 2000, Watson, 2006).

Sirituality is complex and defined in several ways:

* an individual's state, quality, or manner of belief in an animated force (i.e., The Holy Spirit, a supernatural entity, the intersection of the mind, and feelings, Watson, 2006);

* a supernatural dimension of life in which intrinsic beliefs and values correspond to an understanding of God's will (Mattis, 2000); and

* a process of self-discovery with respect to life purpose, deep values, and meaning (Love and Talbot, 1999; Sheldrake, 2007).

A common thread within these definitions is envisioning spirituality as a worldview in which individuals hold a more comprehensive understanding of self and hold belief in a larger reality than what is experienced in the natural world. Stewart (1999) offered two terms in conceptualizing how spirituality operates in African American lives: (a) creative soul force and (b) resistant soul force. Creative soul force, according to Stewart, is the spiritual strength African Americans use in adapting and transforming culture to transcend others' ideals about African American cultural identity. Resistant soul force refers to a belief African Americans hold about spiritual fortitude in withstanding any oppressions from others. Notwithstanding, religion is different from spirituality although the two terms are often equated (Stewart, 1999).

Thompson (1981) argued that religion is not identical with spirituality but rather religion is the form spirituality takes in civilization" Thompson's work framed religion as a formal search involving external sources (i. …

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