MultiSession Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, Part 1: Black Women and Religious Leadership: A Transnational Perspective

AHA Session 74
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 304 (Hynes Convention Center)
Barbara D. Savage, University of Pennsylvania
Judith Weisenfeld, Princeton University

Session Abstract

This panel will interrogate the relationship between the sacred and the political through a transnational examination of black women's religious leadership. Jon Sensbach (Professor of History, University of Florida) will offer new source base—“informal narratives”—that provide fresh insight into the process by which West African women, from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, brought their experience as spiritual leaders with them across the Atlantic to shape religious life in the New World. Natasha Lightfoot (Assistant Professor of History, Columbia) will use the experience of two Antiguans, Elizabeth Hart Thwaites (1772-1833) and Anne Hart Gilbert (1773-1834), as a more focused window into the patterns of black women's religious authority identified by Jon. The Hart sisters used their influence as leading Methodists to rise to positions of leadership within the free black community and articulate an understanding of slavery quite different from white Methodist leaders. Writings by the Hart sisters illuminate the intersections of black spirituality, free colored activism, and racial and gender ideologies during this critical period in Caribbean history. Eve Trout Powell (Associate Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania) takes up the transnational migration of religious leadership in a later period by examining the life of St. Josephine Bakhita (1869 -1947). Bakhita was sold into slavery as a child in Darfur, then taken to Italy by the Italian consul in Khartoum where she became a nun and was later canonized. Powell will explore how the church in Sudan remembers her as a teacher, almost a philosopher of religion, although many earlier Vatican publications depicted her as an emblem of slavery and humility. As Commentator, Judith Weisenfeld (Professor of Religion, Princeton) will draw upon her research on religion and the construction of race, while as Chair, Barbara Savage (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania) will bring to bear her expertise on the relationship between religion and black racial leadership. The papers and discussion sparked by this panel will cross national and disciplinary boundaries to show how the methodological approaches of social, intellectual, and political history can be combined with religious studies to uncover the importance of black women as spiritual leaders and, more broadly, to reveal the interconnections between politics, society, and the sacred. As with all of the sessions linked under the general rubric “Towards an Intellectual History of Black Women,” this panel seeks to establish a new field of that explores the quality and influence of black women's thought, in this case their power as religious and spiritual leaders.