Making Sense of Race and Religion: Sensory History in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century America

AHA Session 195
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Luke E. Harlow, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Peter C. Hoffer, University of Georgia

Session Abstract

In recent years the senses have begun to permeate the discipline of history.  Historians have turned to the variety of human senses to provide a deeper and fuller description of the past that moves beyond merely textual evidence.  Yet, sensory history is not just descriptive.  As Mark Smith notes, “Sensory history is also explanatory, allowing historians to elucidate by reference to both visual and non-visual senses something that makes little or less sense if understood simply as a scopic phenomenon” (Journal of Social History (Sum 2007):  842).  By recognizing the role of all the human senses in guiding decision making we are able to more clearly understand instances that do not appear to be strictly rational.  Humanity responds to the sounds, smells, touches and tastes of the world with a visceral response that is often immediate and uncalculated, but observing the influence of the senses on the human condition provides historians with a new means for understanding human behavior.

This panel will examine the role of the senses in the intersecting worlds of race and religion during the nineteenth and early twentieth-century.  Edward J. Blum will explore the rich visual and religious worlds of Civil War soldiers in the nineteenth century with his paper, “‘Infurnal Stuff’: Civil War Soldiers, Experiences of War, and Senses of Hell in Nineteenth-Century America.”  Surrounded by the smells, sounds and bitter taste of war, these soldiers utilized the language of hell and damnation to describe their environment.  For these men the spiritual became physical on the battlefield.  Following the Civil War, Frederick Douglass sought to visually embody the new reality of freedom through his interracial marriage to Helen Pitts.  The symbolism and reaction to this marriage is the subject of Guy Emerson’s Mount’s paper “‘God Almighty Made but One Race’:  Racial Theology, Visual Culture, and the Interracial Marriage of Frederick Douglass to Helen Pitts.”  Douglass and many of his fellow African Americans believed the physical union of men and women of different races in marriage would serve to heal the animosity between the races in the late nineteenth-century.  However, the symbolism and prospect of interracial unions often exacerbated the responses of white Americans to the possibility of racial equality.  The final paper in the panel, “The Touch of the Spirit:  The Sensation of Racial Mixing in Early Twentieth-Century Pentecostalism,” provided by Blaine C. Hamilton, will analyze the responses of the press, ministers and fellow Pentecostals to the interracial worship of the Azusa Street revivals in Los Angeles, California.  The outrage against the racial mingling at Azusa Street often focused on the touching that occurred between white women and black men in the Pentecostal altars.  Opponents believed that religious intimacy might lead to further entanglements outside the revivals.  Together these papers and the response from Peter C. Hoffer will serve to provide a new lens for historical inquiry that can make sense of the racial and religious ideology of the past by attending to the complete experience of humanity.

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