Questions at the Crossroads with Dr. Jamil W. Drake

Questions at the Crossroads with Dr. Jamil Drake

A conversation with Dr. Megan Goodwin


Dr. Jamil W. Drake is a member of the Black Religious Studies Working Group, which is affiliated with the Crossroads Project. He is Assistant Professor of African American Religious History at Yale University. His first book, To Know the Soul of a People: Religion, Race and the Making of Southern Folk, is now available through Oxford University Press.


What’s most important for readers to know about To Know the Soul of a People?

That the study of Black religion contributed to their perceptions of the Black lower class in American politics. And that racial segregation and poverty in the agricultural south during the Depression and World War Two periods had a hand in the shaping of the study of Black religion.

What are you arguing in To Know the Soul of a People?

The category of folk religion used among liberal social scientists and reformers contributed to the idea of an underdeveloped, deficient Black lower class, supposedly in need of moral and cultural development, as well as social and economic development and reform.

“Folk” means many things. For cultural and religious historians, particularly for historians of Black religion, folk allowed scholars to get at the ways people–in this case Black people–on the underside of American modernity actually had a sense of agency. That they were not victims to the very kind of pernicious, racist systems they lived under. That they created religion. That they had ideas about family, that they had a robust cosmology. Folk helps us get at that interior, the cultural worlds that Black people have created since slavery.

My work shows another side of this folk category – folk also gets used to classify a deficient, underdeveloped, Black laboring poor population in the rural south, supposedly outside of the American mainstream, outside of American modernization. We have this romantic category in which scholars like Lawrence Levine and Albert Raboteau and Zora Neale Hurston are looking to folklore to valorize the agency of Black people on the underside of American modernity. At the same time, liberal social scientists are actually using this folk category to create and describe a population isolated from mainstream society – social and economic industrial capitalism, but also from advanced moral and cultural behaviors and conduct.

Social scientists of the 1930s are using “folk” in earnest about trying to help African Americans get access to social, economic resources, such as better schools and better housing. At the same time, these scientists are arguing Black folk need development because they're underdeveloped–what Dr. Kathryn Lofton calls the “perpetual primitive.” Southern sociology, folk sociology  from the Depression to World War Two privileges a 19th century cultural, human, social, evolutionary model.

What is at stake in this project? Why does this work matter?

To Know the Soul of a People underscores how populations are raced, classed, and gendered. Liberal social scientists and liberal reformers privileged the economic situation and the class position of Black laborers–tenant farmers, sharecroppers and unskilled general workers–in response to Jim Crow and white supremacy. They argued that Black folk were not any different from the white folk, poor whites particularly, in terms of their religious practices. My work shows that this is a liberal strategy to advance African Americans within the constraints of Jim Crow governance – and more broadly, that race is always bound up in our notions of class.

The book also underscores how our notions of democracy, our notions of freedom, entail notions of right conduct. “Good religion” shapes the liberal reformist agenda. Earnest liberal reformers wanted Black people to have access to economic and social resources within Jim Crow. But these reformers were still preoccupied with reforming Black people toward white supremacist behavioral norms. The social scientists of the Great Depression and World War Two, even those dedicated to liberal bureaucratic reform, were still invested in modernization as right behavior, right conduct as conditions of better pay and better schools for these “underdeveloped” people.

We cannot disentangle the makings of race and class in this history. Liberal bureaucrats made choices when arguing for ways to lift Black tenant farmers or sharecroppers out of abject poverty: they emphasized that these folk had the potential to be good workers. That if white power brokers invested in their health and educational needs, Black folk–America’s peasants–would improve the dilapidated and underdeveloped southern agricultural economy. “Folk,” as these liberal social scientists used the category, was the precursor to the “Black underclass” that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s under Nixon and Reagan, also rooted in stereotypes of Black behavioral deficits and pathologies. We see antecedents of this criminalization of Blackness in the folk Negro, the southern, rural, agricultural Black subject.


To Know the Soul of A People

How does To Know the Soul of a People fit within the broader field of Black and/or African American religions?

I draw on the work of scholars like Barbara Savage and Curtis Evans to show the importance of the social sciences to the study of Black religion. We can’t think about Black religion apart from anthropology, sociology, psychology and so forth. The relationship between Black religion and the history of the social sciences reveals the tension between Black religion and modern politics.

I’m thinking about Dr. Savage’s work and the idea in Black religion that essentializes a particular kind of portrait of the modern civil rights movement. In popular American culture, when we think about Black religion, we think about Martin Luther King, we think about SDLC, about a liberal kind of progressive Protestantism. Many assume that the civil rights movement is just a natural evolution of what Black religion is.

But if we look to the 1930s and 1940s, that’s really not the case. There were debates, fissures, and tension among these liberal social scientists, some of whom were Black and part of an emerging middle and professional class. They wanted to rid their people of these folk beliefs and to help them conform to the kinds of right conduct and behavior implicit in our very notions of freedom and democracy.

Where do you see your work and the fields of Black and African American religions heading next?

The field of black religion is in good hands, particularly with the Crossroads Project! Many of my colleagues are doing exciting work. I’m of course thinking about my work in light of Judith Weisenfeld’s new work on Black religion and psychiatry. As I’m thinking about the social sciences, I’m interested in how the field is thinking about the relationship between Black religion and these other sort of scientific “non-religious” discourses or networks or institutions (like the FBI).  My new work thinks about studying Black religion in the context of psychiatry, mental health, and public health at historically Black colleges.

While I was working at Florida State University, I started thinking about the organizers at historically Black colleges – part of what they're doing is trying to modernize “uneducated” Black farmers and cultivate trust in modern medicine by visiting Black churches and attempting to reform their theologies. I have an article under review about the midwifery program in the 1940s at FAMU, a land grant historical Black college in Tallahassee, Florida. The program, like many others across the American south, attempted to modernize birthing practices among Black midwives without formal medical training. But to be a part of this midwifery training program, Black women needed recommendation letters from their male pastors to validate their moral capacity to deliver babies and to be licensed as a midwife by the state. In other words and as Dr. Weisenfeld is showing us, we can’t think about modern health or modern medicine without thinking about Black religion. 

Posted September 13, 2022

Questions at the Crossroads
Jamil Drake
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