My main scholarly interest lies in the intersections of religion and race in American history and culture, particularly in the Gulf South. In the study of religion, I prefer to analyze religion by focusing on its functions—what it does, how it works, how it reinforces or undermines power relations, and how it mediates the larger world around our subjects. Our religious subjects typically regard religion as an immaterial power, but their expressions and interpretations of religion take both immaterial and material form.
Analyzing race as a culturally and politically constructed concept is not a new idea, but recognizing and investigating the role religion plays in race’s construction adds a twist. Religion provides a forum in which people can perform their race or critique racial dynamics. Religion also helps people define, protect, and transgress racial boundaries and racial identities. By examining religion as contingent upon human history and race as a historical construct, the intersections of religion and race become locations that illuminate the intricacies of power, identity formation, conflict, and adaptation.
My dissertation, “A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans” examines how the beliefs and practice of Spiritualism helped Afro-creoles mediate the political, social, and cultural changes in New Orleans as the city moved from the antebellum period through Reconstruction. The messages the Cercle Harmonique received from the spirit world and the spirits who sent them offered the circle a forum for airing their political grievances and looking forward to a more egalitarian world. Certain republican ideals, particularly those inherited from the memory of the French Revolution, were reinvigorated and reworked to relate to contemporary issues. This project brings together two historiographical genealogies: the history of race in New Orleans and the role of religion in New Orleans politics, culture, and society. In terms of religion and materiality, I take into account both the cultural constructedness of religion and race in New Orleans and its emphasis on power and practice, but keep it in a material frame that takes seriously the materiality of space and bodies.
In the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s, my research subjects engaged in the practice of Spiritualism and spirit communication through a medium. The message of this metaphysical religion—with its abolitionism and criticism of authority figures—threatened the status quo of the South, and thus, those invested in and in want of social and political changes found a religious orientation that interlaced with their goals. The world of spirits located a receptive audience in the free blacks in New Orleans who suffered increasingly restrictive laws and then met with violent resistance to suffrage and racial equality after the Civil War. For Afro-creoles, their political aspirations had found a spiritual medium. Many messages—from spirits as diverse as Swedenborg, Saint Vincent de Paul, Montesquieu, and even Confucius—discussed government structures, the progress of humanity, and equality. The Afro-creole Spiritualists were encouraged to continue struggling for “justice” with “courage and patience.”
The ideas of and major players in the French Revolution were present in the group’s practice. Thus, the way in which the Cercle Harmonique remembered the French Revolution, and to a lesser extent the Haitian Revolution, underscores their dedication to particularly revolutionary ideals. While the French Revolution overturned the ancien régime of the nobility, the Cercle Harmonique was interested in the demise of another oligarchy, namely southern slave-holders and their white supremacists heirs. The presence of various celebrity spirits, most notably Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, solidify the circle’s understood place in the progress of egalitarianism and liberty. To die for the cause of liberty or in the street violence of Reconstruction New Orleans guaranteed one’s identity as a celebrated martyr; death was not to be feared for it meant the escape of the spirit from the material—and raced—body. Moreover, messages extolling the virtues of the spirit beyond the anatomical body and the triumph over materiality offered a new language for expressing the Afro-creoles’ liminal space betwixt and between blacks and whites. Unlike other American Spiritualists who believed that a person’s race remained with them in the spiritual spheres, the Cercle Harmonique’s messages pointed to a race-less spiritual world
Additionally, though many messages were critical of the Catholic Church hierarchy (and it is worth noting that the Church officially supported the Confederacy) this circle received many messages from beloved former New Orleans priests known for their egalitarian perspectives and from Saint Vincent de Paul. They may have officially left the Catholic Church, the impact of Catholicism on them and their “creole” identity extended beyond cathedral doors.
My research takes note of the movement of people, practices, and ideas across the South and the Caribbean world, providing my research orientation with a diasporic frame. New Orleans was a place where the Caribbean world and the American South encountered one another, sometimes fought with one another, but eventually came to occupy the same space. Both Voudou and the early practices of black Mardi Gras Indians demonstrate the city’s fluidity with the Caribbean world. An idea I would like to explore in future research is the possibility that black Indian performances emerged as a new kind of spirit possession, in which the spirits of Indian and Afro-maroon warrior spirits inhabited the bodies of masking black Indians. These performances took place on New Orleans streets as black Indians sought to claim space in a city that increasingly rendered them invisible.
Additionally, Mardi Gras Indians are a significant part of New Orleans music history.