A Luminous Brotherhood

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A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans

Winner of the 2017 Francis B. Simkins Award, Southern Historical Association. Click here for a press release from the Southern Historical Association.
Winner of the 2017 Michael Thomason Book Award, Gulf South Historical Association
CHOICE Reviews, Outstanding Academic Title 2017

coverMy first book, A Luminous Brotherhood: Afro-Creole Spiritualism in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (UNC Press, 2016), 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 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.”Voltaire

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, but the impact of Catholicism on them and their “Creole” identity extended beyond cathedral doors. This intersection of Catholicism, race, and power in part inspired my next research projects on Catholicism and colonialism.

A little bit of A Luminous Brotherhood and me will be featured in the forthcoming documentary, City of a Million Dreams. This incredible project tells the story of funerals and other rituals of death and rebirth in New Orleans. Directed by the amazing Jason Berry, you won’t want to miss it. (If you watch the trailer on the website, you’ll see and hear me around the 1:30 mark.)

Reviews of A Luminous Brotherhood

Publishers Weekly, July 2016
Journal of Southern Religion
, Volume 19 (2017)
Reading Religion: A Publication of the American Academy of Religion, February 2017
American Historical Review
, Vol. 122.2 (April 2017)
, Vol. 54.10 (June 2017)
Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 115.4 (Autumn 2017)
Journal of American History, 104.3 (December 2017)
Reviews in American History, 45.4 (December 2017)
Journal of Southern History, 84.1 (February 2018)
Church History, 87.1 (March 2018)
Nova Religio, 21.4 (May 2018)
Louisiana History, 59.2 (Spring 2018)

Interviews about A Luminous Brotherhood

Religion Dispatches, with Paul Harvey (article)
Marginalia Review of Books First Impressions, with Dave Krueger (podcast)
The Way of Improvement Leads Home, with John Fea (blog)

Other media on A Luminous Brotherhood

“150 Years After the Mechanics’ Institute Riot,” UNC Press blog, 29 July 2016
“New Mind, Body, Spirit Books for Fall,” Publishers Weekly, 5 August 2016 (cover image featured in the print edition)
“I Don’t Believe in No Ghosts,” UNC Press blog, 26 September 2016
“As Racial Tensions Dominate Headlines, Books Offer Insights for Change,” Publishers Weekly, 4 November 2016
“Year-End Best Books in Race and Religion in American History,” Religion Dispatches, 26 December 2016

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