Assistant Professor of Anthropology Andrea Abrams’ latest book, “God and Blackness,” hits shelves this March, representing the fruitful culmination of over two years of research.
The book is a byproduct of Abrams’ dissertation work, which she recalls got off to a rocky start. When she traveled to Atlanta, Ga., to conduct fieldwork, she initially struggled to find a location for studying the discussion and performance of racial identities. That is, until she and a friend were late to church.
“We drove by a different church with people still entering and, on a whim, decided to attend,” she explains. “It was First Afrikan Presbyterian Church—an Afrocentric congregation. That Sunday’s sermon touched on each of the topics that interested me: race, middle class blackness, gender and womanist theology. So it was an episode of serendipity that led me to this specific research project.”
Abrams spent the next two years observing and participating in the culture of First Afrikan, an experience that helped her dive into fascinating and difficult topics of defining blackness, religious expression and gender dynamics through the lens of a unique black church.
“Although elusive and difficult to define, blackness serves as one of the most potent and unifying domains of identity,” she explains. “Blackness, as a concept, is extremely fluid: it can refer to cultural and ethnic identity, socio-political status, an aesthetic and embodied way of being, a social and political consciousness or a diasporic kinship. Given the different experiences of blackness, its fluidity and multiplicity, how does an individual or community understand and negotiate that identity?”
Abrams sought to answer this question within the context of a very specific community—that of the First Afrikan Church, a middle-class, Afrocentric Atlanta-based congregation.
“This book offers an ethnographic study of the ways in which First Afrikan’s construction of community is influenced by shared understandings of blackness,” she says. “It probes the means through which individuals negotiate the tensions created by competing constructions of identity. “
Aside from providing material for her book, Abrams’ experiences at First Afrikan continue to influence her courses in cultural anthropology, gender and African American studies, where she draws upon her participant observation and interview experiences.
And although Abrams jokes that her favorite element of her research was being well fed by incredibly hospitable people, she seriously enjoyed the chance to work in her own community, especially because it helped her illuminate less well-known understandings of black identity.
“Many of the anthropological and sociological texts concerning African Americans focus on the woes and hardships of being poor and black,” she explains. “While these dynamics are indeed real and important, not all black people are poor and the lives of poor people are not defined solely by oppression. I appreciated and took seriously the privilege of being able to provide a different perspective and insight into African American culture and identity.”
Though the book is hot off the press, Abrams’ work is far from finished; she is already pursuing new intellectual directions after helping current student Victoria DiMartile ’15 research Danville’s historic African American district.
“Danville’s African American population is smaller than Atlanta’s, yet it also has an important civil rights and cultural history that shapes today’s community and identity,” Abrams explains. “My future project is to compare the contemporary constructions of blackness in Danville and Atlanta.”
By Mariel Smith