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Book with insights on black politics, religion wins Grawemeyer Award

Dec 02, 2011
A book filled with fresh insights on the relationship between black politics and religion has earned its author the 2012 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion.

Barbara D. Savage, a professor of history and American social thought at the University of Pennsylvania, is receiving the prize for the ideas set forth in her book, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion, published in 2008 by Harvard University Press.

The book, selected from among 66 nominated works, introduces important new perspectives on the study of black religion and the political role of African American churches.

“Dr. Savage explains why it is misleading to speak of ‘the black church’ given the enormous diversity among African American congregations. She also challenges the popular belief that black churches have been prophetic and politically active throughout history, which has retrojected an image from the post-Civil Rights era onto earlier decades,” said award director Susan R. Garrett, Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean-elect at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

In light of this understanding, “the crucial role of the black churches in the Civil Rights movement was not inevitable, but something of a miracle,” added Garrett.

Savage’s analysis includes critical evaluation of three of the most influential black intellectuals of the early twentieth-century: W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, and Benjamin E. Mays. “She focuses on how these prominent thinkers advocated for theological education for black ministers. But she also shows how black women, such as Nannie Helen Burroughs who was excluded from religious leadership and the formal study of black religion, became leaders outside their churches,” Garrett said. Burroughs founded one of the nation’s first vocational schools for women.

Your Spirits Walk Beside Us combines areas of study that are usually kept separate.

“On the one hand, Savage’s book is a scholarly, yet very-accessible, analysis of the academic study of black religion. On the other hand, it is also an elegant narration about lived religion—that is, religion as it has been practiced in the lives of service and commitment,” said Garrett.

A Penn faculty member since 1995, Savage teaches courses on American religious and social reform, 20th Century African American history and the relationship between media and politics. She has held administrative posts at Penn’s Center for Africana Studies and previously worked as a staff member in the U.S. Congress.

Savage will present a lecture on her award-winning book at Louisville Seminary, April 11, 2012, at 7 p.m. in Caldwell Chapel.

Louisville Seminary jointly presents the Grawemeyer Award in Religion with the University of Louisville. The university also presents four Grawemeyer Awards each year for outstanding works in music composition, world order, psychology, and education. The awards are $100,000 each.

For more details on the awards or to download Savage’s photo, see www.grawemeyer.org


About Barbara D. Savage

Barbara D. Savage is Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Her book, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion, has been hailed as the definitive historical examination of debates about the public responsibility of black churches and the role of religion in racial leadership.

Among her other writings are Women and Religion in the African Diaspora, a book she co-edited in 2006, and Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War and the Politics of Race, 1938-1948

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