The Problem of African American Religious Studies within Africana Studies: An Introductory Essay
Written by Paul Easterling
One of the first things that can be noticed by African American scholars of Religious Studies is that there is not much work done by intellectuals of Religious Studies within the realm of Africana Studies. There is much “lip service” paid to the issue of religion and/or spirituality within Africana/Black Studies circles, but there is not much rigorous research done in this realm by Religious Studies scholars. This may be because African American Religious Studies as a discipline is a fairly new and emerging field. However, this may also be because scholars of Africana Studies take for granted the supposed “spiritual” nature of people of African descent. Meaning, it is often remarked that African people are a spiritual people without clarity of what that actually means.
It is to this end that this essay is directed. That is to say, this composition will be the first in a series of essays devoted to the scholarly pursuit of Africana Religious Studies. Though not a formal title, Africana Religious Studies is defined as the scholarly engagement of religions that have been formulated or impacted by people of African descent. To continue, Africana Religious Studies seeks to engage in the academic investigation of religions of the African continent and the African diaspora (Yoruba, Santeria, Voodoo, etcetera) as well as those that have impacted the landmass of Africa and its people (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and so forth). This will be done in an effort to fill an intellectual void within the Africana Studies research community and to bring scholars of African American religion and scholars of Africana Studies into much needed conversation.
To elaborate, leading scholars of Africana Studies do well in directing others toward the pursuit of religious scholarship, but do not have the training to engage in the conversation within Religious Studies. For example, the introductory text, Introduction to Black Studies by Maulana Karenga, devoted an entire chapter to Black Religion, but the author of the text does not have the training to engage Religious Studies. Karenga also published a book entitled MAAT: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt, a worthwhile area of study within the discipline of Africana Studies as well as a much-needed publication, however one that lacks key insight into the language, theories and methods of Religious Studies scholarship.
As well, Karenga’s contemporary Molefi Asante, a scholar who is given much credit for providing the name and shape of Africana Studies as an academic discipline, does well in noting the importance of Africana Religion in his theory of Afrocentricity, but has little training in this area as his expertise is in the field of communications. This is not to overlook the theory of Afrocentricity or the efforts of scholars like Asante and Karenga; however, it is to highlight the need for greater clarification and further research in the area of African American Religious Studies within the discipline of Africana Studies. Further, the point of this is only to highlight one of the major shortcomings of the field of Africana Studies in general and African American Religious Studies in particular, scholarly arenas that have much to say about each other but have not said much to each other as a field of study or as scholars.
It seems a bit odd that scholars of these fields do not converse more, particularly since there is shared interest in the subject matter, that being people of African descent. But this silence is understandable and not completely unique to these fields because of what may be termed as disciplinary unanimity. Meaning, to be an academic discipline that field of study must adhere to the structure it has created for itself. Even for disciplines that claim interdisciplinarity there are bounds, mandates, and structures that must be followed. This is evidenced by the theories and methods created within disciplines. However, having said that, within interdisciplinary fields, there is an expectation or maybe an assumption that these bounds must have certain flexibility to them so as to not become rigid and monolithic, which is the very thing that interdisciplinary disciplines find problematic in traditional disciplines, particularly those of the Eurocentric variety.
Going back to the point of this introductory essay, African American Religious Studies is part of Africana Studies by virtue of its subject matter: African people. Therefore, there must be some effort on the part of both disciplines (Africana Studies and African American Religious Studies) to engage each other in an effort to develop solutions to problems that have and still do plague African people. It matters not if the problem(s) is/are rooted in some sense of spirituality, politics, economics, psychology, law, and so forth, what matters is the past, present and future well-being of African people across the globe.
This series of essays will survey the nature of Africana Religious Studies using the methods of Africana Studies, again, in an effort to bring these academic communities into conversation. Conversely, the methods of African American Religious Studies will be employed to examine aspects of Africana Studies. For instance, borrowing again from Asante these essays will analyze aspects of African American Religious Studies from an African-centered perspective. Some query that may offer relevant conversation: does Janheinz Jahn’s understanding of Muntu have anything to offer Anthony Pinn’s understanding of African American humanism?
On the other side of this argument, Pinn’s understanding of African American humanism can be employed to evaluate the merit of African-centered research and analysis. For example, does Asante’s development of Afrocentricity speak to Pinn’s understanding of African American humanism.  Or, can Karenga’s Kawaida theory answer the “who, what, when, where and why we are” of Pinn’s interpretation of the nature of Black religion. Or are these ideas compatible enough to even come into conversation at all, and if not, why? This dialogue is important for the simple reason that the conversation concerning African/a people has much overlap across academic disciplines, theories and methods. Much has been said about African/a life and culture and Africana Studies has attempted to provide a theoretical starting point (Afrocentricity) as well as disciplinary cohesion to that conversation. Continuing in that effort, this series of essay will bring Africana Studies and African American Religious Studies into academic conversation.
 Maulana Karenga. Introduction to Black Studies. (University of Sankore Press: Los Angeles, 2002), 233-298.
 Maulana Karenga. MAAT: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt. (University of Sankore Press: Los Angeles, 2006).
 Molefi Asante. Afrocentricity: A Theory of Social Change. (Amulefi Publishing Co.: Buffalo, 1980). See also: Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge. (Africa World Press: Trenton, New Jersey, 1990). The Afrocentric Idea (Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 1998).
 This is something the author of this essay has observed while attending both of the conferences of the Nation Council for Black Studies (NCBS) and the American Academy of Religion (AAR) as well as engaging in conversation with scholars of both fields. To use an analogy: they are like scholarly ships passing in the night, talking past each other but never (or rarely) with each other.
 Janheinz Jahn. Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. (Grove Press: New York, 1990). Jahn’s work centers on literature and linguistics in the African world.
 Anthony Pinn. The End of God-Talk: An African-American Humanist Theology (Oxford Press: New York, 2012). See also: African American Humanist Principles: Living and Thinking like the Children of Nimrod. (Palgrave McMillian: New York, 2004). Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion. (Augsburgh Forstress: Minneapolis, 2003). Pinn was trained in the study of Religion at Harvard University.