Published March 21, 2022

By Leslie Garisto Pfaff

A new project, supported by a Luce Foundation grant, will unite scholars and community members seeking racial justice through activism, spirituality, and the arts.

A $250,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to Rutgers will support an ambitious, many-layered project examining the intersection of racial justice and religious practices in the Black community.

“Understanding Spirit: Black Religious Practice and the Search for Racial Justice” will create a collaboration among five very different but complementary research partners to shed light on a subject that has often been misperceived in academic research. The project, says Carter Mathes, a co-principal investigator and the associate director of Rutgers’ Advanced Institute for Critical Caribbean Studies (RAICCS), “departs from traditional academic models that tend to situate organizations and communities as objects for analysis”—an approach, he notes, that can unintentionally reinforce the stereotypes of Africa and blackness as primitive and inferior.

Instead, the three-year project will engage in what Mathes describes as “a transdisciplinary approach, where collaborations between community organizers, spiritual leaders, and academics from different disciplines can take place.” Nelson Maldonado-Torres, another principal investigator and the director of RAICCS, describes an essential goal of “Understanding Spirit” as “supporting the formation and cultivation of communities that aspire to achieve racial justice.”

The partners in the project comprise spiritual, artistic, activist, and academic communities: RAICCS is a significant innovator in the realm of Caribbean studies and the study of race, coloniality, and decoloniality. Arts for Art is a New York City-based nonprofit committed to advancing free jazz, an African American indigenous art form characterized by improvisation. Nana Sula Evans UCNB’94, founder and priestess of the Temple of Light-Ile’ de Coin-Coin in New Orleans, has dedicated herself to what she describes as “the elevation of souls” through African spiritual traditions. Corredor Afro, the Creative Justice Initiative, and Corporación Piñones se Integra in Puerto Rico are three antiracist nonprofit organizations that contribute to the cultural wealth of African diaspora communities and honor the ethics, aesthetics, traditions, and spirituality of Black people.

Each year of the project, which will launch in May, will be devoted to one of three interconnected themes: ancestrality (practices that maintain a living memory of communities in struggle); healing (efforts by those communities to thrive); and futurity (the search for justice and the securing of a better future for subsequent generations). Each of these themes will be the subject of an annual two-day event that celebrates Black spirituality through music, ritual, art, and conversations among community activists, spiritual leaders, and creative artists.

In taking a transnational, transdisciplinary approach, says Maldonado-Torres, “we not only challenge the separation between scholarly research and other forms of knowledge production but also explore connections through and beyond the secular/religious divide.”

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