Historian delves into religion, culture, race

As a prolific scholar and teacher, Professor Charles Long, emeritus professor of history of religions and former director of the Center for Black Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, has influenced three generations of historians of religion and African-American studies. Described by Michael Brown, professor of anthropology and Latin American studies, as a “pivotal figure in comparative religion and history of religion,” Long delivered the annual W. Allison Davis 1924 and John A. Davis 1933 Lecture last Thursday.

Long began his lecture, entitled “Religion and the Sociological Imagination of African-American Social Scientists,” with a brief biography of Allison Davis ’24, one of the foremost black anthropologists of the century, whom he knew personally. Davis obtained advanced degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago, where he later became a member of the faculty.

After these reminiscences, Long discussed the situation of black academics and academic literature from the 1950s to the present. When Long entered graduate school at the University of Chicago in 1949, the faculty held only three tenured black professors. Two years earlier, W.E.B. DuBois, the famous black civil rights leader and sociologist, had made a list of black professors at American universities and found that only seventeen universities had at least one black faculty member.

“We must remember that in 1949, it did not seem to be necessarily a good thing to have black colleagues,” Long said.

Nevertheless, the time was very exciting for the black students at the University with a “stunning array of scholarship,” according to Long. Marxism, “in both its vulgar and sophisticated modes, contributed to the atmosphere,” he said. Students were also influenced by notable black thinkers from DuBois to Richard Wright, who had spent time auditing courses at the University.

“The conversation among the several black grad students at the University took place in an atmosphere saturated with the discourse of the social sciences,” Long said. “This conversation was existentially grounded by the fact that we were the subject of this study.”

From there, Long went on to discuss the main theorists of black culture in that period, ranging from Edward Frazier to the economist Abram Harris. While Long respected their work, he felt uncomfortable with their lack of action. “Most of the people I’m talking about, even though [they] have theories that are action-oriented, never took action,” Long said.

Some of these scholars, however, were involved in non-academic settings. Many contributed to the Brown v. Board case in 1954. The Chicago School, in particular, was interested in empirical analyses of the race problem in the U.S. and wanted to use that empirical knowledge to make predictions.

For these social scientists, religion was synonymous with the institutional black church. Although the black church was the only independent black institution, it was also initially created and encouraged by white slave owners as a method of social control. Thus the black church, even in the north, was “residual at best, pathological at worst.” Long then criticized these theorists, mostly sociologists, for not including historians in their analyses. “It’s almost as though they have an ideology about religion that keeps them from probing into what really happened sort of thing,” he said. “The social sciences . . . have always been predicting that one day we’ll get away with religion.”