University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Pablo F. Gómez’s The Experiential Caribbean (UNC Press, 2017) has won the 2018 Albert J. Raboteau Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions.
Gómez’s carefully-researched book tells the story of over one hundred Black social and spiritual leaders who were regarded as masters of healing. Their use of rituals relied on what might be called evidence-based ideas about sensorial experience. Trying to understand what was universally true about the human body, these healers emphasized empirical causes and cures for disease. Gómez’s book provides a rare glimpse into their intellectual world.
According to the 2018 prize committee, the book “makes creative and generative contributions to our understandings of Africana religions. The study offers new approaches to questions about the nature of African diaspora religions that have long been formulated through frames of cultural retention or exchange. In this analytically transformative work, Gómez moves away from the classificatory schema of religion and western science to show how African diaspora inspirations (in all their multitudes and messy complicated formations) were crucial to the early modern period of history.”
Members of the committee included Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús (Princeton University); Zekeria Ahmed Salem (Northwestern University); Nicole von Germeten (Oregon State University); Jason Young (University of Michigan); and Judith Weisenfeld (Princeton University).
“Pablo Gómez’s work shows the irreplaceable role of Black religious actors in the making of the modern world,” said Journal of Africana Religions founding co-editors Edward E. Curtis and Sylvester Johnson. “It demonstrates the transoceanic impact of Africana Religions on what it means to be human.”
The Albert J. Raboteau Prize is awarded each year to an academic book that exemplifies the ethos and mission of the Journal of Africana Religions, an interdisciplinary journal that publishes scholarship on African and African diasporic religious traditions. Albert J. Raboteau, for whom the prize is named, is author of the classic Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South, a book that has made a lasting impact in the field of Africana religions. To become eligible for the award, books must be nominated by an academic publisher, and a prestigious five-member committee is responsible for assessing these nominations and determining a winner. The selection, thus, is international in scope and highly competitive.
PREVIOUSLY AWARDED BOOKS
Judith Weisenfeld’s New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity During the Great Migration (New York: NYU Press, 2016) won the 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions.
Focusing on the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and a number of congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews, Judith Weisenfeld argues that the appeal of these groups lay not only in the new religious opportunities membership provided, but also in the novel ways they formulated a religio-racial identity. Arguing that members of these groups understood their religious and racial identities as divinely-ordained and inseparable, Weisenfeld examines how this sense of self shaped their conceptions of their bodies, families, religious and social communities, space and place, and political sensibilities.
Weisenfeld draws on extensive archival research and incorporates a rich array of sources to highlight the experiences of average members. The book demonstrates that the efforts by members of these movements to contest conventional racial categorization contributed to broader discussions in black America about the nature of racial identity and the collective future of black people that still resonate today.
The 2017 book prize committee consisted of Professors Robert M. Baum of Dartmouth College; Rachel Harding of the University of Colorado-Denver; Wallace Best of Princeton University; Sohail Daulatzai of the University of California-Irvine; and Dawn-Marie Gibson of the Royal Holloway-University of London. The committee praised the book as a “magnificent study” for its “quality and clarify of scholarly vision” and found its recovery of religious accounts “fascinating and insightful.”
Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús’s Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015) earned the 2016 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions.
Electric Santería traces the phenomenon of co-presence in the lives of Santería practitioners, mapping its emergence in transnational places and historical moments and its ritual negotiation of race, imperialism, gender, sexuality, and religious travel. Departing from traditional perceptions of Santería as a static, localized practice or as part of a mythologized “past,” this book emphasizes the religion’s dynamic circulations and calls for nontranscendental understandings of religious transnationalisms.
Cécile Fromont’s The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) won the 2015 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions.
The Art of Conversion charts the changing nature of Kongolese Christian art across four centuries. Examining images and objects from swords and crosses to portraits and sashes, the book unearths an indigenous African religious culture while also revealing new perspectives on west central African regional conflicts, the Atlantic slave trade, and nineteenth-century European colonialism.
Jacob S. Dorman’s Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions (Oxford University Press, 2013) was selected to receive the 2014 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions.
Dorman’s book examines several African American religious groups linked by their shared claims of descent from ancient Black Israelites. It includes discussion of Black Israelite identities among Holiness and Pentecostal Christians, Black Jews, and Rastafarians. The book’s author, Jacob Dorman, is an associate professor of history and American studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
Michael Brown’s African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry (Cambridge University Press, 2012) was winner of the inaugural 2013 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions.
Brown’s book examines perceptions of the natural world revealed by the religious ideas and practices of Africa’s Kongo region and among African-descended communities in South Carolina from the colonial period into the twentieth century. Brown is an Associate Professor in the History department and the Africana Studies department at the Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.