Albert J. Raboteau, whose work on the history of Christianity among enslaved blacks transformed the study of black culture and American religion, helping to cement African American studies as a rigorous academic discipline, died on September 18 at his home in Princeton. , New Jersey. He was 78 years old.
Her daughter, Emily Raboteau, said the cause was Lewy Body Dementia.
Raboteau, who spent 30 years teaching at Princeton University, was among the first historians to demonstrate that enslaved blacks did not simply embrace the Christian faith of their white oppressors. Beginning with his first book, “Slave Religion” (1978), he documented how they mixed elements of African religious traditions with a sui generis theology which saw in the history of Christ the reflection of their own suffering.
“Divine election does not bring preeminence, elevation and glory, but – as black Christians know too well – humiliation, suffering and rejection,” he wrote in the Boston Review in 2005. “The election, as reflected in the life of Jesus, led to a cross.
In this faith, he found a way to speak about the experience of black people in America at large – the legacy of Africa and the oppression of slavery, as well as the joy that came from the rich culture that enslaved and liberated people created for themselves.
“What he did was put together all the religious currents that Africans brought with them and then how they developed once there,” said Anthea Butler, chair of the religious studies department of the ‘University of Pennsylvania, in an interview.
His university education in the 1970s coincided with the flowering of African American studies programs, and high-level work like his helped the emerging field gain legitimacy. Raboteau also pushed it forward, insisting that this secular discipline, often radical, make way for theology and religious history.
Much of his work has been shaped by his own deeply held religious beliefs. Born into the Roman Catholic Church, he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the 1990s, finding there an appreciation for what he called the “sorrowful joy” he found in black Christianity, as well. than a prospect of existing on the fringes of traditional life. .
“In both there is a quality of sad joy, a feeling that life in a minor tone is life as it is; emphasis on the importance of suffering as a sign of the authenticity of faith, ”he writes in the Boston Review.
Albert Jordy Raboteau II was born September 4, 1943 in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast. Three months earlier, a white man had shot and killed his father. There were no witnesses and the man, citing self-defense, was never prosecuted.
When Raboteau was still a baby, his mother, Mabel (Ishem) Raboteau, a teacher and domestic worker, moved with him and his two sisters to Ann Arbor, Michigan, both to escape the horrors of the Jim Crow Deep era. South and to find new opportunities in the North.
Raboteau attended parish schools, both in Michigan and in Pasadena, where his family moved in 1958. By this time, his mother had married Royal L. Woods, a former Mississippi priest who had left the clergy. because of racism within the church.
Woods taught Raboteau Latin and Greek, and despite his own fallout with the Catholic Church, he influenced Raboteau’s childhood interest in becoming a monk, as did Raboteau’s avid reading of progressive Catholic writers such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
Although Raboteau never joined the priesthood, his interest in religion shaped his academic and professional career. He attended Loyola University, now Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit institution in Los Angeles, and then obtained a master’s degree in literature from the University of California at Berkeley in 1966.
His time at Berkeley coincided with the tumult of counterculture and anti-war movements, as well as the blossoming of black political consciousness on college campuses. At Marquette University in Wisconsin, where he earned a master’s degree in divinity, he helped lead a protest that closed the school for two weeks, calling on Marquette to bring in more black students and faculty.
A graduate of Marquette, Raboteau taught theology at Xavier University in New Orleans. But the courts crushed him, forcing him to face questions about his own beliefs that he wasn’t ready to answer.
“Teaching theology,” he wrote in his 2002 memoir, “A Sorrowful Joy,” “made me lose my faith”.
He left Xavier in order to turn to history, entering a postgraduate program at Yale University in 1970. There he studied with Sydney E. Ahlstrom, a prominent historian of American religion, and John Blassingame, a pioneer in the study of slavery from the perspective of enslaved people.
Until the 1970s, most historians looked at slavery from the perspective of whites, ignoring how blacks experienced it. Blassingame, along with historians such as Leon Litwack and Eugene Genovese, took the opposite view, digging through the archives for accounts of how slaves and newly freed people lived, resisted white oppression and developed their own culture.