Can a Hindu be Black?: A Study of Black Americans and Hinduism
Nearly half a century ago, acclaimed jazz musician Alice Coltrane (1937-2007), marital partner of saxophonist John Coltrane, began disseminating Hindu (Vedanta) teachings and jazz-inflected bhajans (songs of praise) in her predominately Black, though multiracial, spiritual community in Southern California. Despite all her accomplishments–becoming the first African American guru, authoring two revelatory sacred texts, composing fifteen devotional albums (many on major record labels), and founding and directing a Vedantic center and quasi-monastic community for over thirty years–the highly acclaimed Alice Coltrane is overlooked by scholars of religion, especially of Asian religions. Similarly, Cleveland-born, Princeton graduate Bhakti Tirtha Swami (1950-2005)–who initiated hundreds of disciples across North America, Africa and Eastern Europe into a Hindu religious tradition (Gaudiya Vaishnavism), authored nineteen books, and acted as a consultant to several world leaders–has also passed away hardly noticed. Since at least the 1960s, Black Americans have made lifelong religious commitments to Vedantic teachings and South Asian religious practices such as performing kirtans and bhajans. Despite this, their presence and contributions remain virtually invisible to scholars. My dissertation seeks to disclose Black Americans’ presence and influence in Hinduism since the 1960s as well as raise an urgent ethical and theoretical question for the study of religion: Can a Hindu be Black?
Through intellectual and aesthetic artifacts, literary publications, and twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with Black Americans across several U.S. Hindu communities, my doctoral research illustrates Black Americans’ participation in Hinduism since the 1960s through the charismatic leaders Alice “Swamini Turiyasangitananda” Coltrane, John “Bhakti Tirtha Swami” Favors, Clarissa “Krsnanandini Devi Dasi” Jones, and a successive generation of Black practitioners. Thus, my study answers the above question affirmatively; yet, building on recent scholarship on the racialization of religion and genealogies of religion, my study also provokes an indispensable examination of race, ethnicity, and geography in academic constructions of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism,’ assessing how theory and discourse have, at times, foreclosed the possibility of a Black Hindu.
African American studies
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