Whitney Battle-Baptiste, anthropology and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, appeared on a panel during a two-day academic conference on the relationship between black religious traditions and material objects hosted by the new Center for the Study of African American Religious Life (CSAARL) at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C.
“Recovering the Bones: African American Material Religion and Religious Memory” took place Oct. 27-28 at the Oprah Winfrey Theater in the museum.
Battle-Baptiste spoke about the importance of material culture as a physical connection between our past and present.
“An object can often tell us about culture at the same time that culture reflects the meaning of an object,” she said. “We are inextricably tied to the material around us. This is one of the central reasons why the NMAAHC is so important to people of African descent in this country. The pieces that fill the halls of this new museum serve as the symbols of our journey in this country.”
The conference explored the relationship between black religious traditions and material objects by bringing together scholars from a variety of academic disciplines, including folklore studies, archaeology, religious history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, art history, ethnomusicology and religious studies.
Conference participants examined the varied ways material objects and religious memory have helped to shape African-American history and culture. With a focus on material culture, the conference extended contemporary scholarship on African-American religion beyond traditional text-based approaches.
“The conference was also significant because usually archaeology and archaeologists are not a part of the conversations in religious studies, African-American history, or black/Africana studies in general,” Battle-Baptiste said.
Religious objects examined included: clothing; art; sacred texts; musical instruments; objects appropriated from the natural world; food; and embodied religious practices.