Black Religious Leadership in the Public and Political Spheres: A Critical Analysis
Brooks, Kyle Eugene
This dissertation closely reads the public rhetoric and performance of three monumental figures in black religious discourse - Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton – in order to trace how a personality-centered model of black public leadership has emerged and sustained itself through the fusion of oral communicative strategies and charismatic activity. This project charts the collective aspects of the public sphere wherein King, Jackson, and Sharpton become part of a larger communicative drama of speech and action. I argue that these three are emblematic of an evolving leadership typology that is contingent upon the unique historical, cultural, and aesthetic spheres in which they are embedded. As such, their forms of leadership are neither inevitable nor accidental; rather, these forms constitute powerful narrative structures through which these figures effectively 1) bolstered their identity and authority as spokespersons for black sociopolitical interests and 2) engaged in public theological praxis. I initiate this study with a genealogical description of how African, European, and American influences came together to shape the roles and practices of black preachers, shaping a layered tradition that evolved over time to serve various functions in and outside of ecclesial contexts. Via that tradition, a recurring aesthetic of black religious leadership emerges and is popularly reiterated through King, Jackson, and Sharpton. Upon closer examination, these reiterations reveal the limits and contradictions of interpreting black sociopolitical representation through the nostalgic hagiography of charismatic authority. Notwithstanding the popular cultural significance of King, Jackson, and Sharpton, I assert that the form and content of black public leadership must be reconceived beyond the limited scope and reproductive possibilities engendered by black clergymen.