Last Thursday, Michael Warner, professor of American Studies at Yale University, delivered a lecture titled "The Evangelical Black Atlantic" as part of Geneseo's sixth annual Walter Harding Lecture.
Richard Finkelstein, chair of the English department, began the session by honoring Harding, a former distinguished professor of English at Geneseo. Afterwards, English professor Alice Rutkowski introduced Warner.
"I'm going to talk about the importance of Evangelicalism in the development of secularism … Evangelicalism as a form of religion, supports the notion of a public sphere," Warner said, opening his lecture with a somewhat challenging statement. He said this holds true even though many people associate the concept of a "public" with secularism.
"There is an underlying irony to Evangelicalism," he said. "If you're always telling the culture around you to convert to Christianity, you're presupposing that culture is secular."
Warner made the argument that Evangelical writings were more important than works of political protest in creating a venue through which blacks could speak openly. He used the experiences of Phillis Wheatley and John Marrant, two 18th century African-American writers, to illustrate his point.
Specifically, Warner referred to two of Wheatley's poems: "On Being Brought from Africa to America" and "To the University of Cambridge in New England." He noted that although "we usually read past the conversion and read the religious language to political ends," the writing is defined more accurately by its religious reverence than its political rhetoric.
Warner also said that through writing about religious conversion, blacks were able to create a public sphere for themselves. "A public sphere is a place where anyone can speak anywhere," he said. "It was an Evangelical public that allowed black speakers into the public sphere … Wheatley became famous in the public sphere as a poet with [religious verse]."
Warner said that Marrant, too, became recognized for his evangelical writings. He said Marrant's story tells of "the transfer of the power of public speech … and this is an Evangelical transfer."
Students said that the depth of Warner's discussion impressed them. "I thought his points were interesting and something I didn't think about before," sophomore Michael Vaughn said. "I'm glad I went because it's something we don't talk about often."
The Walter Harding Lecture was launched in 2004 and is sponsored by the Harding family endowment, the English department and the Office of the President.