xbn .
Cover of Kindred Spirits, licensed under fair use
Catholic Re-Visions

Decolonizing Knowledge with Brenna Moore and Onaje X.O. Woodbine

“Both authors travel to the margins and then send back a warning signal to fellow scholars about the limits and potential intrusiveness of our established methods.”

Onaje X.O. Woodbine and Brenna Moore are decolonizers of knowledge. Certainly, both authors tell great stories about religious subjects. But these books are relentless assaults on Western knowledge and its framing of religion. Both authors travel to the margins and then send back a warning signal to fellow scholars about the limits and potential intrusiveness of our established methods. This review compares and contrasts these two compelling books in an effort to assess their efforts to decolonize knowledge.

Onaje Woodbine’s Take Back What the Devil Stole examines the life of Donna Haskins, an African American woman who grew up a sexualized object in Boston. Later, transcending her patriarchal environment with the help of the Holy Spirit, Donna emerged as a spiritualized prophet capable of teleportation, fighting off demons, and, perhaps most importantly, the creator and sustainer of her own strong internal world. Woodbine traces Donna’s evolution across three stages (indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the gift of Grace, and Gifts from Heaven) and he details the spiritual powers she acquired along the way (speaking in tongues, mind-reading, emancipating trapped spirits). This book is the product of long conversations between Woodbine and Donna; Woodbine lifts up Donna’s voice by constructing a sophisticated intellectual framing to amplify her own profound insights about her struggles and victories. The end result is not only a stunning and deeply moving biographical portrait but a methodological triumph.

Woodbine sees himself as co-creating knowledge with Donna to escape the strictures of what he calls a “white male-dominated academy.” He argues that Donna is not “an object of scientific investigation” to be unveiled with his analysis. Take Back What the Devil Stole builds an “intermediate realm” that was both “subjective and objective without totally being either” (62). Knowledge is created from its own positionality while connecting with broader vantage points of theory. Brenna Moore, with a similar intellectual thrust, observes how contemporary humanists prefer historicism over the “imaginative, affective or aesthetic approach.” She adds that mysticism and friendship are cast as “insufficiently realist” and, categorized as “sentimental,” ultimately judged by scholars as inadequate for “the task of politics” (34). Thus, friendship is shunted aside into a private realm.

Moore’s work painstakingly reconstructs the vibes generated by a global network of spiritual comrades. These spiritual friendships, as she calls them, were characterized by religious ecstasy, physical longings, deep emotional experiences, and a politics of resistance against Europe’s embrace of fascism and xenophobia. She says these friendships “offered a powerful corridor to the sacred” (5). Her case studies include: connections between Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral and the Maritains (Jacques and Raissa); ties formed between renowned Islamicist Louis Massignon and activist Mary Kahlil; the politicized spirituality fomented by philosopher-savant Marie-Magdeleine Davy and the legendary Simone Weil; and the thick intersubjectivities reified through Jamaican-American writer Claude McKay’s time spent in the famed Friendship Houses in American cities. Moore’s concept of spiritual friendship is generative—it offers a helpful interrogation of the discipline of intellectual history—and this book is expertly crafted in terms of its writing and style. 

Moore and Woodbine liberate spirituality from the condescension of the political. The term “spirituality” seems to denote an innocuous phenomenon, more likely to be free play rather than serious political work. Donna grew up in low-income apartments in Boston. As Woodbine shows, drawing on a rich tapestry of Womanist theory, such a place—a series of overlapping systems—dispossessed Black women of their bodies. This unauthorized usurpation of Donna’s body was, Woodbine writes, “prescribed by the prevailing narratives and institutions that define the streets of Boston, such as Donna’s neighborhood schools; the Boston police force; government housing projects; heterosexual black, white and Latino men; or family members” (5). After Donna had acquired powers of teleportation (she could transport across time and space in her dreams) she traveled back in time to a Southern plantation where she built a bridge of light that allowed Indians and slaves to cross from entrapment in the material realm to a freedom in the ethereal realm. Donna’s spiritual battles were political acts meant to dismantle the racist and sexist systems that built modern America. We cannot, then, see Donna simply as a sanctified individual living apart from the real world. Her conversion made her internal life a position of strength from which she shaped her surroundings to better ends.

To summon spiritual powers makes “the personal” or “the private” a politics. Colonial knowledge frames spiritual acts as frivolous and primordial. These “irrational exercises,” colonial logic insists, require a disciplinary response from state authorities to align them with “reasonable” regimes. In fact, Moore suggests, spirituality is politically potent precisely because it escapes this episteme. Spiritual friendship offered an alternative to human ties based on blood, kindship or nationality—the prevailing social imaginations alive in Europe between 1920 and 1960, before and even well after the continent’s descent into fascism. Spiritual friendship constituted a means to alter prevailing constructions of private and public. Effervescing a spiritual connection generated desires to become political that these friends then actualized in numerous ways. Deep conversations in the Martians’ salon, a room festooned with photos of dozens of spiritual friends (objects of veneration), motivated Gabriel Mistral to disseminate Jacques’s natural law-based critiques of fascism throughout Latin America, where these ideas remain influential today. Personal letters maintained the connections during long spells away from one another’s physically embodied and spiritually-charged presences.

These spiritual connections were shared between persons but also appeared in practices of reading, both in these personal letters or in weighty theological tomes. In addition, one could have a spiritual friendship with men and women of letters long dead. But this did not mean a flight into anachronism. Davy’s imaginative practices of spiritual reading were not, Moore shows, exercises in esoterism; instead, her reading of medieval thinkers (men she felt a spiritual connection with) marked an effort to engage modern philosophical schools like existentialism and psychoanalysis. Moore demonstrates how spiritual friendship helped to galvanize the Nouvelle Théologie, a twentieth-century approach to reading ancient and medieval texts that, as historian Sarah Shortall has recently shown, underwrote a vibrant political Catholicism critical of both totalitarianism and liberalism.[1] Spiritual friendship loosened the bindings that race, the nation-state, and the family had placed on European thought and, as a result, on political imagination and political activism.

Religion has no stable relationship with sexuality but must be reconstructed empirically in its historical and cultural contexts. For Donna, decades of sexual oppression—cat calls, attempted rape, infidelities of partners—produced the origins of her spiritual migration. A decision to be celibate allowed her to step back from own environment and reassess it. She broke off her relations with men after realizing, Woodbine claims, that men were socialized to see her as a sex object. For Moore’s group of friends religion functioned as a type of aphrodisiac that created an erotic heat between individuals that sometimes seemed to more spiritual (internal) than physical (external). These friendships brought into existence tense sexual situations that were not necessarily physical.

The most dramatic difference between the books, perhaps with good reason, is how Moore obscures some of her subjects’ sexual identities whereas Woodbine reconstructs the finest details of Donna’s sexual history. Moore grants her cast of characters “rights of opacity” so as to prevent their assimilation into our preexisting binaries of gay/straight, heterosexual/homosexual, and public/private. Woodbine gives us an all-access pass to Donna’s sexualized upbringing precisely because Donna herself offered this clarity when she and Woodbine co-created knowledge in an effort to escape a binary of subjective/objective.

The contrasting of Moore’s commitment to blurriness and Woodbine’s (and Donna’s) choice of pure candor strike at the heart of colonial knowledge. The scholar of religion Kathryn Lofton has suggested that to study an individual’s life in close detail necessarily entails a type of governance. “To know them,” she writes, “is to govern them.” She adds that, “this is the struggling work of all scholarship: to acknowledge that its very free enactment of a solo thinker is also a practice of governance with others.”[2] So the question has to be asked: does the very act of describing an object of study (religious or secular) mean placing them into preexisting, and somewhat compromised, genealogies of knowledge? With Woodbine we see Donna’s life in very clear terms; Moore sets up a strategic distance between her readers and the friends she writes about.

I myself might not be the best individual to answer this question. I crave, as these reviewers might note in their comments about my book, the Archimedean point that historians arrogate to themselves. I relish the tension that is created when a historian thinks they have ascended to an objective vantage point after reading hundreds of primary source documents. I delight in considering a field of knowledge in its supposed totality, though I am aware I see the knowledge from my own positionality and subjectivity.

Woodbine and Donna do co-create a type of empirically-based knowledge that is then shaped into a satisfying narrative. They explain Donna’s life in a linear fashion, moving across time, from sexual debasement to the creation of a new consciousness in the Holy Spirit. This is a neat narrative with a legible arc, one that can be found in many stories of conversion and rebirth. In that sense, this story, although unique to itself, is a familiar one. But Woodbine and Donna have told Donna’s story on her terms. They have managed to take her story about her life and bring it into a conversation with a series of established academic methodologies. I will leave it to the reader to decide if they have in fact created an “intermediate zone” between the subjectivity of existence and the objectivity of academic classification. But we should take seriously Woodbine’s suggestion that we read our books to our subjects, as he did when the ink dried on the initial drafts of Take Back What the Devil Stole.

Moore’s move, granting the right of opacity, is riskier. It suggests that decolonizing knowledge means not allowing the reader an assessment of all available facts even if the researcher has gathered the facts. Moore fears that if we deal only in “cold hard facts” we will “shuttle” her subjects “into our own plotlines” (226). Instead of caring about Davy’s relationship with God—her internal tensions, spiritual desires, spiritualized readings—we might look to center her relationships with more prominent male Catholic theologians like Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou. This would leave the broader field of Catholic Intellectual History as white, male, and European largely intact. One of Moore’s protagonists, Louis Massignon, detested his family life (likening it to being gently gnawed on by rats), had romantic feelings for other men, and had an intense emotional relationship with Mary Kahlil that sparked longing and loneliness. Moore’s book offers details of these stories but declines to center Massingnon’s sexuality. She is concerned that instead of seeing Louis Massingnon’s pathbreaking scholarship on Islam as a critique of a xenophobic anti-immigrant Europe we might be tempted to accuse him of violently appropriating “The Other” in his Christian texts. These moves have the unintended consequence of raising the reader’s curiosity. Is the answer to the question of decolonizing knowledge somehow contained in a refusal to give all facts? Does this refusal to tip one’s hand break down our established binaries?

But there is no reward without risk. Moore’s book is a breakthrough. Scholars of religion will benefit immensely from thinking with Kindred Spirits for its epistemological implications and they will see the twentieth century with new eyes because of its historiographical interventions. She is persuasive in showing that spiritual friendship is a widespread and significant phenomenon. More than this, while throwing up some deliberate smokescreens has its problems, this book is exquisitely framed. She manages to shunt aside things that might distract us from the task at hand of seeing the complexity, potency, and humanity of these friendships. Without such a framing, friendship would not be a hermeneutic capable of reshaping how we think of Catholic intellectual history. In Moore’s hands, spiritual friendship has implications for how we think of gender, race, ideas, and colonialism in the context of the modern. Spiritual friendship helped to produce some of the most influential ideas of the twentieth century. Colonial knowledge could easily reduce the importance of spiritual friendship or pack it away into the private realm. But to understand the twentieth century we must see these spiritual friendships on the terms and potentialities they created; Moore has accomplished something important with Kindred Spirits in rendering these relationships into a powerful new way to perceive a violent century.

The vistas Moore opens can help us to see the fresh powers of Woodbine’s methods. Woodbine and Donna seemed to have created a type of spiritual friendship. Laughing together, crying together, and producing scholarship are all a piece. We cannot see emotional life and scholarly life as separate affairs, even if colonial practices would have us set these two very human processes apart.

[1] Sarah Shortall, Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth-Century French Politics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021).

[2] Kathryn Lofton, “Revisited: Sex Abuse and the Study of Religion,” The Immanent Frame, April 24, 2018. https://tif.ssrc.org/2018/08/24/sex-abuse-and-the-study-of-religion/

The Inner Life and the Constraints of the World in Woodbine and Cajka’s New Books

Woodbine’s beautiful narrative is extraordinarily self-aware, and deeply humane. Haskins’ own voice is strong, active, present throughout. I had not planned to read it in one sitting but I literally could not put it down. Only a couple miles northwest of Haskins’ Roxbury, in the mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood of Chestnut Hill near Boston College, there is a totally other religious and cultural world. This is the place of white priests, educated Catholics, lecture halls, and the circuits of urban Catholic power. Particularly in the 1960s and 70s, it might as well have been another planet from Afro-Caribbean Roxbury.

Decolonizing Knowledge with Brenna Moore and Onaje X.O. Woodbine

“Both authors travel to the margins and then send back a warning signal to fellow scholars about the limits and potential intrusiveness of our established methods.”

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!