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Blackness, the Sacred, and the Transformation of Space

In a speech titled "Blackness, Religion and Architecture," presented to N.O.M.A.S. for Black History Month 2021, Dr. Biko Mandela Gray explores the deep resonance and resiliency of Black religious experience through the unassuming material aesthetic of the storefront church.

Quoting James Baldwin in "Go Tell It on the Mountain", Dr. Gray relays how the protagonist John Grimes finds his spiritual transformation and renewal in an unlikely, dilapidated, “brutally hideous” storefront space. The climax of the novel is in this space where Grimes, in religious ecstasy, kneels in the dust on the threshing-floor under the yellow lights and “finds religion”. It is in this unlikely space – a space transformed into a sacred place full of meaning– that Grimes finds his own transformation and new religious identity.

As precursors to having an actual church building – built or storefront – (the history of purpose-built Black church buildings we will have to take on in an ensuing post)– one finds how nature, too, was a locus for architectural, “material”, and indeed social possibility. As Dr. Christopher Hunter describes in his essay, “The African American Church House: A Phenomenological Inquiry of an Afrocentric Sacred Space,” hush harbors, or brush harbors, were sacred spaces carved out in nature to avoid detection: “It was in the context of their brush harbor meetings on plantations that slaves first began to forge from the crucible of their African experience and the terrors of their inservitude a vision of Christianity that would be distinctively their own. (Johnson and Jersild 2014, p. 10, quoted from Hunter). Those creating hush harbors were effective at transforming the space into a place of sanctity and, fundamentally, sociality. By coming together in shared space, enslaved persons were able not only to tap into transcendence, but into community. This aspect of sociality remains one of the central aspects of Black churches; as Dr. Gray puts it, “To commune with God in black churches is to commune with others.”

These “repurposed” spaces demonstrate radical meaning-altering power– to change a space from somewhere one inhabits by necessity, from something non-ideal, into its own special location of meaning, community, identity, safety, and transcendence.

Dr. Gray underscores the point that architecture need not be only about building anew, building codes, permits, and designs. Architecture is also learning how to see space and read space anew – with all the meaning, history, theology, and possibility that is ensconced in the walls of each site coming alive.

On behalf of Sharing Sacred Spaces, we agree with this view, and we’re having a great discussion with architects William Stanley III and Ivenue Love-Stanley on June 9th about how Black history, identity, and community are written into the walls of the spaces they have designed. Register here for this webinar coming up soon.

Sources: NOMAS BHM 2021 - Hidden Histories: Dr. Biko Mandela Gray "Blackness, Religion and Architecture" retrieved June 5, 2022 Hunter, Christopher. 2022. The African American Church House: A Phenomenological Inquiry of an Afrocentric Sacred Space. Religions 13: 246. rel13030246.

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