Albert J. Raboteau in his office at Princeton University in 2013. Photo credit Kyle Christy/Loyola Marymount University
African American, Religion, History
Albert Jordy Raboteau II
Albert J. Raboteau II was a founder of African American religious studies. His meticulous research and publications, anchored in the voices and historical documents of African Americans, dispel negative assumptions about the practice of African American religions being corruptions of European religious practices.
Albert Jordy Raboteau was born in St. Louis Bay, Mississippi in 1943, just three months after his father had been murdered by a white man. After his father’s killer claimed self-defense and was never prosecuted, Raboteau’s mother, Mabel, a domestic worker, moved her family first to Ann Arbor, Michigan, then later to Pasadena, California, in an effort to escape Jim Crow. When Raboteau was 4 years old, his mother married Royal L. Woods, who became one of his primary influences while growing up. Woods, an African American former priest, had given up this calling due to racial bigotry he encountered within the Catholic Church in Mississippi. Woods taught Raboteau Greek and Latin and mentored him as he began his intellectual journey, sharing readings by progressive Catholics like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
After graduating from a Franciscan high school, he entered Loyola University (now Loyola Marymount) in Los Angeles at age 16. There, he earned a BA in English Literature (1964), followed by an MA in English (1966) from University of California Berkeley and an MA in theology (1968) at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Upon graduation, he accepted a faculty position teaching theology at Xavier University, an HBCU in New Orleans, LA. After teaching there two years and wrestling with questions that challenged his Catholic beliefs, he entered a graduate program in the history of religion at Yale, studying with John Blassingame among others, and earning his MA (1972) and PhD (1974). It was here that Raboteau determined that the study of Black religion would become his life’s work.
After teaching history and African American Studies at Yale and UC Berkeley, Raboteau accepted an invitation to teach as a visiting professor at Princeton in 1982. He joined Princeton’s faculty the following year, where he remained for the rest of his career. In 1987, he was named the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion and chair of the department in 1987, serving in that capacity until 1992. Throughout his career, he accrued many national and international honors for teaching, service, and achievement, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship.
As a key founding scholar of African American religious studies, Raboteau was renowned as the author of the essential classic, Slave Religion (1978). This book examines the multiple strands of religion that Africans brought with them and developed to shape African American religious traditions in slavery. His meticulous research, based in the voices and records of enslaved people, countered biased conceptions of Black American religious practices as merely corruptions of European religious traditions as had previously prevailed in white scholarship on the topic.
Among his numerous publications of note for folklore are:
Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (1978)
A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African American Religious History (1996)