Albert Jordy Raboteau

Title
Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion
Bio/Description

A Memorial Resolution

– honoring –

Albert Jordy Raboteau

(1943-2021)

Albert Jordy Raboteau, Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion, Emeritus, died in Princeton, New Jersey on September 18, 2021, at the age of 78. During his time as a member of the Princeton faculty, from 1983 until his retirement in 2013, Raboteau was a major intellectual force at the University and in the fields of African American Studies and Religious Studies. His contributions were significant in the Department of Religion, which he chaired from 1987 to 1992. He was a founding member of the Center for Culture, Society, and Religion and the University Center for Human Values. Raboteau was active in the Program in American Studies and took enormous pride that his contributions to the Program in Afro-American Studies helped lead to the establishment of the Department of African American Studies in 2015. Raboteau also served as the Dean of the Graduate School during the 1992-1993 academic year.

Born in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in 1943, three months after his father was shot and killed by a white man, Raboteau’s life was shaped by this fact and by the moral demand he felt as a descendant of enslaved Africans in America to tell their stories as American stories. His research, teaching, and public life were influenced by his faith, formed first in the Black Roman Catholic world of his family and childhood in Mississippi, through his education at a Franciscan high school, at Loyola Marymount University, where he received a B.A. in English in 1964, and Marquette University, where he received an M.A. in Theology in 1968 after completing an M.A. in English at the University of California, Berkeley in 1966. With his Theology degree, he spent a year as an Instructor at Xavier University in New Orleans. Animated by the Civil Rights Movement and seeking a more purposeful connection between his intellectual life and the world around him than he felt the academic study of theology afforded, Raboteau entered a Ph.D. program in Religious Studies at Yale, where he also studied in the recently established Department of Afro-American Studies. He received his degree in 1974, spent two years as an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and African American Studies at Yale and then moved to the History and African American Studies Departments at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was promoted to Professor in 1982, the year before he moved to Princeton.

Raboteau’s magisterial book, Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South, based on his dissertation and published in 1979, is a landmark work that transformed understandings of the religious worlds of the enslaved and established the field of African American religious history. With his theological education informing how he approached the archive, Raboteau gathered traces of the experiences of the enslaved into a story told in beautiful ascetic prose, about the creative spiritual agency of human beings subjected to horror. He shows how this spiritual agency created space for a robust conception of freedom not reducible to formal politics. Raboteau reveals how the profound Christian witness of the enslaved and the grammar of faith shared with Christian enslavers occasioned momentary breakthroughs in which they could see each other as children of God. “Religion,” as he intimated, “could bend human relationships into some interesting shapes.” How he explores this insight by attending to the suffering and joys of enslaved Black people lies at the heart of Slave Religion’s profound and enduring impact in the field of religious studies.

Many of his later writings, including the essays in A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History (1995), present a seamless and moving blend of personal and historical reflection. In his 2002 memoir, A Sorrowful Joy: A Spiritual Journey of an African American Man in Late-Twentieth-Century America, he writes of what led him to find a spiritual home in Orthodoxy and recounts seeking out the son of the man who murdered his father, finding forgiveness for the man’s father and grace for himself. In his final book, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and their Struggle for Social and Political Justice (2016), Raboteau profiled a diverse group of exemplary figures who were models of reverent resistance on behalf of the oppressed, witnesses with “fire in their bones,” and risking everything for a better world.

Raboteau loved the classroom and was a beloved teacher, advisor, and mentor to hundreds of students at Princeton, as well as other institutions where he served as visiting faculty. His courses at Princeton demonstrated the breadth of his interests as well his interdisciplinary approach to exploring the role of religion in American society, art, and culture. As a teacher, he expected excellence at every turn from his undergraduate and graduate students. Soft-spoken though he was and exuding gentleness and warmth in the classroom, he did not suffer fools or the unprepared easily. He invited students to learn with him and demanded that they approach their subjects with the same respect he brought to his work.

In his long career, Raboteau received numerous honors and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1991), election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1990), honorary degrees from Marquette University (1990), Loyola College in Maryland (1992), the University of Notre Dame (1993), and Loyola Marymount University (1994). The Journal of Africana Religions named a prize in his honor (2013), and he was the inaugural winner in 2012 of the James W. C. Pennington Award from the University of Heidelberg. He received Princeton’s Martin Luther King Day Journey Award for Lifetime Service (2006), and the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities (1998). He remained ever humble, kind, generous, and charitable to students and colleagues at Princeton and beyond, sharing his wisdom and eschewing ambition in favor of telling true stories reverently.

 

Memorial Resolution Committee:

 

Judith Weisenfeld

Chair, Department of Religion

Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion

 

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

Chair, Department of African American Studies

James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor

 

Jeffrey L. Stout

Professor of Religion, Emeritus