Penn Professor Barbara Savage’s 'Your Spirits Walk Beside Us' Wins 2012 Grawemeyer Award in Religion

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | | 215-898-6460December 2, 2011

PHILADELPHIA -- Barbara Savage of the University of Pennsylvania has won the Grawemeyer Award for the ideas set forth in her book Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion, published in 2008 by Harvard University Press. The annual award carries a $100,000 prize.

“Dr. Savage's book is an outstanding piece of scholarship,” School of Arts and Sciences Dean Rebecca Bushnell said. “This recognition is richly deserved and a further demonstration of our History Department's preeminence in examining the political, cultural and racial tensions of the 19th and 20th centuries, which continue to have an impact on the U.S. today."

Savage, a Penn faculty member since 1995, teaches courses in American religious and social reform, 20th century African-American history and the relationship between media and politics.

Susan Garrett, director of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion, hailed the book for introducing important new perspectives on the study of black religion and the political role of African-American churches.

“Besides explaining why it is misleading to speak of ‘the black church’ given the enormous diversity among African-American congregations, Savage challenges the popular belief that black churches have been prophetic and politically active throughout history,” Garrett said.

Savage called the Grawemeyer Award significant because it recognizes the importance of African-American religion, its place in history and its relationship to American politics.  

“It vindicates my interest in the power of African-American history and religion and is a testament to the ideas and work of black intellectuals and religious leaders,” she said.

Your Spirits Walk Beside Us traces the persistent debate among African-Americans about the public responsibility of black churches and the place of black religion in black political struggle by profiling the work of African-American religious leaders and politicians and concludes with a chapter on the controversy that erupted between then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and his pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Savage also shows how black women, such as Nannie Helen Burroughs, who were excluded from religious leadership and the formal study of black religion, became leaders outside their churches. Burroughs founded one of the nation’s first vocational schools for women.

The University of Louisville presents four Grawemeyer Awards each year for outstanding works in music composition, world order, psychology and education. The university and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary jointly give a fifth award in religion.

Additional information about the awards and a downloadable image of Savage is available at