This past Thursday, Staff Writer Olivia Chiroiu attended “The Spiritual Life of Social Movements,” a lecture by Professor Nyle Fort as part of the Thursday lecture series hosted by The Society of Fellows. 

On December 7, I attended an illuminating talk given by Nyle Fort as part of a lecture series hosted by The Society of Fellows. Nyle fort is a minister, activist, writer, and assistant professor in Columbia’s Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, and his lecture focused on one of his chief intellectual interests: the “spiritual life of contemporary social movements.” It soon became clear that fort wanted the event to be a workshop rather than a lecture, raising open questions and proposing thoughtful ideas without claiming any unequivocal truths.

Fort began by tangibly linking his lecture to the current social and political moment by bringing up Columbia University Apartheid Divest. He read their demands and stated that this lecture was endorsed by the coalition. This opening was a powerful reminder that the type of intellectual discourse we would be getting into is anything but esoteric, instead connecting past struggles to present issues of social action. 

Fort then introduced the topics at stake in his lecture, encapsulated by the title “Power, Transformation, and Miracles: The Spiritual Force of the Black Radical Tradition.” Referencing scholars such as Cedric Robinson and Robin DG Kelley, he discussed radical social movements in terms of “freedom and love,” the “accretion of collective intelligence” gained from struggle, and the goal of creating “heaven on earth.” The first part of the lecture would then go on to unpack the connotations and interpretations of “the Black radical tradition,” referencing the work of different theorists that try to break down the various components of this term.

Fort then began meditating on “what is radical about the Black radical tradition,” and the sources and spiritual values that make up this tradition. This is where he started to delve deeper into the notion of spirituality as it relates to social movements. Again citing different thinkers, he spoke of Black religion as a “faith in the sacred nature of Blackness,” and “the ethical arm of Black movement.” He asserted that he conceptualizes religion expansively as opposed to a single practice, and argued that the main task moving forward should be to ask in “what ways the spirit is alive today.”

Deviating from some other scholars, Fort announced his rejection of a “master narrative” when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement. Linking the movement to its historical predecessor, the Civil Rights Movement, he argued that the master narrative suffers from various oversimplifications and exclusions. Among these ideological flaws, he identified an emphasis on individual leadership, the exclusion of lesser-known organizations, and a focus on the US as an exclusive site of struggle. While he still celebrated the ethical and spiritual dimensions of Black Lives Matter, he stressed the importance of constructive criticism in the ongoing efficacy of social movements. Thus, according to him, the challenge is to reject any singular narrative and instead “tell an entirely different story altogether.”

This lecture was fascinating and relevant, and Fort was a brilliant speaker. One of the audience members aptly told him that the talk sometimes felt like a scholar delivering a sermon; as he spoke, Fort would emphatically repeat certain phrases as if they were verses, generating powerful moments and ideas through his speech. He treated the audience as both students and intellectual peers, treating the issue with the nuance and complexity it deserves while keeping the discussion accessible and open. I left with an expanded and complicated conception of spirituality, radicalism, and the importance of a holistic view of scholarly discourse and social responses to oppression.

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