Notes on faith: How can we decolonize our faith?

As we assess what allyship should look like, we must prioritize decolonizing our faith to ensure our documented history and stories are told.

“Notes on faith” is theGrio’s inspirationalinterdenominational series featuring Black thought leaders across faiths.

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round,
turn me ’round, turn me ’round,
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ’round
I’m gonna keep on a walkin’, keep on a-talkin’,
Marching up to freedom land.

Recently, Tennessee State Representative Gloria Johnson posted a video of herself to social media, singing a beloved freedom song entitled “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” at a celebration in Knoxville. She was encircled by white women peers who seemed familiar with the song, clapping along and smiling as they looked into her camera phone and at each other. Saying they were “channeling,” Johnson misattributed the song to recording artist Joan Baez, an American folk musician and activist of mixed Mexican and Scottish ancestry who recorded it in 1976.

Decolonizing faith, Notes on Faith, Christianity, Tennessee,
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Coincidentally, Baez’s voice had been amplified as a voice of freedom just a week or so earlier. Video circulated of Rep. Justin Jones singing another freedom song, “We Shall Overcome,” with Baez in the airport, shortly after he and Rep. Justin Pearson were expelled from the Tennessee House for protesting in the well of the legislature. As previously reported by theGrio, Reps. Jones, Pearson, and Gloria Johnson protested lawmakers’ inaction in response to a local mass shooting; ultimately, the two Black men were expelled. Johnson, a white woman, was not, later commenting that the vote went in her favor because of racism among their colleagues. The tensions surrounding the incident drove home the racial divides that persist in states like Tennessee — and highlighted the privileges afforded white allies, even when unintentional. 

As in that nod to Baez, this is what cultural erasure sounds like.

While Baez recorded a popular rendition, the original song, “Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Around,” is a traditional Negro spiritual we can hear in Freedom Rider and SNCC recordings captured decades prior and curated by Dr. Berniece Johnson Reagon for the Smithsonian. Throughout the civil rights movement, Baez, Bob Dylan, and other non-Black musicians were inspired by the African-American voices of their time to record songs supporting the struggle. However, specificity about the origins of this and other songs is crucial in making social justice meaningful in allyship.

Oft-repeated misattribution in the name of performing social justice is precisely why we must prioritize decolonizing our faith. By decolonizing our faith, we let go of colonial control as we unify with our communities and practice our faiths. We are calling attention (and intention) that our documented history must inform allyship to ensure our stories are told, especially through one of our culture’s most precious gifts to the world: our music.

In the age of Black Lives Matter and in the state of Tennessee, where protesting is literally being criminalized, we have to be very clear about the ways in which we permit people to love and leverage our culture only when it is convenient or beneficial for that white ally.   

These observations cause us to question what the landscape of things is as we consider the text in Psalm 133:1:

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for sisters and brothers to dwell together in unity!”

Sometimes, the process of unifying can be clumsy and quite uncomfortable.

That should not deter us from going on record or setting the record straight when needed. If anything, for the sake of holistic liberation, we must be accurate.  

The model of decolonizers

Do not lose heart, brothers and sisters. Black Americans carry a legacy rooted in the African philosophy: “I am because we are.” Any struggle requires a collective press toward holistic liberation in which we all succeed. We recognize many have been in this fight. 

In the very same city from which Rep. Johnson hails is our hometown church of Mount Zion in Knoxville, Tenn., where our father, Rev. Dr. Johnnie W. Skinner, Sr., is currently senior pastor. Founded in 1860, about three years before Emancipation, enslaved and freed Black ancestors protested their treatment within the white-led congregation of First Baptist Church and formed their own congregation in response. They did not wait for permission to embrace their autonomy in freely worshiping; they created justice in unjust religious apartheid. The Black prophetic tradition speaks truth to power and does not separate faith and justice in how we do our work. Such work is not deterred by jeers or lukewarm support from people who are more invested in their comfort than progress.

The undeterred Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman expressed a decolonized faith as she grasped justice in the unjust system of chattel slavery: “God’s time is always near. He set the North Star in the heavens; He gave me the strength in my limbs; He meant I should be free.”

These voices are models of what it means to be undeterred and clear about the ways in which they uplift, amplify, liberate, and unify their kin. May we do the work of remembering our origins and keep focused on where we are going.

Let us be proud to celebrate an undaunted faith heritage. Too often, faithful people rooted in Blackness are shamed for the uniqueness of uplifting “how we got over.” Be Black, proud, and prepared to reflect on the quality of alliance you will permit into your life. On some level, you will need to protect and reclaim your heritage as we pursue unity. And as we assess potential allies, we hope they will gravitate toward foundational understandings of the cultural expressions we hold dear, whether through music, dance, or even protest strategies that have sustained us.

Don’t let nobody turn you around in our quest to a freedom land where our entire legacy is remembered.

Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones is a faith leader helping people find their groove in a fast-paced world, as a consultant for various arts and faith organizations and professor of music in contemporary societies at the University of Cambridge in England. She is an award-winning author of Flaming? The Peculiar Theopolitics of Fire and Desire in Black Male Gospel Performance (Oxford University Press). For more information, please visit

Rev. Calvin Taylor Skinner is dedicated to empowering frontline communities in Knoxville, TN and the United Kingdom. He uses Faith and Policy to address energy justice, criminal justice reform, voter education/mobilization, electoral politics, and global affairs. Along with his wife, Rev. Dr. Alisha Lola Jones, they lead InSight Initiative, a consulting firm that focuses on capacity building and live events production.

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