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Prayers for the People

Homicide and Humanity in the Crescent City

“Grieve well and you grow stronger.” Anthropologist Rebecca Louise Carter heard this wisdom over and over while living in post-Katrina New Orleans, where everyday violence disproportionately affects Black communities. What does it mean to grieve well? How does mourning strengthen survivors in the face of ongoing threats to Black life?
Inspired by ministers and guided by grieving mothers who hold birthday parties for their deceased sons, Prayers for the People traces the emergence of a powerful new African American religious ideal at the intersection of urban life, death, and social and spiritual change. Carter frames this sensitive ethnography within the complex history of structural violence in America—from the legacies of slavery to free but unequal citizenship, from mass incarceration and overpolicing to social abandonment and the unequal distribution of goods and services. And yet Carter offers a vision of restorative kinship by which communities of faith work against the denial of Black personhood as well as the violent severing of social and familial bonds. A timely directive for human relations during a contentious time in America’s history, Prayers for the People is also a hopeful vision of what an inclusive, nonviolent, and just urban society could be.

Read the introduction.

272 pages | 5 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Religion: American Religions

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


"Rebecca Louise Carter’s stunning urban ethnography Prayers for the People: Homicide and Humanity in the Crescent City honors Black grief, love, and the spiritual-healing work of Black mothers. Based on two years of fieldwork in post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Prayers for the People examines how Black residents navigate a city with one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the United States, disproportionately impacting young Black men and the Black community. . . . The ethnography’s accessible language and insistence on a dynamic conceptualization of Black urban life and agency will benefit students of urban studies and anthropology, as well as organizers and activists seeking to connect to ongoing social justice work in communities of faith. In the persistent struggle for Black liberation, Prayers for the People illuminates expressions and practices of Black love and worthiness, making visible possibilities for sustainable Black futures."

Transforming Anthropology

"Prayers for the People, while remaining within traditional definitions of US American religions scholarship, centers the work of Black religious women and situates their prayers, interventions, and theological interpretations as work—an important contribution. This work, the work of Black women in life and in death, remains essential in our current moment. Thus, in confronting death and grief in New Orleans, Prayers for the People ultimately offers hope. If we can find the strength and faith to find ourselves 'there with the dead' in a mystical beloved community, we might yet 'chart a generative path through death into new and expansive ways of being, relating, and dwelling.'"

American Religion

“Carter’s incisive and sensitively rendered ethnography is a necessary intervention in scholarship concerned with violence and Black communities. Her careful attention to the details of living remind us that relationships and matters of the spirit often exceed the everyday and spectacular forms of trauma often associated with Black life.”

Aimee Meredith Cox, Yale University

“Profoundly moving and eloquently written, Prayers for the People is a major contribution to the anthropology of urban religion. It is also essential reading for understanding the deepest grounds of despair and hope in contemporary American society.”

Robert A. Orsi, Northwestern University

“With captivating prose, Carter has written an excellent ethnographic and historical study of religion, love, death, and meaning making among a community plagued by violence in New Orleans. Rich in history and social context, Prayers for the People provides increased depth and complexity to the current literature on African American religion.”

Marla Frederick, Harvard University

"This thoughtful, engaging, and accessible study examines the activities of African Americans in New Orleans as they attempt to memorialize young black males who were victims of homicide. . . .  Projecting a positive, hopeful vision of urban community life and struggle, this volume is a major contribution to the study of urban religion. . . .  Highly recommended."


"In terms of charting historical change, both in broad strokes and in specific moments, Rebecca Carter’s book, Prayers for the People, is remarkably effective. More broadly, the book provides equally compelling, thorough, and insightful accounts of multiple institutions and cultural phenomena: it is as remarkable an ethnography of the role of religion in the reimagining of self in New Orleans as it is a study of urban violence. This is anthropology at its best: beautifully written, surprising, deeply informative, and intellectually provocative. It is also quite adventurous scholarship."

American Anthropologist

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Crescent City

Part One On Fragile Ground

1 The Black Urban Delta
2 “Twelve Murders and Two Victims?”: Asserting Black Social and Spiritual Value

Part Two In Search of Love at Liberty Street

Walk Out There on Faith
3 Somebodies on the Battlefield for the Lord
4 THOU SHALT NOT KILL: Commanding Peace in Particular Places

Part Three Raising Dead Sons

5 Black Mothers at the Center of Death and Transformation
6 Restorative Kinship: Birthdays and Death Anniversaries for Children of God
Conclusion: The Crescent City Illuminated



Society for Humanistic Anthropology: Edie Turner First-Book Prize in Ethnographic Writing

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