As Laurie Maffly-Kipp (2011) observes in her history of African American Christianity, African American peoples who entered the New World as slaves brought with them a diverse body of religious beliefs and practices. These beliefs and practices reflected the ethnic groups from which they had come as well as the religious traditions, including Islam (which meant that the almost 20 percent of slaves who were Muslim brought with them an alternative religious text and literacy) and Christianity (particularly Catholicism), that had been present in Africa “for several centuries before the start of the slave trade” (Maffly-Kipp, 2011). African peoples who entered the Americas had encountered the biblical text in one form or another before enslavement.
Cultural hybridity and the trauma of enslavement, with religion as an ongoing justification for slavery—both in the argument that enslavement “saved” the heathen soul and that the children of Ham were natural slaves—gave Africans in America an uneasy, and improvisational, relationship to the Bible since they “encountered the Bible as strangers in a strange land of slavery, through the strange language of English letters, and by the strange religion of Evangelical Protestantism” (Callahan, 2006, pp. 2–3)—and, we would add, Catholicism as well. In addition, the New Testament letters of Paul were sources to encourage slave obedience. For Africans in the American landscape, North and South, transgressive Christology, understandings of the liberating power of Jesus, whose power was understood to be one with the power of Moses, and theology and understandings of God at work in history for liberation were key theological relationships to the biblical text. In addition, the image of Africa, particularly Egypt and Ethiopia, as both past and future civilization cushions the limen of slavery, making it a comprehensible moment in salvation history. But African Americans use the Bible intertextually, from the beginnings of slavery, in relation to what stories and traditions they bring from Africa, to now, in relation to canonical literature and theory and noncanonical African American traditions.
An ongoing doubleness characterizes African American literature and religiosity. The “African” and the “American” begin and remain in tension, centered on issues of freedom and identity. W. E. B. Du Bois’s double consciousness symbolizes this split. The self is never a self alone but one always with and for others (Paris, 1995). In relation to the biblical text, the citizenship of the coming world is negotiated against the present world, sometimes in simply surviving this world, but, more often, in attempting to bring freedom, healing, and love, the Kingdom of God, to this world, now.
African American life and literature begin in the limen, in crossing.
The Black Atlantic and the Making of Slaves.
The “Black Atlantic,” as Paul Gilroy (1995) has named it, became the transitive space in which these forms began their adaptation. The slave ship, according to Marcus Rediker in The Slave Ship: A Human History, was a combination of war machine, mobile prison, and factory, and it “produced” modernity—with its heightened production, its global scope, and its categories of race—even as it “produced” slaves (Rediker, 2008, pp. 9–10), seeking to make Africans only expendable and replaceable units of energy.
Those who entered the American landscape came as an “involuntary presence” (Long, 1997, p. 27). As Orlando Patterson (1992, p. 9) and other thinkers have pointed out, the bitter irony of the African presence in America was that its enslavement created the conditions for white freedom. Slavery in North America erased much, but what persisted was, Charles H. Long and others argue, if not pure and distinctive African elements of culture, an African consciousness that shaped African American cultural practice: “The slaves did not confront America with a religious tabula rasa. If not the content of culture, a characteristic mode of orienting and perceiving reality has probably persisted” (Long, 1997, p. 25). This mode of orientation adapted what the new slaves encountered to the cultural constructions that they brought with them. In a key statement, Long reminds us that:
"To be sure, the imagery of the Bible plays a large role in the symbolic presentations, but to move from this fact to any simplistic notion of blacks as slaves or former slaves converted to Christianity would, I think, miss several important religious meanings."
The biblical imagery was used because it was at hand; it was adapted to and invested with the experience of the slave. Strangely enough, it was the slave who gave a religious meaning to the notions of freedom and land. The deliverance of the children of Israel from the Egyptians became an archetype which enabled him to live with promise.(Long, 1997, pp. 29–30) Allen Callahan, commenting on Long, writes: “American slaves did not read the Bible through, or even over and against, the traditions they brought with them from West Africa: they read the Bible as a text into which these traditions were woven,” because, Callahan argues, the Bible looks at life “from below” (Callahan, 2008, pp. xii, xiii). Callahan argues that through using and interrogating the biblical tropes of Exile, Exodus, Ethiopia, and Emmanuel, African Americans developed a creative and “collective critical consciousness” that opens up criticism in both directions: African Americans can question and be questioned (pp. 245–246).
Gilroy sees that critical capacity expressed most powerfully in art, which “was offered to slaves as a substitute for the formal political freedoms they were denied under the plantation regime”; art and freedom became interwoven in African American life, and art, Gilroy argues, “became the backbone of the slaves’ political cultures and of their cultural history” (Gilroy, 1995, pp. 56–57) and a site of resistance and counteraction. “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs,” W. E. B. Du Bois writes, “there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence” (Du Bois, 1994, p. 162).
Negro Spirituals and the Fusion of Biblical Themes and African Rhythm.
Music, including work songs and spirituals, was one of the first expressions of African American aesthetic form and is part of the oral tradition of literary form. The Negro spirituals, first collected into a book by Richard Allen in 1801, are an ur-text for African American literature in its relation to the Bible. As Albert J. Raboteau tells us in Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, the lyrics and themes of the spirituals may have been biblical, but the style was African—so much so that those who tried to write them down could not represent the tones: “the odd sounds of the throat, and the curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals” could not be placed in a score (Raboteau, 1978, p. 74). The stylistic elements that would become part of African American literature were established as well, with a strong emphasis on call and response, polyrhythms, syncopation, ornamentation, slides from one note to another, and repetition. Other stylistic features included body movement, hand clapping, foot tapping, and heterophony.
W. E. B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, understood the spirituals to be the sign of African culture’s civilizational genius, the “greatest gift of the Negro people,” and a transnational form: the unique American contribution to the arts (Du Bois, 1994, p. 156). The controlled double consciousness, exercised in art, that is, simultaneously, individually and communally expressed and experienced defines the artistic agendas of African American works from the sermon, to the slave narratives, to contemporary artists like Toni Morrison, who utilizes musical form in her novels because she sees music as mediating between Western and African aesthetics, developing a double, sense of what it means to be human.
Black Poetry and “Appeals.”
Some of the first African American literature published was poetry, but poets like Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784) and Jupiter Hammon (1711–ca. 1806) also wrote letters and, in Hammon’s case, “appeals” to those of their own race for action. Both Wheatley and Hammon had close relationships with their owners, who taught them to read and write. Wheatley received freedom in her lifetime, but she died alone and in poverty, her husband having been incarcerated. Hammon was never a free man, living with his owners, the Lloyd family, all his life. Both were published under the scrutiny of white benefactors, making their work’s resistance necessarily subtly persuasive.
Wheatley’s volume of poetry, her composition of which was verified by 18 white, male Bostonians, was first understood to accept Christianity uncritically. Recently, however, modern feminist readers have uncovered the subtle, transgressive quality of her poetry. For example, “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1768), begins “ ’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land … ” (Wheatley, 2005). While Wheatley seems grateful for being a slave, the wordplay of the poem belies this. For example, in her restrained and subtle way, she calls her race “sable,” indicating worth, and the “diabolic die” reminds us that the Quaker leader John Woolman was boycotting dyes to protest slavery. She concludes the poem with a complicated construction that suggests that “Negros black as Cain” are also Christians who can “be refin’d and join the angelic train.” In addition, Wheatley also defines “Christian,” for her white audience, as Mary McAleer Balkun writes, as one who “responds affirmatively to the statements and situations in the poem” (Balkun, 2002, p. 131). In a 1744 letter to Reverend Samson Occom, a Native American Presbyterian minister and poet with whom she was friends, Wheatley parallels the situation of African slaves to the Israelites, writing that “in every human breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance” (Africans in America Resource Bank, 1998).
Jupiter Hammon’s “An Evening Thought” (1760) was the first poem by a black person to be published. His “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley” is a response to Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa,” urging her to see God’s hand in her enslavement. Hammon was a deeply religious man.
“An Evening Thought,” which is like a prayer, affirms that salvation comes from “Jesus Christ alone” and is available to “every one/That love his holy Word.” He calls Jesus God’s “captive Slave,” suggesting that God’s attention is on African American people, who will be set free. Both Wheatley and Hammon use the term “benighted soul” in their poems. The word means in moral ignorance and overtaken by darkness, but it can also mean language used to create a paradox or to obscure. Still, Hammon, who was a slave all his life, is much more overtly conservative than Wheatley, who ultimately gained her freedom.
In his “Address to the Negroes of New York” (1787), Hammon, then 70 years old, does not take on whether it is “right and lawful” (Hammon, 1787, p. 7) in the sight of God for African Americans to be slaves; instead, he offers advice from the biblical text to help the enslaved survive. He argues, for example, that it is God’s command to obey masters. Yet, Hammon is transgressive as well. He points to the Revolutionary War and the “conduct of white people” in their desire to keep liberty: “How much money has been spent, and how many lives have been lost to defend their liberty.” He continues, “I must say that I had hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of poor blacks, and to pity us. He has done it to some measure … for which we have reason to be thankful and to hope in his mercy” (p. 13). Hammon also points forward to Judgment Day: “Oh how solemn is the thought! You, and I, must stand, and hear every thing we have thought or done” (p. 16). The theme of judgment is pointed to his white readers. Hammon calls his readers to lead “quiet and peaceable lives in all Godliness and honesty” (p. 19) and blesses them, asserting that God’s will and God’s time triumph over human will: “If God designs to set us free, he will do it, in his own time, and way; but think of your bondage to sin and Satan, and do not rest, until you are delivered from it” (p. 18).
The Appeal as a Literary Form.
An appeal is an urgent, public request, an application to a higher authority, usually a court, to reverse a decision. It is an entreaty or supplication, a form of persuasion. Aristotle’s three forms of persuasion are sometimes called forms of appeal: ethos (credibility of the writer or speaker), pathos (emotion), and logos (reason). Hammon’s “Address” is an appeal based on ethos and logos to his fellow African Americans and to white America. While Hammon’s work utilizes the Pauline letters and Paul’s negotiation of the Jesus Movement in a variety of Greco-Roman settings, its nineteenth-century counterpart, David Walker’s widely denounced but also highly influential Appeal, utilizes logos and constructs a militant Jesus, whose judgment will come upon the so-called Christians that oppress African American people. Both make their appeals to a higher power: God. Both use pathos, which involves emotional appeal, but in its pure sense of “suffering” or “experience,” more properly translates logical argument into something one can feel, engaging the sympathy and imagination of the reader or hearer to motivate her to decision or action. David Walker (1785–1830), who studied history extensively and whose Appeal can be located in the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible, takes on Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) and, in contrast to Hammon’s call for obedience, urges his people to radical action.
Rather than as a source of Enlightenment, Walker sees Europe as the beginning point of terror and error—mingling blood and oppression with the Christianity of Jesus—and he finds that abomination transplanted onto American soil. He calls for black peoples to “lie humble at the feet of our Lord and Maker, Jesus Christ” but to seize their freedom and fight under our “Master Jesus Christ,” who himself wrestled with unjust oppression. Walker sees all of history standing with Jesus to condemn Christian America and those “who are so avaricious and ignorant that they do not believe” in Jesus. Walker is confident that Jesus Christ, “the King of heaven and of earth who is the God of justice and of armies, will surely go before” African Americans in their fight for freedom. “And those enemies who have for hundreds of years stolen our rights, and kept us ignorant of Him and His divine worship, he will remove.”
Walker distributed his pamphlet through the mail and through couriers so that it was read in Georgia, Virginia, Louisiana, and North Carolina. The response by states was strict laws forbidding teaching slaves to read and write, removal of the rights of assembly, and the prohibition of distribution of antislavery material. Walker’s Appeal stands as the preeminent example of radical African American literature in the nineteenth century.
The Slave Narrative Tradition.
Probably the most startling statement in Jupiter Hammon’s “Address” is his saying that he does not wish to be free himself. While we might see this as his being brainwashed by the master narrative, we must remember that Hammon was an old man, and he, no doubt, had seen what happened to slaves who had been “set free” in old age to struggle for basic survival and, usually, to die of illness, hunger, and exposure.
This was the fate of Sojourner Truth’s father, Bomfree (“tree” in Dutch), who was set free because he was too old to be of use to his master and who “was found on his miserable pallet, frozen and stiff in death. The kind angel had come at last, and relieved him of the many miseries that his fellow-man had heaped upon him. Yes, he had died, chilled and starved, with none to speak a kindly word, or do a kindly deed for him, in that last dread of hour of need!” (Truth, 1998, p. 25).
Truth’s Narrative (1850), which spans the late eighteenth into the late nineteenth century, is the only narrative that gives us a glimpse into Dutch New York slavery. Truth, born Isabella Bomfree (ca. 1797–1883), was a witness to numerous religious developments, living in the “burned-over district” of New York, a hotbed of new religious movements, being part of the Prophet Matthias community and scandal, and showing us a Second Great Awakening in spirituality and use of the biblical text. Isabella’s conversion experience begins with her recognition that God is “so big” that she needs a mediator to speak with him for her. A “friend” appears to her, and Isabella recognizes that she knows him: “I feel that you not only love me, but you always have loved me.” Isabella realizes that this is Jesus, who is also God, and that he will be her intercessor with the “big” God. She thinks that others do not know him, but as she enters the world, she finds that others do know Jesus. Her conversion leads her to a life of prayer.
The final element of Isabella’s conversion comes after her disillusionment with any organized religion. She begins a pilgrimage that will take her across the American North and into the new territories, praying and singing (Truth’s writing of hymns connects her with the spirituals tradition). This journey begins with a new name:
"Her next decision was, that she must leave the city; it was no place for her; yea, she felt called in spirit to leave it, and to travel east and lecture … –about an hour before she left, she informed Mrs. Whiting, the woman of the house where she was stopping, that her name was no longer Isabella, but SOJOURNER; and that she was going east. And to her inquiry, “What are you going east for?” her answer was, “The Spirit calls me there, and I must go.”" (Truth, 1998, p. 68)
Her last name, Truth, connects her to the spirit of God, which is truth.
Sojourner Truth also reflects the Protestant Second Great Awakening in her relationship to the Bible. She never learned to read and write, but she had the Bible read to her. She preferred children to read to her because they did not try to explain the text, which she wanted to interpret for herself, with startling conclusions for her time. Listening
"enabled to see what her own mind could make out of the record, and that, she said, was what she wanted, and not what others thought it to mean. She wished to compare the teachings of the Bible with the witness within her; and she came to the conclusion, that the spirit of truth spoke in those records, but that the recorders of those truths had intermingled with them ideas and suppositions of their own. This is one among the many proofs of her energy and independence of character." (Truth, 1998, p. 74)
If Truth was the poor, uneducated, but charismatic figure of her time, taking her authority from her own reason and spirit, Maria Stewart, as Valerie C. Cooper has proved, was the educated, scholarly one. She was mentored by David Walker but came to reject his call for violent action. Her “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build” is her confession of conversion and her political statement (Cooper, 2011, pp. 42–90). The Bible is for Stewart the source of eternal truth: it is political and prophetic and points us toward justice. Stewart only uses God’s words: “God is the actor who will bring justice.”
The Slave Narrative Tradition.
In many ways, Sojourner Truth and Maria Stewart are the transitional figures to the literary slave narrative tradition. The slave narrative represents a profound doubleness: it rests between history and memory, the collective and the individual, and the private and the public. It also rests between oral testimony and literary text, as well as between bondage and Enlightenment constructions of freedom. Henry Louis Gates and Charles T. Davis, in The Slave’s Narrative, comment on the importance of literacy in writing for the Enlightenment, arguing that writing is the sign of reason.
"Without writing, there could exist no repeatable sign of the workings of reason, of mind; with out memory or mind, there could exist no history; without history, there could exist no “humanity,” as was defined consistently from Vico to Hegel." (Davis and Gates, 1991, p. xxvii)
The slave narrative counters the majority culture’s categorizing African Americans as children and as creatures of nature not citizens of culture. It reveals an articulate self who can compose a life: the literary slave narratives, like those of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, whose Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was the most widely read narrative, are written by the persons themselves. It is important that the narrative be “written by him/her self. ” However, the purposes are communal: attaining freedom for the whole. The slave narrative, therefore, is a combination of poesis and politics, creating a stance, a philosophical mood that challenges the Enlightenment (Gilroy, 1995, p. 69). The disjunctive combination of a slave’s voice and a European genre creates dialectical tension, as we see in Douglass’s calling himself an “American,” defined as white and free, and a “slave,” defined as black and bound.
The authority of the author, who speaks in a prophetic voice, enumerating the sins of slavery and their consequences, must overcome the prurient lure of being able to view, in the narrative, slavery’s transgressions. Like Augustine’s Confessions, the slave narrative has to witness to the violence of slavery, including, for women, sexual violence, without that violence becoming sensational and overshadowing the human voice of the slave and the narrative’s political purposes.
It is the spirit of God who animates the Bible, the talking book, making it speak in transgressive ways in the slave narratives. Many slave narratives—Henry Bibb’s, for example—stress the slave’s desire to read the Bible and argue that the Bible is the source of moral instruction, the proof of an enlightened Christianity that would not allow slavery, and a consolation in times of trouble. Harriet Jacobs argues with her oppressor Dr. Flint, on biblical terms, making him exclaim “How dare you preach to me about your infernal Bible!” Allen Callahan argues that, in Frederick Douglass, “we find both incarnation and synthesis of the forces that inform the African American encounter with the Bible—the critical adoption of Evangelical religion, the relentless quest for literacy, and unflagging opposition to the slave regime in the South and those who colluded with it in the North” (Callahan, 2008, p. 22). Douglass’s Narrative shows him, after his transformative fight with the slave breaker Covey, enacting in community a Christian spirit in contrast to the Christianity of his day. Douglass brings his discipline, courage, and love to his slave community. For example, in a sabbath school, he teaches other slaves to read. A spirit moves through the people; they avoid excesses and “were trying to learn how to read the will of God” (Douglass, 1982, p. 120). Douglass finds love among people who are not supposed to be able to love, nobility among those thought to be ignoble, and courage among those who were thought not human enough to be brave.
The tradition of the slave narrative continues in contemporary African American literature, as contemporary writers utilize slave stories as the basis of their novels, as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or novelize the Middle Passage, as in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1998). In addition, the fearlessness of African American autobiographical testimony continued into the post-Reconstruction, with Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and with the aforementioned Souls of Black Folks. We see this tradition in the twentieth century in the series of autobiographical works of, for example, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker.
Poetry was also a force in the Abolitionist Movement. The anti-slavery movement used the Second Great Awakening revival form, bringing a variety of speakers and performers to a site to hold rallies. Sojourner Truth participated in many of these, as did Frederick Douglass. Frances E. W. Harper (1825–1911), for example, began giving anti-slavery speeches throughout the northern United States and Canada as a representative of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society. Her appearances included her prose and her poetry. Jean T. Corey argues that Harper’s poetry, particularly that focused on motherhood, like “The Slave Mother” and “The Slave Auction,” pushes her nineteenth-century readers to engage in alternative interpretative strategies (see Corey, 2009).
Women’s poetry, particularly, was seen as evidence of the progress of the race for post-Reconstruction writers. Mrs. N. F. Mossell in her The Work of the Afro-American Woman included biographies of prominent African American women, and she ended it with her own poetic work.
Post-Reconstruction writers were both religious and nonreligious, but the facility with word, in poetry, and Word, scripture, becomes a mark of leadership. W. E. B. Du Bois was not himself a religious man, but he recognized the power of black religiosity in The Souls of Black Folks. In “Of the Faith of the Fathers,” Du Bois, himself northern born, attends a revival. He sees the preaching and song, both of which utilize scripture, lead to “Frenzy,” when the congregation is “mad with supernatural joy” that is the “visible manifestation of God.” The preacher, with his facility with scripture, is the vehicle for this movement. Women’s clubs were a force in promoting Ida Wells-Barnett’s work. An African American women’s club, in 1892, presented Wells-Barnett with a brooch, inscribed with “Mizpab,” a place name from the Hebrew Bible meaning “lookout” that gave Wells-Barnett her identity and mission from scripture.
This power was much needed because post-Reconstruction America was a violent place for African Americans. Ida Wells-Barnett became a force in anti-lynching work. The Bible was the foundation for Wells-Barnett, who used the pen name “Exiled” in her journalistic work, understanding herself in a Moses-like way as both outcast and fugitive. Connecting to works like Harper’s, she saw participating in religious instruction, like teaching Sunday school, as basic to her work. She emphasized knowledge, as well as spirituality.
Some African American leaders, seeing slavery as a crucible in which African Americans received the gospel and locating that crucible as a stage in salvation history, wanted to take Christianity back to Africa. As Timothy E. Fulop explains, the myth of a golden African past and a future African golden age are linked by the understanding of Psalm 68:31: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God” (KJV; Fulop 1997, p. 237). This future redemption of Africa put slavery into a point in God’s salvation history. For the African American Christian, this meant purging Christianity of all the mistakes of white men, creating for black people a unique mission in civilization; according to James Theodore Holly, they “will experience a reversal from curse to blessing, from being servants to having ‘the post of honor under the heavenly government of God’ ” (Fulop, 1997, p. 240). Jupiter Hammon’s call for good character takes on a new note here, as black people are the future of humanity and human civilization.
Southern violence, however optimistic even southern Christians were about religion transforming race relations, led to migration North—and West as well—one consequence of which is the flourishing of African American arts and letters called “The Harlem Renaissance.” Alain Locke, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Duke Ellington, Ann Petry, and a young Richard Wright were among those who lived and worked in Harlem, which provided a haven in which to examine critically racism and to see the beauty and creativity that it squashed. The artists recognized the centrality of the black church and that the biblical narrative formed a basis for the Harlem Renaissance while they “encouraged creativity integrally connected to religious and philosophical ideals. Inviting critique and reinvestigation of traditional spiritual assumptions,” many artists either “engaged with new forms of religious expression including religious nationalism, storefront churches, and experimentation with new sects or cults” or embraced a more secular life (Pinn, 2009, p. 460), though the churches in the area were active in supporting the poor in the community. A rediscovery and intensification of interest in Africa and African diaspora religions and black folklore, as in Hurston’s anthropological work, also characterized this period, and it is the Harlem Renaissance’s parallel to white modernist fascination with primitivism.
The figure of Jesus is one site at which the diversity of the Harlem Renaissance’s thoughts on religion is worked out. For example, Cullen’s “The Black Christ” reflected on the lynching of a young black man who strikes a white man in self-defense. Qiana Whitted (2004, p. 380) reads this poem as a meditation on the suffering of the innocent, invoking both Jesus (Calvary “was but the first leaf in a line/Of trees on which a Man should swing”) and Job, but also as a meditation on the black body suffering. Jim, the man, is on one level, no Jesus. He desires revenge for the crime committed against him. Yet, Christ, who in Cullen’s poem is “without a fixed racial identity,” comes to be Jim’s face, “enfolding his spirit in the victimized flesh of a black man,” and taking his place in the lynching. Whitted concludes that Cullen’s decision to have Christ take Jim’s place
"offers a fresh interpretation of his Biblical account of his voluntary sacrifice. Consider Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, in which he remarks that Jesus “took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:7–9). In Cullen’s poem, it is blackness that acts as a sign of humanity in its fundamental, and most humble (“servant”) state. This shape-shifting—or rather, this race-shifting—Christ transcends race, even as He embodies the pain and suffering that are associated with its cultural construction in the segregated South. Anticipating one of the principal tenets asserted by black liberation theologians 40 years later, “The Black Christ” underscores the belief that “God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed … through Christ the poor are offered freedom now to rebel against that which makes them other than human” (Cone 8)." (Whitted, 2004, p. 384)
James Weldon Johnson most overtly utilized Christianity in his God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). The trombone is the black preacher’s voice. Johnson utilizes folk and sermonic traditions, as well as Hebrew Bible and New Testament details in his poems, which are sermons on “Creation,” “The Crucifixion,” the Exodus in “Let My People Go,” and other themes. Aaron Douglas created drawings to accompany each sermon. Johnson attempted to capture the antiphonal and tonal quality of black preaching, as well as the rhythms, such as we saw in the attempts to record the spirituals, which these poems resemble. The preacher is also a prophet, communicating God’s will. This text is a multivocal intertext. I use this term to describe texts that hold together multiple voices: the writer preserves the voices of those whose voices would otherwise have been erased. Much African American literature, from Phillis Wheatley’s poems to the slave narratives, were multivocal, as a white editor might participate in their creation and/or support the publication, testifying that the work was by the author herself. The intertextual quality of these texts puts these voices into history: into conversation with the canon of Western literature and philosophy as well as other religions. For example, there is a deep intertext in Martin Luther King Jr. ’s work with both the Bible and Gandhi.
In addition, Johnson, influenced by W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folks, asks the reader to bring aural and vocal qualities to his text. Johnson asks the reader to read but also to “hear” the poems in the way that the preacher might have delivered them, and Douglas’s powerful drawings add a visual dimension. This is a participatory text, pointing forward to the work of Toni Morrison.
Multivocality and intertextuality characterize another important text of the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer’s Cane (2011). The play on (sugar)cane, which was backbreaking work for slaves, and Cain, the figure in Genesis 4 is clear: the mark of Cain was understood to be blackness and that sign became a biblical justification for slavery. Jordan Cofer (2011) argues that Toomer uses the mark of Cain to look at those who are uprooted (reflecting the migrations north and west), isolated, rejected, and alienated. Toni Morrison will also utilize the Cain figure in Beloved to explore those marked by slavery, both physically and psychically (see Jones Medine, 1993). Toomer’s text includes a play, narrative, poetry, and a semi-autobiographical chapter. This book influenced Alice Walker deeply in two ways: first, in its depiction of southern black women and, second, in its free use of form. We see parallels in Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), other autobiographical works, and poetry in which Walker utilizes multiform, essay, poetry, and visual art. This breaking of form will be important for contemporary writers, like Walker and Toni Morrison, who utilize fragmentation to suggest the fracture of black subjectivity in the Middle Passage and slavery and to undo the double consciousness by its own effect.
African American male writers, however, struggle with this double consciousness, and they tend to be ambivalent about the Bible. In “Ralph Ellison and the Black Church,” Laura Saunders argues that John’s Gospel’s sense of language and particularly John 8:32 (“ … and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”), which Ellison heard as a child, underlies Ellison’s claims about the writer’s ability to “create or reveal hidden truths,” to make sense where there is none (Saunders, 2005, pp. 44–45). Ellison was not by nature a religious man; he was concerned with American democracy and the place of African Americans in it: “Ellison’s gospel … borrows from his Judeo-Christian heritage the notion of a Chosen People, a Promised Land, and Sacred Writ—Americans, the United States, and the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, respectively” (Saunders, 2005, p. 41). And though he understood the healing power of religion, its capacity to be a counterbalance to racism, he worried about religions (and politics) in their extreme forms, when they became detached—for religion, morality—from their realms. Religion, the Invisible Man says, is for the heart, not the head. Ellison, however, came to appreciate the music of the black church, turning to the music, which, as we have shown, holds the content of African American imagery, ideas and metaphors, rhythm, and sound in relation to the biblical text.
Both Ellison and Richard Wright focused on suffering, unmerited and potentially redemptive suffering, writing about Jesus in their own ways. For Ellison there is always a “chaos” threatening “the fragile floor of civilized humanity” (Saunders, 2005, p. 40; see also Beavers, 2004). Both writers utilize images of the underground or descent. While not overtly biblical, this ritual image is connected to Dostoyevsky’s images of the underground. Yet, while Ellison’s underground provides a place of safety and thought, like a monk’s cell, Wright’s underground man emerges from underground and is shot because his “kind … wreck things” (Wright, 1969, p. 74).
One characteristic of African American literature has been that of rediscovery. W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folks, for example, was lost in Du Bois’s problems with the U.S. government and his move to Africa. Its current influence, however, is strong. We see it having been the basis for much contemporary theory, influencing, consciously or unconsciously, Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, Edward Said’s embrace of contrapuntal sound, and Homi K. Bhaba’s sense of the nation as double. Du Bois’s statement that the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line is the basis for postcolonial theory.
Finding the Past.
Probably the most important rediscovery of African American cultural production has been Alice Walker’s bringing forth the work of Zora Neale Hurston, from Their Eyes Were Watching God to her folklore. Walker’s construction of “womanist” has generated a new area of study, womanist thought, and made the literary canon a site of excavation for theologians and ethicists. Walker’s work, along with that of Toni Morrison, has been a powerful voice in terms of interrogating religion for contemporary African Americans. Walker, in The Color Purple (1982), moves away from an image of God as a large white man to the power of God as Spirit animating and in all that is.
Morrison’s novels have been sites of a powerful interrogation of the biblical text. Morrison told Charles Ruas, in an interview, that the Bible was an important part of her life. Yet, we see in Morrison’s work the most powerful evidence of Charles Long’s statement with which we began: that the Bible is what is at hand in African American culture. Morrison, clearly, signifies on the biblical text, both canonical and noncanonical, as in her use of the Nag Hammadi texts in Paradise (1997). Morrison utilizes the Bible in an intertextual way with classical literature, African and African American folklore, her own family memories, and modernist and postmodern theory. In addition, she has a masterful command of American and world literature that works in her novels.
In Beloved and Sula, for example, Morrison turns, as Jean Toomer did, to the biblical figure Cain. Both Sethe, in Beloved, and Sula are marked: Sethe by a brutal beating and Sula with a birthmark. They are both victims and victimizers, and Morrison, seeing both as prideful, works to reintegrate the women into community. Few people escaped slavery unmarked, and African American women are marked by color, gender, and, usually, class. Therefore, for Morrison, “both Sula and Sethe must embrace and even, finally, celebrate the mark of Cain which sets each apart but which also makes each unique—and so must their communities” (Jones Medine, 1993, p. 627).
In Song of Solomon, Morrison’s title suggests the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, yet, as Morrison says in an interview, African Americans “selected out of Christianity all the things they felt applicable to their situation—but they also kept this other body of knowledge”—that is, folk or discredited diasporic knowledge (Jones Medine, 1993). Both Song of Solomon and Song of Songs are narratives of desire, loss, search, and recovery, though not complete. The song that is Solomon’s, which leads Milkman to his family’s past, is, as Kimberly W. Benston has recognized, intertextual and creole, incorporating “KiKongo and Greek, the Islamic and the Judaic, West African and Cuba, priestly exile and burning love within the mother’s home, biblical fable and Morrison’s own family biography” (Benston, 1991, pp. 104–105). The biblical text, therefore, becomes one source for exploring Morrison’s themes of freedom and ownership, love and obsession, and history and memory. Bernard of Clairvaux said that Song of Songs is wisdom erupting into words; Song of Solomon demonstrates that eruption of memory into the present, flooding the mind through memory with wisdom. Desire, therefore, becomes not about limitation but about spiritual readiness, a willingness to risk and change and openness to mystery that lead to freedom.
Morrison stands at the pinnacle of contemporary African American writers, though there are many talented African American men and women publishing now. Her own and other African American writers’ intertextual, disaporic wrestling with the Bible suggests the metaphor of Jacob wrestling with God. This puts them firmly in the American literary tradition, as Alfred Kazin describes it in a conversation with David Gergen. Gergen uses the metaphor of wrestling with God to describe American nineteenth-century writers, and Kazin agrees. While not all are personal believers, he says, “they wrote about their cast of characters, the world they knew from birth on was deeply, completely religious, the Puritan background on the one hand, and, of course, the South, itself” (Gergen, 1998, p. 14). African Americans wrestled with American culture and the Bible, refusing to let go, and coming out of that contest marked but blessed.
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Carolyn M. Jones Medine