Beyond the Review
Reading African American Literature and Religion
Peter Kerry Powers

Works of literary criticism are little bought and little read. Even in the heady days when graduate students believed literary theory would save the world when literature itself had failed, literary scholarship depended completely on a trickle-down economy of cultural influence. Still does. A good book might conquer its hundreds; the great book, with a large advertising budget, its thousands. But those are legendary and few.

Readers are hardly at fault for this state of affairs: critics largely write for one another for all kinds of good and not so good reasons. However, readers would do well, occasionally, to read more than the online book review to find the next hot thing to read this summer. By way of discussing three new works on African American literature and religion—­­­­Wallace Best’s Langston’s Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem (NYU, 2017), M. Cooper Harriss’s Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (NYU, 2017), and Josef Sorett’s Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics (Oxford, 2016)—I hope to encourage readers to read beyond the review, indeed to read beyond themselves, taking up works that tell them not only what to read, but that also help all of us as readers inhabit new ways of reading.

Unlike breathing or the beating of the heart, reading is a skill developed within particular cultures, each with its own values and peculiarities, and each with its own notion of excellence. At its best, literary criticism models forms of readerly virtuosity that stretch our imagination beyond the straightforward pleasures of enjoying a good story. The best criticism allows us to know literature within a cultural ecosystem of reference and connection. In the normal course of things, we pluck books from the Barnes & Noble bookshelf or the Amazon algorithm as we might pluck up a flower in a field, enjoying (or not) the pleasure of the text. Literary criticism reads the role that flower plays in the field. It considers the ways it depends on or perhaps destroys other features of the field, or perhaps the ways other cultural ecosystems consider it a weed or an invasive species to be eradicated. While reading literary criticism is not always a walk in the park, doing so can make our pleasures more aware and engaged, delivering enhanced or other pleasures, much as we might take pleasure in not only the scent of the air, but in being able to name the flowers and the trees and understand our relationship to them and theirs to one another.

The three books taken up here differ as forms of reading, each with different virtues. Together they signal a new and deepening awareness of the religious and theological dimensions of African American literary history. Such dimensions should be evident, but clearly, they are not. As Josef Sorett rightly points out, “the fields of religion and literature largely proceed along separate trajectories” (1), to the deficit of our understanding of both. My own work has noted that the “separate but equal” status of religious and literary studies has clearly harmed our understanding of American literature and its cultural contexts, and it seems to be part of Sorett’s argument that the study of religion has been harmed by too little attention to the participation of literature and other cultural practices in the formation of our religious ideas and observances.

The appearance of these three books also points to the welcome diversification of the study of religion and literature itself. The very idea of “religion and literature” has been dominated historically by European and European American literary forms, theological frameworks, and ecclesiastical and religious traditions. Consequently, one must say, it has been dominated by an implicit whiteness. For the past twenty years, the study of religion and literature has been slowly diversifying, not quite keeping pace with the rapidly changing religious and cultural landscape, but changing nonetheless. These books punctuate and underscore that change, insisting that we see our literary present and past differently. They suggest as well that we must become more self-reflective about the ways we read, understanding not only that reading has religious dimensions, but that these religious dimensions have political and social incarnations and consequences. These books ask us to think not only about how we are readers, but also to think about how we are raced and how we are religious, and what those three things might have to do with one another.

Both Best’s Langston’s Salvation and Harriss’s Ellison’s Invisible Theology are studies of a single author. We get a rich picture of the relationship of religion to the literature and life of Hughes and Ellison respectively. Because a writer’s reputation usually grows from a handful of signature pieces, the nuance of a literary life can be reduced to a talismanic work or two, or to a concept that stands metonymically for the corpus as a whole. Wallace Best especially does good work in showing that Hughes thought deeply and wrote often about matters of religion throughout his life, despite the common perception of Hughes as irreligious or anti-Christian. Although it never seems to me that Best clarifies what he means by Hughes’s quest to understand salvation on his own terms rather than that of his Christian upbringing—“Langston’s Salvation”—he demonstrates that Hughes regularly addressed questions of ultimate meaning, the nature of God, the problem of God’s absence in the face of black suffering, and the hope that God might yet speak. Moreover, Best notes that Hughes may have been more of a churchman than critics or casual readers usually realize, at least later in life. He devoted his late career to the writing of gospel plays such as “Black Nativity,” “The Prodigal Son,” and others. While he refused to have his funeral in a church and insisted on no preachers speaking words over him, he was a member of St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, the longtime spiritual home to others of the black intellectual elite such as W.E.B. Du Bois.

At times, Best may strain too much to find in Hughes a devoutly religious man when Hughes himself preferred being as opaque in matters of personal spirituality as he was in matters of sexuality. Best sometimes takes at face value the elder Hughes’s judgment on his own poetry as an agnostic younger man, particularly the period of Hughes’s socialism. Consequently, Best tries to create a picture of a consistent religious self in Hughes where I doubt one actually exists. Indeed, it’s unclear that consistency could exist in the course of his or any life. Faith, like all else in our Heraclitan existence, changes, waxes and wanes, grows and fractures and repairs itself again over the course of a life. Nevertheless, Best is surely right that Hughes engaged with religion regularly, and his spiritual wrestling was lifelong, and from all accounts deeply felt and authentic. Best’s singular focus on the author models a reading that recognizes no work stands on its own as an island, but can and should be read within the context of an author’s entire career, since writers “read” themselves as much as they are read by others.

More so than Best’s reading of Hughes, M. Cooper Harriss’s effort to help us understand Ralph Ellison as literary theologian butts against the wall of his subject’s own reticence. Unlike Hughes, who produced a plethora of religiously related material throughout his life, Ellison’s theology really is invisible in much of his published work and even in much of the archive. Harriss’s book is in large part an effort to make manifest the invisible, to tease out a theology implied by context and allusive references when it is not explicit in the work at hand. Harriss’s ingenuity effectively puts Ellison in critical conversation with major theological figures of the mid-century such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, as well as with literary and literary-critical co-travelers such as Albert Murray and Nathan Scott. This approach leads Harriss to see Ellison as a literary-theological thinker and creator of the first order.

Although many readers will, like me, enjoy thinking about Ellison in these contexts, I came away doubting that Ellison really is a literary theologian incognito. For instance, a long and very interesting chapter charts Ellison’s thirty-five-year relationship with Nathan Scott, a foundational figure in the study of religion and literature. The records of that relationship make clear that Scott wanted to “foster Ellison’s theological orientation and to promote him as a viable literary religionist” (Harriss 101). It is less clear that Scott succeeded. Scott only came to know Ellison in 1959, seven years after the publication of Invisible Man had established Ellison's reputation. After Invisible Man, Ellison published a number of brilliant and still relevant essays, but struggled to mold the clay of his thought and experience into a second novel that would embody his deepest urgencies about race, Americanness, modernity, and, to some degree, even religion. The novel remained unfinished at his death in 1994. Oddly, in Harriss’s portrait, Ellison appears as an increasingly important figure on the scene of religion and literature in the 1960s and ’70s, even while he is having more and more difficulty writing, or at least completing, any literature at all.

Somewhat more troubling, to my mind at least, is Harriss’s tendency to oppose Ellison’s work to almost the entire corpus of African American literature in the last half of the twentieth century. In discussing Ellison’s writer’s block, Harriss accepts Ellison’s rationale, laying it at the feet of a history beyond the powers of literature to encompass:

Unlike the relative stability that [C. Vann] Woodward ascribes to the long Jim Crow era, the occasions of Ellison’s second novel [1952–1993] exhibit remarkable fluidity. History would not sit still for Ellison, an author engaged in “the seemingly impossible task of rendering in fiction the American experience in the second half of the twentieth century.” “Why did I have to be a writer,” he asks Morteza Sprague in his letter written upon learning of [Brown v. Board of Education], “at a time when events sneer at your efforts?” …. Finally, as discussed in the last chapter, by the mid-1960s the novel carried added burdens of depth and resonance amid a literary context that Ellison believed no longer valued such properties. (124–25)

My eyebrows screw in skepticism. The period of Ellison’s travail is also a period of remarkable achievement in African American letters. Beginning only in 1977—much less 1952—one might think of the following very selective but exemplary list: Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison (1977); The Salt Eaters, Toni Cade Bambara (1980); The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1982); Robert Hayden: Collected Poems (1985); Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove (1986); Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987); Dien Cai Dau, Yusef Komunyakaa (1988); Middle Passage, Charles Johnson (1990); Rita Dove appointed Poet Laureate (1993); A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines (1993); Toni Morrison wins the Nobel Prize for literature (1993).[1]

The list could go on. And on. A stunning list for any time, for any people. History did not sit still for these writers. If they don’t tell us everything, they tell us many vital things about what it means to be an American in the latter days of the twentieth century. To suggest that the works of Toni Morrison or Rita Dove or Yusef Komunyakaa or Charles Johnson do not bear to us through literature the depth and resonance of the human condition is to use terms like “depth” and “resonance” in ways not commonly understood in the English language.

To be generous, Harriss is at great pains to defend Ellison from the charge made in the 1960s and ’70s that his work was passé and not pointed enough in protesting the hard issues of race—in short, not black enough. At multiple points, Harriss mentions that Ellison was thought of as an “Uncle Tom” by young black activists in the 1960s and that an African American librarian had told a patron that “Ellison is not a black writer.” Such attacks were surely unjustified. However, it surely does not follow that African American literature since 1953 is best characterized by a hot-headed nineteen-year-old or an ill-informed librarian.

I mention this oppositional tenor because it seems deeply connected to the concepts of religion and literature that pervade Harriss’s book. Indeed, Harriss tends to explicitly equate blackness with the merely material, and so necessarily less than the invisible ultimate concerns that are the appropriate focus of religious and theological reflection. As noted, Harriss does an important service in pushing against the tendency to read Ellison only against the measure of a separate black literary or religious reality. But this genuine virtue cuts two ways. Niebuhr and Tillich come to represent a sense of genuine religious and theological seriousness or ultimacy over and against any idea of blackness whatsoever. As a result, I wondered about other invisibilities than those Harriss put at the center of his book, particularly the invisible power of whiteness, of taking culturally specific traditions of theological or religious or literary reflection and practice and treating them as if they were timeless and universal instances of the divine.

It would have been interesting to have read Ellison against the background of not only Tillich and Niebuhr, but other African American religious modernists such as Howard Thurman, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Sr., or even Martin Luther King Jr., in more detail than Harriss provides. This larger conversation is hinted at, but is mostly cut short, ironically by a schematic that suggests that the work of the European American modernist theologians elucidates the invisible character of religious spirit, especially when compared to the merely material and therefore necessarily lesser denizens of blackness in the 1960s and beyond. Racial matters that preoccupied black writers are, in this schema, clearly less than ultimate concerns, a form of Tillichian idolatry that most African American writers other than Ralph Ellison seem to evince. Thus, Harriss’s book reads in a way that does not ask us to be aware that even our greatest theologians, as well as our interpretations of those theologians, are embedded in a racial history and context of meaning. To say this is not to say that our reading and our religion is only and always about race—whiteness or blackness—but it is to say that our racial history is invisible and omnipresent throughout our reading and religious experiences, and perhaps nowhere more invisibly, and thus more powerfully, than in our experience of whiteness.

To my mind, this points again to the need for reading “beyond the review,” and, in some sense, of reading beyond ourselves. We need to read literature beyond the contexts of what we most love and with which we are most familiar, and we may even need to read in ways with which we are unfamiliar. We are taught how to read books, and books also teach us something about how to read. This is a process of habituation that the literary theorist Paul de Man rightly reminded us leads to both blindness and insight; our history as readers enables us to read and understand and enjoy books, sustaining a tradition through reading. However, our traditions also blind us to different ways of reading, different forms and dimensions of pleasure, different knowledges, different ways of construing ultimate concerns.

Literary criticism, done well, can help us see ourselves and our literature anew. Of the three books at hand, Josef Sorett’s Spirit in the Dark most fully achieves this challenging goal. Sorett does not so much give us facts—though there is plenty of that. Rather, he dislodges us from our usual ways of thinking about both religion and African American literature. This makes his book perhaps the most important and powerful statement to date concerning religion and literature in the African American tradition. Indeed, at the risk of grandiosity, I think Sorett’s may be one of the most important recent works of African American literary criticism and simultaneously one of the most significant works in the field of religion and literature.

As Sorett shows, it has been common to understand African American literature as a purely secular affair, and to understand blackness or race as purely secular concepts. He takes explicit aim at this manner of thinking, seeing African American literature as developing a “racial aesthetics” that is in constant dialogue and tension with what he calls “Afro-Protestantism.”

Despite arguments to the contrary, African American literature has since its advent and across its history been cut from a religious cloth—even during the moment in which Benjamin Mays diagnosed a growing secularization. To be sure, there is a robust tradition of religious dissent and critique within African American letters. Black writers have certainly documented the ways that Christianity helped authorize the social order embedded in white supremacy. Yet the relationship between Christianity and literature in African American culture has been anything but exclusively one of oppositions. In fact, the very organizing logics, aesthetic practices, and political aspirations of the African American literary tradition have been decidedly religious. In short, black literature is religious. Better yet, it is an extension of the practice of Afro-Protestant Christianity. (Sorett 2)

As a scholar of African American literature and religion for thirty years, I often responded to Sorett’s book by saying, “YES! EXACTLY!” But almost equally as often, I find myself saying, “I didn’t know that,” or “I never thought of it that way,” and even the envious “I wish I had thought of that.” There are illuminating discussions of every major period of African American literature since the Harlem Renaissance. Although Sorett admits early on that he is largely covering the “usual suspects”—the canonical figures of African American literary history—the effect is not one of simply rereading familiar figures, but of resituating the entire way in which African American literature might be conceived. Even the old stalwarts seem uncannily new as we sense the ways they are embedded in a complicated network of religious ideas, languages, and practices.

Sorett’s book grows increasingly profound the deeper it goes into the twentieth century. A significant chapter on African American Catholicism analyzes the conversion of an unusual number of important African American writers and thinkers to the Catholic faith, a fact that Sorett links to the new ways many African American writers, preachers, and theologians were confronting questions of universality and particularity. Perhaps the strongest chapter in the book is a very important and extensive analysis of the Black Arts Movement, one that made clear to me just how short a shrift it is usually given in discussions of African American literature, often being shrugged off as “mere” cant and protest. Sorett shows just how serious the religious and aesthetic practice and theorizing of these writers actually is, linking it to both protest against and continuity with the traditions of Afro-Protestantism from which it springs. Perceptive readings of Amiri Baraka show how Baraka navigates the tensions he experiences with the specifics of Afro-Protestant practice.

Drawing clear lines between content and form, Amiri Baraka privileged the latter (spiritual/black forms) over the former (Christian/white content). In doing so, he highlighted the contributions that black people made both to American Christianity and jazz music. Moreover, in making this distinction he identified in black music a unique religious tradition that neither began nor ended with Western Christianity or the United States. (183)

Sorett goes on to note that, like Baraka, Larry Neal “privileged the forms of the black church over its content; cadence and rhythm were more important than doctrine or theology. He was much ‘more concerned with the vibrations of the Word, than with the Word itself.’” (186). Though Sorett does not make this point, I was struck by the ways Baraka and Neal resonate with the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, whose study of the so-called Sorrow Songs posited in music a deep and unitary connection to African roots, more important ultimately than the words that had been corrupted by an intervening Christian history imbued with white supremacy. Seeing the quasi-Victorian Du Bois with his preferences for Aristotle and grand opera mirrored in the rebellious jazz, soul, and blues personae of writers like Neal and Baraka was only one of a multitude of instances throughout this book in which I found the familiar made uncanny, the distant made familiar.

Sorett could have done a bit more with the agonistic character of the relationship between African American literary tradition and the practice and social power of Afro-Protestant churches. His use of the term “Afro-Protestantism” allows a blurring of the distance between, on the one hand, the material work of churches with their specific traditions of thought and culture and, on the other, literature and other arts with their very different traditions. To my own mind, the development of a racial aesthetics that Sorett charts is significantly undertaken to recreate African Americans as a different kind of people, with different kinds of cultural and literary leaders, and different kinds of cultural practices and values than those that have been received from the tradition of “Afro-Protestantism” proper, even while necessarily drawing on the fund of Afro-Protestant cultural resources to do so. By analogy, it is quite appropriate, even necessary, to see that while Malcolm X was a Muslim, he was also an “Afro-Protestant,” at least in cultural form. But at some point should we see that such forms are no longer meaningfully Christian since they carry forward meanings so different from their original cultural location? If yes, when? Sorett’s brilliant reading of Aretha Franklin’s performance of “Spirit in the Dark,” urges us to understand African American cultural production as the church outside the church, such that African Americans remain a churched people regardless of whether their attendance is in a sanctuary or a night club. This is a compelling story. It also provokes the question of whether and when such forms cease being “Afro-Protestant” and become merely post-Christian.

Still, these are questions that Sorett’s way of reading raise, a way of illuminating African American literature and religion that allows us to see in ways we could not otherwise. This opening into literature—performed each in their own way by Best and Harriss as well—gets us outside our usual frames of reference, our usual ways of undertaking our own cultural performance as readers. We begin to ask questions about how we have been taught to read, about what difference it makes to us as readers that we are raced in particular ways as white or black or brown, or have become religious in a particular way as well. How do those facts—easily forgotten while sitting cross-legged in an armchair with book in hand—shape the ways we value books and the pleasures and even understanding that they bring? We ourselves are part of a cultural ecology through our acts of reading. How we read might be one means, however small, of changing that ecology, and ourselves, for the better.


Peter Kerry Powers is professor of English and dean of the School of the Humanities at Messiah College. He is the author most recently of Goodbye Christ?: Christianity, Masculinity, and the New Negro Renaissance. He blogs at https://peterkerrypowers.com.

[1]  See Ramsby, Kenton and Howard Ramsby II, “African American Literature: A timeline” http://www.culturalfront.org/2016/11/african-american-literature-timeline.html for a timeline of African American literature which I referenced to remind myself of the many things that could go in this list.


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