A Feature Review of
Reading Black Books: How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just
Reviewed by Tiffany Eberle Kriner
Claude Atcho believes that classic works of 20th-century African American literature can call us back to a better, truer faith and practice. His Reading Black Books, out this month from Brazos Press, shows us just how profoundly it may do so. Atcho walks us through major theological themes – God, Jesus, Sin, Image, Salvation, Hope, Lament, Justice, Racism, Healing and Memory – by way of the literary works of Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Countee Cullen.
While literature has been long touted as a means toward identification and empathy (think We Need Diverse Books or scholarly works connecting the reading of literary fiction to the development of empathetic feelings ), for Atcho, reading theologically does one better than those. It doesn’t just put readers into the stories, but puts the stories – and the experiences that undergird them – in relation to God’s story. For Atcho, this sort of reading works to edify readers by aligning Christianity and especially black experience, to challenge weak areas and hypocrisies in the faith, and to invite readers into further theological thinking and practice.
Reading literature theologically requires attention to the methods of both literary criticism and theological studies. As Paul Fiddes has written in The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature, the relationship is one of “mutual influence without confusion,” involving literary readings faithful to the text and a theological ethic faithful to scripture and committed to practice.
The chapters of Reading Black Books work this way, weaving illuminating investigations of the text with searching and renewing inquiry into the doctrines of the faith. In this way, the book helps readers think through the literary works and to also refresh their practice and consideration of central doctrines of the faith. For example, Atcho explores the doctrine of the imago Dei using Ellison’s Invisible Man. Exploring structural and functional ways of conceiving the imago, Atcho opens up the discussion by demonstrating the ways that Invisible Man’s obsession with the body’s relationship to invisibility – especially its focus on blood in the Battle Royal scene – opens an avenue to a theological consideration of a visceral imago. He writes, “Invisible Man’s focus on the physicality of invisibility can help remind readers that the imago Dei is a matter not of abstraction but of embodiment. This does not mean, as disability studies have shown us, that disabled persons are less the image than the able-bodied. Rather, it means that imaging is for all–not simply theoretical but lived” (15). Atcho’s analysis, focusing on the way that the protagonist’s swallowing of his own blood combines with his denial of his dignity in the Battle Royal scene, is interesting and helpful–and when read with reflection, allows the book and the doctrine to illuminate each other. And this is only the first chapter – another especially strong reading explores Nella Larsen’s Passing and a theology of racism as script through the concept of the theodrama. Discussion questions at the back help readers consider both the important moments and ideas in the literary works and also to register their changing with the doctrines.
The book chooses to engage with a mix of fully canonical, central works–Native Son, for example, and Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Beloved – but also to freshen the canon for readers more familiar with the classic fiction by bringing less-central works such as Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston and even the recently posthumously published The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright.
I heartily recommend the book for use in a Christian college context and in a church/group context – but I have some to say about each, a lot about the first, and a bit about the second.
First, about the college context. I got advance copies of this book to pilot with my English 379 class: an African American literature course that works toward college-wide learning outcomes both for literary study and for diversity in the United States – outcomes that all students must fulfill during their undergraduate years. The course, which reads almost everything in Atcho’s book, is magical, but also difficult in a multi-racial context within a majority-white evangelical institution during a time of strong political polarization.
My students – mostly non-English majors, and many first- and second-year students – loved Reading Black Books, pretty much across the board. The fact that it was ANOTHER book in a VERY heavy reading semester did not seem to change the way that it offered help for responding to a range of difficulties.
The difficulties were these. Students of color in African American literature classes often have a lot more experience with conversations about race and diversity than other students in the class: this creates a sort of split and tension. On the one hand students of color (both those who identify as African American or students of color from other minority groups – and it’s important to remember the class is not a binary split!) may feel like they have to wait while other students catch up on what they’ve been knowing, but on the other hand they also may want to just be learners and not represent expertise. For African American students in particular, studying literature related to patterns of injustice and inequality toward a group with which they identify can arouse big feelings – sometimes contradictory ones: pride/shame, righteous anger, even avoidance (and sometimes attendant guilt). Atcho’s book, framing African American literature as theologically generative, framing African American experience as expressed in the literature as relevant to fundamental doctrines, demonstrates how sometimes-harrowing literature can be party to–helpful for– the glorious good news of God’s kingdom. I call my class “Theological Equipment” – and this book shows students several ways that this might be so – ways that they can access and build on.
For white students in a majority white context – especially evangelical Christian white students– and especially those newer to conversations about race and racism, the learning about the patterns and consequences of injustice and inequality can be tricky, too – yet Reading Black Books helps. Evangelical Christianity has offered what Michael Emerson and Christian Smith have called–and Jemar Tisby has recently brought again to the fore again–the “Evangelical toolkit” for dealing with race. Often evangelicals are trained to see evil in the world and to connect it to sin – which is fair enough. But, the evangelical conception of sin tends more to understand sin as a matter of either individual responsibility on the one hand or cosmic evil (Satan, etc.) on the other. Thus, reading about injustice past and present, especially through such powerful literary means can trigger sensitive, even defensive personal responses related to those conceptions of sin as acts or attitudes for which one bears individual responsibility: “Am I racist? I don’t want to be racist! I’m the least racist person you’ll meet! Here are x evidences of my non-racism!” Atcho’s book– seemed so helpful for students who might have needed to process some outside of class, to have a pastoral guide to show them how one might read, but in a context where they could process without feeling judged while they learned.
Studying African American literature in an interracial context is often painful in another way, too: when a subject seems “only academic” for a portion of the group, while it feels embodied and urgent to another portion of the group. As Yolanda Pierce has written in In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inhabit, about the first time she studied Beloved in an academic context in college, “I remember choking back tears while trying to maintain an intellectual facade about a woman who could be one of my own ancestors” (29). One of her fellow-students could argue about what the historical figure behind the text “should have done,” but that kind of thought experiment horrified her. There is NOTHING “only academic” about Atcho’s reading. His pastoral heart emerges at every opportunity: living the image, living the theology–or as one of his sources, Beth Felker Jones puts it, “practicing doctrine,”–is woven into the fabric of the text. He is after a whole and just faith for his readers–and it will be neither unless lived.
Atcho’s book was a pathway for many students toward growing through difficulties toward greater wholeness and justice in their faith. As to my understanding of what they’ve received from it, yes, surely the work helped them to learn important lessons about race in keeping with our course goals: many mentioned in their reading journals being really instructed, through Atcho’s reading of Larsen’s Passing, by the idea of race as a sort of “script.” But the students were drawn especially to Atcho’s framing of the study of African American literature in theological terms as reading that goes beyond empathy to the “placing [of] our collective story, told through literature, in conversation with God’s story” (2). Many students pointed specifically to his instruction on lament as particularly powerful. One student remarked that it’s hard to know what to do with the patterns of injustice and inequality so powerfully laid bare by African American literature, but she felt turned again and again back to the gospel through Atcho’s book. Atcho’s readings of “Christ Recrucified” and “The Black Christ” she said, made both the crucifixion something she could feel and understand better. And they learned about literature from him, too: another scholar noted as helpful Atcho’s way of understanding poetry as “imaginative confrontations through a startling association of powerful images” (59). As a “literary minded pastor-theologian” he was just the guide the students needed.
For teachers who include classic African American literature in your syllabi, at the high school or college level, I recommend getting a copy right away and learning and sharing as suits your context.
Second, a little about reading this book in church. I think this book would work well in a church group context: the kind that meets maybe once a month over a year and savors several of the book selections with Atcho’s volume as companion–and with a potluck at every meeting. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, many Christians have felt a strong pull toward learning more about race and inequality, and many “race and justice” church focus groups were formed, many with reading on the side. But as the months have passed, challenges to this learning area have arisen–the resources for learning about race and justice have been objects of suspicion and scrutiny, especially during the CRT hullabaloo. It may be that the nuance and universal power of story may offer a path through, a way to reclaim community and conversation–the life together that Ralph Ellison, as Atcho points out, was audacious enough to speak for in Invisible Man. Not that the literature is easier, mind, than other resources–especially in the church context. These works are among the greatest works of literature ever written–they reward, and often require, careful study and understanding of the genres and modes at work (that Invisible Man makes use of a sort of surrealism and satire, for example). Too, like the Holy Writ, these books contain a great deal of very intense, challenging material in them, and Atcho’s recommendation for community as support is essential. We can all read on our own, perhaps, but this material prompts a way of theological thinking and acting that cannot be done alone. It makes sense to read communally even from the beginning.
I’m grateful for Reading Black Books, for the way it does one better, moving the reading of literature beyond mere empathy or a rehearsal of the given racial script toward the practice of the doctrines: as Atcho writes from his reading of Moses, Man of the Mountain, “This is the Christian story. And to reach the end of the story, we are called into the movements of the story, in loving and living not out of our self-published narratives but together in the theo-drama of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (90).
Tiffany Eberle Kriner
Tiffany Eberle Kriner is associate professor of English at Wheaton College where she teaches American Literature and coordinates the Aequitas Cohort Fellowship Certificate in Public Humanities and Arts. She is the author of The Future of the Word: An Eschatology of Reading (Fortress, 2014) and a forthcoming volume braiding theology, literary criticism, and agricultural memoir (Eerdmans, 2023). She lives and co-farms at Root and Sky Farm, a pasture-raised meats farm in Northern Illinois.