A Feature Review of
Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle
Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
I read this extraordinary book while on vacation in October, but kept putting off writing my review because although the beauty of its prose and its striking stories lingered in my mind, I wasn’t sure that the few words that I spilled about it could in any way do it justice. Danté Stewart’s Shoutin’ in the Fire is that rare sort of book that when read is itself a bodily experience. In vividly narrating his own story of living as a Black body and a Christian body in twenty-first century America, Stewart draws the reader into an intense experience of emotion that will resound through their body. For instance, he writes: “White supremacy was not just about terrible white American men in white hoods with white crosses. It was also about all the terrible ways I learned how to harm Black people and be terrible to Black people and not listen to Black people and not cry over Black people and not care about Black people and to do it all in the name of Jesus. … I must make this confession: I was anti-Black” (39).
The narrative arc of Shoutin’ in the Fire depicts how Stewart, raised in a Black Pentecostal church in South Carolina, could end up serving in a white Reformed Evangelical church that pressed him into the sort of white supremacy described above, leading him to make this confession that he had become anti-Black. And I hope that I’m not revealing too much to say that the story does not end with this confession, but rather continues through Stewart’s experience of a powerful and bodily repentance, removing his body from this white congregation and eventually into the role of pastoring a Black church.
Indeed this memoir stands within a long history of spiritual autobiography in the Christian tradition, a history that goes back at least as far as St. Augustine’s Confessions, but would include works from more recent centuries such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, or Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. It also is well situated within the prophetic tradition of Black literature, drinking deeply from sources of inspiration like the writings of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes and Audre Lorde.
Three hallmarks of Shoutin’ in the Fire stand out, setting this work head-and-shoulders above the vast majority of new books that grace the shelves of booksellers across this land. (I think writers wanting to write an exceptional book would do well to pay close attention to Stewart’s work in each of these things). First, is simply the quality of Stewart’s craftsmanship as a writer. Although Stewart is young (not yet even 30 years old, as of this writing), he has already proven that he knows how to use a turn of phrase. He slides seamlessly from gleaming literary prose to well-set colloquialism (most often drawn from hip-hop or other arenas of Black culture). For instance, on the first page of the book, he describes an old KJV Bible on his shelf: “When I open up this old Bible, dusty words emerge, conjuring memories of poetic sermons and sweaty mics smelling like old metal and stank breath. I am suddenly surrounded by preachers and mothers and friends and saints and sinners who tried to love and live well – while failing, learning, and trying again” (1). Stewart’s skill is the sort that flows only from a deep devotion to reading, re-reading, and paying attention to the skill of the master wordsmiths who have gone before us – in his case, especially the iconic works of the Black literary tradition.
A second hallmark of Stewart’s work is the delicate balance he maintains throughout between offering his personal narrative and situating his own story within larger cultural milieus that will ring familiar with his readers. Yes, Shoutin’ in the Fire is first and foremost memoir, but it is memoir framed within the larger cultural story of the struggle for Black liberation amidst “the crushing weight of white supremacy” (249). Many writers have endeavored to set words to their personal stories, but few are those who so deftly articulate their life amidst larger stories that grab the attention and imagination of their readers.
A third and final hallmark of this book is the vulnerability with which Stewart tells his story, a vulnerability undoubtedly intertwined with his Christian faith and the witness of the many broken saints who have gone before him. Although it’s easy, in recent years, to read writers like Brené Brown and to recognize our need to express our inescapable human vulnerability, it is much more difficult to actually do so (and especially in as public a venue as the writing of a book), as we are trained and formed from our earliest days to repress our vulnerability and to don the thin veil of self-sufficiency. It takes immense amounts of character to profess that I have really screwed up in particular situations of my life, and especially, as in Stewart’s case, ones that wounded my spouse, my friends, and others.
In the closing pages of the book, Stewart describes his thoughts upon seeing a poignant image of a young Black girl in one of the marches in protest against the murder of George Floyd. The girl is screaming and marching with balled fists. Stewart writes:
“I had become sad because I knew that she, like me, and like all of the folk that came before us, was in search of a better land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
Then I remembered, that was the hope, her Black body, caught between danger and deliverance. She chose to fight for herself, she chose to fight for her people, she chose to scream and to shout and to march and to dance and to throw her hands up and to preach good news and to remember and to shake foundations and rock souls straight, and conjure up ancestral tongues, and hot sweaty sermons, and dark memories, and dear pledges of hope, and broken dreams, and bent bodies and epistles of love, and responsible love. She chose to stand in the face of danger, to hold on to some imagination of a better world, to hope in the midst of social suffering. She chose to keep our memory alive. She became good news for us. It was no creed, no phrase, but love, the love of God at work in one small body. She did not forget. She loved us. She loved us hard” (250-251).
This sort of embodied faith that Stewart found in the witness of this young girl is indeed our hope. Stewart’s story challenges us to live life in our bodies in a way that reflects our deepest and truest convictions about God, humanity, and the world. May we have the courage to do so!