restricted access Religious Idiom and the African American Novel, 1952–1998 (review)
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Reviewed by
Tuire Valkeakari. Religious Idiom and the African American Novel, 1952–1998. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2007. ix + 261 pp.

Religion has been an essential aspect of the African American experience since the first slaves were brought to the New World in the seventeenth century. They had little opportunity to practice their traditional beliefs but did manage to combine those views with the new faith of Christianity that was imposed by their enslavers. The result has been a hybrid belief system that has continued to play a significant role in black culture. In literature, many of the earliest writers—Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, Olaudah Equiano—justified their efforts by emphasizing the spiritual content of their work. It has generally been assumed that modern and contemporary writers, with the exceptions of James Baldwin and Alice Walker, have put aside spiritual matters in favor of addressing more secular concerns.

Tuire Valkeakari corrects this assumption by tracing the uses of religious idioms in a number of writers beginning with Ralph Ellison. Unlike Dolan Hubbard and others, who have focused on specific aspects of religion, such as the sermon, the preacher, or women's spirituality, Valkeakari concerns herself with the full range of religious expression as it has been found in African American life. Moreover, she is not concerned with documenting the uses of such material in fiction so much as tracing the play of it in a variety of texts. Drawing on the work of Henry Louis Gates, she designates what her selected writers do as "Signifying on the sacred." Valkeakari points to secular uses of religious imagery and suggests ways that writers can construct new forms of spirituality that are not tied to particular denominational or sectarian views.

This approach shifts the focus away from Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, usually taken as a foundational text for modern considerations [End Page 371] of religion, and toward Ellison precisely because Invisible Man indirectly engages the language of religion without concerning itself with specific institutions or rituals. She begins with a chapter that surveys black literary history to demonstrate that there is a history of using Christian imagery and idiom for political and racial purposes. This includes slave narratives, which pointed to the hypocrisy of masters claiming their devotion while abusing those they held in bondage, as well as poetic and fictional reconstructions of folk sermons by Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston that focused on the literary and social rather than theological value of that material. Valkeakari also traces the image of the Black Christ from W. E. B. Du Bois onward to show its continuing resonance for those expressing the reality of black suffering, especially the ways lynching could be read as scapegoating and crucifixion.

She then takes up works by Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Leon Forrest to demonstrate the ways these motifs emerge in contemporary writing. Significantly, most of the writers she examines are not themselves particularly religious. They find in the language of belief tools for their own concerns, just as they do with folk material, music, and history. Invisible Man, for example, has very few direct references to religious practices or institutions; nonetheless, Valkeakari argues, it is shaped by scapegoat and Christological imagery. Dubious messiahs, from the Founder to Rinehart, are accompanied by scapegoats, from Trueblood to Tod Clifton. The narrator himself can be included in both categories. His promised return from his underground cell can thus be read as a secular resurrection, that is, a return for social rather than spiritual regeneration. Curiously, the author does not examine the lynching/crucifixion that the narrator dreams near the end of his story, especially since a similar scene is crucial to her analysis of Forrest.

Morrison's The Bluest Eye is a rather straightforward example of the scapegoat motif, with the distinction that Pecola is the victim of intra- and interracial persecution. She becomes the means by which members of the black community can enhance their own self-worth by denigrating a helpless child. Valkeakari is careful to point out that here, as in Forrest's fiction, scapegoating does not work: the community does not improve its situation by projecting...


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