- Reading Religion in African American Narratives
The first decade of twenty-first century literary analysis introduces two arresting treatments of how religious discourse informs the African American narrative tradition: Hell Without Fires by Yolanda Pierce and Faithful Vision by James Coleman. Pierce’s work considers the spiritual narratives of five African Americans: George White (1810), John Jea (circa 1811), Solomon Bayley (1825), Zilpha Elaw (1845), and David Smith (1822). The book’s central premise is that antebellum African American writers understand hell as two distinct concepts; the spiritual hell of biblical narratives and the earthly hell blacks of this milieu experienced through “daily physical and psychological suffering.” Pierce argues that as antebellum writers became conscious of both realms of hell, and subsequently located ways to deflate the power of earthly hell, they became both God-possessed and self-possessed. They were then equipped to enact communal change.
Each chapter provides interesting history and information about these often overlooked, yet important writers. Pierce’s chief contributions to [End Page 155] the scholarship of antebellum literature, however, are found in her novel critiques of George White and Solomon Bayley. While many critics have customarily dismissed White’s connection to the black community because of his membership in a majority-white denomination, Pierce dismantles this notion. She calls attention to autobiographical information and radical movements in White’s sermons that display a desire to speak back to white authority and to create a self-possessed “black” identity in a world that sought to deny him that right. The chapter centered on Solomon Bayley, like other portions of Pierce’s work, often becomes heavy-handed in its offering of summary; however, she eventually uses this summary to undergird her argument that Bayley offers a revolutionary and bold stance against American racism. She emboldens his stance by suggesting, “Bayley voices in his narrative what [Phillis] Wheatley is unwilling or unable to address in her poetry; the fact that the Negro in America could and would never be entirely free.” In précis, Pierce’s exploration of rarely treated narratives adds an integral layer to scholarly dialogues about intersections of race and religion in black narratives. The book’s proposition that the Christian concept of hell did more than terrorize enslaved blacks opens important new pathways for examining Christianity as a positive wellspring in the construction of early black American identity.
James Coleman’s Faithful Vision is a masterful consideration of how African American faith systems influence the writings of African Americans. Coleman defines African American “Faithful Vision” as a complex network of supernatural beliefs that has real implications in the everyday lives of African Americans. In Coleman’s designations, Faithful Vision contains diverse spiritual and intellectual traditions. Even as the Judeo- Christian Bible rests in the center of the tradition, Coleman believes that interpretations of the Bible can be influenced by myriad traditions, among them naturalism, postmodernism, womanism, and hoodoo/voodoo (Coleman uses the terms with a slash so my usage here reflects his own). Coleman puts forward Faithful Vision as a critical component of black cultural efforts to place their daily struggles in historical context; as such, it informs a cultural ethos that suggests that no matter how arduous things appear in the immediate reality, black Americans should remember that God “didn’t bring us this far to leave us.”
Coleman successfully intermingles brief personal narrations of Faithful Vision with intense critiques of how African American writers approach Faithful Vision through literary treatments in the latter half of the twentieth century. The first two chapters brilliantly construct [End Page 156] Coleman’s frame of Faithful Vision as a lens that grows out of the cultural tradition that writers themselves have established. He then expertly treats an imposing list of writers from the African American literary tradition, including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Ellease Southerland...