- Faithful Vision: Treatments of the Sacred, Spiritual, and Supernatural in Twentieth-Century African American Fiction
Although treatments of the religious and spiritual aspects of African American culture have served important thematic concerns in the literary tradition since its inception, those elements have been too often neglected in critical deliberations of African American literary works and their presentation in classroom settings. Therefore, it is exciting when a book such as Coleman's Faithful Vision appears, a book that may urge us to pay greater attention to the role faith plays—in its various manifestations—in our considerations of the literature, and a work that may also help curtail the imposition of extraneous cultural concepts such as magical realism on African American works that offer specific explorations into the religiocosmic realms of black American life.
Coleman illustrates how the Christian religiosity of the urban storefront as well as the Voodoo/Hoodoo beliefs of backwoods and coastal islands are presented in African American fiction and how they are often represented as seamlessly in fictional narratives as they exist in certain communal settings. The study argues that African American faithful vision emerged as a dominant mode of expression after black novelists began to free themselves at mid-century from the constraints of naturalism, realism, and modernism, and it details the ways they then aligned their depictions of African American life with the cultural beliefs held by the majority of African Americans.
"Faithful vision" is Coleman's way of characterizing insights expressed by African American writers who explore what might be thought of as the spiritual realism endemic to black American life, especially the struggle to overcome the effects of slavery and its lingering influence through acts of righteous resistance. He defines it as a representation of reality because there is no logical explanation for how African Americans were able to "emerge from the destructive past as complex human beings without the agency of the sacred, spiritual, and supernatural that subverted the plans of people with power" (2). Echoing James Cone's work in black theology (although the pioneering work done by Cone and other black theologians is largely absent from the study), Coleman claims that faithful vision "is a self-serving but powerful religious belief that relates to action in this world" (2). He recognizes the Bible as the culture's central text, something Vincent Wimbush explores in much greater depth in the introduction to African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Text and Social Texture, and claims "the African worldview of the shadowy voodoo religion has a strong influence and a relationship with the Bible and the associated Judeo-Christian ethic" (3). The prominent roles of both the Bible and conjuration in African American culture are issues that are treated by scholars from various fields—including literary studies—in Wimbush's 2001 collection of essays, although it is also absent from the sources used to inform Coleman's study.
Most of the novels examined are from the last fifty years and include discussions of works by James Baldwin, Randall Kenan, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Erna Brodber, and Ishmael Reed. Coleman singles out Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain as a novel that is ahead of its time due to its "sophisticated portrayal of the biblical and religious tradition unconstrained by the modernist concerns paramount in Ellison's work" (16), and claims it is "the most uniformly Christian portrayal of faithful vision" (200). By reading it as a work that is more representative of and concomitant with African American cultural traditions, it seems clear that Coleman ranks Baldwin's novel on a par with, if not above, Richard Wright's Native Son and Ellison's Invisible Man in terms of its importance as a distinctly African American expressive work in fiction. [End Page 192]
Some readers will find aspects of the book taxing. Although discussions of the selected works are most often insightful, the text is not always an effortless read. The point has been...