The following is an excerpt from Reading Black Books by Claude Atcho.
What is African American literature? For African descendants in America, our literature was first forged in the same fire that sparked African American Christianity: the harrowing trauma of chattel slavery. Put most simply, African American literature is literary texts concerned with or expressive of Black experience, from the vernacular tradition birthed on cotton fields—our church songs, oral tales, and spirituals—to the literary tradition that includes the poems of Margaret Walker and the novels of Toni Morrison.
Both our literature and our Christian faith were born of our historical experience. Both are like roses that grew from the concrete, beauty emerging from the brutal conditions of our suffering. That slaves—banned from becoming literate—developed both oral and written literary excellence is no small feat. That slaves embraced and purified the very faith held by their slave masters as a proslavery tool of oppression is a wonder and a testimony.
While I caught bits and pieces growing up, I didn’t get anything close to a proper introduction to African American literature until my studies as an undergraduate and then in graduate school. Since then, I’ve wrestled for years with the connection between Black literature and Christianity, first as a student, then briefly as an adjunct English professor, and primarily as a pastor, slowly discovering how our literature can prompt us to think more robustly about our faith and how our faith gives us a grid through which to ponder the experiences described in our literature.
I mention this because, for both the novice and the experienced, African American literature is often difficult to read in form and content. Here Christians should hypothetically be somewhat prepared, since Scripture is often difficult terrain for the same reasons. Like Scripture, African American literature is unflinchingly honest in its depiction of human depravity. As readers engage the literary texts covered in this book, it is important to read prayerfully and communally, remembering that, as with Scripture, description does not mean prescription or endorsement.
In preparing to engage African American literature, readers should recall that the truth is often troubling. The world is a joyful and cold and brutal place—and Christians, of all people, know and reckon with reality in both its glory and its devastation. This means being prepared for the trauma and grime of Beloved and the violence of Native Son. Readers should respect their conscience, evaluate the work critically in relation to its theme and form, and consider how the truth of the human condition is being unfurled. These are large and difficult tasks to do by oneself. Take up these texts with somebody else and work through the beauty and devastation together. Reading these texts—alongside this book—can help us become incarnate in the stories and wounds of others, as Christ did for us.
Also note that my readings are not a presumption or an argument that any of the authors I engage with possessed an explicit Christian or theological agenda. The theologizing emerges from my reading of their literary forms and themes as a literary-minded pastor-theologian. This means that chapters are a blend of close reading, theological reflection, and Christian proclamation and application. Depending on the literary work in question, chapters vary, with some taking on an apologetic flair—answering the concerns of a text with a particular Christian conception—and others demonstrating how an author’s content and craft showcase a positive resonance with or critical approach to the Christian tradition.
To attend to some of the seminal writers of the twentieth century, as I do in this project, is to look at authors who did not necessarily write with an explicit theological purpose the way Phyllis Wheatley or Douglass did. This nonreligious factor makes their concerns, I believe, more pressing and important for Christians to examine. Again, these authors serve as wise guides leading us to grasp afresh the questions and themes of Black experience, which our faith has grappled with—and must continue to do so.
A few others have taken up this important and rich symbiotic connection between Black literature and Christianity. In 1938, Benjamin E. Mays published The Negro’s God as Reflected in His Literature, turning a keen analytical eye toward the evolution of African Americans’ depiction of God and Christianity. I see this present work as a remixed homage to Mays’s work, showcasing central questions at the heart of Black experience in America and the contours of Christian faith and responding to such questions biblically, contextually, and prophetically.
I have attempted to come to this book about books as a guide who integrates my affections: my love for these stories, my love for what they say about Black experience in both trials and triumphs, and my love for Jesus and his kingdom. Whether you have just picked up a book by James Baldwin at Target or have a dog-eared copy, it is my prayer that the fruit of this book will reflect something of this motivational origin, that as you generously give of your time to read and engage this work, you will find your own love inflamed and increased both for these texts and for the Word who became flesh to interpret all stories and embrace all peoples. May we lean in together, listening by reading, and in the process may our faith be made more whole and just, to the glory of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.