As he writes in the introduction, “When we read Black literature’s twentieth-century classics through a dual lens—the literary and the theological—we unearth ways in which God’s truth addresses Black experience and how Black experience, as shown in the literature of our great writers, can prod readers from all backgrounds toward sharper theological thinking and more faithful living.”
He describes the book as “light on theory and heavy on practice.” Each chapter covers a different classic Black book with a focus on a particular topic, e.g., “Sin: Richard Wright’s Native Son.” For more, see “‘The truth is often troubling’: An excerpt from ‘Reading Black Books’ by Claude Atcho.”
Atcho answered the following questions via email, discussing:
- why we should read books versus consuming other media
- where to start with reading classic Black books
- why he structured the book topically
- the most impactful Black book he’s read
- and what he hopes to accomplish with Reading Black Books
Claude Atcho discusses Reading Black Books
Since we now have immediate access to compelling documentaries, fascinating films and TV shows, and other forms of media that allow for less time-consuming ways to learn about the Black experience in America, why should we set down the remote and pick up a classic book?
We should set down the remote and pick up classic Black books precisely because they are more time-consuming. Reading is a discipline that bears much fruit. Reading is different from watching; through reading, one takes the humble posture of submitting (though not uncritically) to the words of another. When a person reads literature, they actively inhabit a world and experience not their own in a way distinct from watching, because reading engages the imagination at a deeper level.
As a result, reading classic Black books helps us better understand the experience of others through the empathy, reflection, and perspective that literature uniquely provides. The higher difficulty of reading means the rewards of engagement can be greater and more enjoyable, growing us in humility and discipline at the same time.
What book would you recommend to someone who’s had little to no exposure to classic Black books?
I suggest starting where you have interest.
Among the books I cover, some may be interested in a wild, sweeping epic of a story, in which case I’d suggest Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, one of the best novels of the twentieth century.
For something shorter, more suspenseful, but no less potent and important, I’d recommend Nella Larsen’s Passing.
Another approach might be to read something like Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and then select a book from the twentieth century like one of the novels I cover. This would help one get something started with a taste of the historical and the contemporary.
Though I only cover a handful of poems in Reading Black Books, I’d recommend poetry as a great starting place through the works of Margaret Walker, Countee Cullen, or Langston Hughes.
Why did you structure the book around one specific topic per book, e.g., “God: James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain“?
I liked the idea of using a theological idea or reality to ground my engagement with each piece of literature. In some cases, it is impossible to read some of these books as a Christian and not think about a particular theological topic. For example, the brutality and brokenness of Native Son makes it near impossible for Christian readers to encounter the novel and not think about notions of sin.
My hope is that each topic and each literary text help cast light on each other in a dynamic interplay that cultivates a deeper reading of the literature, a richer biblical and theological engagement with the topic, and ultimately, more faithful living among God’s people as a result.
Of the ten pieces of African American literature you expound upon in Reading Black Books, which one has most impacted your life? How has it done so?
Invisible Man has had a tremendous impact on me. It put flesh on DuBois’s notion of double consciousness and has taught me to pay attention not only to how others see me, but to give deeper attention to how I see others and honor that they too are made in the image of God.
Part of the protagonist’s journey is a quest to gain visibility—and thus dignity and recognition—through the achievements of education, activism, and success. These are human temptations that I share, and the novel reminds me that dignity is not earned through merit, but given by grace upon all for we share and are made in the image of God.
What do you hope this book accomplishes?
I hope this book sparks new and better conversations about the value of African American literature for Christians while forming people at a heart level to think, imagine, and live more faithfully as Christians.
To that end, I hope this book helps the church in our divided age learn from different voices that can help us more fully embody the life of faith spoken of in the Scriptures.
I hope as well that this book helps Christians become better readers of all texts and helps readers turn away from screens and turn to the great books that have come before us.
I’m thrilled the book is one of many new works that address the value and power of literature for Christian formation, standing alongside books like Jessica Hooten Wilson’s The Scandal of Holiness, Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well, and Austin Carty’s The Pastor’s Bookshelf, just to name a few.
As I mention in the book’s introduction, I hope the book is spiritually encouraging and intellectually stimulating while showing how the Christian faith speaks powerfully to the core concerns of Black people and all people through the Word made flesh (John 1:14).