An excerpt from “Reading Black Books” by Claude Atcho

The following is an excerpt from Read 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. Simply put, African-American literature is made up of literary texts concerned with or expressing the black experience, from the vernacular tradition born in the cotton fields – our religious songs, our oral tales and our spirituals – to the literary tradition that includes the poems of Margaret Walker and the novels of Toni Morrison.

Our literature and our Christian faith are born of our historical experience. Both are like roses sprouting from concrete, beauty emerging from the brutal conditions of our suffering. That slaves – forbidden to become literate – developed literary excellence both oral and written is no small feat. That slaves embraced and purified the very faith of their slave masters as a tool of pro-slavery oppression is a wonder and a testimony.

While I picked up bits and pieces growing up, I didn’t get anything close to a real introduction to African American literature until my undergrad and then college. Since then, I have struggled for years with the connection between black literature and Christianity, first as a student, then briefly as an adjunct English teacher, and primarily as a pastor, slowly discovering how our literature can inspire us to think more solidly 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, as Scripture is often difficult ground for the same reasons. Like scripture, African American literature is unwaveringly honest in its portrayal of human depravity. As readers approach the literary texts covered in this book, it is important to read prayerfully and together, remembering that, as with the scriptures, description does not imply prescription or approval.

In preparing to engage in African American literature, readers should remember that the truth is often unsettling. The world is a joyous, cold and brutal place – and Christians, of all peoples, know and reckon with reality in both its glory and its devastation. It means being prepared for the trauma and grime of Beloved and the violence of native son. Readers should respect their conscience, critically evaluate the work in relation to its theme and form, and consider how the truth of the human condition is unfolded. These are important and difficult tasks to do on your own. Take these texts with someone else and work together through beauty and devastation. Reading these texts, alongside this book, can help us to incarnate ourselves in the stories and wounds of others, as Christ did for us.

Also note that my readings are not a presumption or argument that any of the authors I engage with had an explicit Christian or theological agenda. Theologization emerges from my reading of their literary forms and themes as a literary-minded pastor-theologian. This means that the chapters are a mix of careful reading, theological reflection, and Christian proclamation and application. Depending on the literary work in question, the chapters vary, some taking on an apologetic slant – addressing the concerns of a text with a particular Christian outlook – and others demonstrating how content and an author’s craft resonate positively or a critical approach to the Christian tradition.

To deal with some of the founding writers of the twentieth century, as I do in this project, is to look at authors who did not necessarily write for an explicit theological purpose as Phyllis Wheatley or Douglass did. This non-religious factor makes their concerns, I believe, more urgent and important for Christians to consider. Again, these authors serve as wise guides to re-grasp the issues and themes of the black experience, with which our faith has struggled – and must continue to do so.

A few others have picked up on this important and rich symbiotic link 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 to the changing representation of God and Christianity by African Americans. I see this current work as a remixed homage to Mays’ work, presenting central questions at the heart of the black experience in America and the contours of Christian faith and answering these questions in biblical, contextual, and prophetic ways.

I have attempted to come to this book about books as a guide that incorporates my affections: my love for these stories, my love for what they say about the experience of black people in trials and triumphs, and my love for Jesus and his kingdom. Whether you’ve just picked up a James Baldwin book at Target or have a dog-eared copy, I pray that the fruit of this book reflects something of that motivating origin, that you give generously of your time to read and engage this work, you will find your own love inflamed and heightened both for these texts and for the Word who became flesh to interpret all stories and embrace all peoples. May we lean together, listen as we read, and in the process may our faith be made fuller and more righteous, to the glory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Content taken from Read black books by Claude Atcho, ©2022. Used with permission from Brazos Press.

Colin L. Johnson