Friday, June 20, 2008

Religious Idiom and the African-American novel



Religious idiom and the african american novel, 1952-1998
Tuire Valkeakari.
Gainesville: University of Florida Press,
Published 2007
ix + 261 pp.
Preface, prologue, notes, bibliography, index.
$59.95 (cloth)
ISBN 978-0-8130-3055-5.

Here's the blurb from the University of Florida website:

"In this groundbreaking and valuable work, Valkeakari creatively accounts for how African American authors use Christianity in their writing as they recycle or in some cases subversively secularize or supplant biblical precedents. [This book will be] of interest to anyone interested in the dialogue between religion and literature and how African American literature forms a cohesive and at times rebellious tradition."--Jonathan Little, Alverno College

"An extremely valuable (post) modern contribution to the field and one that opens new ways of looking at the ongoing and often ignored and underplayed dialogue between religion and literature."--Carol Henderson Belton, University of Delaware

In this study of novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Leon Forrest, Ernest Gaines, Randall Kenan, John Edgar Wideman, Gayl Jones, and Octavia E. Butler, Tuire Valkeakari examines the creative re-visioning and reshaping of Judeo-Christian idiom and imagery by African American novelists--specifically their use of "sacred" language for secular meaning. She shows that in writing about the complexities of American selfhood and nationhood, these authors neither abandon religious idiom nor evangelize. Rather, they delight in reshaping their chosen raw material for their own purposes, which often have little to do with the material's original context or function. Their use of biblically derived idiom is marked by innovative secular subversion and by stories of spiritual quest that defy conventional dogmatic definitions. These authors evoke religious rhetoric to study and revisit Martin Luther King Jr.'s concept of the "beloved community" and to express their yearning for an inclusive love ethic that could transcend any boundaries drawn in the name of race, class, gender, or religion.

Beginning with the functions of Christian idiom in African American letters from the 1770s to the 1920s Harlem Renaissance and its aftermath, followed by an analysis of post-1950 novels, Valkeakari shows how, generation after generation, African American writers have evoked Christian rhetoric to advocate civil rights and democracy. Their treatment of this legacy reached a new level of creativity in the latter half of the 20th century, becoming a more pervasive characteristic of the African American novel than ever before.

Tuire Valkeakari is assistant professor in the Department of English at Providence College, Rhode Island.


Here's a bit of a review from H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Amstdy@h-net.msu.edu (May, 2008)

Reviewed for H-Amstdy by Carolyn M. Jones, Department of Religion, University
of Georgia
>>=============================
Re-Shaping the Sacred Through Literature

Tuire Valkeakari's excellent study considers a wide range of literature produced between 1952 and 1998 to examine the ways that African American writers have explored and shaped the Christianity that African slaves received when they came to America. Valkeakari's study includes Ralph Ellison's _Invisible Man_ (1952), Toni Morrison's _Beloved_ (1987) and _The Bluest Eye_ (1970), and works by Leon Forrest, Gayle Jones, Ernest Gaines, and Octavia Butler. She traces the "roots" of these writers' concerns to African American letters, invoking the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frances Ellen Harper, James Weldon Johnson, Margaret Walker, Nella Larson, and others. Valkeakari examines the "creative re-visioning" and "re-shaping" of the Judeo-Christian inheritance that African Americans undertook in their expressive culture under oppression to resist and undo that oppression (p. 1). Her examination leads to her final questions about home and belonging.

Valkeakari argues that this re-shaping has been multiple, without any one particular trajectory; instead, African American writers are "signifyin(g) on the sacred" (pp. 4-5). The two-ness that African Americans experienced was not that of a secular-sacred split; instead, it was the "double consciousness" and how that worked within and against an African sense of the sacred and profane or secular as not two, but
whole. Valkeakari argues that, given this orientation, the writers utilize Judeo-Christian notions to affirm civil and human rights and democracy and to think critically about messianic discourse, violence, and scape-goating, and to construct and deconstruct the Black Christ figure. She also looks at the figure of the minister in African American fiction. Finally, Valkeakari's work emphasizes the importance of Ellison's _Invisible Man_ for the writers who came after him. Indeed, Ellison becomes, in the work, a kind of pivot or fold between the writers who came before and those who came after him, as he, in many ways, sets out an agenda for thought.

Valkeakari does not want to argue whether African American writers, in thinking about religion, have stayed within denominational boundaries; neither does she want to do "myth criticism" (p. 12). Her task is to examine cultural mixings and the development of hybrid forms to understand a unique and varied African American production.

I was particularly impressed with the work on female ministry.....Rest of article here:H-NET BOOK REVIEW

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