Religious Idiom and the African American Novel, 1952-1998
Some critics have claimed that James Baldwin was the last African American writer for whom the church was a necessary subject and context. Such a claim attempts, I think, to point to the changes that had been ongoing within African American culture since the turn of the century. At least as early as W.E.B. Du Bois in the latter days of the 19th century, African American intellectuals and writers initiated the development of an African American intelligentsia, one that was self-consciously independent of the church in its ideals and operations regardless of the beliefs of individuals. African American intellectual life through most of the 19th century flourished all but exclusively under the broad cultural and social reach of the black church as the sole institution with any independence from white oversight. While recognizing and even celebrating its cultural importance, Du Bois and others chafed at the cultural power of the church and much of Du Bois’s career was devoted to developing an African American civic and intellectual culture that was clearly secular. Indeed, upon his retirement from The Crisis in the mid-thirties, the board of the NAACP credited Du Bois with creating an African American intelligentsia where none had existed before.
The diversification of African American intellectual life was only one component of much broader social, economic, and cultural diversification that marked the particular form of African American modernity. This diversification was fully in place by the time James Baldwin began his writing career, and the critical assessment of Baldwin’s relationship to the church speaks to the fact that by the 1950s—our pious visions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and African American Christendom notwithstanding—it was no longer necessary to be a Christian or to take the church seriously in order to forge a career as an African American intellectual. Indeed, to some degree it is possible to understand Baldwin as a throwback to an earlier religious era, if only because his upbringing in a deeply sectarian holiness and Pentecostal milieu replicated the world-encompassing grip on the imagination of Christian faith and practice that was characteristic of an earlier period. Thus for many critics, Baldwin is the end of the line. In this view, Christianity can be taken or left at the inspiration and interest of the individual. For African Americans, the argument goes, Christianity has become an individual option, not a cultural imperative.
There is some truth to the arc of this narrative. Nevertheless, it is one great virtue of Tuire Valkeakari’s new book, Religious Idiom and the African American Novel, 1952-1998, that she demonstrates the continuing importance of Christianity to African American literature since Baldwin. Through a variety of exceptionally good individual readings, Valkeakari shows that while Christianity may no longer be an imperative subject, it remains a central subject of contemporary African American literature. And if the language of the church is no longer the necessary language of the African American literary imagination, it remains a vital and fecund resource for African American creative work.
Valkeakari, an assistant professor of English at Providence College, draws on Henry Louis Gates to propose that the forms and themes of contemporary African American literature can be understood as “Signifyin(g) on the sacred” (4). According to Valkeakari, for Gate Signifyin(g) denotes intertextual revision characteristic of African American literary language use. Gates’s usage of “Signifyin(g)” not only revives, but also vitally expands the scope of, the specific meaning that the term has assumed in the African American vernacular. In black American parlance, “signifying” designates a particular type of wordplay—in the narrowest definition, an “elaborate, indirect form of goading or insult generally making use of profanity,” as Bernard W. Bell wrote in 1987. Gates, however, critically revisits and expands definitions . . . that focus on the most profane forms of street signifying. In so doing, he transforms Signifyin(g) into a “full concept” that stands, in the study of African American literature, for intertextuality writ large. In Gates’s scheme, Signifyin(g) discourse is marked by revision and unconventional reinterpretation that literary authors achieve by assigning new functions to familiar words, images, tropes, or rhetorical patterns. As Gates writes, “To rename is to revise, and to revise is to Signify” (4-5).1
In Valkekari’s scheme, then, contemporary African American novelists “Signify” on the religious idiom of African American (and to a lesser extent European American) Christianity. They Signify on that discourse both in the large Gatesean sense of intertextual revising and transforming, but also, at least metaphorically, in the narrower sense of profanation whereby the sacred discourses of the church are turned to profane, or at least secular, intentions.
It may be a sign of this book’s provenance as a dissertation that this interesting—and to my mind acutely insightful—thesis is fully fleshed out only in fits and starts, as if a lot of good individual readings had to be brought together somehow under a theoretical heading. The idea of signifying itself only fully reappears in a consequential fashion in the very good chapter on Ralph Ellison, the least contemporary of the contemporary novelists that Valkeakari analyzes. Religion generally and Christianity specifically are always in the foreground as Valkeakari traces the response of novelists to African American faith and to one another. However, it is unclear in many instances whether these responses are revisions and renaming of African American faith, or whether they are simply literary visions, interpretations, or critiques of an aspect of African American cultural life. It is also unclear whether these chapters are building on or complicating a thesis throughout, or if they are only a collection of instances that illustrate the basic thesis. In other words, Signifyin(g) itself is too much an empty signifier, an opening gambit that allows Valkeakari the room to get on to the real business at hand, reading novels.
This, I think, Valkeakari does extremely well. I have already mentioned her expert take on Ellison. In this chapter she follows Gates in linking jazz improvisation to the verbal practice of signifying. She cites Samuel Floyd to indicate that
Musical Signifyin(g) is the rhetorical use of preexisting material as a means of demonstrating respect for or poking fun at a musical style, process, or practice through parody, pastiche, implication, indirection, humor, tone play, or word play, the illusion of speech or narration, or other troping mechanisms (56).2
In her reading of The Invisible Man, Valkeakari has Ellison performing “secular riffs on the sacred,” carrying out an extended improvisation on tropes of African American Christianity, particularly scapegoating and Messianism (55). The idea that Ellison viewed writing as a form of jazz improvisation on earlier literary sources is not new, but I am not aware of other readings that link this to Ellison’s appropriation of religious resources. The next chapter, on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, extends Valkeakari’s evaluation of the scapegoating theme, though seeing in Morrison’s work a more straightforward critique of scapegoating in comparison to Ellison’s irony and parody. To name one more well-rendered reading, Valkeakari places Ernest Gaines’s In My Father’s House perceptively as an intertextual engagement with James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, complicating the notion that Baldwin was the end of anything. These readings reinforce the notions that religion is an enduring theme for contemporary writers and that their expert and sophisticated use of literary form deserves celebration.
Perhaps the only weakness in these extended close readings is a general lack of an overarching historical or cultural framework. Early in her book Valkeakari faults myth criticism for failing to give “careful and serious consideration of the soiocultural realities that influence the form and content of literary production” (12). This critique strikes me as ironic given that there is precious little attention give to “sociocultural realities” in the book, if by that we mean something like social and cultural contexts within which a literature is disseminated. There is some little attention given to literary history in a very fine summary chapter on Christianity in African American letters prior to the period with which she is concerned, and intertextual references to earlier literatures are to be found throughout. However, there is almost no discussion or analysis at all of the sociocultural reality of the African American church from 1952 to 1998, the primary repository, one would think, of the Christian language, tropes, themes, and images that contemporary African American novelists signify upon.
This seems to me to be an important lacuna on several score. In the first place, our delight or outrage at the process of signifying depends in large part on our recognition of the basic theme or language that is being signified upon. However, my overall impression is that Valkeakari’s approach to African American faith is far too generalized to understand or appreciate the significance of whatever improvisation is being carried out. It is almost as if she is arguing that these authors are riffing off of a tonic, dominant and subdominant chord pattern. That is interesting, but so general as to allow for almost anything to count as ingenious improvisation. Getting down to specifics, the African American church in 1952 would have been called the Negro Church—as it was by Franklin Frazier, Du Bois, and others—while the church post-James Cone was the Black Church, and by the time Toni Morrison is writing Paradise, we have the African American church. And in our own day we read these authors in the midst of serious discussions of something called “post-black” art and identity, and in the company of people who consider seriously the possibility of a post-racial future. These represent more than fastidious shifts of nomenclature; they signify shifts in sociocultural realities within and outside the church, realities that have led to often very different manifestations of Christian thought, practice, and imagination within the African American community.
By failing to account for these cultural sites and their different imaginative practices, it is difficult to determine what relationship any of the considered authors bear to a specific Christian language or practice. Signifying as Gates conceives of it can include extension, elaboration, and celebration or it can include profanation, ridicule, and dismissal. It might entail establishing relationships of homage and indebtedness, or it might entail a form of triumphalist domination, if only linguistically. Valkeakari does a superior job of showing the continued importance of a religious, and even specifically Christian, idiom to African American writers. Left unanswered is the question of what that use must signify about the relationship of African American writers to the sociocultural reality of the church, an institution that remains, if not the only cultural home, then at least an overwhelming important cultural home for vast numbers of African Americans.
Cite this article
- See Bernard W. Bell, The Afro-American Novel and its Tradition (Amherst, MA: University of MassachusettsPress, 1987), 22; and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American LiteraryCriticism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), xxiii.
- See Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States(New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 8.