It was nice to find another review of Goodbye Christ?, and the first I’ve seen in a print journal of some substance. Tiffany Ruby Patterson from Vanderbilt University does a very thorough overview of the book and has some kind words to say. Unfortunately behind a paywall for now, but you can find it here if you have access. A couple of short excerpts:
In Goodbye Christ? Christianity, Masculinity, and the New Negro Renaissance, Peter Kerry Powers has written a deeply researched and fine-grained study of how issues of masculinity and Christianity are entangled in the writing and worldviews of African American intellectuals in the twentieth century. He argues that the New Negro Renaissance was not a secular period as some have argued but one where secularism and Christian beliefs competed in shaping the struggle for leadership. Instead he demonstrates that the period was a moment when “Christian religious practices provide the backdrop, characters, imagery, and theme of most of the important work of the Renaissance, even when they are deployed to resist the religious traditions that they reference” (15)
This study also speaks to the work that still needs to be done on Christianity, non-Christian belief systems in America, gender matters, and intellectuals. Goodbye Christ? is grounded in excellent research and is meticulous in its arguments. it is a must read for scholars of religion, gender, race, sexuality, and intellectual leadership.
So, must read. Do.
I was very happy this week to publish a new review essay in The Cresset for their Lent 2019 edition. On the one hand publishing has not lost its charge, perhaps because I do it so rarely. But beyond that it was good to see in print my meditations on being part of a mini-movement in literary and cultural studies that has been taking religion in/and African American lit more seriously. Besides my efforts on the Harlem Renaissance, there are many other, probably more important contributions going on, and I look at three recent works by Wallace Best, M. Cooper Harris, and Josef Sorett just to give a sense of the importance of what’s going on, besides my evaluation of the works at hand. I also liked the challenge of trying to write
about academic literary criticism for a non-specialist audience, and to take up the issue of why lay readers ought to read criticism, even against their better judgment. Not an easy task, and one at which I think I only partially succeeded, but which the editor liked enough to print at any rate. A little flavor of this aspect of the review:
“Unlike breathing or the beating of the heart, reading is a skill developed within particular cultures, each with its own values and peculiarities, and each with its own notion of excellence. At its best, literary criticism models forms of readerly virtuosity that stretch our imagination beyond the straightforward pleasures of enjoying a good story. The best criticism allows us to know literature within a cultural ecosystem of reference and connection. In the normal course of things, we pluck books from the Barnes & Noble bookshelf or the Amazon algorithm as we might pluck up a flower in a field, enjoying (or not) the pleasure of the text. Literary criticism reads the role that flower plays in the field. It considers the ways it depends on or perhaps destroys other features of the field, or perhaps the ways other cultural ecosystems consider it a weed or an invasive species to be eradicated. While reading literary criticism is not always a walk in the park, doing so can make our pleasures more aware and engaged, delivering enhanced or other pleasures, much as we might take pleasure in not only the scent of the air, but in being able to name the flowers and the trees and understand our relationship to them and theirs to one another.”
You can read the rest of my review here…
I had the great good pleasure of presenting on Goodbye Christ? the past couple of Sundays at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. My slides used in the presentation are embedded below, though I offer them mostly as a demonstration of my astonishingly limited visual imagination. Some of the slides don’t stand easily on their own and require more explication than I care to include at the moment, but maybe I’ll work on it later. And I’ll be glad to respond to any questions in comments sections below.
One thing I was pleased to hunt up and discover for this presentation were the tangential but still interesting connections of the City of Harrisburg to the Great Migration and the cultural currents of the New Negro/Harlem Renaissance, stuff I hadn’t looked in to at all in my book proper.
One thing that can’t be represented here is the great pleasure it was to lead discussion in a church whose people are interested in knowing more, and desirous of doing more to make the world a better place through educating themselves and others. A good place to worship, and belong.
Messiah College had commencement today and it is always wonderful to see so many talented young people beginning their own journey in the world, making it, I am very sure, a better place than it would be without them. I was glad in that context to get the latest blog from Carmen McCain, and to be directed to her latest article on African literature and culture at The Weekly Trust. Carmen has a really strong meditation on the difficulties of writing about suffering in Africa, when suffering has been taken by so many in the West as being the only representative sign of African experience.
However, I admit that as I read Evaristo’s comments, I felt a tension between her impatient charge to “move on” past representations of suffering, and the context of currently living in northern Nigeria, where people leave their homes daily knowing that they could be blown up or shot at by unknown gunmen. Only two weeks ago in Kano, an attack on churches that met on Bayero University’s old campus killed dozens of university students and professors, the very cosmopolitan middle class often celebrated by writers abroad, and more bombs were found planted around campus. Suffering is not limited to bombs, as I was reminded when recently attending a church in Jos. Pointing to a dramatic decrease in tithes and offerings as evidence of hard times, an elder sought prayer for those who lost their livelihoods in the Plateau State’s demolition campaign of “illegal structures” and would lose more in the recently-announced motorcycle ban.
Kaduna-based writer Elnathan John wrote in a conversation with other African writers on Facebook (quoted by permission), “When I am told to tell a happy African story, I ask, why? Where I live, EVERYTHING is driven by fear of conflict, bomb blasts, and daylight assassinations unreported by the media. Every kilometer of road has a checkpoint like those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now, I am a writer writing my realities. […]Our problems in Africa will not disappear when we stop writing about them.”
I’m reminded in this exchange of the tensions that surrounded and still surrounds the literature of African Americans. During the Harlem Renaissance, the period that I’ve focused on the most in my scholarly work, there were profound debates between those who felt it was the responsibility of artists to present positive and uplifting stories of AFrican American experience and those who wanted to represent the lives of average African Americans that were not always that uplifting. This was partially the nub of the debate between Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston proclaiming that she was not tragically colored and Wright accusing Hurston or more or less writing minstrel shows for white people.
It would be presumptuous of me to try to define what an appropriate answer to this dilemma is. I’m not sure the representation of suffering necessarily provokes people to change. I think it was Susan Sontag who argued that the representation of suffering in war photography inured our sensibilities to that suffering and made us more likely to ignore the war that was going on. Nor am I sure that presenting positive and happy tales of uplift wins friends and influences countrymen. It may do as much to invite boredom. Carmen’s own response is as follows, focusing on truth-telling of whatever kind, and on the ways that literature, even and perhaps especially the literature of suffering, can give people equipment for living, can model for people ways to live their lives:
So, by all means let us, as Evaristo appeals, have new genres, new styles, that are “as diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations” Let us have “thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.” But let us also be true, let us be relevant. And let us not, in pursuit of a global recognition, erase the voices of ordinary people, who so often bear up under immense suffering with grace and humour. For it is these stories of survival that give us the most direction in how to navigate an increasingly terrifying world.
(For any interested, Carmen blogs at A Tunanina)