I believe an apt addition to the course would be The Color Purple by Alice Walker. The issues and depth of this book and the topics it covers like abuse, trauma and love. I think maybe not the whole book would be needed as a text, but sections could definitely be utilized within the syllabus. Moreover, it can be connected and linked to other text or visual texts and used as a point of comparison for larger discussions about certain issues. Especially ideas around some of the more complex points of conflict within the black community.
I think a great fictional book in this class would be Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor. The religious undertones within the text, illustrated by Naylor’s reference to Dante’s Inferno, the satanic undertones within the character Luther, and the character Willa, just to name a few, tied with the concepts of black oppression within the novel would make great discussion points on intersectionality within black religion and black liberation. Upon having this idea I looked up critical articles that may relate to the religious undertones I remembered in the text, and I found one by Christopher N. Okonkwo that symbolized Willa as a “irregular Messiah”, who’s “self-sacrifice promises emancipation from Nedeed bondage for Linden Hills” (Okonkwo 2). It was definitely an interesting read that I will link below. Naylor’s incorporation of many topics regarding the black community in this novel will allow class conversation to flow wherever needed be and provide for interesting paper topics. Overall, I think the religious undertones coupled with the socio-economical commentary by Naylor and her possible use of a female Messiah will make this novel a great fit for this class.
One of my favorite units in this class was the “When Faith Meets Activism” section of our syllabus, during which we read works like Warriors Don’t Cry and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The literature and film in this unit affected how I personally see activism and will stick with me long after I leave Wooster to (hopefully!) continue working on political campaigns and community activism. When I was thinking of potential works to add to our class syllabus for next time, I wanted to expand on this section and the idea of faith and activism combined.
While I have not personally read this book yet, the Young Adult novel The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo sounds like it would be an intriguing add to our English 210 syllabus–and specifically, the “When Faith Meets Activism” unit. I love reading YA novels during breaks from school because they tend to have more uplifting endings/messages, which are comforting to enjoy for a few weeks while I try to relax, and this book has been at the top of my list for winter break! The Poet X was released in 2018 and won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature that year. Below is a short summary of the novel from Goodreads:
“Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking. But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems. Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.” Goodreads
Based on the summary, I think this novel would fit really well with our class discussions throughout the semester, especially on the note of youth activism–which we touched on after reading/watching texts like 4 Little Girls and Warriors Don’t Cry. Reading a novel meant for kids/teenagers would also broaden the scope of our class, and show if the approach to religion and sexuality has changed from the characters in our older works to Gen Z. I also think this novel relates back to what our class got into recently with Go Tell It on the Mountain and the poem “Guilt, Desire, and Love” since the battle between faith and desire seems to be apparent, so it could fit into the syllabus near the end as well. The final reason I’m interested in this novel is because it blends prose with poetry–the original poetry of the novel’s main character–in order to tell Xiomara’s story. Many students in our class seemed to be interested in the works of poetry we read, like “Guilt, Desire, and Love” and “The Preacher Ruminates Behind the Sermon,” so this novel would add in more poetry to analyze alongside the novel as a whole.
I’m excited to read this book over my winter break, and hope that this is a good recommendation for anyone else interested in YA novels!
While we read multiple texts by Zora Neale Hurston, her foray into the world of film would also be interesting. I think it would also serve as a great segue to Daughters of the Dust because some of the film is concerned with the religious practice of the Gullah people of South Carolina. Her film is of real Southerners working in the fields in the `1920s and its nature as a documentary film would contribute a lot to the reality of life in the South during the Jim Crow era. As well as potentially contributing significantly to the class, it is easily found on Youtube.
It is very hard to find films of this time by Black directors and Hurston, through her documentary footage, fills this gap. Instead of having to consider the exploitation of Black actors and a Black audience, instead the viewer can focus on the true to life nature of the video. It is also drastically different to the films of the era in that it is obviously not a Hollywood production with lavish sets and carefully thought out blocking. Instead, it is just what Hurston saw in her travels and shows, directly, the Black experience of the time.
If I were to add something to our silabus I would add a book or short story that is from the 2000s to show what Black religious texts are nowadays. One of my favorite books that might fit into this category is called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Bryan Stevenson is a Black graduate of Harvard Law who defends people who have been treated unfairly by the justice system. The book mainly focuses on his work defending Walter McMillan, who was arrested for the murder of a white women, something that he clearly did not do when looking at all the evidence, but was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to death. It shows the long, painful process of dealing with the racist justice system in the South as a Black lawyer with a Black defendant, even in the 21st century. Although not specifically about religion, the book has a lot of Biblical undertones of forgiveness and does talk about the faith in God that is continued even when it seems like these people on death row for crimes they have not committed have been dealt the worst hand.
The film for Just Mercy just came out last year, starting Michael B Jordan and Jamie Fox could also be used as a visual text for the class. The film has a powerful scene of the inmates on death row singing hymns. I think that having a visual or written text like this book would add to the understanding of the role of racism and religion today. The book is extremely powerful and very well written, making complicated legal terms easy to understand. I think that everyone should read the book, so reading it in class would be beneficial to all.
Here is a picture of Bryan Stevenson and actor Michael B Jordan, who plays Bryan Stevenson in the film version of his book Just Mercy.
I think that Nicole Sealey’s poem “in igboland” from her book Ordinary Beasts would make a good addition to the course because it reminds me a bit of Daughters of the Dust. The poem focuses on a town that builds a monument to a god and then burns it in sacrifice, with the speaker saying that “the West in me wants the mansion/to last. The African knows it cannot.” It reminded me a lot of the conflict between tradition and assimilation in Daughters of the Dust and also pays tribute to African religions like the film does.
On another note, some of the passages in Meridian about Meridian’s ailing health and the way she was treated when she went to get an abortion reminded me a lot of ways that women, especially women of color, have been mistreated and dismissed by the medical system. I took the women and the politics of pain class the English department offered a few years ago that focused on this general topic, and we read a few personal essays like this one that are about the writer’s health and their negative experiences with the medical system. I think this article and others on the same topic are just good for making connections between what we’ve read and current issues.
One text I think should be added to this course is “Song of Solomon” by Tony Morrison. I think it fits the objective of this class as it focusses on African American ways of living and has lots of religious connotations. I also think this book should be read after “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” since the plot of “Song of Solomon ” aligns with the beliefs of Malcolm X and what he has been fighting for after joining the Nation of Islam.
Earlier, we discussed the symbolism of the train in Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Reverend J.M. Gates’ “Death’s Black Train is Coming,” along with a secondary article, John M. Giggie’s After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915. These readings and listenings led me to explore religion in the delta. To understand faith in the delta, one must understand the importance of the blues, but, as Mississippi Public Broadcasting Reporter Alexandra Watts notes, “to know the blues, you need to know the history of the delta,” as discussed in this podcast:
In this podcast, Watts details the story of the blues in the delta, particularly the life of Robert Johnson. In Johnson’s lifetime, community members of Greenwood, MS, where Johnson grew up, thought of the blues as “devil’s music,” which contrasts to the origins of many musicians in the area, as Sylvester Hoover, a local historian and grocery store owner, notes that”
If you are a black musician, Robert Johnson, B.B King, I don’t care who you are, you start playing your music in the Baptist church. On Sunday, I’ll be singing ‘nobody knows my God. How my God makes me fell’ and when you leave the church and go to the juke and start playing your music on Saturday, it’s ‘my baby’ ‘Nobody knows my baby. How my baby makes me feel.’ It’s the same music just change God, Jesus, and church, to baby and honey on Saturday nights, and that’s why they say you sold your soul to the devil
As shown above, the blues seems to hold a unique divide between the religious and secular. Earlier, I wrote about the symbolism of the train in film, music, and literature to represent the divide between the community and the individual. I think a further exploration of blues music would shine a light on multiple “crossroads” in the class, such as religion/secular and the individual/community.
One song that is an example of that further exploration is the song “Like a Ship” by Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth Christ Choir (1971). I choose this song because the opening lyrics start with T.L. Barrett singing “I’m not worried because I know” while the choir sings, “I know we can take it” (1:00). This relationship between the singular and plural is a broader example of the divides that music explores, such as the individual and community. While this is not blues music, it is still a musical avenue I would be interested in learning about more.
I wanted to continue writing about what Carly started writing about in terms of our group discussion on Tuesday. I really like the analysis of “burning” as Gabriel feeling like he is already in Hell. But I also think the symbolism behind the name Royal is something worth discussing because Esther named their son Royal just to mock Gabriel. She did this because he had once said he would give his son this name because the descendants of the faithful are a royal line. It is super ironic that the son is named Royal despite these awful circumstances that the child was conceived in. The way it is written also highlights the degree of un-faithfulness that Gabriel has. Baldwin writes, “Had Royal, his son, been conceived that night? Or the next night? Or the next? It had lasted only nine days” (Baldwin 124). The word “only” is very interesting here because nine days seems like a very long time for a “mistake” to be made. This doesn’t seem to be a mistake due to circumstances, but a mistake due to character. The fact that John, the only son who is not part of his “royal” family line is so spiritually connected is very hard for Gabriel. But it almost seems like God is spiting him for naming his sons so highly while sinning so frequently.
I really enjoyed the overall structure of Go Tell It on the Mountain by the end of the novel. The only thing I didn’t really understand the point of was why the family tree was not clearly explained at the beginning of the novel. But I like how each central character was given their own individual chapter with a flashback that explained some of their current behavior and also explained their relationship with religion. It is interesting to me how much each character’s chapter revolves around religion- from the biblical names to the flashback visions. I really appreciate that John was the main character of the novel but the other characters affecting him were still described in complex ways as well. It is so important to acknowledge that people are the way that they are for a reason.
In “The Tale of Two Cities in James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain,” Charles Scruggs of the University of Arizona argues that while many view Baldwin’s work as a Bildungsroman or as a particular sociological or psychological conflict, Baldwin places his characters in a “recognizable intellectual tradition” a tradition of “the city as an idea” (1). Baldwin, however, uses the cities to expand on numerous conflicts within the book as “Baldwin juxtaposes two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, and together they help to focus the novel’s various themes: father and son, individual and community, the sacred and the profane” (2). The two cities that Baldwin conceptually juxtaposes are Harlem and New York.
In my opinion, I found the point which Scruggs makes in the second part of the article regarding how Richard and Elizabeth reflected New York with their own personal experiences, especially regarding the south, as “For Elizabeth, it meant release from a tyrannical aunt; for Richard, from a racist society” (10). For me, I live in the north and the south and I enjoy how Baldwin relies on earlier traditions of the conception of the city to shine a light on the individual as an Augustinian perspective views that one “is capable of achieving a heavenly city within [themselves]” (2). Scruggs goes on to point out that “Elizabeth viewed New York as a refuge for her innocent love, and Richard imagined it as a crucible containing the intellectual and aesthetic heritage of Civilization” (10). If you get a chance to watch “I am not your Negro” the James Baldwin documentary, it is interesting to see the role of the city, from the past and the present in presenting an image of Baldwin’s life.
Regarding Prompt 13, I am interested to see how the verse “He made me a watchman / Upon a city wall / And if I am a Christian / I am the least of all” fits with Scruggs’ critical article which as the city wall emerges in an Augustinian tradition of the wall within an individual that separates the inner heavenly city from the “evil forces outside” (2). Scruggs proposes that the city wall within this text serves as a divide between Harlem and the church, so the wall is point of divide within the book as John struggles to cope with the divide that is created by this socially constructed wall.