Reading Black Books, Claude Atcho. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2022.
Summary: Theological reflections on ten key pieces of Black literature.
A number of books have been written about reading diverse literature, for example, the literature of the Black community, to gain understanding and empathy for that experience. Reading Black Books does that and more. Claude Atcho considers a variety of key works of Black literature from a theological perspective, focusing on one major theme for each work. He considers this not only edifying, but also offering insights into our theological “blind spots” and deficiencies. Particularly, he believes this reading can lead to a more whole and just faith. He also warns that such reading may not be easy. Black literature reflects the trauma of the Black experience, often in all of its rawness.
The collection opens with considering the theme of the image of God in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. He then moves to the nature of sin in Richard Wright’s Native Son, the story of Bigger Thomas, who begins by killing a rat and ends up committing multiple murders. Wright’s work explores both the personal and systemic aspects of sin. James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain considers God and Gabriel’s toxic faith lacking in God’s redemptive love. Countee Cullen, in his poems “Christ Recrucified” and “The Black Christ” draws the connection later drawn by James Cone between the cross and the lynching tree, and the powerful connection that Christ’s cross has for many Blacks. Salvation is the theme of his consideration of Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain. For Atcho, it presents a stifled liberation, more dependent on Moses than the liberating work of God.
Nella Larsen’s Passing, serves as a lens for considering racism through the phenomenon of “passing” and Clare’s decision to “pass” to attain an upper class lifestyle. In Beloved, by Toni Morrison, Atcho considers the healing and memory, the issue of racial trauma through the story of the very unfriendly ghost of Beloved. W. E. B DuBois’s, “The Litany of Atlanta” considers something alien to much of white experience–lament–the sense of loss, the absence of God, confronting God, being formed in lament, and dealing with pain through the cross. A second Richard Wright story, The Man Who Lived Underground serves as a reflection on justice as we encounter the injustices faced by model Black citizen Fred Daniels who is unjustly arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, escapes custody and hides in the sewer system. Finally, Margaret Walker’s “For My People” reflects on the meaning of hope in a communal setting.
Each chapter combines critical consideration and theological reflection. Having not read a number of the works commended by Atcho, I can say his treatment whetted my appetite for reading these works. This book serves both as a basic reading list for seminal works of Black literature and a rich theological reflection on those works. Ideally, one would read this work in conjunction with the books and verse that serve as the focus of each chapter, perhaps for a course like “Reading Black Books with the Eyes of Faith” or a book group of Christians eager to grow in theologically-informed reading of Black works. To aid in this, the book includes discussion questions for each chapter/work. Now to go and buy/borrow the books in this book!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.