Review of Reading Black Books: How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just by Claude Atcho (Brazos Press, 2022).
I love to hang out with wise and articulate people and learn from them. Unfortunately, wise and articulate people are generally busy learning how to be more wise and articulate or are out walking their labradoodles. This is where books come in because many of the wisest and most articulate people put their understanding into books from which we can profit on our schedule. After finishing Reading Black Books, I would definitely put the author, Claude Atcho, on my list of wise writers. According to his website, Atcho serves as pastor of the Church of the Resurrection, in Charlottesville, Virginia. His writing “often lives at the intersection of theology, culture, and African American experience,” and he has graduate degrees in both literature and theology. This is his first book, and I am already looking forward to number two.
Reading Black Books is based on the premise that this is a time in American history when corporate America, and perhaps Americans more generally, are interested in listening to Black voices, and Atcho suggests that “one of the best ways to listen to Black voices is to attend to Black stories, specifically the enduring ones captured in classic African American literature.” He claims that “Black experience, as shown in the literature of our great writers, can prod readers from all backgrounds toward sharper theological thinking and more faithful living.”
Atcho specifically identifies three benefits to reading Black literature with a theological perspective: It “provides edification and encouragement, by demonstrating the coherence of Christianity and Black experience and concern”; “it offers constructive challenge by illuminating the blind spots where our faith and practice have not attended to the concerns of Black experience through a lived biblical ethic”; and “it provides invitation by showing us new areas where creative and faithful reflection and practice are needed” (Atcho’s italics).
It appears to me that many White people, even well-educated ones, have little sense of Black experience. They have few (if any) personal friends who are Black, and although they may have cordial work relationships with Black colleagues, they consider it almost a point of honor not to ever “notice” that the colleague is Black, or express interest or concern about Black experience or issues. That would seem to them like prejudice and would make them uncomfortable. Therefore, they carry around the mistaken sense that they more or less understand Black people and experience from passing acquaintances or casual contacts and having read about Brown v. Board of Education in an American history class. Reading Black books, however, will introduce them to an indispensable deepening of their understanding of Black experience, or, more accurately, Black experiences, as everyone has unique experiences—see Chimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.”
Let me take a momentary time-out from Atcho to tell you something about my own experience in reading Black books. When I began to actually look at the historical records of Black experience in America—slavery, the Jim Crow era, lynchings, lack of economic opportunity, racial profiling, and so on–—things were much worse than I had assumed. I was shocked, for instance, when I read in detail about all the White backlash and foot dragging that occurred after Brown v. Board of Education, the incredible resistance Whites put up to fight against integration in schools and other public facilities. You can read about it in detail in Carol Anderson’s White Rage (2016), Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste (2020), or the March Trilogy (2016), by late Congressional Representative John Lewis and others. Go back to read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas (1845) or Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Read just a little of the works of White racism like The Negro A Beast (1900) or The Passing of the Great Race (1916) to understand the crazy things people were publishing about race back in the early 20th century, and (I hope) we will all be more eager to seek justice for all in the present.
The works Atcho discusses, a chapter at a time, are mostly novels, including Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1952), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Bella Larsen’s Passing (1929), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), but also Countee Cullen’s poems “Christ Recrucified” (1922) and “The Black Christ” (1929) and Margaret Walker’s “For My People” (1989). Each book or poem is discussed within an overarching theme for that chapter, such as “Image of God” in the chapter discussing Native Son, “Lament” in W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Litany of Atlanta,” and “Healing and Memory” in association with Beloved.
Allow me to illustrate further what the book is like by talking about Atcho’s extremely interesting chapter four, “Jesus: Countee Cullen’s ‘Christ Recrucified’ and ‘The Black Christ.’” Atcho begins by talking about how “the way we conceive of Jesus’s color reveals how we conceive of Jesus’s concerns. . . . White Jesus, dehistoricized from his Jewishness and detached from the everyday concerns of the weak and suffering, tells a different story, one in which European values, people, and agendas are supreme” (58). Atcho says he is not here concerned primarily with establishing the literal shade of Jesus’s color, but about how the creation of a “White Jesus,” rather than a universal Jesus, has been used to privilege White perspective. He quotes Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, in their book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (U of North Carolina Press, 2014):
By wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face. . . . The differing and evolving physical renderings of white Jesus figures . . . helped create the perception that whiteness was sacred and everlasting. With Jesus as white, [white] Americans could feel that sacred whiteness stretched back in time thousands of years and forward in sacred space to heaven and the second coming.”
Understanding this “White Jesus” is important to understanding the importance of Black writers’ efforts to identify with “Black Jesus.” Here Atcho discusses James Cone’s seminal book The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011) and develops the parallels between Christ’s crucifixion and Black suffering, viewing Christ (and citing Cullen’s “The Black Christ”) as “the preeminent lynchee.” Atcho writes that in the crucifixion Blacks
saw a revelation of Christ’s experiential solidarity with the despised and suffering of the world: themselves. In Jesus, fellowship is found with the one who has tasted, like the lynched, an unearned suffering unto death. Indeed, the whips that lashed him were like the whips that lashed us. The tree on which he died resembled those on which we hung.
Once again, Atcho’s point (and Cullen’s) is not to claim that Jesus was literally Black but to affirm how Blacks were able to strongly identify with him as a marginalized and ultimately crucified person.
As a literature teacher, I was impressed by the way Atcho deftly combined his dual training in literature and theology to bring insights that could not be drawn from either field independently. He provides a thoughtful and well-informed current perspective on past writing. This is wisdom literature. Measured, illuminating, synthesizing.
Scott Moncrieff is a professor of English at Andrews University and a big believer in the power of written words to improve our minds and change our lives.
Title image book cover by Brazos Press.
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