African American Literature and Humanism

[By Goyland Williams]

For quite some time now, I have been thinking critically about African American Literature and Religion. Drawing largely upon the works of James Baldwin, I have found this enterprise to be fascinating and complex. Given the historical context and religious experiences of black people in America, it is no surprise that traces of religion appear a great deal in black writing. 

James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker are just a few names that come to mind when I think about the relationship between religion and philosophy of literature. All of these figures wrestle with the question: What can you say about god in light of human suffering? While Baldwin and Walker follow a more theological response, Morrison and Wright offers up humanism as a response to the problem of evil.

In a previous post, I argued that Morrison’s The Bluest Eye challenge western theological constructs with its humanist slant. Today, I want to explore James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head as this text wrestles with similar questions. Recalling a particular moment of his life while Arthur was living, Hall Montana says:

Then I do remember, in my dream the beginning of a song I used to love to hear Arthur sing, Oh, my loving brother when the world’s on fire. Don’t you want God’s bosom to be your Pillow? And I say to him, in my dream, No, they’ll find out what’s up the road, ain’t nothing up the road but us, man, and then I wake up and my pillow is wet with tears.

Hall Montana realizes, even in his dream, that ethics for the humanist looks different. In a world where there is no God, man is responsible for her/his own liberation. While such a “discovery” draws Hall to tears, such a moment provides clarity to the human condition. The work of theologian Anthony Pinn is instructive here. Such a scenario, although fictional, illuminates the tensions between competing theological claims in black life. Black people have relied on humanist ethics just as they have relied upon Christianity. Humanism, after all, is a theology.