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Pen stroking the soul of a people: spiritual foundations of black diasporan literature

McKinley Eric Melton, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This project examines the presence of African-derived spiritual ideals within the black literary tradition as a means of highlighting the fundamental influence of spirituality on communities of the modern black diaspora. I begin the discussion with an examination of traditional African spirituality, focusing on Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958). This discussion identifies four core principles of traditional African spirituality that resonate most thoroughly in diasporan communities: the interconnection of sacred and secular spheres, the concept of cyclical rather than linear time, the emphasis on a communal ethos, and the necessity for balance and reconciliation. I then examine the development of what I define as "Black Diasporan Spirituality," considering how these principles, resonating to varying degrees, constitute the basis for a philosophical system defining the universe and the place and role of mankind within it, as understood by African-descended peoples throughout the diaspora. ^ Subsequently, I discuss the ways in which core elements of black spirituality at once inform and are represented in literature produced in Africa and the diaspora. Beginning with an analysis of James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927) and Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), I examine "Black Diasporan Spirituality" as a defining influence on the black oral tradition, centering my discussion on the cultural articulation of the African American song sermon. Using James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and The Amen Corner (1954), I then examine the consequences of religious practice in the absence of black spiritual ideals. Focusing on the presence of spirituality in spaces which are not formally designated as religious, I then consider Gloria Naylor's Mama Day (1988) as a narrative that positions "Black Diasporan Spirituality" as vital to the healing processes of black communities, addressing both the trauma and the reconciliation inherent in the construction of diaspora. Ultimately, this dissertation argues that a clear understanding of the nature and character of black spirituality is essential to understanding not only the literature, but also the many circumstances—historical, social and cultural—of the communities out of which each text emerges. ^

Subject Area

African American studies|African literature|Black studies|American literature|Spirituality

Recommended Citation

Melton, McKinley Eric, "Pen stroking the soul of a people: spiritual foundations of black diasporan literature" (2012). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3545964.