African American Literature as Spiritual Witness: The Poetic Example of Margaret Alexander Walker
Pierce, Yolanda, Christianity and Literature
Birthed during the watery baptism of the Middle Passage between Africa and the New World, African American literature is the product of hybrid cultures, hybrid worlds, and hybrid religions. The experiences and memories of traditional African religions, along with a brutal introduction to Western Christianity, created the cauldron in which African American literature was born. From the poetry of Ann Plato and Phillis Wheatley, to the novels of Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman, African American literature has been "haunted" by its religious birth-pangs, which produced both acceptance and contestation of its African and Christian origins.
Using the poetry of Margaret Alexander Walker, this brief article simply argues that while there does appear to be a "return to religion" in the larger arena of literary and cultural studies, African American literature and literary criticism have never turned away from their spiritual roots. The revelation and contestation of spiritual truths is not a passing fad in African American literature; rather, the work of theology is at the heart of this canon of texts.
Margaret Alexander Walker was the daughter of a Methodist minister and the granddaughter of a slave; she was born in Birmingham, Alabama, raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and spent all her adult life and academic career as an English professor in Jackson, Mississippi. Her life spanned most of the twentieth century (1915-1998), and her writing career began when she was just 19 years old. Perhaps best known for her 1966 novel Jubilee, Walker was a prolific poet and the literary foremother of several generations of African American writers, including Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni. Her many volumes of poetry interrogate Christian beliefs and employ sacred forms as she explores the conflicted nature of Christianity for many African Americans.
We have been believers believing in the black gods of an old land, believing in the secrets of the seeress and the magic of the charmers and the power of the devil's evil ones. And in the white gods of a new land we have been believers believing in the mercy of our masters and the beauty of our brothers, believing in the conjure of the humble and the faithful and the pure. Neither the slaves' whip nor the lynchers' rope nor the bayonet could kill our black belief. In our hunger we beheld the welcome table and in our nakedness the glory of a long white robe. We have been believers in the new Jerusalem.
In the first three stanzas of her poem, "We Have Been Believers," from her volume For My People (1941), (1) Walker establishes a collective memory that ties contemporary African American religious belief to the slave experience, and even prior, to a collective African religious heritage. Though millions may have perished on that Middle Passage journey, what did not die were the memories of "gods of old." Africans and their descendants did not come to the New World as "heathens" or as empty, soulless vessels; instead they came with story, song, and memories of a sustaining faith.
And in this new land, Africans and their American-born descendants adapted to new beliefs; there was the desire and the absolute need to believe in the mercy of earthly masters and the mercy of a heavenly master who would clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and provide for the "least of these." And even when the whip, and the rope, and the bayonet attempted to destroy these nascent beliefs, they could not, because African Americans did not just adopt the new beliefs of this new land, they transformed the very core of those beliefs. Terms like "chosen people" and the "promised land" were adopted and recast; Abraham and Sarah, as well as Ishmael and Hagar, were claimed as kin folks. (2)
A "new Jerusalem" becomes possible only by believing that this Christian God cared. And so Walker celebrates the spirit of a faith that always allowed for the radical possibilities of hope. …