I. Introduction/Topic Statement Charismaticreligious symbolism forms an integral part of African American literature, asmuch as charismatic religious practice has proven an integral part of theAfrican American experience. Literally meaning “gift of grace,” this term isgenerally conceptualized into three categories: First, it is defined asdiscrete social phenomena, then a mode for the invocation and “formation” ofauthority in the religious setting, and finally – as it offers in AfricanAmerican literature – it is also “discursive material” upon which AfricanAmerican “social and political identities” can be formed (Edwards 12).
As adistinct social phenomenon, charismatic religious practices are well-known, andinclude speaking in tongues, divine healing, prophecy, the working of miracles,words of wisdom, and words of knowledge, each of which are of distinct andcritical significance in African American culture, and by extension, itsliterary discourse. The purpose of this project is to investigate thethemes, structures, and religious content of African American literary works,as they are reflective of such phenomena. Through the exploration of a range ofliterary works written by African Americans, the focus (and goal) of thislarger work will be to illuminate how these religious practices, particularly’speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia), relates to the African American literarytradition, and back onto the wider culture. From this basis, this work willexplore the historical landscape informed by and resulting from such fiction, andwith it, how charismatic religious practices (in general), have contributed toAfrican American cultural and literary history, and to the sense of AfricanAmerican identity. In brief, this work will seek to explore charismaticreligious practice, and then seek to determine how they have contributed toAfrican American culture, through fictional portrayal. This thesisproposal will be informed by the explication of central themes, a thoroughinvestigation of pertinent symbolism, and the exploration of the uses ofliterary devices, including language, structure, and symbolism in works byAfrican Americans where charismatic religious practices are depicted orimplied. The following work will present a general outline for a larger work tofollow, which will be organized based upon authors and texts, as well as thecharismatic practices which are on display in these works. Each section of thisproposed work will begin with an examination of religious and spiritualtraditions, as derived from primary works and evidence from the literature,which indicate the factors that influenced each author’s representations of arange of factors, particularly spiritual development of the characters andculture presented in these works.
These explorations will proceed to anexplication of the central text which will excavate and critiquerepresentations of spiritual development, as they have been depicted, and asthey reflect the core cultural phenomena being explored. Central images ofAfrican Americans in literature will be recast in terms of their relationshipto spirituality, as well as to a wider evaluation of crucial issues surroundingreligious sensationalism, to derive a wider understanding of the evolution ofthe image of African American experience in literature. Each work explored willbe contextualized to broader African American cultural and historical fact, aswell as used to inform a critical evaluation of the tradition of AfricanAmerican religious culture – through ‘sensational’ and ‘charismatic’ practices –to evaluate the evolution of religious norms in African American literature, asthey follow themes in African American history. Throughcomparing religious practices within the African American population to theirdepiction in African American literature (as through literal depiction andsymbolism), this work will evaluate how literature has potentially impactedboth the African American community, as well as larger American social andreligious culture. The significanceof the literary works considered in this work will become more evident throughnoting how they have evoked societal and cultural changes within the AfricanAmerican population and religious practice. II.
Background and Significance This work will primarily focus upon glossolalia,also known as ‘speaking in tongues,’ a religious practice which is common tothe Pentecostal church, a denomination whose members are predominantly AfricanAmerican. As will be shown in the preliminary literature review to follow,glossolalia – and other ecstatic indicators of charismatic Christianity – arehardly the sole province of African Americans, but they have been embraced bythis community in a manner which is arguably culturally significant. Glossolalia will be contrast with ‘heteroglossia,’another religious term and practice which has been linked in the literaturewith the ‘dual’ lives and speech patterns which African Americans must adopt inorder to avoid or escape oppression in American society, and ample ‘symbolic’evidence of both elements is available in 20th century African Americanliterature. This work’s research problem is as follows: Howare glossolalia and heteroglossia depicted in 20th century African Americanliterature, and do they offer a means of illustrating the modern popularity –or necessity – of Pentecostal religious action, as contextualized to racializedstrictures upon discourse? This question will be answered through anexploration of pertinent historical and religious literature, as well asnotable literary works, especially those of Zora Neale Hurston and ToniMorrison. Historical research works will not be limited, but literary workswill be limited to those published during the 20th century. III.
Literature ReviewLike all cultural art forms, African Americanliterature offers a testament to how Americans of African descent “have andcontinue to translate the culture’s identity, experiences, communalaspirations, challenges, and hopes” into a substantial narrative (Temple 132).Through the exploration of a number of African American literary works, readersbecome well-aware of different religious practices unique to the AfricanAmerican community, which have influenced African-American culture, bothdirectly and indirectly. As a central point of theory, Romero (2005) arguesthat many cultures employ religious practice to construct “useful narrativesto connect the past and the present,” and to help members of those cultures to”articulate…where they come from,” and “where they are and where they aregoing” (Romero 415). This idea of religious practice as central tocultural self-definition is articulated by a pivotal early work by MikhailBakhtin, in which this author argues that each cultural – or religious – groupspeaks in its own “social dialect,” which expresses shared social values,ideologies, or unspoken norms. In cultural speech, language offers less aninvisible form of communication, but an “ideologically saturated” expression ofshared world view instead, from which a “maximum of shared understanding” canbe derived (Bakhtin 271). Thus literature might be extrapolated to representthe epitome of such ‘cultural’ speech, through its canonization of moresintegral to the communities which may not be evident to outsiders. Thus,through the literature to be considered in this work, a number of authors haveoffered images of African American history which both invoke and evoke strongemotion, and through which the rise and sustained popularity of charismatic andsensational religious practice, and its connection to the African Americancultural landscape, and to its history, might be derived.
Glossolalia, or ‘speaking in tongues,’ is derivedfrom Greek, literally meaning ‘tongue speech,’ and is realized as an “unintelligibleverbalization that has a nonsemantic meaning to the speaker,” but – in themoment of religious fervor – it is “considered to be gift from God,” whereone’s language is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Walbnorn 226). It is often acentral focus of ‘charismatic’ religious services, and the broader Charismaticand Pentecostal movement, whose key experiential touchstone is the idea that”what happened on the Pentecost,” defined as “the experience of the power ofthe Holy Spirit…should happen to worshippers” (Daniel 172). Like Bakhtin’s view of culturally-informed language,the Holy Spirit provides the words which are spoken ‘in tongues,’ with wordswhich the speaker “does not understand…yet they have intelligible content”(Budiselic 178). These are words uttered in an “ecstatic, rapturous, inspired”manner, based on a “relation of intimacy and identification between theindividual and God” (Hein & Korsmeyer 124). So considered, glossolaliaprovides a “private, closed, and privileged” communication between the”congregant and the divinity,” of a sort which is “outside the publicdiscourse,” and foreign to the “known tongues of humankind,” as well as all ofthe ideological, and political strictures they represent, as to the AfricanAmerican community (Hein & Korsmeyer 124).Glossolalia is a hallmark of Pentecostal worship,and is thus critical to the African American experience, as the Church of Godin Christ now numbers greater than 6 million members in the U.S., and islargely African-American (COGIC, 4).
From its beginnings in the Protestantchurch, Pentecostalism is a modern variant on Christianity typified byenergetic worship, and a view of “tongues-speaking…as a supernatural gift,”which no amount of “human exertion, initiation, or training” can provide,except that which was “endowed by the holy spirit” (Busenitz 62). Firstpracticed by the apostles on the day of the Pentecost, it represents one of themost “sublime…performative rites in the black church,” and is “practiced byonly the most holy” (Elam & Krasner 123). Though ‘tongue speech’ is rare,it forms a central point of focus for this church: From its beginnings with theAzusa Street Revival in 1906, Pentecostalism has provided a means of providingAfrican American worshippers with “hope and self-worth through vigoroussermons,” from which “loud, enthusiastic responses” were evoked from suchcongregations, not least for instances of glossolalia (Salzman & Smith 19).At times, individuals so ‘claimed’ may be ‘aware’ of the utterances they make,but a prevailing view holds that glossolalia reflects a moment of wholesale’loss of self’ in religious ecstasy (Ford 5). While such practice may now “dominate contemporaryreligious landscapes,” it is notably present in “black religiosity,” which hasretained a considerable “indigenous charismatic worldview” which has longinfused African American religious practice (Phiri and Nadar 271). Thecontinued presence and popularity of this energetic religious tradition hasformed a means by which African Americans might transcend the manifoldsocially-oppressive factors which influence them, beginning with trans-Atlanticslavery trade, and which has continued in one form or another to the presentday (Johnson 1). Given the central place of importance which glossolalia andcharismatic religiosity to the African American community, it may come aslittle surprise that this concept has exerted considerable influence uponAfrican American literature.
The point of connection between African Americanreligious and cultural history – not least as viewed through the history ofPentecostalism – and the literature which has resulted from this culture, liesin the prevailing notion of ‘guarded’ speech, as that which is necessary forAfrican Americans in order to traffic in a world which is dominated by enforcedcodes of action and speech, as through American white supremacy which is sooften enforced and mediated by implicit and explicit threat (Bonilla-Silva 35).Under a landscape informed by explicit and implicit oppression, the AfricanAmerican experience has been denoted by forced adherence to cultural values andnorms outside their own, lending credence to Henderson’s (1990) argument thatAfrican American action and speech – and the fiction where it is epitomized –reflects both a “dominant and subdominant discourse,” where a ‘symbolic’glossolalia is paired with the concept of heteroglossia, which denotes the”ability to speak in diverse known languages,” as those enforced by publicdiscourse, in a manner denoting “polyphony…multivocality, and plurality ofvoices,” as speech or action taken under the strictures of racialized powerstructures (Henderson 6). The importance, then, of glossolalia (and its ‘twin’in heteroglossia), not just to Pentecostalism, but to the broader AfricanAmerican community, may be better-understood: Where glossolalia, though formless and shapeless,represents ecstatic religious speech, it is also private speech, taken alonewith God, and in the church setting, with the warmth of community.Heteroglossia, by contrast, reflects the necessities imposed upon AfricanAmericans to behave (and speak) in a manner expected of them by powerful socialactors, often under a ‘banner’ of white supremacy, though always at a cultural’distance’ (McCauley 218).
To this end, the manifestation of Pentacostaltradition in African American culture – and of glossolalia and heteroglossia –is often found in considerations of discourse and the sense of self throughoutAfrican American fiction. Notably, works such as Toni Morrison’s Sula(1975) and Shirley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose (1986) offer views of the”intercultural/racial and intracultural/racial sites from which Black womenspeak,” as well as the various social factors which restrain such speech (Hein& Korsmeyer 125). Moreover, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952)portrays a “disembodied voice” as a treatise on repression and the multiple’voices’ and ‘faces’ which African Americans must embody in order to succeed(Mercer 62). Richard Wright’s critical novel Black Boy (1945), serves to”crystallize a problem which goes to the core of Wright’s vision,” andencapsulates the African American experience: “How to achieve a human selfwhile inhabiting a deterministic environment which systematically denies one’sstatus as a human being” (Butler 50). Finally, the African American women inZora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes were Watching God (1937) must liveunder a ‘dual’ state of oppression – manifest as “nothing but objects to bepossessed by men both white and black,” – and as a result, were forced to couchtheir language and action (through heteroglossia), under both power structures(Fard and Zarrinjooee 474). In each of these cases, African American literatureoffers a lens from which to interpret the stressors faced by African Americans(especially African American women), as a point from which to assess their’forced’ heteroglossia, in order to ‘traffic’ in a world dominated by racialoppressors, where glossolalia (or charismatic Christianity) offers a rare andnotable relief. IV.
Research Design and MethodsSpecific research operations to be undertaken in thecourse of this analysis will focus upon exploratory research of primary andsecondary works, of both an African American religious history and literarynature. Elements which informed the preceding review of the literature will beexpanded upon, including Pentacostal Christianity in the African Americancommunity, ‘charismatic’ religious practices (especially glossolalia), and thehistory of racialized oppression in the United States, as it has manifest in arange of notable literary works. This proposal has considered a range of such works,and the preliminary review of the literature has stressed the importance ofinterpreting them through a ‘lens’ of strictures on speech (and forcedapprehension of different ‘modes’ of speech and thought, depending on racialcontext), and of the curative power of ecstatic religious experience. Each ofthe literary works considered in the preceding review, including those by ToniMorrison, Shirley Anne Williams, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and RichardWright (among others) will be considered for their textual evidence, orimplication, of this ‘dual’ phenomenon in African American discourse.Additional works will also be sought out for additional evidence of racialized’dualism’ in African American speech, and each work – and their implications –will be explored in detail. Critically,this exploratory research study will not presume that the Civil Rightsvictories of the 1960s (including the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, and the endof ‘Jim Crow’) have led to substantial reduction in the racialized stricturesover the African American experience.
Instead, this work is predicated on atheoretical understanding of racialized oppression as continuing to influencethe ‘lived space’ of African Americans, as it exerts tremendous influence overtheir free exercise of speech and action, through modes which may not always beapparent, or which manifest in a tacit manner. Finally, one potential barrier to the completion ofthis task lies in the lack of textual evidence to represent literalglossolalia. To this end, this work’s central point of theory will not seek tolink such evidence to modern African American Pentacostal tradition, except asit manifests symbolically, through these literary works’ exploration of’dualism’ in African American speech and action (as symbolic heteroglossia), asit contrasts with the attraction of the Pentacostal church, and with theecstatic ‘surrender’ to ‘unintelligible’ religiosity that it offers.
V.Preliminary Suppositions and ImplicationsThis will be a work of literary and historicalresearch with little bearing on practice. That said, this work presumes toconnect two highly-complicated symbolic concepts – Pentacostal practice, likeglossolalia, and literary evidence of African American discourse and experience– in a manner intended to illuminate the attraction of such religious practiceto this community. To this end, this work’s eventual conclusions mayfill a current gap in the literature, with respect to the continued popularityof ecstatic and rapturous charismatic Pentacostal practice to AfricanAmericans, and the continued ‘lived’ experience of the African Americancommunity. Though the last decades have witnessed legal and social trendstoward greater equality in the United States, the continued popularity of suchreligious practice – through which, some relief from the racialized spoken oraction-oriented mandates of white-dominated American society may be obtained –speaks to the idea that racialized oppression (in many cases, in tacit form)continues to hold sway over African Americans. Though this work will notdeliver evidence-based grounds for some policy intervention, it may provide anovel contextual approach to considering the African American experience, andto the modes of speech and action they must continue to adopt in order to beaccepted by a society which continues to oppress members of this community.
This goal is a lofty one, but there is ample evidence on each of the topicsconsidered, so connecting these two (seemingly-disparate) phenomena may beachieved. VI.Conclusion The AfricanAmerican experience may be well-trod territory, but few existing works havesought to explore the connection between explicitly African American religiouspractice and the role of such experience in ‘mitigating’ social stressors, asthose which force members of this community to mediate their words and actionsin the face of overwhelming (though often tacit) racial oppression. Moreover,few areas of potential research are as rife with valuable insight into thelived experience of this community as literature, as such works provide a meansof assessing a communal ‘mindset’ in a manner conducive to exploratoryresearch. This work will employ historical and literary analysis two disparatephenomena – Pentacostal religiosity and day-to-day lived experience in theAfrican American community – in a manner which will seek to inform thecontinued (and rising) popularity of ecstatic and charismatic practice, througha ‘twin’ theoretical lens of glossolalia (as manifest in religious practice)and heteroglossia (as it is ‘required’ in the white-dominated community).Through this consideration, an illustration of the African American communityin the twenty-first century, and the continued social stressors they face,perhaps as reduced by charismatic religiosity, will be sought.