A few months ago, theologian and blogger Celucien Joseph PhD, came to me with an invitation to join him and historian, Phillip Luke Sinitiere for a panel proposal on Black Theology and the Harlem Renaissance. After a couple of days of reflection and constructing a possible contribution, I agreed. I am happy to announce our panel proposal was accepted by the American Academy of Religion, the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies.
Here was the proposal abstract:
“Black Religion(s) and the Harlem Renaissance
Chair/Comments: Keri Day, Brite Divinity School
Participants: Rodney A. Thomas, Jr., Celucien L. Joseph, Phillip Luke Sinitiere
For nearly a century now, scholars and writers have grappled with the social, political, cultural, and economic impacts of the Harlem Renaissance. Some work examines the forging of identities amidst the racial regime of Jim Crow that fostered artistic expressions of historical longing through the art of Aaron Douglas, for instance, and inspired the creative, imaginative writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Additional critical study documents that the era of the New Negro, complicated by its impact across class lines, sometimes fractured into competing camps based on conflicting approaches to the question of civil rights. While there are a few studies of black religion during the Harlem Renaissance era (e.g., Jon Michael Spencer, Randall Burkett, Jill Watts, Juan Floyd-Thomas, and Curtis Evans) the bulk of scholarship on this period tends to overlook the importance of black religion(s) during the era of the New Negro. This panel aims to contribute to the ongoing conversation about the role of religion in the Harlem Renaissance.
Building on the work of theologians Monica Coleman and James McGrath to consider
the history of black male speculative fiction and its relationship to black religion, Rodney A.
Thomas, Jr.’s “Dystopia & Dehumanization: A Comparative Study of the Theological Ethics in the Science Fiction of C.S. Lewis and Samuel I. Brooks (George Schuyler) in the 1930s” compares Schuyler’s views on race and religion during the era of the New Negro with the speculative fiction genre produced in Great Britain during the same decade of the 1930s by evaluating C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.
Examining poetry and shorter writings Celucien L. Joseph’s “Langston Hughes’s Perspective on Religion and the Failure of American Christianity” considers Hughes’s work as the articulation of the condition of black America and as an expression of their culture, suffering, fears, hopes, and their spirituality or religion. Joseph’s paper explores Hughes’s critique of white Christianity and how he articulated his own perspective about faith.
Phillip Luke Sinitiere’s paper, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Crosses the Color Line,” reads Bonhoeffer’s historic years at Union Seminary (1930-31, 1939) in the context of the New Negro Movement. Analysis of Bonhoeffer’s letters, essays, and sermons in conjunction with the Harlem Renaissance writers he encountered (including publications by the NAACP), the expressive modes of faith he witnessed at Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the social gospel activism he observed at Union Seminary, this paper considers the New Negro sources through which he gained understanding of black religion and from which he would develop a constructive theological response to the injustice of racism.”
A more detailed abstract of my contribution to the panel:
“Presentation Title- Dystopia & Dehumanization: A Comparative Study of the theological ethics in the science fiction works of Clives Staples Lewis and Samuel I. Brooks in the 1930’s.
Womanist theologian Monica Coleman, in her Making A Way Out of No Way, argues that black women’s science fiction literature provides “imaginative models of creative transformation.” According to Coleman, speculative fiction written by black women, is utopian in nature, with critiques of society and a ‘definition of genuine justice.’ These works of fiction “are interested in freedom, justice, and ethics for the entire community,” and present offerings of alternative futures. In stark contrast to black women’s science fiction, I contend that black men’s science fiction writings are dystopian in nature, filled with satire, as they grapple with the problem of race and masculinity. According to New Testament scholar James McGrath, “science fiction scenarios often imagine the future of technology, and thus provide a wonderful starting point for ethical discussions.” While studies between the intersection of theological studies and the genre of science fiction are relatively new, the history of black male speculative fiction and its relationship to black religion has been relatively ignored.
In this paper, I propose to compare texts by black science fiction writer and Harlem Renaissance thinker Samuel I. Brooks (George S. Schuyler) and a British contemporary, Clives Staples Lewis. Toward this end, I will engage in a theological interpretation of Schuyler’s racial dystopic work, Black No More and another piece of speculative fiction Africa, Black Empire. For this portion of the presentation, I will explore Schuyler’s views on race and religion in his New Negro movement context. In addition, this author plans to compare historic black male science fiction with the speculative fiction genre produced in Great Britain during the same decade of the 1930s, evaluating the Space Trilogy of C.S. Lewis, his notion of a dystopian society as well as his attitude towards science fiction. I conclude that what makes a social nightmare in black men’s science fiction is distinct from the white British version because each of these sub-genres exist for differing purposes. It is this difference, I would argue, that make for competing visions of alternative futures.”
The session where it will take place is the Saturday of the SWCRS, March 9th, 6:30pm, for the Arts, Literature, and Religion session. For more information, visit the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies website.