I. this work will seek to explore charismatic

I.  Introduction/Topic Statement

Charismatic
religious symbolism forms an integral part of African American literature, as
much as charismatic religious practice has proven an integral part of the
African American experience. Literally meaning “gift of grace,” this term is
generally conceptualized into three categories: First, it is defined as
discrete social phenomena, then a mode for the invocation and “formation” of
authority in the religious setting, and finally – as it offers in African
American literature – it is also “discursive material” upon which African
American “social and political identities” can be formed (Edwards 12). As a
distinct social phenomenon, charismatic religious practices are well-known, and
include speaking in tongues, divine healing, prophecy, the working of miracles,
words of wisdom, and words of knowledge, each of which are of distinct and
critical significance in African American culture, and by extension, its
literary discourse. 

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The purpose of this project is to investigate the
themes, structures, and religious content of African American literary works,
as they are reflective of such phenomena. Through the exploration of a range of
literary works written by African Americans, the focus (and goal) of this
larger work will be to illuminate how these religious practices, particularly
‘speaking in tongues’ (glossolalia), relates to the African American literary
tradition, and back onto the wider culture. From this basis, this work will
explore the historical landscape informed by and resulting from such fiction, and
with it, how charismatic religious practices (in general), have contributed to
African American cultural and literary history, and to the sense of African
American identity.

In brief, this work will seek to explore charismatic
religious practice, and then seek to determine how they have contributed to
African American culture, through fictional portrayal.

This thesis
proposal will be informed by the explication of central themes, a thorough
investigation of pertinent symbolism, and the exploration of the uses of
literary devices, including language, structure, and symbolism in works by
African Americans where charismatic religious practices are depicted or
implied. The following work will present a general outline for a larger work to
follow, which will be organized based upon authors and texts, as well as the
charismatic practices which are on display in these works. Each section of this
proposed work will begin with an examination of religious and spiritual
traditions, as derived from primary works and evidence from the literature,
which indicate the factors that influenced each author’s representations of a
range of factors, particularly spiritual development of the characters and
culture presented in these works. These explorations will proceed to an
explication of the central text which will excavate and critique
representations of spiritual development, as they have been depicted, and as
they reflect the core cultural phenomena being explored. Central images of
African Americans in literature will be recast in terms of their relationship
to spirituality, as well as to a wider evaluation of crucial issues surrounding
religious sensationalism, to derive a wider understanding of the evolution of
the image of African American experience in literature. Each work explored will
be contextualized to broader African American cultural and historical fact, as
well as used to inform a critical evaluation of the tradition of African
American religious culture – through ‘sensational’ and ‘charismatic’ practices –
to evaluate the evolution of religious norms in African American literature, as
they follow themes in African American history.

Through
comparing religious practices within the African American population to their
depiction in African American literature (as through literal depiction and
symbolism), this work will evaluate how literature has potentially impacted
both the African American community, as well as larger American social and
religious culture.  The significance
of the literary works considered in this work will become more evident through
noting how they have evoked societal and cultural changes within the African
American 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 to
the Pentecostal church, a denomination whose members are predominantly African
American. As will be shown in the preliminary literature review to follow,
glossolalia – and other ecstatic indicators of charismatic Christianity – are
hardly the sole province of African Americans, but they have been embraced by
this 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 literature
with the ‘dual’ lives and speech patterns which African Americans must adopt in
order to avoid or escape oppression in American society, and ample ‘symbolic’
evidence of both elements is available in 20th century African American
literature.

This work’s research problem is as follows: How
are glossolalia and heteroglossia depicted in 20th century African American
literature, and do they offer a means of illustrating the modern popularity –
or necessity – of Pentecostal religious action, as contextualized to racialized
strictures upon discourse? This question will be answered through an
exploration of pertinent historical and religious literature, as well as
notable literary works, especially those of Zora Neale Hurston and Toni
Morrison. Historical research works will not be limited, but literary works
will be limited to those published during the 20th century.

 

III.

Literature Review

Like all cultural art forms, African American
literature offers a testament to how Americans of African descent “have and
continue to translate the culture’s identity, experiences, communal
aspirations, challenges, and hopes” into a substantial narrative (Temple 132).

Through the exploration of a number of African American literary works, readers
become well-aware of different religious practices unique to the African
American community, which have influenced African-American culture, both
directly and indirectly. As a central point of theory, Romero (2005) argues
that many cultures employ religious practice to construct “useful narratives
to 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 are
going” (Romero 415).

This idea of religious practice as central to
cultural self-definition is articulated by a pivotal early work by Mikhail
Bakhtin, in which this author argues that each cultural – or religious – group
speaks in its own “social dialect,” which expresses shared social values,
ideologies, or unspoken norms. In cultural speech, language offers less an
invisible form of communication, but an “ideologically saturated” expression of
shared world view instead, from which a “maximum of shared understanding” can
be derived (Bakhtin 271). Thus literature might be extrapolated to represent
the epitome of such ‘cultural’ speech, through its canonization of mores
integral to the communities which may not be evident to outsiders. Thus,
through the literature to be considered in this work, a number of authors have
offered images of African American history which both invoke and evoke strong
emotion, and through which the rise and sustained popularity of charismatic and
sensational religious practice, and its connection to the African American
cultural landscape, and to its history, might be derived.

Glossolalia, or ‘speaking in tongues,’ is derived
from Greek, literally meaning ‘tongue speech,’ and is realized as an “unintelligible
verbalization that has a nonsemantic meaning to the speaker,” but – in the
moment of religious fervor – it is “considered to be gift from God,” where
one’s language is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Walbnorn 226). It is often a
central focus of ‘charismatic’ religious services, and the broader Charismatic
and Pentecostal movement, whose key experiential touchstone is the idea that
“what happened on the Pentecost,” defined as “the experience of the power of
the 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 words
which 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 the
individual and God” (Hein & Korsmeyer 124). So considered, glossolalia
provides a “private, closed, and privileged” communication between the
“congregant and the divinity,” of a sort which is “outside the public
discourse,” and foreign to the “known tongues of humankind,” as well as all of
the ideological, and political strictures they represent, as to the African
American community (Hein & Korsmeyer 124).

Glossolalia is a hallmark of Pentecostal worship,
and is thus critical to the African American experience, as the Church of God
in Christ now numbers greater than 6 million members in the U.S., and is
largely African-American (COGIC, 4). From its beginnings in the Protestant
church, Pentecostalism is a modern variant on Christianity typified by
energetic 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). First
practiced by the apostles on the day of the Pentecost, it represents one of the
most “sublime…performative rites in the black church,” and is “practiced by
only 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 the
Azusa Street Revival in 1906, Pentecostalism has provided a means of providing
African American worshippers with “hope and self-worth through vigorous
sermons,” from which “loud, enthusiastic responses” were evoked from such
congregations, 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 contemporary
religious landscapes,” it is notably present in “black religiosity,” which has
retained a considerable “indigenous charismatic worldview” which has long
infused African American religious practice (Phiri and Nadar 271). The
continued presence and popularity of this energetic religious tradition has
formed a means by which African Americans might transcend the manifold
socially-oppressive factors which influence them, beginning with trans-Atlantic
slavery trade, and which has continued in one form or another to the present
day (Johnson 1). Given the central place of importance which glossolalia and
charismatic religiosity to the African American community, it may come as
little surprise that this concept has exerted considerable influence upon
African American literature. 

The point of connection between African American
religious and cultural history – not least as viewed through the history of
Pentecostalism – and the literature which has resulted from this culture, lies
in the prevailing notion of ‘guarded’ speech, as that which is necessary for
African Americans in order to traffic in a world which is dominated by enforced
codes of action and speech, as through American white supremacy which is so
often enforced and mediated by implicit and explicit threat (Bonilla-Silva 35).

Under a landscape informed by explicit and implicit oppression, the African
American experience has been denoted by forced adherence to cultural values and
norms outside their own, lending credence to Henderson’s (1990) argument that
African 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 public
discourse, in a manner denoting “polyphony…multivocality, and plurality of
voices,” as speech or action taken under the strictures of racialized power
structures (Henderson 6). The importance, then, of glossolalia (and its ‘twin’
in heteroglossia), not just to Pentecostalism, but to the broader African
American community, may be better-understood:

Where glossolalia, though formless and shapeless,
represents ecstatic religious speech, it is also private speech, taken alone
with God, and in the church setting, with the warmth of community.

Heteroglossia, by contrast, reflects the necessities imposed upon African
Americans to behave (and speak) in a manner expected of them by powerful social
actors, often under a ‘banner’ of white supremacy, though always at a cultural
‘distance’ (McCauley 218).

To this end, the manifestation of Pentacostal
tradition in African American culture – and of glossolalia and heteroglossia –
is often found in considerations of discourse and the sense of self throughout
African 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 women
speak,” 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,” and
encapsulates the African American experience: “How to achieve a human self
while inhabiting a deterministic environment which systematically denies one’s
status as a human being” (Butler 50). Finally, the African American women in
Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes were Watching God (1937) must live
under a ‘dual’ state of oppression – manifest as “nothing but objects to be
possessed by men both white and black,” – and as a result, were forced to couch
their language and action (through heteroglossia), under both power structures
(Fard and Zarrinjooee 474).

In each of these cases, African American literature
offers 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 racial
oppressors, where glossolalia (or charismatic Christianity) offers a rare and
notable relief.

 

IV.

Research Design and Methods

Specific research operations to be undertaken in the
course of this analysis will focus upon exploratory research of primary and
secondary works, of both an African American religious history and literary
nature. Elements which informed the preceding review of the literature will be
expanded upon, including Pentacostal Christianity in the African American
community, ‘charismatic’ religious practices (especially glossolalia), and the
history of racialized oppression in the United States, as it has manifest in a
range of notable literary works.

This proposal has considered a range of such works,
and the preliminary review of the literature has stressed the importance of
interpreting them through a ‘lens’ of strictures on speech (and forced
apprehension of different ‘modes’ of speech and thought, depending on racial
context), and of the curative power of ecstatic religious experience. Each of
the literary works considered in the preceding review, including those by Toni
Morrison, Shirley Anne Williams, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard
Wright (among others) will be considered for their textual evidence, or
implication, 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 Rights
victories of the 1960s (including the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, and the end
of ‘Jim Crow’) have led to substantial reduction in the racialized strictures
over the African American experience. Instead, this work is predicated on a
theoretical understanding of racialized oppression as continuing to influence
the ‘lived space’ of African Americans, as it exerts tremendous influence over
their free exercise of speech and action, through modes which may not always be
apparent, or which manifest in a tacit manner.

Finally, one potential barrier to the completion of
this task lies in the lack of textual evidence to represent literal
glossolalia. To this end, this work’s central point of theory will not seek to
link such evidence to modern African American Pentacostal tradition, except as
it manifests symbolically, through these literary works’ exploration of
‘dualism’ in African American speech and action (as symbolic heteroglossia), as
it contrasts with the attraction of the Pentacostal church, and with the
ecstatic ‘surrender’ to ‘unintelligible’ religiosity that it offers.

 

V.

Preliminary Suppositions and Implications

This will be a work of literary and historical
research with little bearing on practice. That said, this work presumes to
connect two highly-complicated symbolic concepts – Pentacostal practice, like
glossolalia, and literary evidence of African American discourse and experience
– in a manner intended to illuminate the attraction of such religious practice
to this community.

To this end, this work’s eventual conclusions may
fill a current gap in the literature, with respect to the continued popularity
of ecstatic and rapturous charismatic Pentacostal practice to African
Americans, and the continued ‘lived’ experience of the African American
community. Though the last decades have witnessed legal and social trends
toward greater equality in the United States, the continued popularity of such
religious practice – through which, some relief from the racialized spoken or
action-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 not
deliver evidence-based grounds for some policy intervention, it may provide a
novel contextual approach to considering the African American experience, and
to the modes of speech and action they must continue to adopt in order to be
accepted 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 topics
considered, so connecting these two (seemingly-disparate) phenomena may be
achieved.

 

VI.

Conclusion

The African
American experience may be well-trod territory, but few existing works have
sought to explore the connection between explicitly African American religious
practice and the role of such experience in ‘mitigating’ social stressors, as
those which force members of this community to mediate their words and actions
in the face of overwhelming (though often tacit) racial oppression. Moreover,
few areas of potential research are as rife with valuable insight into the
lived experience of this community as literature, as such works provide a means
of assessing a communal ‘mindset’ in a manner conducive to exploratory
research. This work will employ historical and literary analysis two disparate
phenomena – Pentacostal religiosity and day-to-day lived experience in the
African American community – in a manner which will seek to inform the
continued (and rising) popularity of ecstatic and charismatic practice, through
a ‘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 community
in the twenty-first century, and the continued social stressors they face,
perhaps as reduced by charismatic religiosity, will be sought. 

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