African Spirituality in Black Women’s Fiction: Threaded Visions of Memory, Community, Nature and Being

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9780739168851: African Spirituality in Black Women’s Fiction: Threaded Visions of Memory, Community, Nature and Being
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African Spirituality in Black Women’s Fiction: Threaded Visions of Memory, Community, Nature and Being is the nexus to scholarship on manifestations of Africanisms in black art and culture, particularly the scant critical works focusing on African metaphysical retentions. This study examines New World African spirituality as a syncretic dynamic of spiritual retentions and transformations that have played prominently in the literary imagination of black women writers. Beginning with the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, African Spiritualityin Black Women’s Fiction traces applications and transformations of African spirituality in black women’s writings that culminate in the conscious and deliberate celebration of Africanity in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The journey from Wheatley’s veiled remembrances to Hurston’s explicit gaze of continental Africa represents the literary journey of black women writers to represent Africa as not only a very real creative resource but also a liberating one. Hurston’s icon of black female autonomy and self realization is woven from the thread work of African spiritual principles that date back to early black women’s writings.

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About the Author:

Elizabeth J. West is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University. She received her Ph.D. in English with a certificate in Women's Studies from Emory University. Her research and teaching focuses on representations of gender, race, class, and spirituality in early American and African American literary works. She has published articles in anthologies and in CLA, MELUS, JCCH, Womanist, Black Magnolias, and South Central Review. She was an invited speaker and discussant for the 2009 Summer Transnational American Studies Seminar (sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service) at the University of Mainz (Germany). She was a 2002 AAUW Research Fellow and a ROOTS 2003 NEH Summer Seminar Participant (6/2-7/11 Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and University of Virginia). She has served as a Special Delegate for the Modern Language Association, and she is currently Assistant Treasurer for the College Language Association.

Review:

West's fine study adds to a growing body of literature demonstrating the impact of African heritage on African American culture. West (Georgia State Univ.) makes an important advance on this tradition, exploring ways in which African spirituality is woven into the more obvious Christian elements of the works. This clearly written, well-researched study treats the canon of African women's literature from Phillis Wheatley through the Harlem Renaissance. The author discusses well-known works--Frances Harper's Iola Leroy, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Nella Larsen's Quicksand--but is at her best in her exploration of less-familiar texts, e.g., Hannah Crafts's The Bondswoman's Narrative; Gifts of Power, a collection of Rebecca Jackson's writings (CH, Dec'81); and Jarena Lee's Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee....The specificity of the topic makes the book most appropriate for large collections. Summing Up: Recommended. (CHOICE)

Elizabeth West’s African Spirituality in Black Women’s Fiction: Threaded Visions of Memory, Community, Nature and Being offers a much-needed and breathtaking analysis of the selected literary texts. While these texts have received much critical attention and analysis, the author’s analysis is quite original and provocative. I especially like the way West connects the heavily Christian texts to an African past that is subtly manifested in the texts yet is, unfortunately, missed in literary scholars/critics’ readings of these texts. She does a thorough job in situating the authors and literary texts in the social and cultural times of their publication. Further, she provides a logical explanation for the texts’ strong Euro-Christian emphasis, despite the authors’ African diasporic background. More significantly, her reading of these texts unearths the presence of an African spiritual tradition that has not been explored or examined before with regards to these texts, a somewhat challenging task given the texts’ strong Christian background and deliberate disconnect from all things African. Therefore, this study makes a significant contribution to literary criticism. Without this study, these literary texts are destined to be read exactly as they have been read for decades. (Georgene Montgomery)

Drawing on existing scholarship on traditional African religions in the contemporary world, West’s consideration of African spirituality as articulated in African American literature written by women fills a gap in African American literary studies. West identifies the ways African thought informs African American’s interpretations of Anglo-Christianity, and she charts the metaphysical sensibilities that reveal the evolution of an African spiritual cosmology as represented by African American women writers from Harriet Wilson to Zora Neale Hurston. African Spirituality in Black Women’s Fiction takes an important first step in advancing new frameworks through which to read African American literature. Its commitment to exploring the ways African American women writers reveal both the African American's struggle to integrate traditional African world views into a Western one as a means of survival and the ways these world views influenced a developing American spiritual ethos is to be applauded. (Dana A. Williams, Chair, Department of English, Howard University)

...a comprehensive work that takes into historical and cultural consideration the employ of African cosmological aesthetics in creative work by women writers of African ancestry in North America.... African Spirituality in Black Women’s Fiction: Threaded Visions of Memory, Community and Being by author Elizabeth J. West offers a rich chronological analysis of more than the employ of religiosities as a marker for Black cultural expression in Black women’s writing from the nineteenth century forward. The text demonstrates a parallel read of the rising importance of class as an articulation of Black assimilation, or attempt to assimilate, into the developing aesthetic that would culturally define what it meant to be “American” during the epoch.... The work emerges as a literary historiographic piece that provides for the readership early examples of the inseparability of African-American fiction from African-American reality.
(South Atlantic Review)

With the publication of African Spirituality in Black Women’s Fiction, Elizabeth J. West has added rich new thread to the tapestry of criticism of the fictional works by African American women. While scholars in other fields of inquiry have hinted at the presence of Africanity in such fictional works, West is among the first to really carve out a space for an extended literary critique of an African presence in the tradition of black women writers....She painstakingly lays the groundwork of her critique by simplifying a rather complex African cosmology....West’s contribution to the already rich scholarship on black women’s writing is provocative, necessary, and much welcomed, for it provides casual readers, scholars, and teachers alike much fertile ground in which to grow new ideas. (CLA Journal)

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