“It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning” -Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958
This course explores figurations of religion in American literatures from the Civil War to the present. Through investigations of political discourse, memoir, novels, and poetry, we will explore how religion has been used to concretize and contest personal, ethnic, and national identities in textual productions of the last century and a half. We will begin by studying the twinned questions of race and religion that figured into the abolitionist movement, reading selections from Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Frederick Douglass’s Appendix to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. We will extend our discussion of the relation of national identity to race and religion by investigating the nineteenth century Republican party’s anti-slavery and anti-polygamy platforms, the role of religious rhetoric in the twentieth century civil rights and anti-war movements (from the writings of Martin Luther King to Allen Ginsburg’s use of Tibetan chants in the effort to levitate the Pentagon), and the representation of Islam in political discourse since 9/11.
Paralleling our investigation of the construction of the national body will be a focus upon literary renderings of the individual body and soul. How, we will ask, does religion mediate race and identity in American literatures? This question will lead us from Zora Neale Hurston’s work on Hoodoo in the American South to the place of Christian transcendentalism in Li-Young Lee’s poetic explorations of national exile; from questioning the role of ritual in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony to theorizing the domain of the spiritual in Gloria Anzaldúa’s work in Borderlands/La Frontera; from the religion of place in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to the religion of displacement in Shalimar the Clown. By examining the cultural complexities of religion and race in both political discourse and literary productions, we will work to discover how categories of belonging – ethnic, religious, and national – combine and conflict as people work to carve out a space for personhood in these United States.