F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

Final Project | Their Eyes Were Watching God, Too: Black Atlantic Theology in 18th and 19th century Black British Fiction

Project Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God, Too: Black Atlantic Theology in 18th & 19th century Black British Fiction

Institution: Howard University 

Project Director: Brenton Brock

Grant Program: Fellowships

Research and Contribution
In 1938, Benjamin E. Mays wrote a book entitled The Negro's God as Reflected in His Literature. It was, and still is, a revelation. According to Mays, the Negro's ideas of God grow out of the social situation he [or she] finds himself. Furthermore, where they are [socially located] developed along compensatory lines, are used to effect social change, or show a growing tendency toward communism, they develop at the point of social crisis. In short, he argues that social milieu functions as fertile source material for theological construction and discourse. While his project provides an innovative to archive black theology, it is limited is its geography, only extending to African Americans. Therefore, this research project aims to look across Black British literature beginning with the 17th century to the present, to explore how the social milieu of people of the African diaspora in Britain. I will explore slave narratives, biography, autobiography, addresses, novels, poetry, and social scientists' writings from the African Diasporic point of view to interpret these texts as social documentation of theological evidence bearing witness to various theological ideas that help to sustain Blacks in Britain.

This study is, in fact, a social, cultural, political, and theological history of Black British, or perhaps Black Atlantic, Theologies. This project focuses on how African Diasporic theological and religious thinkers articulate and understands "Theology" and its impact on social, cultural, economic, and political arrangements in the Black Atlantic context.  This project explores modern theologies' multifarious character and how these theologies help one re-conceptualize God and humanity within social and cultural life. I argue that only an analysis that takes up all these angles on Black Diasporic theology can do justice to the importance of the role of literary imagination in theological formation, foundation, and facilitation. A literary history of the various theological cultures and subcultures in Britain and across the diaspora will contribute to recent scholarship on Theology, Literary Criticism, ethnography, and sociology, offering a countercultural perspective on traditional conceptualizations to Theology. It's cultural and ideological work that goes into producing and reproducing theology ["God" is more visible than ever before, because [the study of God] has been stripped of its moral and intellectual rigidity. Its dissection of the fictions that contribute to ideas about "Theology"—and the emphasis is given at the time to a white, Christian frame.

The project ultimately challenges and responds to the traditional assumption that theology is Eurocentric and that African Diasporic theologies are monolithic and monotheistic. The experiences of the Black Atlantic, as examined and presented in the archival work of this project, are the various aberrations of theology and the ways social location influences theological construction and discourse. The more considerable contribution of this research expands notions of God that correspond to James Baldwin, who in The Fire Next Time says, "If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him."  This project responds to this question to demonstrate through literary archives how the Black Atlantic responds and produces for itself Black Atlantic theological discourse.

Historiographical Significance
This contribution's historical significance is not to articulate a goal of liberation in the sense of salvation or soteriology. The historical relevance here is the liberation of Black British fiction from historical theological archival silences. Its significance is to add fiction as theological source material. To understand the importance of Black theological imagination more fully, of this important to study the theological discourses ever-present in the works of literature--letters, diaries, and literary fictions of those such as the diaries of Mary Prince perhaps the letters of Ignatius Sancho. This project's historical significance is the method of this project in the granting of epistemic authority to fiction as social witness and historical archive to remember fiction to the larger body of African diaspora theologies. While the objective here is to achieve a high degree of objectivity in the presentation and analysis of Black British literature to focus on fiction as an archive.

Methods and Work Plan
I employ theology, historical ethnography, and literary criticism as my central methodology, but I also draw heavily from colonial records and archives, local newspapers, magazines, and internet sources. I uniquely apply theology as a method by which to analyze the human, particularly the Black experience. In other words, theology needs not to revolve around attempts to prove God's existence or to articulate the ramifications of the existence; such is not the only mode of theological inquiry. Expressly, I turn to fiction as an archive to locate theological discourse and examine how "The Black Atlantic" influences Black theology.

Competencies, Skills, and Access
For nearly a decade, I have devoted my academic formation has centered theological education. Since my time at Stillman College, I have studied God's historical production and representation in African American literature.  As an undergraduate student, I began to read African American literary texts as deeply religious and theological texts due to the configurations and rich preservations of black philosophies of religion, theologies, and ethical concerns within many of the twentieth-century African American novels. While a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary, much of my academic work critically engaged African American literature as a viable method and source material for theological construction. I have already spent years of fieldwork on this project. I have examined Africana literary texts theologically. I have also worked extensively in Black Protestant Churches that turn to Africana Literature for theology and social ethics. I think I have done most of the fieldwork and archival research I need so far, and I have already written draft chapters of the book. However, I am applying for the NEH grant to provide funding for its completion. I need the time off to write these chapters and make a trip and spend physical time in Britain for interviews necessary for the project's flourishing and accuracy.

Final Product and Dissemination
I hope to publish the results of this project into a book. The book will be useful to scholars in the Humanities and Social Sciences because it provides a window on Britain's socio-economic and political facets beginning with the late seventeenth century. —for example, colonialism, servitude, racism, class and respectability, and popular culture. The book is highly interdisciplinary and uses historical, ethnographic, literary, linguistic, and theological methods. More specifically, cultural historians, ethnographers, ethnomusicologists, and academic literary studies students will find the book useful.


Primary Materials
Alexander, V. ""Breaking every fetter?": to what extent has the black-led church in Britain developed a theology of liberation?" (1996).

Anthony G. Reddie. 2006. Education, Education, Education. Black Theology in Transatlantic Dialogue, pages 113-141.

Chigor Chike (2006) Black Theology in Britain—One Decade On, Black Theology, 4:2, 192-209, DOI: 10.1558/blth.2006.4.2.192

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Verso, 2007.

Hopkins, Dwight N. Shoes That Fit Our Feet: Sources for a Constructive Black Theology. Orbis Books, 1993.

Jagessar, Michael (2003) Cultures in Dialogue: The Contribution of a Caribbean Theologian, Black Theology, 1:2, 139-160, DOI: 10.1179/blt.2003.1.2.002

Jagessar, Michael N., and Anthony Reddie. Black Theology in Britain: a Reader. Routledge, 2014.

James, C. L. R., et al. Toussaint Louverture: the Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History: a Play in Three Acts. Duke University Press,

Joe Aldred Respect: A Caribbean British Contextual Theology (Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2006).

Mays, Benjamin E. The Negro's God: as Reflected in His Literature. Greenwood Press, 1969.

Mukti Barton (2004) I Am Black and Beautiful, Black Theology, 2:2, 167-187, DOI: 10.1558/blth.

Mukti Barton (2009) Gender-Bender God: Masculine or Feminine?, Black Theology, 7:2, 142-166, DOI: 10.1558/blth.v7i2.142

Protestant Empires: Globalizing the Reformations edited by Professor Ulinka Rublack, Fellow of St John's College, University of Cambridge, and published by Cambridge University Press

Reddie, Anthony G. "Black Theology in Britain." The Expository Times, vol. 120, no. 1, Oct. 2008, pp. 16–23, doi:10.1177/0014524608096267.

Reddie, Anthony. "Black Theology: An Introduction." Theos Think Tank, 5 Aug. 2020, www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2020/08/12/black-theology-an-introduction.

Tynan, Jo. "Ex-Slave Mary Prince Used Religion to Convince Readers Black People Were 'Human Beings'." EurekAlert!, 6 Oct. 2020, www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-10/sjcu-emp092820.php.

Secondary Sources
Fisch, Audrey. "Black British Studies in the Victorian Period." Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 30, no. 1, 2002, pp. 353–364. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25058590. 

Gerzina, Gretchen. "After the Rediscovery of a 19th-Century Novel, Our View of Black Female Writers Is Transformed." The Conversation, 20 Nov. 2020, theconversation.com/after-the-rediscovery-of-a-19th-century-novel-our-view-of-black-female-writers-is-transformed-60016.

Greenaway, Jonathan. Theology, Horror and Fiction: A Reading of the Gothic Nineteenth Century. Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Martin, S I. "African Writers and Black Thought in 18th-Century Britain." The British Library, The British Library, 15 May 2018,

Spinella, Frank. "Theology & Literature." Theology Literature, 1 Sept. 2014, theologyandliterature.com/2014/09/02/the-value-of-theological-fiction/.


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