Claude Atcho was shopping at Target when a display of James Baldwin books got him thinking: Who would read them? Or get lost trying? At that moment, Atcho—a Charlottesville, Virginia, pastor who had taught African American literature at the collegiate level—was inspired to write a guide for Christians on reading and discussing Black classics (like Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain). The result, Reading Black Books: How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just, applies a literary and theological lens to these classics. Journalist and mystery novelist Patricia Raybon spoke to Atcho about his invitation to readers.

What is a Black book? How do you define it?

For me, it’s those classic, canonical texts that look at African American experience, hope, and concern but also—as literature—have stood the test of time. It’s not just about having an interesting plot; these books take up significant themes and ask important questions about human experience universally, but Black experience in particular.

What’s an example?

I remember reading Richard Wright’s novel Native Son as an undergraduate and being just floored by the power of the writing and the portrayal of human existence it puts forth. It rocked my world. I just remember thinking: What does this story mean for me as a Christian? I felt this burning urge to talk about the book from a literary and religious perspective—as a matter of theology and lived faith alike.

How can books like Native Son—or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved—move readers to a deeper theological understanding of, say, the imago Dei?

With Invisible Man, for instance, you can begin to wonder: How do I actually see people? For white Christian readers, for example, it’s unlikely they would deny that an Asian American, African American, African, or immigrant is made in God’s image. But by reading these novels, we learn that when we habitually see people in certain ways, filling our minds with particular stereotypes, then we’re not truly seeing them. So, reading these books can be a corrective that produces empathy. And I would hope that for Christian readers, our empathy would be Christian empathy, rooted in what Christ displayed for us.

What do Christians miss when they avoid or condemn Black books?

What’s missed is the story of God at work—and God’s not at work just among one people. We’re shutting the door and closing ourselves from a view of God’s faithfulness from below, as it were. From the African American experience, we can see what it means for God to be with, among, and faithful to people going through trial and suffering—people who, in the words of theologian Howard Thurman, are disinherited, rejected, and despised. Avoiding these books cripples our imagination, which leads to a truncated faith and practice. If we take the plunge of humility to read and learn beyond our perspective, we can grow in lived righteousness.

What can Black books offer to Black readers themselves?

What faith “from below” produces in the hearts of people who are suffering is a power almost beyond words. When people who feel the world crushing them in every way possible can say, “Here is Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory; he knows exactly what I’ve experienced, and I can look at his crucifixion and know he cares”—what that puts into a person’s soul, I don’t think you can really quantify. It makes concrete the truth of God’s love and presence for people who have experienced immeasurable pain and suffering.

African American literature, in particular, depicts suffering people looking to the Suffering Servant and finding the hope and comfort that the Bible speaks of. That’s the gift of attending to this literature in a literary and theological way. We’re guided into a fuller biblical picture of who God is and what God is calling us to.

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How do you answer complaints that some Black books are too explicit or violent?

Part of our faith is being honest about human experience: that it can be beautiful, but also very grimy. True literature is going to deal with that in uncomfortable ways. But we are called to enter into the pain and stories of others. Maybe somebody isn’t ready to step straight into reading a novel like Beloved. But you can read Margaret Walker’s poetry or James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. There are all sorts of different entry points if we’re willing to have the posture of a learner and to learn with others.

Are there advantages, then, to reading these books communally?

That’s the way we read best—when we’re reading, discussing, and processing books together. When we can say to each other, “What did that feel like to you? Here’s how it felt to me.” In reading communally, we rely not only on our own understanding, but also on the strength of the community to process together, and that’s where the best learning and transformation will emerge.

You declare that sin has a systemic dimension—that it isn’t just an individual’s isolated failing. Why do some Christians resist that view?

There’s a fear that affirming the social dynamics of sin—that sin can be found in systems or organizations—has the effect of denying individual responsibility for sin and our individual need for forgiveness. But if you read Native Son, for example, and take it seriously, it paints a fuller picture of sin—that it’s not just a volitional choice of one person but also a power that lords over us and has social dynamics and connections that go deeper than we care to admit.

As we read our Scriptures, like the Book of Romans, it’s clear that sin is both a verb and a noun. It impacts individuals, but also the whole world. As people made for fellowship with God and one another, our sin creates fractures that run both vertically and horizontally. We can debate how far those ripples go, but those ripples do, in fact, go downstream.

Your book was conceived during the summer of 2020, in a moment of racial reckoning. Since then, we’ve seen a period of pushback. Do you ever worry that your book missed the moment?

The time is still right because, with God, the time is always right. The kingdom of God is at hand. So there’s always hope to be had. And on a practical level, I just couldn’t go back into Target and see all these books lined up on the shelf without wanting to say, “Let me be a guide to people who might buy James Baldwin books while they get their groceries. Let me try to contribute something for people who might pick up these great works and then wonder: What does this mean for me?

Your book closes on the theology of hope, as shown in Margaret Walker’s poem “For My People.” But the poem only feels hopeful in the last stanza. Why, then, do you recommend it?

In the poem, Walker traces through all these trials and stumbles that define African American experience—including what she calls the “unseen creatures who tower over us omnisciently and laugh.” Yet, in closing, she still summons up the hope to say, “Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born.” This is the invading nature of hope. There’s a sort of cosmic evil at work in the world, which means we need an invading hope whose arrival is almost unexplainable. I couldn’t imagine anything but this poem to close the book.

Claude Atcho is pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Reading Black Books
Reading Black Books
Brazos Press
2022-05-17
208 pp., 17.99
Buy Reading Black Books from Amazon