Goodbye Christ?

Christianity, Masculinity, and the New Negro Renaissance

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Peter Kerry Powers
  • Nashville, TN: 
    University of Tennessee Press
    , December
     2017.
     236 pages.
     $55.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781621903734.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Goodbye Christ? Christianity, Masculinity, and The New Negro Renaissance, Peter Kerry Powers sets out to correct the narrative that the Harlem Renaissance (Powers uses “Harlem Renaissance” and “New Negro Renaissance” interchangeably) was defined by a “militantly secular” culture, a narrative that he pins most directly on the work of Ann Douglas. While Powers’s foil is straightforward (the cultural work of the period was secular), his argument is remarkably complex, demonstrating how, as African American writers navigated notions of Christianity, they were simultaneously steering through understandings of masculinity, secularism, cultural leadership, (anti-)intellectualism, racial and sexual identity aesthetics, and modernism. Most explicitly, Powers is invested in arguing that the efficacy of Christianity in cultural leadership during the Harlem Renaissance was determined and articulated through discourses of and anxieties around masculinity. 

As much as Powers’s project is to explicate and nuance the intellectual work of the New Negro Renaissance, he is also making a strong claim about chronology. For Powers, the New Negro Renaissance ought to be understood as part of a historical continuum that stretches well beyond the conventional understanding of the period as bounded by the 1920s and 1930s to include the late 19th century, continuing at least until World War II. In fact, Powers goes so far as to say that the intellectual negotiations of the New Negro Renaissance set the terms for the “African American rank and file through the rest of the twentieth century,” and has had “an enduring consequence for the nature of African American cultural production to the present” (5). This vast claim structures the eight chapters of the book. 

Chapter 1 traces the entanglement of Christianity and masculinity through W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) to suggest that Du Bois rejected the emotional fervor and strong (male) preacher identity of Christianity, but championed its musical traditions (37) in order to argue for a form of leadership by intellectuals that employed the religious experience as an aesthetic practice and an occasion for art (43). 

In chapter 2, Powers uses Langston Hughes’s autobiography The Big Sea and his poem “Goodbye, Christ” to claim that through the humor of Hughes’s failed conversion (54) and his articulation of the “failed masculinity of God” (61), Hughes became the “secular voice” of the folk (62). Powers claims that, though both Du Bois and Hughes distance themselves from Christianity, their understandings of blackness are inescapably tied to their experience of black religious practices. 

Chapters 3 and 4 work together to set a scene in which African American intellectuals struggle to inhabit a space of leadership or racial authenticity because of anti-intellectualism prevalent in Christian contexts. Both chapters employ the work of contemporary Black American public intellectual Cornel West, as well as Du Bois, Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and Jean Toomer to argue that New Negro Renaissance writers pushed against anti-intellectualism by giving educated men and intellectuals primacy in their literature, and relegating Christian figures to the periphery. 

Chapter 5 outlines how African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and writer Nella Larsen directly critiqued Christianity through their work, allowing for “other more secular means of envisioning racial experience, culture, and meaning, especially focusing on the figure of the educated man” (114). 

Chapter 6 shifts from the religious contexts of the New Negro Renaissance to assert the tense and problematic relationship between the racialized physical bodies of African American intellectuals and cultural leadership in African America (154). To consider how this tension played out in the lives and literature of New Negro writers, Powers turns to the poetry of Countee Cullen and the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston. 

Chapter 7 considers how Cullen’s poetry attempted to work through conceptions of appropriate masculinity in relationship to his Christian faith and his role as public cultural leader (162). Chapter 8 argues that Hurston rejected Christianity for its inability to deliver pragmatic results (189), and therefore championed non-Christian deities and religions for their abilities to inspire physical power and creativity, two characteristics she appears to associate with masculinity. 

Powers concludes his story of the New Negro Renaissance one hundred years from where he began, turning to a 2003 documentary by contemporary scholar Henry Louis Gates that commemorated and updated Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. From Gates’s documentary and the films of Spike Lee to the events in Ferguson, Missouri and the work of Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, Powers sees a common trend: “the church remains” (203). In this way, Powers suggests that Christ has never left the “house of African American culture,” and that the imaginative framework New Negro Renaissance writers developed to navigate the relationship between intellectualism and Christianity remains influential in African American culture to this day (210).

There are merits to asserting the links between Christianity and cultural production, as found in a dozen authors and across even more texts over the course of a century. Powers counters the dangers of historical isolationism, and demonstrates how writers provide fertile ground for investigating the complexity of being human. With this structure, Goodbye Christ? delivers on its goal to correct any secular narrative of the Harlem Renaissance. Powers’s chosen authors and texts make clear that although many challenged Christianity, the period was far from secular. 

To condense one hundred years of African American cultural production to two hundred pages can also read as reductionist. There are instances of Powers’s textual interpretation that scholars of religion and African American literature could certainly take issue with (Hurston and Hughes, in particular), and Powers’s invocation of humor, irony, and satire when reading his sources is confusing at best and patronizing at worst. 

According to Powers, the relationship of Christianity to African American literary and cultural productions in the 20th and 21st centuries is drastically underexplored, which is why it is so surprising that he does not make use of some of the more recent publications in African American religion and literature, save for Josef Sorett’s Spirit in the Dark (Oxford University Press, 2016). 

M. Cooper Harriss (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, NYU, 2017), Joseph R. Winters (Hope Draped in Black, Duke University Press, 2016), and Wallace D. Best (Langston’s Salvation, NYU Press, 2017) have each published monographs investigating the relationships between religion and African American literature within the last two years. Best writes specifically on Langston Hughes, and offers a very different reading of the Hughes poem from which Goodbye Christ? derives its title. Considering the work of these scholars would have made Powers’s call to fill such a void more attuned to the field of religion and literature, which is itself experiencing a renaissance within the academy. Crucially, though, Goodbye, Christ? does the important work of drawing the reader’s attention to the role that Christianity has played—and continues to play—in the cultural work of what Powers calls African America.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hannah C. Garvey is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the Indiana University, Bloomington.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Kerry Powers is Dean of the School of Humanities at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Recalling Religions: Resistance, Memory, and Cultural Revision in Ethnic Women’s Literature.

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