As a 24-year-old, white, blossoming feminist unaware of intersectionality, I was delightfully unprepared for my first encounter with Toni Morrison. Beloved was assigned as required reading for my Feminist Theology class in divinity school. I dove into the narrative about Baby Suggs, Beloved, and Sethe completely unaware of the larger meaning of the novel. Morrison’s work did not fit in the boxes I had long relied on in my studies. Was it a ghost story? What was I supposed to be feeling when Beloved was killed? What did I make of Baby Suggs’ sermon in the Clearing? Why was this considered theological?
As the years have passed, my appreciation for Morrison has only grown. Her books have done something to me. They have taken me on a journey to places unknown. Her literature revealed the complexities of my own history, the history of race and racism, and the beauty in Blackness.
In Toni Morrison’s Spiritual Vision: Faith Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature, Nadra Nittle digs into African folk religion, Catholic theology, and feminism, drawing three disparate strands of thought together with a succinctness only possible from a journalist. She makes a case for Morrison’s centrality to literary and theological studies at the intersection of womanism and Christianity. Morrison, Nittle begins, wrote “first and foremost for Black people,” (1). Nittle, however, writes to draw out Morrison’s importance and influence in the wider world through her theological vision and literary genius. Though not overtly biographical, Nittle paints the picture of Morrison’s history and the ways in which she wrote from what she knew, whether that was the true stories she encountered, the folktales she heard, or the religious formation she experienced.
The first half of Nittle’s work is a survey of Morrison’s influences with brief but comprehensive glimpses into Black liberation theology, magical realism in African folk tales, and the importance of religious syncretism for developing a religious perspective that resists white, cultural homogeneity. Nittle’s survey of Black liberation theology includes an annotated bibliography, lifting up the greats of the 20th century: James Cone, Delores Williams, and Alice Walker. Nittle highlights Morrison’s childhood experiences that shaped her spirituality, namely her mother’s decision not to send Lois and Chloe to a tuberculosis sanatorium because of a “sixth sense.” Nittle writes that “spirituality informed [Morrison’s family] sensibility in a way that she would not deem as magic but as reality,” (32). Her family’s deep spiritual knowing shaped Morrison as a storyteller, giving her permission to incorporate the magical into her narratives without differentiation from reality.
In the second half of Nittle’s work, she dives into the elements of this unique form of spirituality in four of Morrison’s most acclaimed novels—Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved, and Paradise. Nittle draws out Morrison’s desire to blur the lines between the monolithic tropes of “Madonna,” “the whore,” and “the witch” while exploring the vilification of each. Though this may not seem like an overt spiritual endeavor, Nittle makes a compelling case for why it is a direct result of Morrison’s spiritual vision: “The need to vilify another reveals more about the community members engaging in this behavior than it does about the actual scapegoat, a biblical symbol of a community’s sin but not itself inherently evil,” (108).
In the examination of Baby Suggs and Pilate Dead’s role as holy women in Beloved and Song of Solomon, respectively, Nittle hits her stride, revealing the folk legends and womanist Christology that influence Morrison. As Nittle points out, although Catholicism does not endorse or allow women priests, the centrality of Mary, combined with the role of wise women in Black communities, informed the way Baby Suggs and Pilate took shape in her novels. Morrison’s work, according to Nittle, “includes Black women and girls who have been in some way victimized—abandoned or abused by the men in their lives—but her novels also feature women who are complete in spite of the marginalization and degradation they’ve endured,” (110). Nittle’s work here goes beyond merely naming womanism and Catholicism as influences on Morrison’s writing, showing instead how her influences manifest in the creation of these particular holy women characters, who serve as literary icons for readers to encounter the Divine.
Nittle effectively names the spiritual forces at play in Morrison’s life and storytelling. Given that Morrison’s racial identity and experiences are so central to her spirituality, however, it does feel as though the book could have reflected more on the way white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants have set impossible standards that her Black characters have to wrestle with. Though Morrison was writing explicitly for Black readers, her writing is shaped by the tentacles of white supremacy, which have a role in setting the unspoken standards and expectations of respectability for the characters in her narratives. Nittle writes of Macon Dead Jr. in Song of Solomon that he “values money and respectability over integrity and authenticity and teaches his children to do the same” (116). Likewise, in Sula, Nittle briefly explores the respectability politics surrounding Black women’s sexuality as set in place by white supremacy. Throughout her book, Nittle emphasizes that white supremacy is an invisible, seductive character in Morrison’s novels that influences the expectations imposed upon her characters.
Nittle ends with a hopeful summation of Morrison’s continuing influence, from Beyonce’s Homecoming film to the development of Afrocentrism over the last twenty years. Though Morrison’s work speaks for itself, Nittle makes a compelling case as to why Morrison deserves a place in theological studies, both on syllabi and as a way to facilitate personal devotion and spiritual growth.
Kathryn Callaway is Co-Pastor of Christian Temple, a Disciples of Christ congregation in Baltimore, Maryland.
Date Of Review:
November 23, 2022
Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has been a staff writer for Vox Media, Digital First Media, and the Gannett/USA Today network. Her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, The New York Times, Salon, and religious publications such as Outreach and America magazines. She is the author of Recognizing Microaggressions (2019).
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