Issues of the Spirit: The Development and Dynamics of Spirituality in African American Women’s Literature
Myisha Tandika Priest
Thesis DT 3.5 1995 P949
vi, 130 leaves; 29 cm.
Spirituality is an integral aspect of many African American women's novels, both past and contemporary; the study of this aspect of women's writings and its interplay with other central issues such as voice, sexuality, literacy and creativity, is of crucial importance in African American literary discourse. The purpose of this project is to investigate the thematics, structures and content of representations of spirituality in African American women's literature, using three texts, Gifts of Power (1831) by Rebecca Cox Jackson, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston, and The Temple of My Familiar (1989) by Alice Walker. These three texts illuminate major concerns about spirituality during their respective periods and the links between them suggest parameters for the evolution of notions of spirituality within African American women's writing. Accordingly, I will outline a general critical framework for my discussion of spirituality, including the issues of creativity, sexuality, and social change represented within conversion narratives; I will then explore the representations of spirituality in each text, excavating the work in terms of these specific issues, and drawing broader comparisons between them. Rebecca Jackson's work, representative of the spiritual concerns of early African American women writers (1830 to 1910), will be interrogated with particular attention to her use of the spiritual narrative to combat external definitions of Black women. As one of the first black women to write a spiritual narrative, her representations of spirituality and Black female self-definition are the foundation from which I undertake the study of the two remaining works. Zora Neal Hurston's novel will be explored as a response to previous representations of spirituality. As a part of this response, I will also examine Hurston's use of Black folk religions in defining and representing a Black female identity separate from rebellion. Lastly, through Alice Walker's novel I will examine the representation of historical and literary legacy as crucial to the spiritual development of her Black female protagonists, and her inclusion of previous representations of spirituality, including Jackson's and Hurston's within this legacy.
This thesis will be informed by the explication of central themes, investigation of pertinent symbolisms, and the exploration of the uses of literary devices such as language and structure. Each section will begin with an examination of religious and spiritual traditions which influenced the author's representations of the spiritual development of her central character, and then proceed to an explication of the central text which will excavate and critique representations of spiritual development. Central images of Black women in literature will be recast in terms of their relationship to spirituality, and the evaluation of crucial issues such as voice, literacy and the female body will be highlighted as crucial to the representation of Black female spiritual development. Lastly, a comparison of these works will demonstrate the evolution of the images of Black female spirituality in literature, placing each work in response to and a crucial aspect of a developing tradition of African American women representing spirituality in literature.