“An excellent model of the research and critical analyses that ought to inform future scholarship in African American literature and culture.”—Jerry W. Ward Jr., coeditor of The Cambridge History of African American Literature
“Brilliant and insightful. Fills a gap in the study of African American literature and religion, which has traditionally assumed a Protestant theological and cultural landscape as the ground for discussions of religion and spirituality among the enslaved. Adds to our knowledge of how religious tropes, archetypes, and theological claims inform readings of African American literary texts.”—Katherine Clay Bassard, editor of “Sketches of Slave Life” and “From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit”
“A fresh, insightful reading of the African American neo-slave narrative genre. Promises to revise our understanding of not only the religious ideologies that justified slavery but also the narratives through which African Americans continue to engage America’s traumatic history and envision their own redemptive salvation.”—Sheldon George, author of Trauma and Race: A Lacanian Study of African American Racial Identity
Sacraments of Memory: Catholicism and Slavery in Contemporary African American Literature is the first book to focus on Catholic themes and imagery in African American literature. Erin Michael Salius discovers striking elements of the religion in neo-slave narratives written by Toni Morrison, Ernest Gaines, Leon Forrest, Phyllis Alesia Perry, Charles R. Johnson, and Edward P. Jones.
Examining the emergence of this major literary genre amidst the Black Power and civil rights movements, Salius uncovers the presence of Catholic rituals and mysteries—including references to the Eucharist, Augustinian theology, spirit possession, and stigmata—alongside and in tension with these texts’ criticisms of the Church’s political and social policies. Her analyses include a nuanced reading of Beloved that interprets the novel in light of Toni Morrison’s affiliation with the religion.
Salius argues that Morrison and the other novelists in this study draw on a Catholic counter-tradition in American literature that resists Enlightenment rationality. These authors use this tradition to challenge the historical realism of past slave autobiographies and the conventional story of American slavery. Ultimately, Salius contends that Catholicism enables these novelists to imagine and express radically different ways of remembering the past.
Erin Michael Salius is associate director of Summer Term at Boston University.