Coming Soon…Religious scholars discuss Billie Holiday, Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes

November 8th, 2018


Ralph Ellison

Billie Holiday

Langston Hughes



I recently had the great privilege of hosting a conversation among three prominent religious scholars, Professors Wallace Best (Princeton), Tracy Fessenden (Arizona State) and M. Cooper Harriss (Indiana University), each of whom has recently published fascinating works on, respectively, Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday and Ralph Ellison.

Their work is brilliant and entertaining, and of significance to anyone with an interest in expanding their knowledge of these three iconic Americans, and the worlds – particularly the religious worlds – in which they moved.

The conversation, which featured a wide range of topics (i.e. the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling) will be published in January.  Meanwhile, the authors have provided statements that will provide initial information about their work.





Tracy Fessenden’s statement about her book, Religion Around Billie Holiday


The premise of the “Religion Around” series is that we can learn a quite a bit about any iconic figure by apprehending not only his or her own religious or spiritual life, whatever that may have been, but also the religious currents around that person and the ways he or she moved with, inside, or against them. That Billie Holiday isn’t someone we readily think of as a religious artist makes her a great test case for that idea. She didn’t have the big church sound we associate with, say, Bessie Smith or Mahalia Jackson or Aretha Franklin, because unlike them she didn’t come up in the great Afro-Protestant musical cultures that gave us gospel and blues. Yet she herself has become a kind of sacred figure. And her sound is as alive today as it ever was. It seemed worthwhile to me to think about how the spiritual currents she navigated might have shaped her life and her sound and what she and others made of them.

There’s an implicit pushback in the book against the notion that religion is always either liberating or oppressive. Or always anything. Religion Around Billie Holiday is in this sense a contribution to the study of lived religion, the ways people navigate the religious environments they find themselves in, and what they create or alter in those spaces in doing so, whether they identify religiously or not. Holiday was baptized Catholic and spent time in a convent reform school, and she moved in and out of various Catholic contexts over the course of her life. Catholicism wasn’t her identity so much as it was her material. To neglect this part of her story, to me, would be like overlooking Pentecostalism in the life of James Baldwin or Jewishness in the career of Philip Roth.  But I also cast wider circles around Holiday to draw in more of the environing religious conditions to which her genius responded: the Afro-Protestant theologies, politics, and spaces that nurtured so much of modern American sound; the white vigilante faith that passed for justice in the gallant South; the shape-shifting Jewishness of the American songbook; the gravitational pull of her contemporaries’ eclectic religious orbits; and the mythic charge of her own luminous iconicity.

What’s noteworthy to me is not that her generations of admirers have seen some part of themselves, some way of being, reflected back to them in Holiday, but that she has had this effect on so many people.  So many great artists have found in her music a spiritual echo of their own condition. Langston Hughes wrote a hauntingly beautiful poem about her. So did Elizabeth Bishop, somewhat resignedly, after Bishop’s companion, the heiress Louise Crane, fell madly in love with Holiday. Novelist Haruki Murakami has said what he hears in Billie Holiday is forgiveness.  William Faulkner and Marianne Moore were both drawn to her. Jack Kerouac gave her a walk-on part in

On the Road, and Orson Welles wanted to put her in his films. When she was just nineteen Duke Ellington cast her in the lone singing role in his 1935 film Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life. Composer Mary Lou Williams wrote a part of her Zodiac Suite for her. What these artists saw in Holiday was a fellow artist and an innovator, someone who, as Williams put it, “made sounds and things you’ve never heard before.” Barack Obama said that Holiday was a formative influence on him because he heard in her voice a “willingness to endure,” and in enduring to “make music that wasn’t there before.”

I hope readers will come away from the book with an appreciation of the influence on Billie Holiday of Catholic liturgical music and Catholic understandings of penance and grace, of the Jewish songwriting culture of Tin Pan Alley, of the echoes of black church sounds in the blues she heard and sang in brothels. That’s the “around” part of Religion Around. But music, like religion, isn’t just ambient; it’s also something we carry inwardly. I think almost everyone has an inner soundtrack. We all have songs in our heads. And spirituality is a kind of inner soundtrack, a set of inner grooves.  So more than anything I hope readers of this book will be moved to listen to Billie Holiday and to listen inwardly, so that we have her music in us as we go about tending the world and making our lives.







Wallace Best’s statement about his book,  Langston’s Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem


The aim of my book was to find out what was at the root of Langston Hughes’ extensive writing on religion and why no one was talking about it in a full and comprehensive way. Hughes wrote just as much about religion as any other topic, including such topics as work, black women, racial equality and democracy, and religion – religious themes, discourses, theological frameworks, and spiritual cadences – permeate his work, even in his most famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” written in 1921. Jessie Faucet, editor at the Crisis, to whom Hughes sent the poem considered it evidence of his “spiritualness,” and Alain Locke called it Hughes’s “mystical identification with the race experience.”

I’ve known rivers,

ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


I argue that one cannot fully understand Langston Hughes without careful examination of his thoughts about God, the church, religious institutions and people, and matters of ultimate meaning.  They are central to the corpus of his work.

Despite this extensive corpus of religiously-infused work, however, little sustained and comprehensive analysis of Hughes’s religious poetry has emerged. And the absence of forthright analysis of his religious work has marginalized one of the most percipient thinkers about religion in twentieth-century American literature. It has also prompted the misleading conclusions that Hughes was “secular to the bone,” “notoriously reticent about matters of religion” and “as a rule. . . stayed away from religious topics and themes.” These depictions of Hughes have contributed to the general perception that he was “anti-religious,” that is, he stood – at all times – in resolute opposition to religion and religious people, and that his poetry and other writings are a testament to that anti-religious stance. Nothing could be further from the truth, and Hughes’s own statements in his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea, bear this out. He emphatically stated to Jean Wagner in 1958, for example, “I do not consider any of my writing anti-religious.”

My book, therefore, is an attempt to read Langston Hughes “religiously,” seeing him as a great “thinker about religion.”








M. Cooper Harriss’ statement about his book,  Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology


     Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology argues that “invisibility” means a great deal more than meets the eye. The term has become sociological in a way Ellison remained routinely suspicious of, in a way that (to his mind) risked reducing black lives to data points and stimuli responses, not the rich and irrational experiences of people striving to live meaningfully—even irrationally—with dignity and élan in the face of harrowing systematic oppression. This book pushes beyond invisibility’s material and physical dimensions to the metaphysical. The novel’s opening line (“I am an invisible man”) invokes a story of American haunting that certainly deploys social reality, yet lingers moreso in the surplus, the excess of its significance. For this religionist, it pointed to other resonances: Paul’s “evidence of things not seen,” Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World, the “invisible powers” of Kongo religion.


In this way the book attempts to recast Ellison’s literary worldview in a way that proceeds from understanding invisibility to be shot through with religious and theological significance—not in a way that occludes or denies the sociological interpretation it often attracts but, rather, in the attempt to complement the materialist reading. In the process Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology identifies new antecedents for the term (see Paul, Mather, and Kongo spirituality, above) as well as ways such a revision may innovate present-tense issues like drones. It also opens new vistas on Ellison’s career and context, including his friendship with Nathan Scott, his use of civil religion and original sin, parallels with thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, etc. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology does not argue that Ellison was a “religious writer,” per se. Rather, it speaks both to the unacknowledged (or even invisible) religious and theological dimensions that shape his work and to the way his fiction and criticism theologize the racial experience of invisibility as something exceeding the rationalizations of social materialism.


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