“Black writers are not just source material for theologians, they are theologians themselves. ”
My project is an extended meditation on the ways that four black American writers—Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison—use the Garden of Eden as a metaphor to offer counter theologies to the doctrine of Original Sin, which has been used historically as a defense to make sense of black suffering. For these writers, who each offer dissenting theologies, Eden is a mythological site that is singularly generative for thinking about black life and culture. And to parse out the counter theologies they offer, I place each of these writers in conversation with four theologians. First, I place James Baldwin in conversation with St. Paul to show how Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) is in many ways a response to St. Paul’s proclamation that one should “mortify the flesh” considering Adam’s sin. Next, I take Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise (1998) and place it in conversation with St. Augustine’s fully fleshed theory of “Original Sin.” In the third chapter, I take Richard Wright and investigate how he used Kierkegaard’s reading of Adam in his novel, The Outsider (1953). And in the final chapter, I take Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) and place her in conversation with Ivone Gebara to show how both argue for a radical reinterpretation of the Genesis myth to reconsider what it means to be human. Each of these writers offer an alternative black theopoetics that not only critiques doctrines that have harmed, but one that provides an imagination for thinking about our lives on this planet differently and, perhaps, more beautifully. Overall, my interests are two-fold: I am interested in exploring the hermeneutics of the novelists, the ways they read the text and imagine something else, something more useful. And, I am invested in exploring their constructive theological ideas, ones they offer in the wake of reimagining the Genesis myth. For these writers, the Garden of Eden does not need to be forsaken, it just needs to be returned to and reimagined.