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Sacraments of Memory:
Catholicism and Slavery in Contemporary African American Literature

Erin Michael Salius

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"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 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, Leon Forrest, Phyllis Alesia Perry, and Charles Johnson, among others. Examining the emergence of this major literary genre following Vatican II and amidst the Black Power and civil rights movements, she uncovers the presence of Catholic rituals and mysteries—including references to the Eucharist, Augustinian theology, spirit possession, and stigmata. These textual references occur alongside and in tension with criticisms of the Church's political and social policies.  
 
Salius offers a nuanced reading of Beloved that interprets the novel in light of Toni Morrison's affiliation with the religion. She argues that Morrison, and the other novelists in this study, draw on a Catholic countertradition in American literature that resists Enlightenment rationality. She highlights allusions to Catholic tropes such as the connections between spirit possession and the hijacking of Jane's narrative voice in Ernest Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Salius also identifies Augustinian theology on the prescience of God in the flash-forward narrative techniques used in Edward P. Jones's The Known World.  
 
These authors use Catholicism to challenge the historical realism of past slave autobiographies and the conventional story of American slavery. Ultimately, Salius contends that this tradition 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.
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