Conversion Experiences in African American Literature

Josef Sorett has argued that Afro-Protestantism has fundamentally shaped African American literature. Twentieth-century black novelists often problematized religious conversion experiences. For instance, Nella Larsen depicts an emotionally manipulative, highly sexualized charismatic worship service in a Harlem storefront church in Quicksand (1928). In Black Boy (1945), Richard Wright recalls his grandmother and mother’s deep desire to see him have a profound conversion to Christianity during a revival at their Mississippi church. James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) culminates in John Grimes’s conversion experience, which is entangled with his desire for his cruel stepfather’s acceptance. The conversion scenes in each text yield a different outcome: Helga Crane’s conversion leads to her disintegration as the overburdened wife of an Alabama preacher; Wright claims his own identity, distinct from his family, by repudiating Christianity; John Grimes experiences liberation from doubt and shame during his conversion, but his future remains uncertain. Larsen, Wright, and Baldwin share a desire to confront or transcend the conversion experience as the formative moment.

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