Spiritual Lives: Embodied Spiritual Practice in African American Women's Literature and Film.
Abstract: In this dissertation I will construct a lineage of black women's
spiritual narratives that moves from Zilpha Elaw's more traditional spiritual narrative,
Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels and Labours of
Mrs. Zilpha Elaw (1846), to Amanda Smith's An Autobiography:
The Story of the Lord's Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith (1893) and Nancy
Prince's The Narrative ... read moreof the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy
Prince (1853), both of which push the boundaries of the genre. I will focus
on how these narratives illustrate the intersection of the black female body, itinerancy
and spirituality. I will conclude with an analysis of Julie Dash's 1992 film
Daughters of the Dust, which, I argue, can be read as a
communal spiritual narrative that revisits and radically revises the spiritual narrative
form. Like the nineteenth-century narratives that come before it, Dash's film similarly
focuses on the spiritual practices of black women. My dissertation, which takes as its
central premise the notion that theology is central to the study of literature, is shaped
by the work of literary scholar Joycelyn Moody, who claims that we cannot marginalize the
spiritual aspects of spiritual narratives and womanist theologian Delores Williams, who
argues for the significance of black women's theological experience. Moreover, building on
Katherine McKittrick's theorizing of the black female body and space, I argue that black
women's embodied (itinerant) spiritual practices are oppositional performances that resist
the violent and violating spaces and geographies of the slave trade, colonization and the
marketplace. Not only do black women resist these violent forms of circulation that define
the black female body as monstrous and enslaved, but, through their spiritual practice,
they also create alternative spaces and geographies that re-vision black women as sacred
and free. Although my dissertation considers the full range of black women's embodied
spiritual practices, including preaching, singing, prophesying and itinerancy, my analysis
emphasizes itinerancy in order to highlight the significance of free black women's
movements across socially constructed boundaries and spaces that are shaped by race, gender
and class, as well as black women's circum-Atlantic passages as preachers, missionaries and
tourists. My particular interest in black women's travel abroad is fueled by a dearth of
scholarship that considers black women's spiritual itinerancy throughout the Atlantic world
in relationship to the West's imperial mission. Situating their movement against the
backdrop of nineteenth-century itinerant culture in which black women's bodies frequently
circulated as sources of physical, sexual and reproductive labor, as well as objects of
entertainment and spectacle, I assert it is through black women's transgressive movement
and passages, their spiritual itinerancy, that black women resist violently enforced
geographies of the slave trade, colonization, and imperialism, as well as the violence of
socially constructed spaces, such as the pulpit, the courthouse, the auction block, the
slave ship and the marketplace.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2013.
Submitted to the Dept. of English.
Advisor: Christina Sharpe.
Committee: Elizabeth Ammons, Lisa Lowe, and Joycelyn Moody.
Keywords: American literature, African American studies, and Religion.read less