Milton and the Gospel of black revolt

Date of Completion

January 2009


Black Studies|Literature, American|Literature, English




Milton and the Gospel of Black Revolt is the first reception study of early African American writers and orators' intertextual engagements with the Christian poet of liberty, John Milton. The five-chapter study examines Miltonic presence in the protest literature of Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, and Frances E. W. Harper. This examination aligns early African American authors' subversive readings of Paradise Lost alongside the British Romantics' unorthodox interpretations of Milton's infernal hero with an emphasis on the signifyin(g) difference of black literary expression. This signifyin(g) difference highlights black writers' ironic recasting of Milton's Satan into a messianic rebel. The study charts the evolution of this subversive Miltonic figure through writers' use of figurative echo, varying tropological appropriations with the rebellious hero, and a religious poetics steeped in the secular context of black liberation theology. Theorizing this synthesis of Milton's writing, African American poetry, and religious ideology in early black-authored texts produces new readings of anti-slavery, feminist, and temperance appeals as subversive gospels of political rebellion and dissent. ^ The first three chapters complicate an understanding of these infernal appropriations by drawing upon methodologies in Milton criticism, black literary theory, black liberation theology, feminist theory, intertextuality, reader response, and rhetoric studies. These methodologies reveal Miltonic presence in black-authored texts as constituting a self-emancipating rhetoric. Such rhetoric empowers authors to write their way out of slavery and up the Great chain of being. Cultural geography is also used to mark and map black writers' Miltonic appropriations in their counter-hegemonic negotiations of abject space. Chapters four and five evaluate Miltonic presence and feminist geographies in African American women's literature. Like the epic poet, black women writers regard poetry and preaching as analogous ministerial offices. Thus the study concludes by analyzing black women's secular feminist gospels as constituting a sublimated path to the preaching ministry. It also interprets this ministry as a transgression of spatial boundaries within the patriarchal contexts of the nineteenth-century cults of "True Womanhood" and "Separate Spheres." An epilogue on Malcolm X analyzes the implications of Milton's influence and literary presence on contemporary black writers. ^