An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

June 4, 2015

Looney: Freedom Readers

P01455Dennis Looney,  Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press

Reviewed by Ronald Herzman (

Dennis Looney's Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy convincingly and importantly argues that Dante's critical fortunes in the United States are entangled more closely to the history of the country's black and white citizens that we have ever imagined.  Freedom Readers examines how "African Americans have read, interpreted, and responded to Dante and his work over the last two centuries..."(p. 2).  It would be an important book if only for the new material that the author has discovered and brought together that links Dante to traditions of African American literature and culture.  But it is also an important book for understanding issues connected to the reception of Dante more generally. To provide the context that fits Dante with the African American tradition, Looney presents an enormous amount of information about the way that the Divine Comedy has been understood and interpreted throughout its long afterlife.

The connection goes something like this:  Dante was a hero, indeed in many ways the poster child, for the architects of the Italian Risorgimento.  There was a great deal of cross-fertilization between that set of intellectuals and many of the leading American abolitionists, with the result that Dante also became something of a poster child for abolition.  As Looney carefully and memorably phrases it:  "... this dependence on Dante to make sense of perceived injustice and to effect a change in politics to which one is opposed, underlies the play on words in the book's title, Freedom Readers" (p. 2).  And again:  "They all turn to Dante for help in interpreting their paradoxical experience as citizens of the United States of America whose ancestors were likely to have arrived on a slave ship" (p. 3).  Although the main lines of the story are clear, there are complex ramifications, and Looney has done an excellent job of gathering and distilling an enormous amount of source material.

After an introductory methodological chapter, rich in its implications and inferences, the study moves through two centuries of African American culture and literature's encounter with Dante.  The chapter titles suggest that more is at issue than chronology, however.  Each chapter highlights a different kind of encounter between African American Culture and Dante as well as an analysis of the most interesting texts by the African American authors who engage him.   "Colored Dante" covers the nineteenth century and highlights Henrietta Cordelia Ray, whose fifty-two line poem "Dante" (1885) shows a "deep understanding of Dante's life and poetry as well as a strong emotional and intellectual response to the man and his work" (p. 56).  "Negro Dante" moves from 1900 to 1950, and covers such canonical and important writers as W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, and less canonical but perhaps more interestingly Spencer Williams, an African American filmmaker better known for his role as Andy in the controversial TV sitcom Amos 'n' Andy.    In his film Go Down, Death! (1944), Williams intersperses clips from the 1911 Italian silent film of the Inferno into his work.  As Looney has it, "...the quality of the final product does not detract from the deliberate, intelligent reading of Dante behind Williams's allusive adaptation of the cinematic Inferno, from whose fifty or so scenes he chooses six that suit the allegorical purposes of Go Down, Death!" (p. 77).  In a book full of surprises, this might be the biggest.

Chapter 3. "Black Dante," covers the period from the late 50's through the mid-70's.  In it, Looney presents his most elaborate and extended analysis of a single text, Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones' The System of Dante's Hell (1965).  Looney makes the claim that his is the first attempt to actually sort out the allusions to Dante in this autobiographical novel in a systematic way (p. 106). Looney's analysis shows the extent to which Baraka (pictured) was using, maybe even abusing, Dante for his own paradoxical purposes. One of the important themes that Looney foregrounds throughout Freedom Readers is the relationship between high culture Dante and popular Dante:  the Dante of the footnotes and the Dante of street singers.  The African American appropriation of Dante provides Looney with a very clear lens to look at this theme, with The System of Dante's Hell providing the most extended test case of someone whose agenda is to reject the very notion of a high-culture Dante as simply not relevant to his own enterprise.  The System of Dante's Hell is not really about Dante, even though there are more explicit references to the Comedy in this work than in any of the others that Looney analyzes. Nevertheless, Dante as constructed in The System "enables Baraka to understand better his own experience of hell on earth..."(p. 107).   Baraka appropriates for his own purposes a Dante that does and that does not in some recognizable way actually exist.  It does in that System refers to Dante's categories in very explicit ways.  It does not in that they become starting points for rearrangement, rejection, and reinterpretation of the text.  It does not in that as often as Baraka refers to the text of Dante, he more often refers to the scaffolding that the Sinclair edition provides for naming categories and mapping out the terrain. It could be argued that the system that Baraka appropriates belongs more to Sinclair the editor than to Dante himself. Rather than digging into Dante, he holds on to what Dante provides him by way of a system.  Baraka is using one of the icons of European high culture to measure the growing distance between himself and European literature.  There is an obvious paradox here, in that the very process of separating himself from Dante and from European culture more generally can only be done with Dante's help, even if the Dante that Baraka appropriates is sort of a stick-figure Dante, useful to play off but without any, one might also say in deliberate defiance of any, attempt to see what the real Dante might have been getting at.  To concede more to Dante would have been to defeat Baraka's purpose in his use-cum-rejection of the Commedia.  Looney is sensitive to all of the complexities this position entails, and more than respectful of Baraka's enterprise, and perhaps that explains why The System of Dante's Hell receives such detailed analysis in Freedom Readers. 

In chapter 4, "African American Dante," Looney examines Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.  Linden Hills is an interesting counterweight to Baraka because its juxtaposition of European and American cultural values depends on a much more nuanced appreciation of Dante and a much more thorough appropriation of him in her novel.  Looney calls Naylor "the most educated" of the writers he considers in his work (p. 158), and the one most steeped in the tradition of black literary culture.  Looney gives a persuasive account of the way she utilizes Dante and in the process he provides a key to the major contours of Freedom Readers as a wholeHe sees Naylor as someone "who learned Dante in school, but whose experiences out of the academy put her in touch with that other version of Dante that has its origins in the abolitionists' practical reading of the medieval poet and politician. Her imitation of Dante bespeaks a familiar dichotomy of highbrow and lowbrow culture, of establishmentarian and radical responses to Dante, of aesthetic and political readings of Dante."  (p. 159).  How these two trajectories interact is the essence of Freedom Readers no less than Linden Hills.

For Naylor an interesting moment of both convergence and conversion occurred in college when she read Dante the same year (1977) that she read Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, in which, as Looney tells us, "Dante plays a small but significant part" (p. 183). Looney's look at The Bluest Eye shows us something of the extraordinary precision of Morrison’s artistry in her appropriation of Dante. Through the character of Soaphead Church, "a hybrid product of mixed colonial culture," Morrison imagines someone whose reading of Dante is dazzlingly defective, someone who uses Dante "for a moral system that coheres with his perverted sense of the world" (p. 187).  Morrison "takes the reader into Soaphead's warped mind for a theological disquisition on good and evil, with Dante as arbiter" (p. 185).  If Dante is everywhere in Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills, which is in effect a modern recreation of the Inferno, his appearance in The Bluest Eye is carefully circumscribed, injected by means of a brilliant surgical strike, with a laser-like intensity that provides evidence that Morrison knew the Dante that she was withholding from her character.

In this schematic summary I do not mean to give the impression that there is more unity in the African American experience of Dante than there actually is.  Looney understands the degree to which any reception study that spans two hundred years is going to be both complicated and a little bit messy.  The study asks questions and provokes further investigation.  Nevertheless, I think that it is interesting that my response to the book was of a piece with other important studies of Dante that have changed my way of looking at him. After assimilating any new and cogent interpretation of Dante, something I have never thought of before, something clicks in, and the new interpretation becomes part of the way I look at Dante as though it had always been there, and as though it would be perfectly obvious to everyone else as well. Such is what happened after my first experience of Freedom Readers.  Despite an obvious connection between the two traditions--the Exodus narrative after all is the structural and thematic skeleton onto which the Commedia is fleshed out as well as the defining master narrative of the movement from slavery to freedom in the African American tradition--before Looney's work, I had never made any kind of connection between Dante and the African American experience.  After reading the book (and, spurred by my reading, teaching a course called "Dante and African American Literature" with my African-Americanist colleague), its revelations, some of them stunning when I first came across them, now seem in my mind to belong to the "everyone knows this" category.  But everybody does not know them, and so Looney has opened up for us huge possibilities.  It will be interesting to see how much more we find now that we have found a new way to look.

Ronald Herzman
SUNY Geneseo