Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy is a literary-historical study of the many surprising ways in which Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy have assumed a position of importance in African American culture. Dennis Looney examines how African American authors have read, interpreted, and responded to Dante and his work from the late 1820s to the present.
In many ways, the African American reception of Dante follows a recognizable narrative of reception: the Romantic rehabilitation of the author; the late-nineteenth-century glorification of Dante as a radical writer of reform; the twentieth-century modernist rewriting; and the adaptation of the Divine Comedy into the prose of the contemporary novel. But surely it is unique to African American rewritings of Dante to suggest that the Divine Comedy is itself a kind of slave narrative. Only African American “translations” of Dante use the medieval author to comment on segregation, migration, and integration. While many authors over the centuries have learned to articulate a new kind of poetry from Dante’s example, for African American authors attuned to the complexities of Dante’s hybrid vernacular, his poetic language becomes a model for creative expression that juxtaposes and blends classical notes and the vernacular counterpoint in striking ways. Looney demonstrates this appropriation of Dante as a locus for black agency in the creative work of such authors as William Wells Brown, the poet H. Cordelia Ray, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, and the filmmaker Spencer Williams.
Looney fruitfully suggests that we read Dante’s Divine Comedy with its African American rewritings in mind, to assess their effect on our interpretation of the Comedy and, in turn, on our understanding of African American culture.
“Dennis Looney’s Freedom Readers is an original, timely, and very welcome contribution to the study of Dante’s reception in the United States. Looney shows vividly and lucidly how the American reception of Dante is tied more closely to the entangled history of the country’s black and white citizens than we have ever imagined; he also explores how influential readers in the Afro-American cultural tradition, over almost two centuries, have called upon Dante to help them negotiate the transition from the culture of their past to that of their present.”
— Nicholas Havely, University of York, U.K.
“Dennis Looney takes us on a fascinating journey of discovery of the African American reception of Dante and the Divine Comedy, covering with great surety the period from the early 1800s to the present: from William Wells Brown, Cordelia Ray, and W. E. B. Du Bois to Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, and Dudley Randall. Rigorously researched and also engagingly readable, Freedom Readers offers a new angle of seeing African American literature that enriches our appreciation of its complexity and beauty. Demonstrating persuasively the continuing relevance of Dante, this important study of African American anti-imperial readings of his life and works opens up valuable new lines of comparative literary investigation.” — M. Giulia Fabi, University of Ferrara
" Freedom Readers fills a gap in scholarship and criticism, and fills it outstandingly. Looney reconstructs the historical, ideological, political, and cultural background with extreme accuracy, and his reading of Du Bois, LeRoi Jones, and Toni Morrison is a great feat both of interpretation and of writing. The book promises to become a milestone: original, new, fresh, often exciting." — Piero Boitani, University of Rome Sapienza
“[Dennis Looney’s] subject of Dante’s African American reception has been somewhat neglected up to now, but offers some striking evidence of his relevance to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Looney’s major focus is on the novels Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and The System of Dante’s Hell by LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka), both at various levels autobiographical; he also covers a wide range of writing, and some film, from the 1860s to Toni Morrison and contemporary rap music.” — Times Literary Supplement
“Both for the scholarship it offers and for the work it urges others to do, Dennis Looney’s Freedom Readers is a crucial contribution to African American studies, to American studies more broadly, and to the continuing saga of Dante’s reception. . . . Freedom Readers will . . . have a powerful influence in American literary studies for some years to come.” — Renaissance Quarterly
“Dennis Looney examines the influence and reception of Dante’s Commedia in African American literature and film from the late 1920s to the present. . . . This is primarily a study of black American literature, but it does offer a fascinating insight into the importance of Dante as a lens through which to read these texts, and a figure in the African American cultural imagination.” — Medium Aevum
“Looney’s trailblazing book opens a new and important page in Dante Studies and African American Studies, as well as American Studies at large. Thanks to this solid research, scholars of these fields will now look at each other’s works with a growing sense of commonality.” — Symposium
First Prize Winner, 2011 Book Award, General Category, bestowed by the American Association of Italian Studies