August Wilson introduces the importance of Christianity in African-American lives, especially in the characters of Toledo, Cutler, and Levee in the play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” This play is not overtly about religion, but it is about the African-American experience and cultural identity. Religion plays a major role in the personal and collective identities of African-Americans. Christianity has an ambiguous and paradoxical position within African-American culture. As the religion of the white oppressor, it has ironically been embraced as a primary means of spiritual solace, social support, and existential salvation. However, Toledo, Cutler, and Levee occupy precarious positions in African-American society. Their relationship with Christianity reflects the conflicts embedded in African-American identity.
Christianity is indelibly part of the African-American experience, because of the ways Churches have become central to black community development and maintenance. As Toledo challenges Cutler and Levee about knowing the Lord’s Prayer, Cutler responds that his dad was a deacon in the church. His statement reflects the fact that many African-Americans found empowerment through the church. Christianity also provides metaphors and meanings for personal life, as this incident suggests. The anecdote and the answer show that none of the three men know the Lord’s Prayer or any specific details of the bible, because Christianity for them is more than memorizing scripture. It is less important to memorize scripture than it is to attend church for its social aspects. The social aspects of Church are eluded to at several other points in the play, as when Toledo talks about the woman he married who left him because “the church was more important than I was,” (p. 71). Basically, Toledo was not identifying with the Christian model of morality and wanted to forge his own path. As he puts it, “it ain’t all the time what your intentions and wishes are,” (p. 71). His wife preferred the more straight-laced men at Church. Christianity has been a means by which to cement but also divide the African-American community.
One of the most important impacts of Christianity on African-American identity has been the way it usurped the indigenous African religions and turned those religions into something that African-Americans can to fear and dislike about themselves. The white oppression of blacks had led to a systematic denigration of African heritage. European philosophy and religion are deemed superior to African models. This is why Slow Drag so vehemently opposes being called African, in one of the most ironic lines of the play: “I ain’t no African!” (p. 21). References to bones through the nose shows that African-Americans have been poisoned by white prejudices of African culture — the traditions of African-American ancestors. Slow Drag has been infected by the white model, referring to “African nonsense,” (p. 21).
Christianity and its ambiguous relationship with the African-American community is a symbol for the overarching themes of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The play shows how the systematic oppression of blacks by whites is a root cause of black-on-black violence. Christianity is only a balm, not a real solution to the social inequities African-Americans face, and which are perpetuated by institutionalized racism. Unable to turn anger and aggression on the oppressor in a meaningful or productive way, African-Americans turn anger and aggression on themselves and each other. Instead of targeting the white producers who are in control of black music, the musicians fight amongst themselves.
When Levee breaks down in anger at the end of the play, themes related to religion and Christianity in particular come to the fore. Levee rants about “Cutler’s God,” in his fury. He speaks directly with “Cutler’s God,” to which Levee directs his fury. He states that “Cutler’s God” should come save him if he is that powerful. The anger wells up within him, as he recalls his mother also crying out to God, who could not save her. Christianity is portrayed as being a set of empty values and principles, and a method of social control more than a truthful set of tenets to live by. As Elkins puts it, “the standards Levee strives to attain are those set by the white man,” (102). Christianity is one of those standards. Levee recognizes that “praying to a white god is like praying to a white man,” (Elkins 102).
Toledo is the one character who is most aware of the way Christianity represents continued colonial mind control of African-Americans. He has mentally extricated himself from the dominant culture’s prejudicial assessment of non-white religions, and embraces an African heritage. The title character, Ma Rainey, has the inner strength to overcome oppression but faces the barrier of institutionalized racism and being unable to control her own professional destiny.
On the other hand, Levee is caught between worlds, in a warped version of what W.E.B. DuBois called the double consciousness. Levee’s name symbolizes the tension or barrier between the dual worlds of the African-American. The African-American consciousness straddles the two worlds. On the one hand, Levee denies wanting to be like whites, but he cannot help but buy into the white standards of success and truth. Christianity has provided hope and psychological sustenance for millions of African-Americans in history. On the other hand, Christianity is the religion of the oppressor. Its tenets prevent African-Americans from taking pride in their own ancestry and heritage. When the character Levee breaks, his breakdown represents the fracture in all African-Americans.
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Bartleby, 1903.
Elkins, Marilyn Roberson. August Wilson: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 2000.
Wilson, August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Samuel French, 1985.
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