The main character, an escaped slave from another planet, meets a character who calls himself “Virgil,” a rastafarian who speaks in verse and helps guide The Brother through a dark moment.
“Like Amiri Baraka in The Systems of Dante’s Hell (1965), Miss Naylor has adapted Dante’s Inferno to her own fictional purposes – in this instance a tale of lost black souls trapped in the American dream. The setting is Linden Hills, an upper-middle-class black community built on a huge plot of land owned by the mysterious Nedeed family (the locale is not specified). Purchased by Luther Nedeed in 1820 – after he had sold his octoroon wife and six children into slavery and moved from Tupelo, Miss., we are told – the land has remained under the proprietorship of the Nedeeds for more than 150 years. Luther (read Lucifer), as all the males in the Nedeed family are named, opened a funeral parlor, then developed the land and leased sections to black families. His sons and grandsons, all of whom are physical copies of the original landowner, furthered his plan – to establish a showcase black community. That community, as the original Luther says, would not only be an ‘ebony jewel’ representing black achievement, but also ‘a beautiful, black wad of spit right in the white eye of America.'” –Mel Watkins, “The Circular Driveways of Hell,” New York Times (March 3, 1985)
“Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills follows two young black male poets on their downward journey through a prosperous community built for blacks who aspire to live out a white-patented dream of social advancement. Naylor’s appropriation of Dante’s Inferno as master narrative for this landscape of private torments (a white model for black society) replicates the choice made by Linden Hills itself. The ironies of this are rich and difficult to control: but the attention paid to the sufferings of women in this arrangement adds something quite new to the English-language Dante tradition.” –David Wallace, “Dante in English,” in Rachel Jacoff’s The Cambridge Companion to Dante, 2007
“[T]he function of writing about Dante and the control over access to the part of the tradition that Dante inhabits can liberate the black writer. At least it liberates LeRoi Jones, turning him into a new man with a new name, Amiri Baraka, whose experimental literary project culminates in The System of Dante’s Hell in 1965. Dante’s poem (specifically in the Sinclair translation) provides a grid for the narrative of Baraka’s autobiographical novel, and at the same time the Italian poet’s description of hell functions for Baraka like a gloss on many of his own experiences. [. . .] Baraka uses Dante first to measure the growing distance between himself and European literature, then, paradoxically, to separate himself totally from it. His Dante is a marker of separation rather than integration.” — Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African-American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2011), pp. 105-106