Per Caritatem

Part of what I hope to accomplish with this albeit brief ad fontes journey is to raise our awareness of the function of black spirituals within the context of the early black Christian communities in America, and to highlight the distinctive ways in which the Christian faith of African Americans cannot be extricated from the coming-into-being of what many (including myself) consider as America’s most important musical contribution, jazz.  Black spirituals first and foremost have a story to tell-a story whose main characters were concrete individuals, who, on a day to day basis, were confronted with a society, which by and large refused to acknowledge their history and existence as human beings.  In the face of the de-humanized and deplorable treatment of slaves by the whites in power, black spirituals allowed slaves to affirm their dignity as human beings created in God’s image and provided a way for their otherwise legally silenced voices to be heard.

While the Africans of North America were being torn from their families and homeland and stripped of their culture, their white oppressors were unable to silence their music-music that in many ways allowed the cultural richness of the African people to live on.  Although the origins of African slavery in North America are difficult to pinpoint, it was in Jamestown in 1619 that the first Africans were sold into slavery.  By 1700, the majority of Africans in North America were made slaves for life (Cone 1972, 20).   Despite the great physical and psychological suffering,[1] the African spirit resisted a reduction to white sameness.  Vividly describing some of the inhumane and compassionless treatment endured by slaves, Cone writes:

Slavery meant being regarded as property, like horses, cows, and household goods.  For blacks the auction block was one potent symbol of their subhuman status.  The block stood for ‘brokenness,’ because on sale days no family ties were recognized. […] Slavery meant working fifteen to twenty hours a day and being beaten for showing fatigue.  It meant being driven into the field three weeks after delivering a baby.  It meant having the cost of replacing you calculated against the value of your labor during a peak season, so that your owner could decide whether to work you to death.  It meant being whipped for crying over a fellow slave who had been killed while trying to escape (Cone 1972, 20-1).

Numerous other monstrosities could be cited, including slave catechisms created by whites, who claimed the name of Christ, hoped to more docile slaves and to convince blacks that they were in fact created to be slaves.  As previously mentioned, one must not underestimate the deeply historical, concrete nature of black spirituals as vehicles to communicate not only the slaves’ experiences in a white-defined society, but also they served as a way to preserve their African cultural roots and identity.  Yet, here again, white hatred went beyond physical enslavement and extended its scope in an attempt to “dehistoricize black existence, to foreclose the possibility of a future defined by the African heritage.  White people demeaned black people’s sacred tales, ridiculing their myths and defiling the sacred rites” (Cone 1972, 23).  Manifestly, the whites in power had defined humanity according to their own European image in order to justify their cruel actions as “civilizing the savages.”  However, their perverse plans failed, and “black history is the record of their failure” (Cone 1972, 24).


[1] Cone provides several powerful examples of the suffering endured by people of African heritage.  “Slavery meant being regarded as property, like horses, cows, and household goods.  For blacks the auction block was one potent symbol of their subhuman status.  The block stood for ‘brokenness,’ because on sale days no family ties were recognized. […] Slavery meant working fifteen to twenty hours a day and being beaten for showing fatigue.  It meant being driven into the field three weeks after delivering a baby.  It meant having the cost of replacing you calculated against the value of your labor during a peak season, so that your owner could decide whether to work you to death.  It meant being whipped for crying over a fellow slave who had been killed while trying to escape” (Cone 1972, 20-1).


6 Responses so far

Cynthia,

It is a delight to see a student at UD addressing the issue of prejudice. I applaud your use of James Cone.

One question to consider (and you may already be aware of it) is how race as a category of identity was/is read into biblical texts primarily after the category of race was developed in 17th century anthropology. Race, as we currently understand it, is a social construction without any biological foundation. Addtionally, the biblical concept of the “image of God” extending to every human being can be seen as a radical departure from the role of the pagan monarchs who were considered to be the only “images of God.” When biblical writers suggest that every human being is created in the image of God it must be read as a subversion of the monarchial claim. The genre of spirituals can be seen as a subversion of public discourse as well. Walter Brueggemann is an excellent resource on how liturgy functions as a subversive act and how it creates alternative “worlds” in which to live in.

I enjoy your blog. Please visit mine when you get a chance. I invite your comments and critiques: http://therelativeabsolute.blogspot.com/

John


Dear John,

Thank you for comment. It is always nice to meet other UD students with similar interests. I read a few short articles by Brueggemann while in seminary, which I enjoyed. However, it has been a few years since I’ve read his work. Everything you say makes a good deal of sense; however, I am not sure that I understand your claim about race. Would you explain in more detail what you mean by the following: “One question to consider (and you may already be aware of it) is how race as a category of identity was/is read into biblical texts primarily after the category of race was developed in 17th century anthropology. Race, as we currently understand it, is a social construction without any biological foundation”. Why does race as understood today have no biological foundation?

Best wishes,
Cynthia


Cynthia,

I made three claims in my post. First, that race, as term and category, is a product of modern anthropology. Second, that race is a social construction instead of a biological fact. And third, that race is read into biblical texts written by authors who were unaware of such a term or concept.

My first claim is a matter of historical fact. The term “race” did not occur until the 18th century (I mistakenly wrote 17th century in my last post) and did not enter scientific discourse until the 19th century when peopl began to be classified by biological markers such as skin tone, hair, bone structure. Dinesh D’Souza has an excellent discussion of this in his book The End of Racism (pg 47-48, available on Google Books). Although, I must tell you that I fundamentally reject D’Souza’s conclusions in the book. I find him to be preserving racist structures instead of helping to dismantle them. David Goldberg also addresses the connection of race and modernity in his book Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (pgs. 3-4, available on Google Books).

My second claim is a result of scientific research. The category of race was originally thought to be founded upon biological and genetic differences; however, modern geneticists have demonstrated that racial differences disappear at the level of biology. Race is a real identity, but this is a result of social construction and group identification, not biology.

My third claim is based on bibilical scholarship that has highlighted the fact that race as category is unknown to biblical authors although ethnicity and religion are categories that evoke prejudice. Collin Kidd has a good discussion of this research in The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic world 1600-2000 (pgs. 2-9)

In short, race is a “pigment” of our imaginations. Ironically, prejudice prevailed before the category existed. The real issue is not racism specifically, but prejudice in general. I must recommend Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice. This is the best book I have read on prejudice.

Have a wonderful holiday. I look forward to speaking with you on campus next Spring.

John


Hi John,

Thanks again for your helpful clarifying, comment. I suppose that I tend to use the term “race” fairly loosely–(e.g., sometimes interchangeable with ethnicity, sometimes interchangeable with people or nation, and sometimes more narrowly to identify different groups of people who share common physical characteristics (skin color–black, brown, white–though this is of course problematic; yet, it is ingrained in our culture. Consider, e.g., the forms that we fill out every day for jobs, schools etc.) and a common heritage tied to or traceable to a specific geographical location. I appreciate the distinctions that you are bringing out and must admit that I have not read the recent literature on this topic. Here are a few remaining questions: (1) How would you define ethnicity? (2) What is the specific difference between ethnicity and race? (3) I’ve always thought it appropriate to consider the suffering experienced by African Americans to be analogous to the sufferings of the Hebrews in the OT. Given what you’ve said, do you think that this is inappropriate? (4) Did the prejudicial treatment experienced by the Hebrews of the OT have anything to do with their physical appearance? (5) Since I haven’t read any recent literature on genetics in relation to this topic, how do modern geneticists demonstrate that racial differences disappear at the level of biology? Perhaps this question will reveal my ignorance on this topic, but do we not genetically pass on our skin color through reproduction (which is at least minimally a biological act)? Lastly, perhaps the same problem with the term “race” is present with the term “prejudice”. That is, as Gadamer highlights in “The history of ideas shows that not until the Enlightenment does the concept of prejudice acquire the negative connotation familiar today’”(Truth and Method, p. 270, italics original). He adds that the term prejudice or pre-judgment can have either a positive or a negative value, a claim that stands in contradistinction to the view advanced by the Enlightenment critique of religion, for which the term conveys only the negative idea of a judgment without basis” (p. 271).

Best wishes,
Cynthia

p.s. We should have you guys over sometime, as we regularly have gatherings at our place. If you are interested, write me offline: cynthia [dot] nielsen [at] gmail [dot] com.


Cynthia,

(1) I would define ethnicity as where you are from (Greek: ethne – nation). Ethnicity would involve not just one’s birth place but the whole cultural package involving language (and meaning-making), art, relgion, politcs, social mores, etc. (2) Race can be distinguished from ethnicity by realizing that someone can be Spanish and yet have vastly different skin tones. Moreover, skin tone as a marker of identity becomes problematic when you consider the various spectrum of skin tones that a person may have. One might ask, “where on the spectrum of melanin does one ‘race’ stop and another begin?”. (3 and 4) I think the analogy of Hebrew suffering and African suffering are right on, but I don’t think the issue for the Hebrews was appearance. More likely, they represented a social threat to the power structure of Egypt. Norman Gottwald has an interesting theory (drawn from Marxist theory) about this issue in The Tribes of Yahweh (a big book but very intersting – Brueggemann refers to him a lot.) (5) Skin color does in fact have a genetic base but the problem comes in when it is made THE identifying marker for identity, so that skin color becomes equated with a racial category. To further complicate matters, how are we to understand people who have a physical apperance that links them to a specific racial category but are socialized according to another racial category. Gadamer’s distinction is correct. There is such a thing as “love prejudice” which Spinoza pointed out and Gordon Allport addresses in his book The Nature of Prejudice. We can overestimate the other just as we can underestimate them.

I must admit that these questions and answers reveal gaps in my understanding of the issue. I am not an expert in genetics or biology. I am however passionate about tolerance and I reaize that may skew my research and presentations at times. However, I would rather err on the side of justice and compassion. I can live with that fault, but not the reverse.

John


Hi John,

Once again, thank you for this conversation, as I’ve found it very fruitful. I like the way that you’ve put things in this last comment, and I’m with you–I too would rather err on the side of justice and compassion!