In case you are unfamiliar with the Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance Conference held annually in Philadelphia, you may read about the event on their website. Today I found out that my abstract was accepted, and I eagerly look forward to attending and to spending time with some of my very good friends in Philadelphia. If you also plan to attend, please let me know. I always enjoy these conferences, especially the conversations before, after, and in-between sessions. For those interested, I’ve posted a copy of my abstract.
St. Augustine and Frederick Douglass: Counternarratives from the Underside as a Mode of Resistance and Confessio
As Michel Foucault famously said, “Where there is power, there is resistance.” Slave narratives and religious autobiographies are examples of such resistance possibilities, as they assert the existence and humanity of those forced into socio-political non-existence. Autobiography of some form or fashion is not absent in the Christian tradition, and perhaps the most famous autobiography or better, confessio, comes from the great North African theologian, St. Augustine. In stark contrast with Enlightenment thinkers (e.g. Immanuel Kant), Augustine understands himself heteronomously, that is, as one created in the image of God, and who, as image, is always-already in relation to an Other. In this essay, I explore the ways the slave narrative, focusing primarily on Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, continues and expands Augustine’s trajectory. Like Douglass, part of Augustine’s project in the Confessions is to re-articulate the Christian narrative so as to show its significance in the present and to locate himself within God’s story. In other words, instead of simply accepting the dominant discourse of what it means to be successful, happy, and so on, Augustine challenged the socio-political norms and values and offered a different narrative, the Christian narrative. Unlike Augustine, Douglass himself was a slave who wrote under the strains of the oppressive context of chattel slavery—a system that many, if not most, white American Christians supported. In light of this historical difference, I examine the political, literary and other challenges faced by the latter, highlighting the creative ways in which Douglass, like Augustine, wrote against the social grain to establish his identity in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Undoubtedly, genuine differences exist between these two thinkers; nonetheless, both were eloquent orators who employed the power of rhetoric to critique the cultural and religious practices of their day. Whether interpreting and applying Scripture in fresh, new ways or highlighting the inconsistencies of the hegemonic discourses of their respective eras, Douglass and Augustine challenged the glory narratives of the powerful—that is, powerful in the eyes of the world—and choose instead, as did their Lord-turned-slave, to identify with the weak of the world.