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Randal M. Jelks

Slavery and Broken Souls

Frederick Douglass summed up the physical cost of being a slave in the starkest of terms: slaves "were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of day than of the night." The slaveholder had only one desire, which was to work the slaves as hard as possible to clear the land and plant and harvest crops. "The longest days were too short for [the overseer], and the shortest nights too long for him," Douglass wrote.

But the psychic toll weighed even more heavily on Douglass: "I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me, and behold a man transformed into a brute!" The transatlantic slave trade and its subsequent evolution in the history of the United States was a spiritual and social holocaust for African Americans.

American sociologists have been keen to assess how the slave system and its outgrowth—Jim Crow laws and the sharecropping system of the deep South—affected the behavior of African Americans. From W.E.B. DuBois's late-nineteenth-century studies of the Negro family, to the 1930s writings of E. Franklin Frazier and Charles Johnson, to the 1960s Moynihan Report, many thinkers have pondered the link between agrarian slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the struggles of African Americans in modern, urban America. The sociological debate has been accompanied by fierce debates within American historiography about the slave family, personality, culture, and community.

American slavery has also inspired theological reflection. This tradition began in the eighteenth century with The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789). The stream wound through the nineteenth-century writings of Douglass and Francis Grimke into the twentieth century in Howard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited (1949) and Deep River: Reflections on the Religious Insight of Certain of the Negro Spirituals (1955), Joseph R. Washington's Black Religion: The Negro and Christianity in the United States (1964), and James H. Cone's ingenious Black Nationalist theology in God of the Oppressed (1975). The theologians have tried to ascertain meaning from the horrors of slavery and determine how theology helps those oppressed by slavery to gain civic and personal freedom.

Three recent books from the disciplines of history, sociology, and theology continue the exploration of American slavery and its consequences. These inquiries make the reader aware that no American can face the future without facing the history of our country-a history scarred by conquest and chattel slavery. At the same time, these books offer specific challenges to African American intellectuals, Christian and non-Christian, to judge what type of faith they should place in this country's civic and religious institutions.

Soul by Soul

Soul by Soul

Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market
by Walter Johnson
Harvard Univ. Press, 1999
320 pp.; $15.95

Walter Johnson's Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market is a richly textured history of human trade in the antebellum South, covering a period during which some two million slave sales were meticulously recorded. Johnson's haunting study centers on New Orleans, the site of North America's largest slave market. Unlike Eugene Genevose, whose Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made emphasizes slaves' failure to act out against the slaveholders' hegemonic paternalism, Johnson looks at the roles played by slaves, traders, and slaveholders in the nasty enterprise of selling life. For the slave trade to work, everyone involved had to accept the terms of business.

But if slavery was a business, it was also much more than a business. The title of Johnson's book is not casually chosen, for he seeks to grasp the impact of slavery on the very souls of everyone it touched. This ambition takes his work beyond that of historians who have traced the trajectory of the slave trade through commercial records only. Slaveholders, Johnson suggests, engaged in a form of "necromancy," convincing themselves that they were omnipotent even as they depended on slaves to plow the fields, cook the food, and build their fortunes.

Indeed, the imagination of the South was captive to the fantasies of slavery. Every young white southerner dreamed of owning slaves, the ticket to wealth and status. When slaves failed to fulfill their owners' dreams, they were beaten, sometimes killed, or resold in the market. Slaves could only hope to avoid dire fates by playing the role of the "good slave," and sometimes those efforts failed. Slaveholders claimed, paternalistically, to buy or sell slaves in the name of the family, even though they were tearing families apart and fostering natal alienation on a daily basis.

Slave traders were the necessary, yet despised, middlemen in the complicated operations to sell and resell human beings from the Southeast into the lower South and Southwest. Johnson describes the different kinds of traders, from those who held corporate arrangements with headquarters in New Orleans and St. Louis, to the speculative and temporary traders, to the rural agents, all of whom shared in a desire to turn a profit.

In a perverse and coercive way, slave traders had to rely on the slaves to make themselves salable—to go on playing the "good slave." Slaves complied, as Johnson explains, in hopes that the slave trader would honor their cooperation and sell them to a "decent" slaveholder or a slaveholder near their families. Amicability, however, was but a small factor in the traders' calculus. Everything was a part of the transaction in the slave market, including the slaves' bodies, the slaves' color, and the slaves' skills.

To even have the chance to play along in this sick game, slaves needed to know the rules. The community of the slave pen offered such information, serving as a place to decode the slave traders' expectations. The pen was also a dehumanizing zone of brutality and fear:

The walls surounding the pens were so high—fifteen or twenty feet—that one New Orleans slave dealer thought they could keep out the wind. Inside those walls the air must have been thick with overcrowding, smoke and shit and lye, the smells of fifty or a hundred people forced to live in a space the size of a home lot.

And it is by learning about life in the slave pen, Johnson suggests, that we can begin to trace the network of social relationships that created and formed the antebellum South.

Johnson's book reminds the reader how much slavery cost slaves spiritually, psychologically, and physically. Slavery and the slave market systematically robbed slaves of their dignity and full humanity. Freed from slavery in 1865, African Americans had only fragments of their lives with which to create new identities and a New World.

Orlando Patterson, one of our country's finest historical sociologists, also traces the effects of slavery on African Americans in his book Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries. In three essays, he argues that the contaminated legacy of slavery has been central to African American life and American culture.

The first essay links the brokenness of African American families today to the rupture of the family under slavery. The second explores the relationship between fundamentalist Christianity and white supremacy, suggesting that lynchings served as a form of human sacrifice. The last essay creatively evaluates images of the African American male.

Patterson's opening essay, "Broken Bloodlines: Gender Relations and the Crisis of Marriages and Families Among Afro-Americans," is prophetic, startling, and could stand on its own as a small book (it is 167 pages long). Patterson argues that a correction is required in the 1970s historiography about the African American family, which had set out to prove that African Americans had nuclear families and kinship networks from slavery into the twentieth century. These scholars, interested in the form of slave families, missed an essential element: how the slave family functioned under the conditions of slavery.

Slavery in the Americas profoundly altered the shape of the West African family. Though "Africans and their descendants tenaciously held on to the strong valuation of kinship and to the fundamental West African social tendency to use kinship as the idiom for the expression of all important relationships and rankings," slavery had the "virulent" effect of devastating the roles of father and husband.

Patterson explains that "the status and role of husband could not exist under slavery, since it meant having independent rights in another person and, in both the U.S. South and West Africa, some authority over [children]. Fatherhood could also not exist, since this meant owning one's children, having parental power and authority over them. Both infringed upon the power of the master and were therefore denied in law and made meaningless in practice." The relationships that slavery forcibly engendered "resulted in patterns of interaction between men and women that, while precariously functional within the plantation slave regimes, were later to prove tragically disruptive for African Americans."

Those disruptions continue today as African American family and gender relations are in crisis. "This crisis," Patterson writes, "is the major internal source of wider problems of African Americans. It is the main means by which the group ends up victimizing itself." This victimization results in social isolation; a disproportionate number of households headed by poor, single females raising fatherless children and a correspondingly disproportionate number of single males; and pervasive distrust between African American women and men, largely caused by male infidelity.

Patterson is not taking gratuitous swipes at African Americans. Rather, with ample statistical data, he is drawing readers' attention to the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow. Patterns of family life formed under those regimes conspire to keep African Americans marginalized, even as de jure racism has eroded.

Patterson exposes the dirty laundry of African American family life and gender relations and gives us an unsentimental analysis. He states that the "problem and the solution are overwhelmingly in the hands of African American men. They must radically alter their ways. They must change their gender attitudes, their sexual morality, their low opinion of marriage and their chronic infidelity in marriages and cohabiting unions."

"Broken Bloodlines" is a considerable essay that ought to provoke considerable reflection and debate. However, the second essay, "Feast of Blood: 'Race,' Religion, and Human Sacrifice in the Postbellum South," is equally powerful and even more horrifying and theologically challenging.

While structuralist accounts of lynching emphasize demographic, economic, and political aspects, Patterson employs anthropological and sociological tools to uncover the meaning of lynching. He argues that in the South, as in many other cultures, symbolic killing enabled the dominant society to create and assert its identity.

Patterson notes that in groups as diverse as the Aztecs, America's Northwest Coast Indians, the Ashantis in Ghana, and the Carthaginians, "human sacrifice was one of the main reasons for holding slaves and taking prisoners of war." Such ceremonial killings tied a community in a ritual fellowship: "The sacrifice reinforced the most strongly held values of the group."

Societies demand sacrifices, Patterson notes, when they are going through a transition: "Precisely such a period of acute liminal transition was faced by the Old South after the collapse of its system of slavery and during its forced transition to a new form of society, a transition that took some fifty years. That period, especially after the end of Reconstruction, was perhaps the worst episode in the history of African Americans, for as we will see, it was they who paid the expiatory and propitiatory price of the South's transition, in increasingly savage rituals of human sacrifice."

During the Southern transition, fundamentalist Christianity held firm. Those who took this ideology most seriously, including both pastors and members of the Ku Klux Klan, used it to give biblical sanction to the ritual murders taking place all over the South. White Christian southerners, led by clergy, fused a form of Christianity and white supremacist civic religion so that each powerfully supported the other. White Southern leaders called themselves "Redeemers," while African Americans represented the sin and evil that the reengineered South must purge.

Patterson suggests that one of the ways African Americans responded to this poisoned strain of Christianity was by withdrawing from public religion. It was not until the mid-1950s, he claims, that African Americans reconnected their faith with a public gospel. Here Patterson is simply wrong. He has relied on an older historiography found in the works of E. Franklin Frazier, Carter Woodson, and Gayraud Wilmore. While it is true that African American Christians did not overtly respond to every injustice, they found many ways to resist on the local level. Black churches provided space for branches of the NAACP, created Settlement Houses, and generally practiced the Social Gospel with persistence and fervor.

I am surprised, too, that Patterson seems to be unaware of the many African American Christian intellectuals of this period who laid the groundwork for the discourse of the civil rights movement. African American Christians did not simply wake up in the 1950s to preach of "a spiritual community wherein service, fellowship, worship, forgiveness, and atonement are intimately linked." Rather, it was individuals such as Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays, and George Kelsey who set the theological foundation for the reframing of Christian theology through the eyes of the disinherited.

Like many another critic of Christianity, Patterson takes it upon himself to lecture Christians about the transmission of their own tradition, attacking Christianity in the name of Christ. Patterson asserts that the proclamation of the gospel in the context of the civil rights movement returned Christianity to its first-century roots by rejecting the "two-thousand-year Pauline betrayal of Christ's life, reflected in the outrageous Christological dogma that the whole point of Jesus' life, the only important thing about it, was that it ended on the cross." The irony is that African American Christians who preached this Pauline doctrine created vibrant congregations and offered a powerful corrective to the distorted Christianity of the white South.

Patterson closes this remarkable collection with an essay titled "American Dionysus: Images of Afro-American Men at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century." In it he ponders why Americans were so intrigued in 1995 with Michael Jordan, O.J. Simpson, and Colin Ferguson (the mass murderer on the Long Island Railroad). Using this trio, Patterson traces America's obsession and repulsion with African American men.

As America has become more integrated, he argues, African American men have been given a cultural role that is Dionysian in its glorification of athleticism, the bad boy image, and hip-hop cool. African American men function as a permanent foil to the more disciplined Apollonian values that other men, in theory, are expected to uphold. By creating, adapting, and responding to this image, African American men have effectively disqualified themselves from addressing the central problems of the African American family.

Ritual of Blood is a brilliant analysis of the troubles that have resulted from slavery, Jim Crow, and African Americans' own self-destructive responses to an antagonistic society, but there is something amiss. In each of Patterson's essays, he challenges African American men to change their behavior. Yet he neglects fully to account for either the negative pressures outside the African American community or the positive forces within.

Unless Patterson addresses these blind spots, he will come across as yet another intellectual (he is a Harvard professor) commenting on the debility of African Americans without seeing anything of value within the community. Although "the hood" may be marked by social isolation, it is also a place of caring and peculiar generosity that no statistical surveys bother to explore. Lastly, while Patterson respects the African American tradition of Christianity, he makes no comment on what the church, the longest standing institution within African American communities, might do to help those communities change for the better.

Soul by Soul

Soul by Soul

Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology
by Dwight N. Hopkins
Fortress Press, 1999
300 pp.; $20

The questions raised by Johnson and Patterson require a theological response. One place to look for it is in the work of Dwight Hopkins, an associate professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a student of James Cone. His new book, Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology, addresses the theological and social liberation of African Americans by examining the narratives of American slaves.

"Through the life and death religious examples of African American chattel, therefore, universal meanings about the final quest for full spiritual and material humanity flourish," Hopkins writes. He argues that a "constructive black theology" is located within "the fragments of liberation theology found in the slave religious experiences."

According to Hopkins, the task of black theology is to affirm, assert, and advocate a positive theology for poor and working people. Where necessary, black theology also knocks down, breaks up, and jumps over any demonic theologies that prevent the African American church and the African American people from working with the Spirit.

Hopkins divides his book into halves. In the first half, he revisits the history of American slavery in a context he calls, generically, "Protestantism and American culture." He interprets the history of the United States by two arrivals— the arrival of slaves in the southern colonies and the arrival of Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Ironically, he never mentions American Indians in this scheme of liberation.

The religious and political elite of the country "seeded the religious soil with racial hierarchy" and encoded American culture with laws governing race relations. White theology supported white economic control while reducing black slaves to powerlessness. In response, African Americans recreated themselves, drawing out of their West African religious traditions and nineteenth-century Christianity an identity as "co-laborers" with God.

In the second half of the book, Hopkins argues for a threefold theory of liberation: "God—The Spirit of Total Liberation for Us," "Jesus—The Spirit of Total Liberation with Us," and "Human Purpose—The Spirit of Total Liberation in Us." Leveraging selected biblical texts and slave narratives, he tries to push the boundaries of theology and find a new interpretive schema for emancipating the lives of African Americans. The attempt is noteworthy, for theology can and should be brought to bear on the sufferings and struggles of the African American community, but it fails because Hopkins neglects to explain why his approach matters to the lives of ordinary African American Christians.

Hopkins's book has many other shortcomings. For one thing, Hopkins displays little familiarity with existing work on slaves and slave religion. He never cites such important books as Albert Raboteau's Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South or Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. These books might have helped Hopkins see the significance of the wide range of African American expressions of faith, including Afro-Baptist, Afro-Methodist, Afro-Catholic, and Afro-Calvinist. The way slaves and free people of color understood their theology informed not only how they worshiped and read the Bible but also how they understood their fight against oppression.

Hopkins's discussion of slavery is compressed, and he misses the larger concepts that unjust social systems illuminate—most notably, the meaning of freedom. He presents his material on slavery too glibly, as though slave narratives speak on their own, without need of interpretation. He searches the narratives for proof texts without helping the reader understand where the documents come from and what they are trying to say. Furthermore, Hopkins at times romanticizes slave religion. I do not question the great piety of slaves, but, as nineteenth-century AME Bishop Daniel Payne warily observed, illiteracy and ignorance threatened their efforts.

Finally, it is a pity that a book bearing so much creative potential has no written elegance. Hopkins frequently uses theological jargon that distracts from his central point. Written elegance, like the written elegance of many slave narratives, is essential for challenging, persuading, and liberating minds.

Perhaps no contemporary black theologian can set forth the calling of African American theology better than ex-slave Henry Bibb. At the end of his slave narrative, he wrote, "Having thus tried to show the best side of slavery that I can conceive of, the reader can exercise his own judgment in deciding whether a man can be a Bible Christian, and yet hold his brethren as property, so that they may be sold at any time in market, as sheep or oxen, to pay his debts." He further asks, "Is this Christianity? Is it honest or right? Is it doing as would we be done by? Is it accordance with principles of humanity or justice?"

Bibb answers his rhetorical questions with a resolution: "I believe slaveholding to be a sin against God and man under all circumstances. I have no sympathy with the person or persons who tolerate and support the system willingly and knowingly, morally, religiously, or politically." He then commits his writing "to the path of freedom and revolutionizing public opinion upon this great subject."

Though misused by many, Christian theology, faithfully interpreted by many radically unconventional black and white Christians, opposed the institution of slavery, as Bibb's trenchant analysis reminds us. Because numerous social maladies resulting from slavery and racial discrimination remain, Christians must continue to struggle against anything that prevents individuals from being active and free people of God. Each of these books moves that struggle forward.

Randal M. Jelks is associate professor of history and director of multicultural academics at Calvin College.

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