Emerson Powery is Professor of Biblical Studies at Messiah College. This interview is based on his new book (with Rodney S. Sadler Jr.), The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved (Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The Genesis of Liberation?
EP: This project began as a conversation with Rodney when we were graduate students at Duke. We were both doctoral students in antiquity (ancient Israel and early Christianity) but invited to serve as TAs for William Turner’s course on African American Religious History. We read selections from several so-called “slave narratives,” which we noticed had a number of interesting allusions to Scripture. Thus, we began the journey.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Genesis of Liberation?
EP: As active agents in the events that led to their freedom, formerly enslaved African Americans were also active hermeneutical agents in interpreting the Bible for survival and did so in ways that challenge some of the prominent conclusions on issues of life and humanity.
JF: Why do we need to read The Genesis of Liberation?
EP: It fills in a gap in our historical narrative recognizing that (many) enslaved persons were active agents in their own liberation. That’s part of the story that is worth hearing. In addition, the “slave narrative” is, in my opinion, an underused resource for a time period that continues to shape much of the discourse of our present post-civil rights, post-Obama age.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
EP: Actually, I’m an historian of early Christianity in antiquity. But I am also intrigued by the history of interpretation of the Bible and how, in particular, marginalized groups have wrestled with biblical texts. So, I see this project as an attempt to understand how African Americans, especially those previously enslaved, would interpret a Bible that was appropriated to dehumanize them and keep them in their condition.
JF: What is your next project?
EP: I will return to the ancient world’s form of human bondage. After working through the issue of slavery through the voices of enslaved individuals (through the so-called “slave narratives”), I turn my attention to a period in which we have limited—if any—sources from the hands of the slave. I am particularly interested in attempting to understand early Christian ideas and practices from the perspective of enslaved believers who participated in early house churches.
JF: Thanks, Emerson!