Earlier today I chaired a session titled “The Bible in American Cultural and Political History.” It was co-sponsored by the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith History.
In recent years, several important monographs have been published examining the role of the Bible in American culture and politics. In 2015, Oxford University Press released Mark Noll’s In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783, the first book in his projected multi-volume work on the history of the Bible in America. In 2017, Oxford also published The Bible in American Life, the culmination of a four-year interdisciplinary study by the Center for the Religion and American Culture at IUPUI. The study focused on Bible-reading as a religious practice. Two of today’s panelists–Amy Easton-Flake and Emerson Powery–contributed to this volume.
The editors of The Bible in American Life–Philip Goff, Arthur Farnsely, and Peter Thuesen–write: “According to Gallup, nearly eight in ten Americans regard the Bible as either the literal word of God or as inspired by God. At the same time, surveys have revealed–and recent books have analyzed–surprising gaps in Americans’ biblical literacy. These discrepancies reveal American Christians’ complex relationship to Holy Writ, a subject that is widely acknowledged but rarely investigated.”
The panel I chaired today reflected on the history of the Bible in American history with four scholars who have contributed to this ongoing conversation. I asked each panelist to take a few minutes to describe their ongoing work.
Daniel Dreisbach of American University talked about the challenges–both real and imagined–of writing about the Bible’s contributions to the American founding. He is interested in the question whether the Bible’s contributions are sufficiently significant that it merits mention alongside other intellectual influences on the founding, such as British constitutionalism, Enlightenment liberalism (in various forms), and classical and civic republicanism. He also addressed criticism that some of his work has been used by the defenders of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.
James Byrd of Vanderbilt Divinity School focused on the relationship between his book Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution and his current book project, “The Bible and the American Civil War.” Byrd is particularly interested in the ways the Bible was used to justify and explain war.
Amy Easton-Flake of Brigham Young University spoke on women’s deployment of the Bible in late nineteenth-century America. She used three case examples: the portrayal of Latter-Day Saint women in the journal Women’s Exponent, Harriett Beecher-Stowe’s portrayal of biblical women in her Women and Sacred History, and the Suffrage Movement’s use of the Bible in Revolution and Women’s Journal.
Emerson Powery, my colleague at Messiah College, offered a few thoughts on the integral use of the Bible in arguments surrounding slavery during the antebellum period, especially from the perspective of those whose bodies were most affected. His way into this discussion was through the voice of the formerly enslaved though the so-called “slave narrative.”
It was a lively session. I encourage you to explore this subject further by reading the books and articles of these panelists:
Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers
Easton-Flake: Mormon Women’s History: Beyond Biography
In The Guardian. A taste:
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy, has captured the attention of many of us. One crucial question is why now in this moment has his apolitical pessimism gained such wide acceptance?
Coates and I come from a great tradition of the black freedom struggle. He represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible. This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.
The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.
Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.
In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of “defiance”. For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.
Read the rest here.
Anne Bailey is associate professor of African American history at Binghamton University. This interview is based on her new book, The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
JF: What is the argument of The Weeping Time?
AB: Drawing on victims’ accounts and descendants’ memories, The Weeping Time uses the largest slave auction in U.S. history as a lens to explore the legacies of slavery, diaspora and the Civil War.
The story of “The Weeping Time” is also a story of the strength and resilience of families – in this case, African American families. Building on the great work of historians like Herbert Gutman (The Black Family in Slavery and in Freedom) and Annette Gordon Reed ( The Hemingses), The Weeping Time demonstrates that in spite of a history of displacement and loss, some Black families managed to reconnect after emancipation and reestablished strong ties that remain to this day.
JF: Why do we need to read The Weeping Time?
AB: The book is also about memory and why there is such amnesia about slavery particularly about the mechanics of the system. Slave auctions were as common as stock trades today yet most of us cannot recollect even one. How does something so important disappear from public memory? Why is there still contention about Confederate generals and the statues built in their honor? I think all aspects of slavery are important to share because there is still a lot of misperceptions and misinformation about the period and its effect on American history. There is still a lot of healing that needs to take place – a lot of understanding that there are strong connections that we share that should help us to overcome our differences. I also hope the book will open up again the discussion on Reparations – the debt that is due to descendants of slaves whose ancestors labored without compensation. This debt or investment could be a particular boon to inner city communities across the nation.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AB: I don’t think I consciously decided until I was in my mid twenties yet I was interested in history from I first saw ROOTS in 1977. I later did a school research project on slavery. That project created in me an endless thirst to know more about this period and, in fact, about my own roots.
During college, I ended up taking the route of Literature (French and English), but again, was more interested in the places where literature and history connect. In the end, I found that that original thirst would best be quenched through the field of history yet I have maintained a strong interest in many disciplines including English and Anthropology.
JF: What is your next project?
AB: Transatlantic Slave auctions—an edited volume on slave auctions in Brazil, Jamaica, and elsewhere in the Caribbean and South America.(2019)
Back to the Future: Jamaican Identity in a Globalized World, co -edited with Dr. Hilary Robertson Hickling of the University of West Indies regarding the history of the Jamaican Diaspora and its relationship with host countries such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, (Expected date: 2018.)
JF: Thanks, Anne!
The George Washington University in Washington D.C. is the latest university to offer a course exploring the history of slavery and segregation on its campus. Next Spring Richard Stott will offer a history course titled “Slavery, Segregation, and GWU.”
Here is a taste of Lauren Peller and Liz Konneker’s article at The GW Hatchet:
Starting in the spring, the history department will offer a Slavery, Segregation and GWU course for the first time, giving history majors the chance to scour the archives and conduct their own research into how slaves and segregationist policies have shaped the University over its nearly 200-year history.
The course comes on the heels of a faculty effort to formally investigate GW’s ties to slavery and a nationwide trend of universities beginning to come to grips with their roles in one of the darkest chapters in American history.
Last academic year, a faculty research group asked top officials, including former University President Steven Knapp, to fund research into topics like the history of racial justice activism on campus and former college officials who owned slaves. University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said faculty have “delved deeply into GW’s archives and are now working to bring their research to students and the broader community,” including with the new course.
Read the entire piece here.
Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders, a Ph.D candidate in the History department at Rutgers University, tackles this question in a piece at Black Perspectives titled “Beyond Monuments: African Americans Contesting Civil War Memory.”
Here is a taste:
African Americans worked from the end of the war to this current moment to consistently affirm and interpret the Civil War’s meaning for them. Due to its power and influence, confronting the Lost Cause is a large part of this collective memory. The Lost Cause movement includes the historical memories, myths, commemorative events, and invented traditions of many white Southerners that first took shape after the end of the Civil War. The Lost Cause was as much about upholding white supremacy as it was about commemorating the white Southern Civil War experience. It is not incidental, for example, that the Keystone, a publication for Southern white clubwomen and members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) published stories of Confederate heroism alongside dedications to “faithful slaves” and praise for books like Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman. White Civil War memory has long dominated conversations about how the war is remembered, even now when it involves anti-racist activism. The idea that “both sides” should be celebrated and honored was largely an invention of white Southerners and Northerners in order to reunite the nation. African American Civil War memory was sidelined in its service. As a result, we know considerably less about the long tradition of Black anti-Lost Cause resistance that culminated with Bree Newsome snatching the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse grounds of South Carolina in 2015 and Takiyah Thompson toppling a Confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina on August 14 of this year.
On March 27, 1865 African Americans flooded the streets of Charleston, South Carolina to celebrate the coming end of the Civil War. The result was a grand spectacle, with dozens of Black men marching while tied to a rope to symbolize those bound in chains while being sold down South. A hearse followed with the sign “Slavery is Dead. Who Owns Him? No one. Sumter Dug His Grave on 13th April, 1861.” Behind the hearse, fifty Black women marched dressed in mourning clothes, but were laughing and happy. “John Brown’s Body” was a popular song among Black and white Union troops and was commonly sung in the various military parades across the South as Union troops marched in victory. The school children marching in this parade focused on singing one verse in particular loudly: “We’ll hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree . . . As we Go Marching On.”
Read the entire piece here.
The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and the Tufts Data Lab are working together to document Boston’s African-American history. Learn more about the African American Freedom Trail Project in this piece at WBUR.
Here is a taste:
Boston is a city rich in American history. Tourists come here to explore the city’s central role in some of the United States’ pivotal moments. But its historical narrative is whitewashed, often omitting the influence and accomplishments of the city’s African-American community.
That’s according to Kerri Greenidge, who teaches history at Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts Boston. She specializes in the African diaspora in New England and the Northeast.
“If you have the same people tell the story, you’re not going to get recent scholarship that challenges the story we accept,” says Greenidge.
The narrative Boston has accepted, Greenidge notes, doesn’t exactly highlight the African-American influence and experience beyond slavery.
The Tufts Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, where Greenidge is on staff, wanted to help change that. So, together with the Tufts Data Lab, the center embarked on a mission to document significant sites that reflect local African-American history.
Greenidge and Kendra Fields, the center’s director, created a digital map that both tourists and curious locals could use to explore underrepresented but important events in the city’s history.
Read the entire piece here.