In observance of Black History Month, this blog is adapted from a review I wrote previously of Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, Cain Hope Felder, ed.,(Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, 1991).
A good book opens a window to a world. Sometimes the window opens gently; sometimes it explodes. Such was my experience in reading the greatly moving stories in Stony the Road We Trod; African American Bible Interpretation, edited by Cain Hope Felder.
Felder describes the the book as an attempt to “recapture the ancient biblical vision of racial and ethnic pluralism as shaped by the Bible’s own universalism,” Each author explores how the Bible can break down the “dividing walls of hostility” (Eph.2:14) that recent centuries of Eurocentric biblical translations and interpretations have erected between people of faith.
The biblical and archeological recovery process begins with a map of the Holy Land that includes Egypt and Kush, geographic evidence that the story of salvation history cannot be told without recalling the contributions of African peoples.
Felder’s introduction establishes another missing piece of the puzzle: the long history of African American Bible scholarship. While African Americans have been treated as second-class citizens of both the nation and the church, they have not infrequently been extraordinary interpreters of the Bible, often making profound scholarly insights that are now being more fully documented and proven correct. Nonetheless, in 1991 there were little more than 30 black North Americans with a completed Ph.D./Th.D. in biblical studies, less than one-fifth of one percent in North America alone, including only four females.
Why, when the authority of the Bible in the African American community is well established, are there so few African Americans in academia? Felder lists three reasons: 1. the political economy of North America works against their attaining higher education; 2. graduate programs in Bible studies are overwhelmingly white; and 3. those African Americans who do have Ph.D. or Th.D. degrees in Bible studies have had to work in diverse settings, resulting in their isolation from each other, and in their subjection to white, Eurocentric standards of biblical scholarship. Dr. Felder identifies the racial problem as follows:
Some would say that it is not so much that whites are against blacks; rather, whites are just so completely for themselves that, by any means at their disposal, they will protect their privileges in a society designed to work for them. In this reasoning, all blacks have to do is to deny their own history and identify and thus to act like they are part of the American dream so that “the system” can work for them too. Yet for African Americans, this type of reasoning has more often than not led only to a nightmare of self-abasement, a valuation of all other racial and ethnic groups except their own, and a crisis of expediency overwhelming integrity. (pp.2-3)
The introduction includes personal testimonies collected by the contributors that are poignant, tragic, inspiring, and remarkably free of bitterness. Here is one example:
From fifth to eighth grade I had two subjects, arithmetic and spelling. I spent time trying to learn on my own. There were ancient and medieval history books in our home. On the front pages there were pictures of different races; blacks were depicted as hideous. It was stated that all races, except blacks, had contributed something to civilization; blacks were meant to be hewers of wood and carriers of water for others. From an early age, I thought I would be a minister, but in my teenage years I became an agnostic while still teaching Sunday school. The many questions that haunted me caused me to feel that I would die if I could not go to a place where theology was taught. There was one black person with a Ph.D. in my city’s public school system. When the Depression hit, he said if I could get fifty dollars together he would be sure that I would get into a nearby university. I worked two years as a porter in an office building to earn that money.
The book’s articles are grouped under four sections. Part one includes three articles that discuss the relevance of biblical scholarship to the African American community, and the authority of the Bible: “Interpreting Biblical Scholarship for the Black Church Tradition,” by Thomas Hoyt, Jr.; “The Hermeneutical Dilemma of the African American Biblical Student,” by William H. Myers; and “Reading Her Way Through the Struggle: African American Women and the Bible,” by Renita J. Weems. Weems explores the reasons why African American women, marginalized by gender, ethnicity, and, often, class, continue to regard the Bible as meaningful. Weems suggests that black women find the portrait of human relationships portrayed in the Bible especially meaningful because that portrait reflects a distinctive way of living that they have valued and continue to advocate with great energy.
Part two offers African American sources for enhancing biblical interpretation. Vincent L. Wimbush gives the interpretive history of the Bible and African Americans. David T. Shannon analyzes a poetic sermon that was preached in the pre-Civil War years by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar coped with the extreme danger of preaching liberation theology to slaves by using coded language to telescope a very powerful message of liberation and empowerment into just a few, seemingly innocuous words. Dr. Shannon demonstrates the complexity and sophistication of Dunbar’s theology and choice of words.
The articles in part three discuss race and the role of ancient black Africa in the Bible. The first of three articles under this heading, entitled, “Race, Racism, and the Biblical Narratives,” by Felder, traces the relatively late development of the concept of race, and describes how biblical narratives written during a time when race was not an issue were interpreted over time to justify the worst sort of cruelty based on skin color and origin. In the second article, Charles B. Copher’s “The Black Presence in the Bible,” refutes the unfortunately widespread and mistaken notion that black persons and Africans had no part in Bible history. The third article under this heading, “Beyond Identification: The Use of Africans in Old Testament Poetry and Narratives,” by Randall C. Bailey, develops an approach to the role of Africans and African nations in the Hebrew Scriptures that can be applied to other passages in the Bible to achieve richer and more accurate interpretations.
The articles in part four, Reinterpreting Biblical Texts, are examples of this richer approach to reading the Bible. Using source criticism, John W. Waters argues that the social status of Hagar, traditionally considered to be the slave of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is capable of conflicting interpretations. The evidence that she was a proud, resourceful Egyptian woman is just as strong as the evidence that she was a slave. It is important to recognize that in both versions, Hagar receives a theophany, an appearance from God. What is the significance of this?
Hagar is the only Old Testament woman who has a recorded theophany and is a recipient of the promise of possession of land and a large number of descendants. This North African woman, an Egyptian by birth, demonstrates that the divine promise could be given to a non-Israelite or a woman.
Dr. Clarice J. Martin defines the Womanist approach to Bible interpretation as a theology that searches in particular for the voices, actions, opinions, experiences, and faith of black women. In her article about the household codes in the New Testament, Dr. Martin employs the Womanist perspective to point out the inconsistencies among black biblical scholars who recognize the codes’ bias regarding slaves, yet read the codes literally as calling for the subordination of women. Dr. Martin calls for the church to reclaim Jesus’ vision of a “community marked by a ‘praxis of inclusive wholeness,’” and argues that Jesus’ saying in Mark 10:15, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it,” challenges us to relinquish claims of power and domination over others.
To students of the civil rights movement, the horrifying use of the Bible to perpetuate slavery and racism is not news, yet the testimonies in this book are reminders of the ways that racist policies and structures are perpetuated with the participation of good people, including religious people. At the same time, learning more about how the Bible inspired generations of African Americans to struggle and achieve their goals reminds us that the liberating power of God’s word never ceases for those who have the courage to act on their faith.
Rather than getting stuck in endless horror stories of the insensitivity of white mentors and colleagues, the scholars who contributed to this book have created work that contemporary Bible scholarship can build on. Their goal was nothing less than beginning a tradition of African American collaboration in biblical scholarship and interpretation. These women and men have become part of the solution; they have followed in the footsteps of those who have gone before them to contribute to the very necessary work of educating to hope. Their work brings to mind Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Romans 5:1-5