Essay

When Our Truths Are Ignored: Proslavery Theology’s Legacy

By | August 10, 2015

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

For an African American writer during slavery, there was an expectation that a “white envelope” framed the “black message.” For autobiographers like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, or for poets like Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, this convention dictated that their written work feature a statement of authenticity from a white voice, proving that the black writer had indeed crafted the message. And so, white abolitionists, lawyers, prominent citizens, and sometimes even former slaveholders, wrote a letter or a preface or an addendum to the works of the black author, certifying that what was contained therein was truthful, authentic, and crafted by the author. In other words, whiteness was necessary to validate black veracity.

There are a number of reasons for this need for whiteness to validate black truthfulness during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The horrors of slavery were so unbelievable, that someone like Harriet Jacobs needed this “white envelope” to confirm that she had hidden in crawl spaces and attics for seven years in order to escape her brutal owner. Frederick Douglass’ descriptions of the particular brutalities that both enslaved men and women faced, as they were systematically beaten, sexually abused, and financially exploited by “kind” slave masters and mistresses, would have been quite offensive to the ears of his “tender” audience. His white authenticators reassured what was mostly a Northern Christian reading public, that Douglass’ words barely scratched the surface of the indignities of chattel slavery.

These white voices functioned to certify that black men and women were capable of intellectual thought; these white voices provided proof that those whose legal status rendered them property, were actually able to read, write, and participate in higher levels of reasoning. In other words, it took white writers to affirm that black writers were fully human and not the animals to which they were often likened. In the case of poets like Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon, white voices were necessary to prove that both these writers knew Greek, Latin, classical mythology, and literature. At the age of nineteen, Wheatley had to undergo a trial in which she was examined by an all-white jury of “prominent” Boston citizens in order to prove that she had the intellectual ability to compose her own poetry.

Of course, legal documents that involved African Americans during slavery were their own separate case in terms of whiteness and black veracity. Enslaved men and women were not citizens and could not enter into or uphold legal contracts without white authority. Even free blacks, presumably citizens, could not conduct legal business on their own terms, lest a lawyer or judge invalidate their legal documents on the basis of race. Far too many slave narratives deal with both free and enslaved African Americans being cheated, exploited, and taken advantage of despite obtaining proper legal documents. There was no justice to be had within the judicial system for African Americans without the authentication provided by white benefactors or supporters.

But the underlying issue during the antebellum era of the need for whiteness to verify black truthfulness was a moral and theological matter. There was a fundamental assumption in the proslavery theology born in the New World, that men and women of African descent were not truth-tellers and that they could not morally and ethically discern right from wrong. Enslaved men and women were not considered trustworthy, even after they converted to Christianity, because they were deemed inherently sinful and morally inferior. Proslavery theology simply maintained that a creature that God had cursed, as evidenced by the Myth of Ham, could never be a truth-telling, law abiding, and morally upstanding Christian. In his work Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South: A Brief History with Documents, historian Paul Finkleman reminds us that many slaveholders believed that Christianity was the only force keeping enslaved people from being lawless and godless, arguing: “If freed and denied the guidance of white masters, Africans and their descendants might very well revert to their pre-Christian ways.”

We often fail to deconstruct how proslavery theology still influences American Christianity. But simply put: Theological arguments upheld the institution of slavery long after every other argument failed. American Christian theology was born in a cauldron of proslavery ideology, and one of the spectacular failures of the Christian church today is its inability to name, interrogate, confront, repent, and dismantle the cauldron which has shaped much of its theology. We are daily living with the remnants of a theological white supremacy, coupled with social and political power, which continues to uphold racist ideologies.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, black acts of resistance and agitation for emancipation were read as acts of sin and willful disobedience. The enslaved were seen as unruly children who refused to listen to their white parental authorities. And slaveholders viewed themselves as benevolent patriarchs, biblically justified in their keeping of human chattel. Because of their “disobedience” to their earthly masters, enslaved people were assumed to be in rebellion against God, their Heavenly Master. By far, the most common sermon preached to the enslaved community was for “slaves to be obedient to your masters.”

Proslavery theology saw willful disobedience to God’s authority instead of the actual reality of black resistance and revolution. When enslaved men and women escaped, or broke their tools, or sabotaged their work, proslavery theology preached to them a gospel of blackness as sin, needing to be washed white as snow. There was no room for understanding the radical, liberatory gospel in which many enslaved people believed: a God who came to set the captives free, who did not will perpetual servitude for God’s people. Proslavery theology preached patriarchal guardianship and generational curses, insisting that even if individuals opposed slavery, the institution itself was God’s will. There was no room for understanding how enslaved men and women themselves were pondering deep theological questions. Within their slave narratives, some asked, “How can a stolen ‘thing’ steal other things?” Others wondered, “Is it better to disobey man in order to live righteously for God?”

One of the most pernicious legacies of proslavery theology, with implications for the twenty-first century, is a world in which black people are still being asked to frame their stories and words with white envelopes. It is a world in which, as African Americans, we are assumed to be lying unless our stories can be authenticated by a white lens; we are assumed to be guilty, unless our innocence can be proven. Mainstream media reported that Walter Scott was justifiably killed after taking a police officer’s Taser; no one believed that Scott was unarmed and fleeing, until video evidence proved otherwise—video which also showed evidence being planted besides Scott’s dead body. Somehow, our own lived experiences and our very lives have to be verified, again and again, and checked against the legitimacy of white authority. African Americans are often not believed when we insist we are targeted for traffic stops or we face harsh penalties for daring to “drive while black.” Many of us are not believed when we insist we are being followed in stores or being racially profiled in certain businesses. Many of us are not believed when we share experiences of racial micro-aggressions that we experience daily in our work places. Short of having a cross burned on our front lawns, we are not believed when we discuss the weight of living in a world in which we fear being the next Twitter hashtag, or the next victim of police brutality or a racist shooting. Even when we dare to share our stories, as painful as these stories may be, we are constantly told: “Show us the evidence” that racism still exists.

And so, we provide the evidence, the research, the statistics, and the social-scientific data which confirm racist environmental policies, or disproportionate rates of traffic stops, or cradle-to-prison pipeline numbers, or racial inequities in public education. We demonstrate how people of color are literally breathing more toxic air or how African Americans are 75 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers in a place like Missouri, despite being less likely to have contraband like in their cars. A series of recent studies found that African American children receive less pain management in the emergency room; another study reported that white Americans believe that black children, as young as seven, simply feel less pain than white children. All of these studies relate to the legacy of slavery: a) the stereotype that black people are just physically stronger and can endure harsher conditions, and b) the stereotype that there is more drug abuse and addiction in black communities. But the most painful outcome of these studies was the unfortunate confirmation that black children are simply not believed when they indicate that they are in severe pain, and so their pain is undermanaged. We live in a nation where the medical establishment can insist that a black child, fresh out of surgery, is not a truth-teller and is lying about his or her pain. That child suffers unnecessary bodily pain when his or her truth is ignored. It is unfortunately a cruel foreshadowing of the psychic and spiritual toll of living a life in which black truth, unless confirmed by whiteness, is not considered truth at all.

The evidence is amply available, but the message that African Americans receive is also quite clear: Your personal stories of experiencing racism in America will not be believed unless the data is produced by upstanding white academic institutions; peer-reviewed by white university presses; and corroborated by trusted white scholars and white journalists. And this demand for evidence applies not simply to the larger culture, but to white churches that have systematically failed to come alongside black communities during times of racial unrest, as these white churches wait for more data, more facts, more evidence before they “risk” supporting hurting black people or commenting on burning black churches. As one journalist suggests, we are more interested in seeing these recent church burnings as individual acts that exist in a vacuum rather than confronting a narrative of terroristic racial violence which stands within a long tradition.

And while African Americans struggle with being seen as truth-tellers, even as we struggle with bearing the burden of both proving and resolving our oppression, we also resist the white lens that dares to shape the racial narrative. We know far too much about systems of whiteness and the lack of truthfulness that these systems represent. We have too many painful experiences with false police records, criminal evidence being planted, crime scenes altered, statistics only confirming racist biases, and mainstream media outlets reinforcing racial stereotypes. African Americans live in this liminal space: Our personal stories of racism are not believed, and yet the white-dominated narratives often do not tell the truth about race. When anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells wrote that “those who commit the murders, write the reports,” she sums up this contradiction. When the victim is dead and the body cam is non-existent (and even when it is present), the assumption is that the words of the official report must be true. Where does that leave the person seeking justice when racism harms, wounds, and kills, but cannot be verified with white-supported data?

August 2015 marks one year since the killing of an unarmed African American teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. In July 2015, a 28-year-old African American woman, Sandra Bland, died in jail three days after being pulled over and arrested for failing to signal a lane change. In both these cases, and many more, the “facts” remain in dispute. We are told to trust the official records generated, even as the victims are killed again and again through character assassination. These families are still grieving and justice seems elusive to those of us who do not believe the “facts.” But can this nation afford to keep ignoring the truth that black people in America live under a threat of racial violence, never quite feeling that we are fully equal citizens in the nation that our enslaved ancestors built?

Yolanda Pierce is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature, and director of the Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. 

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