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Going Back to the Beginning

In the face of the present calls for justice, Stephanie recalls her first encounter with the testimonies of slaves who found liberation in Christ.

Frederick Douglass (public domain)

I want to share my response after reading Apolonio Latar III’s witness in the last CL newsletter, “The Depth of Our Hidden Wound.” I really liked this title because the cry of woundedness has also been on my mind during the protests. However, what also hurts is seeing the misdirected efforts of the Black Lives Matter leaders. There seems to be outrage at the past, but also dismissal of how Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders handled these problems. One huge difference I see is that the civil rights leaders were rooted in their faith. Without it, we really are like orphans without a home, without direction. I agree with Apolonio: it’s important to take a step back and look at the history of slavery in our country, not as a “museum” (Pope Francis’ word), but as something living that we can learn from and apply.       

  

Apolonio encourages readers to discover the black slave narratives, and this reminded me that several years ago, while completing a master’s degree in history, I took a class on those narratives. As a European history student, I took the class begrudgingly, but in the end this class fascinated me. 


The personal accounts written by different slaves are astounding and incredibly moving. (They are all free to read here:  https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/.) What struck me most, though, was the change in those slaves who discovered Jesus and became Christians.  I could not help thinking of Guissani’s words from The Origin of the Christian Claim: “The religious sense. . . is nothing more than man’s original nature, by which he fully expresses himself by asking ‘ultimate’ questions, searching for the final meaning of existence in all of its hidden facets and implications” (3).  As we see in the accounts of Thomas Lewis Johnson, Thomas H. Jones, Frederick Douglass, and a man named Fields (surname unknown), the slaves’ conversions came about when they looked at their experiences as slaves and attempted to make sense of them in the new light of identity and humanity that Jesus offers.  


It bears repeating that the cry of the soul is evident in both the slave, who toils and yearns for his lost humanity, and the slave owners themselves, who sometimes struggle with the systems they have inherited. Jesus is clearly calling to them too, many times through the very slaves with whom they live. The slave owners often attempted to prevent their slaves from learning to read--for once they did learn to read, they would discover the Bible and discover Jesus! Many slaves would then join prayer groups organized by other slaves. Both the reading of the Bible and the communal prayer groups were hated by the slave owners because this is where the slaves found their hidden power--when they came together, they realized their humanity and their value!  


Though this is not a popular theory among history scholars, I think that the Christian slave communities almost acted like the peaceful resistance that was later espoused by the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and even the underground resistance of the likes of Vaclav Havel under communism. My professor was really puzzled by my fascination with the spiritual element of the narratives and was constantly attempting to rein in my research attempts and direct me toward something more scholarly and less theological, but I couldn’t help wondering over it--it was so striking to me!  


My challenge to readers is the same as that issued by Apolonio: read the slave narratives. There are so many that it's hard to know where to start, but the accounts of the four men I described above are a good starting point. But as much as we can all take time to read and understand, we cannot end with just sympathy for past wrongs. That gets you nowhere. These slave narratives are a testament to our shared humanity and the desire of the soul which longs for another. As Fr. Jose wrote, “The answer to powerlessness is not a power but a ‘presence’ capable of communing with the alleged enemy.” This is where positive change starts.


Stephanie, New Bedford, Massachusetts



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