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Revisiting Slave Religion: Opiate or Exodus? Ben Wright

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One of the more memorable passages in Frederick Douglass's timeless narrative concerns the mysterious root given to him by his fellow slave Sandy, who claimed that as long as Douglass retained the amulet, he would be immune from the slave-breaker Mr. Covey. Indeed from this moment forward Douglass achieved a psychological immunity from the brutality of his oppressor and found the will to resist. In his first narrative, Douglass dismisses Sandy's belief in the root as superstition. However, in his second narrative My Bondage and My Freedom Douglass seems less sure of himself, writing, "I saw in Sandy too deep an insight into human nature, with all his superstition, not to have some respects for his advice; and perhaps, too, a slight gleam or shadow of his superstition had fallen upon me." [4] It is likely that Douglass found something outside of the world of the master which hardened his resolve. Douglass was inevitably unable to articulate to his white abolitionist readers what exactly the root, this expression of Africa, meant to him as it stands outside of, if not directly in opposition to, the Christian rhetoric which had proved so effective in radicalizing white readers.

Expressions of African spirituality allowed slaves to dissociate from their colonized self and access an alternative. While slave Christianity was used to mount attacks against the slave system, it was still associated with the oppressor. Slaves who sought to resist their masters needed an opportunity to step outside of the religion of their masters. This was achieved either through revivals of African spirituality or more commonly through syncretism. Slaves could mold the edges of Christian expression to create their own religion complete with African elements, offering a practical solution for many slaves.

In her narrative, Harriet Jacobs describes her joy at attending a Methodist shout. The phrase Methodist shout is in itself a powerful indicator of syncretism. The etymology of the term shout comes from ring shout, which is the sterilized Christian method of describing the ring dance. Christian morality could not condone the idea of dancing as an acceptable act of worship so whites labeled the ceremony by its other distinguishing feature, shouting. After the attempted rebellion led by Denmark Vesey, South Carolina whites reacted by initiated a sharp crackdown on slave religious meetings. Religion in the hand of slaves appeared dangerous. It is not a coincidence to find that the ring shout, was practiced with great intensity and frequency in tidewater South Carolina around the time of the Vesey affair. The pattern holds that rebellious action is paired with forms of African spiritual expression.

Slave Christianity paid little attention to the Pauline epistles which formed the foundation of white Protestant dogma. Slaves preferred instead the Exodus story, the Gospels, and the apocalyptic visions found in the book of Revelations. The Exodus story allowed slaves to associate themselves with the Israelites as they suffered in bondage under the Egyptians. Whites applied the Exodus story as a spiritual allegory of achieving freedom from sin. Slaves had no need for an allegorical reading. For them the Scriptures served as the pattern for their liberation. However, examining the liberation achieved by the Israelites is not constructive for fomenting rebellion. The Israelites achieved liberation after God brought waves of supernatural pestilence and plagues to the slaveholding Egyptians. The first step was not organizing, rallying, or planning, but rather passively waiting on God for the hour of deliverance. The Exodus story gave the slaves a vision of deliverance, but denied them a path for achieving it.

The message of the Gospel also functioned in this pattern as Christ offered his followers an opportunity for rebirth, this is powerful imagery for subjects who were defined as socially dead. However, rather than causing action to achieve such a rebirth, the Gospel promised the regeneration to occur in a passive spiritual sense, the reward of which is not achieved until the afterlife. This narrative created the acceptance of suffering today as tomorrow justice shall arrive, functioning as a soothing balm to despair. However, one man's balm is another's opiate and unlike the remnants of African spirituality, Christianity functioned much more as the latter.

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Ben Wright is an M.A. candidate in American Studies at Columbia University in the City of New York.

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