Christianity as a Weapon: The Appropriation of Western Constructs in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
This is a short paper I wrote for a graduate course in Black Literary Traditions. I was a bit disappointed in realizing that, although we were told to purchase a two-volume anthology of African American authors spanning two hundred years of literary craft, this course would focus almost exclusively on slave narratives. Although slave narratives undeniably play a critical role in the establishment of Black literary traditions, in my anecdotal experience, education in the United States seems doggedly determined to explore little of Black culture but the period of enslavement. This tunnel vision puts at our periphery a vivid, rich, unique, and compelling tradition of literature, political theory, poetry, and fiction which deserves exploration, critique, and response. I look forward to reading through the rest of the anthology on my own time.
I have other aspects about the course I find somewhat problematic, largely in how the material is presented and how prompts are composed, but they’re worth their own blog post, if I bother to get into them here.
John Adams is quoted as saying that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” and, technically, he would be correct: The United States Constitution was deliberately composed to omit any allusion or appeal to a god or higher power. Likewise, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Federalist Papers undeniably support the secular origins of our government, and writings and quotes from various founding fathers affirm the desire for the clear separation of church and state. Despite these inarguable goals set out by the founders, the United States has been endlessly contextualized as a “Christian nation,” both historically and today, and religion is frequently and openly weaponized by the ruling class to perpetuate patriarchal Western rule and the subjugation of oppressed classes, both domestically and abroad. Recognition of women’s rights and reproductive choice/bodily autonomy as well as issues pertaining to LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality have all faced strong, organized opposition within state and federal governments on the basis of Christian values. The ruling class has likewise utilized Christianity to create justification for the aggressive colonization of independent nations, oppression and genocide of indigenous peoples, and enslavement. However, members of oppressed classes have historically sought out avenues to leverage Western constructs and ideals on their journey to liberation, borrowing the immaterial weapons of the ruling class and using them for their own ends. In the essay “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself,” Douglass’s emphasis on Christianity within the work can be argued as a deliberate appropriation of a prominent construct of the ruling class, utilized by Douglass as both an act of rebellion against the ruling class and a display of commonality to a potentially sympathetic audience.
The “Curse of Ham” is one of the more common Biblical justifications for the enslavement of Black peoples, though the narrative makes little sense outside of Biblical context: Canaan, son of Ham, who is the son of Noah, is punished by God with a life of servitude after Ham witnesses Noah drunk and naked. In the colloquial and more popular version of the story, Canaan is omitted from the narrative, Ham is identified as a Black person, and his descendants are purported as Black peoples of all nations; Ham’s “curse” is thus put upon all Black peoples by extension, and their darker skin is framed as a signifier of their inherent “sin,” justifying their enslavement (Rae). Douglass makes direct reference to this Biblical passage in his own narrative: “If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery in the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters” (339). Here, Douglass showcases just one minor aspect of the hypocrisy between the Biblical justification of slavery and the material circumstances of enslavement. The commonality of slavery among Israelites and various snippets of the Old Testament were also popular in justifying slavery: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ…” (Authorized King James Version, Ephesians VI 5-7). Slavery was also purported as providence to the necessary “civilization” of enslaved and indigenous peoples, who were contextualized in the Western hierarchy as savage, barbarous, immoral, lazy and so on (Rae). The manufacture of “slave Bibles” was not uncommon, removing portions of scripture that could be perceived as inciting rebellion. Aligning with the still-common Western view of the white savior role, slavery was frequently contextualized as divine intervention to allow enslaved peoples exposure to the messages of white Christians, which, in the oppressor’s view, assured docility among enslaved peoples and allowed for the supposed “charitable” nature of their enslavement.
English literacy, another Western construct commonly weaponized by the ruling class, played an integral role in the liberation of enslaved peoples. Literacy in enslaved peoples was heavily discouraged by the white majority for this very reason, as Hugh Auld demonstrates early in “Narrative.” English literacy opened the door not just to the most common and accessible form of communication, but for appropriation of other social constructs in the Western context, such as religion, but also gender roles and familial structures, laws, press and media, transportation, and so on. Yolanda Pierce, dean of the divinity school at Howard University, says on the subject, “As soon as enslaved people learned to read English, they immediately began to read the Bible, and they immediately began to protest this idea of a biblical justification for slavery… As soon as Black people took pen to paper, we [were] arguing for our own liberation” (Zauzmer). This is true of many narratives of the enslaved, though Douglass is a particularly prominent figure on the subject of Christianity as an argument against slavery. The continued popularity of Douglass’s narrative may reside in just how effectively he appropriates Western views and constructs through both his actions and his words, which showcases an undeniable commonality between the oppressed classes and the ruling class, encouraging solidarity and sympathy from the oppressor to the oppressed. Douglass adheres closely to the idealized forms of Western gender roles in both feminine and masculine characterization and frames his narrative toward the attainment of other common Western ideals, such as formal education, economic prosperity, physical prowess, social clout, bodily autonomy, and, most emphatically, an individualistic attitude. However, English literacy and, by its extension, Christianity, prove to be the weapons Douglass wields most effectively, marrying the two in scathing attacks demonstrating the egregious hypocrisy between purportedly Christian values and the actions of Christian peoples: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (Rae). In “Narrative,” the audience sees such behavior exhibited repeatedly by the ruling class, such as Thomas Auld’s quotation of scripture after the merciless whipping of a young, lame enslaved woman.
The acceptance or rejection of Western constructs continues to be a topic of concern for much of the Black population in contemporary America, as Blacks face both sustained and new opposition and gatekeeping in the fight for respect and recognition of Black personhood. While the enduring prominence and popularity of Douglass’s many narratives may be popular because of their adherence to Western sensibilities, such as Christianity, they have likewise received criticism for that same aspect. In examining Douglass’s “Narrative,” Valerie Smith cautions that “by demonstrating that a slave can be a man in terms of all the qualities valued by his northern middle-class reader—physical power, perseverance, literacy—he lends credence to the patriarchal structure largely responsible for his oppression” (55). In other words, there is a danger of appealing and adhering to the values and ideals of the oppressor, as this works to uphold and validate the same constructs used to oppress selected populations. Christianity, likewise, has proven to hold a problematic dichotomy for Black populations. While Douglass and others embraced Christianity for its “powerful and profound sense of hope,” many of descendants of the enslaved have “rejected Christianity as the religion of the oppressor,” opting to explore the Islamic and African spiritual tendencies of their ancestors (Zauzmer). Ultimately, authentic faith in the religion was not necessary for the enslaved, and acceptance of the religion may have simply been part of a long history of shrewd social coding which Black and other non-white populations quickly adapted to aid in their continued survival. Rather, mere recognition of the influence which Christianity held within the ruling white population held sway towards Black liberation. Like English literacy, Christianity proved to be an avenue which enabled enslaved Blacks to appeal to white oppressors on terms they both understood and preferred. The appropriation of Christianity by the enslaved population not only emphasized commonalities of humanity between white oppressors and Black enslaved populations, it also allowed the narratives of Christianity to be weaponized against the horrific, inhumane acts of white slavers and the institution of slavery itself, as whites no longer had exclusive access to this social narrative or others. As Pierce says, “[Black populations] very quickly learned that the only way we can be heard is to speak the language of our slaveholders, to speak to them about the text that they love, that they believe in” (Zauzmer). Until whites recognize and respect the sovereignty of Black voices—a struggle still hugely prevalent today, as Americans march by the millions in protest of the unqualified oppression, imprisonment, and murder of Black populations—these voices will likely be forced to continue speaking on the terms of the oppressor. However, in continuing to selectively utilize these Western constructs as weapons, Black populations can leverage them on their own terms, for their own means.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” Norton Anthology of African American Literature: Volume One, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith, third ed, 2014, pp.330-93.
Rae, Noel. The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery. Overlook Press, 2018, accessed via Google Books.
Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Harvard University Press, 1991, p 55.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 2021.
Zauzmer, Julie. “The Bible Was Used to Justify Slavery. Then the Africans Made It Their Path to Freedom.” Washington Post, 2019, retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/local/the-bible-was-used-to-justify-slavery-then-africans-made-it-their-path-to-freedom/2019/04/29/34699e8e-6512-11e9-82ba-fcfeff232e8f_story.html