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
The following was a discussion post I put together for a Master’s lit course. The selected passage to be analyzed starts on page 85, from the paragraph beginning “Since about that time, war had been literally continuous” to the end of the chapter on page 91, which ends, “succeeded in touching his toes with knees unbent, for the first time in several years” (page numbers from print edition).
Marx’s crisis theory asserts that the unsatisfiable demand for the generation of capital creates the very conditions which necessitate capitalism’s eventual collapse. Capitalism seeks to debase and disperse the power of labor—for example, through assembly lines or outsourcing—and as a result, wages fall. As a result of wage repression, corporate profits increase, roughly proportional to wage deflation. In order for these corporations to continue positive profit generation—now inflated by wage deflation—additional demand must be created in the market to sell more goods/services. However, the consumer pool purchasing these goods/services is generally the same pool of workers experiencing the effects of wage repression. The buying power of the market is thus reduced, and corporate profits cannot be elevated above the levels brought about by wage repression. As a result, labor is further dispersed and/or wages are further repressed to generate profits, and credit markets are inflated to compensate for a lack of discretionary income. Increased debt and decreased wages eventually generate a torrent of defaults, resulting in institutional and/or market collapse. In the United States, the housing market collapse and subsequent economic recession of 2008 serves as a material example of the contradictions outlined by Marx’s crisis theory.
Additionally, manufactured scarcity of employment, food, and housing are all common sociocultural stressors which result from the outlined contradictions created by capitalist modes of production. Despite necessitating these conditions through the governing economic structure, the Western sociocultural hegemony simultaneously exalts and values consumerism, material possession, and wealth accumulation as the highest markers of both social and moral valuation. These idealizations are necessary to continue compelling the consumer market to spend their wage in the consumer market, and thus satisfy the capitalist market’s singular interest of creating more capital. Capitalism demands the continued generation of massive capital wealth in a few hands while simultaneously and deliberately suppressing the purchasing power of the entire working class, thus demanding blood from stone.
In 1984, The Party relies on memory as a form of capital to justify its continued expansion and influence over the people, much the same way capitalism continuously demands the generation of monetary capital to justify expansion of production and consumerism. The concept of memory utilized as capital by the Party is demonstrated by the lengths exacted to see the Party’s narrative actualized: the literal and continuous altering and revising of historic fact and media account and the endless, cloying production and cultural emphasis of propaganda to be “bought” by the market. Take, for example, a Party slogan: “Who controls the past… controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 41). In capitalism, those who control the capital control the market; those who control the market control the perceived value of capital. Marx explains that when capitalism “defines the relationship of wages to profit, it takes the interest of the capitalists to be the ultimate cause; i.e. it takes for granted what it is supposed to evolve” (718). Likewise, when the Party (inexplicitly) defines the relationship of memory to influence, it takes the interest of the Party to the be ultimate cause.
In the selected passage, contradictions showcased in Winston’s internal narrative serve as micro representations of contradictions presented by Marx’s crisis theory of capitalist production and class structure. Capitalism’s contradictions “demand blood from a stone” by degrading the wealth of the oppressed class while simultaneously demanding wealth from the oppressed class; this is achieved by creating debt, “notes” of owed wealth deliberately issued with the awareness that they cannot and will not be repaid in full. Though often delayed, the eventual result is collapse. The Party expresses this same contradiction by degrading the memory of the oppressed class while simultaneously demanding the actualization and adherence to a “remembered” narrative; this is achieved by creating information, “notes” of constructed and artificial reality that are issued with the awareness that they cannot and will not be sustained in full. Winston demonstrates: “There was no knowing how much of this legend was true and how much invented. Winston could not even remember at what date the Party itself had come into existence… Sometimes, indeed, you could put your finger on a definite lie” (Orwell 42-3). The Party builds by perpetuating its current version of reality, but simultaneously bankrupts the oppressed population’s perception of reality by constantly demanding revision. Again, Winston: “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies… That was the ultimate subtlety” (Orwell 42). In this way, the Party likewise demands blood from stone. Though often delayed, the eventual result is collapse—some irreparable snag, like Winston’s known lie, can call into question the legitimacy of the entire structure.
Freud’s theory of personality presents a tripartite view of the self, three unique but interdependent systems which develop at various stages of life. The id is the earliest development of consciousness, representing biological or instinctual desires and demands. The id seeks to fulfill every demand immediately and has no perception of consequence, no awareness of reality or logic, and does not grow or change as a result of time or experience. When the demands of the id are satisfied, the self experiences pleasure; when these demands are delayed or ignored, the result is anxiety, tension, anger, or other forms of displeasure. The ego is the logical and reason-governed component of the personality. While the ego simultaneously seeks to fulfill the irrational and unrelenting demands of the id, it also works to avoid harm to the self, both literally and in terms of social harm or ostracization. The ego, however, does not govern morality; any action is good if it satisfies desire and avoids harm, any action is bad if one of these aspects fails. The ego is the sense of self-control, evaluating various methods of desire fulfillment and weighing those options against potential consequences based on known boundaries. The superego works as the conscience and informs the ego of the “ideal self,” or ego-ideal. The ego-ideal is a fantasized version of the self that drives the ego to operate beyond pleasure fulfillment and strive to work toward some greater goal or purpose.
Freud argues that the superego is largely informed by the parental figure(s). However, independent or separated from the parental units, humans are also necessarily informed by a governing culture. A child who was spanked by their parents might grow up to be an adult who does not spank their children, because the governing culture has influenced the moral paradigm of the superego. If a person shoplifts to obtain desire-fulfillment, the superego may inflict feelings of guilt or shame, if that person was raised in a culture which places value on corporate compensation. If that person was being initiated into a street gang, shoplifting to obtain desire-fulfillment might incite feelings of accomplishment or superiority in the superego. If that person was an anarchist, shoplifting to obtain desire-fulfillment might bring feelings of vindication and liberation in the superego. The superego’s morality is not inherent; it is a learned construct, based on the familiar values and taboos of the most influential authority to the consciousness at any given point in life.
In the selected passage, Winston’s internal narrative showcases contradictions between the superego, informed by the governing culture, and the ego, which strives to rationally fulfill the irrational, genetically encoded demands of the id. Winston, suffering from violent coughing fits, vigorously participates in the calisthenics program mandated by the Party. Despite being in physical distress—highly aversive from the pleasure-seeking impulses of the id and ego—Winston’s superego compels him to not only continue the action, but to feign enjoyment: “Wearing on his face the look of grim enjoyment which was considered proper… with a violent lunge, [Winston] succeeded in touching his toes with knees unbent” (Orwell 39, 43). Though this action seems innocuous on the surface, the greater implication is more sinister; the governing culture’s influence over the superego is strong enough to compel the self to override its most inherent instincts, such as pain avoidance, as a means of demonstrating fealty. The self is sustained and protected through learned physical and emotional boundaries, i.e. this action causes pain, and this action causes shame. These boundaries are created to keep the self alive and part of the social collective (thus, with a better chance of staying alive, and procreating). The Party’s ability to override these boundaries suggests the Party’s ability to compel the destruction of the self.
Contradictions created within the self are also showcased through the Party’s manipulation of memory. If sociocultural boundaries endlessly shift and alter, the ego and superego lack appropriate and/or accessible input to comfortably navigate sociocultural expectations. Because boundaries are essential to the self’s imperatives of harm reduction and social affirmation, their lack fosters a sense of unease and tends to easily trigger fight-or-flight mechanisms. Winston perpetually exists in this state, though he fights against it: “Never show dismay! Never show resentment! A single flicker of the eyes could give you away” (Orwell 43). Winston’s superego attempts to exert control over the immediate harm-reduction instincts of the ego because it is aware that the greater harm lies in the Party’s ability to make the self non-existent. The Party’s omnipotent reach and scope in rewriting sociocultural narratives, and thus memory, and thus reality, is to Winston, “more terrifying than mere torture and death” (Orwell 41). Winston’s superego contradicts imperatives of the id and ego to show fealty to the governing culture, but the self is still essentially acting in self-preservation, aware that dissonance from the moral paradigm of the superego necessitates death.
Freud, Sigmund. “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, third ed, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, p 615.
Marx, Karl. “The Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, third ed, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, p 718.
Orwell, George. 1984. Houghton Mifflin Court, 1949, pp 39-44, accessed via Google Books.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.