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Who Speaks for Whom? Why? When?

 

A challenge to church leaders about social justice, a guest article about Hariette Beecher Stowe and William Wells Brown.

Even though William Wells Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe speak from widely divergent backgrounds (black/white, slave/free, male/female, richer/poorer), their concerns unite when they speak about the pivotal role which Christian Education assumed for itself in the lives of antebellum slaves. As will be seen in this short essay, Stowe and Brown recognize not just the Bible hermeneutics of the oppressor, but also the application of the same through catechesis to the lives of the oppressed. Brown’s chapter “The Religious Teacher” appearing in his novel Clotel, Or the President’s Daughter; and Stowe’s, chapter “Topsy” located in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; reference a very common practice amongst slave holders, the use of catechisms.[1]

As regards the narrators’ perspective in these passages, Stowe looks especially from without to within with full compassion, but with the limited access of a non-slave. Her narrator voice, naturally different from Brown’s, is a voice affected by looking across the Ohio River. Biographer Noel Gerson explains how

In 1833 … Harriet Beecher Stowe first became aware of the slavery as a living institution. In New England she had politely deplored slavery as an abstraction and remained untouched… But no one who lived in Cincinnati could ignore the challenge of slavery which existed across the Ohio in Kentucky. (Harriet 36)

Even as narrator Stowe sees an enslaved community by looking across the Ohio, Brown looks at and within his community, looking across to the oppressed. As a slave participant, Brown certainly sees what an antebellum white normally cannot; Stowe as an abolitionist white woman sees many times what a White man won’t. What antebellum Whites cannot or will not see concern both Stowe and Brown.

Specifically, in Brown’s “The Religious Teacher”, social control shapes a Bible hermeneutic favoring those who tower above, the slave owners. Human owners of other humans equate their words with God’s words, establishing oppressive norms to become the locus of authority. Twice in the catechetical moments of this chapter, Brown represents how religious slave owners read the New Testament to slaves who, interestingly, cannot read for themselves: “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart fearful, fearing God” (an isolated quotation of Colossians 3:-23); and, “He that knoweth his Master’s will, and doeth it not shall be beaten with many stripes” (a quotation of Luke 12:47, a phrase removed for social expediency from its original New Testament context). Furthermore, Brown unites these catechetical questions and answers, the call and response, with a then commonly held belief. Africans bear in their persons the curse of Ham: “The Lord intended the Negros for Slaves” (“The Religious Teacher”). For Brown, masters do more than speak for God. They speak as god.

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Category: In Depth

About the Author: Carolyn D. Baker serves as Assistant Professor of English at Mayville State University, Mayville, North Dakota; as Adjunct Professor of Bible and Theology for Global University, Springfield, Missouri; and Pastor for Bible and Discipleship at All Nations Assembly of God, an African Refugee church, in West Fargo, ND.

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