This letter is part of our “Letters to Our Ancestors” project. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we’ve asked members of our community to share their own letters to our forefathers. With these letters, we hope to look back on the progress our community has made and give thanks to those who helped pave the way.Â You can see them all here.
Inarguably, one of the greatest gifts my ancestors passed on to African Americans is their use of the Bible as a liberation tool.
The Bible, with all its inconsistencies, continues to have moral authority in the African-American religious community. Functioning as a moral text, the Bible is used as a subversive tool to form and to frame a democratic moral order.
When slave masters gave my ancestors the Bible, their intent was not to make them better Christians, but instead better slaves. The Bible, at least according to slave owners, was used as one of the legitimate sanctions for American slavery.
However, my ancestors had the moral outrage and courage to take this authoritative text that was meant to aid them in acclimating to their life of servitude and turned it into an incendiary test that not only foment slave revolts and abolitionists movements, but also the nation’s black civil rights movement. The Bible told African Americans how to do what must be done. And, in so doing moral leaders sprung up. Nat Turner revolted against slavery, and Harriet Tubman conducted a railroad out of it, to name just a few.
With the use of the Bible my ancestors also expanded not only the understanding of what it meant to be human, but also the parameters of what it meant to be a Christian; thus giving us a biblical language that could be heard. And my ancestors understood the power of that language.
For example, they knew that their liberation is not only rooted in their acts of social protests, but it is also rooted in their use of language, which is why they used the Exodus narrative in the Old Testament as their talking-book. Functioning as a talking book for my ancestors, the Exodus narrative dramatically shifts the discourse on slavery from the authority of white voices to the control of black voices. In so doing, Exodus was used to rebuke themes of silence, exclusion and oppression in the text, which in return allowed my ancestors to represent themselves as speaking subjects outside of the text.
One of the oldest spirituals that inspired my ancestors to persevere in the face of hardship was “Go Down Moses,” which was the earliest form of African Americans’ appropriation of the Exodus narrative. “Go Down Moses” became a standard hymn for African-American churches across the country. And it became a standard hymn because the spiritual has three central themes in the song that shaped black liberationist agency in the U.S.: a desire for freedom, a tactical battle for gaining freedom, and a mandate for justice mediated by God on behalf of the oppressed. And The Rev. Dr. King masterfully contextualized the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the story of the Exodus narrative, and the church, media and American public saw him as a present-day Moses.
Being of African descent creates a distinctive epistemology that shapes not only our identity but it also shapes our distinctive interpretative lens about freedom and democracy that derives from the black church, and is part of the religious cosmos of my ancestors.
For my African ancestors, the Bible became a subversive tool, particularly in a Western culture that did not value the veracity of their lives told in an African oral tradition. They made visible with the use of the Bible those lives that are too often, with intent, omitted, and they knew those behind them, their progeny, would need it. And stories like the Exodus narrative became part of an African-American biblical canon for survival, reminding their progeny and their oppressors that our lives, too, are sacred texts.
Justice in America for African Americans continues to come slowly, just as it did for my ancestors awaiting the good news that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had finally become law. But only slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free even as the Civil War was still going on. A century after the Emancipation Proclamation, King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said, “one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
King is gone from us now and we’re in a new century with the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as our country’s first African-American president and his reelection in 2012. My ancestors who built the White House could have never imagined that one of their progenies would one day occupy it.
But they were prescient about our continued long and arduous journey toward freedom, which is why they passed on to us their talking-book and it’s still talking for us today.