Philosophy Born of Struggle. Slave Narratives as The Origins of Africana and Black Philosophy in the Americas Lecture delivered by Sharifa Wright, PhD Candidate in Social and Political Thought. History of Black Slave Narratives.
Slave Narratives as The Origins of Africana and Black Philosophy in the Americas
Lecture delivered by Sharifa Wright, PhD Candidate in Social and Political Thought
“In literacy lay true freedom for the black”– Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“Be it therefore Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That all and every Person and Persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any Slave to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a Scribe in any Manner of Writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such offense forfeit the Sum of One Hundred Pounds current Money.”
Having no fear of my kind mistress before my eyes,(she had then given me no reason
to fear,) I frankly asked her to teach me to read…Here arose the first cloud over my Baltimore
progress, the precursor of drenching rains and chilling blasts. Master Hugh was amazed at the
simplicity of his spouse and …unfolded to her the true philosophy of slavery, and the peculiar
rules necessary to be observed by masters and mistresses, in the management of their human
chattels. Mr. Auld promptly forbade the continuance of her instruction; telling her in the first place
that the thing itself was unlawful; that it was also unsafe and could only lead to mischief. To use
his own words…”if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell;” “he should know nothing but the
will of his master, and learn to obey it; ””learning will spoil the best nigger in the world;” “if you
teach that nigger how to read the bible, there will be no keeping him.”
The black slave’s narrative came to be a communal utterance, a collective tale, rather than just an individual’s biography. Each slave author in writing about his or her personal life experiences, simultaneously wrote on the behalf of millions of silent slaves still held captive through the [U.S.]south. Each author then knew that all black slaves would be judged—on their character, integrity, intelligence, manners and morals. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“I no longer looked upon them as spirits, but as men superior to us; and therefore I
had the stronger desire to resemble them, to imbibe their spirit and imitate their
manners. I therefore embraced every occasion of improvement… “
“They are not all bad, I dare say, but slavery hardens white people’s hearts towards the blacks; and many of them were not slow to make their remarks upon us aloud, without regard to our grief. Oh those white people have small hearts who can only feel for themselves.”
“ It is plain that a very different-looking class of people are springing up at the south, and are now held in slavery, from those originally brought to this country from Africa; and if their increase do no other good, it will do away the force of the argument, that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at 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. “
Henry Louis Gates:
“The slave narrators sought to indict both those who enslaved them and the metaphysical system drawn upon to justify their enslavement.”
British Abolitionist Movement
American Abolitionist Movement
“They send the Bible to heathen abroad, and neglect the heathen at home. I am glad that missionaries go out to the dark corners of the earth; but I ask them not to overlook the dark corners at home. Talk to American slaveholders as you talk to savages in Africa. Tell them it is wrong to traffic in men. Tell them it is sinful to sell their own children, and atrocious to violate their own daughters. Tell them that all men are brethren, and that man has no right to shut out the light of knowledge from his brother.”
“The man, who robs me of my earnings at the end of the week, meets me as a class leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who claims it is a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read from the God who made me. “
“He taught me.. to read the bible… I was wonderfully surprised to see the laws and rules of my own country written almost exactly here; a circumstance which I believe, tended to impress our manners and customs more deeply on my memory. I used to tell him on this resemblance…In short he was like a father to me and some even called me after him name: they also styled me the black Christian… As I could not get any right among men here, I hoped I should hereafter in Heaven.”
“No wonder slaves sing—
Ole Satan’s church is here below,
Up to God free church I hope to go.”
James Cone :
“What is Black Theology? Black Theology is that theology which arises out of the need to articulate the significance of black presence in a hostile white world. It is black people reflecting religiously in the black experience attempting to redefine the relevance of the Christian Gospel for their lives.”
From “Black Consciousness and the Black Church”
Humanism, generally speaking, refers to the ethical understanding that all human beings have the capacity to appeal to universal values and are therefore equal.
The fundamental assumption of all slave narratives is that black people ought to be included in an understanding of humanity and thus these texts served to critique theories of being which ontologized racism by declaring blackness outside of the human.
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud- puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?”
What is Black philosophy?
“By black philosophy what is meant is the philosophical currents that emerged from the question of blackness. I distinguish Africana philosophy from Black philosophies because the latter relate to a terrain that is broader than Africana communities. Not all black peoples are of African descent: indigenous Australians, whose lived reality is that of being black people, are an example. Similarly, problems of blackness are but a part of Africana philosophy. The divide is not only philosophical—where black philosophy’s normative and descriptive concerns may be narrower than Africana philosophy’s—but also cultural: although there are Africana cultures, it is not clear what black culture is.”
Lewis Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought
“Africana Thought…refers to an area of thought that focuses on theoretical questions raised by struggles over ideas in African cultures and their hybrid and creolized forms in Europe, North America, Central and South America and the Caribbean. African Thought also refers to the set of questions raised by the historical project of conquest and colonization that has emerged since 1492 and the subsequent struggles for emancipation that continue to this day. .. They are marked by the contrast between how the modern is often characterized in Western academy—through, say, philosophical treatment of ideas, from Rene Descartes to Immanuel Kant, or perhaps Michel Foucault’s locating of modernity in nineteenth-century European thought—and how it has been lived by those on its periphery.”
Lewis Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought
“When Afro-Americans are viewed as passive objects in history, Afro-American history is a record of the exclusion of a distinct racial group from the economic benefits and cultural dilemmas of modernity. Politically, this exclusion has meant the white ownership of Afro-American persons, possession and progeny; severe discrimination reinforced by naked violence within a nascent industrial capitalist order; and urban enclaves of unskilled unemployables and semi-skilled workers within a liberal corporate capitalist regime. Culturally, this has meant continual Afro-American degradation and ceaseless attempts to undermine Afro-American self-esteem.”
“When Afro-Americans are viewed as active subjects of history, Afro-American history becomes the story of gallantly persistent struggle, of a disparate racial group fighting to enter modernity on its own terms. Politically this struggle consists of prudential acquiescence plus courageous revolt against white paternalism; institution-building and violent rebellion within the segregated social relations of industrial capitalism; and cautious reformist strategies within the integrated social relations of “post-industrial” capitalism. Culturally, this has meant the maintenance of self-respect in the face of pervasive denigration.”
Cornel West, “Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience” in A Companion to African American Philosophy