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Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
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Black History Month: Silence and StorytellingBlack History Month: Silence and Storytelling

Black History Month: Silence and Storytelling

Doug Sikkema
3 minute read

It's Black History month and this year I've had the opportunity to read through several African-American slave narratives. As I've read about the lives of Olaudah Equiano, William and Ellen Craft, Harriet Jacobs, James Williams, and, of course, Frederick Douglass, it's been fascinating to see the role that storytelling plays in bringing about justice and, conversely, the oppressive silencing needed to perpetuate injustice.

In one of the first slave narratives, Olaudah Equiano (or, as his slave master named him, Gustavus Vassa) narrates a first-hand account of the transatlantic passage from a slave's perspective. Equiano's account of the pain, suffering, suicide, and torment of this voyage were the first images many Europeans had of the realities of the slave trade.  Despite treachery, Equiano manages to purchase himself; yet even as a free man, he is often beaten and silenced from declaring his liberty.  When Equiano finally meets up with abolitionists, they realize how powerful his story could be in shifting public opinion, and while the book goes through an astonishing nine printings, Equiano travels the world sharing his story with all who will listen. 

The lecture circuit for freed and fugitive slaves becomes a dominant way for slaves and abolitionists to awaken people to the injustice all around them. They must network, publish, speak, and try to nudge the gigantic systems of oppression in a better direction.  In some ways, it's an early precursor for the way in which Cardus and other think tanks try to work. 

For these African-American men and women, there are attempts to injure, kidnap, and silence them at every turn.  Indeed, there are numerous ways the anti-abolitionists found to silence their stories, yet no matter how it was done, such silencing was always intended to perpetuate injustice.

Which is why I find the current climate of modern academia, when it comes to Christianity, rather two-faced.  Those who, in the name of social justice, champion our need to allow others to speak lest we oppress them, are often the same ones who bend over backwards to silence the narrative of Christianity woven into so many of these slave narratives. 

A small example: in the Cambridge Companion to Slave Narratives, for instance, the editors argue that the primary cause of abolition was the "rise of Enlightenment secular humanism." This is an interesting interpretation when almost every single slave narrative I mentioned accredits abolition to a particular sect of Christianity (usually Quakers).  If we are so concerned with allowing stories to be told, how can we simply ignore the story of Christianity's role in bringing about the liberty of so many?

If you read through these slave narratives, you can't—shouldn't—ignore the scathing critiques of "Christian slavers"; they're to be found on almost every other page. But if we are to read charitably, we also would do well not to simply dismiss Equiano's very Augustinian confession about his need to escape the larger bonds of slavery in sin, or disregard Frederick Douglass's nuanced distinctions between the distorted slave-holding religion of the South and true gospel-centered Christianity. 

I've recently started reading some of Robert Woodberry's work on "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy" which is a fascinating study of the good that resulted from England's "imperial"—if you want to call it that—drive to spread Protestantism. Such a paper stands largely in the face of the many academics who work to silence the story of Christianity's positive role in shaping the social architecture for which many of us are still indebted. Such a silencing, which throws out the good baby of orthodox Christianity with the dirty bathwater of oppression, slavery, and injustice, is not only uncharitable, but perpetuates the very injustice great academics are bent on overcoming.

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