Slave Christianity: A Critical Feature of Black Studies History

Article excerpt

Abstract

The history of Black Studies as an academic discipline began during the Black Power Movement of the 1960s. However, scholars, attempting to define the genesis of Black Studies and chart its early progress, consistently overlook an essential feature of its pre-academic history--the counter-hegemonic religious culture of the slave community. I address this omission. I argue that slave Christianity, as one of the earliest forms of African-American opposition to European domination, is integral to the pre-academic history of Black Studies. In developing this argument, I first survey the dominant ideology of plantation society and then discuss in detail the counter-hegemony Of the African slaves as demonstrated in their religious beliefs and practices.

Although African-American scholars hold differing views regarding the nature of Black Studies, reflecting discrete philosophical emphases and conceptual paradigms, they nonetheless unfailingly agree on one salient point--that the discipline is culturally emancipatory. That is, they agree that it is intended to liberate Blacks and other exploited groups from European cultural domination. Karenga (1993), a prolific scholar and apologist in the field, demonstrates this perspective, stating "[Black Studies makes] a vital contribution to the critique, resistance, and reversal of the progressive Europeanization of human consciousness and culture which is one of the major problems of our time" (p. 20). Thus, Black Studies is indisputably a counter-hegemonic intellectual enterprise designed to liberate exploited people from European cultural subalternation.

However, in the broad range of literature, which presents the discipline as an emancipatory endeavor, an omission exists which this study addresses. As scholars attempt to define the genesis of Black Studies, they consistently argue that, although the enterprise did not emerge as an academic discipline until the 1960s, it had its true beginning at an earlier point in African-American intellectual history. They typically go on to cite a variety of early Black scholars as academic pioneers and the originators of the Black Studies project. However, they unfailingly ignore the pre-disciplinary, counter-cultural traditions of slave religion--an essential feature of the early history of the enterprise. Kilson (1973), for example, argues insightfully "that those concerned with these studies [Black Studies] stand squarely on the shoulders of the precursors in the field of Black Studies" (pp. 297-298). He continues citing the early "black American scholars" contributing to the field and begins with DuBois and Woodson without reference to the anti-ruling class culture production of slave religion.

Thus, in writing the history of Black Studies, African-American scholars consistently overlook the contribution of the spiritual life of the slaves. They are seemingly preoccupied with the works of such outstanding intellectuals as DuBois and Woodson and so failure to appreciate the less academically sophisticated, but equally profound influence of slave religion as a counter-hegemonic force. Consequently, I argue that slave religion was one of the earliest forms of African-American cultural resistance and is, therefore, an essential feature of the pre-disciplinary history of Black Studies. In developing this position, I first survey the dominant ideology of the ruling class planters, which employed biblical, rational, and scientific arguments to defend slavery and white supremacy. I then discuss in detail the counter-hegemony of the bondspeople as demonstrated in their religious ideas and practices, emphasizing the slave church as an underground institution of resistance.

The Ante-Bellum Ruling Class Ideology

The worldview of the settlers reflects a variety of perspectives expressed by a number of philosophically diverse hegemonic intellectuals, who, generally speaking, defend slavery and white supremacy from three different standpoints. …