White Men's Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery

White Men's Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery

White Men's Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery

White Men's Magic: Scripturalization as Slavery


The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, first published in England in 1789, was one of the earliest and remains to this day one of the best-known English language slave narratives. Characterizing Olaudah Equiano's eighteenth-century narrative of his life as a type of ''scriptural story'' that connects the Bible with identity formation, Vincent L. Wimbush's White Men's Magic probes not only how the Bible and itsreading played a crucial role in the first colonial contacts between black and white persons in the North Atlantic but also the process and meaning of what he terms ''scripturalization.'' By this term, Wimbush means ''a social-psychological-political discursive structure'' or ''semiosphere'' that creates a reality andorganizes a society in terms of relations and communications. This scripturalization, achieved by the British to establish a colonial and racialized society in and through the promotion of literacy and the Bible as a ''fetishized center-object,'' was also performed by an abject outsider or stranger like Equiano through his reading of the Bible as well as his own writing with the goal of imagining and promoting a more inclusive society. It is for this reason that Wimbush calls Equiano'snarrative a ''scriptural story,'' and he argues that this is why the talking book trope appears repeatedly in writings of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century black Atlantic writers. He identifies three different types of scripturalization: (1) scripturalization as social-cultural matrix and comparativemagic; (2) scripturalization in the service of nationalization and for the purpose of naturalization; and (3) scripturalization in negotiation and for resistance. Because it is based on the particularities of Equiano's narrative, Wimbush's theoretical work is not only grounded but inductive. Wimbush shows that scripturalization is bigger than either the historical or the literary Equiano. Scripturalization was not invented by Equiano, he says, but it is not quite the same after Equiano.


… There’s a whole heap of them kinda by-words… They all got a hidden meanin’, jus’ like de Bible. Everybody can’t understand what they mean. Most people is thin-brained. They’s born wid they feet under de moon. Some folks is born wid they feet on de sun and they kin seek out de inside meanin’ of words.”


You think your pain, and your heartbreak, are unprecedented in the history of the world. But then you read. It was books that taught me, the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive—who had ever been alive. I went into the 130th St. Library at least three or four times a week, and I read everything there, and every single book in that library. In some blind and instinctive way, I knew that what was happening in those books was also happening all around me, and I was trying to make a connection between the books and the life I saw, and the life I lived.… I knew I was Black, of course, and I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind or even if I could, but that was the only thing that I had to use. And I was going to get whatever I wanted that way, and I was going to get my revenge that way. So I watched school the way I watched the streets, because part of the answer was there.

—JAMES BALDWIN, The Price of the Ticket . . .

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