Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible

Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible

Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible

Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible

Synopsis

Transforming Scriptures is the first sustained treatment of African American women writers' intellectual, even theological, engagements with the book Northrop Frye referred to as the "great code" of Western civilization. Katherine Clay Bassard looks at poetry, novels, speeches, sermons, and prayers by Maria W. Stewart, Frances Harper, Hannah Crafts, Harriet E. Wilson, Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Sherley Anne Williams and discusses how such texts respond as a collective "literary witness" to the use of the Bible for purposes of social domination. Black women's historic encounters with the Bible were, indeed, transformational; in the process of "turning cursing into blessing" these women were both shaped and reshaped by the scriptures they appropriated for their own self-representation.

Two important biblical figures emerge as key tropes around which women fashioned a counternarrative to the dominant culture's "curse" on black female identity: the "talking mule" from Numbers 22 and the "black but comely" Shulamite of Song of Songs, the Queen of Sheba. Transforming Scriptures analyzes these tropes within a range of contexts, from biblical justifications of slavery and the second-class status of women to hermeneutical and post-structural critiques of the Bible. African American women's appropriations of scripture occur within a continuum of African American Bible-reading practices and religious or ideological commitments, argues Bassard. There is thus no single "black women's hermeneutic"; rather, theories of African American women and the Bible must account for historical and social change and difference.

Excerpt

Transforming Scriptures grew out of the research for my first book, Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing, as I was confronted with the range and depth of black women writers’ references to the Bible in English. From Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison, black women's literature is replete with biblical images, themes, and reverberations. This has been the case whether the Bible was being used to justify African enslavement or the second-class status of women, and continued even after texts had come under sharp hermeneutical and poststructural critique. While literary critics have long made mention of this fact, the subject has been handled anecdotally or in footnotes. This book is thus the first sustained treatment of the use of the Bible by African American women as an important feature of their literary self-representation. As my title Transforming Scriptures indicates, black women's historic encounters with the Bible were indeed transformational as they both reshaped and were shaped by the scriptures they appropriated. Their relationships to the Bible were dynamic and interactive rather than static, and they opened new possibilities for reimagining their place and position in society. in poetry, novels, speeches, sermons, and prayers, Maria W. Stewart, Frances E. W. Harper, Hannah Crafts, Harriet E. Wilson, and Harriet Jacobs from the nineteenth century, and later Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Sherley Anne Williams form a collective “literary witness” in response to the use of the Bible for purposes of social domination. Transforming Scriptures bears witness to their profound intellectual and theological engagements with the book Northrop Frye referred to as the “great code” of Western civilization.

The subject of African Americans and the Bible is necessarily interdisciplinary, and I have drawn on work in religious studies (including biblical studies, black theology of liberation, and feminist/womanist theology), history, and hermeneutics, as well as literary criticism. Several studies on the Bible and Afri-

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