Academic journal article African American Review

Prince Hall, Freemasonry, and Genealogy

Academic journal article African American Review

Prince Hall, Freemasonry, and Genealogy

Article excerpt

For scholars of early African-American literature, the question of influence can be particularly vexing. American writing about Africa and Africans preceded the emergence of the first African-American writers by a century or more. On the basis of this written record, the old historicists could claim that religion made a Phillis Wheatley; only belief in artistic genius or a commitment to the idea of resistance prevents new historicists from saying the same, not only about Wheatley but about eighteenth-century Black poet Jupiter Hammon as well. [1]

The origins of Black political discourses have proven similarly resistant to historicist unraveling. When did Africans in America begin to describe themselves as a "people"? How did geographical formulations such as "Africa," "Ethiopia," and "Egypt" become keywords and conceptual touchstones of early Black nationalism? Robert Alexander Young's Ethiopian Manifesto (1827) and David Walker's Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829) are generally acknowledged as primary print instances of Black nationalism or literary Ethiopianism, but the intellectual prehistories of the Manifesto and the Appeal remain the subject of speculation and debate. W. E. B. Du Bois claimed that "the tale of Ethiopia the Shadowy and Egypt the Sphinx" was a remnant of "Egyptian" and "African" ideas preserved by the diaspora's "scattered" "tribes." [2] Following Du Bois, some scholars continue to affirm the "veiled" origins of Black nationalism, Ethiopianism. and Egyptophilia as the products of "instinct," "ideology," or "experi ence." Others have attempted to specify textual sources for these traditions. St. Clair Drake emphasized the influence of Biblical "proof texts" on the development of Ethiopianism. More recently, it has been suggested that "African-Americans first got the idea" of a glorious African past from eighteenth-century natural histories excerpted in the American Colonization Society's African Repository and reprinted in Freed om's Journal (1827-1828) (Dain 146-47).

Three lately republished and repopularized eighteenth-century speeches--John Marrant's Sermon to the African Lodge of the Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons (1789) and Prince Hall's Charges to the Lodge at Charlestown (1792) and Metonomy (1797)--suggest a more extensive and complex history for Ethiopianism. [4] Prince Hall established the African Lodge of Freemasons in Boston in the 1780s and invited celebrity evangelist John Marrant to serve as its chaplain. In the Sermon and the Charges, Marrant and Hall expostulated a vital and portentous genealogy of African America. Their public claims to a common Black history and destiny--to the legacy of Ancient Egypt and the prophetic future of Ethiopia--prefigure and precede similar claims by David Walker and Robert Alexander Young. These three speeches document an early and little understood chapter in Black intellectual history, and they posit a much earlier point of inception for literary Ethiopianism than that generally agreed upon by scholars of th e discourse.

Marrant's Sermon and Hall's Charges also reveal the influence of early American mysticism on the development of Ethiopianist tradition. Prince Hall's initiation into Freemasonry in 1775 admitted him to a parallel universe where Hermeticism, Egyptophilia, and Kabbalism flourished alongside, if not intertwined with, Enlightenment rationalism. [5] By the time he invited John Marrant to give the 1789 Sermon to the African Lodge, Hall had spent fourteen years wending his way through the fraternal networks and dusty bookshelves of New England Freemasonry. His researches in the mystical vernacular prepared him to compose an unnatural history of African America, a counternarrative to eighteenth-century empiricisms and "natural histories" which classified Africa as a cipher, perpetually primitive and unintelligible. [6]

More than an archival resource, Freemasonry was also a venue for the exercise of cultural authority. …

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