Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible

By Katherine Clay Bassard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
“beyond mortal vision”
IDENTIFICATION AND MISCEGENATION IN THE
JOSEPH CYCLE AND HARRIET E. WILSON'S OUR NIG

Although the Genesis story of Joseph's enslavement and triumphant rise to power would seem to be directly applicable to African Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scholars differ on the importance of the Joseph cycle to African American writers. Cain Hope Felder asserts in Troubling Biblical Waters that “the story of Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers (Gen. 37:1 – 36) and the great Exodus saga (Exodus, Deuteronomy) have become focal points in the Pentateuch for Blacks” (17); yet Felder only references a small portion of the entire narrative about Joseph, and he offers no example of a single black text that draws its inspiration from Genesis 37. More recently the debate has been framed by Phillip Richards and Allen Dwight Callahan, who differ sharply about the significance and interpretation of Joseph. Richards has called the books of Genesis and Exodus, especially the story of Joseph in Genesis 37 – 50, the “prototypes for Early Black Anglophone writing,” while Callahan argues that “African Americans rarely identified with Joseph” (112).1 It is important to note that Richards reads the text as fundamentally about “the displaced — by virtue of nationality, race, class or social provenance — hero within the domestic world of the upper-class or aristocratic household of another culture” (223). Callahan, however, views Joseph as a story of upward mobility: “Joseph's boundless confidence and upward mobility, occasional reverses notwithstanding, was so unlike the collective experience of American slaves and their descendants that his story did not speak to their present condition” (112). The meaning of Joseph's plight, then, appears to be in the eyes of the beholders.

The story of Joseph enters the discourse of race and slavery, both through correspondence and negation, sameness and difference. In its earliest appropriation, the Puritan judge Samuel Sewall used the story for the purposes of arguing against the slave trade (The Selling of Joseph). In an early example of the “brotherhood of man” ideology, Sewall argued that whites selling Africans into slavery was analogous to Joseph's brothers selling him to the Egyptian slave

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