GUEST COMMENTARY -- Slavery, Bible Yield Complex History

By Bassard, Katherine | The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), October 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

GUEST COMMENTARY -- Slavery, Bible Yield Complex History


Bassard, Katherine, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)


As an African-American Christian scholar, I have long struggled with the fact that the Bible was used to justify slavery.

The Old Testament patriarchs were all slaveholders. The same apostle Paul who wrote there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28) also wrote, on more than one occasion, Slaves, obey your masters.

When I began to research African-American women writers and the Bible, this historical fact led to two questions.

First, what did African-American women see in the Bible? How did they get past the negative images and stereotypes that associated the Bible with slavery?

Second, what did African-American women do with the Bible? How did they imagine readings that countered those negative images and, in a sense, write themselves into the Bible's vision of redemption and grace.

The answers to these questions became the framework for my book, Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible. However, imagine my surprise when what began as an intellectual project became deeply personal.

In 2005 I stumbled upon a deed in the archives of the University of Virginia showing that on June 23, 1891, my great-grandfather, Lafayette Banks, who may have been born in slavery, purchased five acres from Sarah Carter Randolph, the former mistress of Round Top Plantation in Albemarle County, Va., for $25 cash in hand.

Mrs. Randolph had been the wife of Benjamin Franklin Randolph, who was the son of Martha Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson's grandson. Round Top Plantation sat eight miles due south of Monticello, and in 1891 my great-grandfather became owner of a small piece of that land, marking the deed with an X.

Lafayette was born in 1853 and died in Blenheim, Va., in 1927. The 1910 census listed him as a widower and head of household consisting of one son, Roscoe, my grandfather. At 57 Lafayette could, according to the census taker, read but not write.

The discovery of the deed that recorded my great-grandfather's transformation from (possibly) property to property owner has led, more recently, to other discoveries that provide insight into African-Americans' complex relationship with the Bible. …

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