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What would it be like to be torn from your home and sent so far away you could never return? And what would it be like to have your history stripped from you, your name discarded, and your own religion replaced with one that had few, if any, ties to your previous life? When slaves were brought to America they were taken from all they had known and forced to live in a land of dark irony that, while promising life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, provided them with only misery. In a situation such as the one in which the slaves found themselves, many people would rely on their religion to help them survive. But would slaves be able to find spiritual comfort within the parameters of a religion that had been passed on to them from the slaveholders? In each of the three texts "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," Song of Solomon, and Push, African-Americans struggle to find a spirituality that is responsive to their needs and that encompasses their experiences in a way that the religion of the dominant culture does not.
Of the three texts to be examined, Linda Brent's Autobiography, "Incidents," most explicitly shows the inability of the dominant culture's religion to fulfill the needs of the minority. From the tone of her story, one realizes that Brent felt "true Christianity," if it could be found, might comfort the slaves and fulfill their needs. But Brent also felt that slavery created a paradox which made "true Christianity" impossible.
Many times in her text Brent points out the irony that, as slaveholders, the masters treat their slaves as property; yet, as Christians, they should treat them as humans. For example, Brent's mother's mistress promises that Brent and her siblings will "never suffer for any thing" (343). Brent assumes that this means they will be given their freedom when the mistress dies; however, they are not freed but passed along as property. Brent says that her mistress taught her the biblical principles that she should treat others as she would wish to be treated, and that she should adhere to the biblical commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself," but then she pointedly adds, "But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor"(344).
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Another example of this non-Christian behavior occurs when a class leader at church happens to be a constable "who bought and sold slaves, who whipped his brethren and sisters of the church" (399). One day, one of the slaves pours out her broken heart over the loss of her children to this class leader-her last child, a sixteen year old girl, had just been sold from her. Brent tells the reader that the constable held a handkerchief over his mouth to conceal, not a guilty conscience as might be expected, but laughter at the woman's sorrow (399). Brent says that slavery "deadens the moral sense" (368). It deprives the slaveholders of their conscience. To truly live as a Christian, Brent sees the necessity for the return of that lost conscience.
At one point Brent tells of a single good minister that she knew who helped the slaves and actually treated them like people. His wife, who freed her slaves on her deathbed, was the only slaveholder to which Brent applied the phrase "truly Christian." The slaves loved this minister and his wife. He took them home and taught them to read; he fashioned his sermons according to their needs, not the needs of their masters. He told the slaves that "God judges men by their hearts, not by the color of their skins" (401), thereby disrupting the idea that there was something about them that made them less than human. The slaves loved this minister; the slaveholders despised him. This one good Christian minister that Brent describes was an anomaly within the system of slavery. Yet, even being as good as Brent portrays him, he did not require his wife to give her slaves their freedom until she died.
Slaves wanted and needed spirituality, but they did not receive comfort from the religion of the slaveholders. Brent points out that the slaves did worship together in a church they had built for themselves. They had built it in order to have their own place to pray and sing and bury their dead. After the Nat Turner episode, however, the slaveholders out of fear of another uprising "demolished" the church the slaves had built and forced the slaves to worship in their churches. Under this edict, slaves were forced to worship in churches where they were required to wait until after the whites had left the building before they could partake of communion. Brent says that, actually, the whites did not want them there at all-they were worried about their "cushions" and their "carpets" being dirtied (397). If the slaveholders wanted to control the slaves' worship, however, allowing them to worship in the white churches was the only way.
Though they were no longer allowed to guide their own worship, the slaves did express themselves spiritually. Brent tells of the hymns that they composed for themselves. The text of one of the hymns follows:
Ole Satan thought he had a mighty aim;
He missed my soul, and caught my sins.
Cry Amen, cry Amen, cry Amen to God!
He took my sins upon his back;
Went muttering and grumbling down to hell.
Cry Amen, cry Amen, cry Amen to God!
Ole Satan's church is here below.
Up to God's free church I hope to go.
Cry Amen, cry Amen, cry Amen to God! (400)
Brent states that if you heard the slaves singing, ". . .you might think they were happy" (400). But the only happiness would seem to be singing about the injustice of "Satan's church" which is the only church that exists in slavery.
Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, while perhaps less visibly than Brent's narrative, also deals with the African-American struggle to find a spirituality not defined by a religion of the dominant culture. From the beginning of the novel, Morrison alludes to Christianity with the names she chooses-Hagar, First Corinthians, Magdalene, and Ruth for example. However, the two main allusions Morrison draws on are the name "Pilate" and the name of the biblical book Song of Solomon.
In the narrative in which Pilate is named, Pilate's father, who can't read, lets the Bible fall open and points to a set of lines that look agreeable to him. It just so happens that the word spelled out by those lines is "Pilate," the name of the Roman who turns Jesus over to be crucified. The midwife attending at Pilate's birth asks the father if he really wants to name the child after the person who killed Jesus, and the father replies, "I asked Jesus to save me my wife," and he continues, "I asked him all night long" (19). Yet his wife wasn't saved, and Pilate's father feels betrayed by the religion he has trusted in to help him.
Morrison's use of bibliomancy in this narrative asks the reader to consider the meaning of the prediction Pilate's father receives when his finger lands on "Pilate." Does it mean Pilate will be a Christ killer, or does it mean she will be a pilot, as the father first thinks? Perhaps more than even giving the reader a clue about what is to come, Morrison gives readers this scene in an attempt to pique interest in the meaning of words. Perhaps Morrison is showing readers that just because a word has meant one thing in the past, it is not precluded from taking on other meanings as well. For the readers of Song, that is exactly what happens.
In Morrison's story, the name Pilate loses its original meaning of Christ killer and gains the meaning of one who has control of the direction of her life. Pilate is a seeker. She asks, "What do I need to know to stay alive?" and "What is true in the world?" (149). Dominant culture might only need to ask about truth. Minority culture asks about survival. Because of her gift for penetrating to the heart of her own experience, Pilate becomes a person who can guide others.
The most prominent of all the uses of biblical names in the story is the title itself, Song of Solomon. Throughout the novel, a non-minority reader, recalling the biblical Song of Songs or Song of Solomon as the title is often translated in English Bibles, has the image before them of sensual love poetry. However, a reader who, because of the title, is expecting a sensual love story will be wondering how Morrison is going to tie this title in with the naming taking place in the story, with the metaphor of flight contained in the narrative, and with the search for identity that is a strong theme running throughout the work. Suddenly, as the non-minority reader learns that the title comes from a song that was sung as a result of an African myth of flight and not from the Bible, the reader's presuppositions are shattered. The spiritual experience that fulfills need in this novel comes about as a result of Milkman's return to his family. It comes as he learns who he is. The traditional biblical story touched this story by sharing its name, but it did not form the meaning of milkman's spiritual experience, nor did it form the meaning of this novel.
Morrison's amazingly crafted novel puts the presupposition that everything is formed out of majority experience to the test. The questioning that comes about because of Morrison's juxtaposition of meanings shows both majority and minority readers that African-American spiritual experience, while touched by majority experience, does not have to be formed by it.
Sapphire's novel Push also has as one of its themes African-American spiritual experience. While Brent and Morrison question the ways Christianity affects African-American religious experience, Sapphire explores the effect of the National of Islam. At the beginning of the novel we learn that Precious loves Louis Farrakhan. She has his picture on her bedroom wall (34). It is not surprising that Precious is a Muslim. Many Nation of Islam tenets meet Precious' needs. The Nation of Islam believes in a unified black family, something Precious yearns for. The Nation of Islam believes that black people are the original people of earth. This belief gives Precious pride in herself, something she desperately needs. It also gives her a reason to believe the abuse that occurs in her life is not her fault. At one point she says that her father acts like he does because "He has forgot he is the Original Man!" (34).
There are other allusions to the Nation of Islam within Push. For example, mathematics, in Islam, is the means for understanding the universe, and Precious loves math. Islam believes that children must be loved, taught, and protected, and Precious loves and wants to teach and protect her children. And finally, the Nation of Islam believes that each one should teach one, and Precious finds an alternative school named exactly that.
But even though Islam is Precious' religion, she is willing to question it when it falls short of meeting her needs. Precious' questioning of Farrakhan begins with the revelation that his take on homosexuals affects Ms. Rain, the woman helping Precious more than anyone ever has by teaching her to read and to express herself through her writing. Precious is dumbfounded when she discovers that Ms. Rain is one of the "butches" Farrakhan dislikes. After making that shocking discovery, Precious says, "Too bad about Farrakhan. I still believe Allah and stuff. I guess I still believe everything" (81). She hasn't given up her beliefs, but any belief system that doesn't include everyone might not be what she is looking for.
By the end of her story (or at least the last part that the reader sees) Precious has decided that there is a god. However, the god that Precious needs is defined as follows:
But me when I think of it I'm more inclined to go wid Shug in The Color Purple. God ain' white, he ain' no Jew or Muslim, maybe he ain' even black, maybe he ain' even a 'he.' Even now I go downtown and see the rich shit they got, I see what we got too. I see those men in vacant lot share one hot dog and they homeless, that's good as Jesus with his fish. I remember when I had my daughter, nurse nice to me-all that is god. Shug in Color Purple say it's the "wonder" of purple flowers. I feel that even though I never seen or had no flowers like what she talk about" (138-39).
Precious has decided that no one religion can suffice for meeting the needs of every individual. But as she sees people doing good to each other, she realizes that perhaps people meet needs, not religions.
All three of the texts, "Incidents," Song, and Push deal with the struggle of African-Americans to find a spiritual avenue that is responsive to their needs and reflective of their experience. These texts help people to examine differing ideas, learn about different experiences, and become sensitive to various needs. If we are able to learn something from these texts, really learn something, perhaps life, liberty and happiness will finally find us.
Brent, Linda. (Harriet Jacobs). "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Mentor, 1987. 332-515.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Plume, 1987.
Sapphire. Push. New York: Vintage, 1997.