White slave owners in America had a seemingly impossible task before them . . . to commodify and dehumanize human beings – and more difficult – to reconcile these questionable practices with their religious and philosophical values. The contradiction between whites’ Christian precepts and their participation in chattel slavery was not lost on black slaves or freedmen. This article argues and will demonstrate that black people between the 18th and 19th centuries created a tradition of literature sharing a common theme of challenging whites who professed Christianity, while endorsing and benefiting from the slave labor of black people.
As early as 1773, Phillis Wheatley, a young enslaved woman and the first major African American published poet, published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. One piece, “On Being Brought From Africa to America,” (Sherman, 1) demonstrated her brief but powerfully subtle and sobering challenge of white Christian sensibilities:
‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train
By referring to Africa as her “pagan land,” and her soul as “benighted” or in darkness, Wheatley employs a hint of sarcasm, beginning her poem in an exaggeratedly humble fashion by using negative depictions of uncivilized Africa and herself (i.e. her people) as being ignorant and unenlightened, images that would appeal to many white people in 18th century America. She goes on to note how some whites view black people as being “diabolic” (devilish), and with an air of gentle chastisement, reminds these white Christians that black people too, despite being unenlightened and ungodly, can yet be redeemed through their submission to Christianity. By ending the poem with the words “thy angelic train,” Wheatley again uses subtle sarcasm, for one wonders just how “angelic” are religious people that could so demonize another group of human beings due to racial differences?
In only eight lines, Wheatley manages to issue a subtle critique of hypocritical Christian slaveholders, reminds whites that blacks, like themselves, can be redeemed through religion, and that true adherence to Christianity unites all people. Moreover, she accomplishes this feat using the very formal Victorian-style poetry popular in her day, displaying that she as an enslaved girl has mastered the literary form that whites most respected.
Another enslaved poet, Joshua McCarter Simpson, wrote protest poems during the 1850’s that contained stronger and more direct language than Wheatley’s writings. Yet like Wheatley, we again see the motif of exposing whites’ religious contradictions. Perhaps his poem “Away to Canada” (Sherman, 7) is the best example of this motif. The third stanza of this poem reads:
I heard old master pray last night –
I heard him pray for me;
That God would come, and in his might
From Satan set me free;
So I from Satan would escape,
And flee the wrath to come –
If there’s a fiend in human shape,
Old master must be one.
O! old master,
While you pray for me
I’m doing all I can to reach
The land of liberty.
Set to the popular upbeat tune of O Susannah, Simpson’s poem rings with a satirical and triumphant tone. Mocking his master’s prayer that God would set him free from Satan, he provides readers with an interesting and somewhat comical, twist. Not only does he literally seek freedom by escaping enslavement, but in doing so, he boldly redefines his master as the “fiend” (Satan) that he’s escaping from. He then boasts that while his master is praying for him, he’s using all means available to run away from the plantation.
Simpson effectively uses satire by mocking the hypocritical and esoteric nature of his master’s religious sensibilities with his own practical and worldly definitions. Arguably, the most telling line of the stanza is, “If there’s a fiend in human shape, old master must be one.” Here, Simpson clearly provides commentary regarding the contradictions of his master; the master speaks of Satan metaphorically as a demonic spirit perhaps. Maybe he thinks of “freedom” as the intangible type of freedom one might gain from sin or heathenism. Yet, the master fails to see how his ownership of another human is immoral, or how he deprives another man of his actual freedom. Given its tone and language, it is understandable why this poem resonated as it did with fugitive slaves (Sherman, 6).
Poems written by slaves are not the only literary forms that reflect the motif of challenging white religious hypocrisy. Slave narratives, being as they were personal accounts of slaves’ observations and experiences, also participate in this black literary tradition. Perhaps no former slave captures and embodies this theme more consistently and forcefully than the slave-turned writer, newspaper publisher, and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. Indeed it was Douglass who was moved to write in his narrative:
“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ:
I Therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping,
cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.
Indeed, I see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the
religion of this land Christianity.” (Gates, 430)
The quote above comes from the appendix of Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass concludes his narrative with a poem fittingly entitled “A Parody.” The title is revealing, for a parody by definition, is a literary work imitating a person or thing for the purpose of humor or ridicule (Merriam-Webster).
Continuing with the theme from his earlier quote, Douglass’ poem powerfully takes slaveholders to task for preaching Christianity but failing to practice it toward their slaves. Each rhyming stanza contains five lines with eight syllables each, giving the poem a consistent, perpetual form that reflects Douglass’ unyielding attack on hypocritical white slaveholders. Adding to the poem’s consistency and energy, is a stanza-ending refrain that refers sarcastically to the phrase, “heavenly union.” By ending each line with a rhyme, Douglass draws our attention to the bold observations he makes. While the poem is too long to reference in its entirety, stanzas five and six serve our purposes:
They’ll read and sing a sacred song,
And make a prayer both loud and long,
And teach the right and do the wrong,
Hailing the brother and sister throng,
With words, of heavenly union
We wonder how such saints can sing,
Or praise the Lord upon the wing,
Who roar and scold and whip, and sting,
And to their slaves and mammon cling,
In guilty conscience union (Gates, 434)
Clearly talking about white Christian slave owners, Douglass wastes no time criticizing how pious they are when it comes to outward proclamations of religion, but demonstrate hypocrisy nevertheless. They may sing church songs, deliver long prayers, and speak of heavenly union among their white Christian brethren, but as Douglass notes, they teach morality while committing immoral acts.
In the sixth stanza, Douglass refers satirically to whites as “saints,” then questions how they can worship God yet commit acts of brutality against black slaves. He ends the verse suggesting that whites don’t truly worship the God of Christianity, but Mammon, the god of greed, commenting on how their profit motive took priority over any religious or humanitarian considerations. Douglass also suggests that religious whites must or should feel guilty for their obvious contradictions. That Douglass concludes his narrative with this scathing indictment against white Christian slaveholders tells us that he wanted to express his feeling about such hypocrisy in dramatic and unforgettable fashion to his readers.
As we have demonstrated, Douglass was not alone in his critique of white Christians that were involved in the “peculiar institution.” We have shown this motif to be evident in the poetry/literature of himself, Phyllis Wheatley, and Joshua Simpson. Nor is this motif limited to just black authors, poetry and slave narratives within the black literary tradition. Both a white abolitionist Harriett Beecher Stowe, in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin and early black nationalist Martin Delaney in his response novel Blake, include the characters Henry and Blake respectively. These characters reject the oppressive and hypocritical nature of white Christianity, and instead use religion as a liberatory tool for fellow slaves.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin, 1987.
Merriam-Webster.com. Encyclopedia Britannica. 17, October 2010.
Sherman, Joan R. African-American Poetry: An Anthology. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1997
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at email@example.com.