#69—Setting down the sacred past of African Americans, with Laurie Maffly-Kipp [MIPodcast]
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BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Twelve million Africans were forced into slavery in the seventeenth century until the Emancipation Proclamation. Twelve million. Gone from their land, separated from family and kin, their bodies were stolen. Their very identities were at risk of annihilation.
So, Africans became African-Americans. Years before reconstruction, they began reconstructing their past. Many of them combined patriotism, racial lineage and Christian scripture to tell their stories, to remember who they were—to save themselves.
Laurie Maffly-Kipp joined us in this episode to talk about this history from her acclaimed book Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories. Maffly-Kipp is the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor at John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. She was here at Brigham Young University at our recent conference on Reformation Christianity. You’ll be able to hear her presentation in the coming weeks but in the meantime, we’re talking about African-American race histories in this episode.
You can send me questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. And now, my customary plea: Take a moment to rate and review the show on iTunes. I enjoy getting your feedback and it really does make a difference in helping people hear about the show.
BLAIR HODGES: Laurie Maffly-Kipp joins us today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. We’re talking about her book Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories. Laurie, thank you so much for being on the show.
LAURIE MAFFLY-KIPP: It’s great to be here.
HODGES: I’m glad to be talking to you about this book and it’s been a little while since it came out. I wanted to start by talking about the idea of becoming African-American. Of the approximately twelve million Africans who were forced into slavery, I saw that only around 400,000 came to the United States from the seventeenth century until 1860. You explain that these people that were brought over, they weren’t just victims of brutal, physical violence, but you said that they also experienced the most fundamental assaults on personal and collective identity. Let’s start there with the “middle passage” and what happened.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Well, one of the chief interests of slavers, people who were going over and capturing African slaves and bringing them back, was to try to ensure that they didn’t escape on the way and once they got there, of course, not to run off. And one way of doing that was to separate them from anyone who spoke their language; family members, you know, it was…
So breaking down culture becomes an important part of keeping control over slaves, because the more people you have around to talk to, the more, you know, you can either incite rebellion or try to get away. So that was one of the chief interests that Europeans and Americans had.
HODGES: It’s kind of horrific, the idea that they knew, “we have to erase these people’s past if we’re going to be successful at stealing them.”
MAFFLY-KIPP: I’m not sure they thought about it so much as “erasing” their past. I think some of them thought—most of them thought they didn’t have any past at all because they didn’t have a written history, so that’s the way that Europeans and Euro-Americans thought about history. You have to have it written down and it has to be a certain kind of tradition. It’s not “civilized,” so it’s not actually history.
So, I think they thought about it more in a very pragmatic way, separating them from people they could talk to. And there was some fear of some of the traditions they brought with them. So they were stories of slave owners who were fearful of the kinds of hoodoo, root work, or things that might have power over them. They did want to try to eradicate some of those customs, many of which were religious customs.
HODGES: There have been a lot of theories about what happened to the psyche of African-Americans or Africans as they were brought over to America. For example, W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the theorists in the early twentieth century. He theorized the concept of “double consciousness.” What kind of theories did people use to try to account for what happened to slaves as they were brought over?
MAFFLY-KIPP: You know, before Du Bois, I didn’t see a lot of theorizing in the way that Du Bois was able to sort of summarize this experience. You know, at the time, I think people were just trying to survive and get through the experience. But I don’t know. You know, I have mixed feelings about Du Bois’s theory anyway that I tried to explain in the book that, on the one hand, yes, there is certainly, a double consciousness and a sense of being American, being African, being able to see white culture in ways that other people can’t, and also understanding their own culture. It’s a very sort of deep, deep idea. But what I discovered is there are so many more loyalties and obligations that African-Americans feel on all sides that even to see it as a double consciousness I think simplifies it in lots of ways. There are other things going on that I tried to get at in these chapters.
HODGES: You’re going to show that through the sort of stories that African-Americans, as they became African-Americans, started to tell. And that’s an interesting way to frame it to begin with, is that there was an origin to “African-American,” and to really try to find where that happened and how that happened. And you say it happened largely through this process of “collective narration.” Unpack that concept a little bit.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Well, I’m not the first to say that there had to be a move from being African to being African-American, you know, surely the kinds of people that were being brought over from Africa were from all different cultures and tribes and religions and languages. So, that was of course the point of the slave masters is to break them down, away from people they already could talk to. But in the process of getting there and then through the generations, building up their own communities and cultures, they really had to invent something called African-American culture, which included some of these stories.
They begin to tell themselves stories and to remember, to interweave the new kinds of stories they were hearing. And of course, in my book, the most important of those are the biblical stories—to interweave those with stories from their past to try to explain how they got to where they were. So, in some sense, it’s not so much that the stories helped them—I mean the stories did help them build a new African-American culture, but it was also the case that the process of telling the stories helped them build the culture.
HODGES: This isn’t something that would be unique to African-Americans either, right? It sounds like the stories that people in general tell about their past are these type of constructions, that they are in a sense, based in some kind of history but also—I don’t want to say fiction, but almost mythical.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Absolutely. I mean, you know, I don’t make quite that distinction in the book because I don’t want to evaluate or make any truth claims about how realistic or how objective any of these histories are. In fact, I try to say toward the beginning that whites are also making up their own histories, or are also creating these narratives. So, going back to the Anglo-Saxon narratives that the British bring over. But there are all kinds of nationalist and communal narratives that we create all the time.
HODGES: I liked your idea of, when you brought up “chronicles” as a description for what these do. These are sort of counter histories or underground histories, almost.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Right, right, and again, because they’re dealing in a culture where whites don’t believe they have history. So they are sort of butting right up against the kinds of stories that whites themselves are telling.
HODGES: One of the interesting things was, as you said, you don’t try to arbitrate about the factual history. You don’t analyze these histories that African Americans began to tell and go through and say, “how accurate were these? What really happened here?” You’re more interested in examining these stories to find out what the desires, what the fears, what the hopes of the people who were telling the stories were.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Exactly. I mean, I think it’s sort of the same move that scholars of the Bible sometimes take. They aren’t always worried about “Did this really happened, did this army really move over here, or how can we trace this story historically?” Sometimes the concern is with the culture in which the stories are embedded and how people used those stories to—and reinterpret them sometimes or interpret them—to make sense of the world around them.
HODGES: Did you have any difficulty…So you’re a white woman yourself and you mentioned before W. E. B. Do Bois you have mixed feelings about. You admired so much about his work, but you see problems with it. How did you feel as a white scholar approaching these types of stories?
MAFFLY-KIPP: That’s an interesting question. I had one colleague early on who was skeptical about the project because he worried that I somehow wouldn’t have access to all these archives that were out there. And I think that’s a common assumption that white scholars or whites make about this African American culture that somehow it’s secret or closed off.
In fact, these books—most of what I used was right on the shelves of libraries or right on the internet more and more, but people weren’t looking at them or taking them seriously or really examining what they said in the same way. So I think it’s just a question of reading differently and looking for different kinds of sources that are right in front of us, but it’s a blind spot.
HODGES: You’ve also done work on Mormon history as well as a non-Mormon. Were there any parallels there? So, you’ve done work on race as a white person. You’ve done work on Mormonism as someone who is not a Mormon. Is that a weird question, or were there any similarities there?
MAFFLY-KIPP: No. It’s not a weird question. It’s a great question! There were some, I’d say. Certainly the Mormon community controls its access to sources very, very differently. I would say that they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, in fact.
In most cases, African-American churches and communities haven’t had the resources, the money to preserve their sources. So they haven’t preserved the texts of these things. A lot of this—especially in the twentieth century—is in the form of oral tradition. And while that’s true for Mormons and there certainly is an active oral tradition alongside the written record, Mormons from the beginning were so concerned about preservation and in the twentieth century have had the resources to preserve and to protect, you know, because of I think their sense of the criticism they were going to get and they did get from other white Americans. They were, I think understandably, cautious about giving people access.
I haven’t had much trouble with access, but I think the advantage of being an outsider is just that you see things differently. I certainly hope that’s true of my reading of the Mormon tradition, but it doesn’t come across as a criticism. I think you just get a different vantage point if you’re not standing within something.
HODGES: On a personal note, familiarity with some of your work on Mormonism made me even more comfortable with what you’re doing here, because I’ve seen the way that you’ve worked with Mormon sources and Mormon history and the sensitive way that you treat that and feel like “okay, I’ve seen how you operate there. This is probably the same type of situation.” So…
MAFFLY-KIPP: Oh, good, it worked. [laughs]
HODGES: It boosted confidence, yeah. [laughs]
And then, before we go into some of the details—So you’re drawing on letters, articles, books and other writings that African-Americans created. You also write in the introduction, there is this really important caveat there. You said, “African-Americans have always disagreed in fundamental and sometimes vocal ways about what it means to be African-American, to be Christian, to be American.” So, there’s no single African-American story here.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Right. One of the things I tried to do with the book, in fact, was to alternate in the chapters between movements toward integration, towards building up something called an African-American history, and the movements towards…I don’t want to say disintegration, but fracturing of that picture.
In part because I’m so aware of the way that, even today, we tend to talk about African-American Christianity or the Black Church as if it’s some big thing and it’s not. It’s many things. And it’s just as complicated as sort of “white” Christianity and I wanted to point out some of the ways in which there are tensions within this and people are arguing.
And so, even my take on Du Bois—I would say, I like Du Bois a lot. I just think it’s important to recognize that he is seeing things from a particular vantage point. He is seeing slavery from the vantage of a free African-American who’s been educated and grew up in the North. So, he has a certain vantage on Southern black experience that isn’t based in his own past. It’s something he’s observing, and it’s an important observation but it doesn’t tell us everything.
HODGES: Right. That’s Laurie Maffly-Kipp and we were talking about her book Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories. So, the first chapter of your book “Wonders of the Ancient Past” kind of gets into some of the earliest narratives that started to emerge as Africans became African-Americans. What sort of stories begin to circulate in those first decades of American slavery?
MAFFLY-KIPP: They were stories based on biblical readings, in part because the level of literacy in the African and African-American population at that point was pretty low and the people who gained literacy first were African-American preachers. The text they use and often the ways in which they learned to read were by reading the Bible. So, those were the stories they had to start with. And they built on those stories and used those stories as a way, again, of explaining their own fate and bringing their own experience—as we all do—into our reading of the Bible. So, I used sermons from African-American ministers in the Northern states who were just beginning to form denominations and to speak to communities in ways that they thought were going to help them build toward the future.
HODGES: So they would talk about sort of glorious African past and this lost wisdom. And you say that they drew on two institutions that were kind of very influential: Protestant Christianity and also Masonry, which was a surprise to me.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah, Masonry is a tradition that a lot of these African-American preachers were involved with, it provided…And it was segregated still. So, this is a black Masonic movement starting with the Prince Hall Masons, because whites would not allow them into regular Masonry. But it also provided a kind of interpretation of the past that fit well into the kinds of things that they were already doing and their own experience. Because some of the Masonic past is located in Africa and Egypt, in sort of ancient lore that interweaves where they had come from with biblical stories and then ties into their own ongoing experience.
HODGES: Yes, they would sort of weave themselves into this sacred history, this history that goes back to…And Masonry they would trace back, right? So, it sort of came out of this ancient origins and there might have been some wisdom lost along the way and now they were trying to recover that or get back to that original wisdom—which came from their culture as they framed it.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah, they saw it as African wisdom, right? That’s what the Masonic origin stories talk about. So, it was easy for them to say, “Huh, here it is, people have been trying to cover up the fact that this was our people also who had this original wisdom and have been passing it along over the years.”
HODGES: There’s almost like a “Great Apostasy” narrative almost, right? Where there was this glorious…They would look back to things like the glories of ancient Egypt and things like this where there was kingship and royalty and wisdom, and they were the cradle of civilization, and then something happened and that was lost and now they find themselves torn from their homes in this foreign land.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah. That’s great, Blair. I’ve never thought about it as a Restorationist movement in the same way as the Great Apostasy but there are certainly some parallels.
HODGES: A moment ago you mentioned an African-American minister. So one question that a lot people have is, how did so many Africans come to embrace Christianity? Because it was the religion of their oppressors, really.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah. That’s a great question, and a big question that scholars have been thinking about and pondering for a long time. There are lots of reasons, I think.
Probably many of them, initially, very practical reasons. That in the South, in the slave-owning South, there were Christian missionaries trying to convert slaves and often coming into conflict with slave masters because they had different purposes. So sometimes with missionaries they wanted to, for example, give slaves Sundays off so that they could come to church, be catechized, you know, to learn the lessons they wanted them to learn. And slave masters didn’t want to allow that kind of freedom. It was a sort of freedom of finding voice to get ideas that slave masters thought were not in their best interest as owners.
So that’s their practical reasons. It gave slaves some time away from their work and from their masters. It also increasingly—especially in the North in the late eighteenth century, around the time of the Revolution and after—it gave African-Americans an independent voice and an independent cultural power. Some of these churches started out with things like burial societies for widows to give people resources and money to bury their dead, which was not allowed them. Or to found schools because they were kept out of the public schools.
So, it gave them some practical things, on the other hand, I think, going along with that, these stories and the traditions of the church can’t be ignored in all of this. In the Northern states, the church became a powerful voice within the community and it also allowed African-Americans an independent voice and a way to endure the kinds of assaults that they were facing constantly, even outside of slavery.
HODGES: As you mentioned, there were slave holders that were sort of uncomfortable with this missionizing, and there were some white Americans that were telling their own stories based on Protestant Christianity or Christian ideas. So what narratives were developing on that side of things that African-Americans would then have to confront?
MAFFLY-KIPP: Well, one major story was either that African-Americans and Africans were not fully human in some measure. Now, this was hard to square with the Bible [laughs]. But there were even some white Christians, a few, who came to believe that there were two different creation stories. That blacks were not created at the same time that whites were. Most often though, people came to understand this by talking about civilization. That Africans were uncivilized people and could never attain the kind of capacities necessary for freedom in the American sense. In the South, this was a particularly tenacious kind of story that African-Americans were better off being kept more like children.
So, there was a patriarchal story that talked about the “benevolent white patriarchs” who took care of slaves, and of course this went against all reality, where people, families were getting ripped apart and people were physically punished for all sorts of things and controlled completely. But it’s a story that whites told, I think, to make themselves feel better about the horrors that they were inflicting.
HODGES: It’s what makes it so fascinating that Christianity itself became a tool for some African-Americans to resist the oppressors who were employing Christianity against them.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yes, well what better way to push back by taking their own stories and reinterpreting them, right?
HODGES: Yeah. It really helps to understand that there are some ideas within Christianity that could challenge “Christianity” or the ways that other people understood Christianity. I mean, that’s sort of the story of the Reformation itself, this idea that competing visions can arise from the same sources.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Well, isn’t that another, that’s another parallel with the Mormon story, right? Is that in some ways…I mean, there was a new revelation, obviously, for Joseph Smith but it was also a reinterpretation of the older story.
HODGES: Yes. It couldn’t have existed without it.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah, yup.
HODGES: So, we’ve touched on this a little bit already, but did African-Americans tend to embrace the same type of Christianity? What are some of the divisions that arose among denominational lines?
MAFFLY-KIPP: That’s a great question. Early on in the Northern states, which is where the black denominations first started to develop, there was a great deal of interest in preserving the kind of church structure and doctrine that blacks had known in white churches. So, the first African-American denominations were Methodists—the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816 and then the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1821. And these were churches that replicated, pretty much, the kind of doctrine that they had gotten from their Methodist roots, because they considered themselves to be the true Methodists. They weren’t trying to overthrow Methodism. They were trying to get rid of the racism of white Methodism, and they saw the whites, of course, as being the ones who had strayed from the path.
HODGES: And there were disagreements over how to close to remain to that original tradition, right? I mean, this was a sort of Methodist primitivism almost, like “we’re getting to the roots of Methodism.” Is this how the division between the AME and the…
MAFFLY-KIPP: The AMEZ…
HODGES: Yeah, the AMEZ happened, was about, “you guys are still too tied to the white structure” kind of a thing?
MAFFLY-KIPP: In part that was it, I think. The bigger part was just a power struggle, frankly, between some of the leaders of AME like Richard Allen and other AMEZ leaders who didn’t like that leadership and it wasn’t really so much about doctrines. It was a personality issue. [laughs] There are all kinds of not-so-nice things of the AMEZ folks would say about AME and vice versa. You know, they all thought that the ideal, of course, was union. But they couldn’t figure out a way to do that that didn’t somehow undermine what each of them was already starting to build.
HODGES: This is what’s so captivating I think about this book is how…Nothing is as simple as you might expect. You can drill down on everything and there are so many unexpected negotiations and alliances and disagreements all over the place. The story is not a simply story!
MAFFLY-KIPP: It’s not. And I have been accused before of being a “splitter, not a lumper,” as they say in the historical profession. [laughter] You know, I think it is important to give voice to these different opinions, again, to bring this community—to pull apart this thing called black church life, and just say “look at the kinds of issues and diversity that these folks are dealing with.”
HODGES: You say that African-American religious history is “a long series of negotiations” (you use the word negotiations) “between race consciousness,” (so, how they viewed themselves and what their race is), “denominational loyalties, and Christian commitments.” And these can bump into each other, right?
HODGES: So, for example, the Christian commitment of being united as one in the body of Christ. That’s a Christian commitment, a Christian value. It could bump up against the fact that there is division there, there’s denominational loyalties. Some of them based on race. And so they had to come up with stories to explain that.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Exactly, exactly. Now and we all do that in some respects that, if we are Christians in some way, there has to be some way of understanding why we are not all Christians together. What is it that’s keeping us apart?
HODGES: So, before the Civil War, what kind of stories would they tell to answer that? They had to justify separation from other white worshipers.
HODGES: How did they do that?
MAFFLY-KIPP: Well, the easiest way was to say that the white worshipers aren’t being truly Christian. They aren’t allowing us to worship freely. They aren’t including us in their discipline of the church and the leadership of the church. This isn’t real Christianity. And this was a story throughout the Antebellum era before the Civil War. Someone like Frederick Douglass in his autobiography talks about this difference between the black church and the white church and labels the white church as a false Christianity—it’s not true because these people are upholding slavery and therefore, they are not really Christian.
HODGES: I mean, this kind of speaks to the beginning of the AME church. Richard Allen. The origin story basically happens within a white church where the African-American worshipers are asked to move.
MAFFLY-KIPP: That’s sort of the basic, the foundational kind of story is that “we are not allowed…we are not even allowed to worship in a way that—we are not even allowed to pray in the church without being interrupted.”
HODGES: Was there a hope for recovery or reconciliation at some point? So they’ve separated out. They’ve formed their own denominations. Did they feel a desire to convert the white Christians who they had separated from, or did they feel like “we’re on our own path at this point”?
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah. I don’t see much evidence that before the Civil War they were trying to think very much about converting whites. Certainly, they made their case publicly for why this wasn’t Christian for any whites that were willing to listen to it. And some were. But, you know, they had so much to focus on in their own communities. And of course again, these were Northern preachers for the most part in the Antebellum era. So they were worried about the Southerners. And many of them had family in the South. So this was a family story of people whose—sometimes—whose wives or husbands or parents or children were enslaved still.
So there was a lot to do and I think, you know, starting of evangelistic outreach to whites [laughs] was probably down the list at that point. Now, that’s not to say—this is sort of jumping ahead to a later chapter—but it’s not to say that they didn’t think some, in theory, about what was going to happen later on in the hereafter, or whenever, you know, God had the means of bringing it about, that there wouldn’t be racial reconciliation.
HODGES: Right, it just wasn’t on the front burner at this point.
MAFFLY-KIPP: It’s not on the front burner, no.
HODGES: So before the Civil War, you talk about how they’re justifying separation from other white worshipers, and then after the Civil War, the histories that they’re writing at this point are really trying to understand the divisions among black Christians at this point in these denominational histories.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Right. I mean, you know, “Here we are. We’ve attained freedom. We can go South and not only rescue our previously enslaved brothers and sisters, but we can bring them the blessings of this Christianity that we have received in the North.”
So you see this as African-American Northerners begin to go South after the Civil War. They are bringing Christianity to slaves. And of course, there was already Christianity in the South under slavery, but it was sort of a different flavor by then because they hadn’t had the freedom to worship on their own in the South. So Northerners think that they are bringing this great gift to their Southern brethren.
HODGES: That’s Laurie Maffly-Kipp. She is the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. We’re talking about her book Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories.
Laurie, African-Americans drew on biblical narratives, as you mentioned at the outset, to kind of help map themselves into the Christian story. And the Exodus narrative that you mentioned seems to provide an obvious point of departure here. This is an enslaved people in Egypt, you have Moses arising as leader under God’s direction. They become free. What’s a favorite example of yours of a writer at this time who employed the Exodus narrative and how did they do that?
MAFFLY-KIPP: Ah, let’s see. There are lots and lots of examples. Probably one of the more interesting ones was a man named James Theodore Holly, who was an Episcopal minister. He was interested in—as were a lot of African-Americans in the Antebellum era—in the possibility of sending African-Americans back to parts of Africa, or to Haiti because Haiti at this point is an independent African nation, essentially or a colonized African nation. So, he gets involved with this group of people who want to send boats off to Haiti. In part, because Haiti was a free place and they thought that they could bring people in who could then be freed. But also because they thought, again, they could bring the blessings of this Christian tradition to Haitian people. So, this was sort of a trade off as they saw it. “We can bring you good things and you’ll give us this kind of free society.”
And in doing so, Holly talked a lot about this as an Exodus, right? The theme of Exodus comes up over and over again as African-Americans are thinking about moving, either moving to Haiti, others tried to find places in the west to move, and in fact, there is a movement after the Civil War of a group called “the Exodusters.” These were African-Americans moving from Southern states to places like Kansas and developing all-black towns in Kansas, who definitely referred to this as an Exodus. They saw one of their main leaders as a Moses, and so they really figured this as a re-living of a people in bondage who had moved into what they hoped to be the Promised Land.
HODGES: Holly’s hopes about doing that seem to have been somewhat dashed. It didn’t seem like the Haitian exoduses—and there were multiple literal attempts where they would take specific groups of people over. It didn’t seem like that was a very successful enterprise in the end.
MAFFLY-KIPP: No, it was not at all successful. I meant this was tried in the 1820s, it was tried again by Holly and others right before the Civil War. But of course, the people in Haiti—for all that African-Americans thought they weren’t really Christians—had their own version of Christianity. And they really weren’t thrilled for some surprising reason about what they saw as Americans coming over and trying to change their ways. They thought that the Americans ought to just be happy. “These African-Americans ought to just be happy that they were not enslaved anymore,” and, you know, “fit into our society, don’t try to change us.”
HODGES: And you also talked about how selective the Exodus parallel was, right? I mean in the Hebrew scriptures account, you have the Israelites leaving and coming into a land and sort of interacting with the people of Canaan and this sort of thing. So, the parallels didn’t go too deep into the biblical soil as well when it came to Exodus.
MAFFLY-KIPP: No, no, they didn’t line up perfectly. As I said, there was never any attempt to figure out what’s going to happen to the people already in the promised land once you show up, right? [laughs]
MAFFLY-KIPP: That’s the big rub in Haiti is, “there are people there, what are we going to do? Are we going to change them or they are just going to somehow…” The Bible’s not very clear about that either. [laughing]
HODGES: Yeah. Exactly. So, the Ethiopian prophecy is a lesser-known scriptural trope that they would draw on in addition to the Exodus. This is a verse from the Bible that says, “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” How did this verse figure into the stories that African-Americans begin to tell?
MAFFLY-KIPP: Well, this comes to be seen as a promise that God has made to the African people. Of course, Ethiopia at this point was taken to mean all African peoples. It was sort of conflated in that way with Africa in general, and it was seen as a promise—sort of a millennial promise at times—that there was a grand future waiting for Africans and African-Americans down the road. And what that might mean, you know, people disagreed about, but that was certainly a hope that kept a lot of people inspired and going forward.
And it was all over African-American Christian culture. It is interesting that you aren’t as familiar with that Ethiopia verse because any African-American Christian in the nineteenth century could have quoted that to you; it was on the Masthead of church newspapers, it was ubiquitous.
HODGES: And it also tied into this sort of controversial idea about God’s Providence, like the direction of God in all of this. The notion that slavery might have been, in some way, approved by God or directed by God so that Africans could come into contact with Christianity and then carry those truths back to Africa, right? I’m thinking of like Edward Blyden, for example, he said “We’ll bring with us the spoils of the house of bondage.”
MAFFLY-KIPP: Exactly, well this is still, I think, a hugely controversial point in the history of African-American Christianity. The idea that there were African-American Christians—not all of them, but certainly many of them—who made sense of this legacy of slavery by saying, “Hmm, God had a plan in all this.” You know, it’s a way of understanding suffering. I mean this goes back to Job where we all have to sort of find ways to understand deep suffering in the world, and some African-Americans interpreted this as a way that God could use the African people by enslaving them, by having them experience this horrifying thing, so that they could provide wisdom for later generations. They could go back to Africa and spread the story of God’s working in the world. “But this is not the end of the story! Slavery is not the end. There’s more to come, there are glorious things to come, and we are here to bring that story to you and God is working through all of this.”
HODGES: They also wanted to bring with them a God that reflected their own bodies, even, right? Edward Blyden and others, for example, had Jesus as an African.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yes, there was, again, a lot of sense that “this Christian story has been misinterpreted over the years and God has been whitened, Jesus has been whitened. And we need to understand that if, indeed, this story starts in sort of Middle East, this part of the world in Northern Africa, then, yes God, in some ways, can be figured as African or African-American.”
HODGES: In the next chapter, you talk about what you call “Negro race history.” So, what’s happening here is THAT conditions for African-Americans are changing, right? After slavery, there’s Emancipation, and they need different things from the histories that they’re telling. So the Exodus story is less of a powerful symbol once you’re no longer trying to become free so to speak, right?
HODGES: So, after Emancipation they need more than that. So between 1867 and 1920 you find a number of books that appeared, these race histories.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Right, African-Americans are trying—yes—to chronicle, to write this down, so they can spread it to other newly freed people. And many of these are…I mean, not unlike the kind of history that’s being written by whites at the time which tend to be these, you know, chronicles of the world, right? These big narratives about people from the beginning of time to the end of time. This is part of a historical moment. African-Americans took that form and started to write, again, these histories of the Negro race, which often included starting with the Bible and moving on to the present, and sometimes moving on into the future. So, here is the end game, here is God’s plan for the future.
It was a way of, again, helping to explain all of this to African-Americans in the South, who needed to be, as the Northerners saw it, they needed to be educated. It also became a way for Southern blacks, I think, to embrace this history and become educated so that these books were used to teach people to read and to get them to understand the most basic things about history.
And it was also at a time—even though for a few years after the Civil War, there was a moment in Reconstruction where African-Americans thought, “Hmm, maybe this really is the Promised Land. We have now entered it, we are out of the wilderness!” Pretty soon it started to look worse and worse. So after 1877, things rapidly go downhill, and of course then you need to explain that! “How can that be? We expected this glorious future, why isn’t it here yet?” Then these stories begin, again, to weave in tales of, “Well, it’s not quite here yet, here’s what else we need to do.”
So, they focus on education and they focus on building institutions that can help to bring this about.
HODGES: These histories were aspirational and sort of a drive for respectability. They were talking to African-American audiences hoping to mold a particular type of African-American character.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Exactly. But also—and this is where the double consciousness, I suppose, comes in, right—That on the one hand, they’re speaking to African-Americans to say, “This is what it means to be a civilized people. Here is how we get there. So, here is our glorious past that we have to draw on. But here’s what we need to do and isn’t it wonderful we have the building of these institutions?”
And there all these really, honestly boring institutional histories [laughs] that serve that purpose, right? To say, “Hey we’ve got civilization just like the white’s do, and it’s just as good, if not better.” So, it’s a way of bringing what many people saw as the Southern ex-slaves who were not well-educated in to modernity, into this modern culture. So, that’s on the one hand.
On the other hand, they’re speaking to whites to say, “Hey we’ve got a history, too! We’ve got a history just like you, we can write chronicles and stories just as long and big and sprawling as yours.”
HODGES: And what’s fascinating about that to me, is that most of these were written by ministers, by people connected to churches and things, and were kind of outgrowths of that earlier denominational history, trying to do that for a bigger purpose, for a bigger audience. And just at the same time that these stories start to appear, history as a professional and academic discipline starts to arise, here, and white professional historians—it almost seems like they’re reacting to that like, “Oh, we’ll show you” type of the thing. There’s a new assault on black identity as professional historians start to create history.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah. You know, it’s funny I never thought of it quite that way, to see the rise of white history as a reaction against this, but it is certainly a way of reasserting power. I mean it ties in —there are a lot of factors. So this is tying in with the professionalization of disciplines in universities, not just history, but sociology and anthropology and other sort of disciplines. But it does coincide with this. And although preachers, because they are the ones most often educated—that was the one educated profession initially that blacks could hold—they’re the ones that begin to write these.
But pretty soon it stretches out into other things. That’s why someone like Du Bois is so important, that he’s one of the first PhDs in the twentieth century, a black PhD. So, you start to get a few people outside of these church networks that also—as they can get access to, if they can get access to universities—start to gain some of the same kind of knowledge base and training. But then they’re kept out of the white organization. So they start to form their own organizations. Black history organizations instead.
HODGES: These professionalizing white historians start telling stories, kind of drawing on new scientific ideas, right, like there’s these ideas of different races and phenotypes and whether blacks came from the same human origins and whether they could become as civilized or elevated as whites, and these are the histories that the new professional historians are starting to put together.
MAFFLY-KIPP: I would say not all historians, but certainly Southern historians and…Well they’re not just Southern historians, actually, [laughs] a lot of white historians.
HODGES: You don’t want to be a lumper!
MAFFLY-KIPP: No! I’m not a lumper and I don’t want to just blame it on the South, because I think there are a lot of Northern racists at this point, too. But yeah it’s…
You know here’s the dilemma for whites after the Civil War. You’ve had this moment of Reconstruction where African-American start to go into politics. Well you shut that down, you shut down the access to voting, but you still have these African-Americans who are literate and writing. And you have to figure out, sort of—And again it’s not quite as calculated, this is sort of the short version, the cliff notes, but you have to figure out and make sense of, first, “why our culture is superior,” and how you exclude them from American society or “civilized” society on other terms? Because they can’t be excluded anymore legally, in a sort of racialized, in the slave system.
So, how else to do it? Well, you have stories about these “uncivilized scary blacks” who are…You know, “if you let them loose, if you don’t somehow contain or control them, they’re not capable,” they’re not capable, in other words, of being fully civilized members of society. That’s what the racialized histories, I think, do.
HODGES: It’s the point when a lot of the stereotypes that still exist in some circles were really solidified, about violence, about laziness, a lot of racial stereotypes get solidified, and came up through professional historians as they created a new discipline.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yes, absolutely. This is not just the purview of uneducated people, this is also professionalized whites who are spreading these and writing these stories.
HODGES: And you mentioned, literacy, too, I mean black literacy just boomed. I think the numbers that you cite, they went from 80% illiterate in 1870 down to 30% illiterate in 1910. That is a huge change!
MAFFLY-KIPP: It’s a huge change, yeah, and it was due in large part to the efforts of African-American institutions to get people—not only to give people literacy, but it gave them control over their lives. And it gave them…It was also sort of bringing them into what African-Americans saw as, “this is the antidote to racism, you just prove to whites that these people are equals and surely, they’ll see this and surely, they’ll sort of allow us entry into all the institutions in this society.”
HODGES: So, these authors would write histories, they would write primers, they would write books for educational settings, and all sorts of writings, and they’re largely lost to time now. They’re forgotten, as you know, even by many historians. Your book was sort of an intervention to raise these voices from the dust. What happened to these works? Why did they fall off the map so hard?
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah, that’s a great question. Well again, some of it is about preservation. I mean ironically, even though there’s history embedded in so many of these stories and they talk about the importance of history, there were not the resources to preserve them at this point in ways—You know, now we know that when you don’t preserve books from about 1880 to 1920 which were made with highly acidic paper, they’ll crumble in your hands. So some of this is just, not purposeful neglect, but we have too much to do, we can’t spend our time, we can afford to hire an archivist to do all of this. So, some of this is just the state of archives, which until really the last twenty years was pretty terrible.
I remember sending in a—I had a former graduate student from the early 90s who wanted to do work on the AMEZ Church in the twentieth century. And I sent him down to Salisbury College in North Carolina. I was living in Chapel Hill at the time. So I sent him down to Salisbury College, which as an AMEZ school, and it was where the archives for the church were. And the archives were basically one person trying her best to keep track of all this stuff and get it cataloged. But just boxes of stuff that had been given. So there just wasn’t the kind of resources available to do the preservation that needed to be done.
On the other hand, there wasn’t interest by whites. They didn’t think that this was worth anything, they thought it was just silly stuff, they didn’t take it seriously. And there weren’t enough blacks who were getting PhDs or who were doing advanced research or had the resources to go into these archives until very recently.
HODGES: That’s Laurie Maffly-Kipp and we’re talking about Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories. The Negro race histories that we just talked about, they’re written by men. And these men were contending with a white racist culture in order to tell their stories. In the last chapter of your book you show how, in a similar way, black women were bumping up against restrictions within their own communities among African-Americans.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Right. So, you know, as people will often say today, African-American women face sort of a double oppression. An oppression based on their race, but also one based on gender, or just there were—The culture of the Black Church in the late nineteenth century was not an egalitarian culture. Women couldn’t be ordained, couldn’t become preachers, and so it limited their options in particular ways.
What interested me was that there were women who found ways to talk about history outside of those channels. And it was the case then, it’s the case now, that women, particularly mothers or other overseers of young children, are the ones who first give us our history. They first pass along stories of the past to us. And women—even though they couldn’t preach and therefore couldn’t publish sermons, they found other ways to talk about history through poetry, through columns in black newspapers, through books sometimes, more and more through books as time went on. But they were fighting a double battle. They had these men who were, again, saying there are only certain kinds of speech that are allowed for women and they pushed back.
HODGES: It was so interesting to see how these women found increasing space in the press because men were ruling the pulpit. So they found these alternate avenues to do this. But even then there was some pushback or some control that still affected what they could do.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah, that was one of the interesting things I realized after a while, is that…So there are black newspapers that proliferate especially after the Civil War. And the AME Christian Recorder is probably the most widely circulated black newspaper in the South at the time. And it’s only in the very end of the nineteenth century that the editors—all male—editors of these papers started to put in a woman’s column. And prior to that, there had been women writing for them, but their writings have been scattered around.
So on the one hand, you could think, “oh that’s great, they have a women’s column just for women to talk about the things they want to talk about!”
HODGES: Shows their popularity! Yeah.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Right! On the other hand, all of a sudden it dawned on me one day: Oh, wait a minute. By relegating women to the women’s column, it means that they aren’t as free to write about all these other things that are going on—about politics, about the culture of the day. So, they’re sort of pushed into this thing called “The women’s column” which tends to deal much more exclusively with children, with being a housewife, with sort of this aspirational ideal to domesticity. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the point is it channels, it also channels what they can do. And then you have the editor, often, at the beginning or the end of the column weighing in in some way that sort of, doesn’t belittle what the women are doing, but really constrains it to say, “Isn’t it great? The women are training the children and they are fixing up the households so that men can do all the other stuff.” So it’s a double-edged sword, it’s sort of an acknowledgement of women, but a placing of women on a particular kind of pedestal.
HODGES: Yeah and it probably allowed less men to reckon with it as well. “Oh, this is the women’s column, I can skip over that.”
MAFFLY-KIPP: Right, they skip right over that piece, exactly. [laughing]
HODGES: I really enjoyed how you showed how African-American men and African-American women often told the history of slavery itself in radically different ways, emphasized different things about slavery, and that women were more attuned to the family elements of slavery.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah, it’s still something that I puzzle about and I would love someone to write more about this at some point. But I did discover that the race histories I read by the male race histories, for the most part don’t talk about slavery. It’s sort of silenced, or if they do, it’s in very general terms because they want to skip right along to what’s waiting after that.
And, I don’t know, the women just wrestle with it in a different way and I…One kind of theory about that might be that for men there’s sort of an emasculation that slavery represents, that “we want to present ourselves as real men, and slavery took that away from us, took away our agency and our ability to”—and I don’t mean it just in a sexual way, I mean in cultural masculinity, what it represents and this isn’t—”We don’t want to dwell on that, we want to move on to power and to times when we’ve had more power and more control in our lives.”
For women, you know, there’s a different sense of power in the first place, or what women can aspire to and how they’re thinking about their lives. And so much of that revolves around keeping communities together. That in a sense the idea of keeping a community together under slavery is a heroic act for women.
HODGES: And some women even recoiled from that. I’m thinking about example of Angelina Weld Grimke in her play that she wrote, Rachel. It opens up with the scene of a woman talking about how, she says “I love the little black and brown babies best of all, more than the other babies, I feel that I must protect them.”
So she has this desire to be a mother and to bring babies into the world and to love and honor these and you say, by the end that’s completely reversed for her. She’s become embittered and even cynical because of seeing how the world would be for those babies. And the quote you include from the end, is where she says—She’s sort of having these visions of her future children sort of coming to her and she says “My children come and beg me weeping not to bring them here to suffer. And I’ve promised them again now. I have damned my soul to all eternity if I do.”
You call it an anti-annunciation.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah, it’s a horror story, isn’t it? The end of history, I guess, if you sort of are shutting out the possibility of bringing more children into the world. It’s to say there is no future for us here.
HODGES: That was one of the most moving passages in the book for me. In part because of what’s happening today and what’s happening in the United States. I wanted to conclude the interview by asking you about what lessons you think your study can still offer to Americans today at a time of ongoing divisions and racial tensions in the United States.
MAFFLY-KIPP: I think there are so many ways in which the story—at least where my story ends up in the early twentieth century—is still continuing. I opened the book, I think it was not long after the issue came up with Jeremiah Wright, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who had been Barack Obama’s minister in Chicago, and he gets in trouble for this clip that comes out saying, “God damn America” right? that’s taken out of context.
HODGES: Yes, it’s a fiery sermon.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah, very fiery.
CLIP OF JEREMIAH WRIGHT SERMON: “…put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education, and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing “God Bless America”? No, no, no! Not “God Bless America,” God damn America! That’s in the Bible! For killing innocent people! God damn America for treating her citizens as less than human! God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is supreme! The United States government has failed the vast majority of our citizens of African descent.”
MAFFLY-KIPP: It’s taken completely out of context and taken to mean that…This is again, the image of the “scary black,” who somehow is threatening whites with this fiery rhetoric. This is still with us. And, you know, it’s funny, I have heard Jeremiah Wright many times since then give lectures and speeches which are incredibly nuanced which place that in a context which makes complete sense of it and makes sense of this as a biblical injunction to do better, right? This isn’t “God’s going to smite you off for your sins,” it’s a way of saying, “Look, you know, we can do better than this!” And it’s a way of encouraging people and pulling them up.
So it’s intended for the opposite purposes, but there are so many of those tropes from the early twentieth century that are still in our culture. And frankly, I think, a fear on the part of…There are many whites who don’t have access—or don’t seek access—to African-American communities and life so they don’t know about this history or the kind of struggling with and thought that’s gone into trying to make sense of the experience of African-Americans in our society. But I think the more whites can learn about that, the more they’ll see the commonalities, and the more they’ll see that this isn’t something to fear at all, it isn’t anything scary, it’s often good people just trying to make sense of the world.
HODGES: I remember when that sermon hit the news. The initial feeling in the context they presented it in was him saying “God damn America,” as though to say “oh, here’s this person who hates America and he’s Obama’s pastor so Obama hates America,” or whatnot.
HODGES: And instead of realizing, within the context, this is a preacher who’s saying “Here are what are supposed to be American values that are not being lived up to, and for that reason, there could be divine judgement as a result of that.” It’s thoroughly biblical.
MAFFLY-KIPP: And African-American Christians have been saying this all along, going back to Frederick Douglass again—
HODGES: Yeah, “the Fourth of July is not for me.”
MAFFLY-KIPP: Exactly, this is not, this—”America as an ideal is a wonderful thing, I love that America. We have to live up to that idea, we’re not there yet.”
HODGES: How do you feel like your personal life has changed as a result of your study of these histories? You’ve spent a lot of time on this and it can’t help but spill over into your own life, I assume.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I suppose…
I’ll tell one anecdote that maybe says a lot about it. I moved to St. Louis four years ago and a year after I moved here Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. And so there was a lot of unrest—not nearly as much rioting as was portrayed on the national news, but some real struggles and violence. So it was a hard time and at the time, I attended a church here that is actually in the same denomination that Jeremiah Wright’s is, the United Church of Christ, which is my denomination. It’s a predominantly, overwhelmingly white denomination, but there are some churches within the denomination that are all black churches, including an all-black church in Florissant which is right next door to Ferguson in Missouri. And there is a woman preacher there named Traci Blackmon who has become sort of national known now for her work around diversity and racism.
And I was attending that church and it struck me in hearing the ways that that church struggled to deal with on one hand, their sense of Christian witness and service, and what the horrible things that were going on in culture. The church meant two things—well, many things, but the church meant at least two things in this regard. One, is that it gave people stories, it gave people stories not only to explain the events that were going on around them, but to help them get through the week, to help them get through the month, to help them move on, even in a really, really difficult time. And the reason that struck me so much is because for a long time, scholars have talked about black churches as being either otherworldly—meaning they don’t worry so much about what’s going on in this world, they just care about so the afterlife. So, they’re compensatory in a way, they’re just sort of struggling to get through—
HODGES: A crutch, yeah.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Yeah. Or they’re activist. They’re going out into the community and like Martin Luther King, Jr., pushing for activism of various sorts. But what I see in this church in Florissant is that those two things…It’s a false dichotomy. Those two things are blended together. That in some ways, it’s precisely that history and that sense of understanding the Bible through one’s own historical lens that gives people the strength to go on in the face of some really bad times, and that church is…It’s an amazing place.
But I think there are a lot of black churches like that, where there is a struggle but also a sense that “we have to endure and this is a way to get through, but it’s also a way to explain and to help us change things around us.”
So I don’t know, that’s kind of abstract I guess, but it just hit me, I guess, in a really visceral way. That these stories have a real purpose. Some people had still been saying “Wow, it’s nice that African-Americans told these stories, gave us this history, but some of it was just kind of made up and weren’t they just fooling themselves?” Well, no. This was part of a process of remembering that gives people strength to go on.
HODGES: And that’s something that everyone should be able to relate to regardless of their background.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Well certainly. And the Mormon case is, you know, not far afield, right? The history does a lot of things for us.
HODGES: That’s Laurie Maffly-Kipp. She’s the Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. She taught religious studies and American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill before that and is a prior president of the Mormon History Association. She’s written and edited many books about things like African-American religions, Mormonism, and Protestantism. Today we talked about her book Setting down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories.
Laurie, thank you for taking the time to talk about the book today with us.
MAFFLY-KIPP: Oh. It was a pleasure, Blair. Thank you.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)