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Transforming Scriptures

African American Women Writers and the Bible

Katherine Clay Bassard

Publication Year: 2010

Transforming Scriptures is the first sustained treatment of African American women writers’ intellectual, even theological, engagements with the book Northrop Frye referred to as the “great code” of Western civilization. Katherine Clay Bassard looks at poetry, novels, speeches, sermons, and prayers by Maria W. Stewart, Frances Harper, Hannah Crafts, Harriet E. Wilson, Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Sherley Anne Williams and discusses how such texts respond as a collective “literary witness” to the use of the Bible for purposes of social domination. Black women’s historic encounters with the Bible were, indeed, transformational; in the process of “turning cursing into blessing” these women were both shaped and reshaped by the scriptures they appropriated for their own self-representation.

Two important biblical figures emerge as key tropes around which women fashioned a counternarrative to the dominant culture’s “curse” on black female identity: the “talking mule” from Numbers 22 and the “black but comely” Shulamite of Song of Songs, the Queen of Sheba. Transforming Scriptures analyzes these tropes within a range of contexts, from biblical justifications of slavery and the second-class status of women to hermeneutical and post-structural critiques of the Bible. African American women’s appropriations of scripture occur within a continuum of African American Bible-reading practices and religious or ideological commitments, argues Bassard. There is thus no single “black women’s hermeneutic”; rather, theories of African American women and the Bible must account for historical and social change and difference.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

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pp. vii-viii

As with any project that one has worked on for the better part of a decade, I owe thanks to numerous people scattered abroad in many locations. Funding by a Pew Evangelical Scholars grant (1999–2000), a Ford Foundation Post- Doctoral Fellowship (1998–99), and residencies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California (1998–99), and the Virginia Center...

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INTRODUCTION. The Bible and African American Women Writers: A Literary Witness

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pp. 1-4

Transforming Scriptures grew out of the research for my first book, Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing, as I was confronted with the range and depth of black women writers' references to the Bible in English.1 From Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison, black women's literature is replete with biblical...

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pp. 6-8

While researching this topic, I was surprised to find a fourteenth-century woodcut from the Speculum humanae salvationis (The mirror of man's salvation), which depicted in a single panel two of the biblical tropes I identified as key to understanding the Bible in African American women's literature: the Balaam trope of the talking...

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CHAPTER ONE. Talking Mules and Troubled Hermeneutics: Black Women's Biblical Self-Disclosures

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pp. 9-22

In Numbers 22 – 24 the Gentile prophet Balaam is hired by the Moabite King Balak to curse the ancient Israelites.1 While he is supposedly gifted as a seer, Balaam's blindness is in contrast to the supernatural sight of the donkey who "saw the Angel of the Lord." A beast of burden, subjected to physical abuse, the donkey (or mule, or ass) is the ultimate image of powerlessness in...

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CHAPTER TWO. Private Interpretations: The Bible Defense of Slavery and Nineteenth-Century Racial Hermeneutics

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pp. 25-47

For much of its life in America, the Bible was not conceived of as just a "good book" but as the "Good Book," as scripture and therefore vested with sacred authority and divine intentionality. In his introduction to Theorizing Scriptures, Vincent Wimbush proposes a reconsideration of the term scripture that places the primary focus "not upon texts per se (that is...

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African American women writers were profoundly aware of the hermeneutical and theological difficulties created by the Bible defense of slavery in the nineteenth century. Rather than engage in the type of point-by-point debate held by Frederick Douglass, Henry Bibb, and other black male abolitionists, black women in the nineteenth century...

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CHAPTER THREE. Sampling the Scriptures: Maria W. Stewart and the Genre of Prayer

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pp. 51-66

As the subtitle of historian Marilyn Richardson's 1987 edition of Maria W. Stewart's essays and speeches suggests, Stewart entered the historical and literary canon as "America's First Black Woman Political Writer." Accordingly, Richardson includes only one of Stewart's religious meditations in the appendix to that edition. More recent treatments of Stewart have retrieved...

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CHAPTER FOUR. Hannah's Craft: Biblical Passing in The Bondwoman's Narrative

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pp. 67-77

The 2003 edition of Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative opens with editor Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s story of literary intrigue, detailing the discovery, acquisition, and authentication of the text. Much of the evidence of the writer's identity, however, derives from Gates's gleaning of internal evidence that links Crafts's story and narrative with actual historical...

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CHAPTER FIVE. "Beyond Mortal Vision": Identification and Miscegenation in the Joseph Cycle and Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig

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pp. 79-91

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...

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CHAPTER SIX. And the Greatest of These: Eros, Philos, and Agape in Two Contemporary Black Women's Novels

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pp. 93-105

At the opening of her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture, Toni Morrison relates a folktale about a blind seer, whom she reads as "the daughter of slaves, black, American" in an effort to comment on the nexus between language and power. That oppressive uses of language are efficacious to the point of becoming what they enact is central to Morrison's thinking...


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pp. 107-131


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pp. 133-141


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pp. 143-152

Index of Scriptural References

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pp. 153-157

General Index

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pp. 159-166

E-ISBN-13: 9780820336138
E-ISBN-10: 0820336130
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820330907
Print-ISBN-10: 0820330906

Page Count: 180
Illustrations: 8 tables
Publication Year: 2010