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Where is the Promised Land? The African American Experience

When Israel was in Egyptland Let my People go

Oppressed so hard they could not stand Let my People go

Go Down, Moses, Way down in Egyptland Tell old Pharao let my people go.

Slave Spiritual (Jubilee Singers, 1872)

We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, brothers and sisters, Plymouth Rock landed on us.

Malcolm X

The fundamental theme of New World African modernity is neither integration nor separation but rather migration and emigration.

Cornel West, Keeping Faith

From the perspective of Africans who were brought to North America and forced to work on the cotton fields and in the plantation households, America is obviously not the Land of Freedom but figures as the site of cruel enslavement and bondage, forced labor, cultural destruction, and death. The Middle Passage - the leg of the transatlantic triangle which brought Africans from the coast of West Africa to the Americas - was not a ‘sacred journey’ but rather a trip to hell, a journey through the underbelly of Western modernity. America was built, at least to a considerable degree, “on the backs of blacks” (cf. Morrison’s essay of the same title). The first ship with Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1619, and thus earlier than the Puritans; in fact, slavery was a crucial part of early colonial history. After almost two hundred years of trading and owning slaves, all northern colonies and states abolished slavery between 1777 and 1804 in the wake, it is often suggested, of the American Revolutionary War. Slavery in the southern states continued and intensified until the American Civil War. But before we turn to African American responses to the myth of the Promised Land, we should remind ourselves of racial discourses in the historical context.

Puritan congregations were exclusionary entities that for the most part barred servants and women from membership - not to mention the indigenous population and Africans/African Americans. Slavery in America presented a fact that was camouflaged by an ideologically fraught racial discourse that portrayed America as a land of freedom and deliverance. From the beginning, religious groups such as the Quakers, intellectuals, and politicians wrestled with this conundrum and sought ways to solve this dilemma, but slavery continued to be an integral part of American society well beyond independence; it was sanctioned by the Constitution, and was abolished only after the American Civil War (186165). The post-abolition period was characterized by continued and in some ways even worse oppression of African Americans and by the most extreme excesses of racist violence, such as lynching. In the context of his first presidential campaign, Barack Obama even referred to slavery and racism against African Americans as “America’s original sin” (qtd. in Leeman, Teleological Discourse 55-56).

From the beginning, Protestant evangelical groups argued for the abolition of slavery, and Protestantism is an important factor in the history of abolitionism in the United States; often it is used to distinguish New England (where slavery was abolished in all states by 1804) from Virginia in particular, and the South in general. Many critics contrasted the economic system of the North with the South’s exploitation of slave labor, for example Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of the New York Central Park, who contended that Virginians had “never done a real day’s work in their lives before they left England” and again refused to do so after the first shipload of Africans had arrived on their shores (qtd. in Uhry Abrams, Pilgrims 167).

How can we relate the existence of slavery to the myth of the Promised Land? What position did the religious tradition that had formulated this horizon of expectation take on slavery, and what impact did it have on slavery and the slaves themselves? In order to tackle these questions, we will briefly turn to the antebellum South. Historians of 19th-century American history have for a long time debated the complicated role of the Protestant religion in African American slave culture. Some scholars have claimed that religious indoctrination and conversion were used as an effective instrument of social control. The Christian religion, it is argued, taught the slaves submissiveness, docility, and a negative self-concept based on claims of their unworthiness in the eyes of God; slaveholders frequently drew on the Bible (mostly the Old Testament, and especially the Curse of Ham narrative) to justify slavery to the slaves and to white abolitionists (cf. Jordan, White 17-20). For many critics, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional Uncle Tom - an extremely pious character who does not even try to escape from slavery because of his faith - exemplifies the harmful effects of religious ‘education:’ even when he is brutalized and finally killed by his master, he suffers without resistance and forgives his tormentor (cf. Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

On the other hand, scholars have insisted that Christianity offered African American slaves access to symbolic resources which they could use for their own purposes and that the relative freedom in which they could gather to practice their faith allowed them to secretly engage in other social, cultural, and political practices. Most importantly, however, the biblical story of the Exodus and the Promised Land - which explicitly addresses the unjust and unjustifiable evil of slavery - provided them with a (religious) narrative model of emancipation, escape, and freedom. This story was as attractive to the African American slaves as it had been to the English Puritans. Stripped of its ideological investment, the story of the Promised Land can be seen (from a structuralist point of view) as a blueprint for collective empowerment, which can thus be appropriated for the purpose of cultural and political critique.

Although the 17th-century Puritan construction of the ‘new world’ as Promised Land excluded Africans and African Americans, the latter would try to partake in this promise through an appropriation and ideological reconfiguration of the myth. Popular African American spirituals used biblical themes and stories from the Exodus narrative to envision freedom, and turned Moses into an African American hero. To give just one example: Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., the black theologian who came to fame during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, wrote his MA thesis on the “Treatment of Biblical Passages in Negro Spirituals” (1969) and discusses biblical narratives (such as the Exodus) as strategies of empowerment for black slaves.

African American intellectual and former slave Frederick Douglass in the 19th century described religious practices already as what later theorists would call ‘signifyin’ practices’ (cf. Smitherman, Talkin, and Gates, Signifying Monkey) used as a kind of code by the black slaves:

A keen observer might have detected in our singing of

  • 0 Canaan, sweet Canaan,
  • 1 am bound for the land of Canaan,

Something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.

“I thought I heard them say,

There were lions in the way;

I don’t expect to stay Much longer here.

Run to Jesus - shun the danger.

I don’t expect to stay Much longer here,”

Was a favourite air, and had a double meaning. On the lips of some it meant the expectation of a speedy summons to a world of spirits, but on the lips of our company it simply meant a speedy pilgrimage toward a free state, and deliverance from all the evils and dangers of slavery. (Life 109)

The “double meaning” that Douglass refers to is apparent in many spirituals, whose lyrics frequently focus on deliverance, salvation, and the topic of mobility. “The escape motif appears in hundreds of songs: the slaves are always sailing, walking, riding, rowing, climbing, and crossing over into Canaan” (Blas- singame, Slave Community 142). Most evident was the subversive effect of religion on a slave in the singular incident that took place in Southampton, Virginia in 1831 and is often referred to as Nat Turner’s Rebellion, in which Turner and a group of fellow slaves killed most whites they encountered until the insurrection was squashed. In The Confessions of Nat Turner, written down by Thomas R. Gray before Turner’s execution and later used by William Styron in his 1967 novel of the same title, Turner claims that God appeared to him in a vision and told him to deliver his people from enslavement and to punish the whites:

[W]hite spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened - the thunder rolled in the heavens, and blood flowed in streams - and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bear it.” (qtd. in Blassingame, Slave Community 219)

Turner, feeling that his actions were in accord with the will of God, set out to kill whites and to free slaves, deeds for which he was later executed.

The subversive use of the Exodus narrative is not restricted to male fugitives and abolitionists. Most notably, female African American abolitionist activist Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) is referred to as “the Moses of her people” in a book by Sarah H. Bradford (cf. Harriet) published under the auspices of Susan B. Anthony. Tubman is compared to Moses because she repeatedly went back to the South after her own escape and led more than 70 slaves to escape to the North. These rescue missions became even more difficult after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required the North to cooperate with and assist in the attempts of the South to recapture fugitive slaves. Canada, which no longer had institutionalized slavery in the mid-19th century, then became the ‘New Canaan’ in place of the North of the United States. The similar spelling of Canada and Canaan further reinforced the notion that the Promised Land for African Americans and fugitive slaves lay beyond the national border. Kathryn Smardz-Frost’s I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad (2007) picks up this notion in recounting the complicated and paradigmatic escape of Lucy and Thornton Blackwell. Other scholars also affirm the vision of Canada as the Promised Land for African Americans (cf. Winks, Blacks). Approximately 60.000 blacks fled to Canada before the outbreak of the Civil War, half of whom supposedly went back after the war was over, the other half staying mostly in small towns in lower Ontario and in Toronto.

The Promised Land topos may thus be seen as a floating signifier that was used by African Americans to refer to various regions or territories. While the foundational national narrative focuses on the arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in the Promised Land and thus locates freedom from oppression in America, African American appropriations of the biblical story locate freedom from oppression in a Promised Land that is always elsewhere, so to speak, and often outside of the US.

The Great Migration of African Americans to the northern cities at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century is often represented as a ‘second exodus,’ which is evidenced by such titles as Milton C. Sernett’s Bound for the Promised Land: African American Religion and the Great Migration (1997), and Nicholas Le- mann’s The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991). In African American literature addressing the experience of migration, however, there is often an ambivalent evaluation of the Promised Land rhetoric and the expectations with which black characters move from the South to the urban centers of the North. James Baldwin’s first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952) for example expounds the redemptive quality of migrating from the South to the North, but at the same time addresses the sense of loss, confusion, and displacement of the first generation of African Americans raised in the urban North. African American writing has thus not only promoted but also deconstructed white American versions of the myth of the Promised Land. Along the same lines, Toni Morrison’s historical migration novel Jazz (1992) “is a portrait of a people in the midst of self-creation, a document of what they created and what they lost along the way” (Griffin, Who 197).

A third variation of the African American Exodus narrative reroutes the journey to Africa and can be seen as the most radical and consequential inversion of the Puritan myth of the Promised Land in America. Edwin S. Redkey’s Black Exodus (1969) discusses Black Nationalism and Back-to-Africa movements since 1890. Many African American intellectuals, among them most prominently Marcus Garvey, proposed in the 1920s a re-migration across the Atlantic; Garveyism became a forceful movement that rested on a radical critique of American society and racist US national discourse. Africa as a place of belonging, as an ‘imaginary homeland’ and as a site of liberation and cultural and political autonomy has always figured prominently in African American culture. Thus, Black Nationalist discourse is explicitly counter-hegemonic as well as anti-foundational in its repudiation of narratives that idealize the US as the Promised Land.

In the second half of the 20th century, the myth of the Promised Land found resonance in the American civil rights movement and in the rhetoric of emancipation used by religious leaders in anti-racist activism. In April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. in his very last speech before his assassination encourages his audience to persevere in the face of often violent resistance to the movement’s goals, and emphasizes the worldly and the spiritual dimension connected in the image of a better world:

But it doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not go there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (“I’ve Been”)

In a rhetorical move very similar to that of William Bradford more than 300 years earlier King uses the Exodus narrative to draw a parallel between himself and Moses being led by God to the Promised Land. Only in King’s sermon it is the African Americans who are cast as Pilgrims hoping for salvation from racism and oppression - it is they who are God’s chosen people.

African American rewritings of the Promised Land narrative adapted and appropriated the biblical story in various ways and for different ideological and counter-hegemonic purposes. At times it may be difficult to ascertain whether these adaptations rest on the Bible directly or rather rewrite the Puritan narrative - or even the semi-secular national narrative into which it evolved. The wide spectrum of interpretations and re-interpretations of the Promised Land myth in any case suggest, first, that it powerfully addresses the human longing for freedom in general, and second, that it lends itself readily to a variety of contradictory evaluations of the project that is America from national, subnational, and transnational perspectives.

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