Why Did African Slaves Adopt the Bible?

When African slaves first arrived in America, they found hope in an unlikely place. Allen Dwight Callahan, author of The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, talks about why slaves crossed the religious divide to find hope and inspiration in Christianity and the Bible.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

When enslaved Africans first arrived in America, some brought religious traditions with them. But the pain of slavery drove many to look for meaning and hope in a new place - the Bible. Although most slaves could not read, biblical stories of salvation and retribution spread like fire. Author Allen Dwight Callahan explores this relationship between slaves and Christianity in "The Talking Book." He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya and explained the unusual title.

Mr. ALLEN DWIGHT CALLAHAN (Author, "The Talking Book"): Henry Louis Gates at Harvard University had identified a kind of scene that repeats throughout various autobiographical narratives of African-Americans, and it goes something like this. A slave will hear the master read from the Bible, and then the slave will say in so many words well, what's that? And the master will say, well the book is talking to me. So then the master goes away and he closes the Bible goes away, goes about his business. And then the slave usually sneaks back into the room where the Bible is and holds it to his ear. And so Gates has seen the scenario played out in several pieces of early African-American literature, and he refers to it as the trope of the talking book.

You know, of course, the irony is that the slaves discover that the book won't talk to them. And my book, which also doesn't talk, tells the story about how this book came to "speak," in quotes, to African-Americans, how they came to read it and read it for themselves.

FARAI CHIDEYA: How did Africans in America make the transition to hearing Bible stories? And how did that reach them as people who had come from different traditions before?

Mr. CALLAHAN: Oh, it varied. Some Africans of course came from traditions that were non-literate. Others were quite literate but in another religious tradition. There are many African slaves who came to the New World who were Muslims. So they were already acquainted with the phenomenon of a holy book. Some of them were literate in Arabic and they negotiated that transition differently. They had a basis of comparison, if you will.

But for other slaves, the slaves from the non-literate traditions, they had a double barrier. I mean in addition to a new way of understanding a god and understanding a holy book there was that initial challenge of understanding literacy as a phenomenon itself.

CHIDEYA: So how did the Bible become essentially a spoken word for many people?

Mr. CALLAHAN: Well, in several ways. Perhaps one of the most important way, particularly in the early phase of what we could call the Christianization of the African slaves, was through music. When slaves encountered these stories, they made the stories their own through the music that we now call the Negro spirituals. And so stories of the Bible were communicated, then were remembered in a kind of musical shorthand. And so the Negro spirituals are of course shot through with biblical references and biblical images. That's the vocabulary of the Negro spirituals, if you will.

CHIDEYA: Now there was a situation between Frederick Douglass and his contemporary where they argued over sending Bibles to Southern slaves. How did that play out?

Mr. CALLAHAN: Well it was really a debate between two groups of African-Americans, one that advocated that Bibles be sent to the South. Frederick Douglass rose up and argued against this. Here's a man who had been illiterate. Frederick Douglass, amazingly enough, even though some people referred to him in his lifetime as the greatest orator in America, this is a man who didn't learn to read until he was an adult. He taught himself. And he learned of the Bible first or by hearing it read by his master and his mistress. As always, the interpretation of the Bible reflects the interests of those who interpret it.

So for the slave-holding class, the Bible was very important for them as a warrant for what they understood to be their right to own slaves, to own people. And they preached it that way, that the Bible says that they were to be slaves, they were to be obedient slaves, that that was God's will. And there are passages in the Bible that suggest that, and he heard those passages -slaves be obedient to your masters. And he knew that those are the passages that those slaves in the South would hear over and over and over again. And so he thought it would be better for them not to have that book at all.

CHIDEYA: Nonetheless, the Bible certainly did make its way to the South and you have Negro spirituals and ecstatic worship traditions that really flourished in the South. How did those resonate or mirror some of the African traditions that people had come to this country with?

Mr. CALLAHAN: Well, you know, it's a debate for quite some time how much people from Africa brought with them and how much they lost. But there were some things that they did bring with them, clearly, some things that they kept. And those things reappeared in biblical dress once they began to learn the stories of the Bible.

We see in the Bible a major scene in the New Testament that Jesus is baptized. Well, where many of these slaves came from in West Africa - admittedly a very large region, I mean, itself, almost the size of the United States - there were many traditions associated with water, running water, you know, a stream, people would go to the stream and meet or encounter or be possessed, as we might say, by the spirits in the water.

These African slaves then became Christians and were baptized. That baptism tended to look an awful lot like the ancestral worship of the water spirits in West Africa. There are still some traditional African-American churches to this day that insist, well, you've got to be baptized in the stream.

CHIDEYA: Now what about call and response, which you can certainly hear in a lot of the speeches of Reverend King during the civil rights era?

Mr. CALLAHAN: This is a very basic rhetorical pattern and perhaps one of the reasons for this is that when African-Americans began to developed their own distinctive styles of worship and oratory, they're still overcoming this - the phenomenon of literacy.

So in many worship situations, a lot of slaves, most slaves are not literate. So how do people communicate with each other in acts of worship? Well, one way was to do what in some quarters is still referred to as lining a hymn, that is a leader, the worship leader, would sing the first line of the hymn and then the congregation would repeat that. Likewise, to engage the congregation, they wouldn't read along, they would speak along.

The speaker would say something and the congregation would respond, and the speaker would say something and the congregation would respond. And this became, as I say, a basic rhetorical pattern in African-American worship, and we've seen that river overflow its banks, as it were, once Dr. King and other preachers brought that pattern into the public square.

CHIDEYA: Well, Allen Dwight Callahan, thank you so much.

Mr. CALLAHAN: Thank you.

COX: That was Allen Dwight Callahan speaking with NPR's Farai Chideya from the studios of WGBH Boston. Callahan authored "The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible." You can hear him reading an excerpt on the NEWS & NOTES page at npr.org.

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