Printer Friendly

Traumatic theology in the Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, written by himself.

In an 1859 essay entitled "The Great Conflict Requires Great Faith," abolitionist and minister J. W. C. Pennington complains that "influences are constantly bearing upon us strongly calculated to affect us unfavorably towards the institutions of religion. Those institutions, professedly for the benefit of all classes of the family of man, are perverted to the vile uses of oppression" (343). The theological significance of Pennington's observation is underscored by one of the most insistently religious of the slave narratives, the Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (1851). Following his separation, under slavery, from his wife and child, Brown had himself sealed in a shipping crate and sent to Philadelphia, where he was received by antislavery agents--after which the story of his escape soon became famous. Images of his "resurrection" from the box were soon published, as was the biblical source for the "Hymn of Thanksgiving" that he sang after he emerged from his "portable prison' (Steams v). (1) Indeed, although Brown quickly became famous for his unique mode of escape--the box that gave him his middle name--his escape was also presented from the beginning as a distinctly religious event. In his 1851 Narrative, Brown attends to the moral responsibilities that followed from his escape, reporting that he has been "impelled by the voice of ... conscience" to address the inadequate response to the unrecognized crisis of slavery--that is, to the fact that "four millions of human beings, possessing immortal souls, are, in chains, dragging out their existence in the southern states" (3).

In his desire to add his voice to the antislavery chorus, Brown was hardly unique. What makes Brown's Narrative compelling is the extent to which he resists joining the chorus of a moral position that operates within what Dwight McBride has termed the "discursive regularities of abolitionist discourse" (3). "If the situation of the discursive terrain," McBride notes, "is that there is a language about slavery that preexists the slave's telling of his or her own experience of slavery, or an entire dialogue or series of debates that preexist the telling of the slave narrator's particular experience," then "how," he asks, "does one negotiate the terms of slavery in order to be able to tell one's own story?" (3). Finding himself uncomfortably situated in that discursive terrain, in part because of his reliance on others to narrate his story, and in part due to his experience on the antislavery lecture circuit, Brown guides the Narrative toward a commentary on the spatial and temporal conditions of moral understanding so as to negotiate that terrain differently. That is, he shifts the terms by which both the voice and the authority of his conscience might operate. In a deeply intimate but elusive performance, Brown presents the experience of belief--both its discovery and its manifest validation--as the product of a traumatic engagement with the experience of enslavement. Accordingly, Brown suggests, if it is to do justice to the demands of conscience, his story requires a mode of representation that extends beyond a simple expression of moral outrage or a rhetorical reversal of proslavery Christianity. Working with and through his collaborators on the narrative, Brown is faced with the challenge of representing a "truth" that, in Cathy Caruth's terms, "in its delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language" (4). (2) Brown's response to this challenge is to fashion his narrative according to the terms of what I will call a traumatic theology--that is, a mode of Christian understanding that grounds the accessibility and efficacy of faith in the traumatic experience of violent religious duplicity.

Outside the House of God

Two editions of Brown's narrative were published--one in 1849, authored by the white abolitionist Charles Steams, and another in 1851 whose authorship remains uncertain but which more fully represents, in both detail and voice, Brown's self-presentation in American and British antislavery events. The most significant difference between the two versions involves Brown's representation of his spiritual self-discovery. (3) In both versions, Brown reports that his unique mode of escape was inspired by God, but the difference between the two accounts underscores the difficulties of Brown's position in relying on others to represent his experience of divine inspiration. In the 1849 version, this event is presented dramatically as a voiced directive from God, received by a man of simple faith:" 'Go and get a box, and put yourself in it.' I pondered the words over in my mind. 'Get, a box?' thought I; 'what can this mean?' But I was 'not disobedient unto the heavenly vision,' and I determined to put into practice this direction, as I considered it, from my heavenly Father" (Steams 59). At this point Steams, always an intrusive narrator, becomes more intrusive still, adding a footnote that indicates Brown's challenge in asserting control over his presentation of his religious experience. "Reader, smile not at the above idea," Steams states, "for if there is a God of love, we must believe that he suggests steps to those who apply to him in times of trouble, by which they can be delivered from their difficulty. I firmly believe this doctrine, and know it to be true from frequent experience" (Steams 59). By 1851, there is less reason to smile and no paternalistic narrator to address such smiles. Brown states simply, "I prayed fervently that he who seeth in secret and knew the inmost desires of my heart, would lend me his aid in bursting my fetters asunder, and in restoring me to the possession of those rights, of which men had robbed me; when the idea suddenly flashed across my mind of shutting myself up in a box, and getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state" (58). Brown's more subdued account here avoids the smiles of the cultivated commentator while also granting Brown greater, and more savvy, agency; and in avoiding dramatic intervention, the Henry Brown of 1851 also places this moment within the context of a series of events, and in that way accounts for the experiential antecedents of divine inspiration.

The two versions together raise questions about how to understand this turning point in Brown's life, questions that still trouble the scholarship on African American antislavery writings. (4) Joycelyn Moody has said of spiritual narratives by African American women of the time that "instead of reading" these texts "exclusively to promote their subjects as brave social activists (as literary historians tend to do) or as exemplary 'nurturing' Christians (as womanist theo-ethicists tend to do)," we should read these writers "as valiant and pious theologians" (167). The two versions of Brown's narrative, I suggest, call for just such a reading. The difference between the 1849 and the 1851 accounts of Brown's divine inspiration is that the latter version operates in a narrative in which Brown is represented as the guiding voice of the narrative, without the interpretive aid of an intrusive narrator. In the 1849 narrative, Steams both prepares for and follows his presentation of Brown's supposedly autobiographical account with religious and political "remarks upon the remedy for slavery" (Stearns iii). In the 1851 version, the representation of Brown's voice is generally more believable and his experience of faith is more central to the text's narrative design. In short, the difference between the two narratives involves not simply matters of racialized cultural authority (for Stearns's rhetoric is still a presence in the 1851 Narrative, to which he might have contributed as an author) but also and more importantly of theology. The 1851 Narrative represents less a series of religious experiences than a developing theological vision.

To some extent, Brown's moral vision can seem like a familiar antislavery spectacle usually formulated around a distinction between proslavery and antislavery approaches to Christianity. In a resolution passed at the 1843 National Convention of Colored Citizens in Buffalo, for example, the convention members asserted, "We believe in the true Church of Christ, and that it will stand while time endures, and that it will evince its spirit by its opposition to all sins, and especially to the sin of slavery, which is a compound of all others, and that the great mass of American sects, falsely called churches, which apologize for slavery and prejudice, or practice slaveholding, are in truth no churches, but Synagogues of Satan" (Minutes 15). In slave narratives, the most familiar voice of this line of antislavery attack is that of Frederick Douglass, who was involved in the 1843 resolution, and who echoes the resolution in his comments on religion presented in the appendix to his 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Douglass begins these comments by positioning himself as a reader of his own Narrative, and he accounts for possible misreadings. "I find," he begins, "since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion" (97). "What I have said respecting and against religion," Douglass then explains, "I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference" (97). For Douglass, indeed, the realm of "Christianity proper" was the realm of reason, and there was nothing rational about "the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land" (97). As the appendix continues, Douglass reads the false from the perspective afforded by the true, placing "the Christianity of America" (which, he emphasizes, includes Christians both south and north) in a Biblical context, a comparison that serves as a warning to the slaveholding nation.

But while the distinction between "the Christianity of this land" and "the Christianity of Christ" was theoretically clear, it is still significant that Douglass turns to this issue after having read over his own narrative, for he recognizes that this distinction is easily missed given that he locates the problem not in particular congregations but in "the Christianity of America." Operating within that encompassing framework, the theological work of black abolitionists cannot be reduced to a neat antislavery formula for mapping antebellum political battles--nor, I argue, can this work be understood simply as a supplement to ongoing debates over the appropriate moral response to slavery. Such debates were, of course, central to antebellum culture, and behind the debates was the recognition that the grounds for or against slavery could not be separated from the putatively Christian foundations of American culture. At times, these debates focused on biblical interpretation--as in, for example, George Bourne's The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable (1816) and Thornton Stringfellow's Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery (1856). But beyond such clear attempts to bolster the boundaries of either antislavery or proslavery thought were the unsteady levees of a society not so easily divided between North and South or proslavery and antislavery, a white supremacist nation deeply invested in a Protestant Christianity capable of resituating the question of slavery (and of its ominous companion, race) in an imagined future ruled by Providence. Consider, for example, the Reverend Dr. Nehemiah Adams, a respected northern clergyman. Following a trip to the South, Adams published A South-Side View of Slavery; or, Three Months at the South (1854), in which he states his philosophical opposition to slavery while also reporting his view that southern white Christians seemed to both understand and attend to the moral seriousness of their providential charge. "Let us feel and act fraternally with regard to the south," Adams advises his white readers, "defend them against interference, abstain from every thing assuming and dictatorial, leave them to manage their institution in view of their accountability to God ... and we may expect that American slavery will cease to be any thing but a means of good to the African race" (201). Adams is, of course, a particularly explicit representative of a society that regularly trumped the evils of slavery with the priorities of the white supremacist regime.

The realities of American society, in short, made attempts to attack proslavery Christianity something like shooting at a moving target. In the Buffalo resolutions of 1843, for example, the convention members quickly move from the first resolution, identifying proslavery churches as "synagogues of Satan," to more detailed attempts to locate the object of their disaffection. In the second of this series of resolutions, the conventioneers state, "Resolved, That we solemnly believe that slaveholding and prejudice sustaining ministers and churches (falsely so called), are the greatest enemies to Christ and to civil and religious liberty in the world" (Minutes 15). This decree seems fairly clear, but the complexity of the ground that it covers is indicated by the resolution that follows: "Resolved, That the colored people in the free States who belong to pro-slavery sects that will not pray for the oppressed--nor preach the truth in regard to the sin of slavery and all other existing evils, nor publish anti-slavery meetings, nor act for the entire immediate abolition of slavery, are guilty of enslaving themselves and others, and their blood, and the blood of perishing millions will be upon their heads" (Minutes 15). This resolution identifies proslavery activity in terms of both deliberate action and compliant inaction, and it demonstrates that "the Christianity of America" includes both white and black as well as both South and North. In this way, the resolutions move to a final resolution rather clearly directed to black Americans and theoretically to white Americans as well: "Resolved, That it is the bounded duty of every person to come out from among these religious organizations in which they are not permitted to enjoy equality" (Minutes 15). As the identification of the theory and practice of the US church becomes more detailed, it becomes more difficult to identify the grounds for enacting "the Christianity of Christ," or even to imagine where those grounds might be located in social space and time.

Brown--who, like Douglass and other narrators, comments on proslavery religion in his 1851 appendix--addresses this situation, and the ways that he has been situated, by following the system of slavery to its "Christian" foundation. Adopting a tone rather different from Douglass's in his 1845 Narrative, Brown begins, "I have no apology whatever to make for what I have said, in regard to the pretended Christianity under which I was trained, while a slave" (68). He then offers an overview of slaveholding Christianity:
 The only thing I think it necessary to say in this place is what
 seems to me, and what may really be [a] matter of serious doubt to
 persons who have the privilege of living in a free country, under
 the influence of liberal institutions; that there actually does
 exist in that land where men, women, and children are bought and
 sold, a church, calling itself the church of Christ; yes, my
 friends, it is true that the buyer and seller of the bodies and
 souls of his fellows; he who to day, can separate the husband and
 wife, the parent from the child, or cut asunder the strongest ties
 of friendship, in order to gain a few dollars, or avert a trifling
 loss, or to please a whim of fancy, can ascend a pulpit tomorrow
 and preach, what he calls the gospel of Christ! Yes, and in many
 cases, the house, which he calls the house of God, has been erected
 from the price of human beings; the very stones of which it is
 composed, have actually been dragged to their places by men with
 chains at their heels, and ropes about their neck!" (68-69)


In many ways, Brown presents in this passage purely conventional antislavery rhetoric, a familiar litany joining religious profession with violent practice and emphasizing the selling of bodies, the separation of families, and the seductions of absolute power. Conventional, too, is Brown's deflected address in this "English edition" of his narrative--that is, his description of American slaveholding practices to the imagined bewilderment of a Christian British audience. But in following the conventional rhetoric to the stones laid for the church, a perspective that proceeds both architecturally and historically, Brown joins the rhetorical with the material to emphasize the institutionalization of the practices typically associated with the abuses of slavery. Moreover, Brown houses both the realities of slavery and the discourse of Christianity in the church that rests on the stones laid by slavery and the bodies of the enslaved. This rhetorical situation is a box of a different sort than that which he used to escape--both the house of slavery and the house of a corrupt Christianity, neither one of which he had fully escaped on his arrival in the North.

Considering that he was so complexly located, boxed in, in both slavery and American Christian culture, it is important that Brown presents in the Narrative a vision of "the Christianity of America" that is coextensive with the social and geographical landscape defined by the system of slavery. A few years later, Samuel Ringgold Ward would state in his Autobiography of A Fugitive Negro that the word "religion ... should be substituted for Christianity; for while a religion may be from man, and a religion from such an origin may be capable of hating, Christianity is always from God, and, like him, is love" (41). While in many ways the Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown is designed to make this kind of distinction, so familiar in antislavery writing, Brown emphasizes the extent to which, as Ward puts it, "the oppression and the maltreatment of the hapless descendant of Africa is not merely an ugly excrescence upon American religion" but rather "a cardinal principle, a sin qua non, a cherished defended keystone, a comer-stone, of American faith" (41-42). Brown's experience could hardly lead him to different conclusions, even as he claimed the authority of Christianity in appealing to audiences shaped by American religion.

What hope, then, could Brown, or his readers, entertain of entering a "house of God" that rests on different foundations? A house of God devoted to different principles and marked by a different cornerstone? This is the question to which, I suggest, Brown's 1851 Narrative is primarily directed--and, indeed, the effect of the most significant revisions from the 1849 narrative to the 1851 version. In successive chapters of the Narrative, containing material largely absent from the 1849 publication, the reader is introduced to a contextualized account of Brown's religious conversion--that is, his conversion to a religion apart from slavery--which is linked to his plan for escape from slavery. The relatively brief fifth chapter addresses "the state of churches in slave countries" (38); it focuses on the hypocrisies of slaveholding religion but includes an account of the white northern evangelist and opponent of slavery, Jacob Knapp, who once visited and preached in Richmond. The succeeding chapter, the longest in the Narrative, takes the reader from Brown's decision to marry to the scene where Brown watches first his child and then his wife carried away in chains to another owner, never to be seen by him again. Brown had seen slave coffles before, but the sight of his child and his wife being taken away "assume[s] the appearance of unusual horror" (53)--indeed, a hellish vision of "little children of many different families, which as they appeared rent the air with their shrieks and cries and vain endeavours to resist the separation which was thus forced upon them, and the cords with which they were thus bound" (53). This chapter is followed by Brown's final chapter, including his account of his escape. In these chapters, Brown moves from situation to consequence to strategy--that is, from an account of a culture of corrupt Christianity to an account of the tragedy and trauma that necessarily follows from that corruption, and then to an account of the faith for which his traumatic experience prepared him. Brown's successful escape is the product of the entire process, and just as his escape cannot be understood apart from his faith, so his faith cannot be understood apart from the traumatic experience that enabled him to discover an understanding of and approach to belief that can be known only through a conscious encounter with and deliberate resistance to the perversion of religion.

The chapters come to a point not when Brown is inspired to enter a box but rather when he is inspired to resist the box he is in; the point of the Narrative involves not the rejection of religion but rather a determined act of moral responsibility. The Narrative's final chapter begins with Brown's disavowal of religion and the specific occasion of his return to the church. "The suspicion of these slave-dealing Christians," Brown reports, "was the means of keeping me absent from all their churches from the time that my wife and children were torn from me, until Christmas day in the year 1848; and I would not have gone then but being a leading member of the choir, I yielded to the entreaties of my associates to assist at a concert of sacred music which was to be got up for the benefit of the church" (54). (5) During the performance, one of Brown's fellow choir members, James C. A. Smith, suddenly closed his book and sat down. "Dr. Smith's feelings," Brown reports in the 1851 Narrative, were overcome with a sense of doing wrongly in singing for the purpose of obtaining money to assist those who were buying and selling their fellow-men. He thought at that moment he felt reproved by Almighty God for lending his aid to the cause of slave-holding religion" (55). After "several other pieces" Brown sings lines that have a similar effect on him: "Vital spark of heavenly flame, / Quit, O! quit the mortal frame" (56). What gives the lines particular significance, Brown states, is "the sting of former sufferings," the loss of his wife and child, and Brown accordingly follows Smith's example: "I too made up my mind that I would be no longer guilty of assisting those bloody dealers in the bodies and souls of men" (56). The experience leads to Brown's resolution to escape and, eventually, his successful plan when the idea of a box comes to him following a "prayer to Almighty God" (57).

It is appropriate that Brown would believe himself divinely inspired to escape by having himself boxed in, for the Christianity he comes to trust is a realm of belief itself boxed in by a society claiming the authority of Christianity. Where can a true Christianity be located in a society devoted to slavery? Brown seems to answer: only in the manifest image of its own containment, the shipping crate that Brown took with him for his antislavery appearances. Contained by a society devoted to the commercial exchange and ownership of both personal and social bodies, both individuals and families, the only Christianity imaginable is the one that delivers Brown first to nominal freedom and then to a career on the antislavery lecture circuit. As with his new-found and reformed beliefs, then, Brown presents in his narrative a theology of liberation through containment. Like all slave narratives, Brown's is not simply the story of an escape from slavery, nor is it simply the story of a Christian soul being delivered from the "demons" of the slaveholding South. The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown is rather a meditation, both knowable and representable only through experience, on the possibilities of faith in a world that has appropriated the discourse and authority of Christianity.

An Itinerant Faith

Of the many voices and people present in the 1851 Narrative, Brown might most closely resemble the white evangelist Elder Jacob Knapp, a famous and often controversial Baptist evangelist devoted to revivalism and religious reform. According to Timothy L. Smith, "Knapp's ministry in the 1830's was principally to rural and small-town communities in New York, where he became known as a chief supporter of Madison University at Hamilton. His first urban successes, in union campaigns sponsored by the Baptist churches in Rochester, Baltimore, and Boston, were cut short in 1842 when antirevival clergymen charged that he wore old clothes in the pulpit in order to secure a more sympathetic response in the offerings. His supporters hotly contested the accusation, and he was officially cleared" (47). Brown similarly would later encounter various attacks not only on his approach to his antislavery work but also to his integrity and, like Knapp, even his attire. (6) But even beyond such attacks the Brown of 1851 and after would have appreciated the position of an itinerant preacher. In his regular antislavery appearances, in his extensive tours, and in his development of a moving panorama of images relating to the history and practice of slavery, Brown expressed his understanding of the possibilities of movement, of manipulating contexts, and of joining seemingly singular moments (like his own divine inspiration for the box) to a broader range of events. In an unstable society, Brown's career might suggest, the only stability is in movement--and in a society in which the terms of one's identity are firmly fixed, and in which the expectations for one's public performances are clear, freedom is a matter of moving from one stage to the next.

But Knapp, who believed that "Christianity is a radical principle" (McLoughlin 142), is especially significant to Brown in representing the stabilities of faith made possible by itinerant performances, for Knapp offers the possibilities of a different understanding of Christianity precisely because he is not place-bound. In his Autobiography of Elder Jacob Knapp (1868), Knapp discusses his visit to Richmond, noting that the people who invited him asked him to "give them a pledge" that he "would keep silence on the subject of slavery" (153). Knapp refused to make such a pledge, but was invited anyway, and his description of his increasingly tense visit (during which he spoke on a number of occasions) is instructive:
 While I was there a band of colored brethren and sisters, moved by
 the Spirit of God, met together in order to sing praises and unite
 in supplication to the Lord. They were surprised by a set of devils
 (called officers of the peace!), and those who could not escape
 were dragged to the whipping-post, and lashed to laceration, for no
 other offence than daring to meet without the presence of a white
 man. Throughout the night the slave-hounds were on the scent for
 these victims, and the hours were made hideous with their howlings.
 It seemed as if I was in Pandemonium. (155)


Knapp wonders, "[H]ow could I ask God to hear the prayers of such a people?" His increasing anger at the white slaveholding population led him to be more direct in his comments on slavery, and to "preach, with increasing plainness, the bible doctrines concerning human rights, and those which cut up this system root and branch." Finally, Knapp reports, "I was visited by a committee, and requested to preach no more, unless I would promise to keep silent on the subject of slavery" (155-56). Knapp refused to make such a promise, and was therefore compelled to leave the area. His force in the area, then, and the reason he is mentioned in the 1851 Narrative, is that he disrupts the context of normalcy and exposes the machinery of social and religious control required by the system of slavery. (7)

In the Narrative, Knapp is a singular presence in the chapter "about the state of the churches in slave countries" (38), the lone representative of Christianity in a chapter on churches. The chapter begins with the story of John Cave, "a baptist minister in the city of Richmond" who declared publicly "that he had preached six years before he was converted" (38). He is converted by "an old slave of his" who questioned his practice of drinking after prayers and preaching. "He began to repent," Brown reports, "and was converted. And now, he says he is truly converted, because his conscience reproved him for having made human beings articles of traffic" (39). Brown notes, though, that this rather incomplete conversion did not compel the minister, "as a natural consequence of his conviction," to emancipate his slaves. Rather, "he endeavoured to apologize for the want of conscience, by finding, what he called, a good master for them, and selling them all to him" (39). In contrast, Knapp is a stable representative of Christianity--and therefore fortunate, Brown reports, to "have escaped with his life" (41). Brown states of Knapp's sermon that "he took for his text, "O! Jerusalem, Jerusalem which killest the prophets and stonest them that are sent to thee, how often would I have gathered thee as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not'" (41). The biblical sources for this text are Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34; the passage punctuates the end of an angry complaint by Jesus against the religious leaders who opposed him. Running through Mark and Luke is the refrain "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites," a phrase prominent in Douglass's own reference to this text in the appendix of his 1845 Narrative. Similarly addressing the unrecognized need for a significant turn in the state of religious life and authority, Knapp's sermon places him also in the position of a fugitive, a stable representative of Christianity in part because he is not bound to "the state of the churches in slave countries" but also because his belief forces him to experience the hellish consequences of a corrupt religion.

Like Knapp, Brown turns to an itinerant faith, a fugitive morality, to shape his theological interrogation of the world of Christianity shaped by the system of slavery. As I have noted, the box Brown used to escape became integral to the religious symbolism of Brown's story, the manifest site of his resurrection from the social death of slavery. Moreover, I have suggested that Brown found himself with a Christianity that was itself boxed in by a nominally Christian society. Like Brown, the box itself was transformed by the journey from Virginia to Philadelphia--but although the box came to symbolize a difficult liberation, one could hardly say that Brown's experience transformed interstate commerce into what is called today, in our current Orwellian moment, a network of freedom. (8) The box remained a singular exception to the business of the Adams Express shipping company, and Brown similarly became a singular exception to the usual commerce of slavery and race in the United States. Like Knapp, then, Brown recognized the power of the singularity that can be achieved only by working against available contexts, a black abolitionist message that depends heavily on a white supremacist culture of slavery, and a Christian message that depends heavily on an only putatively Christian society. Indeed, one might say of both Knapp and Brown that fundamental to their separate evangelical missions was a recognition of both the necessity and impossibility of faith, a faith always in conflict with the occasions and sites of its promotion. Of course, one might say of any itinerant evangelicalism that the fundamental message is that of a Christianity that travels but finds no home, the promotion of an imagined community of Christians that includes the recognition that the community is always undermined when imagination becomes manifest in any particular socioeconomic order. For Brown, though, the itinerancy of faith is realized less in its promotion than in the complex process of its discovery: the many traumatic experiences--individual and communal unresolvable by any biographical narrative logic--that shaped a belief that must necessarily remain homeless as long as the individual and communal, the fugitive slave and the dispersed community of the enslaved, remain hopelessly separate.

Traumatic Remembrance in the House of Sin

Brown's narrative is, in fact, an argument against the possibilities of a US Christian community. Throughout the Narrative, Brown describes a world of variable character, the instabilities of identity promoted by the church of slavery--a world aptly represented by the (un)converted John Cave. "The whole feature of slavery," Brown notes, "is so utterly inconsistent with the principles of religion, reason, and humanity, that it is no wonder that the very mention of the word God grates upon the ear as if it typefied [sic] the degeneracy of this hellish system" (25). In the world that Brown describes, promises are made and broken, religious conversions are compromised, and sacred relations between fellow Christians are at once acknowledged and refused. Before his wife is sold away from him, she is purchased by a mister Cottrell, who asks Brown to provide fifty dollars toward the purchase price. Brown asks Cottrell what assurance he might have that his wife will not be subsequently sold away, and Cottrell responds, "Do you think if you allow me to have that money, that I could have the heart to sell your wife to any other person but yourself, and particularly knowing that your wife is my sister and you my brother in the Lord; while all of us are members of the church?" (45). Cottrell, of course, finds the heart to sell Brown's wife, initiating the process that leads not only to Brown's escape (the story anticipated by his audience) but also and more significantly to a moral understanding capable of encompassing his experience and to an absent community of faith.

Betrayed by this promise as by others, Brown depicts in the Narrative a vision of faith that extends from a vision of the family of God, but the Christianity he represents is one nurtured under the constant threat of violation and finally realized only through the traumatic separation of its symbolic and actual manifestation, the family. Addressing his mother's separation from her youngest child, Brown offers a long statement on the trauma of enslavement and on the force of traumatic memory. "This kind of torture," Brown explains,
 is a thousand fold more cruel and barbarous than the use of the
 lash which lacerates the back; the gashes which the whip, or the
 cow skin makes may heal, and the place which was marked, in a
 little while may cease to exhibit the signs of what it had endured,
 but the pangs which lacerate the soul in consequence of the
 forcible disruption of parent and the dearest family ties, only
 grow deeper and more piercing, as memory fetches from a greater
 distance the horrid acts by which they have been produced. And
 there is no doubt but they under the weighty infirmities of
 declining life, and the increasing force and vividness with which
 the mind retains the memoranda of the agonies of former
 years--which form so great a part of memory's possessions in the
 minds of most slaves--hurry thousands annually from off the stage
 of life. (28)


This statement, which echoes closely one in Brown's preface on "those internal pangs which are felt by the soul," is the central point of this narrative that, Brown also states in the preface, "is not one of great interest to those who delight to read of hair-breadth adventures, of tragic occurrences, and scenes of blood" (4). In a narrative famous before its arrival for Brown's "hair-breadth adventures," his escape from slavery in a shipping crate, Brown works to relocate the spectacular display of slavery anticipated by the sympathizing voyeurs of antislavery society to a consideration of a Christianity boxed in by what black theologians today refer to as the "structures of sin," the white supremacist ideology institutionalized in antebellum political, economic, and religious practices.

Certainly, Brown grounds his religious critique in a denunciation of proslavery Christianity, but he extends his critique beyond the usual protocols of antislavery piety to question the grounds and terms of that piety. Sally Ann H. Ferguson has highlighted the "psychological acrobatics" central to Christian justification of slavery, and she has argued that authors of slave narratives depict "the slavery regime as a brutal theological patriarchy" so as to "illustrate how it affords white American men the unprecedented opportunity to appear divine by reconstructing, genetically and mentally, the dark-skinned people fashioned by the universal Creator" (300, 298). Brown offers a strikingly literal example of Ferguson's point, noting that when he was young, he believed that his "old master was Almighty God, and that the young master was Jesus Christ!" (18). This belief was based both on the absolute power of the slaveholder over his slaves and on what the young Brown took to be the slaveholder's power over the environment--as, for example, when the master would comment on a coming storm. Brown's mother soon teaches him otherwise, and she teaches him as well that faith would draw from God "whatever mercy is most fitting for your condition" (19). But Brown's subsequent experiences would complicate the lesson. In his experience of enslavement and in his dealings with white Christians, there was no place to go where a "true Christianity" might be located, for experience would soon remind him that his youthful vision was closer to the truth than his mother allowed. "I had no means," he states early in the narrative, "of acquiring proper conception [sic] of religion in a state of slavery, where all those who professed to be followers of Jesus Christ evinced more of the disposition of demons than of men," and he wonders, looking back, that he did not develop "a strong and lasting hatred of every thing pertaining to the religion of Christ" (17). But rather than simply present a story of early error and later wisdom, Brown's narrative argues that this conception of the theology of slavery was something more than just a youthful misapprehension, and he accordingly works toward a counter-theological vision that locates Christianity, as Brown's life itself was located, in the traumatic tension between the necessity and impossibility of adequate representation within the white supremacist Christian regime.

As I have suggested, then, it is useful to redirect Caruth's commentary on trauma when approaching the representation of faith in the Narrative so as to explore "the complex ways that knowing and not knowing are entangled in the language of [faith] and in the stories associated with it" (Caruth 4). For Brown, the state of "knowing and not knowing" poses a practical challenge in his attempt to "add yet one other testimony of, and protest against, the foul blot on the state of morals, of religion, and of cultivation in the American republic" (3), for he faced an audience all too likely to hear only what they were prepared to hear about his religious declarations. Indeed, Brown must confront the reality that the language by which he might express both his discovery of faith and his "resurrection" from the social death of slavery is the very language that carries the weight of the trauma of both enslavement and white supremacist control. More than presenting a rhetorical impasse, the field of antebellum religious discourse constitutes the traumatic arena in which Brown must necessarily work in his ongoing efforts to claim the authority not only of his voice but of his conscience. The "voice of conscience" in the Narrative finds its expression in a vision of religion that can be realized only through the experience of the perverse imperatives of the multiple tensions that define American Christianity. The Christianity in the Narrative is one of unresolvable trauma--that is, not a belief that resolves the perversion of religion but rather one that emerges from it. Brown's voice of conscience, accordingly, is directed both to traumatic remembrance and to the necessity of traumatic encounters with audiences prepared to celebrate Brown's "resurrection" from slavery.

Indeed, the force of the 1851 Narrative is to apply what is in many ways a classic description of traumatic memory to the dynamics of religious faith and American Christian practices. The Narrative operates in a world in which "the Christianity of this land" is an inexorable institutional, societal, and discursive presence, and in which "the Christianity of Christ" can be recovered only through traumatic conversion, the confrontation with "what remains unknown in our very actions and our language" (Caruth 4). "My mind has groaned," Brown states in the preface, "under tortures which I believe will never be related, because, language is inadequate to express them, but those know them who have them to endure" (4). Theologian James H. Cone has argued that "revelation must mean more than just divine self-disclosure. Revelation is God's self-disclosure to humankind in the context of liberation. To know God is to know God's work of liberation in behalf of the oppressed. God's revelation means liberation, an emancipation from death-dealing political, economic, and social structures of society" (45). Brown's task in the 1851 Narrative is to draw the reader from the story of an individual liberation to the recognition of a larger challenge--the emancipation not only of the enslaved but of American Christians generally from the "death-dealing political, economic, and social structures of society" that have gained dominion over US churches. It need hardly be said that there was little hope for such an emancipation. Indeed, the hopelessness of this apparent message is the underlying evangelical message of the Narrative.

"There is no revelation of God," Cone writes, "without a condition of oppression which develops into a situation of liberation" (45), and in his narrative, Brown argues for the necessity of confronting the condition of oppression that defines the lives not only of the enslaved but of those comfortably removed from the experience of slavery--and thereby terribly removed from the experience of revelation. By locating religious belief in the terms of its containment, in the intimate experience of the consequences of a corrupt religion, an experience that both demands and resists representation, Brown resituates the world of "pretended Christianity" that lies beyond the box of faith that carried him from Richmond to Philadelphia. The box that travels from one context to the next becomes the defining context, the stable center that reveals a world's instabilities. Readers anxious for "hair-breadth adventures, of tragic occurrences, and scenes of blood," this narrative seems to suggest, perhaps feel the need to experience the trauma both revealed in and suppressed by their compliant acceptance of a perverted religion, the trauma that waits for them, the trauma that must eventually follow from an active perversion of the dictates of Christianity. Brown's narrative both addresses and refuses that need. "It is not for me to judge between those men and the God whom they pretend to serve," Brown states in his appendix, "if their own consciences do not condemn them" (69). Presenting the story of a traumatic faith to a world largely prepared to offer only self-affirming sympathy, Brown follows his own "voice of conscience" less to appeal to the conscience of his readers than to confront his readers with the experience by which conscience finds its voice in a world of corrupt moral discourse.

Works Cited

Adams, Nehemiah. A South-Side View of Slavery; or, Three Months at the South, in 1854. 1854. New York: Negro Universities P, 1969.

Bassard, Katherine Clay. Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.

Blackett, R. J. M. Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 1830-1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1983.

Bourne, George. The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable, with Animadversions upon Dr. Smith's Philosophy. 1816. George Bourne and The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable. Eds. John W. Christie and Dwight L. Dumond. Wilmington: The Historical Society of Delaware and The Presbyterian Historical Society, 1969. 103-206.

Brooks, Daphne A. Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. Durham: Duke UP, 2006.

Brown, Henry Box. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself. 1851. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Cone, James H. A Black Theology of Liberation. 2nd ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. 1845. Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Library of America, 1994. 1-102.

Ferguson, Sally Ann H. "Christian Violence and the Slave Narrative." American Literature 68.2 (June 1996): 297-320.

Fisch, Audrey. American Slaves in Victorian England: Abolitionist Politics in Popular Literature and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Knapp, Jacob. Autobiography of Eider Jacob Knapp. New York: Sheldon & Co., 1868.

McBride, Dwight. Impossible Witnesses: Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony. New York: New York UP, 2001.

McLoughlin, William G., Jr. Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004.

Minutes of the National Convention of Colored Citizens: Held at Buffalo, On the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th of August, 1843. For the Purpose of Considering Their Moral and Political Condition as American Citizens. Minutes of the Proceedings of the National Negro Conventions, 1830-1864. Ed. Howard Holman Bell. New York: Arno P, 1969.1-39.

Moody, Joycelyn. Sentimental Confessions: Spiritual Narratives of Nineteenth-Century African American Women. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2001.

Pennington, J. W. C. "The Great Conflict Requires Great Faith." The Anglo-African Magazine, Volume 1-1859. Ed. William Loren Katz. New York: Arno P, 1968. 343-45.

Ruggles, Jeffrey. The Unboxing of Henry Brown. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2003.

Smith, Timothy L. Revivalism & Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.

Stearns, Charles. Narrative of Henry Box Brown, Who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide. Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself, With Remarks Upon the Remedy for Slavery. Boston: Brown & Stearns, 1849.

Stringfellow, Thornton. Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery. Richmond, VA: J. W. Randolph, 1856.

Ward, Samuel Ringgold. Autobiography of A Fugitive Negro: His Anti-Slavery Labours in the United States, Canada, & England. 1855. New York: Arno P, 1968.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. "Passing Beyond the Middle Passage: Henry 'Box' Brown's Translations of Slavery." Massachusetts Review 37.1 (1996): 23-44.

Wood, Marcus. Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Notes

(1.) The song sheet reprinted Psalm 40, from which Brown's hymn was drawn.

(2.) It is not my purpose, I wish to emphasize, to present religious faith as a form of trauma, but rather to address the complex and dynamic presence of a psychological, cognitive, and even physical orientation to what might be called the intimate (un)knowable that seems to me central to the experience of religious faith in a country in which Christianity was "perverted to the vile uses of oppression" (Pennington 343).

(3.) It is generally agreed that Brown is the guiding force behind the 1851 Narrative; accordingly, I will refer to him as the author of this narrative, with the understanding that his "authorship" involved a complex process of collaboration and negotiation. For all biographical information on Brown, I am deeply indebted to Ruggles's extraordinary research. For other important examinations of Brown's narratives and his career generally, see Brooks 66-130; Fisch 73-83; Wolff; and Wood 103-17.

(4.) The best commentaries on scholarly approaches to religion in African American literary and cultural studies are Bassard 140-41; and Moody 165-77.

(5.) The church to which Brown refers was the First African Church of Richmond. The Reverend Robert Ryland of Virginia, a white minister, was president of Richmond College and pastor of Brown's church, which did not have a black pastor until James Henry Holmes, a long-time deacon of the church, replaced Ryland in 1866. The First African Church was formed in 1841, drawing its membership from the First Baptist Church of Richmond, in which black members had long outnumbered white members. The church had over 2,000 members in 1843 and over 3,000 in 1860.

(6.) For an account of the most serious of these charges, see Ruggles 132-37; and Blackett 158-59. For an account of the flamboyant career of and charges against Knapp, see McLoughlin 140-44. Knapp was accused of dressing too poorly (so as to inspire greater financial contributions); Brown was accused of dressing too extravagantly. Both were accused of being intentionally provocative and unscrupulous in their personal and professional dealings.

(7.) The other notable representative of Christianity in the South cited in Brown's Narrative is an anonymous "coloured preacher," described in chapter 3, who similarly exposes the mechanism of the system of slavery in his refusal to "obey the impious mandate" forbidding black religious gatherings without white supervision. "in consequence of his refusal," Brown notes, the preacher "was severely whipped. His religion was, however, found to be too deeply rooted for him to be silenced by any mere power of man, and consequently, no efforts could avail to extort from his lips, a promise that he would cease to proclaim the glad tidings of the gospel to his enslaved and perishing fellow-men" (31).

(8.) The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program is supported in part by federal legislation passed in 1990 and 1998. It claims, in its brochure, to be "illustrative of a basic founding principle of this Nation, that all human beings embrace the right to self-determination and freedom from oppression." Sites associated with the network include everything from "a site that might be a water or overland route" to "a plantation where an escape began," and those familiar with the representation of slavery at plantation museums can attest to the freedom that this network, taken as a whole, is most likely to commemorate. Brown, still in his box, is often and prominently associated with the Underground Railroad in popular books, heritage sites, and historical tourism centers.

John Ernest, the Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of American Literature at West Virginia University, is the author of Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature: Brown, Wilson, Jacobs, Delany, Douglass, and Harper (UP of Mississippi, 1995) and Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861 (U of North Carolina P, 2004). He is currently working on a book entitled Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History.
COPYRIGHT 2007 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007, Gale Group. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ernest, John
Publication:African American Review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Words:8341
Previous Article:Dunbar.
Next Article:"You have no business to whip me": the freedom suits of Polly Wash and Lucy Ann Delaney.


Related Articles
Life in counterpoint: Paul Griffiths on Gyorgy Ligeti.
Mind games: Steven Henry Madoff on Marcel Van Eeden and Aneta Grzeszykowska.
Still lives: James Quandt on the films of Pedro Costa.
Travel Safety Update.
"You have no business to whip me": the freedom suits of Polly Wash and Lucy Ann Delaney.
Following her act: sequence and desire in Gayl Jones's The Healing.
Literary free jazz? Mumbo Jumbo and Paradise: language and meaning.
"Do I look like someone you can come home to from where you may be going?": re-mapping interracial anxiety in Octavia Butler's Kindred.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |