Veiled Intent: Dissenting Women’s Aesthetic Approach to Biblical Interpretation

veiledintentIn the long eighteenth century, attitudes towards a woman lifting her voice within the religious public sphere varied denominationally.  In differentiation from Anglican and Presbyterian communities, Quakers accepted the idea of women preaching from the mid-seventeenth century onwards.  The process in the Methodist church was more gradual.  Though female Methodists were preaching by 1787, at first they could only share their personal conversion narrative or give an “exhortation” as long as they avoided the “taking of a text.”  In other words, a woman could lead through public speech, as long as she did not quote from the Bible.  Little wonder women needed to veil their biblical interpretation in forms viewed as acceptably feminine when writing for print.  Within Presbyterian and Congregationalist communities women were not engaged in public speaking at all, which is perhaps why they channeled their biblical interpretation so powerfully into poetry, hymns, plays, letters, and even novels, as well as essays on taste and aesthetics.  Extremely learned women in these Dissenting communities deployed their significant knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and theology in composing book-length works containing substantial biblical hermeneutics written from a female standpoint.

These women Dissenters focused on biblical content often overlooked by male biblical commentators.  Phillis Wheatley and Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck analyzed biblical stories of the weak overcoming the strong (e.g., David and Goliath) as a veiled analogy for women’s fight against systemic oppression.  Presbyterians Anna Barbauld, Helen Maria Williams, and Joanna Baillie explored biblical birth and mothering metaphors for God’s omnipotence, contra Edmund’s Burke’s focus on divine wrath.  Women cloaked their substantial biblical exegesis in works such as Poems on Various Subjects:  Religious and Moral (Phillis Wheatley, 1773), Hymns in Prose for Children (Anna Barbauld, 1781), A Poem on the Bill Lately Passed for Regulating the Slave Trade (Helen Maria Williams, 1788), and Poems, Wherein it is Attempted to Describe Certain Views of Nature and Rustic Manners (Joanna Baillie, 1790).  If modern readers pay careful attention, they will hear these women preaching through their printed works.

Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, one of the first women to publish a comprehensive work of biblical interpretation in English, witnessed the empowerment of women’s voices within eighteenth-century Quaker and Methodist communities before eventually becoming a Moravian.  The Moravians were a somewhat experimental spiritual community to which William Blake’s mother – Catherine Wright Armitage Blake – belonged.  Schimmelpenninck was an anti-slavery activist and philosopher who referenced the work of Anna Barbauld and Joanna Baillie repeatedly in her prose.  Her modestly titled book Biblical Fragments (1826) draws on the church fathers and cites passages of the Old Testament in Hebrew to contest the King James translation.  Schimmelpenninck also boldly transcends historical divides between Protestants and Catholics by praising the biblical interpretation of seventeenth-century French nuns.  Her ground breaking ecumenical work has been undervalued in histories of Dissenting women’s social activism and the scriptural engagement that undergirded it.

My book Veiled Intent: Dissenting Women’s Aesthetic Approach to Biblical Interpretation asks how eighteenth-century dissenting women writers were able to ensure their unique biblical interpretation was preserved for posterity.  And how did their careful yet shrewd tactics spur early nineteenth-century women writers into vigorous theological debate?  Why did the biblical engagement of such women prompt their commitment to causes such as the antislavery movement?  Veiled Intent traces the pattern of tactical moves and counter-moves deployed by Anna Barbauld, Phillis Wheatley, Helen Maria Williams, Joanna Baillie, and Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck.  These female poets and philosophers veiled provocative hermeneutical claims and calls for social action within aesthetic forms of discourse viewed as more acceptably feminine forms of expression.  In between the lines of their published hymns, sonnets, devotional texts for children, and works of aesthetic theory, the perceptive reader finds striking theological insights shared from a particularly female perspective.  These women were not only courageously interjecting their individual viewpoints into a predominantly male domain of formal study–biblical hermeneutics–but also intentionally supporting each other in doing so.  Their publications reveal that they were drawn to biblical imagery of embodiment and birth, to stories of the apparently weak vanquishing the tyrannical on behalf of the oppressed, and to the metaphor of Christ as strengthening rock.

Blurred Lines: When Fiction Tells the Truth

Olaudah Equiano was most certainly a key figure in the abolition movement of the eighteenth century.  His narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1789), is one of the best known of the ere and represents the story of thousands of Africans captured and forced to live a life of misery and captivity in foreign lands.  However, in a 1999 issue of Slavery & Abolition, Vincent Carretta argues that Equiano may have been born in South Carolina and therefore falsified the parts of his narrative that described his journey across the Atlantic.  I argue that the information, if true, does not detract from the value of the narrative.  In fact, I suggest that Equiano’s representation of the truth is merely a reflection of how difficult it is to make a distinction between fact and fiction.  What Equiano testified to is the traumatic experience many of his friends and family had to experience; he was simply the most proactive and vocal in sharing the truth.  Writing his story while including small embellishments based on the honest and painful truths of others around him does not make him a liar.  They make him an author of historical fiction.  Authors of historical fiction desire to tell the truth, and in order to do so, they must exist slightly outside the realm of known fact.  In his novel Someone Knows My Name, originally published as The Book of Negroes (2007), Lawrence Hill reveals heart-wrenching details of the slave trade and ends up portraying history authentically.

Set in the mid- to late-eighteenth century, Someone Knows My Name begins with an aged Aminata Diallo (an African who was captured and sold into slavery at age 11) looking back on her life.  She has found herself in London working with the British Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  They have asked her to write a memoir in the fashion of historical author Olaudah Equiano.  This frame for narration allows Aminata to recall painful events in her past with accuracy and with the wisdom of age.  We learn that as a young child she watched both of her parents brutally murdered by her captors.  She travels months on foot to a port on the coast of Africa, where she then experiences the horrors aboard a slave ship.  Once she arrives in America, she is sold to a South Carolinian indigo plantation owner.  Her memories include both beautiful and painful recollections as well as her impression of the world as a child.  For authors of historical fiction, including Hill, the overall goal is to create an authentic representation of life in the past.  Much of the authenticity in a novel comes from a recreation based on fact, artifacts, and firsthand accounts.  Difficulty arises when the author includes too much historical description and overwhelms the reader or not enough knowledge and the novel thus loses some of its desired impact.  In order to include authentic details of the slave trade, Hill must address controversial issues like imperialism, religion, and rape.

Lawrence Hill does not hesitate to address the tough and often gruesome aspects of slavery.  The authentic portrayal of life as a slave, from capture to eventual freedom, creates a dynamic backdrop for the character-driven novel; however, his attention to detail does not derail the effect of the novel.  On the contrary, the authenticity enhances the novel’s aim.  Fortunately for historians, the slave trade industry kept detailed and extensive records.  Upon investigating many of the specific details about slavery in the novel, Hill’s research becomes evident.  The description of the slave ship Aminata travels on is a perfect example of the type of authenticity Andrew Beahrs describes [1]:

Everywhere I turned, men were lying naked, chained to each other and to their sleeping boards, groaning and crying. Waste and blood streamed along the floorboards, covering my toes…Piled like fish in a bucket, the men were stacked on three levels—one just above my feet, another by my waist and a third level by my neck…The men couldn’t stand unless they stooped—chained in pairs—in the narrow corridor where I walked. On their rough planks, they had no room to sit. Some were lying on their backs, others on their stomachs. They were manacled at the ankles, in pairs, the left ankle of one to the right ankle of the other. And through loops in these irons ran chains long enough for a man—with the consent of his partner—to move only a few feet, toward the occasional cone-shaped bucket meant for collecting waste. (63-64)

The passage above is an example of Hill’s authenticity in the novel.  Details like the exact location of the chains on the men’s ankles and the horrific conditions match descriptions found in history books.

Very few firsthand accounts exist describing life as a captured African aboard the slave ships, but Equiano shares the collective experience of many Africans in his memoir:  “The closeness of the place, and the heat and the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.  This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable.”  As Carretta concludes in Equiano, the African: Biography of A Self-Made Man, the memoir is enhanced by the apparent fabrication because Equiano becomes the voice of the voiceless.  While he might not have experienced firsthand a slave ship, the power of his written voice moved people into action.  His purpose was to tell the truth of slavery, and whether or not he experienced every single gruesome detail is irrelevant in the end.  In order to tell the truth, Equiano needed to move outside the lines of personal history for an authentic representation of the entire slave journey.

In the same way, Hill romances history in order to tell the overall truth of the slave trade; the detailed and fictional accounts of Aminata’s thoughts and feelings humanize an often number-based representation of history.  Someone Knows My Name fleshes out the skeleton  that history books give us; Aminata’s journey resonates because she is human.  We can picture the young girl raped and forced to carry on working as if nothing happened (Hill 161) in a way not permitted through the statistics presented in textbooks.  Using Aminata’s life as a framework, Hill demonstrates the devastating effects of each part of the slave trade industry.  The novel exists successfully in the realm of historical fiction because Hill balances authenticity with accessibility and creates an accurate portrayal of life as a slave and, subsequently, the freed slave.  The familiar human emotions of fear, love, and hope enhance the experience and are not outweighed by the strange elements, like slavery or life in the 1700s.  Delicately interwoven with fact, the romance of history in Someone Knows My Name brings to life a difficult and often obscure part of history.  Hill’s novel is a work of historical fiction that reveals more about historical events than any textbook ever could.

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Note:

[1] Beahrs, Andrew.  “Making History:  Establishing Authority in Period Fiction.” The Writer’s Chronicle 38, no. 1 (September, 2005):  34-40.

“African” in Early Haiti, or How to Fight Stereotypes

“The Slave Ship” or “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon Coming on.” J.M.W. Turner, 1840. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The concept of Africa as a unified region whose inhabitants share a common identity developed alongside the transatlantic slave trade of the eighteenth century.  Europeans thought that the group of people they purchased and exploited (despite their vast cultural differences) belonged to a common group because of their social position.  This position was at first justified by theories of climate.  (They erroneously believed that people from “the torrid zone” could withstand hard labor in harsh climates better than those from more temperate zones.)  Gradually this inferior social position became known as that of “Africans,” which means that ancestry, geographic origin, and common physical traits became intertwined and began to define an entire group of people.  In this post, I examine, through the example of early Haiti (which was known as Saint-Domingue until 1804), the influence of a European understanding of Africa that erased nuances between different cultures.

When many twenty-first-century Americans hear the term “eighteenth century,” they might think of the beginning of the United States, the Enlightenment, or perhaps the French Revolution.  Artificial divisions between Western and non-Western histories mean that many of us learned a one-sided story about what happened in the Americas in the eighteenth century and do not often think of the many interactions between Europeans and people of other regions that happened during the time.  Sure, most of us know about the transatlantic slave trade, but we still do not often think of it as a period of contact that involved two active (albeit unequal) participants:  the slave master and the slave.  Henry Louis Gates describes what developed out of these interactions as a “veritable seething cauldron of cross-cultural contact” (4).  This “seething cauldron,” this place where cultures mixed violently, unequally, and even sometimes harmoniously, gave rise to the first successful slave revolt in the Americas.  The eighteenth century did not just end with the French Revolution, but rather with the birth of Haiti, the first black republic, and the first postcolony in the world.

Laurent Dubois, a well-respected historian of Haiti, has noted that the Haitian Revolution was an African revolution (5).  Indeed, two-thirds of the enslaved people living in Saint-Domingue at the end of the eighteenth century were born in Africa.  Beginning in the late 1780s, debates about the rights of three classes of people began in Paris:  the enslaved, the gens de couleur (free people, mainly of both European and African ancestry), and slave owners.  A lobby of slave owners known as the Club Massiac proved particularly unwilling to budge on rights for anyone with African ancestry in Saint-Domingue.  By 1791, the enslaved population took matters into their own hands and began to revolt.  Just two years later, the French commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax abolished slavery, which was made official for all French colonies in Paris in 1794.  Napoleon’s troops, however, returned to Saint-Domingue in 1801 to reestablish slavery.  They were defeated at the Battle of Vertières in November of 1803, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806) declared the independence of the nation of Haiti (from the Arawak name for the island) on January 1, 1804.

As early Haitians were carving out a position for themselves independent of one of the most powerful colonial empires of the time, they had to assert their equality as human beings and their unity as a nation.  This required a rather complicated philosophical and rhetorical manoeuver that is the subject of this post:  early Haitians had to claim that this identity known as “African”—a label that the French gave them—did not denote inferiority.  At the same time, they were not all one homogenous group known as “Africans.”

People arguing against extending the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) to people of African descent in the colonies used the term “African” to highlight that these people were foreign, different, not French and therefore excluded from access to rights.  In this moment, we can see that “African” began to take on a meaning that included anyone with non-European ancestry in the colonies (i.e., people whom French colonists wanted to omit from the new doctrines of freedom espoused by revolutionaries).

Early Haitians argued that they were equal to the French, despite the negative use of this term “African.”  Yet while “African” was a term that they sometimes championed as they were asserting their humanity, it did not achieve a sense of solidarity among the varied population of eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century Haiti.  The eighteenth-century Creole colonist and writer M.L.E. Moreau de Saint-Méry mentions the large number of different peoples represented among “the black population” of the colony.  In his work, distinctions between Africans in Saint-Domingue were glossed, detailed, and translated for those unfamiliar with the colony.  A new site developed by the French Atlantic History Group that contains advertisements for runaway slaves shows the diversity of people living in late eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue.  Slaves were described as belonging to the Nago, Congo, Senegalese, Gold Coast, Tiambo, and Arada “nations,” just to name a few (“nation” meant “group” in this context).  During the Haitian Revolution, these “nations” did not always fight together and division existed among different cultures (Jenson 620).  In addition to the diversity present among people born in Africa, slaves born in the colony (Creole) were often of a higher status than those who had survived the Middle Passage (Bossale).  The population also included people of both European and African ancestry (often the result of consensual and non-consensual relationships between masters and enslaved women).  These gens de couleur were often of a higher class and sometimes owned slaves themselves.

What it meant to be African or from Africa in Saint-Domingue at the end of the eighteenth century was complex and multifaceted, which means that in early Haiti vindicating the rights of a group of people based on their common African origin was not easy or even particularly effective.  If we examine some of the earliest writing by Haitians—their governmental documents—we see that in order to argue for Haitian national unity, the Declaration of Independence never refers to “Africa.”  “Africa” actually meant division and was counter to their vision of a new nation.  In a similar manner to Europeans, the authors (Jean-Jacques Dessalines with the aid of his secretary Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre) left Africa out of discussions of identity, but not because they thought of Africans as a unified block.  It was precisely the opposite.  For them, being reminded of Africa might distract Haitians from the new national identity that they wished to form.  If anything, the unified block had to be comprised of Haitians—a new category that Dessalines would, in his 1805 constitution, define as “black.”  By associating “black” with nationality rather than with physical traits, Dessalines challenged a developing negative conception of “race” that the Europeans were creating.  Dessalines made “black” a political project of independence.

Studying the eighteenth century, and Haiti in particular, helps us see how the meaning of the term “African” developed within the context of the institution of slavery.  This institution classified its victims based on physical traits that were common to people from a vast region that originally had been categorized only by its climate.  In the Americas, it was what this population had in common—their unfortunate position as enslaved peoples—that defined them as a group; physical traits came to represent this position.  Slavery created racial difference.

It takes philosophical argumentation to combat stereotypes that deny our freedoms as individuals.  Early Haitians contributed to eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought on freedom and human rights by challenging and redefining the categorizations set up for them by a hostile colonial ruler. They were some of the first postcolonial philosophers and provide us with a powerful example of how categorizations are ever-evolving ways of conceptualizing the world that should be considered critically and challenged accordingly.

 Works Cited

Dessalines, Jean‑Jacques.  Déclaration d’Indépendance, Centre historique des Archives nationales de Paris, AF III 210.

Dubois, Laurent.  Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2004.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.  The Signifying Monkey:  A Theory Of African-American Literary Criticism.  New York, NY:  Oxford UP, 2010.

Jenson, Deborah.  “Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the African Character of the Haitian Revolution.”  The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 3 (July 2012):  615-638.

Moreau de Saint-Méry, M.L.E.  Description de la Partie française de l’Ile de Saint-Domingue.  Philadelphia, 1797.

“Le Marronnage à Saint-Domingue,” Accessed November, 2012 at http://marronnage.info/fr/index.html.