Monday, February 15, 2010

defining (Black) women


People of African descent have long been told that slavery, mercifully, introduced Africans (and, later, African Americans) to Christianity.  However, this assertion is not completely true.  Proof of this is found in 1 and 2 Esdras, two apocryphal books that have roots connecting them directly to two African countries--Ethiopia and Egypt....  The book of 1 Esdras, estimated to be written in the first century, is canonical for Coptic Christians....  Coptic Orthodox Christianity is said to have been established by the Apostle Mark in Egypt during the first century....  In addition, 2 Edras is absent from the Western Christian canon but is canonical for Ethiopian Christians....  The Ethiopian Church still credits its beginnings to the evangelism of Philip [evangelizing the Ethiopian eunuch].
      While those in the African diaspora, in general, may be helped by 1 and 2 Edras, African American women in particular may be helped by chapter 4 of Esdras.  Of interest is the story in Chapter 4 that depicts the king's three bodyguards competing to prove the meaning of true strength.  It is the third bodyguard, Zerubbabel, who wins the contest by combining knowledge of womanhood and truth to highlight strength....  Zurubbabel portends two images of women--the concubine or mistress, and the dutiful wife.  Attaching images or even labels to women is nothing new.  For example, since most Black women during antebellum America were enslaved, many in society expected them to play the role of plantation "mistress."  This usually occurred through either coercion or force.  Historically, Black women were rarely perceived as the "dutiful wife" as there were no legal systems to protect this social designation for the enslaved.  Among other things, marriages was seen as a sign of civilization and social stability.  In this way, Zerubbabel helps by highlighting the strength and social contributions of wives and mothers.
       Contemporary literary critics suggest that the fictional writings of Black women in nineteenth-century America demonstrate a dialectic tension between marriage and freedom....  [E]nslaved Black women were rarely afforded protection or status through marriage.  While Zurubbabel's admiration of women is undoubtedly high, his two images of womanhood are rather narrow.  Contemporary Black women might ask, "Are we only mothers or mistresses?"  Perhaps this serves as a reminder that even the best intention to define women can be insufficient:  no one can define us better than we can.


above, an excerpt from the chapter "1-2 Esdras," by C. L. Nash, in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora.  (HT David Ker)

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