Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Subversive Rhetoric: Against Slave-Owning Americans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans

If you get there before I do
Coming for to carry me home
Tell all my friends I'm coming too
Coming for to carry me home

      Within a matrix of overwhelming repressive power, the rhetoric of the spiritual and its ability to "play" in and among the interpretive gaps and disjunctions between the social worlds of slave and slave holder became a powerful subversive tool against repression.  Such rhetoric is political; it takes sides.  It simultaneously subverts and directs power.  Black preachers and others who employed the song ["Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"] for political purposes carefully crafted a multivocal rhetoric in which both slave and slave master could participate, albeit with very different interests and understandings.
      Since the rhetoric was appropriately constructed to attend to each group's social and political interests, each group could participate in their own symbolic world of meaning.  The slaveholder certainly would not have been aware that the rhetoric signaled the arrival of the Underground Railroad and the slaves' intent for freedom here instead of the hereafter.  Those slaves who had not read 2 Kings or heard the story of Elijah preached might not have been aware that there was another signification for the rhetoric in the planter class's romanticized notions of slave piety.  Only those individuals who traveled between both worlds, such as slave preachers, would have understood the rhetoric's double signification and why the song needed such a multivalent character to be effective.
      The separatist rhetoric of Ezra 9-10 and Nehemiah 10-13 is similarly multivalent.  Like the spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," the rhetoric of Ezra and Nehemiah also emerges from a context of repression.  Judah suffered under Persian domination that was no less brutal than that of the Assyrians and Babylonians before them or that of the Greeks and Romans who succeeded them.
above, an excerpt from the chapter "Ezra and Nehemiah," by Rev. Dr. Herbert Marbury, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University, and Clergy of the North Georgia United Methodist Conference, in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel's Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora.  (HT David Ker)

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