Thursday, March 17, 2011

How Sophia Auld Taught You to Read the Bible

In the Second Testament, 1 Peter 2:18-25 does something very similar to Ephesians 5:21-33 in that it holds up the unjust suffering of slaves as a mirror of the suffering of Christ, and enjoins slaves therefore to submit even to cruel masters. We have long ago rejected that comparison as illegitimate. It is time to acknowledge the same dangers in the wedding of the bride of Christ.
--Carolyn Osiek, 2002

I am, as it is obvious, both black and a woman....  It is a disadvantage because America as a nation is both racist and anti-feminist....  In 1966, the median earnings of women who worked full time for the whole year was less than the median income for males who worked full time for the whole year.  In fact, white women workers made less than black male workers, and of course, black women workers made the least of all.  Whether it is intentional or not, women are paid less than men for the same work, no matter what their chosen field of work.  Whether it is intentional or not, employment for women is regulated more in terms of the jobs that are available to them....  Whether it is intentional or not, when it becomes time for a high school girl to think about preparing for her career, her counselors, whether they be male or female, will think first of her so-called natural career -- housewife and mother -- and begin to program her for a field with which children and marriage will not unduly interfere.  That's exactly the same as the situation of the young black students who the racist counselor advises to prepare for service-oriented occupations, because he does not even think of them entering the professions....  We must replace the old, negative thoughts about our feminity with positive thoughts and positive actions affirming it, and more.  But we must also remember that we will be breaking with tradition, and so we must prepare ourselves educationally, economically, and psychologically in order that we will be able to accept and bear with the sanctions that society will immediately impose on us.
--Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, 1970

Mr. and Mrs. Auld [my new Master and Mistress] were both at home [in March 1826], and met me at the door with their little son Thomas, to take care of whom I had been given [as my service-oriented occupation without wages].  And here I saw what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions; it was the face of my new mistress, Sophia Auld.  I wish I could describe the rapture that flashed through my soul as I beheld it.  It was a new and strange sight to me, brightening up my pathway with the light of happiness.  Little Thomas was told, there was his Freddy, -- and I was told to take care of little Thomas; and thus I entered upon the duties of my new home with the most cheering prospect ahead.
--Frederick Douglass, 1845

God said:
Let us make humankind, in our image, according to our likeness!
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God did he create it,
male and female he created them.
--the ancient beginnings of the Hebrew Bible, translated by Fox

Sometimes, it's good to remember our history.  It can help us re-form our present and our future for ourselves and for our children and for their children.  History may be extremely important as we read the Bible.  Won't we read it?  How?

Today, I want to post on how Sophia Auld taught you and me to read the Bible.  I want to show how Bible reading has changed us, because of her, and how it might help us more.  The traces of this stream go from the Hebrew Bible to Aristotle to the Greek Bible to Jesus.  The traces of the stream continue to Paul.  They go to Sophia Auld to Frederick Douglass to Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  They go to Julia Evelina Smith to Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln to Victoria Clafin Woodhull to Shirley Chisolm to Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton to John Glenn to Sarah Palin to Barack Obama.  They go to Carolyn Osiek, and then to you and me.

Yesterday, Rod posted on how Shirley Chisolm entered American politics and helped us acknowledge the dangers of "the old, negative thoughts about ... feminity."  That's not an unimportant trace here in the stream of our history.  And Rod goes deeper into history to quote Frederick Douglass also; more on that in a moment.

A couple of days ago, I posted on how Carolyn Osiek has given us a very important call to read as illegitimate any uses of Jesus -- in Aristotelian ways -- to prop up slavery or hierarchical "complementarian" marriage.  Commenter John Radcliffe encouraged me to give her conclusion, which is now reposted here as the first epigraph above.

I'm re-membering, outlining, re-calling but not in chronological order so much.  Jacqueline Jones Royster would re-mind us how our past is a stream in which there are traces.  Royster finds herself in the stream, as a woman, as an African American, as one literate, as she writes history (her Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change Among African-American Women). Likewise, Michelle Baliff helps us remember that we're in the history that we would write, translate, and read; in her "Re/Dressing Histories; Or, On Re/Covering Figures Who Have Been Laid Bare by Our Gaze," (Rhetoric Society Quarterly, v22 n1 p91-98), Baliff recalls with some justified protest the following:
According to Aristotle’s aesthetics, a narrative must be arranged according to some organizing principle.... Aristotle also offers us the classificatory system of binaries to help us order our stories, to order our experiences, to order ourselves.... But perhaps Woman can (un)speak in the unthought, not-yet-thought, non-spaces produced by alternative paradigms, by new idioms, by paralogical and paratactical and, thus, illegitimate discourses. What... if our narrative had no syllogistic, metonymic, linear or triangular structure? .... What if Truth were a Woman... what then? Cixous replies, Then all stories would have to be told differently....
So now let's pretend we're starting our story differently.  Let's start again with Sophia Auld.

Historian Henry Luis Gates starts us in 1827.  Says this of Frederick Douglass:  "Asks Sophia Auld to teach him to read, and learns the alphabet and words of up to four letters.  Lessons are stopped by Hugh Auld [Frederick's Master and Sophia's Husband], who believes that learning makes slaves discontented and rebellious."

Historian Sandra Thomas keeps us there.  She notes:
Upon Frederick's arrival at the Auld Home, his only duties were to run errands and care for the Auld's infant son, Tommy. Frederick enjoyed the work and grew to love the child. Sophia Auld was a religious woman and frequently read aloud from the Bible. Frederick asked his mistress to teach him to read and she readily consented. He soon learned the alphabet and a few simple words. Sophia Auld was very excited about Fredericks progress and told her husband what she had done. Hugh Auld became furious at this because it was unlawful to teach a slave to read. Hugh Auld believed that if a slave knew how to read and write that it would make him unfit for a slave. A slave that could read and write would no longer obey his master without question or thought, or even worse could forge papers that said he was free and thus escape to a northern state where slavery was outlawed. Hugh Auld then instructed Sophia to stop the lessons at once!

Frederick learned from Hugh Auld's outburst that if learning how to read and write was his pathway to freedom, then gaining this knowledge was to become his goal. Frederick gained command of the alphabet on his own and made friends with poor white children he met on errands and used them as teachers. He paid for his reading lessons with pieces of bread. At home Frederick read parts of books and newspapers when he could, but he had to constantly be on guard against his mistress. Sophia Auld screamed whenever she caught Frederick reading. Sophia Auld's attitude toward Frederick had changed, she no longer regarded him as any other child, but as a piece of property. However, Frederick gradually learned to read and write. With a little money he had earned doing errands, he bought a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of speeches and essays dealing with liberty, democracy, and courage.
A couple of things, or more to note in re-reading these accounts.  First, Frederick Douglass wrote his own biographies,  which Gates also has edited and expanded with the timelines.  Second, Douglass actually had no ill will against his Master or his Mistress or their Son, whom he was to serve.  Third, Douglass had the idea to learn to read.  Fourth, Sophia Auld was, at first, happy to help him.  Fifth, it was illegal for her to help him read, illegal in the real sense that the laws of the United States of America prohibited her from teaching him.  Sixth, she would disobey her husband, who was over her, if she did not stop.  Seventh, although she would not or could not rebel, she opened up the Bible to Douglass, and he learned how to become free.  Eighth, official American freedom did not come until abolitionists in England paid for Douglass's freedom.

So, was the Bible just a little blip for Frederick Douglass as Sophia Auld read it aloud to him as she taught him to read it for himself?  The answer is No.  The Bible played a huge part of Douglass's freedom, his own, his abolition work, and his feminist work.  More on that in a moment.  It's worth our hearing Douglass in his own voice.  Be thankful you, like him, can read!
... I frankly asked her to teach me to read; and, without hesitation, the dear woman began the task, and very soon, by her assistance, I was master of the alphabet, and could spell words of three or four letters.  My mistress seemed almost as proud of my progress, as if I had been her own child; and, supposing that her husband would be as well pleased, she made no secret of what she was doing for me.  Indeed, she exultingly told him of the aptness of her pupil, of her intention to persevere in teaching me, and of the duty which she felt it could teach me, at least to read the bible.  Here arose the first cloud over my Baltimore prospects, the precursor of drenching rains and chilling blasts.

Master Hugh [Auld] was amazed at the simplicity of his spouse, and, probably for the first time, he unfolded to her the true philosophy of slavery, and the peculiar rules necessary to be observed by masters and mistresses, in the management of human chattels.  Mr. Auld promptly forbade the continuance of her instruction; telling her, in the first place, that the thing itself was unlawful; that it was also unsafe, and could only lead to mischief.  To use his own words, further, he said, "if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell;"  "he should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it."  "Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world;"  "if you teach that nigger -- speaking of myself -- how to read the bible, there will be no keeping him;"  "it would forever unfit him for the duties of a slave;"  and "as to himself, learning would do him no good, but probably, a great deal of harm -- making him disconsolate and unhappy."  "If you learn him now to read, he'll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he'll be running away with himself."  Such was the tenor of Master Hugh's oracular exposition of the true philosophy of training a human chattel; and it must be confessed that he very clearly comprehended the nature and the requirements of the relation of master and slave.  His discourse was the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen.  Mrs. Auld evidently felt the force of his remarks; and, like an obedient wife, began to shape her course in the direction indicated by her husband.
So we see how the Bible - reading it and writing subsequently from it - began to shape Frederick Douglass, thanks to Sophia Auld.

Douglass found himself working with feminists at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with several of her colleagues, wrote (and she read aloud) the Declaration of Sentiments, a more inclusive Declaration than was Thomas Jefferson's and his colleagues.  They went on to write the two volume Women's Bible, a commentary on male readings of the Bible.  There they acknowledged Julia E. Smith, a woman, for her work in translating the Bible from the Hebrew and from the Greek into English in such a helpful way, for now they could read how women, such as Eve, can bring Life, which is how Smith translated Eve's name from the Hebrew.

But let's backtrack a bit. Have we missed anything? In 1830, when it was illegal for Frederick Douglass to be taught to read because he was a black slave, a white woman, Sophia Auld, broke the law and taught Douglass how to read before he was a teenager. And then, by age sixteen, he was breaking the law by teaching other slaves to read parts of the Bible and other works that he considered abolitionist. Some years later, he married a freed slave Anna Murray -- who gained her freedom as a black person before he could; they worked together side by side.  His and Anna's marriage was not only free as the Auld's marriage was; but Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray enjoyed an egalitarian marriage as well, one in which both partners were created in God's image, female and male.

In 1846, Douglass became the publisher of several abolitionist newspapers, including the North Star, which had as it's motto: “Right is of no sex--Truth is of no color--God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren." Note the inclusivity of persons with respect to both gender "and" race.  Anna was not just his mere complement, his completer.  They were equals in sex and in race.

In 1848, Douglass participated in the first women's conference in the United States of America in Seneca Falls, New York, where he himself signed the Declaration of Sentiments.

By 1863, Douglass had been engaging President Abraham Lincoln in conversation about abolitionism and, that year, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This is the same Lincoln of whom historian Philip Magness said this month:  "He never had a chance to complete his vision. Lincoln's racial views were evolving at the time of his death."  Here's exactly what Frederick Douglass, as historian, wrote:
It is true that we have the proclamation of Jan. 1863.  It was a vast and glorious step.  But, unhappily, excellent as that paper is, it settles nothing permanently....  

President Lincoln introduced his administration to the country as one which would faithfully catch, hold and return runaway slaves to their masters. He avowed his determination to protect and defend the slaveholder’s right to plunder the black laborer of his hard earnings. Europe was assured by Mr. Seward that no slave should gain his freedom by this war. Both the President and the Secretary of State have made progress since then.

Our generals, at the beginning of the war, were horribly proslavery. They took to slave catching and slave killing like ducks to water. They are now very generally and very earnestly in favor of putting an end to slavery. Some of them, like Hunter and Butler, because they hate slavery on its own account, and others, because slavery is in arms against the government.
The rebellion has been a rapid educator. Congress was the first to respond to the instinctive judgment of the people, and fixed the broad brand of its reprobation upon slave hunting in shoulder straps. Then came very temperate talk about co...nfiscation, which soon came to be pretty radical talk. Then came propositions for Border State, gradual, compensated, colonized emancipation. Then came the threat of a proclamation, and then came the Proclamation. Meanwhile the Negro had passed along from a loyal spade and pickax to a Springfield rifle.

Haiti and Liberia are recognized. Slavery is humbled in Maryland, threatened in Tennessee, stunned nearly to death in western Kentucky, and gradually melting away before our arms in the rebellious states.

The hour is one of hope as well as danger. 
In 1870, Frederick Douglass saw that the fifteenth amendment was passed, giving blacks but not women the right to vote.

In 1872, Douglass ran as the U.S. Vice President candidate of a woman.  That woman was Victoria Clafin Woodhull, a candidate for President. Woodhull could not vote although Douglass could.

In 1882, Douglass's wife Anna Murray passed away and, a couple of years later, Douglass remarried and wed Helen Pitts.  She, with him, caused controversy because they were a mixed-race couple. Douglass, of mixed race himself, said: "This proves I am impartial. My first wife was the color of my mother and the second, the color of my father."  Again, in marriage there was equality, of sex, and of race, though the two were different.

Douglass worked side by side with Helen Pitts, for eleven years as husband and wife, until the day he took his last breath (February 20, 1890, when he died of a heart attack in the evening at home).  It was a day when Douglass, still fighting against the subjugation of women, had taken the platform at the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C.  Douglass saw the subjugation of people because of race as the same sort of problem as the subjugation of people because of gender.

In 1920 (just to keep the timeline going), some thirty years after Douglass passed away, women in the USA were granted the right to vote.  That year, Charlotte Woodward, who was with Douglass at the 1848 first national woman's rights convention, cast her vote.  At 81 years of age, Woodward was the only female participant in that convention who ever legally got to vote.

As Rod pointed out yesterday, in 1972, Shirley Chisolm entered our stream and helped us trace the dangers of "the old, negative thoughts about ... feminity."  So after Hillary Clinton, John Glenn, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama also entered with us, have the dangers gone?  As Carolyn Osiek advised use nearly a decade ago, "It is time to acknowledge the same dangers."  But how will we?  Is it just by reading the Bible?

Or isn't it by learning to read the Bible the way Sophia Auld taught Frederick Douglass to read it, when she was a subservient "complementary" wife and he an obedient "content" slave?  Teaching and learning and reading and breaking the law and "rejecting as illegitimate" the male Master's reading of the Bible?

As you read now a final bit from Douglass, remember his justified grievances with his Master Auld, with the anti-abolitionists and the anti-feminists in the U.S. government.  And remember how Sophia Auld so taught him to read the Bible and might teach us.  Hasn't Sophia Auld taught us, and -- as Carolyn Osiek says -- isn't it about time?  The italics are Frederick Douglass's, having learned illegally to read the Bible from Sophia Auld; the exclamation points are his too:
The Bible is peculiarly the companion of liberty.  It belongs to a new order of things -- Slavery is of the old -- and will only be made worse by an attempt to mend it with the Bible.  The Bible is only useful to those who can read and practise its contents.  It was given to Freemen, and any attempt to give it to the Slave must result only in hollow mockery.

Give Bibles to the poor Slaves!  It sounds well.  It looks well.  It wears a religious aspect.  It is a Protestant rebuke to the Pope, and seems in harmony with the purely evangelical movement in England to give Bibles to our Slaves, -- and this is very desireable!  Now admitting (however difficult it may be to do so) the entire honesty of all engaged in this movement, -- the immediate and only effect of their efforts must be to turn off attention from the main and only momentous question connected with the Slave, and absorb energies and money in giving to him the Bible that ought to be used in giving him to himself.  The Slave is property.  He cannot hold property.  He cannot own a Bible.  To give him a Bible is but to give his master a Bible.  The Slave is a thing, -- and it is the all commanding duty of the American people to make him a man.  To demand this in the name of humanity, and of God, is the solemn duty of every living soul.  To demand less than this, or anything else than this, is to deceive the fettered bondman, and to soothe the conscience of the Slaveholder on the very point where he should be most stung with remorse and shame.

Away with all tampering with such a question!  Away with all trifling with the man in fetters!  Give a hungry man a stone, and tell what beautiful houses are made of it, -- give ice to a freezing man, and tell him of its good properties in hot weather, -- throw a drowning man a dollar, as a mark of your good will, -- but do not mock the bondman in his misery, by giving him a Bible when he cannot read it.


John Radcliffe said...

I must say that I find the fact that there was a law prohibiting teaching slaves to read and write most enlightening.

To me this clearly implies that the law-makers didn’t think that the slaves were incapable of learning (in which case teaching them would just have been a waste of time), but that it was considered “dangerous” (from the perspective of the slave “owners”), because educated slaves would no longer see themselves as fit for nothing better (as they had been repeatedly told was the case).

And is there perhaps a parallel with those who say that only men are capable of filling certain roles involving “leadership” and “authority”, for which (they say) women lack the necessary abilities? Of course, I’ve seen no evidence to support such a claim in my lifetime, just as I haven’t seen any to support the idea that some races are inherently superior to others. (That some have been more privileged, just as men generally have been compared to women, is an entirely different matter. The question is whether there is any basis to justify the privilege.)

So is it only those who passed laws against educating slaves who should be judged by history as being self-serving?

J. K. Gayle said...

John, Yours are wonderful questions!

I especially like your asking:

"And is there perhaps a parallel with those who say that only men are capable of filling certain roles involving 'leadership' and 'authority, for which (they say) women lack the necessary abilities?"

It's quite disturbing, I think, that men in the mostly-Christian biblio-blogospher read mostly one another's blogs. And then they post rankings showing how many of these men have read their posts making them one of the Top 50. Notice how, ever since this was started, there are few to no women included in these lists. Then there are the clubs of Bible bloggers that find ways to exclude certain women. Blogger Judy Redman once commented here at this blog to say the gap between the number top-ranked male Bible bloggers and female counterparts is larger than the gap in the academic publication gap, when one just reviews Christian theological journals published.

I bring up Christians because at least one other blogger, pen named Theophratus, has suggested things are a bit better for Jewish women. At least they're a bit better in the Jewish community because, as he points out, the religious Jews are very much more interested in girls and women being biblically literate. The pay off for all of us, of course, is that there are more women Biblical scholars because of that very inclusive effort. Let me quote Theophrastus:

Certainly I am not aware of any Christian women’s study Bible that prints the text of the Bible in original languages. Little Jewish girls spend their hours after school from ages 3 to 12 learning Hebrew and preparing for their Bas Mitzvah ceremony. What do little Evangelical girls of those ages learn in Sunday School?

What may be happening, among Christians, even among bloggers who blog the Bible as Christians, is that there's a male-only bias that re-inforces itself. We see this in the big Christian Bible translation committees (all or very much mostly men), in the big Christian seminaries (like one here where I live locally) in which the women are silenced in the academic and ministry training contexts.

The parallels of sex-based kyriarchy today with the race-based slavery of not so long ago are troubling. Yes, denying certain individuals literacy because their bodies are colored red and yellow, black and brown, is not so different from denying literacy to anyone whose body is sexed female. And this sort of thing does nobody any good.