A new Bible exhibit struggles to grapple with America’s history of slavery
As I walked down the staircase that led to “The Slave Bible: Let the Story Be Told,” an exhibit housed in the basement of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., I prepared myself for a difficult dialogue with history. The museum had partnered with Fisk University and the National Museum of African American History and Culture to bring the exhibit to life. I remembered how the latter’s interior structure—its lowest floor depicting the early history of a people who were seized from their homes in Africa and enslaved in strange fields on the other side of the Atlantic—affected me so.
The Museum of the Bible’s colorful exhibit features a copy of the Scriptures given to enslaved Africans in British colonies in the 19th century as a way to convert them to the Christian faith. The first version of the Bible was published in 1807 and was heavily censored. Any verses that could inspire Africans to rebel were removed. Verses that supported slavery were kept, for example, Eph 6:5 says, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.”
“There are 1,189 chapters in a standard Protestant Bible. This Bible contains only 232,” Antony Schmidt, the senior curator at the Museum of the Bible, said in an interview with NPR.
“There are 1,189 chapters in a standard Protestant Bible. This Bible contains only 232."
The Bible on display in Washington, D.C., is only one of three known copies in the world and the only one available in the United States. According to Mr. Schmidt, while the Bible is not a permanent fixture at the museum, it is one of its most popular items. These Bibles were used to educate and convert enslaved Africans, many of whom were not Christians before their enslavement.
“Coming in and being able to educate African slaves would prepare them one day for freedom but at the same time would not cause them to seek it more aggressively,” Mr. Schmidt told NPR. The museum hopes that the exhibition will help visitors to understand the Bible’s “role in slavery and the struggle for freedom.”
The exhibit, however, felt lacking to me. It fails to help visitors truly understand the consequences of creating “Parts of the Holy Bible, Selected for the Use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands” (the full title of the text) in 1807. For example, displayed on a wall near the end of the exhibit are two paragraphs by African-American scholars commenting on the wickedness of the Slave Bible. But the exhibit does not include commentary by a contemporary non-African scholar or Christian thinker wrestling with the damage caused by the text. I would have wanted to see commentary from Christians more explicitly denouncing the text as part of the ravages of white supremacy and grappling with what it means for our nation to truly atone for the ways in which Christianity and racism have been connected. Instead, a statement from the exhibit’s curators on display describes the Slave Bible as “a benevolent book.”
The entire exhibit seems structured to cautiously educate but not overwhelm white people who may see themselves in those who caused the trauma on display.
The entire exhibit seems structured to cautiously educate but not overwhelm white people who may see themselves in those who caused the trauma on display. If that is the reason for the exhibit’s oversimplicity, at what cost? I am reminded of the instruction that the playwright Jeremy O. Harris received from his mentor while revising his drama “Slave Play”: Get rid of the intermission. “Why do these white folks get a break?” his mentor said. “The slaves didn’t.”
“The Slave Bible: Let the Story Be Told” also features a video from the students of Fisk University, the historically black college that loaned the Slave Bible to the museum. The video, displayed between the two paragraphs by the African-American scholars referred to above, shows the students giving their thoughts on a text that likely would have been handed to them had they lived on the British West-India Islands in the early 1800s. Instead of daring to challenge the complacency of its white visitors, the exhibit places the onus on black students to offer reflections on the Bible.
In an op-ed about the exhibit published in the black newspaper the New York Amsterdam News, the Rev. Jesse Jackson analyzes the ramifications of the text’s existence more thoughtfully than the exhibit does. “[P]onder what might have happened if the Slave Bible alone had succeeded,” he writes. “The Civil Rights Movement could never have succeeded without the blueprint of liberation described by Exodus and planted deeply in the hearts, families and churches of the African-American South.”
Perhaps the curators put into the exhibit as much as they could without making it feel too “political.” But how can we overcome the sin of slavery—and the subsequent sins of Jim Crow laws, segregation, mass incarceration—if we refuse to face its enormity? How can we learn from the moral failures of our predecessors if we are afraid to look at the damage in its totality?
“The Slave Bible: Let the Story Be Told,” which runs through Sept. 1, leaves its visitors standing on the first floor of the global history of white supremacy. Unless they are what millennials call “woke,” visitors to the exhibit will not see the horrors lying underneath the floorboards: the remains of the people who died thinking Christ wanted them chained, the corpses of black people who abandoned faith after they learned that Christians could do so much evil.
The vastness of white supremacy’s role in the history of their religion will remain a thing not seen.
Correction, July 29: An earlier version of this article referred to Anthony Schmidt as an associate curator at the Museum of African American History. Mr. Schmidt is the senior curator at the Museum of the Bible.
Yet, despite this story, America has become the least racist country in the developed world.
J Cosgrove please provide the evidence to support your statement that "America has become the least racist country". What are the criteria for determining what is racism and the degree to which it exists? What countries have been assessed? When were the studies done, and by whom?
Sometimes liberal/progressive (corrected) Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson said, America, “is now the least racist white-majority society in the world; has a better record of legal protections of minorities than any other society, white or black; offers more opportunities to a greater number of black persons than any other society, including all of those of Africa.”
As I look around I don’t see any overt signs of racism against blacks. See https://www.prageru.com/video/is-america-racist/
Now given this, blacks probably have a tougher time than any other major ethnic group. But why is that? I would look to family structure which is predominantly without a father present. It used to be equal to whites. What caused this change? Is that the real racism in America?
You demean Orlando Patterson and his work by labelling him a liberal and I say that as a liberal myself. One of Patterson’s uniqueness is one cannot place a label on him. He has various approaches and results to his research. Sometimes it is progressive and sometimes it is not. Read
Patterson was an adviser to a socialist government in the article you sent me.
J Cosgrove---you totally missed the point.
Thank you everyone for validating what I have said. By obsessing on the periphery and irrelevant, you have supported my point of view.
As an aside all this irrelevant criticism does not have anything to do with my original comments. What does the term "right wing" mean? Conservatives generally stand for freedom but with some caveats that enable freedom to prosper. So is freedom what "right wing" means? Somehow I doubt this.
A conservative is not a conservative if he or she is not dedicated to preserving the climate in which civilization emerged and thrived over the last 10,000 years. Conservatives are not conservatives if they side with a witless demagogue with authoritarian mindset who imperils the delicate balances that make democracy possible. If these concerns ARE conservative, then I'm a conservative. Freedom is a very general term and can mean many things. Bezos certainly has more freedom than the Amazon warehouse worker who'd walked 30 miles a day for very little compensation. For the people who have no health insurance, freedom to sicken and die, I guess. In China, they have less and less freedom as they build an AI-based surveillance and tracking system. Perhaps we're still better off here, but that same information and instrumentality resides with Facebook, Amazon and Google. So, if they cooperate with the government, pretty much the same deal.
You frequently write, “Thank you for validating my point,” or accuse many of us as being irrelevant. You often make these comments after other readers have written several remarks. It is difficult to know what you are talking about when you neglect to specify what you are referencing .
When people make comments that don’t address the basic arguments but something peripheral or irrelevant then that is an endorsement of the other’s argument. So I thank them. For example, all the discussion about alt right is irrelevant. Whether Patterson is a liberal or not is irrelevant. A phony claim that I only provide 5 minute videos is irrelevant as well as absurd. Rants against some person or ad hominems are fallacious arguments and another indication that the thing they are objecting to is probably right.
Something may be irrelevant to you, but vitally important to another. I joined the conversation mainly because of your comments about the alt. right, which I think it is very important to understand it correctly. I believe you are the one that stated Patterson is a liberal.
Thanks agains as you fail to acknowledge some facts. Richard Spencer is on video defending socialism if done right, does not believe in individual rights because all rights are given to people by the state, wants national health care, against free markets. I fail to see how supporting racism makes someone with these views part of the right. This moves the alt right in into the left part of the spectrum.
Patterson advised a socialist government for several years. Most would say that qualifies him as a liberal. Whether he is a liberal or not is irrelevant. He has studied race relations intensely as part of his academic work. Bringing up a 50 year old racist incident just strengthens my case. Why go back 50 years?
I want to thank America Magazine for providing the faith space to respectfully dialogue, to have this conversation on this historically sensitive faith issue-the distortion of Christianity and the distortion of the idea of God, the deployment of this distortion by humans to enslave for reasons of money making, free market capitalist profit and capitalist greed. The effort by America Magazine to create faith space for this conversation can be healing because our God, the Christian God is a God of mercy, forgiveness and healing. I want to say that for doing this America Magazine is fulfilling one of the cardinal and critical missions of our faith, the Christian faith-mercy, love and healing. May God Bless America Magazine.
There is a distinction between religion, God, Christianity and the deployment of religion, God, and Christianity by human beings to perpetuate evils such as transatlantic slave trade of peoples of African descent, any form of slavery anywhere in the world, any form of racism anywhere in the world, the pogrom of Native Americans in North America, and the holocaust of Jewish people in Nazi Germany in the name of civilization, conversion, evangelization. The evil is heightened when human beings engage in these evils in the name of God, and justify them in the name of God. On the contrary, God, the Christian God will not sanction slavery, pogrom and the holocaust.
I am a Christian. I am a Catholic. So, I know that the Church exists to pray, catechize and evangelize. However, none of these three missions can be justified by slavery, racism, slaughtering of Native Americans, and the Nazi holocaust of the Jewish people, and neither can slavery, racism, slaughtering of Native Americans, and the Nazi holocaust of the Jewish people be justified by these three missions of the Church-to pray, to catechize, to evangelize. It is an aggression against Christianity and God to use the mission of the Church-to pray, to catechize, to evangelize- to justify slavery, racism, pogrom and the holocaust.
I have always asked in faith circles and non-faith circles that we should point to any part of the bible that justifies the transatlantic slave trade of peoples of African descent, the racism against peoples of African descent in the US and in other parts of the world, the pogrom of Native Americans in North America and the Nazi holocaust of the Jewish people in Germany. No part of the Bible justifies these evils, which means these evils were driven by human beings and their economic, political, social and cultural calculations. They have nothing to do with God and Christianity.
Therefore it is an assault against the Christian faith to selectively pick few parts of the bible and call it the “Slave” Bible. The very title “Slave” Bible is internally incoherent, contradictory and chaotic in thought for you cannot slice the bible for economic, political and cultural reasons, create a new document and still call that document a “bible.” To do that is to be complicit in the evil of the transatlantic slave trade of peoples of African descent.
Finally, those who moderate the evils of racism, bigotry, xenophobia, anti-semitism, transatlantic slave trade, the pogrom and slaughtering of Native Americans, the Nazi holocaust of the Jewish people are complicit of these evils; they are enablers of these evils. To claim that one country is less racist, and praise that, is to create a spectrum, and continuum of evil, of racism. There is no continuum, degree or spectrum of evil (i.e racism). Like Hannah Arendt rightly said evil is banal. In other words evil (e.g. racism, slavery, pogrom, holocaust) is is evil in a fundamental and categorical sense- i.e. no quantification of evil can be sound and valid. You cannot moderate or grade evil. You cannot put evil on a spectrum. You cannot claim there is less racism in a particular country and praise that. You cannot claim that a particular country has become the least racist country and praise that -anyone that makes that claim and praises it opens himself or herself to the charge of being complicit in evil because you cannot vary evil, and celebrate your variation of evil. In other words every act of racism is evil. There is no high or low racism, more or less racism. Racism is racism. Every second racism occurs an evil act is committed and perpetrated. Therefore, it is evil to put racism on a spectrum and celebrate it. To put racism on a spectrum is to enable it. And it is evil to enable racism of any degree. This explains why the spiritual body and leadership of we Catholics in the United States, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has clear and categorical position against racism. The USCCB does not mince words in her categorical rejection of and position against racism.
Again, I thank American Magazine for creating the healing and faith space for this faith dialogue. Our God, the Christian God is a God of unity (John 17: 19-24), the God of love, the God of kindness, the God of healing, the God of mercy, the God of forgiveness. May He-our God, continue to heal us, comfort us, bless us, be merciful to all of us. May we all truly worship and glorify Him, our God everyday.
Your thoughtful comments are beautifully stated and appreciated.
Your thoughtful comments are beautifully stated and appreciated.
Thank you for bringing us back on focus from the earlier distraction. Racism exists sadly. For anyone who would deny this, ponder this.
With friends recently we were discussing that reincarnation might be a good experience. All of us were having difficulty imagining whom we might want to be if reincarnation were possible. The experience was quite sobering when some one indicated that he did not know whom he might want to be but he was certain that returning as a black person in America was not a choice he or anyone would aspire to. Indeed, " May He-our God, continue to heal us, comfort us, bless us, be merciful to all of us" for our smugness and mistreatment of our fellow brothers.
It is important at this juncture to be blunt, while being explicit on certain issues concerning racism, its practice and its discourse today in the country.
And my premise in this assertion is that racism-high or low -is racism. Racism has no degree, spectrum, or variation-high or low, less or big, least or large, intense or mild, heightened or softened, overt or covert, structural or explicit/physical/obvious. Racism has no amount or quality. Racism is evil-pure and simple. Racism does not lend itself to quality or quantity. To attempt to put racism on a spectrum, or scale and lionize one's choice in that spectrum or scale is un-kind, hateful, disingenuous and it subtly enables the evil of racism. It will open whoever subscribes to this nonsense and garbage(regardless of whether it is wrapped as "scholarship"), to this way of thinking about racism, to legitimate charges.
To put racism on a scale or spectrum of quantity, quality and degree-soft and hard racism, least and huge, and hence make a choice in that flawed scale or spectrum is to open oneself to the legitimate charge of being complicit in racism, to being a subtle enabler of racism.
And in putting racism on a scale or spectrum, to go to junk and rightwing media and spaces -such as Fox, AON, Breitbart, prageru as sources of information on evils such as racism, slavery, pogrom of Native Americans, Nazi Holocaust of Jewish people is incurably flawed; it is a failed attempt to be clever by half.
It is disingenuous to use sources with flawed analysis of slavery and racism to validate same flawed conclusion. It is circular reasoning. To ask sources who feel that survivors of evil such as rape, slavery, racism, pogrom, holocaust-should be grateful is to burnish evil; it is to re-constitute evil and re-present it; it is to re-invent evil and hatred through the backdoor. One can do that in right wing and alt-right spaces and media. One can do that in and with right wing "scholarship" which is produced and designed for consumption of members of particular political, social and cultural base, audience and constituency, to make them feel "cool." But one cannot do that in this respectable American journal-America Magazine. Any rightwing garbage called "scholarship" will be called to question here.
Survivors of rape, racism, slavery, pogrom, holocaust have nothing to be grateful for. Past and present perpetrators of evils (like racism, slavery, rape, pogrom, holocaust) need to be told this simple historical truth for healing to be complete-historically, morally and spiritually.
The white millenials I've mixed with seem to not be racist or anti-LGBT even at a subliminal level. My sampling may be skewed by the fact that they all have science and engineering degrees. They are relatively secure and prosperous though not as much as previous generations. It is the disenfranchised that are the worry. Racism is one of the poisonous fruits of economic inequality.
As a Catholic , I can't help but think this would never happen. Not that Catholics were better but the Church is universal and would not change something for one group
How the inspired Word of God can inspire so much perversity quite amazes me, not only in history but in the comments here! Besides racism, cultural and/or religious hegemony also has affected biblical interpretations. The cruelties and sufferings imposed on others using the Bible as the justification probably rank pretty high in the offenses against the Almighty, I would think. You just never hear that from the pulpit.
Despite this claim which was the first comment, we have over 50 comments, none of which dispute this with any evidence to the contrary.
JCosgrove, I am a person of color. America is NOT the least racist country in the developed word. Based on my experiences, racism is woven into the fabric of this country's foundation. I've been to several countries outside the U.S., and there is no doubt that America is very much still a racist country. Have you not noticed that schools, churches, and neighborhoods are still segregated.. When more than two black families move into a neighborhoods, whites start to move out? I've sat on hiring interview panels and listened to whites claim a person of color is "too qualified" for a position. I've never heard this excuse used to avoid hiring a white candidate. Any type of form to be completed by a patient, client, employment candidate, or school has a box to ask for the individuals race. Today it is totally unnecessary.. Even hospitals and doctors offices ask the question when not every black or brown person has sickle cell anemia, has strong bones, or diabetes. My experiences in other countries like Canada and England are not as racist as the U.S.
This is a great article! the closing paragraph gave me chills. Hope Mr. Mosley will become a fixture at America!