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.