Count me among the millions of those who watched the agony of Kunte Kinte a half-century ago and were deeply, deeply moved. Roots, a story--a novel, really--by Alex Haley, affected me so powerfully that it sent me scurrying to uncover my own. Sometimes people wonder why I care about my own Dutch Reformed background. Alex Haley made me wonder who I was when I really didn't know, and ethnicity--even the lack it--is one ingredient in the identity cocktail.
[I spent too many years reading term papers not to say anything about Haley's shameful plagiarism in that book; but that's a story for another time.]
Kunte Kinte's story was very bitter but incredibly wholesome. White folks don't fare well in Alex Haley's portrayal of the lives of his ancestors. Roots was a main stage production that wouldn't let America look past the rising action of its own story. Me either. And even though I'd spent a number of years outside the church back then, it still hurt me to see that sometimes--oftentimes--the madmen spouting scripture did the most savage bloodletting.
That phenomenon is front-and-center in 12 Years a Slave, too, a great film that likewise creates downright beasts out of bible-toting Christians from south of the Mason-Dixon, men as deft with a whip as they are quick with proof texts. When it comes to slavery, the sullied past of evangelical America is haunting.
And it's there again in Sue Monk Kidd's bestseller, Oprah-blessed, The Invention of Wings, a powerfully plot-driven novel of two women, one of whom Ms. Kidd pulls from the pages of real American abolitionist history, Sarah Grimke. Sarah and her sister Angelina turned their back on their family, went north from their home in Charleston, and became marquee lecturers on the abolitionist circuit by forswearing their own slave-holding past.
Fascinatingly, Ms. Kidd's novel creates something of a twin character, a slave girl named Hetty or "Handful," who is all of that. Hetty's mother teaches her that the only way to live with slavery is to keep a live portion of yourself in all-out revolt, a spitfire revolt that doesn't kill you--because it can--but maintains the fire of her own authentic human spirit.
The villians of The Invention of Wings are evangelical Christians like the Grimke's mother, who requires her slaves attend a Sunday School she serves up using a slaves-and-masters curriculum designed to perpetuate servitude. It's awful--not the book, but once more having to realize that men and women used the Bible to justify a way of life that would not have existed if it hadn't been fueled on blood.
Just once, I'd like to read a book about good Christian slave-holders. Did they exist? I'd like to see a movie that told stories about Bible-believers who bought into both Jesus and slavery, who didn't lock people in leg irons cast from their own damned fire and brimstone. There had to be some like that, don't you think? I have to think so.
A book some might call "the greatest American novel" doesn't have any either. When Huck Finn finally decides that staying with the slave Jim as Jim makes a break for freedom, he knows, inside and out, that his decision to keep going down the river, to not turn Jim in, is not only a crime in the South he's leaving behind, but, much worse--a sin.
And that's why little Huck utters the most famous line in all of American literature: "All right then, I'll go to hell."
The book my parents read from when I was a boy, the Bible specifically designated for kids, an early version of Catharine F. Vos's The Children's Story Bible, made it perfectly and memorably clear that that son of Noah named Ham got himself cursed for laughing at his soused father and then went south in the family's diaspora, to Africa, where his people would live and prosper as servants of the other brothers. Slavery was that clear, that biblical.
I put out a note to faculty years ago, just to see if anyone had that fat old blue book around somewhere, and I found one. I photocopied the passage and, as long as I taught Huck Finn I brought that passage up in class to college students who seemed nowhere near as shocked as I had been at the way I'd been reared. It was a passage I remembered hearing as a boy, a biblical interpretation just as dangerous as anything those Southern Christian bigots could spout.
It was in me too somewhere, this despicable theology of race and faith.
Dutch immigrants to this country, I'm told, deliberately steered away from the American south in the immigration wave that populated west Michigan, southeast Wisconsin, and south central Iowa before the Civil War. Despite their own slave-trading past, those wooden shoes wanted no part of an institution that America held onto longer than most in the Western world because it clearly empowered the American South.
A century later in a small town in Wisconsin, when the Schaap family finished supper, my father would grab our well-worn copy The Children's Story Bible and read a story or two to us kids, our own family altar.
I never had a slave, never owned a whip; but, as a boy, I knew something about slaves because I knew the story of Noah and his sons, and where specifically one the boys, that one named Ham, had gone, where he went and what he did and why it was he served us.
That's what I was told.