By Katherine Bassard
Special to The Commercial Appeal
As an African-American Christian scholar, I have long struggled with the fact that the Bible was used to justify slavery.
The Old Testament patriarchs were all slaveholders. The same apostle Paul who wrote “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) also wrote, on more than one occasion, “Slaves, obey your masters.”
When I began to research African-American women writers and the Bible, this historical fact led to two questions.
First, what did African-American women see in the Bible? How did they get past the negative images and stereotypes that associated the Bible with slavery?
Second, what did African-American women do with the Bible? How did they imagine readings that countered those negative images and, in a sense, write themselves into the Bible’s vision of redemption and grace.
The answers to these questions became the framework for my book, “Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible.” However, imagine my surprise when what began as an intellectual project became deeply personal.
In 2005 I stumbled upon a deed in the archives of the University of Virginia showing that on June 23, 1891, my great-grandfather, Lafayette Banks, who may have been born in slavery, purchased five acres from Sarah Carter Randolph, the former mistress of Round Top Plantation in Albemarle County, Va., for $25 “cash in hand.”
Mrs. Randolph had been the wife of Benjamin Franklin Randolph, who was the son of Martha Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson’s grandson. Round Top Plantation sat eight miles due south of Monticello, and in 1891 my great-grandfather became owner of a small piece of that land, marking the deed with an X.
Lafayette was born in 1853 and died in Blenheim, Va., in 1927. The 1910 census listed him as a widower and head of household consisting of one son, Roscoe, my grandfather. At 57 Lafayette could, according to the census taker, read but not write.
The discovery of the deed that recorded my great-grandfather’s transformation from (possibly) property to property owner has led, more recently, to other discoveries that provide insight into African-Americans’ complex relationship with the Bible.
The first document consisted of the Bible pages of the Randolphs, which recorded the marriages, births and deaths of the white family from 1834-1896. The second document was the actual Diary of Benjamin F. Randolph, with entries from 1835 to 1843.
To my utter astonishment, seated at a lighted desk in Small Special Collections at the University of Virginia, I opened the diary to see written, at the top of page one, “References to Scripture authority for the Institution of Slavery.”
Painstakingly written in Protestant canonical order were entire proof-texted Scripture verses from Genesis 9:35 — the curse of Ham — to Timothy 2:9 in the New Testament.
Like his grandfather, Thomas Jefferson, who had cut holes in the Bible to discount the supernatural, forming the great homage to the enlightenment popularly known as The Jefferson Bible, Randolph had formed a canon of his own making, much smaller and narrower, one that ensured that the people he owned would be denied the right to the type of lineage inscribed in his family Bible pages.
No family Bible record survives of my family from the 19th century, and I will never know how my great-grandfather felt as he handed over the $25 (his life savings?) to a former slaveholder.
I take great comfort, however, in a small detail gleaned from the 1920 Census, seven years before his death. In 1891 he signed his name with an X. In 1910 he could read, but not write. In 1920, the census taker recorded that, at age 67, he could read and write.
Dr. Katherine Clay Bassard is professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. She will discuss and sign copies of her new book, “Transforming Scriptures: African American Women and the Bible,” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the University Center Theater at the University of Memphis. She also will be CBU professor David Dault’s guest on “Things Not Seen: Conversations about Culture and Faith,” broadcast at 11 a.m. Sunday on KWAM News Talk 990 AM.