Saturday, December 28, 2013

Readings in 'Race': A Theological Reading of Briton Hammon's 1760 'Narrative'

This is the ninth in a series of chapter excerpts from J. Kameron Carter's Race: A Theological Account---a series I've been posting to help me keep track of the argument, and to encapsulate its intensity for the interest of those who might track along. Here is where we've come so far:

Prelude
Cornel West and "The Drama of Race"
Michel Foucault and "The Drama of Race"
Immanuel Kant and "The Drama of Religion"
Albert Raboteau and the Telling of History
James Cone and "Theologizing Race"
Charles Long and "Signifying Race"
Interlude

In the third and final part of the book Carter looks at three different accounts of slavery by black writers who sought to re-interpret their situation (to some degree) from within biblical-theological narratives of Christ. The first is from the eighteenth century, and it features Briton Hammon, whose tale of pseudo-liberation centres on the theme of a Christmas rebirth.

It is notable for Carter that "Hammon's tale, along with a number of early writings by black authors, was dictated to, even cowritten with, whites" (267). This explains the "pseudo" in "pseudo-liberation" (my words), as Carter would have us see.

The Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man begins with Hammon's departure for a sea voyage "On Monday, 25th Day of December, 1747, with the leave of my Master." As Carter notes, we are not told why he departs (275). After the experience of a conditioned liberty and considerable peril, it ends "almost Thirteen Years" later with his return to General Winslow of New England, his "good old master."

In the course of the Narrative Carter counts four "groups [who] are placed in an unfavourable light: the so-called savage Indians, the Spanish, ... the Spanish governor of Cuba ... [and] the British. Although Hammon escapes the Havanan governor on an English warship, out of his element on the angry seas, "even with the British, Hammon remains in need of deliverer" (278-279).

Although the freedom to take this voyage counts as a kind of (baptismal) rebirth for the outgoing slave, for literary historian William Andrews "Hammon's [scripted] message is clear: 'Let the slave stray outside the known world of stratified white-over-black relationships ... and he will risk a life in limbo. He will become a type of the lost soul, disconnected from civilization's preserving institutions, sustained solely by the survival instinct" (269-270).

Thus, writes Carter: "The genre of spiritual autobiography affords the Hammon story a way to reconceptualize black existence by joining it to the divine economy in Jesus of Nazareth... [locating the] meaning ... of black existence beyond the confining structures of race" (273). However, he concludes, with Hammon's "'miraculous' return to his original master" we have to ask: "[W]ho is 'Jesus Christ' in the economy of the narrative if not General Winslow himself, who like the Son of God departs from his halcyon abode to enter upon a messianic mission of redeeming sinners---like Hammon?" (279).

While Hammon does experience something of a release from white supremacy, he is only able to do so provisionally---that is, while remaining within it, and thus ultimately sustaining it.

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