Slave pen, Alexandria, Virgina by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Slave pen, Alexandria, Virgina, Taken 1861–65; printed 1880–89, Photograph, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC, Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., LC-DIG-ppmsca-34798

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The Pen is Mighty

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Few parts of the Bible have had direr consequences in human suffering than the ones that urge enslaved persons to respect and obey their masters. The costs of these verses are on display in this photograph from the period of the American Civil War, taken near the capital city of Washington. This image is haunted by the shades of Scripture in the practice of chattel slavery, and with the protests of enslaved persons who bore the weight of biblical interpretation that fastened them in chains.

In her old age, Nancy Ambrose, grandmother of theologian and philosopher Howard Thurman, refused to hear any writings attributed to the apostle Paul, because of passages like 1 Timothy 6:1–2 (Thurman 1949: 30). She had been enslaved as a girl on a plantation in Florida, and had heard the preachers brought in by the slaveholder to preach biblical obedience to earthly masters. It is not difficult to imagine similar voices interpreting Scripture in this ‘slave pen’, where biblical discourses of captivity and servitude would have been whispered by captives and proclaimed by captors.

Pictures from the early days of photography, like this one, often receive attention for their documentary quality. But even as this image documents, it also functions as art that troubles and vexes the viewer’s perspective, and provokes pathos. This image is a profound commentary on and indictment of the practice of slavery, obliterating any myths about happy slaves or kindly masters. An iron-barred and double-latched door frames an inner yard, where more doors lead to cells where enslaved persons were kept. The most meagre of windows provide the only access to the world outside.

The photograph also evokes other spaces of subjection and violence, authorized and undergirded by biblical interpretation: the Inquisition, the colonial barracks, the Middle Passage, the concentration camp, the prison. It reminds us that not all readings of the Bible are life-giving, and indeed many come at great human cost.

 

References

Powery, Emerson B., and Rodney S. Sadler. 2016. The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved (Louisville: Westminster John Knox)

Thurman, Howard. 1949. Jesus and the Disinherited (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury)


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