Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories

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Overview

As early as the 1780s, African Americans told stories that enabled them to survive and even thrive in the midst of unspeakable assault. Tracing previously unexplored narratives from the late eighteenth century to the 1920s, Laurie Maffly-Kipp brings to light an extraordinary trove of sweeping race histories that African Americans wove together out of racial and religious concerns.

Asserting a role in God's plan, black Protestants sought to root their people in both sacred and secular time. A remarkable array of chroniclers—men and women, clergy, journalists, shoemakers, teachers, southerners and northerners—shared a belief that narrating a usable past offered hope, pride, and the promise of a better future. Combining Christian faith, American patriotism, and racial lineage to create a coherent sense of community, they linked past to present, Africa to America, and the Bible to classical literature. From collected shards of memory and emerging intellectual tools, African Americans fashioned stories that helped to restore meaning and purpose to their lives in the face of relentless oppression.

In a pioneering work of research and discovery, Maffly-Kipp shows how blacks overcame the accusation that they had no history worth remembering. African American communal histories imagined a rich collective past in order to establish the claim to a rightful and respected place in the American present. Through the transformative power of storytelling, these men and women led their people—and indeed, all Americans—into a more profound understanding of their interconnectedness and their prospects for a common future.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist

Maffly-Kipp draws on lectures, sermons, plays, poetry, and other works of several little-known writers from the American Revolution and WWI that reflect on how the black community in the U.S. has attempted to record and analyze the meaning of the African diasporic experience. She explores the works of free blacks during slavery as they attempted to write their own histories and examine their circumstances as distinct and similar to that of slaves. Among those she examines: Lorenzo Dow Blackson, a self-educated African American Methodist preacher; Jacob Oson, a teacher at an African American school in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1800s; and George Washington Williams, who in the late 1800s attempted to write the history of the African race. These writers add valuable perspective to the works of better-known black authors and a full perspective on African American history.
— Vanessa Bush

Books & Culture

Maffly-Kipp resists simpler analyses that would cast these race histories in unapologetic "heroic" mode or cram them all into the model of "liberatory" texts or (going the opposite direction) decry their tendency to follow European and Protestant models of historical narrative. Instead, she gives a rich and satisfying account of texts in which "race" was only a partial unifier...[An] impressive feat of intellectual history and literary recovery.
— Paul Harvey

Paul Harvey
Maffly-Kipp resists simpler analyses that would cast these race histories in unapologetic "heroic" mode or cram them all into the model of "liberatory" texts or (going the opposite direction) decry their tendency to follow European and Protestant models of historical narrative. Instead, she gives a rich and satisfying account of texts in which "race" was only a partial unifier...[An] impressive feat of intellectual history and literary recovery.
Jon Sensbach
This remarkable piece of historical writing allows us to eavesdrop on discussions of fundamental importance to African Americans through the course of the long nineteenth century about the nature of blackness, about divine destiny in history, about the emotional and historical connections between Africa and black America, and about the past as a guide to the future.
Judith Weisenfeld
Laurie Maffly-Kipp's work reveals the rich theological imaginations of vernacular religious thinkers who offered their readers bold histories of the world and religious interpretations of African American peoplehood. A major contribution to the field of African American religious history.
David Hall
A challenging analysis of how African Americans understood themselves, challenging because it alters so much of what we take for granted. A deeply human book.
Leigh E. Schmidt
Maffly-Kipp traces, with great care and originality, the development of African-American collective history and memory from the Revolution into the early twentieth century. She offers a profound reflection on how historical consciousness is formed.
Booklist - Vanessa Bush
Maffly-Kipp draws on lectures, sermons, plays, poetry, and other works of several little-known writers from the American Revolution and WWI that reflect on how the black community in the U.S. has attempted to record and analyze the meaning of the African diasporic experience. She explores the works of free blacks during slavery as they attempted to write their own histories and examine their circumstances as distinct and similar to that of slaves. Among those she examines: Lorenzo Dow Blackson, a self-educated African American Methodist preacher; Jacob Oson, a teacher at an African American school in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1800s; and George Washington Williams, who in the late 1800s attempted to write the history of the African race. These writers add valuable perspective to the works of better-known black authors and a full perspective on African American history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674050792
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2010
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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Table of Contents

  • Introduction

  1. Wonders of the Ancient Past
  2. The Children of Gilead
  3. The Serpentine Trail
  4. Exodus and Ethiopia
  5. The Negro Race History
  6. “The Grand Traditions of Our Race”

  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

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