9 thoughts on “Carter Book Event: The Birth of Christ: A Theological Readings of Briton Hammon’s 1760 Narrative (Chapter 6)

  1. The lack of any clear summary of the narrative was a major weakness in this chapter, and not just for people who haven’t read it.

    His theological reading also made little sense to me, just methodologically speaking. He is definitely reading the “ambiguities,” but it seems like the only ambiguity he finds is a series of biblical quotes. By going back and contextualizing them, he finds out that Hammon is gesturing toward Carter’s theology centered on Israel, etc. I don’t know what to call this other than pure eisegesis. It certainly isn’t a strong basis for taking what was clearly a piece of propaganda for the slave system and then claiming that it is actually liberatory, even if only in part. The fact that he gives such qualified praise to a narrative of returning to slavery is deeply disturbing to me in light of the way that he critiques Douglass’s theological framing of the act of standing up for himself against his master in the next chapter.

  2. Anthony, thank you for your summary of Chapter 6 of this work.

    Adam, in Carter’s Cone chapter, he was critical of Cone’s dialogical interpretation of Tillich’s dialectic. To read such oppositional thinking as conversational is like shoving a camel through the eye of a needle.

    Thank you for providing the link to the Britton Hammon Narrative. I had to read it over twice since I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Whether theological eisesgesis can be considered “purely” eisegesis is a matter of debate, and I will leave that to “biblical” theologians.

    What is important for Carter is that Britton Hammon used the 18tch century Puritan Christological understanding of Psalm 34, included it in the conclusion of “his” Narrative to fit his self and story within the narrative of ancient Israel.

    Yet, nevertheless, I would caution against overemphasizing Psalm 34 in the death of Christ (oh, thank God Jesus was not made handicapped) out of concern for excluding our sisters and brothers with disabilities.

    In terms of soteriology, J Kameron Carter would have done well to include Delores Williams’ Womanist interpretation of the Abraham/Hagar story (which he mentions as stories in which Whiteness supersedes- top of page 262). Salvation, for Williams, is God providing the tools for survival. It is very possible to read Hammond’s story as one of providence of survival (God as Provider is mentiond 4 times). According to this vision, like Father Abraham, the master, General Winslow, is an instrument of God’s provision, rather than simplistically a savior figure. As Jay argues, Hammond is the counter-Messiah, since it is he who is like the one raised from the dead.

  3. What is important for Carter is that Britton Hammon used the 18tch century Puritan Christological understanding of Psalm 34, included it in the conclusion of “his” Narrative to fit his self and story within the narrative of ancient Israel.

    All we know for sure is that Hammon, or his editor, quoted Psalm 34. The reasons and theology behind that quotation are a matter of speculation. It seems more likely to me that he’s quoting it because it’s a particularly vivid example of God saving someone from danger.

  4. Once again, thanks for the care with wich you (Anthony and the discussants on this website) have engaged my work. The semester is reving up here at Duke and along with the other writing projects I’m working on, I’ve not be checking in as regularly. My apologies for that.

    I do think, Anthony, that you’ve got your finger on something that I was trying to think through in this early work of mine—and that quite frankly I’m still thinking through—without any real help out there in theological literature at the time to help me.

    Now in the critical literature, I might have found some assistance in Judith Butler’s work, but I was unfamiliar with it at the time, though since then (especially because of the ways in which I’m pressing my research forward) I’ve become much more acquainted with her work. And a feature of her work that I’ve become much more acquainted with and that I think is helpful as an aid to in wrapping one’s mind around what I’m trying to theoloigcally in the book is her notion of “metaleptic reversal.” (See _the Psychic Life of Power_ for the following reflections.)

    With this notion, Butler calls attention to what can be called the founding ambivalence of agency. I think this notion of ambivalence is isomorphic with the notion of ambivalence that I’m trying to theologically capture in this chapter. What is the founding ambivalence of agency and how might this notion of ambivalent agency be tweaked so as to grapple with the structural/ontological reality of the Black?

    Butler narrates it as the ambivalence of a double-bind: on the one hand, subject formation takes place through an external power that enacts the subject, and then on the other hand, there is the turn against those very conditions in order for the subject to emerge. To state if again, on the one hand, there is the power that forms the subject by acting on it to consitute it from the outside, and yet, there is the power that the subject “owns” and by which it acts or by which a subject acts. In the latter case, in contradistinction from the former, power is interior. It has a psychic life that works in tandem with desire, love, and so forth. In order to get to latter or to the subject as owner of power or to the subject as agent, there must be, Butler says, a reversal, a turning, against the former or the power as external. When this happens what becomes clear is that agency exceeds the very power that inaugurates it at the same time that agency remains bound up with the very power that inaugurates it. This the ambivalence of agency at the same time that agency is predicated on a “conversionary” turn—my term because theologically loaded, not Butler’s. Agency, ambivalence notwithstanding, in this scenario is a tied to a subject who subjectivity is (er-)consituted in “repentance”. As a subject-in-“repentance”, its agency is that of a “turning from” and in this sense is a reborn agency.

    OK. Now I didn’t this theorize/theologize this out in the Hammon chapter on the birth of blackness for the reasons mentioned above. I was theologizing beyond the theoretical tools at my disposal at that time as I was trying to make sense of a form of Afro-Christian life that was ambivalently linked to the very religion that positioned the black as a “voided” subject, a subject in the void of death, or in short, as a Slave. Yet, I was nevertheless trying to think through in the Hammon chapter how the ambivalent birth of blackness was contiguous and articulated with the birth of Christ and the reinauguration of the human that is realized in his flesh. I was clear at the time, and remain committed to it now, that the imbrications of blackness with a reversed or repentant understanding of the identity and work of Christ requires more than just a “strategic” or “tactical” approach to making sense of black folks’ turns to Christianity (those who did at least; for not all blacks buy Christianity, and not everyone buys it the same way). This is why I don’t turn to first or second wave womanism to explain what I’m suggesting here, for as Butler’s theory of subjection makes clear, agency and thus the subject is consituted (and not just tactically so) by and in the very power it turns against. And to turn against that power, is not simply to take leave of it. One’s turn from power is still an imbrication in and with it. Therefore, the question haunting this account repentant subject formation and the ambivalent scene of agency (and thus my chapter, though at the time I had not the conceptual tools at my disposal to better articulate it) is how to affirm participation (in this case, in Christianity) as the basis of agency (political and otherwise) and yet “insist that agency “may do more than reiterate the conditions of subordination” (Butler)?

    This chapter and the following ones are efforts to begin to interpret the ambivalent scene of an Afro-Christian subjectivity as fulfilling these conditions and thereby interpret Christian subjectivity as turned, in repentance, toward the Slave and thus in light of a theory of blackness in which black subjectivity is always already under erasure.

    Thart is to say, one could say I was already working under the presumption of a theory of blackness, of black positionality and ambivalent subjectivity within the order of modernity, in ways that are akin to Butler, but more precisely struggling to be worked out christologically. For we could say in light of the Hammon, Douglass, and Lee chapters of my book that blackness is “created” in the Middle Passsage and inside of the void of the Slave Ship through the external deployment of the power of a God-Man, the imperial God-Man or the Imperial/White Masculine. What we see in Hammon is a “metaleptic reversal” (Butler’s powerful phrase), a subject-emerging-in-“repentance” (where of course, “to repent” is “to turn”). I thematize this repentance in this chapter as blackness born again.

    Now of course, this only works to the extent that the identity and the work of Jesus Christ are severed from the consituting power of whiteness, from white iconography and icon-optics, and Jesus Christ reimagined through the figure of the slave (cf. Phil 2). This is a reimaging that this book presupposes but does not theologize all the way out. This is the subject of much of my current work now.

  5. “So for instance we find him writing, “For as there can be resistance through the rejection of ‘the religion of the master,’ there can also be resistance through its appropriation. In the latter case, the resistance effects renewal (267).” Now, this is fair enough and falls well within his advocacy of a theological reading of the history of race, but we also see him throughout the text owning up to the fact that a theological reading does not necessarily result in abolitionist thought. My question, after reading this chapter, is what is primary: the theological reading or a more practical commitment to equality? Or, if equality is too embedded in the logic of whiteness and universality, a commitment to the free self?”

    Do you think Carter’s last comment answers this question or at least helps unpack the ambiguity you see?

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