Nick Liao has written an article for our church website showing the peril churches face when the stories and histories of the black Christians are ignored.
Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. Like the scores of black women who anonymously labored under the institution of antebellum (pre-Civil War) slavery, she was a victim of sexual harassment. For nearly a decade, Jacobs was forced to suffer almost daily the predatory advances of her white owner, James Norcom.
Jacobs’s experiences were not wholly unique, but what set her apart is that she simply lived to write about them. Escaping Norcom and eventually reaching the North, Jacobs would chronicle her experience as a slave in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), perhaps the earliest autobiographical narrative we have from a black woman.
In her narrative, Jacobs not only recounts her harrowing ordeal at the hands of Norcom, but also reflects on the meaning of that experience in relation to her Christian faith. Fascinatingly, she connects her own suffering to the crucified Christ who entered into the God-forsakenness of Holy Saturday.
Theologian Peter Heltzel notes the startling contrast between Jacobs’ theology and that of contemporary white evangelicalism; where evangelicals tend to fix their gaze on the triumphant, exalted Christ, Jacobs instead identifies with the wounded flesh of a poor, crucified Jew left to die. As a persecuted black woman, Jacobs provides a way to theologically interpret what would otherwise appear to be meaningless pain.
Stories like Harriet Jacobs’s are virtually unknown to most Christians. The lives of black Christians are sidelined in most histories of the church, often entirely absent from the annals of great theologians, saints and martyrs.
We are the poorer for it.
When we bracket the powerful witness of black Christians like Harriet Jacobs, we miss out on the story of a people who maintained faithfulness to God in the face of trenchant opposition.