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Classical myth and bible allusion in African-American literature

The use of classical myth and bible allusion in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, written by himself and The Souls of Black Folk

The use of classical myth and bible allusion in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave, written by himself and The Souls of Black Folk

The Bible was of huge importance to African-American slaves and as such, plays a prominent role in both The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself by the afore-mentioned Douglass (hereafter referred to as the Narrative), and The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois (hereafter referred to as Souls).  This essay will explore the intertwined history of the Bible and the slave trade and therefore show how vital it was to changing the course of African-American history.  The context of the texts varies, from the Narrative published in 1845 to Souls in 1903, however both draw heavily on the historical significance of the early slave trade which demonstrates how enduring the effects of it were.  Both works also reference mythology, Du Bois in relation to Greco-Roman myths however Douglass explores this idea in a different way and chooses instead to explore the myths of his time.   This essay will examine the Bible allusions in both texts and also the references to myths and will attempt to show how vital both of these ideas were in African-American texts.

At the height of the slave trade the Bible was an inspiration to both the slaveowners and the abolitionists and the slave ideology and Christianity were inextricably linked.  It was used by whites to justify the enslavement of African-Americans and fed their desire to ensure social control and retain dominance.  Slavery was seen as a ‘sacred institution’ set out in the Bible in the story of the curse of Ham.  This was a story from Genesis 9:25-27 where Noah’s son, Ham, acts dishonourably.  When he is discovered, his son Canaan is cursed, ‘Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers’.[1]  Ham was widely renowned to be the father of the Black race, and therefore this acted as a justification for enslavement by white people.[2]  Smith, the president of Randolph Macon college claimed that ‘slavery, per se, is right…the great abstract principle of slavery is right, because it is a fundamental principle of the social state: and domestic slavery, as an institution, is fully justified by the condition and circumstances (essential and relative) of the African race in this country, and therefore equally right’.  The fact that there were apologists in such high positions as Smith shows how fully these ideas permeated American society.[3]  Black people were stripped of almost all human rights and lost their ‘socially recognised personhood’, and legislature passed that pronounced them an inferior species and property of white people.[4]  This idea was furthered by I Peter 2:18, ‘slaves, submit yourself to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh’.[5]  However, African-Americans and abolitionists interpreted the Bible in a different way and used it as a ray of hope for some eventual escape from the world they lived in, as well as an opposing argument to the slaveowners.  Many drew upon the Hebrew Bible and ‘as the people of God…were once delivered from enslavement, so…would they be delivered’, and they also used the story of Jesus’ rebirth as a sign they too would be granted a new life after their social death.[6]  The African-Americans also used the story of Moses and the Israelites as evidence against God’s supposed justification of slavery, as well as I Corinthians 12:13, ‘for we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink’ as evidence for God’s equality for all races.[7]  The African-Americans were very distrustful of the way in which the white people related the Bible’s teachings to everyday life and as such, wanted to study it for themselves.  However, the slaveowners had a dominance over the ideological areas of society such as religion, culture, education and the media and as such, the slaves were forbidden from learning how to read.  Douglass even mentions in one of his later texts that ‘masters must not know that a few of their dusky brothers were learning to read the word of God, lest they should come down on us with lash and chain’, which shows how much slaves risked by educating themselves.[8]  Some slaves went to church with their masters, and through this, began to learn Biblical teachings and realise the inequality of the way they were living.  Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 and lived as a slave for the first twenty years of his life.  Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in eastern Maryland virtually an orphan, he learnt from a young age that knowledge was key to escaping the lifestyle he had, and was initially taught to read by his Mistress, who wanted him to be able to read the Bible.  The Bible became the basis of Douglass’ teachings to other slaves, and as such, it is often referred to in his writing.  In 1938, he finally escaped to New York and declared himself a free man, changed his surname to Douglass and began his ascent to the world-renowned activist he is known as today.[9]  This first-hand experience of the inhuman ways in which African-Americans were treated and has a clear effect on the way in which he discusses the importance of the Bible throughout his writings.  In contrast, Du Bois was born in Massachusetts in 1868, three years after the Thirteenth Amendment had been passed, which abolished the slave trade across the United States.  Despite this, the way in which the enduring effects of slavery are described in Souls, published in 1903 highlights how far society still had to go in order to move towards an equal society.

As mentioned above, to Douglass the Bible was his ticket out of slavery and he was so determined to escape that he collected discarded Bible pages from the gutter in order to study them for meaning and knowledge.  Douglass was fully aware of the potential consequences of his actions, but he believed that to ‘teach slaves to read was to set them on the path leading to hatred of slavery and the consequent desire for freedom’.[10]  In the Narrative there are many Biblical allusions, which shows how deeply the abolitionist movement relied on Bible teachings and explains what an icon of salvation the Bible became for African-American slaves everywhere.  Du Bois himself referred to Douglass as a ‘“radical religious freethinker” as was Jesus himself, “the greatest of religious rebels”’, which shows what a huge impact the Narrative and his later works had on the abolitionist movement and black culture.[11]  Douglass makes many allusions to Genesis and the Garden of Eden, referring to Mr Covey, the slaveowner as ‘the snake’[12] and to the ‘excellent fruit [that] was quite a temptation’ of Colonel Lloyd’s apple tree.[13]  The snake reference is particularly interesting as Douglass also alludes to a God-like quality of omnipotence to slaveowners, ‘he appeared to us as being ever at hand’.[14]  By doing this it shows the two opposing sides to the Biblical arguments for slavery as Mr Covey is at once Satan and God, reflecting the ‘true’ and ‘false’ perceptions of Christianity that were held at the time.  It could be argued that the fruit on the tree, that only the Colonel and his family were allowed to eat, is a symbol for freedom.  The Narrative also references the Book of Job, ‘to describe the wealth of Colonel Lloyd would be almost equal to describing the riches of Job’.[15]  Mr Auld’s restriction of the education of a young Douglass, ‘a nigger should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do.  Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world’[16] echoes how Job’s quest for knowledge pertaining to God’s allowance of suffering is prevented by his community.[17]  There are also links to the Holy Communion mentioned in relation to reading, ‘when I was sent on errands, I always took my book with me…I used also to carry bread…this bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me the more valuable bread of knowledge’.[18]  This links the salvation of humankind by Jesus’ sacrifice to the salvation of African-Americans by knowledge, and shows Douglass’ deep understanding of the importance of education in order for liberation.  The Narrative continues to link the sacrifice and rebirth of Jesus to that of African-Americans resisting the slaveowners ‘it was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom’.[19]  By alluding to this idea of being cleansed from sin, Douglass may be suggesting that in order to live without sin and to live according to God’s will, slavery must be abolished.  Within the text, Douglass quotes Clerical Oppressors, an antislavery poem by Whittier that explicitly mentions Pilate and Herod, the people who sentenced Jesus to death.  By referencing this poem, Douglass is highlighting the hypocrisy of the slave trade and the reference to Pilate and Herod could be implying an abuse of power, echoing that of the slaveowners over African-Americans.  Douglass also explicitly references Matthew 23:4-28 ‘they strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel’.[20] This hyperbolic statement is used to draw attention to the ludicrous nature of the American legal system in which petty criminals such as ‘sheep-stealer[s]’ are punished yet slaveowners are encouraged by the government to continue with their clearly criminal mistreatment of other human beings.[21]  The immorality of the slave trade is confirmed with the quote from Jeremiah ‘shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord.  Shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this?’, which is clearly an anti-slavery message from God, showing his anger at the slave trade.[22]  Douglass also gives a quote from the Bible which was used as an apologist argument, ‘he that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes’, which he includes in order to show the opposing reading of the Bible that was incredibly popular at the time.[23]  Through the reference ‘I was hungry, and he gave me meat; I was thirsty, and he gave me drink; I was a stranger and he took me in’, Douglass is showing the inherent goodness in all people and disproving the assumption of many white people at the time that all African-Americans were stupid criminals.[24]  Douglass also references the story of Daniel a couple of times throughout his text, firstly ‘I had escaped a [fate] worse than lion’s jaws’[25] and then later ‘I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions’.[26]  Daniel was a slave who was sacrificed to a pit of ravenous lions but was saved by God as he was ‘found blameless’.[27]  By comparing this tale to his own, Douglass shows the true entrapment of slavery and the sense of certain death by comparing it to the lions’ den; but also the fact that God sees him as pure and innocent, despite how he is seen within society.  Through these references, Douglass subverts the common perceptions of African-Americans and emphasises the idea of the universal parenthood of God and his compassion towards all of his creatures.  It is clear that to Douglass, the Bible had great importance, not only as an anti-slavery argument, but also as his route to escape from the entrapment of slavery.

Du Bois cited the church as being ‘a social institution first, and religious afterwards’ which shows how central religion was to black culture as it acted foremost to create a sense of community within the deeply oppressed African-Americans.[28]  However, Du Bois was deeply critical of the passivity central to the Christian faith and whilst he fully appreciates the power of the ‘souls of black folk’, he implies a sense of failed leadership at the head of the black church as they were not advancing much.  Du Bois was writing during the Civil Rights Movement, therefore there was still a huge inequality within society due to the lasting effects of segregation.  The Ku Klux Klan was at large during this period too, therefore the threat of violence the slaves would have felt on the plantations was still as applicable in his contemporary society.  In the opening of his text, Du Bois says he is ‘shut out from their world by a vast veil’, referring to the white society he was not fully integrated into.[29]  This has Biblical ties to the idea of God being hidden from the world[30] but also links to the idea of ‘a thin veneer of Christianity’ that was enabling the slave trade and the negative feelings towards African-Americans.[31]  Later he mentions ‘the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight’, which obviously refers to the duality of being an African-American in a racist America.[32]  However, the reference to seven is particularly interesting.  In the Bible, seven signifies completeness, perfection and the presence of God as there were seven spirits and candlesticks before God’s throne.  The fact that Du Bois has named an African-American as the seventh son is interesting as in the Jewish faith this signifies the child is holy and therefore Du Bois may be trying to draw attention to the severity of the issue of inequality through hyperbole. [33]  There is also an allusion to the plight of the Israelites in their search for freedom ‘Emancipation was the key to a promised land of sweeter beauty than ever stretched before the eyes of wearied Israelites’.[34]  By using this reference, Du Bois is highlighting the severity of the problems of racism ‘the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour-line’.[35]  The only way to transcend this boundary is through a deep exploration of the ‘souls of black folk’, a spiritual journey which harks of that of the Israelites.  The journey to Canaan is likened to the road African-Americans have to travel in order to be free and Du Bois cites ‘the Valley of the Shadow of Death’ as his struggle towards equality.[36]  This is an allusion to Psalm 23:4, where it is stated there is no need to fear as God is always with you, thus showing Du Bois’ faith in God and the protection that God will afford him.  Du Bois alludes to Isiah ‘unto you a child is born’[37] which acts to highlight the inherent peacefulness of humans as in the original the child is hailed as ‘the Prince of Peace’.[38]  By doing so, Du Bois deliberately rebels against the violent stereotype of African Americans and shows the purity of the souls of all humans, no matter the colour of their skin.  Du Bois places a lot of importance on Biblical texts in order to understand the plight of African-Americans and to help people sympathise.

Du Bois references many myths within his text, such as that of Hippomenes and the Golden Fleece.  The myth of Hippomenes is rewritten in the fifth chapter of Souls where the race serves as a warning tale about the reunion of the North and South of America following the Civil War.  Atlanta had a very large African-American population, and therefore acts as a representation of the whole race in this myth, racing against Hippomenes (the white population of America).  This tale suggests a sneakiness on behalf of the white population, using cunning to advance in the world.  By modifying the myth to include the addition of wings to Atlanta’s feet, Du Bois may be linking this to the advances in African-American education, thus providing them a deliverance from temptation and leaving them with a deeper understanding of the world.[39]  The myth of the Golden Fleece is that Zeus gave a golden ram to Phrixus, which was then killed by Aietes and the fleece was hung in a sacred cave protected by a dragon due to a prophecy stating if the fleece was lost, the kingdom would be too.[40]  The cotton fields are the Golden Fleece of the South, ‘have you ever seen a cotton-field white with the harvest, – its golden fleece hovering above the black earth’.[41]  The white slaveowners need to retain the slaves ‘black earth’ in order to continue to create wealth through the cotton industry, and fear that if slavery ends then the economy will plummet.  The white slaveowners believed they were the ones being successful, however it is solely due to the work of the slaves that is overlooked due to their race.

Whilst Du Bois alludes to Greco-Roman mythology, Douglass chooses to explore the vein of myth in a different way, highlighting the myths that prevailed in his contemporary society, and trying to disprove the mythology of slavery.  Whilst a myth can be part of folklore, the word also refers to a widely held but incorrect belief, which is the type of myth that Douglass’ text explores.[42]  The idea of economic dependency on slavery is one discussed in the Narrative, ‘upon coming to the north, I expected to meet with a rough, hard-handed, and uncultivated population…knowing nothing of the ease, luxury, pomp and grandeur of southern slaveholders’, as this was the idea that prevailed in the south, but he was instead met with ‘the strongest proofs of wealth’.[43]  This therefore disproves the myth that slavery is integral to a strong economy, backed up by Douglass’ statement that ‘every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness’, proving that there will still be labourers even after the end of slavery.[44]  There is also the much larger myth of the inferiority of African Americans, which the whole text acts to disprove as Douglass is well educated and offers a rational and intellectual insight into the problems of slavery.  Douglass also attacks the romantic image myth of the Southern gentility and cheerful, well treated slaves by showing the slaveowners to be cruel towards the slaves and how horrendous the living conditions often were.  He writes, ‘one common bed, – the cold, damp floor’ and addresses the huge consequences of something as minor as going out at night, ‘lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rendering shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor’.[45]  This clearly disproves any notion of the romanticism of the slave trade.  Finally, Douglass attempts to disprove the myth that the Bible supported slavery ‘all who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect’.[46]  Douglass questions why mulattos, not direct descendants of Ham, are also born into slavery, ‘if the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved…must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world…owe their existence to white fathers’, therefore disproving this as an argument for apologists.[47]

In conclusion, Biblical texts clearly had a huge influence on black culture and were of huge importance to the abolitionist movement.  Without the Bible, Douglass would never have educated himself and set in motion a movement that would change the course of African-American history.  Du Bois uses Biblical references to convey the importance of spiritual history and culture in order for his race and society as a whole to progress.  Both authors make use of myth, Du Bois as a method to convey the importance of knowledge and understanding in order to move towards equality, and Douglass attempts to convey the same ideas through his arguments against the myths that prevailed within his contemporary society that were acting as a justification for, and therefore enabling the slave trade.


Anon, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, Myths and Heroes (2005) <> [accessed 22 May 2018]

Blum, Edward J., W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet (Politics and Culture in Modern America) (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)

Daniel 6:1-28

Douglass, Frederick, Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by Himself (New York: W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 1997)

Fletcher, Cain Hope, ed., Stony the Road we Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991)

Francis, Hattie, ‘American Slave Narratives and the Book of Job: Frederick Douglass’s and Nat Turner’s Quests for Scriptural Authority and Authenticity (unpublished doctoral thesis, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2014)

Genesis 9:25-27

Grow, Bobby, ‘God Behind the Veil’, Christianity Today, 57.4 (2013) p.36. <> [accessed 22 May 2018]

I Corinthians 12:13

I Peter 2:18

Isiah 9:6

Jobling, David, Pippin, Tina, Schleifer, Ronald, eds., The Postmodern Bible Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001)

National Park Service, ‘Frederick Douglass’, National Park Service (2018) <> [accessed 22 May 2018]

Oxford Living Dictionaries, ‘Myth’, English Oxford Living Dictionaries (2018) [accessed 22 May 2018]

Pierce, Yolanda, ‘The Soul of Du Bois’ Black Folk’, The North Star, 6.2 (2003) <> [accessed 22 May 2018]

Wheeler, Stephen, Aigbedion, Irenae, ‘W.E.B. Du Bois’s Foundation Myth of Atl(a)lanta, Classical Studies (2015) <> [accessed 22 May 2018]

Wimbush, Vincent L., ed., African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2000)


[1] Genesis 9:25-27.

[2] The Postmodern Bible Reader, ed. by David Jobling, Tina Pippin, Ronald Schleifer (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001), p.198.

[3] Ibid., p.201.

[4] Ibid., p.197.

[5] I Peter 2:18.

[6] Stony the Road we Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, ed. by Cain Hope Fletcher (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), pp.86-87.

[7] I Corinthians 12:13.

[8] Jobling, Pippin, Schleifer, p.259.

[9] National Park Service, ‘Frederick Douglass’, National Park Service (2018) <> [accessed 22 May 2018].

[10] African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures, ed. by Vincent L. Wimbush (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2000), p.261.

[11] Ibid., p.373.

[12] Frederick Douglass, Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by Himself (New York: W.W. Norton and Company Inc., 1997), p.44.

[13] Ibid., p.20.

[14] Ibid., p.44.

[15] Ibid., p.21.

[16] Ibid., p.29.

[17] Hattie Francis, ‘American Slave Narratives and the Book of Job: Frederick Douglass’s and Nat Turner’s Quests for Scriptural Authority and Authenticity (unpublished doctoral thesis, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2014).

[18] Douglass, p.32.

[19] Ibid., p.50.

[20] Ibid., p.77.

[21] Ibid., p.77.

[22] Ibid., p.78.

[23] Ibid., p.41.

[24] Ibid., p.73.

[25] Ibid., p.36.

[26] Ibid., p.69.

[27] Daniel 6:1-28.

[28] Wimbush, p.368.

[29] Du Bois, p.8.

[30] Bobby Grow, ‘God Behind the Veil’, Christianity Today, 57.4 (2013) p.36. <> [accessed 22 May 2018].

[31] Yolanda Pierce, ‘The Soul of Du Bois’ Black Folk’, The North Star, 6.2 (2003) <> [accessed 22 May 2018].

[32] Du Bois, p.8.

[33] Edward J. Blum, W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet (Politics and Culture in Modern America) (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), pp.43-44.

[34] Du Bois, p.10.

[35] Ibid., p.15.

[36] Ibid., p.145.

[37] Ibid., p.140.

[38] Isiah 9:6.

[39] Stephen Wheeler and Irenae Aigbedion, ‘W.E.B. Du Bois’s Foundation Myth of Atl(a)lanta, Classical Studies (2015) <> [accessed 22 May 2018].

[40] Anon, ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, Myths and Heroes (2005) <> [accessed 22 May 2018].

[41] Du Bois, p.93.

[42] Oxford Living Dictionaries, ‘Myth’, English Oxford Living Dictionaries (2018) [accessed 22 May 2018].

[43] Douglass, p.72.

[44] Ibid., p.72.

[45] Ibid., p.15.

[46] I Timothy 6:1.

[47] Douglass, p.14.

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