“God’s Own Image Bought and Sold!”: Analyzing the Intersection of Christianity and Slavery in Brown’s Clotel

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Samantha Covais

Abstract

As the first novel published by an African-American, William Wells Brown’s Clotel explores the devastating effects of slavery as the institution pervades a relatively young United States of America. In the book’s introduction, Brown novelizes his own experiences with slavery and asserts that “Were it not for persons in high places owning slaves, and thereby giving the system a reputation, and especially professed Christians, Slavery would long since have been abolished.” His use of the word “professed” implies a theme that can be traced throughout the proceeding novel: that these Christians, who were at minimum complicit but often active participants in the systemic enslavement, rape, and murder of blacks in the United States, are not and cannot be true Christians. Brown’s Clotel examines the ways in which Christianity operates both as a tool of the whites to maintain oppressive political structures and as a gift of the blacks to maintain hope and form a deeply powerful community. It is precisely this Christian community that strengthens the enslaved and offers them hope in the face of the atrocities of slavery. These opposing roles that Christianity plays in the United States parallels the insidious nature of slavery and how no people, black as well white, were left undamaged. This paper examines the dual nature of Christianity in slave narratives such as Clotel, as the religion acts as both a means of oppression and means of hope.

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English