In pre-Civil War America, time was indeed a luxury…and white folks owned it. Not only were enslaved bodies the property of white slaveholders, there was no place in the plantation economy that was not under the gaze of white patriarchy. Black folks’ time was expected to be fully in service to white desires. The law justified it: it was illegal for black folks to congregate and to not be under the supervision of white folks or the black folks that white folks controlled. Breaking this law meant being whipped, and at worst death. When they sang “steal away, steal away to Jesus … I ain’t got long to stay here” in the plantation fields, enslaved Africans were signaling in code that freedom would never be given to them. The untrained ear thought they were talking about the afterlife. The trained ear knew they meant they’d have to steal away freedom, to take it in the here and now if it were ever to come. Stealing away became a metaphor for a lifestyle of fugitivity and holy deception. The bending and twisting of lyrics and branches gave cues to the path through the woods of one of the most significant sites of freedom, the hush harbor.
“From the abundant testimony of fugitive and freed slaves it is clear that the slave community had an extensive religious life of its own, hidden from the eyes of the master. In the…seclusion of the brush arbors (‘hush harbors’) the slaves made a Christianity truly their own.” 1
There were regular opportunities for enslaved Africans to worship on the plantation. They could attend worship on the plantation in racially integrated churches led by white folks. They could also attend segregated gatherings led by black preachers under the supervision of a white minister and white religious customs. The religious and racial symbolism of the plantation churches accommodated the terror of racial capitalism that sustained chattel slavery. The appeal of the hush harbors was primarily political. Like the liberation they sought from the plantation economy, the hush harbor was also a site to liberate Christianity in service to the well-being and freedom dreams of enslaved Africans. Only those enslaved Africans who were vetted and vouched for to demonstrate political solidarity entered the hush harbors. The integrity of the hush harbor depended on a serious vow of its members to betray the plantation culture and systems. One formerly enslaved African says this about the quality of the commitment of a member of the hush harbor, preferring it to the open weekly worship in buildings made accessible after emancipation –
“Meetings back there meant more than they do now. Then everybody’s heart was in tune, and when they called on God they made heaven ring. It was more than just a Sunday meeting and then no godliness for a week. They would steal off to the fields and in the thickets and there…they called on God out of heavy hearts.” 2
The practice of stealing away put enslaved Africans squarely within the tradition of Jesus. Jesus engaged in holy deception by speaking in parables, riddles, and questions to confound the comfortable and comfort the castaway. Jesus engaged in fugitivity by breaking the laws and customs of the religious and social establishment in service to the poor, the imprisoned, the stranger, the unclean, the sick. Jesus vetted the crowds to invite comrades into an underground circle of revolutionary friendship ready to transform the society from the inside-out.
Three questions emerge for contemporary communities:
Author: Brandon Wrencher