On Thursday, October 18, the Marcus Orr Center hosted a wonderful lecture by Dr. Katherine Bassard about her latest book, Transforming Scriptures: African American Women Writers and the Bible. Dr. Bassard is Professor and Chair of the English Department at Virginia Commonwealth University.
She started out her lecture by welcoming the audience and sharing her pleasure to address the Naseeb Shaheen lecture, which is an annual event that is sponsored by the English Department. She told a story about her visit to the library when she was a graduate student. While looking for a book, she realized that the books on African American literature occupied only two half shelves. She determined then that she would dedicate her career to remedying that situation.
In her lecture, Dr Bassard intended to answer two questions. The first one was: “What did African American Women see in the Bible?” The second one was: “What African American women do with the Bible?” Her talk reflected back onto the era of slavery in the nineteenth century and the particular hardships that African Americans faced during that time, but she also analyzed the writing of contemporary authors such as Toni Morrison, showing both the changes and continuities in how black women writers dealt with the Bible.
Dr. Bassard explained the phrase “turning cursing into blessing” based on verses from various versions of the Bible. Historically, she showed, African American women bore the curse of Adam (such as death, pain, disease…), curse of Eve (such as pain when giving birth), and the curse of Ham (such as being enslaved). Yet through nuanced readings of various translation of the Bible as well as the work of authors such as Frances Harper and Zora Neale Hurston, she highlighted how black women writers reappropriated the Bible, emphasizing the idea of all people being brothers and sisters.
Dr Bassard concluded her lecture by talking about her family’s history in relation to the Bible. In 2005, she stumbled upon a deed in the archives of the University of Virginia showing that her great-grandfather, Lafayette Banks, who may have been born in slavery, purchased five acres from the family of a former slaveowner – the man, Benjamin Randolph, had a diary in which he wrote. “References to Scripture authority for the Institution of Slavery.” Yet Banks showed a steady rise from slavery to independenece. When he bought the land in 1891, he marked the deed with an X. The 1910 census listed him as able to read but not write. In 1920, the census taker recorded that, at age 67, he could read and write. There was a small comfort and inspiration in that story.