Recently read: Junior and Schipper’s “Black Samson”

Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper, Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon (Oxford: OUP, 2020). (Amazon; Bookshop)

As I’ve aged, reception history/reception studies of the Bible have become more and more interesting to me. As much as I can enjoy a good socio-historical study of the Apostle Paul and his epistles (e.g. Barclay’s “Paul and the Gift” or Barber, et al., “Paul, A New Covenant Jew”), one has to wonder how much more can really be said about Paul from a historicist perspective (or Jesus, or, closer to home, John the Baptist). People are interested in the Bible primarily because of what it means to us now and what it has meant to people in the recent past, not because of what it meant to the earliest audiences (even studies about the Bible and its meaning to earliest audiences are attempting to answer contemporary questions about the Bible by connecting them to ancient ones). Judaism, Christianity, and Islam aren’t inherently more interesting than Zoroastrianism or Mandaeanism but there are more scholars of the former than the latter because of the influence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam upon the majority of the modern world in contrast to the (direct) influence of Zoroastrianism or Mandaeanism.

A recent example of an excellent study of the Bible’s reception is Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper’s Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon. This book traces the depiction of Samson as a Black man throughout the history of the United States. As you read it becomes apparent that this theme of “Black Samson” is everywhere. I had no idea.

Junior and Schipper begin with early American commentary on how this nation is a “Temple of Liberty”. From a variety of angles, people began to connect how Samson was placed in the Philistine temple of Dagon only to bring it down upon the Philistines with how slavery (as represented by Black Samson) could be what pulls down the Temple of Liberty if not addressed. This imagery was used by abolitionists and defenders of slavery alike, though with very different intentions (see Chapter 1, “Black Samson in the Temple of Liberty”).

Chapter 2, “Black Samson of Brandywine,” traces the mythology around a enslaved man named Samson who is depicted as having fought against the British in the Battle of Brandywine. Chapter 3, “Samson and the Making of American Martyrs” shows how people who died, often having fought for the abolitionist cause, were remembered as a type of Samson: this ranges from John Brown (who is now the focus of Showtimes’ limited series “The Good Lord Bird”), to Frederick Douglass, to Nate Turner, and others. Chapter 4, “Black Sampson and Labor Movements” traces the theme’s relation to labor movements, popular song, and discusses the tension between African Americans and labor movements that often sought to exclude African Americans or saw them as undermining their cause.

Chapter 5, “The Samson Complex,” may have been the most fascinating to me. It focuses upon how “African American intellectuals and activists” who sometimes “claimed that the younger activists had a ‘Samson complex’ that would ultimately result in nothing but self-destruction” (p. 68). In this chapter we encounter Malcom X, Elijah Muhammad, Dr. King, and others who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and debated the best way to go about fighting for their rights.

Chapter 6, “But Some of Us are Strong Believers in the Samson Myth,” examines how Samson-imagery finds its way into discussions around “the intersection of race and gender” (p. 93). Chapter 7, “Visual Representations of Black Samson” is self-explanatory and discussed the one example of Black Samson that might be familiar to many: Samson as depicted in The Bible television miniseries produced by The History Channel. I show this series to my students and they have noticed that Samson is depicted as a Black man while most of the other figures are white.

This book is exemplary. It shows the power of the Bible as part of culture making. Also, it shows how diverse interpretation of the Bible can be. For those interested in reception history or the intersection of the Bible and American culture, the Bible and race, the Bible and gender, the Bible and art and film, etc., this is a must read.

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