Saturday, March 1, 2014

William Apess: Racism and Christianity are Incompatible

The following is from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

William Apess (1798-1839) was the first Native American to publish an extensive autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829).  He was a descendant of Metacomet (aka King Philip), a Wampanoag leader who lost an early conflict between colonists and Native Americans, known as King Philip's War (1678).  Apess was born in Colrain, Massachusetts and had a difficult life.  At a young age, he was sold into indentured servitude, received six years of education, served as a soldier in the War of 1812, converted to Christianity, and ultimately became a traveling preacher, writer, and advocate for Native American rights.  Much of his preaching and writing was aimed at showing the incompatibility of racial prejudice and Christianity, both of which were widespread in the United States of his day.  In 1833, Apess published "An Indian's Looking Glass for the White Man," a powerfully eloquent condemnation of the widespread racism among self-professed Christians in America.

Apess's argument is a simple one: Racism and Christianity are incompatible.  "If black or red skins or any other skin color is disgraceful to God," he writes, "it appears that He has disgraced Himself a great deal--for He has made fifteen colored people to one white and placed them here upon the earth."

Apess quotes the Bible to prove his point: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matthew 22:37)…"By this shall all men know that they are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:55)…"He who loveth God loveth his brother also" (1 John 4:21)…"If any man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar" (1 John 4:20).

Apess spends considerable time discussing the person of Jesus Christ, who was a Palestinian Jew, and likely brown-skinned himself: "If he (Jesus) should appear among us, would he not be shut out of doors by many, very quickly?  And by those too who profess religion?"  Jesus, Apess writes, "never looked at the outward appearances.  Jesus in particular looked at the hearts."

Unfortunately, in Apess's day, racism was widespread among white American Christians.  Slavery was in full swing in the south, and in the more "enlightened" north, Native Americans were continually mistreated, removed from their ancestral lands, and denied equal rights under the law.  Using the language of the Bible, Apess asks these rhetorical questions: "How are you to love your neighbors as yourself?  Is it to cheat them?  Is it to wrong them in anything?  Now, to cheat them out of any of their rights is robbery.  And I ask, can you deny that you are not robbing the Indians daily, and many others?"

Apess ends his piece with a hopeful vision of the future, when "the mantle of prejudice is torn from every American heart--then shall peace pervade the Union."

William Apess

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