#TreasuresofDarkness Day 20: Judges 16:19
A few years ago, when the History Channel rolled out their epic 10-hour miniseries featuring a sweep through “great stories” of the Bible, there was a great deal of controversy, for many varied reasons (I’ll take “Supersessionist Nonsense for $500, Alex!”). One of those reasons was the way they portrayed the character of Samson-they cast the role with a (gasp!) Black actor, and, as soon as it aired, White people commenced to freaking out.
I have to admit that I wasn’t surprised about the Samson kerfuffle, because I had experienced it myself in my role as a Christian educator. Some years ago, a group of tweens I was teaching decided that they wanted to learn more about the biblical references in the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.” Each child prepared a lesson on a different Biblical reference, and when the week came around to talk about Samson, I’ll admit that I went into the lesson with a bit of fear and trembling. The story of Samson and Delilah is one where talking about sex is almost inevitable, and as a teacher of religion, that’s a duty that brings with it many layers of expectation from many fronts.
But in this case, the sexual component was not really a big deal. The real challenge was around race. As the child leading the lesson got to the verse we are examining today, she admitted her confusion around why Samson would be wearing his hair in “braids,” as per her text. So we talked about the Nazaritic vow, and protective hairstyles, and why someone who didn’t cut their hair would need to use them, and about Rastafarianism, and about why Samson might’ve actually been black. To be honest, it didn’t go well.
Though the kids, all Caucasian, listened and participated, and asked lots of questions, emotionally, they were stuck back in the first part of the conversation, where we addressed why and how a person might get and care for braids, locs, or other protective hairstyles. Despite anything I had to contribute, those kids KNEW, all of them, deep in their bones, that those sorts of styles and the people who bore them were dirty, slovenly, and fundamentally less-than. The child who was originally leading the lesson summed it up best-”Well, my mom says that people get dreadlocks because they’re lazy and gross, and can’t be bothered to wash their hair, so there.” So there, indeed. As she was taught, so were we all, if not by parents, then by television, movies, magazine ads, and the general weight of being Black in America.
And here, in that church youth room and in the drama that accompanied the Bible miniseries, we see the age-old tension surrounding biblical characters that we suspect might be anything other than lily-white (i.e. All of Them). Because we have been taught time and time again that all that is good, holy, and sanctified is White, the heroes of scripture must therefore be Caucasian. But. If we’ve ever sat in a classroom and learned about the dawn of our sapient selves, and the advent of society in that good ol’ “Fertile Crescent,” we know that’s an impossibility.
So, how do we solve this conundrum? We force our minds to operate on dual tracks, where when the characters are doing something gentle, calm, or logical, we envision them as White, but when actual historical fact forces us to acknowledge that their Whiteness is a fairy-tale, then we can stretch our minds to accept the possibility of darkness, occasionally even of Blackness, but the characters in question must then take on the characteristics of the fictional, magical Blacks that we’ve all come to know: from Zipporah to Ham to Samson to Simon the Cyrene, our extra-biblical portrayals of these characters have made sure we knew that the women were seductresses-never pretty, but always tantalizing, near-succubi whose mysterious wiles were impossible to resist. The men were, of course, bearers of super-human, barbaric strength-never holy or pure, but still of great value for their strong backs and fearsome might.
But what if that’s not actually what the bible says? What if the bible tells a much more nuanced story about its heroes of every color, including Samson? Should we take the time to actually read the text, especially in Hebrew, we find a picture of a man who, from long before he was born, was ordained by YHWH to be “consecrated to the Elohim” forever . We hear of his annunciation by the angel, one of only a handful in all of scripture. We hear of his life-long nazaritic vow, of his charismatic leadership of an embattled Israel, of the miraculous power over the forces of nature with which God imbues him, and finally, we hear of his death, where, with his eyes gouged out, and once abandoned by his creator, he now is reunited with the spirit of his precious Lord.
And what if that is what our mysterious Black magic is all about, too? Not simply the brute strength of the “Black Samson,” of whom history proclaims his worth as a product only of his physical might:
“There in the heat of the battle,
There in the stir of the fight,
Loomed he, an ebony giant,
Black as the pinions of night…
Straight through the human harvest,
Cutting a bloody swath…
Flee from the scythe of the reaper,
Flee while the moment is thine,
None may with safety withstand him,
Black Samson of Brandywine.
Was he a freeman or bondman?
Was he a man or a thing?…
If he was only a chattel,
Honor the ransom may pay
Of the royal, the loyal black giant
Who fought for his country that day.”
(Black Samson of Brandywine, Paul Lawrence Dunbar,1913)
What if our magic is truly like Samson’s, bestowed because we have been consecrated by YHWH and all of the Elohim now and forever-to serve and to RULE, to suffer, but to RISE, to proclaim now and forever, the goodness of G-d not just through our bodies, burnished bronze like Samson, that man of the sun, but also through our voices, irrevocably united with that of the divine, pleading, parleying, proclaiming, even unto our very last breath “Sovereign LORD, remember us. Please, God, strengthen us again!” (Judges 16:28)