Slavery in Melvyn Bragg’s ‘The Book of Books’

The Book of Books (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011) tells the story and the immense impact of the King James Bible’s first 400 years. Melvyn Bragg, who has more recently written an excellent introduction to William Tyndale, breaks down every misconception and oversimplification under the sun, and finds the King James’s fingerprints in the most unexpected corners of our culture. It’s hard to think of a point of view that won’t be challenged or surprised by this book.

However, there are enough wholly positive reviews of it, so I’d rather focus on the part I thought was offensive nonsense.

As with any book there are parts I would change or would have expressed differently, but these don’t have to take away from the greater achievement of the work. But I can’t look past the following statement, found in the second of two chapters about slavery and the American Civil War:

“There were some who claimed that the lack of support for freed slaves after the Civil War, and the continued disparagement of the ‘Negro’ left black people worse off. Segregation, they argued, was slavery by another name. The braver ones did not think that. They got on with the new, often disturbed life and… began the slow build of a civilisation within America which has gradually broken into the mainstream. This was never more dramatically demonstrated than with Martin Luther King [Jr.] with his King James Version-led marches in the 1960s which finally sealed the victory won in 1865.”

The Book of Books, p255 (emphasis my own)

First of all, it is not for someone like Melvyn Bragg, or me, to decide who is more or less ‘brave’ in the context of navigating the world as a freed slave, or a child or grandchild of a freed slave, while still suffering under segregation. What do we know? And what would be an example of ‘cowardice’ in such circumstances?

Second, describing the quality of life for freed slaves as no better, or worse off, or even as another kind of slavery, has no connection with inaction. Quite the opposite: it was a point made by many of those in the thick of the fight against segregation.

In fact, we don’t need to look further than Rev. King, who Bragg so helpfully gave as an example:

“There was a willingness to give the white peasants from Europe an economic base. And yet it refused to give its black peasants from Africa, who came here involuntarily, in chains, and had worked free for 244 years, any kind of economic base. And so emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate, and therefore it was freedom and famine at the same time. … It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself up by his own bootstraps.”

TV interview in 1967

Or perhaps his speech in February 1965 at the Temple Israel in Hollywood, CA makes the connection clearest:

“Racial segregation must be seen for what it is — and that is an evil system, a new form of slavery covered up with certain niceties of complexity. … It is an evil which we must work to get rid of with all of the determination and all of the zeal that we can muster.

Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood, 26 February 1965

Incidentally, the phrase “wage-slave” has been used by anti-capitalists, most frequently by the Industrial Workers of the World union, to describe the plight and the lack of freedom experienced by many poor workers in capitalist society. There are good reasons to disagree with this, and it certainly isn’t as popular a term as it was a century ago. But it was used, like “Working men of all countries,” as a call to action, not passivity.

Melvyn Bragg writes well about how the story of the escape of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery resonated with, and was used by, African-American slaves. But where does the story of this liberation begin?

I’d say the opening line is Exodus 2:23 (KJV, of course): “the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.” Whether it’s slavery or segregation, the first act in fighting an oppressive system is to name it.

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