Fabricating Middle Ground

The following is an excerpt of my review of Edward E Andrews’s Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Harvard UP, 2013). The full review will be in an upcoming issue of Intotemak.

Though it remains largely implicit, it’s evident that Andrews’s history is also a work of redemption. It is not so much the individual missionaries that he wishes to redeem (though this is certainly the case in several accounts). Rather, Andrews wishes to redeem a certain understanding of missions itself. This project is most clearly stated early on in chapter one:

Indeed, if we understand missions less as sites of western imperial oppression and more as a middle ground, a physically and metaphorically contested space where indigenous peoples and colonists had to negotiate with one another instead of destroying each other, then the role of native preachers to these missions becomes all the more vital. (23)

What follows is an archive of accounts in which the author attempts to curate such a ‘middle ground’. Edwards highlights narratives in which Indigenous preachers integrate in Protestant cultures and examples in which Indigenous preachers challenge Protestant culture. There are accounts in which black missionaries challenge the slave trade and other instances in which black preachers are critical of their own people. Andrews effectively demonstrates a certain variety and diversity of expressions from this time period. For this reason the book is worth reading. Yet he cannot make good on his suggestion of reimagining missions.

To be sure the site of early North American missions was a contested space. Andrews does well to illuminate the various cultural, political, theological, and biological conflicts that surfaced in this time period. However, by his own account it is difficult to concede that this was a “space where indigenous peoples and colonists had to negotiate with one another instead of destroying each other” (23). European missionaries indeed found black and indigenous converts useful and even necessary.

But it seems unimaginable to frame this as a sort of ‘middle-ground’ when the forces in this relationship seemed so entirely disproportionate. This disproportion was true whether it was the persistent fear and racism of European settlers that could leverage military responses, the devastation of disease when nearly an entire class of indigenous seminary students died, or the final pronouncements of theological validity that remained in the seats of power in Europe. So while there appear to moments and places of mutuality, Andrews gives too much autonomy to missions; yes, missions were messier than the old narrative, but they cannot be preserved from the larger colonial project. Missions were profoundly embedded in the larger forces that worked havoc and destruction in black and indigenous communities.

We cannot confuse the diversity of individual action with the reality of social and structural pressures. The individual and the social are related but greater care and awareness needs to be made in how we handle these accounts. I can imagine a similar narrative being written about the history of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. I am sure there are stories of good teachers, students having good experiences, and perhaps even collaborative and interesting expressions that emerged. There can be a place for the writing of such histories but I do not think this can happen apart from the awareness and acknowledgement of a theology and logic that was ultimately unable to negotiate, unable to exist on middle-ground that allowed for mutual influence.

 

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