Summary: For Black History Month: The "world the slaves made" (Genovese) was one they chose to make, seeing hope and possibility in what God had done and in following the Teacher, Christ. He ate the bread of adversity and drank the cup of affliction, but rose in
By the light of the flickering bonfire you could see them. Gathering from the little cabins down by the creek, coming up the road from the brush arbor, a few of them on a creaky old wagon pulled by two mules. Something exciting was happening here tonight!
Their laughter told you, too, that this was a night they had looked forward to. Excited voices chattered, and here and there you could hear a challenge or a boast, some sort of contest, some prize to be won.
The smell of food cooking and of meat roasting brought you the unmistakable odor of celebration. People fix food like this when they are about to have a feast, and this feast must celebrate something. This feast must be about something important.
You are astounded, however, when you find out who these people are and what this is really all about. You are astounded, because it doesn’t seem to make sense. For these people, preparing to celebrate … these people, laughing and chattering and singing and some of them even dancing … these people are enslaved on a great Southern plantation in the 1830’ s, and they have gathered for a corn-shucking! You are astounded, because these men and women and boys and girls are here to work the master’s corn crop, a long and monotonous task, and more than that, they are here after hours, they are preparing to work all night; and to top it all off, they seem to enjoy it. They seem to be preparing to celebrate!
This doesn’t make sense at all. How in the world could you explain that an oppressed people, who have no freedom, no political power, no money … how in the world explain them gathering to do more work, overtime work, and still they sing and shout and treat it as if it were one grand party?!
Historian Eugene Genovese, in his book Roll, Jordan, Roll, assures us that this is precisely what did happen. From contemporary histories and from eyewitness accounts, Genovese reports that for many of the slaves, corn-shuckin’ time was the high moment of the year. The bonfires, the singing and the shouting, the cooking and the games … it was all a gala occasion, it was a thoroughly joyous time. And yet it was at its core nothing but more slavery, more drudgery, more work, more oppression, more adversity.
So why then? Why all this merriment when in the end corn-shuckin’ time was just more back-breaking labor for someone else’s profit?
The historian has three answers to that question. The slaves on the plantation, first, took joy in corn-shuckin’ time because they would be eating this food. This was not just for market, this was not just for the tables of the big house. This was for their own nourishment. And so they rejoiced in that.
Second, corn-shuckin’ time was a time for community. It was a time that brought them together, and too often all the African slaves had known was fragmentation. Too often the oppression of the slave system was made even worse because families were broken up and old tribal associations were denied. Old friendships were too often destroyed. And so it was only in com-shuckin’ time when others were brought in from nearby plantations that there was anything like a community of friends getting together.
But there is another reason. There is another element here that no historian can explain, that no psychologist can fathom. There is something else here far more important than nourishment or friendship or any other human explanation.
And that is that these men and women simply chose, deep down in their unconquerable souls, to find joy in the midst of their pain. These men and women, whose names were stripped from them and whose bodies were cruelly used up, simply refused to give up their dignity, they refused to surrender every shred of their humanity. They chose to rejoice, even in the middle of their enslavement. They chose joy.
Com-shuckin’ time: their bodies might be in bondage, but their souls, under God, were free.
The prophet Isaiah, speaking to the people of Judah in a day which looked bleak by anybody’s standards, told them that the Lord their God would, in fact, give them the bread of adversity and the water of affliction. They would suffer at the hands of the Assyrian armies. There would be enslavement and years of hard labor. The bread of adversity: eating whatever little scraps were tossed in their path. The water of affliction: long days of labor under the Assyrian master with scarcely a break for water. The people of God were in for some very tough times.
But what is the prophet’s counsel? What does Isaiah offer a people so oppressed and afflicted?
"0 people of Zion, you shall weep no more. God will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry … and though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more. You shall hear a word, ‘This is the way, walk in it’, and you will scatter your idols and will say to them, ’Begone’."