For much of its history, the characters of the Bible have been whitewashed. Everyone from Jesus, to his disciples, to Moses and to the Virgin Mary have been depicted as blue-eyed Europeans. Even if we intellectually know that the heroes of the Bible had considerably more melanin than the improbably pale-skinned Jesus of Renaissance art, images of Scandinavian Jesus still abound on the internet, in artwork, and on book covers.
One biblical character who has—for Americans, at least—been consistently portrayed as Black, though, is the Hebrew Bible hero Samson. Now a new study of Samson’s history in the United States shows how integral this controversial figure is to the story of race in America.
In the Bible, Samson is an undeniably flawed figure. He is the last in a series of “judges” who lived during a period when God punished the Israelites by allowing them to fall victim to the military might of their enemies, the Philistines. Like many in the Bible, his birth was the result of divine intervention. His mother was unable to conceive, but an angel appeared to her and told her that her son would deliver the Israelites from the Philistines and instructed her that Samson must be a Nazirite from birth. A Nazirite is someone who vows not to drink alcohol, eat unclean foods, cut his hair, or shave. A number of remarkable events punctuate Samson’s biography and most of them relate to his superhuman strength: in one story, he rips a lion apart with his bare hands, in another, he kills a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey.
If you only know one thing about Samson, however, it is surely that he had an ill-fated relationship with the deceitful temptress Delilah, who is bribed by the Philistines to reveal the secret of Samson’s strength. Despite several failed attempts by Delilah to discover his secret, Samson is not suspicious of Delilah’s motivations and eventually reveals to her that his Nazirite vow and uncut hair are the source of his abilities. Delilah lulls him to sleep and, as he rests, has his hair cut. When he wakes, he is captured by the Philistines, who gouge out his eyes, place him in shackles, and force him to work by turning a millstone to grind grain.
Sometime later the Philistines decide to throw a celebration to thank their deity, Dagon, for delivering Samson to them. They decide to trot out Samson for their entertainment, but in the intervening period Samson’s hair has grown long again. The now blind Samson asks a boy to lead him up to the Temple of Dagon. Once there he grasps the pillars of the temple and brings the structure down upon himself, the Philistines, and (presumably) the boy. We never learn what happened to Delilah.
There’s nothing in the Bible itself that describes Samson’s physical appearance. Though later rabbinic sources discuss the breadth of his shoulders, the biblical text does not even say that Samson was tall or muscular, much less provide a description of his skin tone. It was not inevitable that African-Americans would identify with Samson, but they did, just as it was not inevitable that Jesus be conceived of as white.
The richly documented and eye-opening Black Samson, co-authored by Temple University religious studies professors Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper, charts the history of Samson’s interpretation from before our nation’s founding all the way into 21st century TV and comic books. Junior and Schipper show that Samson has been a way for Americans from a “variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds to talk frankly about race for over two hundred years.” By researching previously ignored first-person narratives of enslaved and formerly enslaved people, newspaper articles, modern media, and poetry, they argue that the ambiguities in the Samson story make him an interesting and complicated figure with which to think about race and modes of resisting injustice.
It is because Samson “was blinded, captured, and enslaved, and a number of early American interpreters connect his experiences to those of enslaved Africans,” the authors told me. That enslaved Africans identified and were identified by others with Samson, in turn led to his conceptualization as a Black man, not only in recent blaxploitation movies like Black Samson but also in much earlier artwork, cartoons, and literary descriptions dating back to the colonial period. In some instances, like the recent History channel series The Bible, Samson’s depiction as a Black man contrasts quite starkly with the casting of, for example, Delilah, as a white woman. The casting choices drew some controversy. The authors cite scholar and blogger Wil Gafney, who pointed out at the time that the show perpetuated a stereotype of the physically strong “brutish” Black man with “a predilection for white women.”
Where Samson is controversial is in the manner of his victory and death. Samson sacrifices himself in order to kill countless Philistines. On the one hand many, like Malcolm X, have seen Samson as a martyr, with whom they can identify and relate. When, in 1859, the white militant abolitionist John Brown was executed for trying to start an armed revolt, Fales Henry Newhall explicitly compared his actions to those of Samson. Frederick Douglass made the same point in the conclusion of his editorial about why “Captain John Brown Was Not Insane,” arguing that Brown had “like Samson… laid his hands upon the pillars of the great national temple of cruelty and blood.”
The association of militant activists with Black Samson was responsive as well. Junior and Schipper tell the story of Douglas Miranda, a captain for the Boston chapter of the Black Panthers, who was arrested with a group of other Panthers as he drove from New Haven, Connecticut, to Boston. The group was bailed out but not before police officers cut their hair as an effort to degrade and humiliate them. According to an article in the Black Panther newspaper “the pigs…were probably caught up in the fable of Samson.” As the authors wryly note, “The police officers’ abuse of the arrested Panthers would not dissuade their commitment to the revolutionary cause any more than Samson’s haircut had stopped his actions against the Philistines.”
For others, Samson’s quest for vengeance, which ultimately motivated his destruction of the temple, proved somewhat unpalatable. Marcus Garvey’s 1923 statement that, “If the world fails to give you consideration, because you are black men, because you are Negroes, four hundred millions of you shall, throughout organization, shake the pillars of the universe and bring down creation, even as Samson brought down the temple upon his head and upon the heads of the Philistines” brims with threats of almost cosmic violence. Though he himself was inaccurately accused of inciting others to violence, Martin Luther King, Jr., rejected the idea of Samson the martyr as a model for emulation. The “Samson complex,” some argued, was dangerous morally ambiguous. After all, as writer Ralph Ellison pointed out in the 1960s, the biblical Samson had led an innocent boy to his death. Toni Morrison highlights that the story ends poorly for everyone when she notes in The Bluest Eye that there “Ain’t no Samson never come to a good end.”
That Black writers and activists disagree on the interpretation of Samson is to be expected; it’s a special kind of racism that insists that members of any disenfranchised minority group would always agree. What the diverging differences in interpretation give us is a window into strategies of response.
Junior and Schipper began researching their book in the wake of protests over the shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It is in moments like this, the authors write—as white supremacy and unchecked police brutality continue—that “earlier generations have invoked Samson.” Junior and Schipper told The Daily Beast, “The variety of engagements with Black Samson illustrate the differences in tactics by those seeking Black freedom and justice.” What their book documents, they told me, is that the debates we are having now “are not new conversations” they stretch into our distant past and tug at the complex legacy of the biblical story. “There is no clear victor amid the rubble of the Philistine temple… Samson’s story becomes a haunting analogy for the hope and horror of race relations in the United States.”
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