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Book review: The Sam Sharpe Lectures: History, rebellion and reform, edited by Rosemarie Davidson and E. P. Louis

by
19 April 2024

Joseph Diwakar finds the decade so far one of promising variety

ROSEMARIE DAVIDSON’s optimism is energetic and infectious: “My dreams for the Sam Sharpe Lectures were, and remain, lofty,” she says, “that one day the annual lectures will be on a par with the beloved Reith Lectures hosted by the BBC.”

The Church of England’s current minority-ethnic-vocations officer was the originator of the lectures, in 2012, off the back of the Sam Sharpe liberation conference organised by the Jamaica Baptist Union, Baptist Mission Society, and Baptists Together.

The lectures are named after Sam Sharpe, slave preacher and leader of the Baptist War — the great Jamaican slave uprising — of 1831, which helped to presage the 1833 abolition of slavery in Jamaica and almost the entire British Empire.

This book is a slightly late tenth-birthday celebration of the series, covering a decade that brought the killings of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd in the United States and controversies about Edward Colston and #RhodesMustFall here in the UK, together with the Church Commissioners’ soul- (and wallet-)searching over slavery reparations.

The book compiles eight of the ten Sharpe Lectures so far, bookended by Davidson’s foreword and a superb theological reflection by her co-organiser Eleasah Louis.

The lectures — about Sharpe’s legacy and activism, black liberation, and faith — are good. There is something to be said for reading them backwards (they are compiled in reverse chronology, with the most recent first) so that one can trace the development of the series.

Robert Beckford was the maiden speaker in 2012, with an interesting reflection on heroism and historiography. Other highlights include a theological interrogation of racism by Bev Thomas, from 2016, and a comprehensive chapter on women in Sharpe’s army by Verene Shepherd, from 2019.

The series gets less Baptist, and potentially less directly focused on Sharpe, as time goes on. Kehinde Andrews’s 2022 chapter, on black studies and revolution, is presented with his usual swagger. One of the book’s strengths is the breadth and generosity of the perspectives that Davidson has drawn in. Andrews’s talk, calling for activists to “bring down the house”, is implicitly quite different from Amanda Khozi Mukwashi’s of the previous year.

Mukwashi envisages a future “founded on the human rights declaration, where all people enjoy the same rights and freedoms and where every human being is created in the image of God and deserving of dignity”. This vision is basically Jeffersonian, and its reinvocation exposes the hypocrisy of Jefferson and others whose slaveholding belied their Enlightenment ideals.

But its reiteration also exposes differences of approach to the problem of racism: is the answer, as Andrews suggests, the abolition of Enlightenment civilisation altogether or, as Mukwashi proposes, the full realisation of its principles?

There are some minor quibbles: some of the lectures, especially Andrews’s, read like verbatim transcripts of the talks rather than edited for print, which makes them less readable. It is also a pity that talks by Rose Hudson-Wilkin and Delroy Reid-Salmon from 2014 and 2018 could not be reproduced.

All in all, though, this is a helpful compendium of big voices on a key topic. It sets the first ten years of the Sharpe lectures down in black and white, and leaves the reader excited about where Davidson will take them in the next decade, on her quest to grow the series from an initiative into an institution.


Joseph Diwakar is a Tutor and Lecturer in Church History at St Mellitus College.

 

The Sam Sharpe Lectures: History, rebellion and reform
Rosemarie Davidson and E. P. Louis, editors
SCM Press £25
(978-0-334-06547-0)
Church Times Bookshop £20

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