“Unveiling: Identity Formation and Power Negotiation in Barbara Jordan’s Self Portrait”

Robin Owens

November 4, 2010

Robin Owens, a doctoral candidate in Religion at Claremont Graduate University, presented on the topic “Unveiling: Identity Formation and Power Negotiation in Barbara Jordan’s Self Portrait.”  Owens argued that Barbara Jordan’s early life experiences with the Bible were contributing factors in a development that she referred to as “Black biblical consciousness,” which greatly influenced the way in which Jordan used scriptures in her speeches.

First, Owens examined exerts from the following speeches, in order to demonstrate the way in which scriptures functioned: Jordan’s speech during the impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon in 1974, Jordan’s speech in 1975 to expand the Voting Rights Act to include language minorities, and Jordan’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976.  Owens stated that in Jordan’s speech during the impeachment hearing she cleverly used the Constitution to make a compelling argument against the President of the United States without explicitly stating that the president should be impeached.  Instead, she employed the repetition of a three part cycle to convey her point.  First, she stated the criteria for impeachment.  Second, she recounted the actions of the president that clearly met the criteria of impeachment.  Lastly, she repeated the impeachment criteria, reinforcing her message.  Owens then played a clip of Jordan’s speech exhibiting the cycle.

Owens argued that although the Constitution is not a sacred text, it is “scripture” in the sense that it serves as an authoritative guide in Jordan’s life and work.  Relying upon Dr. Vincent Wimbush’s work on African-Americans’ historical engagement of the Bible, specifically the use of the Bible as language, Owens argued that Jordan used the Constitution as a linguistic tool to communicate her message and negotiate political power.

Second, Owens discussed a couple of Jordan’s early life experiences, taken from Jordan’s autobiography Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait, and examined the role of the Bible in those experiences.  Owens argued that the two most influential individuals who participated in her early experiences with the Bible, her grandfather John Ed Patten and father Ben Jordan, helped shape her combined religious and cultural identity.  This identity is expressed through what Owens described as “Black biblical consciousness,” which consists of three features—ontological Blackness, biblically mediated identity, and interpretive agency.  Owens argued that Jordan’s “Black Biblical Consciousness” informed the way in which she employed the Constitution in her speeches.

Relaying a specific incident from Jordan’s autobiography, Owens argued that Jordan’s grandfather encouraged Jordan toRobin Owens 2.jpg develop interpretative agency.  Jordan’s grandfather owned a junk business that was located in what is now downtown Houston.  City officials often complained and requested that he clean up the junkyard.  In response to these complaints, he made a fence out of sheets of tin and patched the holes up with cardboard.  On the cardboard he wrote religious references, such as “The Lord is my shepherd” and “The day of wrath has come,” and signed it St. John.  Through his example, Jordan learned that texts could be used as a vehicle to communicate a message in order to negotiate political power.  He taught her that the path of Christ was one of self-sufficiency and gave her authoritative permission to interpret texts, which in turn shaped Jordan’s biblically mediated identity.

Jordan’s father also helped instill interpretative agency and a biblically mediated identity in Jordan.  Her father was a warehouse worker who, feeling called to preach, became a minister.  Owens argued that the fact that Jordan remembered the exact text her father preached his first sermon on thirty years later suggests that the biblical text had a huge impact on Jordan’s religious self-understanding.  According to her autobiography, Jordan interpreted the message of her father’s sermon as God can issue a call to anyone, including to herself.  In other words, Jordan wrestled with the meaning-making of the text and then came to her own conclusions, which in turn shaped her own religious identity.

Owens then briefly discussed the third feature of “Black biblical consciousness,” ontological Blackness.  She relied upon Victor Anderson’s definition of ontological blackness—a term which connotes categorical, essentialist, representational language depicting black life and experience.  Owens argued that due to the common history, culture, and ancestral heritage of African-Americans in the United States, a sense of one’s Blackness is omnipresent, influential, and impacting.  Referencing Regina Blackburn’s and Stephen Butterfield’s work on Black women’s autobiography, Jordan stated that through the autobiographies of African-American women the self is revealed, particularly the Black self.

Owens concluded her remarks with a brief summation.  Jordan’s early life experiences related to the Bible greatly shaped her “Black biblical consciousness.”  “Black biblical consciousness” is characterized by three features—ontological Blackness, biblically mediated identity, and interpretative agency.  Jordan’s “Black biblical consciousness” strongly influenced the way in which Jordan used the Constitution in her speeches as a linguistic tool in order to negotiate political power. 

Questions for consideration:

1) Aside from the three features that Owens describes, are there other identity shaping factors that should be considered in constructing the concept of “Black biblical consciousness”?
2) Aside from the Constitution, what other “scriptures,” did Jordan employ in her speeches?

Colleagues, as usual, your comments are welcome.

Submitted by: Melissa Reid
Research Assistant
The Institute for Signifying Scriptures

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