Yolanda Pierce is associate professor of African American religion and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. She blogs on religion and race at Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar.
To fully celebrate the life and legacy of Maya Angelou, we must contextualize her 86 years of living within the black religious traditions that influenced her and birthed her deep spirituality. While countless scholars have analyzed her literary, political, and cultural contributions, few have situated her work within the scope of black religious life, particularly the African-American Christian tradition.
The 1853 slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave is now a major motion picture directed by Steve McQueen. The film is a faithful rendering of the life of Solomon Northup, a free African American man who is sold into chattel bondage and brutally enslaved. Northup’s life story highlights one of the little-known facets of American slavery: the dangers that free black people faced during the antebellum era, with little legal recourse if they were cheated, harmed, brutalized or even sold into slavery. Northup was eventually freed. But there were countless others whose names we cannot know.