Black Samson: Dr Nyasha Junior and Dr Jeremy Schipper reflect on neglected icon
Samson, the last of the judges of the ancient Israelites according to the Hebrew Bible, wears a modern face in Black Samson: the untold story of an American icon by Dr Jeremy Schipper and Dr Nyasha Junior. As professors in the Department of Religion at Temple University, they both conducted significant research on the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament. In a recent Zoom conference sponsored by Dartmouth, they discussed the important foundations – regarding Samson and his transformed role in relation to racial inequality in the United States – that led to their culminating work.
Their central thesis is that Samson’s story, referenced in the Book of Judges, has become an icon in expressions of racial inequality in the United States. According to the biblical account, Samson received immense physical strength from God on the condition that he never cut his hair. Samson used his strength to fight the Philistines, who were the enemies of the Israelites. However, Samson revealed the secret of his strength to Delilah, a Philistine whom Samson loved. Delilah then cut Samson’s hair, leading to his capture. Later, while mocking the interior of a Philistine temple, Samson called out to God for renewed strength and ultimately destroyed the temple in which the Philistines were celebrating, killing many Philistines but also committing suicide.
This story resonated with many civil rights activists. Although the Bible does not give a detailed account of Samson’s physical appearance, “Samson’s name became linked to enslaved and free Africans in America as early as the 18th century,” according to Dr. Junior.
Many scholars focus on a passage from Judges 16:21, which details how the Philistines captured and bound Samson in prison. “Thus, these interpreters understood Samson as a slave forced into hard labor,” concluded Dr. Junior, reflecting on Samson’s relevance to the plight of American slaves and their descendants.
The professors discussed several depictions of Samson in American political cartoons. In an 1868 edition of Harper’s Weekly, the cartoon “The Modern Samson Nast” portrayed Delilah, labeled “Southern Democracy”, cutting the hair of a Black Samson, which bears the word “suffrage”. In the background, various Southern Democrats applaud the stage. The cartoon sought to criticize the efforts of Southern Democrats to continue to deprive and violate the civil rights of former slaves. A more recent portrayal of Black Samson comes from the 2013 History channel miniseries titled The Bible, which was nominated for three Emmy Awards. In the third episode, which contains Samson’s story, many characters, including Samson and his mother, are portrayed by actors of African descent.
“From Harper’s Weekly to the History channel, visual representations of Black Samson in popular culture have helped make Black Samson an American icon,” said Dr. Junior.
This conference comes amid a wave of political activism over racial inequalities, evidenced by protests and riots against several controversial police shootings and the institutional treatment of black Americans.