Jea, John

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Jea, John (1773-?). Itinerant Preacher

Born in what was Old Calibar, Nigeria in 1773, John Jea gained freedom from slavery in New York and became an itinerant preacher. His proselytizing took him to a number of different cities in the USA, several countries in Europe, the East Indies and South America.

A pioneer in early black writing, Jea, while in England, published his autobiography, The Life, History and Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher (1815) and A Collection of Hymns (1816). The autobiography, while privileging Europe’s notion of literacy as the hallmark of culture and civilization, attempts to revise ethnocentric premises underlying Enlightenment thought. Jea affirms his enlightened self, which he defends against the myths of benighted savagery Europeans sought to impose upon African peoples.

While endorsing Enlightenment ideals of literacy and Christian faith as the keys to human secular and spiritual salvation, The Life also strives to expose perverse fictions meant to deny blacks membership in human society.

Literacy, from Jea’s perspective, is an agency through which persons of African descent can lay claim to civilized human status, dignify themselves, and make rightful claims to social as well as spiritual freedom. Interestingly, nevertheless, Jea rejects the West’s use of literacy as a concept for stigmatizing blacks and stymieing their potential for self-awareness.

Further Reading:

Edwards, Paul, and David Dabydeen. Black Writers in Britain 1760-1890. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1991.

Paul A. Griffith