African American and Caribbean Religions Research Paper

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The African slave trade had a huge impact on the transformation and spread of African religions worldwide. Numerous ethnic groups taken from Africa shared similar belief systems, which carried over to the New World. Though beliefs and practices often persevered within groups, forced migration and interaction with Europeans helped develop and change African American and Caribbean religions into what they are today.

African American and Caribbean religions are the products of one of the greatest forced migrations in human history. Historians estimate that between 1650 and 1900 more than 28 million Africans were taken from Central and West Africa as slaves. At least 12 million of these Africans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to be sold in the Caribbean, South America, and North America. While Africans from many parts of Africa were taken into slavery, West African groups were disproportionately represented. Beginning in the early sixteenth century and continuing, officially, until 1845 in Brazil, 1862 in the United States, and 1865 in Cuba, more than 11 million black Africans—Yoruba, Kongo, and other West Africans—were brought to the Americas to work sugar, tobacco, coffee, rice, and cotton plantations.

The African slave trade transformed economies around the world. In Africa, it stimulated the growth of powerful African kingdoms, while in the Islamic world, the African slave trade expanded commerce in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. In the Americas, it was a key component in the success of plantations established by Europeans. In addition, wealth generated by slavery transformed European economies dramatically, and the African slave trade also transformed African religions and fostered the spread of these religions around the world.

African Religions in the New World

In the Americas, the institution of slavery persisted much longer in some places than others. With the exception of African slaves in Haiti—who initiated a revolution in 1791 and in 1804 established the first black republic in the Americas—Africans became emancipated in the Americas in the following order: Jamaica and Trinidad in 1838; the United States in 1863; Puerto Rico in 1873; Cuba in 1886; and Brazil in 1888. These dates are highly significant. For example, the ethnologist Pierre Verger (1968) contends that the “purest” forms of African religion are to be found in northeastern Brazil primarily because the slave trade to Brazil continued illegally into the twentieth century.

Of the Africans taken to the Americas as slaves, 99 percent came from an area stretching from modern-day Senegal and Mali in the north to Zaire and Angola in the south. This corridor encompasses a number of ethnic groups belonging to the Niger- Kongo language family. A common language base and common cultural traditions facilitated the movement and exchange of people, goods, and ideas along this corridor.

These ethnic groups also shared similar concepts concerning deities, the universe, the social order, and the place of humans within that order. Unifying themes of African systems of belief and worship include the following: the idea that there is one god who created and controls the universe; a focus on blood sacrifices; and belief in the forces of nature, ancestral spirits, divination, the magical and medicinal powers of herbs, the existence of an afterlife, and the ability of humans to communicate with deities through trance-possession states.

Descendents of Kongo and Yoruba peoples account for about 17 percent of the African population in Jamaica, while the Akan and Kalabari account for, respectively, 25 percent and 30 percent of the Jamaican population. It is estimated that on Cuba and Hispaniola (the island that is home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic) Kongo ethnic groups constitute 40 percent of the African population, while the Yoruba and other related groups shipped from the Bight of Benin make up, respectively, 15 percent and 40 percent of the African populations of Haiti and Cuba. Among the descendants of slaves in the United States, it is estimated that one in four African Americans is of Kongo descent and that one in seven African Americans is of Yoruba descent. It should be noted that few slaves came to the United States directly from Africa. Most had worked plantations elsewhere before being sold in the United States.

These percentages are important for understanding African religions in the New World. Whenever a large number of slaves from a particular place in Africa were sold to a single New World location, they were better able to preserve selected aspects of their religions. Such religious retentions were never exact replicas of African religious practices. They represented a syncretism or blending. One reason for this is that African tribal religions were revealed over time. Only elders possessed extensive religious knowledge. During the early years of slavery, elders were seldom enslaved because older captives rarely survived the rigorous passage to the New World. Most first-generation slaves were under twenty years of age, and few were over thirty. Their knowledge of religious ritual was limited to what they had personally seen and/or experienced. On the other hand, later in the slave trade there were African religious specialists (like Robert Antoine, the nineteenth-century founder of the first Rada compound in Trinidad) who voluntarily migrated to the Caribbean specifically to establish African religious centers in the New World.

The relationship between African religions as practiced in Africa and these same religions in the New World is replete with examples of what Pierre Verger (1968, 31) has termed “flux and reflux.” Building on a lifetime of fieldwork and archival research, Verger documented extensive and continuous contact between religious specialists in Africa and religious organizations in the New World. He painstakingly demonstrated that the slave trade was not only “of” Africans (i.e., as objects of the trade itself), but “by” Africans as well, in the sense that Africans and African Americans were not only laborers but also producers and traders in the plantation system, and thus played an active role—not just a passive one—in the ongoing drama of slavery. But Verger also notes that such “flux and reflux” was rare during the early days of slavery, and most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century slaves were forced to improvise from a limited knowledge of African religious traditions.

On both sides of the Atlantic the meeting of religions among Africans and people of African descent involved more than Christianity and the traditional religions of Africa. It also involved Islam. Working its way from the Sahara long before Christianity began to touch the coast of West Africa, Islam—like Christianity—interacted in complex ways with the traditional religions of Africa. Brought to the Americas by enslaved African Muslims, Islam struggled to survive in an inhospitable, Christian-dominated environment.

African and African American religions have always been at the center of debates concerning the retention of African cultural traits in the New World. Some prominent scholars, most notably the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier (1964), have suggested that New World slavery was so disruptive that few African traits were able to survive. Other scholars, most notably the anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits (1941), have argued effectively for the survival of African traits in New World societies. Herskovits’s view has predominated, but the issue remains complex (see Mintz and Price 1992).

The quest for African cultural traits in the New World continues, but with new and refined sensibilities. The question is no longer whether, but how much? As Stuart Hall (1990, 228)—commenting on the presence africaine in his native Jamaica—noted,

—–Africa was, in fact, present everywhere, in the everyday life and customs of the slave quarters, in the language and patois of the plantations, in names and words; often disconnected from their taxonomies, in the secret syntactical structure through which other languages were spoken, in the stories and tales told to children, in religious practices and belief in the spiritual life, the arts, crafts, music and rhythms of slave and post-emancipation society….Africa remained and remains the unspoken, unspeakable “presence” in Caribbean culture. It is “hiding” behind every verbal inflection, every narrative twist of Caribbean cultural life.

African American religious institutions in the United States and the Caribbean provide valuable insight into the inner workings of African American and Caribbean societies and cultures. Moreover, it is appropriate for social scientists to devote their attention to religion because—as C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya so effectively argued (1990, xi)— “religion, seriously considered, is perhaps the best prism to cultural understanding, not as a comparative index, but as a refractive element through which one social cosmos may look meaningfully at another and adjust its presuppositions accordingly.”

Two erroneous assumptions have informed past studies of African and African American religions. The first is that the black experience of religion simply replicates white religious experience; the second is that it is totally dissimilar to it. Neither assumption is true because neither takes into account the complex interactions between African-based religions and other world religions. Correctly viewed, African American religious experience cannot be separated from North American religion. It is of one fabric. African religious experience is part and parcel of North American religious experience just as Christianity and Islam are now part and parcel of religious experience on the continent of Africa. Nevertheless, exact genealogies of African and African American religions are difficult to discern.

African Religions in the Caribbean

The best-documented religions—such as Haitian Vodun, Rastafarianism, Cuban Santeria, and the Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad—serve as prime examples of creativity and change in this dynamic region, which has become a fertile ground for the development of new religious admixtures and syncretism. Almost everyone in the Caribbean is from someplace else, and Caribbean religions have been greatly affected by the presence of Europeans, Africans, and—to a lesser extent—by Asian people as well. A majority of these religions have either an African or Christian base, but Caribbean peoples have modified selected aspects of these traditions, added to them, and made them their own. While much attention has been given to African influences, one cannot completely understand religious developments in the region solely in terms of an African past. The African past is a piece—albeit a large piece—of a more complex whole. Syncretism of Hinduism and Christianity abounds, and one can never underestimate the potential impact of Islam.

Rastafarianism is perhaps the most widely known of Caribbean religions. It is difficult to estimate the exact number of Rastafarians, but the religion’s influence vastly exceeds its numbers in Jamaica, elsewhere in the Caribbean, in Europe, Latin America, and the United States. The movement traces its history to a number of indigenous preacher-leaders in the 1930s, most notably Leonard Howell, Joseph Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley, Paul Earlington, Vernal Davis, Ferdinand Ricketts, and Robert Hinds. The influence of Marcus Garvey is also apparent. Each of these leaders—working in isolation from the others—came to the conclusion that Haile Selassie (1892–1975), then enthroned as Ethiopian emperor, was the “Lion of Judah” who would lead all peoples of African heritage back to the promised land of Africa. In the Amharic (Ethiopian language), Ras Tafari means “head ruler” or “emperor.” It is one of the many formal titles belonging to Haile Selassie.

While Rastafarianism is by no means a homogeneous movement, Rastafarians share seven basic tenets: (1) black people were exiled to the West Indies because of their moral transgressions; (2) the wicked white man is inferior to black people; (3) the Caribbean situation is hopeless; (4) Ethiopia is heaven; (5) Haile Selassie is the living God; (6) the emperor of Ethiopia will arrange for all expatriated persons of African descent to return to their true homeland; and (7) black people will get revenge by compelling white people to serve them. Among contemporary Rastafarians different subgroups stress different elements of the original creed; for example, the alleged death of Haile Selassie (a large number of Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie is still alive) has raised significant questions regarding Selassie’s place in the movement.

Cuban Santeria combines European and African beliefs and practices. But unlike Vodun, the religion is inspired mainly by one African tradition—that of the Yoruba. In Santeria, the Yoruba influence is marked in music, chants, and foodstuffs, and by sacrifice. During major ceremonies, blood—the food of the deities—flows onto sacred stones belonging to the cult leader. These stones are believed to be the objects through which the gods are fed and in which their power resides. A significant religious development in North America has been the large-scale transfer of Cuban Santeria to urban centers, notably New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and Toronto. It is estimated that there are currently more than 100,000 Santeria devotees in New York City alone.

The Spiritual Baptists are an international religious movement with congregations in Saint Vincent (where some Baptists claim the faith originated), Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Guyana, Venezuela, Toronto, Los Angeles, and New York City. Membership is predominantly black, but in recent years congregations in Trinidad have attracted membership among wealthy East Indians and Chinese. A central ritual in the Spiritual Baptist faith is known as the mourning rite. This is an elaborate ceremony involving fasting, lying on a dirt floor, and other deprivations. A major component of the mourning rite is discovering one’s true rank within the church hierarchy.

A critical issue in the study of Caribbean religions is the selection of a unit of analysis. Because syncretism plays such a prominent role in the development of religions in the region, it is often difficult to separate indigenous and foreign elements. Since there has been so much outreach, it is often difficult to discover the “true” origin of any single religious group. Because most of the religions considered here lack a denominational chain of command, one cannot make statements about them as one might about the Roman Catholic Church or Presbyterianism. The most accurate assessments refer to individual congregations and their leaders. To examine movements such as Rastafarianism, Santeria, Vodun, and the Spiritual Baptists as if they were unified denominations on the European and North American model is to present an overly coherent picture of an incredibly fragmented and volatile religious situation.

African Religions in the United States

Scholarly studies on African American religion in the United States are often traced to W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic The Negro Church (1903), “which constituted the first major book-length study of African American religion in the United States. Employing a wide range of research strategies (historical, survey, interview, and participant-observation) Du Bois explored multiple aspects of African American religious life including church finance, denominational structures, and beliefs. Du Bois characterized the Black Church as the first distinctly African American social institution” (Zuckermann 2000, 109). Subsequent studies of the Black Church were much more limited in scope. As noted, later scholars confined their attentions to the retention of African cultural traits in the New World, and scholars debated the extent to which African American religion draws from African religion in its diverse forms. Few slaves came directly to the United States from Africa, and the presence or absence of so-called Africanisms is more difficult to discern in American religions than in those of the Caribbean. Nevertheless, bits and pieces of African religious concepts and rituals are present in North America—but in greatly modified forms. These concepts and rituals include the call-and-response pattern in preaching, ancestor worship, initiation rites, spirit possession, healing and funeral rituals, magical rituals for obtaining spiritual power, and ecstatic spirit possession accompanied by rhythmic dancing, drumming, and singing.

Prior to the American Revolution, few American slaves were exposed to Christianity. Initially, planters did not promote the conversion of their slaves to Christianity because they feared that it might give slaves ideas about equality and freedom that were incompatible with slavery. Over time, however, slave owners became convinced that a highly selective interpretation of the Gospel message could be used to foster docility in their slaves. During the First Great Awakening (1720–1740), some free blacks and slaves joined Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian congregations. The Second Great Awakening (1790–1815), with its numerous camp meetings, attracted more slaves and free blacks to evangelical forms of Protestantism. In the eighteenth century, Methodists emerged as leaders in developing effective religious instruction among the slaves. Following its creation in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention also undertook aggressive missionary work among slaves. Religion scholar Albert Raboteau (1978) has suggested that the Baptists were especially successful because baptism by immersion resembled West African initiation rites.

Throughout the United States, slaves worshiped in both mixed and segregated congregations. Masters often took house slaves with them to religious services at their own (predominantly white) churches, where blacks were required to sit in separate galleries. In addition to attending church services with their masters, slaves held secret religious meetings in their own quarters, in “praise houses,” or away from the plantation in so-called hush arbors.

During the time of slavery, African Americans in the United States never experienced complete religious freedom, but a number of independent African American congregations and religious associations arose. Two early Baptist churches, the Joy Street Baptist Church in Boston (which was established in 1805) and the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City (which was established in 1808), were founded in response to discrimination in racially mixed congregations. Black Baptist congregations in the Midwest formed separate regional associations in the 1850s, and the first Baptist association, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., was formed in 1895. Black Methodists also established independent congregations and associations during the antebellum period. A group of blacks belonging to the Free African Society, a mutual aid society within St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, severed ties with its parent body in 1787 in response to what some black members saw as discriminatory practices. A majority of the dissidents united to form St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church in 1794, under the leadership of Absalom Jones. Richard Allen led a minority contingent to establish the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Bethel Church became the founding congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church—the single largest black Methodist denomination. St. John’s Street Church in New York City, with its racially mixed congregation, served as an organizational nexus for what became the second major black Methodist denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church.

African American religions became more diverse in the early twentieth century as blacks migrated from the rural South to northern cities. By this time, two National Baptist associations and three black Methodist denominations were already well established as the mainstream churches in black urban communities. Often these denominations cut across class lines. Conversely, black congregations affiliated with white-controlled Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches catered primarily to African American elites. Although mainstream churches attempted to address the social needs of recent migrants, their middleclass orientations often made migrants feel ill at ease. As a consequence, many migrants established and joined storefront churches. In addition, recent migrants became attracted to a wide array of Holiness-Pentecostal Churches, Sanctified Churches, and Spiritual Churches, as well as various Islamic and Jewish sects. Other independent groups, with such names as “Father Divine’s Peace Mission” and “Daddy Grace’s United House of Prayer for All People” also gained prominence. Today, approximately 90 percent of churchgoing African Americans belong to black-controlled religious bodies. The remaining 10 percent belong to white-controlled religious bodies. African Americans are also to be found within the memberships of liberal Protestant denominations, the Mormon Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and various groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unity, and the Seventh-day Adventists. There are more than 2 million black Roman Catholics in the United States, many of them recent migrants from the Caribbean.

A number of prominent African American religions in the United States are based on the teachings of Islam. Noble Drew Ali established the first of these, the Moorish Science Temple, in Newark, New Jersey, in the early twentieth century. The main teachings of the Moorish Science Temple were incorporated into the Nation of Islam, founded by Wallace D. Fard during the early 1930s in Detroit. Later, the Nation of Islam came under the leadership of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The Nation of Islam grew rapidly, in part due to the militant preaching of Malcolm X during the early 1960s. Rapid growth did not check schismatic tendencies that led to the appearance of numerous splinter groups, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim movement of Chicago, the Hanafis of Washington, D.C., and the Ansaru Allah community of Brooklyn. Following the assassination of Malcolm X and the death of Elijah Muhammad, Elijah’s son, Wallace D. Muhammad, transformed the Nation of Islam into the more orthodox group known as the American Muslim Mission. To counter the Mission’s shift to orthodox Islam, Louis Farrakhan established a reconstituted Nation of Islam.

Caribbean-based religions are among the fastestgrowing religions in the United States. As noted above, Vodun, Rastafarianism, and the Spiritual Baptists have established large congregations in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and other urban centers, attracting Caribbean migrants and American blacks, as well as a small number of white converts. Cuban Santeria is perhaps the most racially mixed and widespread of these religions.

An African American Aesthetic

African and African American peoples do not conceptualize religion as something separate from the rest of their culture. Art, dance, and literature are understood as integral to the religious experience. This is aptly illustrated by the musician B. B. King’s comment that he feels closest to God when he is singing the blues. Spirituals, the blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, bebop, Afro-Latin, and hip-hop are all rooted in West African sacred and secular music traditions. West Africans understand music as a means of propagating wisdom. In the Yoruba tradition, music stirs things up, it incites. West African music and art begin with God, the ideal. For example, Afro-Cuban music continues the African tradition of dispersing and expounding upon fixed and recurring God-generated themes that embody cultural ideals and values.

While African American music is derived from a variety of sources, religion has historically served as one of its major inspirations. As C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya (1990, 347) observe, “In the Black Church singing together is not so much an effort to find, or to establish, a transitory community as it is the affirmation of a common bond that, while inviolate, has suffered the pain of separation since the last occasion of physical togetherness.”

Eileen Southern (1983) traced African American spirituals to the camp meetings of the Second Awakening, where blacks continued singing in their segregated quarters after the whites had retired for the night. According to Lincoln and Mamiya (1990, 348), black spirituals also appear to have had their roots in the preacher’s chanted declamation and the intervening congregational responses.

The “ring shout,” in which “shouters” danced in a circle to the accompaniment of a favorite spiritual sung by spectators standing on the sidelines, was a common practice in many nineteenth-century black churches. By 1830, many black urban congregations had introduced choral singing into their services. “Praying and singing bands” became a regular feature of religious life in many black urban churches. Despite the opposition of African Methodists and other religious leaders to the intrusion of “cornfield ditties” into formal worship services, folk music became an integral part of African American sacred music.

According to Southern, black gospel music emerged as an urban phenomenon in revivals conducted in tents, football stadiums, and huge tabernacles. In 1927, Thomas A. Dorsey promoted what he called “gospel songs” in churches in Chicago, the Midwest, and the rural South. At a time when many Baptist and Methodist churches rejected gospel music, Sanctified churches (an aggregate of independent congregations stressing experience of the Holy Spirit and personal piety as keys to salvation) in both urban and rural areas embraced it wholeheartedly. The Church of God in Christ has been a strong supporter of contemporary gospel music. Spiritual churches (like the Israel Universal Divine Spiritual Churches of Christ, the Metropolitan Spiritual Churches of Christ, and the Universal Hagar’s Spiritual Church) also accepted gospel music, and in New Orleans jazz is an integral feature of their worship services. In time, many mainstream congregations have incorporated gospel music into their musical repertoires.

African American religions in the Caribbean and the United States represent a coming together of African and European cultures in yet a third setting— that of the Americas. They are products of both voluntary and forced migrations, and represent a dynamic blending of Old World and New World faiths. E. Franklin Frazier (1964, 50–51) correctly argued that African American religion historically has functioned as a “refuge in a hostile white world.” At another level, it has served as a form of cultural identity and resistance to a white-dominated society. In addition to serving as houses of worship, black churches were and are centers of social life, ethnic identity, and cultural expression in the African American and Caribbean communities.

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  13. Raboteau, A. J. (1978). Slave religion: The “invisible” institution in the antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press.
  14. Southern, E. (1983). The music of black Americans. New York: Norton.
  15. Spencer, J. M. (1993). Blues and evil. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
  16. Verger, P. (1968). Flux et reflux de la traite des negres entre le Golfe de Benin et Bahia de Todos los Santos, du XVIIe au XIXe siecle [Flow and backward flow of the draft of the Negros between the Gulf of Benign and Bahia de Todos los Santos]. The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton.
  17. Zuckermann, P. (2000). Du Bois on Religion. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

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