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Monday, June 4, 2012

Transformed African Retentions and their Influence on American Culture


Historians of the African diaspora have long debated whether African slaves in the Americas retained or lost their African identity upon arrival to the New World. Many Anthropologists and scholars cite language and naming practices, planting techniques, cuisine and religion as evidence that slaves who survived the Middle Passage preserved fragments of their former societies in Africa when transported to the Caribbean and North America. Conversely, other scholars questioned how the heinous environment of slavery could allow African men and women to maintain their homeland culture and traditions. After reading Africanisms in American Culture, it is clear to me that African slaves in the New World retained many of their African cultural facets, including aspects of language and religion. However, these retentions were impacted by the conditions of slavery, resulting in an entirely new cultural phenomenon, which is what we currently understand as purely African American. In a nutshell, African customs did not survive, they transformed. This transformed, newly labeled “African American culture” in turn then transformed white American heritage, culture, and linguistics. This treatise seeks to examine how retentions of African language and religion were impacted and transformed by the oppression of slavery, and how these newly transformed retentions created common facets of American culture.
In his essay The African Heritage of White America, John Edward Philips argued that the main triumph of the text Africanisms in American Culture was that it caused increasing acceptance of the idea that much of white American culture comes directly from Africa [1](Philips 372). One path to understanding or accepting this claim by Philips is to ask if one is seeking to find what makes black Americans different from white Americans or what makes black and white Americans alike? What, then, makes Americans both black and white uniquely American? To discover these truths, do we seek to find African retentions amongst African Americans and white European influences amongst African Americans, or do we seek to find African or African American influences amongst American whites? It comes as no surprise to me that the answer to this last question is a resounding “all of the above.” Philips stated: “scholars trained in European studies have tended to regard many aspects of African American culture as of European origin, while scholars trained in African studies have considered the same traits to be of African origin. Those trained only as Americanists seem to have accepted uncritically whatever they read, or whatever fit their prejudices…{therefore} a scholar wishing to write a definitive history of African cultural survivals must acquire a triple expertise: as an Americanist, an Africanist, and a Europeanist”[2](Philips 391).
Upon trying to grasp this theory, I attempted to conjure metaphors for the newly transplanted African, the oppression of slavery, and the impact of these on white America.  Let us say then, the Africans upon arrival to the New World were beautiful, pure, and perfect pieces of unadulterated Carbon. White America itself was then the rock (environment) in which this Carbon was relocated to. The oppressive, unjust, and cruel hardship of slavery then bore down upon the Carbon, exuding heat and pressure. The Carbon, which had slowly formed into its current state over a history of three billion years, was then transformed into a diamond, something that looked entirely different, yet was elementally the same. (Please note this is NOT to imply that the oppression of slavery turned the Africans into something better than what they were before. That is not my intent at all.  This metaphor is meant to illustrate the change that occurred to the carbon, all while maintaining some of its sameness. Please assume both the carbon and the diamond are of equal beauty and value.) The impact of this change from carbon to diamond directly changed the surrounding rock and landscape forever.  Part of the carbon and the heat from the magma was released into the surrounding rocks, making them elementally the same, yet different in shape, form and structure.   All involved in the process were forever changed: the carbon, the diamond, the surrounding rock and environment, and even the heat that caused the transformation. They were elementally the same, but now forever intertwined due to the experience. The diamond had to adjust to its new appearance and it’s new environment, the heat was lost in the transformation process, and the surrounding rock and environment took on the emitting carbon and became something new and different.  None involved would be the same if not for the direct influence of the other. Let us then examine some of the African retentions that transformed into a part of African American culture, as well as the conditions in which this occurred. 
            It goes without saying that living and working conditions of the African American slaves were deplorable, especially in the Southern states, where slavery thrived after the American Revolution as a result of the booming cotton industry. Prior to the revolution, most slaves in both the Northern and Southern United States were indentured, meaning that after an agreed-upon period of usually three-four years, the slave could freely go, having “paid-off” their passage to the New World.  Indentured servants were both black and white, and were treated with at least a moderate level of decency. This is a stark contrast to “chattel slavery” which was the predominant system in the South after the Revolution. In the Chattel system, the slave, (men and women and their descendants) were “owned” by their masters for life. Key to the chattel system was the belief that slaves were to be black and masters were to be white. In this system of slavery, (by far the worse of the two), slaves were subjected to terrible living conditions, poor nutrition, and psychological maltreatment. Men were beaten to instill fear, and deter rebellion and escape. Women were frequently raped and forced to bear children in order to increase the slave population. Children were oftentimes traded to other plantations, separating them from their mothers care.   Gatherings were prohibited, for fear of mass revolt.  The slaves were treated as merely working animals, rather than the human beings that they were.  Clearly, by any definition, slavery in eighteenth century America was a mass violation of what now is commonly accepted as base- level human rights, and a shameful part of America’s past.   
It is easy, then, to at least consider the argument of E. Franklin Frazier in regards to African retentions.  How could Africans possibly retain any of their culture, heritage or tradition among the devastating conditions of American slavery? The answer to this is question is now clear (as mentioned above.). It was by the African American slave’s ability to adapt or transform important, key elements of their African culture and tradition into new cultures and traditions that were a mixture of the past and the present, all while under intense scrutiny and oppression. The resulting cultures and traditions reflected a little of the old, a little of the new, and a little of something entirely different. The clearest example of this exists in the linguistic patterns of African Americans, referred to in the twenty first century as Ebonics. In this newly formed language, it is possible to see a lexicon and verb conjugation pattern that is consistent with African language, a lexicon framework that is based on the Standard English of the white Americans, and intonations and inflections that are of completely unknown origin, that is, they are new and unique to this demographic.
In his essay African Elements in African American English, Molefi Kete Asante made a very plausible argument in defense of the retention of African linguistics in the linguistic behaviors of African Americans. The primary strength of his argument existed in the flow he created documenting the West African languages of Niger-Congo, to Pidginization, to Creolization, to Englishizatioin, (or Ebonics.)  Asante exemplified how Ebonics contains structural remnants of certain African languages while maintaining an overwhelmingly English vocabulary.  These structural elements are particularly noticeable in the use of aspect rather that tense in many verb conjugations and constructions. One example of this is the Niger-Congo tense-aspect of present (he go), near past (he gone), remote past (he been gone), future (he going to go), aspect of progress (he going), aspect of completion (he done gone), and past aspect of repetition (he been going.)  This pattern of West African verb conjugation is obvious in American Ebonics.  The relationship between the verbs within a given construction is also of great importance and a major difference between American Ebonics and English. Asante explained: “In some sentences Ebonics speakers use several verbs, whereas Standard English has available a single verb to express the completed action”[3](Asante 75). Examples of this include “Turn loose and drap down from dar” (Come down from there),  I hear tell you went home” (I hear that you went home), “Go home and see about those children” (go home and attend to those children) and “he picked up and went to town” (he went to town) [4] (Asante 76). Asante pointed out that giving every action a verb and using verb tenses that are grammatically incorrect in Standard English is a common practice by African Americans.  In the sentences  He clumb de tree to shake de simmons down whilst I be pickin em up” and “Fore I knowed it I done fell slap to sleep”, examples of African origin in the sentences include “he clumb”, “I be pickin em up”, “de”, and “I knowed it.” In the very same sentence, white European Standard English origins are notable in “whilst”. An entirely new and previously unknown (at that time) linguistic pattern which became a mainstay in current Ebonics is seen in these sentences in the insertion of new words, meant to shorten the existing Standard English lexicon, such as “simmons” (for persimmons), and “slap” (for straight).
The theory of cultural retention of African linguistics is more controversial in the twenty-first century than ever.  In 2009, the 11th annual Harlem Book Fair hosted a panel discussion entitled "We Be You Are They Is: Black English, Language, and Culture”, which was filmed and now available for viewing.  The panelists discussed whether a nonstandard language such as "Black English" should be deemed inferior, and the problems of transferring between languages. The discussion highlighted three main features of language: the concept that language provides a sense of identity and defines ones sense of placement within society and time; the difference between they style of language we use in personal and intimate relationships vs. the language used in more formal academic or workplace environments; and the great variety of English spoken across this country and this world, of which Ebonics is but one.
            The major points of this panel presentation were very consistent with the writings and theories of Asante, in that the panelists agreed in the importance of the connection that Ebonics provides to blacks, both with their African past, and with each other.  Speakers of African English, according to the panelists, are no different than any other American who speaks English as a second language.  The strongest argument that was made by the panel was the need for black children to learn when to use Ebonics or what they referred to as “rap culture English” and when to use Standard English. Exemplified in the discussion were the differences between home language and culture, and school language and culture, as well as the media and the lack of respect for Africa, and African American people in this country.
            Upon critically examining why the slaves of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and black Americans today accept and frequently adopt a different linguistic pattern, similarities of circumstance arise.  First, we must not dismiss tradition. The African American slaves desperately needed to hold on to some semblance of their past, and language provided for them a connection to something familiar in a very unfriendly and unfamiliar new world.  Likewise, African Americans today, who like all Americans are adjusting to new a social structure which places families at great distances from one another, can find a connection with their personal pasts through language shared with other blacks, albeit not family members. Second, The African slaves needed a way to communicate with each other in a way that white slave owners would not understand, thereby protecting themselves from potential harm in precarious circumstances.  Some African Americans today also feel the need to be able to communicate in a manner in which surrounding whites will not understand.  As a white female, I can only speculate as to why this is necessary.  Possible reasons include protecting each other in situations where they are threatened by racist acts of violence or discrimination, or to make light, or find humor in the differences between blacks and whites.  Lastly, and what I believe to be most importantly, African Slaves felt the need to connect with others who were like them and find solace and comfort in the fact that they were not alone, but were suffering together as a group.  The same can be said for African Americans today.  One merely needs to look at some of the bleak statistics of life as a twenty-first century African American to understand why solace and comfort are needed. High incarnation rates, low education levels, widespread poverty, and large numbers of children abandoned to the foster care system illustrate a black America that is suffering.  To the African American, it could seem as though the world is against them.  Sharing the bond of language, then, provides unity and a show of resilience against all hardships.
            In addition to retaining some of their African culture, (as the aforementioned example of linguistics illustrates), African Americans also adapted some of their African retentions as a process, or technique for survival.  This is most clearly exemplified in the religious practices of the slaves of the Sea Islands of coastal Georgia and South Carolina.  Known as the Gullah, the African Americans of the Sea Islands retained the primary cosmological and ontological theologies known to them in their religious and spiritual life in Africa.  These core concepts, which when combined formed the basis of the Gullah religious experience, included recognition of the creator of the universe (known as the Supreme Being), recognition and acceptance of the Spirits (both of evil and of ancestors), the respect and value of human life, the use of plants and animals (in the creation of talismans and as recognized members of the universe), and in the phenomena of special powers (associated with non-living things.) The Gullah religious worldview was rooted in African spirituality. In reading Margaret Washington’s essay Gullah Attitudes towards Life and Death, one comes to the conclusion that the Gullah were a people who were totally immersed in their religion.  In fact, life and religion could not be separated.  One could not “be” without the other.  To be detached from the religion of ones family, as Washington writes, “is to be severed from his roots, his foundation, his context of security, his kinships, and the entire group of those who made him aware of his existence.  To be without one of these elements in life is to be without the whole picture…African peoples do not know how to exist without religion”[5](Washington 152)
Known as mysticism within the realm of spirituality, the concept of the Supreme God within all created a connectedness between humans and all living things.  This is pointed out in Washington’s essay, as she explained how humans really consisted of two entities: the outer and the inner being.  Known as the outer being, the body was just a shell, which was created to eventually rot and decay. The inner being was divided into two parts: one’s personal life, and more significant to this discussion, the Kivuumuni, which was the agent of life and breath.  Neither death, nor evil spirits nor hoodoo amulets or charms could destroy it.  This Kivuumuni was the very essence of life itself, and was the mystical notion of the experience of the Supreme Being, or the Ngewo within.  It was this connection that allowed Africans of several geographic areas to acculturate with each other before they acculturated with the native whites thereby providing a sense of connectedness and hope in what seemed like a hopeless situation.  Although from different regions of Africa, the slaves shared amongst them the same creator, and breath of life. As time passed, and as the Methodist, Episcopal and Baptist missionaries worked hard to convert the Sea Islands, the concept of the Supreme Being became the “Jesus” of the Christians. While the religion of voodoo and it’s hoodoo practices thrived and melded with the Roman Catholic base in amongst the Africans of New Orleans, the Gullah adapted their religion and their concept of the Supreme Being with the more Pentecostal Baptist, Methodist, and later the Episcopalians.  This sometimes created conflict and disconnect amongst the older Gullah and the younger more acculturated Gullah. The film Daughters of the Dust, directed and produced by Julie Dash, illustrates this conflict in one of its scenes. The women of the family were gathered and lamenting over the “old ways” of Nana Peazant.  The outspoken daughter –in-law Haagar objects that Nana  “doesn’t even pray to Jesus~, she still believes in the magic of her old tin can”.  The daughters and granddaughters of Nana stay silent on this, as they seem to understand that Nana’s God is the same God as this Jesus, or at least is experienced in the same way, which at the end of the day is what really is important.
Another way in which the Gullah adapted their religious traditions in order to survive was the African ritual of using water in religious ceremonies.  Holloway wrote about this in his essay The Sacred World of the Gullah, comparing the use of water in baptism amongst the missionaries to the water spirit cults of Ibibio, Calabar, Ijaw, Yoruba, and Grebo of Liberia, who all visited the river to immerse in the water in order to purify themselves (rid themselves of any spirit possession)[6](Holloway 207).  The spirit possession rituals of the Gullah involved shouting, dancing, and entering trance-like states. This was picked-up by the missionaries and became a popular theme amongst Southern Pentecostals, where even today dancing and speaking in tongues can be a part of the worship experience.   Several of the characters in Daughters of the Dust make reference to the spirits of ancestors, or their own future spirit afterlife.  Specifically, we see Nana Peazant showing the family the treasured hair of her mother, and presenting to them the hair, wrapped in herbs and twined to a Bible, for the family to take with them to the mainland.  Nana tells the family this hair is the presence of her mother in their life, (their “history”) and when she (Nana) passes on, her spirit will be with that of her mothers in the amulet she created. In this example, we see retentions of the African religious experience, providing hope and encouragement and connectedness from one soul to another,  thereby emphasizing survival.
The importance placed on the family and the strong sense of kinship exhibited by the Gullah illustrates their understanding and appreciation for a human life worth living in alliance with each other. Holloway wrote, “The patrilocal extended family consisted of a patriarchal head, his wife or wives, his unmarried children, his married sons, and their wives and children”[7] (Holloway 189).  Another common family unit was much more matrifocal family, as the matriarchal traditions of Africa were reinforced by the forced separation of men and women by the slave owners. Because of this forced separation, African American families were able to adopt others outside of the immediate family, and embrace them in the same way one would a sister or brother.  Daughters of the Dust clearly illustrates the strong bonds between extended family, as the families are portrayed as living together, and celebrating the return of a cousin (Cousin Mary) who had moved to the mainland.  We also see exemplified in the Presenze family, a household seemingly led by the grandmother of the family, containing far more women than men.  In one scene of the film Eula reveals to the family her true feeling about the family leaving the island, and she expresses how Yellow Mary is a part of her, a part of all of them. For Eula, her reliance and love of her family is her way of survival. In order, then to exist in the new and oppressive world of slavery, the Gullah had to find a way to adapt their beliefs to keep their religiosity in order to survive. As mentioned above, the Gullah could not separate life from religion, so therefore their religion had to be adapted to what was deemed more acceptable to the native whites in order for the Gullah themselves to survive.
Sadly, many look at the linguistic and religious practices of modern African Americans from the lens of the twenty first century, with no thought, consideration, or knowledge of the past.  Unfortunately, both white and black Americans share this ignorance. Many take specific issue with American Ebonics, stating it is the “language of the uneducated”, and “proof that African American families do not place education at a high level of importance.”  While this may be the case for some African American families, the same could be said of many white families, who are illiterate and cannot read above a first grade level.  Many also look to the black churches as a breeding ground for negativity and promotion of the continuation of segregation, especially in urban areas.  Walk into any church in the city of Detroit or its suburbs and you will find a congregation that is either ninety percent white or ninety percent black. Dancing, clapping, and speaking in tongues intimidate traditional white liturgical churches, and very little inter-denominational work is done between white and black parishes.  What, then can be done to inform, educate and make more Americans (both white and black) knowledgeable of how much of both of their cultures was influenced by African retentions, and how a new American culture was created by the transformed African retentions? The first response to this question by most is, of course, education.  But how can we achieve this when many schools today struggle with the most rudimentary basics such as ABC’s and 123’s? An idea much broader than just school education and that may have some impact is a National, federally funded three-year long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865. During these three years, there could be celebrations in every town with traveling museum exhibits, local celebrations of African music and dance, culinary festivals featuring low-country cooking, mini-series documentaries, free family -tree searches by heritage societies and foundations, reduced travel rates to important sites in African American history, such as Charleston, New Orleans, Harlem and stops along the Underground Railroad.  Black and white churches could unite in service projects to help poor black communities, and the popular media and Hollywood could take “African retention awareness” as its new cause.  Hopefully, after three years of information flowing through schools, government and social celebrations, the population could be flooded with information, resulting in a greater appreciation for the African traditions that have contributed to the culture of both white and black Americans.
            A remarkable challenge facing historians of African American slavery is to examine the specific retentions of American slaves in order to understand the ways in which they were able to adapt to their new environment, and to carefully discern specific ways in which these retentions were transformed by the horrific circumstances of slavery. As demonstrated above, African slaves in the New World retained elements of African language and religiosity.  These retentions were transformed by the hardships of slavery to become a language and religion that is uniquely African American, which in turn transformed aspects of white America as well.  It is in understanding this shared past that we may come to understand each other.  


[1] John Edward Philips, The African Heritage of White America Chapter thirteen of classroom text. Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 372
[2] John Edward Philips, The African Heritage of White America Chapter thirteen of classroom text. Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 391
[3]Molefi Kete Asante, African Elements in African American English Chapter Three of class text: Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 75
[4] Molefi Kete Asante, African Elements in African American English Chapter Three of class text: Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 76
[5] Margaret Washington, Gullah Attitudes toward Life and Death Chapter six of classroom text. Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 152
[6] Joseph E. Holloway, The Sacred World of the Gullahs Classroom Text Chapter Seven, Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 207
[7] Joseph E. Holloway, The Sacred World of the Gullahs Classroom Text Chapter Seven, Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 189

Sunday, May 27, 2012

African Religiosity Retention in New Orleans: Voodoo



Upon hearing the word voodoo, many conjure images of dolls stuck through with pins, headless chickens spewing blood, aimlessly wandering zombies, or any number of the horror scenes from the 1989 movie Angel Heart.  Few recognize Voodoo as a religion, and fewer still acknowledge its African roots and the level of comfort and continuity the practice provided to the enslaved Africans of New Orleans.  Common misconceptions people have about voodoo are that it is merely magic and not a real religion, that voodoo and hoodoo are the same thing, and that those who practice voodoo are polytheistic, and even worship the devil himself. 
One way to logically examine and effectively argue about the religion of voodoo is to compare it to other religious practices of enslaved Africans in the Americas, specifically in the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina and the St. Augustine area of Florida.  In doing so, one will find that while the ways the religions of New Orleans (Voodoo) and the Sea Islands and Florida express their beliefs may be different, the core framework of monotheistic belief accented by intercession of the spirit world either by possession or prevention, the use of nonliving items believed to contain powers, and memberships within secret societies with initiation rites is essentially the same.  Because the religion of the native whites in the New World varied based on geographic location, and because the dispersion of the enslaved Africans in the New World was based upon which area of Africa the American slaveholder desired their slaves to come from, the resulting acculturation and religiosity of the Africans looked very different depending on which part of America one examines.  The New Orleans area of Louisiana received the majority of its African slaves via the French colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Santo Domingo, which themselves also had imported slaves from the Bight of Benin and Bight of Biafra.  They arrived in New Orleans, which was already an amalgamation of American and French whites whose primary religious affiliation was Roman Catholic.  In contrast, the slaves of the Sea Islands and Florida arrived to Charleston via Sierra Leone, the Windward Coast, and the Gold Coast.  Known as “low country”, the whites of this area were mainly of English and Scottish origin, and their primary religious affiliation was Protestant, specifically Episcopalian, Methodist and Baptist.  
The first common misconception about Voodoo is that it is not a real religion but merely magic.  It is easy to see why one might take this position, as outwardly many of the practices appear to be magical in nature.  Dancing, spirit possession, and talismans all look very suspicious, especially to Protestants, who have been taught that putting faith in anything besides Jesus is a sin.  This is one reason why African retentions of Voodoo have been strongest in areas of America where Roman Catholicism thrives.  Both faiths (Voodoo and Roman Catholic) worship one God (God the creator vs. the Supreme Being), make intercessory prayers or offerings to spirits (saints vs. spirits of ancestors), and frequently use non-living things as a source of power (holy water or rosaries vs. chicken feet, herb talismans, etc.)  Many of the same practices of voodooist are seen in non-voodoo African retentions in the Sea Islands and Florida.  In his essay African Religious Retentions in Florida, Robert Hall shared this account from an 1880 newspaper, The Floridian:
“A man in Tallahassee assisted by an elderly woman, astounded onlookers by appearing to vomit nails, moss, and other debris.  His friends believe strongly in the reality of it all, and insists that he had a spell put on him by a woman to whom he was engaged to but whom he jilted and who now protests that she intends to pay him off for his base desertion.” [i] 
Clearly, the practices of making talismans, charms and curses existed outside of theVoodoo religion of New Orleans, demonstrating that these practices were original to African religiously, and not merely magic.  Practices of divination, manipulation and herbalism are all elements of African religiosity (as well as many other world religions) and not merely the superstitions of folklore.
            Another main misconception about the religion of Voodoo is that its practitioners are polytheistic and worship many Gods.  This is simply not true.  Jessie Ruth Gaston wrote in The Case of Voodoo in New Orleans:
“Vodu has a highly organized hierarchy of deities, with vodum priests, priestesses, novices, and other persons devoted to serving and protecting them.  At the top is the Supreme Being (Creator or God).  Below the Creator, lesser deities serve as intermediaries.  Clans, families and villages also have their own deities to protect them, justify their claims to power, and to legitimize their rights of occupation.  The deities have prescribed methods of worship, certain ceremonial dances, dress codes, foods, and days set aside in their honor.” [ii]  
Clearly, the deities are no more than intercessors, or intermediaries between humanity and the Supreme Being.  Much like the saints of Roman Catholicism, these intermediaries are assigned their own special days of the year, and have certain attributes that make them relatable to certain towns, clans or families.  It is not unknown for Roman Catholics to attend mass on their saint’s ascribed day, to name their children after the saint of which the day it was born, or to marry or baptize on the days of specific saints.  This is merely a way for people to feel more connected and experience their religion, instead of it just being a written, lifeless practice.  Where the catch may be, is the term deity being used for the Voodoo supernatural forces.  The term deity can mean a god or goddess or it can mean a divine quality or nature.  The word deity originates from Old French (deite), which means divine nature, not God.  Given the French nature of New Orleans, it is easy to see how this word was assigned to an African concept that had no English language equivalent.
            Almost every organized religion has some element of either its past or present that it either regrets or would disassociate from if it could.  Examples of this are the extreme literalists and the concept of Jihad for the Muslims, the crusades, the selling of indulgences,  the abuse of children by ordained clergy, and the money scandals of the televangelist for the Christians, and the polygamist practices of the extreme Mormons.  Within the religion of Voodoo, the opportunity to sell potions that had no power or validity to unsuspecting buyers in order to merely make money became prevalent and known to most as Hoodoo.  Hoodoo does not have established rites, rituals, priests, priestesses, or even a Supreme Being of which they pay homage to. Therefore Hoodoo is not a religion, but instead a group of magical practices.  Gaston’s essay touches on this, but does not go as far as to say that many aspects of Hoodoo diminished the credibility of Voodoo in America.
            Sadly, some associate the magical superstitions and con-artist techniques of Hoodoo with African American religion in general.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The religiosity of the imported Africans was deeply important to them.  While the oppression of slavery and the acculturation into the native white religious traditions did change the expression of their religion, it would be a travesty and a disservice to resulting African American religions and religious practices to refer to them as “magical”, “superstitious” or “witchcraft.” In contrast, the Voodoo of New Orleans and the beliefs held by the blacks of the Sea Islands and Florida were true religious expressions deeply rooted in African tradition. 


There is a balm in Gilead

To make the wounded whole

There is a balm in Gilead

To heal the sin sick soul.
~early 19th Century African American Spiritual
thought to have originated in the Sea Islands

Eh ye ye Mamzelle Marie
Ya ye ye li konin tou gris gris;
Li te cuori lekal , aver vieux kokodril;
Oh ouai ye Mamzelle Marie
~VooDoo Chant of Marie Laveau
Voodoo Priestess, New Orleans,
~1874


           


[i] Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr, 2006.Pg. 232
[ii] Pg. 115

The Gullah of the Sea Islands


Most religions of the world include in their theology and apologetic literature an explanation of how the universe (cosmos) came into being.  Known as religious cosmologies,  (as opposed to cosmology, which refers to empirically supported scientific theories of how the universe was created), these dogmas often can be traced to the earliest practices of a religion. All of the universal religions (Christianity, Islam and Buddhism), as well as all of the secondary world religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism and Taoism) include an aspect of religious cosmology in their dogmas. Religious cosmologies usually involve the presence of a deity, and more specifically a deity that was responsible for the creation of the universe.  Similar to religious cosmology, ontology is a metaphysical branch of philosophy that seeks to explain the nature of “being” in terms of the reality of (being) and the illusion of (being.) Entangled within ontological philosophies are also the concepts of the self, the other, and identity. Religious cosmology and ontology are of key importance in African religiosity, and given their prominent position, they are two significant aspects of African religion that endured the slave trade and thrived among Africans referred to as  the “Gullah” residing the in the Sea Islands off the coast of Southern South Carolina and Georgia. 
In her essay Gullah Attitudes towards Life and Death, Margaret Washington cites the work of John Mbiti, who combined African religious cosmology and ontology into five distinct categories: “God, as the ultimate of the Genesis and sustenance of all things; spirits, made up of superhuman beings and the spirits of those who died long ago; humans, including those who are alive and those who are born, animals and plants, or the remainder of biological life; and phenomena, objects without biological life.”[i]  This blog post seeks to examine specific examples of each of the each of these five categories from Margaret Washington’s abovementioned essay, The Sacred World of the Gullahs by Joseph E. Holloway, and the film Daughters of the Dust directed and produced by Julie Dash.  
Many non-Africans believe that the African religions outside of Islam and Christianity are polytheistic.   This is because specific regions of Africa had differing names for the Supreme Being, or God.  These names included Onyame, Nzambi, Ngewo, and Daya.  Similar to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the Supreme God was considered omniscient and omnipotent and served as the creator of all life forms. [ii] Unlike the universal religions whose God (Allah, Jehovah and God the Father) was both feared and loved, the Supreme God of the Gullah and other Africans living in the New World was not a being to be feared.  Ngewo just was as he was, and no amount of worship or prayer would change that.  He was responsible for the creation of all living things in the universe, and existed both within these living things and outside of them.  Known as mysticism within the realm of spirituality, this concept of the Supreme God within all created a connectedness between humans and all living things.  This is pointed out in Washington’s essay, as she explained how humans really consisted of two entities: the outer and the inner being.  Known as the outer being, the body was just a shell, which was created to eventually rot and decay. The inner being was divided into two parts: one’s personal life, and more significant to this discussion, the Kivuumuni, which was the agent of life and breath.  Neither death, nor evil spirits nor hoodoo amulets or charms could destroy it.  This Kivuumuni was the very essence of life itself, and was the mystical notion of the experience of the Supreme Being, or the Ngewo within.  It was this connection that allowed Africans of several geographic areas to acculturate with each other before they acculturated with the native whites. They shared amongst them the same creator, and breath of life. As time passed, and as the Methodist, Episcopal and Baptist missionaries worked hard to convert the Sea Islands, this notion of the Supreme Being melded with the Jesus of Christians rather than God that Father, which would be more inline with the concept of a Supreme Being.  While the religion of voodoo and it’s hoodoo practices thrived and melded with the Roman Catholic base in amongst the Africans of New Orleans, the Gullah melded their religion and their concept of the Supreme Being with the more Pentecostal Baptist, Methodist, and later the Episcopalians.  This sometimes created conflict and disconnect amongst the older Gullah and the younger more acculturated Gullah.  This can be seen in the portion of Daughters of the Dust when the women of the family were gathered and lamenting over the “old ways” of Nana Peazant.  The outspoken daughter –in-law Haagar objects that Nana  “doesn’t even pray to Jesus~, she still believes in the magic of her old tin can”.  The daughters and granddaughters of Nana stay silent on this, as they seem to understand that Nana’s God is the same God as this Jesus, or at least is experienced in the same way, which at the end of the day is what really is important.
Given that the Supreme Being does not require worship or prayer, as He wills all and controls all of life’s cycles, which included birth, coming of age, death, and existence in the afterlife, more emphasis was placed on what the Africans and Gullah felt they could control, which was the spirit world.  This spirit world consisted of both supernatural spirits and the spirits of ancestors laid to rest.  Evidence of this strong belief in the spirit world can be noted in the religions of Africa, the melded religion of the Gullah and the Voodoo and Hoodoo traditions of New Orleans and coastal Louisiana. It is important to remember, however, that while the African Gullah’s did recognize the supernatural spirits that affected aspects of life, the Supreme Being remained the central pinnacle of being, and as Washington stated, “lesser spirits were intermediaries, representing an assurance of human perpetuity beyond the grave.” [iii]  Amulets, potions and fetishes (small carved animals pounded through with nails) abounded in the slave quarters.   Several rituals existed to “keep de ghost out de House,” [iv] or to purify the body for religious ceremonies.  Of particular interest is the merged Christian and African ritual of using water in religious ceremonies.  Holloway wrote about this in his essay, comparing the use of water in baptism amongst the missionaries to the water spirit cults of Ibibio, Calabar, Ijaw, Yoruba, and Grebo of Liberia. who all visited the river to immerse in the water in order to purify themselves (rid themselves of any spirit possession.) [v]  The spirit possession rituals of the Gullah involved shouting, dancing, and entering trance-like states. This was picked-up by the missionaries and became a popular theme amongst Southern Pentecostals, where even today dancing and speaking in tongues can be a part of the worship experience.   Several of the characters in Daughters of the Dust make reference to the spirits of ancestors, or their own future spirit afterlife.  Specifically, we see Nana Peazant showing the family the treasured hair of her mother, and presenting to them the hair, wrapped in herbs and twined to a Bible, for the family to take with them to the mainland.  Nana tells the family this hair is the presence of her mother in their life, (their “history”) and when she (Nana) passes on, her spirit will be with that of her mothers in the amulet she created.
The great care the Gullah took in preparing the dying for death and the dead for the grave also exemplifies their belief in the spirit world.  Washington wrote:
 “ In the Sea Islands they would keep all-night vigil, singing, praying, and preaching around the bedside of the dying.  This was supposed to strengthen the person as they passed death’s door.  When the person died, they would immediately begin shouting over the body.  The loud shrieks were made as the last breath was breathed, as it was believed hat loud shrieking scared off the spirits of hell who were always lurking around to get possession of another soul.”[vi]
After death, the rite of burial and maintenance of the gravesite was extremely important to the Gullah. In the Sea Islands, when a person died, the possessions of the dead were placed on top of their grave.  Holloway quoted a Gullah who said: “tat dis wuz de way dey bury dem in Africa…Dey use tuh put duh tings a pusson use las on duh grabe.  Dis wuz suppose tuh satisfy duh spirit and keep ir frum follin yuh back tuh tuh house.”[vii]  We see the importance of the community graveyard in Daughters of the Dust as several scenes include the graveyard. 
The importance placed on the family and the strong sense of kinship exhibited by the Gullah illustrates their understanding and appreciation for a human life worth living in alliance with each other. Holloway wrote, “The patrilocal extended family consisted of a patriarchal head, his wife or wives, his unmarried children, his married sons, and their wives and children.”[viii]  Another common family unit was much more matrifocal family, as the matriarchal traditions of Africa were reinforced by the forced separation of men and women by the slave owners.  Daughters of the Dust clearly illustrates the strong bonds between extended family, as the families are portrayed as living together, and celebrating the return of a cousin (Cousin Mary) who had moved to the mainland.  We also see exemplified in the Presenze family, a household seemingly led by the grandmother of the family, that contained far more women than men.  During the scene when Eula reveals to the family her true feelings about the family leaving the island, she expresses how Yellow Mary is a part of her, a part of all of them, The women in the film also clearly dominate the men, and come across as more educated and in charge.  African American women were oftentimes more acculturated then the men, as they were oftentimes assigned work inside of the plantation homes, they gained greater fluency in the language and ways of the whites, thereby giving them an edge over the men, who were usually assigned to the fields or stables. 
The essays of Holloway and Washington do not present very much information about the importance of plants and animals in African religiosity.  Holloway briefly mentions palm kernel, coconut oil, camwoods and herbs in his description of the final wash before burial,[ix] and Washington makes no mention of it at all. However, much is made about the use of plants and animals in the Voodoo religion and its accompanying Hoodoo practices.  Nana Peazant’s tin can and her bundle of roots and herbs tied to the Bible show the connectedness between humanity (the hair of her mother) and the natural earth. 
Phenomena are the last of the cosmological and ontological categories of African Religion.  In this context, Phenomena refers to non-living things or objects carrying powers to prevail against evil, or even carrying the very presence of an ancestor, as in Nana Peazant’s tin can. These objects often remain tucked away and private for the Gullah slaves.  However, upon the death of the owner, the objects would appear en masse upon the gravesite of the deceased.  Washington wrote of bits of colored glass, carved wooden figures and patchwork quilts all being placed on the grave. [x] 
The Gullah cosmology and ontological categories of the Supreme Being, the Spirits of evil and ancestors, the respect and value of human life, the use of plants and animals and the phenomena of special powers associated with non-living things reflect the acculturation process and religious experience of the Gullah people.  While each of these categories reflects their roots in African religiosity, the Gullah were able to mix their African traditions with those of the native whites.  Specifically, this can be seen in their acceptance of Jesus in place of the Supreme Being, a choice that made their religion much less offensive to the native Christians.   As the acculturated, many of their own religious practices, such as dancing, spirit possession and trance like prayer states became a part of the Southern Pentecostal experience. 
The Gullah religious worldview was rooted in African spirituality.  Study of these essays and the film revealed a people who were totally immersed in their religion.  In fact, life and religion could not be separated.  One could not “be” without the other.  To be detached from the religion of ones family, as Washington writes, “is to be severed from his roots, his foundation, his context of security, his kinships, and the entire group of those who made him aware of his existence.  To be without one of these elements in life is to be without the whole picture…African peoples do not know how to exist without religion.”[xi]  Understanding the cosmology and ontology of the Gullah religion is a step towards understanding the Gullah as a people, a culture, and a vital part of the history of African Americans. 




I must add to this Blog a personal note: The Island of Edisto and Pawleys Island are probably my favorite places on the planet.  My family vacations on the beach there in the summer.  I have visited the rice plantations, and a few of the vacation homes and retreats that still have detatched slave quarters and have survived hurricane Hugo, which devastated the area in 1989.  There is a quiet but powerfully strong presence about these islands that I have never been able to adequatley articulate.  I can almost feel the presence of a mournful, soulful past. During our annual stay, every member of my family (including the children) seem to find a quiet moment here or there to stop, reflect and think.  Maybe it is the heat (which can be downright oppressive), maybe it is the sleepy inlet, with its reeds and ripples, blue crabs, and magical sunsets,  or maybe it is the warm, humid breeze that continuously blows.   There is just something magic about these islands.  It is different than nearby Charleston (which has it's own interesting haunts and history), and a world away from places like Myrtle Beach  or Hilton Head.  If you have a chance, go and visit.  

This house was built on 10 acres of beach land by the laBruce family who were successful rice planters in this area of All Saints Parish.  Two small dwellings on the property were slave cabins.  The residence was purchased by Calhoun Lemon of Barnwell, SC in 1952 and still remains in this family. Additions have been made to the house through the years.


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[i] Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr, 2006.Pg. 156
[ii] Pg.166
[iii] Pg. 156
[iv] Pg. 207
[v] Pg. 207
[vi] Pg. 198
[vii] Pg. 200
[viii] Pg. 189
[ix] Pg. 197
[x] Pg. 175
[xi] Pg. 155