Religion And The African American Experience Essay

, Research Paper

Various factors contribute to religion practices and preferences. These factors can be demographic, economical, social or even lack thereof. It can be found that traditional West African religion has undergone much subtraction and addition in its making of a religion. It can also be found that it went through this process as it assembled in Latin and North America. Traditional West African religion was an essential part of life to every person from West Africa. Religion was a way of life. In other words life revolved around religion. It tied into every aspect of their lives. “West African religion permeates every aspect of human existence ” (Small, pp.20) Nothing was coincidental. West African people believed that nothing is left up to chance, everything happens for a reason. So if a child becomes sick West African people want to know why that child out of all the children living is sick. Religion is a way to find that reason.

When a traditional West African religion is taken apart by order of their Gods, etc., the Creator is first, which is another name for God. Second in line are the Demi-Gods, which control the affairs of human beings and things that humans come in contact with. Third on the list are the ancestors, that have the ability to intervene in human life. Each God plays an important part within traditional West African Religion, either in the past or present. The living also had special parts in traditional West African religion. The priests kept the lines of communication open between the spirit world and human beings. The doctors or witch doctors acted as physicians that not only healed your illness but also told you where it came from. They brought healing both physically and psychologically. The wizards and witches had powers for social purposes that could be used for bad or good. The individuals called diviners had the job of being sin detectives. Lastly, the conjurer that was usually a woman held a combination of the jobs possesses by the others. The conjurer had skills of the priest, doctor, and diviner.

In Latin America, the primary religion was Catholicism. “African Gods were syncretized with Catholic saints ” (Raboteau, pp. 77). This syncretization was called voodoo. The Gods of both Catholicism and traditional West African religion were parallel. The creator in traditional West African religion was like God in Catholicism. Demi-Gods from traditional West African religion was like Jesus Christ to the Catholics. In the sense that they had the same role, which was interaction with the living. The ancestors possess the same role as the saints. They both were living at some point and their memories are preserved in oral narration. Lastly, the living were the living in every sense in both religions.

In North America, the primary religion was Protestantism. Before the people from West Africa were brought to North America “they were seasoned” in the West Indies because raw Africans were hard to control. This process involved doing away with as much as possible of the traditional West African religion of the newly imported slaves. Once imported to North America they were washed, shaven to disguise gray hair oiled up and were baptized by the priest into Christianity. “Like all aspects of West African culture brought by the slaves to the Americas it was profoundly modified both by their ordeal and the encounter with European culture” (Small, pp. 29). After this process, the priest taught the slaves about the mission of the church and how they were to go out and spread the word of Christianity. However, in North America it was common action of a slave to practice religion and his or her slave owner not to practice any form of religion. In this case, the slaves knew nothing about religion after the auction block because the slave master did not allow it. Furthermore, early practicing Protestants did not believe that West Africans had souls and were able to be saved. In other words, early practicing Protestants did not believe that West Africans were their brothers in the religious sense. In addition to the slaves being considered as property they were also seen as not truly people. Thus, they were treated inhumane.

There are similarities and differences between that of the syncretized religion voodoo, of West Africans in Latin America and that in North America, Christianity. There are also factors that illustrate why some traditional West African religious traditions could be passed down from generation to generation or why it was hardly remembered. “One of the sources of severe strain for Africans exposed to modern change is the increasing process (through education, urbanization, and industrialization) by which individuals become detached from their traditional environment. This leaves them in a vacuum devoid of a solid religious foundation. They are torn between the life of their forefathers which whatever else might be said about it, has historical root and firm traditions and the life of our technological age which, as yet for many Africans have no concrete form or depth.” (Mbiti, pp. 4) The conditions and living situations of the slaves in Latin America show similarities and differences in comparison to the standards in North America. The slaves were considered to be inferior in Latin America but were given more opportunities to assimilate. On the other hand in North America the slaves were considered to be property and were only allowed to do what their master told them to. Latin America’s government had laws indicating the rights of the slave masters and the slaves. These laws did not exist in North America. What the slave owner said was law. Slaves had no rights. More opportunities could be found for freedom in Latin America than in North America. In North America a free slave was very rare., almost scarce. The system of slavery was different in Latin America than in North America, making it easy for a slave to convert into their master’s religion. “West Africans had a good sense of adaptability and the ability to choose eclectically from a variety of sources and to profit from the potential richness of a number of perspectives simultaneously.” (Small, pp. 22)

Demographically, Latin American slave owners did not stress reproduction thus the slave population did not increase much. “In Brazil and the West Indies the mortality rate of slaves for long periods of slavery exceeded the birth rate by wide margins.” (Raboteau, pp. 90) The reason for this was that planters found it more economical to supply their demand for slaves by importation rather than by encouraging them to reproduce. However in North America, the case was quite different. They did not start off with as many slaves but wound up multiplying their initial count by ten. In North America reproduction was stressed and carried out. They carried this out by making sure that there were even amounts of men and women. This method of reproduction made it hard to hold on to their traditional West African religion. “Thus the bulk of the slave population in North America was native-born.” (Raboteau, pp. 92)

Religion in Latin America and in North America unified slaves, through music, dance, and prayer. There were no spectators. Everyone participated. “Everyone is assumed to be musical. Making music is in fact thought of as being as basic a form of social interaction as talking.” (Small, pp. 26) In addition to singing and dancing, slaves in Latin America were allowed to use their drums for communication because drums were and are a familiar aspect of that culture. Since almost every aspect of traditional West African religion was done away with in North America, the slaves had to improvise. They created songs that were about their trials and tribulations. They were called spirituals. These spirituals were influenced by Protestant hymns. These songs dealt with time present and they compared their struggle to that of the children of Israel in the Bible.

In conclusion, the differences and similarities found in the encounter of traditional West African religion on both Latin and North America was quite influential. There were many similarities and differences. These factors were proven within the text about demographics concerning the slave population. Next, the rationalized reason why traditional West African religion diminished in North America and not in Latin America was due to the fact of the way in which the slaves were treated. All in all, religion played an important role in the life of a slave on both continents. Religion was an aspect of life, musically, demographically, economically, and socially. Religion is what gave most slaves identity.

Works Cited

1. Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum

South. Oxford University Press NY, 1978.

2. Small, Christopher. Music of the Common Tongue. River run Press NY, 1987.

3. Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism. 2nd.ed. Orbis Books,

Maryknoll NY, 1983.

4. Mbiti, John S. African Religions & Philosophy. Heinemann International, Oxford

London, 1969.


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