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Documents Cited in the Supreme Court Ruling - 18
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Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience, Vol. 1
Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience:
Studies of Traditions and Movements
Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams, eds.
1988
1:178-183

AFRICAN HERITAGE IN THE CARIBBEAN

    That Africans transported their religious traditions to the New World is obvious to any tourist who visits the Caribbean or South America. Afro-Americans manifest religious behavior that is radically different from what the European-American is familiar with in his own church or synagogue. Although most Africans assimilated the alien culture of their new environment and retained little of their African heritage, traces of that past still persist in some segments of America in language and religious beliefs.

    American scholars who wrote on African customs during the period of slavery often commented on African forms of worship, but few were able to place them in historical perspective. Scholars saw these practices as phenomena that would vanish with the work of missionaries and exposure to "civilization." A study of cultural continuities had to await the genius of anthropologists such as Herskovits who became interested in New World Africans.

    The propensity to hold on to the ancient religion appears to be common to all people who are forcibly transported from their cultural communities to a foreign environment. One classical example is the ancient Jews in Babylon. Their religion was the only point around which life could be reorganized. Africans also found themselves in an entirely new environment devoid of sacred borders, and they had to introduce their spiritual cosmology in order for life to continue. This process took time, but we are now more aware of how it came about.

    The indiscriminate capturing of Africans brought to the New World numerous members
[1 Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience 179] of the priestly classes, whose influence prepared the environment for a reestablishment of their traditional religion. Although the priests operated in secret throughout the period of slavery, their influence was felt by those who operated the slave system. The multitude of laws passed by the various parliaments of the Caribbean islands against the beating of drums, witchcraft, slave meetings, and secret societies all attest to the fact that African slaves were organized. From the second half of the seventeenth century on, serious rebellions were led by charismatic leaders against the system, a fact that became troublesome to the plantocracy.

    The Jamaican journalist Herbert G. De Lisser observed, "Both witches and wizards, priests and priestesses were brought to Jamaica in the slave trade, and the slaves recognized the distinction between the former and the latter" (Twentieth Century Jamaica, 1923, p. 108). Between the African slaves and these religious functionaries a conspiracy of secrecy developed into a thriving underground religion, outside the purview of the slavemasters. To this day, secrecy is still prevalent in some African cults in the rural areas of the Caribbean. De Lisser's observation holds true not only for Jamaica but also for most New World slave communitiesˇwhether British, Spanish, or French.

    In the Latin American system, where the Africans were forced to convert to Christianity, most slaves simply went through the motions in order to avoid punishment, at the same time holding onto their time-honored African traditions. Jean Price-Mars, the eminent Haitian physician, folklorist, and statesman, wrote that the slaves devised ways of having themselves baptized more than once, "so that they could have several opportunities for fun." He continued, "It is obvious merely through this fact that the religious state of the slave was only a facade; that his fundamental beliefs were only slightly shaken by official conversion and remained all the more mysterious in order to withstand the pressures of the law and his human surroundings" (So Spoke the Uncle, 1983 trans. of 1928 ed., p. 44).

    While the Catholic priests were going through the motions of converting the Africans in Haiti, traditional priests from Africa were busy operating and blending the various slave communities into a new solidarity, which we now know as Haitian Vodun. Throughout the New World, clandestine African assemblies were organized with a blending of the various African beliefs and practices. Some were political, while others were religious. These were "new" religions because they were unique. For the first time in African history, there was a synthesis of the various religious sentiments under one strong cultural dominance. This new structure was developed in Jamaica, Haiti, and in the United States.

    Cumina of Jamaica. The Ashanti-Fanti people of the Gold Coast became the most dominant people in British Caribbean slavery from the seventeenth through the eighteenth centuries. Every slave rebellion was under their leadership. It was this group that organized the Maroon communities in the islands; it was they who fought the Maroon War against the British from 1653 to 1738, finally gaining their freedom in the 1830s. It was, therefore, to this group that all the tribes brought to Jamaica looked for leadership and guidance in the beginning. It was in the Ashanti-Fanti religious cult of ancestral reverence that the slaves of Jamaica found satisfying alternatives in which to express their religious and political sentiments.

    Ancestral reverence is known today as cumina, derived from two words in the Twi language of Ghana: akom (possession) and Ana (ancestor). Cumina existed in secret, although it surfaced in the form of dance from time to time, dance being the manifestation of deep religious sentiment in African tradition. Cumina appears to have had a large following. By the eighteenth century, the okomfo (Ashanti-Fanti priests and priestesses) united the slaves of various plantations under the old religious rite disguised in what is now known as the Myal dance. Priests and priestesses became known as Myal-men and Myal-women. (The origin of the word Myal is still uncertain.)

    These Ashanti-Fanti functionaries, disguised as leaders of the dance, became the healers of the sick, the interpreters of hidden things, the comforters of the suffering, and the secret instigators of resistance to slavery. Cumina was to be the only religious alternative for Jamaican slaves for nearly 300 years. Ignored by the Christian church, the slaves continued in their African derived religion until the emergence of nonconformist sects in Jamaica during the last decades of the eighteenth century. It was not until then that the Church of England was forced to con- [1 Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience 180] sider the state of religion among the slaves. Yet no action was taken to missionize the African slaves; in fact, it was not until the Emancipation of 1834 that the Church of England extended membership to the African community of Jamaica. It was the Methodists with their "dark and dangerous fanaticism" who became the champions of the African slaves, and it was the Baptist members of the slave community who forced the British to proclaim the Emancipation after the Baptist war of 1831.

    Cumina, then, was one of those pure African religious cults in the Caribbean, and elements still remain in the rural communities of Jamaica. In times of rebellion, it was a society that protected its members from the white man's bullets; the member possessed by the spirit of the ancestors would undergo an agitated dance and would not recover from "altered states of consciousness" until awakened from the trance state. The individual would be entirely ignorant of anything that had transpired. This possession trance is still found in all the African-derived religions of the Caribbean and would later be incorporated into the Christian-synchretized sects of Pukumina, Revivalism, and Holiness of both the Caribbean and the United States.

    Haitian Vodun (Voodoo). Hispaniola, the second largest Caribbean island between Cuba and Puerto Rico, was divided into two republics. The Dominican Republic (Spanish) occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island, and Haiti (French) the western third. Haiti has generated an abundance of scholarly material, not only because of its importance as a valuable French outpost but also because of its creative slave population. Their superior organizing genius helped them to defeat the French and become the first slave colony in the Caribbean to gain its independence, in 1804. The Haitian struggle for independence sent a shock wave throughout the nineteenth century slaveholding nations. At the center of the Haitian struggle was a religious sentiment, nurtured in the deep forests, away from the probing eyes of the Catholic priests and the slave police. This religion was handed down from generation to generation and is known to us as Haitian Vodun.

    An impressive body of literature is available to students of Haitian history and culture from the colonial period to the present. Moreau de Saint Mery considered Jean Price-Mars's two-volume bibliography (1787-1798) the most reliable source on the slavery period. Some of the most interesting works on Haitian Vodun were written after 1804 by Haitian-born scholars, among them Ainsi parla L'oncle (1928) by Price-Mars. Two twentieth-century studies by non-Haitian scholars are The Haitian People by James G. Leyburn and Voodoo in Haiti by Alfred Metreaux.

    Vodun is an all-embracing religion of the Haitian peasant. It has touched the lives of everyone regardless of class. It is the ancient creed that has nurtured all the African ancestors of present-day Haiti. It emerged as a reaction to forced conversion to Christianity and was nurtured by the brutality of the slavemasters. Under the penalty provided by the Code Noir, the state and the church joined in the attempted conversion of all the Africans entering the colony. Although the law was usually ignored in the rural areas, masters in the urban centers, who were under the eyes of the priests, obeyed in a halfhearted way. The duplicity of the slave system, with its utter disrespect for the humanity of the slaves on the one hand and the false piety of forced conversion on the other, inspired rage in the slave population. To a newly arrived African, frightened of the surroundings, knowing nothing of the church or its ways, let alone of Latin, the whole exercise was confusing and frightening. The slaves had developed a more satisfying alternativeˇVodun.

    James G. Leyburn has suggested four stages in the development of Vodun. The first period, 1730-1790, was one of gestation. As the slaves became more numerous, so did the laws that governed them. As disenfranchisement of the slaves became complete, millenarianism swept the slave communities, and secret meetings, led by charismatic Maroon leaders such as Boukman, became more prevalent. The Afro-Haitians rallied to the ancient African creed, and an ethnic religious syncretism under the rubric of Dahomean Vodun was achieved. Price-Mars believed that Moreau de Saint Mery was the first to identify the movement by name in 1790.

    The second period, 1790-1800, was that of expansion and self-assertion. Buffeted by an unrelenting system of oppression and depersonalization, the Haitians decided to overthrow the oppressive regime. Such an undertaking needed total solidarity, arms, and leadership to fight against the formidable armed forces of the French republic. Millenarian movements had to [1 Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience 181] rely on the supernatural; for Vodun, this meant the gods of Africa. On the memorable night of 14 August 1791 a group of slaves assembled at Bois-Caiman, near the Red Mountain, to swear an oath of fidelity to the leadership of Boukman. It was a night of rain, thunder, lightning, and wind. After the sacrifice of a boar, whose blood was used to seal the oath, Boukman, according to Haitian tradition, offered the following prayer:
 

The God who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all what the white man does. The God of the white man inspires him to crime, but our God calls upon us to do good works. Our God who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbols of the God of the whites who has often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.
C.L.R. James, Black Jacobins, 1963, p. 87)


    The oral tradition that has conveyed this incident no doubt has been exaggerated, but to the descendants of these freedom fighters the story captured the flavor of those frightening days. A "blood pact" had been the traditional means of uniting African warriors against dangerous situationsˇfrom Dahomey to Kenya. It encouraged solidarity, magical confidence, and, most of all, secrecy. A few days after the oath of Bois-Caiman, the first blows of insurrection were struck: several Frenchmen were killed, and many sugar plantations were reduced to ashes. What started as a local rebellion soon escalated into a bloody slave revolution that lasted for the next twelve years.

    The third period, 1800-1815, was one of subtle transformation. After the revolution, the African creed that had united the Haitian people against the might of France was gradually abandoned. In 1801,Jean-Jacques Dessalines, inspector general of culture for the department of Northern Haiti, had moved rapidly to suppress Vodun, and in the new Charter of Haiti the Catholic church was declared the official religion of Haiti. Vodun was outlawed by the state, though it remained the sentiment of the peasants.

    The fourth period, 1815-1850, was that of diffusion. Vodun quietly diffused among the poorer class in the villages and towns as an unorthodox African cult. It was despised by the elite in public, but earnestly sought after in times of psychological stress. It was not until the reign of physician-ethnologist Francois Duvalier (1957-1971) that Vodun was rehabilitated. Today, it can even be found in the major cities of the United States, especially in New York and Miami, brought there by Haitian immigrants. In these cities Vodun priests and priestesses operate their age-old religion.

    Haitian Vodun is a ritual syncretism that incorporates the rites of several African ethnic groups into one kaleidoscopic religious drama. The beliefs and practices vary significantly, depending on the ethnic composition of the various sects. Arada, Nago, Congo, and Petro Vodun each represent slightly different practices. Arada is predominantly Dahomey; Nago, Yoruba; Congo, the ethnic practices of slaves from the Congo regions; Petro, predominantly Creole. These divisions, though obvious to scholars, are not conscious sectarian divisions among the devotees; they are merely liturgical.

    Three practices common to all sects of Vodun are liturgical dances, trance possession, and sacrifices. A Vodun service is primarily a dance in honor of the gods, who at certain peak periods may come down to possess the devotees with supernatural powers that disgorge human reason. The devotee falls into a trance and becomes the mouthpiece of the god. Sacrifice is a common religious practice of all traditional African religions, not only Vodun. It may be anything from pouring a simple libation to the bloody sacrifice of an animal.

    But Vodun as a religion is even more complex than the three practices would suggest. It has historical roots in the traditions of Africa and psychological roots in its New World emergence. It has developed its own folk theology about the world, humanity, and destiny. Though African, Vodun is a new formulation, a new cultural reality, that must be studied in the light of its own significance.

    Jean Price-Mars, using the "minimal definition" of religion suggested by Emile Durkheim, concluded that Vodun was a religion because all its adherents believed in the existence of spiritual beings who live everywhere in the universe and dominate human activities. Vodun is a religion because the cult requires a hierarchical priestly body, a society of the faithful, temples, [1 Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience 182] altars, ceremonies, and an oral tradition, which is handed down in its essential elements, although in an altered form. According to Price-Mars, "Vodun is a religion because a theology can be discerned, a theology upon which the hybrid Catholicism of Haiti rests."

    The Supreme Being of traditional African religion played a minor role in the New World. In Haiti, as in other places in the New World, worship was reserved for God's manifestations. In Haitian Vodun these powers were given the name loa. Price-Mars observed: "The Haitian people are preoccupied with the 'Loa' or the mystere of Voodoo to an indescribable degree." These divinities control biological functions such as fertility, births, and deaths; and they control natural functions such as wind, rain, thunder, agriculture, and the ocean. The loa permeate every aspect of the waking life of the vodunsi (one who is married to a vodun).

    Despite the fact that Catholicism and Vodun have occupied the same island for centuries, they remain two separate and distinct entities. The juxtaposition of Catholicism and Vodun has yielded some fascinating coincidences. Whereas a true Catholic, one who is trained in the mysteries of the Catholic church, will have nothing to do with Vodun, a true vodun will declare that he or she is a member of the Catholic church. It is believed that one cannot be a vodunsi unless he or she is a Catholic. This hybrid Catholicism has its historical roots in the forced conversions during the years of slavery.

    Today, most of the Catholic saints have been appropriated as African loa in the minds of the Haitian peasants. Thus Legba, the Vodun god of communications, is also the Catholic Saint Peter, the one who holds the keyˇthe one who opens barriers to communication between God and humans. His symbol is a cross, which, for the vodunsi, represents the crossroads; to the Catholic, the cross of Jesus. Damballah-Wedo, the serpent deity of Dahomey, is associated with Saint Patrickˇthe saint who walked on the snakes. Shango, the god of lightning and thunder, is Saint John the Baptist, who, according to tradition, controls the storm clouds. To the vodun, Ogun is the god of iron and thus the god of war; he is closely associated with Saint James the Elder, who is portrayed as a knight in steel-plated armor by the Catholic church. These are only a few of the subtle borrowings or one dimensional syncretisms that have operated whenever African religions confront other religions. Unlike Catholicism's inflexible dogma, African religion is protean, always adding to its form selective aspects of other religions without endangering its function.

    The priestly class in Haitian Vodun consists of men and women who have gained the respect of their communities for their leadership qualities, their knowledge of African lore, and their supernatural insight. At the pinnacle of the priestly class are the hungan, the male, or the mambo, the female. The term hungan is probably of Haitian peasant origin. Hu in the Fon language is the word for divinity, while nganga is derived from a Congo word meaning "he who deals with occult forces." Hungan may be translated as "the one who is possessed with divinity." Price-Mars speculated that the earliest name for the priest was vodoun-nonˇhe who possesses the spirit. According to Price-Mars, he is the high priest and principal sacrificer, the supreme depository of the wishes of the divinity. He is always connected to the temple and is the teacher of the esoteric language derived from early Dahomey.

    The priestly class is not an organized clerical system. Priests and priestesses have authority only in their communities, but theirs is a ranking of prestige from the rural to the urban communities, and some of these religious functionaries have even gained national acclaim. This priestly class has historically been the guardian of an African tradition to which the masses could relate.

    Vodun in Haiti is one of the strongest of the African religions transported to the New World. Despite the pressure of the slave environment and the Catholic church, it found acceptance among the peasants. Vodun and Catholicism exist in a symbiotic relationship that has resulted in a very close parallelism between their respective religious calendars. The feast days of the Catholic saints often coincide with those of Vodun religious celebrations of their loa, so that an outsider cannot easily separate what is Christian from what is African.

    Santeria of Cuba. The island of Cuba was the largest of the Spanish Caribbean slave colonies. The total number of African slaves in Cuba up to the year 1853 is estimated at 644,000, and importation continued even after that date. Numerous tribal groups were transported from the
[1 Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience 183] Guinea coast and from as far as Mozambique to satisfy the insatiable demands of the Cuban cane colonies.

    Compared to the English system of slavery, where slaves were entirely at the mercy of the slave masters, and the French system, as in Haiti, where slaves were coerced to convert to Christianity, the Spanish system in Cuba was more humane. That is not to say that Cuban slavery was unoppressive, but that both the church and the crown gave close official oversight to the system.

    The Catholic missionaries in Cuba preceded the colonialists, dedicated themselves to the conversion of the Indians, and quickly added the Africans to their program when the Indian population declined. The Spanish Crown was in constant communication with the church and the landlords, directing them to guard the welfare of the slaves. This surveillance resulted in official benignity to the Africans and their customs.

    The policy facilitated close contact between African religions and the Catholic church in Cuba. Although the Africans accepted Catholicism nominally, the sacramental efficacy of the church was not enough to turn them from their ancient customs. In addition, the ratio of clergy to laity made thorough conversion almost impossible. Given the minimal contact of the Catholic clergy and that nominal conversion was attained, the slaves' needs were not fulfilled in a spiritual way; thus the Africans sought religious fulfillment in their ancient religions.

    Unlike most of the other Caribbean islands, where African customs were suspect, in Cuba the Catholic church was tolerant of ethnic traditions and even allowed various African groups to create their own "clubs," which became known as the Cabildos. The Cabildos were not only ethnic clubs but also religious organizations under the secret leadership of the babalawo - the religious functionary whose patron divinity was Orunmilla, the oracle divinity of the Yoruba. The contact between African religion and Catholicism in Cuba yielded a synthesis known as Santeria.

    As already mentioned, there was a strong symbiosis between the Catholic sacramental system and that of traditional African religion. Under the Yoruba babalawo, the Catholic calendar was wisely utilized for the veneration of African saints. The word santeria itself means veneration of the saints. Thus out of the Cabildos of slavery arose a second religious system in Cuba, whose core is unmistakably African. Roger Bastide claims that "of all the African religions that have been preserved in America . . . it is undoubtedly that of the Yoruba which has remained most faithful to ancestral traditions."

    What is Santeria? A complex of divination, spirit possession and sacrifice with the Yoruba tradition as its core. One becomes a member through initiation into its mysteres.  The principal ceremony of initiation is the asiento (seating of the divinity in the initiate).  At the center of Santeria is the babalawo. He is seen as the diviner of the future as the one who seeks the causes of sicknesses both in the past and the present.  He knows the secret of the Ifa oracle, and he is able to determine the causes of events, their nature, and what to do about them.  He is not only the prescriber of herbal medicine, baths, and potions but of the kinds of sacrifices needed to appease the gods for serious moral breaches.  He is the officiating priest at initiations, which culminate in the possession of the saints or the gods who are to be the spiritual director of the believers. Like the Vodun hungan, the babalawo in Cuba was persecuted by the official religion.  For decades he existed in secrecy, presenting himself as an underground alternative to the Catholic priest.

    The African-derived Santeria has become the legitimate "folk religion" in the lives of the Cuban peasants mostly African origin, but its membership also includes a large segment of the Spanish population. Here and there one can find a few babalawos of Spanish ancestry.  Santeria is therefore an Africanization of Christianity and a Christianization of African religion, in which both the African gods and the Christian saints hold reciprocal relationships.

    Santeria shops, commonly called botanicas,  can be found in many of the large cities on the eastern seaboard of the United States, especially in cities where Cubans have migrated and settled. These shops sell spiritual art objects,  candles and herbs used by members of Santeria now living in the United States.

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