African American Religion

When people from various regions of Africa were forcefully transported to the colonies, they brought nothing with them but the clothes on their backs and the beliefs of their hearts. This latter possession varied widely by region and tradition, but was to each a fundamental part of daily life.

Historian Harvey Bakari describes the African American Religion exhibit.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. A small building on the corner of Duke of Gloucester Street and Nassau Street in the Historic Area outlines the story of African American religions when they reached the Williamsburg colony.

Wrapped in a cruel history, religion offers narratives of resilience, hope, and community. Manager of African American Initiatives, Harvey Bakari, joins us today to help tell their story. Harvey, tell us a little bit about this African American religion exhibit just in physical terms; where it stands and how it operates.

Harvey Bakari: The African American religion exhibit in the Taliaferro-Cole building looks at the history of religion and its impact on the African American community, particularly the Baptist faith.

We look at the two founding members of the church, first Baptist Church which were Moses and Gowan Pamphlet.

Harmony: When we look back at African American religion, it’s not just one religion. We’re talking about individuals that were transported from different, distinct communities and might have brought with them very different religious faiths. What do we know about the different types of African faiths that would have been represented in the people who are being transported to Virginia?

Harvey: Well, the…just to provide the context for the religions that they’re bringing over to the Americas: Africa’s a little less than 12 million square miles so that means there’s lots of people, lots of religions, lots of different cultures and they vary from region to region. And so, you can almost divide the different African religions into a couple of general categories.

The first category would be the traditional African religions, such as the ones practiced by Olaudah Equiano, which believed in one God, but had many deities that were represented in their beliefs. He made a comparison between his religion and the Igbo people and Judaism. He said there were so many similarities and practices that Jews practice. He saw a direct correlation between the two.

Now, when you look at the people near West Central Africa, people who come from larger kingdoms or states, they would have a religion such as the Yoruba religion where they would have a hierarchy of deities so it would be very similar to, on one hand, Greek mythology, on the other hand Catholicism which has many different saints. So for those Africans when they arrived into the Americas if they arrived in a Catholic country they could substitute their African deities with the Catholic angels and saints.

Now the third group would be the African Muslims, as they were called, “People of the Book.” And they had their mosques, they had schools, and they were generally in the Sudan and in certain areas of Nigeria. And many of those people were also being brought to this region.

And then the last group is the secret societies. This is where people would learn information by degrees; kind of like freemasons. And it would be the women would have their secret societies and men would have their secret societies. So you could almost divide it into those four categories of different belief systems that Africans bring to the Americas. Now how they survive depends on many things once they arrive.

Harmony: And we know that in Williamsburg there actually was an effort by white masters to convert the enslaved population to Christianity and this is a religion that some individuals, African individuals, embrace and others resist. What is the story of conversion once these individuals in Williamsburg are introduced to the Christian faith?

Harvey: Well in Williamsburg, when they’re introduced to the Christian faith, you’ve got some value tensions that are occurring within the white community as well as the black community.

Within the white community there’s this tension between the church, some church officials and slave masters. Some church officials feel that it’s their religious obligation to Christianize and baptize the slaves; that at least that’s what you can do. Provide them salvation.

The tension that’s being brought is that slave owners are saying, “Well, no, if we Christianize them and we baptize them that means we have to teach them to read the Bible, that means they may think that they’re equal to us, it’s going to make them very difficult to control and we after all didn’t bring them here to make them Christians, we brought them here to work.” So you’ve got that tension going on between certain church officials, not all, but certain church officials and some slave owners so that’s one side.

Within the enslaved community, you’ve got, obviously enslaved people are saying, “Look, this is a religion that says that we are pagans, heathens, savages and says that we’re the cursed children of Ham.” So there’s a lot of resistance against the Christianity.

And Christianity, for the enslaved community, doesn’t really take a strong hold until you get into the 19th century, late 18th-19th century. Because there’s still that tension. Because one thing that happens with religion is that within most religious communities, that’s where your leadership comes from. Particularly with oppressed people, because once you’re taken from your homeland you don’t have a Queen, a King, a government, a military so the one person who is in the strongest position of leadership is the African priest or priestess. So therefore you can see some women in the America’s, enslaved women in the Americas, having great influence within enslaved communities, because if they came over as a priestess, they are revered and sometimes feared by many others within the community.

Harmony: This must be a hard topic as a researcher, it must be hard to find evidence in narratives that tell you, or even artifacts, that tell you about these various faiths and how they were practiced. What are some of the records and tools that you’re able to use as a historian to try to piece together this history of a people whose history was not particularly cherished in the country they came to?

Harvey: Well there are a number of ways that you can find out the information. First, you have to consciously look for it. If you’re not looking for something you’re not going to find it. You will just skim right over it. But beyond the primary documents there’s oral traditions.

Also even in the laws. The laws in many of the countries will tell you just the fact that they made a law that said that they’re concerned about slaves gathering on Sunday or in Jamaica, Obeah laws. That’s like what you might call witchcraft. So the laws were specific against that. So within the efforts to control the enslaved population, you are given indications of what they’re doing.

There’s the belief that funerals are being used as a pretext for planning rebellions. So again, you can read between the lines. There’s also many other sources: newspapers, personal accounts, diaries, eye witnesses and the survival of oral traditions in terms of what religious practices were being carried on. The WPA projects, where they interviewed some elders who were enslaved, other sources that were used.

And then Christian missionaries, because Christian missionaries in their efforts to convert the enslaved population, they made many observations about what they were doing. There was one missionary who said, “You know,” I think it was in Georgia, he says, “The Negros are Christians in word only, but their practices are very much that of . . .” I think he said, “heathen.” So that gave you a sense that there were still some African practices that the Christian missionaries could not remove. But they had identified that, you know, “They’re not exactly where we want them to be.”

So one example is, it’s called a ring shout and much of West African religious practice and ceremonies when they would worship, they would include singing music and dance and normally they would dance in a counter clockwise manner. So here you have African Christians who are enslaved in places like Virginia and the South, and they’re doing this ring shout, which missionaries give us accounts of and so they’re going in a counterclockwise, manner and because they can’t use the drums to make the polyrhythm, they start to use their hands. So hand clapping becomes very prominent, because now you carry out the rhythm with the handclapping instead of the drum. Foot stomping also carries out a different rhythm as well. So as the people are moving in the circle, they’re creating their polyrhythms with their hands, with their bodies. Now you add on to it the singing. You have call and response.

Again, some very important elements of African worship; call and response, and then you have the other element of the lead, well you have the call person, the person who calls and everybody else responds, then you add on to that; the element of Christianity. Now they’re taking the story of Moses and his people being delivered from bondage. Taking the stories of Daniel and the lion’s den and they’re making a parallel between their current condition and the condition of the Hebrews in the Bible being enslaved.

So you put all of that together it’s an attempt to, for some slaves, to what’s called hide in plain sight. Do something that is considered non-threatening to the slave masters. If you do something that’s threatening that raises attention; red flags. Let’s stop it. If you do something that appears non-threatening, we’re singing about Moses, we’re singing about people you understand in the Bible, then maybe that’s not seen as ok, that’s not as threatening.

Whereas the people in Brazil and the Caribbean could practice some of their religions outright because of just there were just so many of them. The exceptions here in British North America would have been Louisiana. They were allowed to play drums in Congo Square at New Orleans, Louisiana, in Congo Square, and they openly performed some voodoo rituals that some whites became engaged in. You know, not just observers, but also began to get engaged in.

So it all depends on the landscape, it depends on the religion, and most of all it depends on the tolerance level. And it seems like the Protestants were less tolerant, so there was the need here in Virginia and other places in the South to hide in plain sight. The Catholics tended to be more tolerant if those certain African practices were included in the religious worship; the ceremonies and so forth. They could introduce their drums into that, but if they drummed outside of that religious worship, that was threatening.

Harmony: This is such a difficult area of history, for me at least, to think about because on the one hand you want to sort of be scholarly and think about anthropologically these religious traditions, how they come together, how they merge, but then it just hits you at such a personal level. How terribly dehumanizing this is to take everything physical from a person, but then try to strip away what’s in their heart as well; their religion. What do we do with all of this? Do we look for these stories, these narratives of resilience and hope and the leaders that emerge from it? How can we unpack all of this very tangled history?

Harvey: So, I think that it’s with any African American community and other communities as well, but in African American communities their religion was not just a religious text but it was a way of life. It was a way of survival. It was a way of maintaining perseverance that you would overcome. That maybe if you don’t see it, maybe your children would see it and it gives you the hope that at some point – because you’re dealing with other Christians – that at some point there will be some revolution to the efforts that Christian brothers and sisters could live together in harmony.

And I think the other big part of it is with the American Revolution. Part of the American Revolution was religious freedom; eventually religious freedom, but religions were being persecuted even like the Baptists here in Williamsburg. They were being persecuted so that played an important part. With religious freedom it allowed African Americans to then use religion, as well as abolitionists, to use religion as a way to begin to break down attitudes about slavery and slave trade because they could begin to shame people from a Christian perspective, ok. So that gave them access to say, “Well, you know, you’re a Christian and the Bible says this and you’re inconsistent with the Christian faith.”

Harmony: It’s a fascinating history with so many facets, both cultural and social. And I hope that when visitors come to Colonial Williamsburg they’ll visit the African American Religion exhibit, but I hope they’ll also take time to talk to the interpreters, to see some of these programs and to really delve into this history which is as full a part of American history as any story in the Revolution, so Harvey, thank you so much for being here today.

Harvey: You’re welcome. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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