Rituals of Resistance
by Paul Harvey
Phil has just posted on the new collection Souls of W. E. B. DuBois, edited by our own Ed Blum and Jason Young. As it happens, I was just finally getting to Professor Young's book, published by LSU Press in 2007, Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery.
Young's work is part of a larger trend towards placing African American religious history within the larger context of the Atlantic world, or the African Atlantic. The excitement of this scholarship comes from its promise in moving behind stale debates and paradigms (such as the old Frazier versus Herskovits debate, or the "resistance" or "accommodationism" paradigms) by investigating the transmission of religious ideas and practices with geographic, cultural, and chronological specificity. John Thornton's work has been instrumental in this wave of scholarship, as has (from a very different, indeed conflicting, perspective) Michael Gomez's. What is most compelling about this scholarly discussion is placing African ideas of Christianity squarely into the mix that went into the making of the Atlantic religious world, which just gets more complicated and interesting the more it has been investigated in the last generation of scholarship. As Young puts it:
the prior exposure that some Kongolese captives had with Catholicism colored the subsequent encounter that New World slaves had with the mandate of Christian conversion in the Americas, thus complicating the ulimate meaning of Christian conversion. In Kongo, many converts believed that baptism offered a spiritual protection against not only death but also against the very real threat of being taken as a slave . . . others reinterpreted Christian theology to argue that Jesus was Kongolese and that Jerusalem was located in the capital of Kongo.
Here's a description of Young's book, from its webpage:
In Rituals of Resistance Jason R. Young explores the religious and ritual practices that linked West-Central Africa with the Lowcountry region of Georgia and South Carolina during the era of slavery. The choice of these two sites mirrors the historical trajectory of the transatlantic slave trade which, for centuries, transplanted Kongolese captives to the Lowcountry through the ports of Charleston and Savannah. Analyzing the historical exigencies of slavery and the slave trade that sent not only men and women but also cultural meanings, signs, symbols, and patterns across the Atlantic, Young argues that religion operated as a central form of resistance against slavery and the ideological underpinnings that supported it.
Through a series of comparative chapters on Christianity, ritual medicine, burial practices, and transmigration, Young details the manner in which Kongolese people, along with their contemporaries and their progeny who were enslaved in the Americas, utilized religious practices to resist the savagery of the slave trade and slavery itself. When slaves acted outside accepted parameters—in transmigration, spirit possession, ritual internment, and conjure—Young explains, they attacked not only the condition of being a slave, but also the systems of modernity and scientific rationalism that supported slavery. In effect, he argues, slave spirituality played a crucial role in the resocialization of the slave body and behavior away from the oppressions and brutalities of the master class. Young's work expands traditional scholarship on slavery to include both the extensive work done by African historians and current interdisciplinary debates in cultural studies, anthropology, and literature.
Drawing on a wide range of primary sources from both American and African archives, including slave autobiography, folktales, and material culture, Rituals of Resistance offers readers a nuanced understanding of the cultural and religious connections that linked blacks in Africa with their enslaved contemporaries in the Americas. Moreover, Young's groundbreaking work gestures toward broader themes and connections, using the case of the Kongo and the Lowcountry to articulate the development of a much larger African Atlantic space that connected peoples, cultures, languages, and lives on and across the ocean's waters.