Examples of African-American religious cultures- by Juan M.S.

The innumerous men and women that were snatched from Africa for over a period of four hundred years brought along with them their culture and tried to found a creative outlet for their feelings and beliefs as a way to counter the degrading situation in which they were put. The religious culture of African American people is very varied, because besides bringing their mystic-laden traditions during the slave trade, many Africans adopted later on religions from Africa in an attempt to go back to their roots. Therefore from the beginning of the twentieth century, some African American people adopted Islam and other religious that exist in Africa, but are not born in Africa. Here are, however, some examples of religious cultures that can be considered African American, that is, born from African spiritual culture and developed and practiced in America. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list but an example of how the process of creation and development of African American religions works. The religious cultures to be described are the following: Batuque, The big Drum Ritual, Candomblé and Catimbó.

Batuque is a term with which people define Afro-Brazilian practices in the south of Brazil and some parts of Argentina and Uruguay. These religious practices are organized around a mãe de santo or pae de santo (mother or father of saint respectively) who is the maximum authority. The name of this practice comes from batucada, which is a Brazilian percussion style of African origin. This percussion, together with dance, accompanies the religious rituals. This religious tradition, as well as others, arrived to Rio Grande do Sul with slaves brought from Africa, who by the nineteenth century accounted for forty percent of the population. Although these peoples had different traditions, their religions were very similar, and they shared the belief in many deities that controlled the forces of nature and domains of culture, and who could possess the people who practiced religious rituals.

Each of the different congregations, which are called terreiros, is identified with a nation that is based on an ancestral homeland in Africa. The practitioners, that is the people who take part in these rituals, do not belong historically to these nations but follow their beliefs. With the passage of time, some nations have gradually become more dominant than others. The structure of the terreiros is very simple; there is one leader: the mãe or pae de santo, who is also known as ialorixá or babalorixá, respectively. Orixá is the name given to the gods of these religious cultures. The leader trains the filhos and filhas de santo (sons and daughters of saint), and they also train the new leader. Divination is also performed by the leader, and sacrifices, which are necessary to these religions, are performed by either the leader or any of the practitioners. It takes a week to become a practitioner and at least seven years to qualify for a leader. The terreiros are in general organized at the leader’s house and there are no separate shrines for deities; the metallic and stone objects that represent the Orixás are kept in a small enclosed place outside the house.

Each of the Batuque‘s practitioners is believed to be son or daughter of a particular god, which are the following: Oxalá, who is the creator of humanity; Bara, the messenger who mediates between deities and humans; the Ibejí, twins who represent the duality of the spirit and the eternal energy and growth of life; Oiá, who is the goddess of war and tempest; Ogum, who is the god of transportation, blacksmithing, agriculture and war; Xangô, the god of thunder and lightning, who represents law and justice; Oiá, who is the goddess of war and tempest; Odé or Otim, the god of hunting and the forest; Xampanã, the god of healing and disease; Oxum, the god of fertility and water; Ossain, the god that masters medicinal and sacred plants; and Iemanjá, the goddess of the sea. A Batuque ritual starts with an offering to the messenger god: Bara. These messenger opens the way to the other gods. Each god, or Orixá, is saluted with drumming, songs and dancing and in the end it is believed that the Orixás take possession of their children. The ritual ends with a feast.

The Big Drum Ritual is performed by the inhabitants of Carriacou, the biggest island of the Grenadines, to commemorate their ancestors brought as slaves from Africa, but also to celebrate marriages, to honor dead relatives or at wakes. This ritual is generally performed with dance, food and drinks. The songs are sung in French Patois, the language which the Cromanti population spoke in Carriacou when they were brought by the English to the island, but which nowadays is just an ancestral ritual language. Many of the songs refer to Ina or mama nu, which are words that mean “our mother” and which stand for a Cromanti ancestor or spirit. The music is performed by a female singer and dancer who directs the others. She selects the songs that are to be sung and makes people dance in groups of six to twelve; she also directs the drummers with a type of maracas. The female dancers wear dresses inspired by the nineteenth-century French fashion, which they grasp at the hems and open widely to imitate wings. Men do not wear any special clothes; they seldom dance, but they participate in the singing. These rituals mingle national feelings with religious practices and folkloric customs and they help maintain the tradition of the Cromanti people.

Candomblé is a religion born in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, which is practiced by the povo do santo (people of the saint). This religion is based on traditional West African beliefs which were brought to Brazil during the slave trade from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. African priests taught their culture, language and mythology to the rest of the people brought from Africa. This is an oral tradition, therefore it does not count with scriptures. There is a supreme creator called Oludumaré and lesser deities called Orixás. Every believer is supposed to be child of an Orixá, who gives them protection and sustenance. The practitioners must then make offers to their respective Orixás at least once a year. During public rituals, practitioners are supposed to be possessed by their Orixás, who dance and are manifested through their bodies. As it can be seen, the beliefs in Candomblé and Batuque are very similar; the former is simply more hierarchical than the latter one, mainly due to the place and the way in which it was developed.

Public congregations in Candomblé, as well as in Batuque, are called terreiros, and public rituals are held a couple of times per year. These rituals are called festas and they are supposed to strengthen the relationship between the terreiro and the Orixás. In these rituals, practitioners consult the Orixá of divination: Ifá, and offer a sacrifice of a fowl or a four legged animal, called matança, to each of the Orixás. The sacrifices are generally performed by cutting the animal’s throat, because the blood that is shed is considered axé, that is sacred energy that energizes the terreiro. The sacrifice is performed in a solemn and diligent way and the flesh is cooked and eaten by the practitioners. Then an offering of water and manioc flower is made to Exu, the intermediary between the Orixás and human beings, and hymns are sung asking for his protection and for the delivery of the messages of the congregation to the Orixás. In the evening, the festa starts; everyone watches the filhas do santo dance in a circle and hymns are sung to each Orixá, with drumming and dancing (Pinn 2009: 133).

Because it is evident that Judaism was born in Africa, as most of the stories happened in there. Thus Judaism’s identity was shaped in Africa and therefore civilization was born in Africa. It is the result of the collective spirit of people.

African spirituality believes in a fifth dimension, added to the four physical dimensions: width, length, height and time. The fifth dimension is consciousness, which allows people to be in two places at once and to see eternity in a second and the universe in a grain of sand, to go to the farthest ends of the universe. If the universe is mind, it is accessible to mind. The universe comes into being through the agency of the mind of the creator who gives the creative word out of its mind, his name is “thought”. The universe is a thought in the mind of “Ama” the creator. What happened ten minutes or ten thousand years ago occupies the same space in this domain which is called the mind. Physics has recognized that time moves in both directions: past and future. Through the mind we can transcend time, predict the past and remember the future. The future impacts the present and the present impacts the past. Time moves in circle as everything. That is why in Africa people do not ask questions, people just wait. It is the art of waiting, an expectant waiting that opens new opportunities. The family and community structure are essential in African spirituality, but the sense of community as been lost through colonization and slavery (Clarke 2013b 26-02-2016).

A good example of African spirituality in a womanist novel is Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter, where the ghost of the grandmother Liu Xin plays the main role. The story is told by Ruth, an American woman from Chinese descent, who struggles to find her identity while looking back into her childhood as the daughter of a Chinese woman, LuLing, who was frustrated because of living in a foreign country. LuLing’s autobiography is then told, and her mother Liu Xin’s difficult situation. When Liu Xin dies, her ghost keeps visiting her daughter to give her advice and help her survive the Chinese civil war. Now Ruth, who has finished reading her mother’s autobiography, finds her own identity in her Chinese ancestry. In Chinese cosmology, as well as in African, there exists the belief in ghosts, which are souls that has not ascended to heaven after death. This ghosts can be vengeful, but they can also protect their relatives. But although this story is based on Chinese spirituality, the general idea is the same as in African spirituality. The power of the word as creator is also found in this text, in a passage where LuLing, who is learning Chinese calligraphy, ponders on the origin of words: “What the first word must have been: ma, the sound of a baby smacking its lips in search of her mother’s breast. For a long time, that was the only word the baby needed. Ma, ma, ma. Then the mother decided that was her name and she began to speak, too. She taught the baby to be careful: sky, fire, tiger. A mother is always the beginning. She is how things begin” (Tan 2001: 263). As it was seen before, the figure of the mother is also recurrent in African spirituality, where the Mother Earth is the source of all life. However, here becomes apparent the great power of human beings, who by the use of the word: nommos, can name things and learn to develop spiritually.

Tan, Amy

   2001   The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Random House.


I'm a writer born in Argentina, but currently living in Poland. I work as an English and French teacher, translator and copywriter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.