Resurrection Song: African-American Spirituality

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Bridges (a Baptist minister in Alabama who holds a doctorate in systematic theology) explores the central role of spirituality in African-American culture and history, arguing that its roots lie in the African spiritual worldview inherited by African-Americans. Chapters describe the quest for identity in the midst of American racism; the spiritual roots of the call to protest; the vision of community created by African-American spirituality; the notion of community developed by three African- American spiritual leaders?>Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X; and the theological vision of three black filmmakers and their films , , and . Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Chapter One

The African Legacy—A
Unified Worldview

    This chapter analyzes the mystique of what African scholar of religion Laurenti Magesa in African Religion calls the "life force" of African religion in the African-American context. Magesa claims it is the main principle behind African religiosity and identity, the source and basis of African religious meaning. The transmission of this same life force from the enslaved Africans to their descendants helped black people in America to forge their own worldview, fight the enemies of its life, and restore the life force of generation after generation. As John Mary Waliggo wrote of this life force, no sane society voluntarily chooses to build its future on foreign (and antagonistic) cultures, values, or systems. Neither did the African Americans. In order to survive, African Americans built their culture on the life force of an African-based unified worldview. It is the foundation upon which their values, development, identity, and liberation were built. As Waliggo surmises, for any people to do less is "nothing less than communal suicide."

    Thus there is a cultural precedent to black religion and black spirituality—namely African traditional religion—that influenced and informed the framework of social norms and values by which the people ordered their lives and their relationship to others. African traditional culture and religion will not be explored in an exhaustive or comprehensive manner as they support this thesis;rather, they will be looked at in a circular, counterclockwise fashion, through African retentions found in how the oral and religious traditions of the North American enslaved transmitted and reinforced essentially African values, social norms, and religious beliefs. These values, social norms, and religious beliefs were literally recalled, remembered, and, finally, remolded to function as a powerful and consistent source of identity for the enslaved that was stronger than the conflicting values, social norms, and religious beliefs of chattel slavery and American racism.

    This chapter first focuses on a certain key aspect of the religio-cultural tradition of pre-colonial Africa that is based on African cosmology. The interpretive principle that governs and shapes that cosmology is a unified worldview. In other words, African cosmology contains a deep, underlying, unified, structural content that serves as the foundation for the African worldview; it acknowledges a culture whose major reference points are taken from within the culture itself. The theme of a unified worldview is a reflection of this positive apprehension. It is the root of what the African scholar of religion Temba J. Mafico calls "a fundamental difference between Western people and traditional Africans" that stems from a difference in worldview. This unified worldview is the undergirding principle or normative "regulator" of what would become the African religio-cultural legacy of the Africans to their African-American descendants.

    Second, using Mafico's seven categories of the context for understanding African theology, this chapter discusses how the African unified worldview both informs and is built upon

    · African conception of time

    · African community structure and the place of the ancestors

    · the role of the grandparents

    · African approach to God

    · the African community and social concerns

    · attitudes toward strangers

    · belief in witchcraft

These categories clearly constitute a useful "showcase of culture" through which we can more easily see the lasting vigor of the African influence in America. As Mary A. Twining and Keith E. Baird write in their work on the African presence in the antebellum South of the Carolinas and Georgia:

African American families have customs which are reminiscent of the various areas of Africa from which they came ... The cultural, societal and family behavior of Africans forcibly transplanted in the United States through the institution of slavery was, inevitably, profoundly disrupted by the violent impact of that experience. Their modes of conduct, their moral and aesthetic values, and their sense of psychosocial integrity were not, however, completely extinguished. On the contrary, the Africans reacted to the life situations imposed upon them in America by taking recourse to their ancestral patterns of social and cultural conduct to the extent that these modes of behavior could be re-enacted in the new environment.

These ancestral patterns of social and cultural conduct formed the basis of what Mafico calls the "dichotomy between African traditional culture and Western civilization and Christianity." Employing these categories will somewhat isolate the nature of this dichotomy and, at the same time, demonstrate several of the important philosophical and theological links between the Africans and the African Americans across the bridge of the African legacy. Finally, these categories that point to a unified African worldview are helpful in examining African worship practices and values as they relate to and influence African-American worship practices and values. The theoretical objective of this chapter, therefore, is contained entirely in this problematic of the relationship between African and African-American spirituality, although it is not possible within the scope of this necessarily limited discussion to provide a systematic reconstruction of the complete religious worldview of African peoples.

    Finally, this chapter, building upon the discussion of the "building blocks" of the African unified worldview and African traditional religion, will highlight characteristic African morals and values.

    As the African theologian Kwesi A. Dickson asserts, African culture has its own religious traditions; "the theologian's working materials inevitably lead to the awareness of the need to give culture a meaningful role in ... theology in Africa." Dickson then cites Christopher Dawson's book Religion and Culture as describing culture as a theogamy or a coming together of the divine and the human within the limits of a sacred tradition. He states that in so doing, Dawson provided an accurate characterization of African life and thought:

African culture and religion are bound up together, so much so that the term culture is in the context of this [theological] inquiry properly used as an umbrella description which subsumes religion ... Religion informs the African's life in its totality.

Dickson goes on to state that in the African theologizing process, culture must be considered an important informative factor of theology. He describes it as an "inescapable nature of the need to theologise in and through" African cultural particularities. In the light of this necessity, he writes, theologizing in the African context must take account of traditional African religion which includes much that the West would consider as "unsavoury ritualism, polytheistic excesses," and so forth.

    It is necessary to take seriously Dickson's question about the place of African culture as a source of theology. While this book is not intended to provide inquiry into the relation between Christianity and other religions in a comparative sense, an exploration of African traditional religion may challenge the Christian theologian to gain a broader understanding of religion and theology in order to better understand the nature of African-American religion and spirituality that resulted from the contact between African traditional religion and European-Christianity. African religion has traditionally been viewed by the West as a "species of 'primitive' or 'nature' religion," but as Dickson emphasizes:

It is clear that African religion is not about to disappear, either before the Christian Church's advance (and the Church has been making very rapid progress in Africa), or in the face of advancing technology, industrialisation and urbanisation. Herskovits' study of the Blacks in America and the life-styles among Black populations in the West Indies and Brazil and elsewhere, have demonstrated the resilience of African life and thought.

African philosopher Paulin J. Hountondji attacks the popular myth (popularized by African ethno-philosophers) that an indigenous, collective African philosophy has been articulated as distinct from the Western philosophical tradition. Even though the philosophical status of African worldviews and value systems is a subject of considerable debate, Hountondji contends that a genuine discussion of African philosophy must transcend even the theoretical heritage of Western philosophy. In other words, a question must be raised about the possibility of developing a distinctive approach to philosophical activity "in an African register, if not in African languages," in order to prevent the construction of an African philosophy that "is nothing but a revamped version of Levy-Bruhl's 'primitive mentality.'" He calls for an "unshackling of the discourse." He accuses many theoretical attempts to systematize African philosophy of being fueled with the "ideological problematic of triumphant imperialism" precisely because the ideological debate "is centred elsewhere—in the ruling classes of the dominant society."

    This study also concerns itself with the purpose and functions of the various cosmologies and thought systems produced within the framework of pre-colonial African societies and cultures. But, unlike the pre-occupations of European philosophers and African philosophers such as Hountondji, Diop, Senghor, Kagame, and others, it remains outside of the double problematic (Hountondji's description) of philosophical discourse that aims either to present African thought in a better light for Europe or to present it as superior (morally or otherwise) to European philosophical discourse.

    The aim of this chapter is to use a circular, double movement between (for lack of an appropriate English preposition) African theology and African-American theology both (1) at the intersection of the evidence of their commonality; and (2) as they can be seen to be separate and distinct from the Western philosophical and theological traditions as these two conditions meet in the concrete history of the Africans and their descendants in America. So, although this discussion must also broadly concern itself with genuine African philosophy and theology from outside of Africa, it can possibly transcend the oppressive theoretical heritage of the West toward African discourse by conducting its argument solely from the point of departure of the effect of the common spiritual heritage between pre-colonial Africans and African Americans as it is evidenced within African retentions in African-American culture.

    The essential problem inherent in this discussion is nothing new. But it is no longer solely the problem of adequately and authoritatively documenting what genuinely constitutes African theology and philosophy as distinctive from the West or whether an African influence persisted among African Americans in North America. Revisionist scholarship has now thoroughly addressed and continues to speak to these problems to the extent that we now know that much of Africa's culture is definitely its own, and there are cultural antecedents now in the form of African retentions in African-American culture. The problem now is more one of describing the spirituality of a "hyphenated" people whose experience emerges from the influence of at least two different cultural contexts. Even from the vantage point of a life that encountered two centuries and spanned both the continents of Africa and America (he was born in Massachusetts in 1868 and died in Ghana in 1963), the great African-American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois struggled to describe and define African-American spirituality. In 1903 he poignantly wrote:

I have sought here to sketch, in vague, uncertain outline, the spiritual world in which ten thousand thousand Americans live and strive ... I have sketched in swift outline the two worlds within and without the Veil, and thus have come to the central problem of training men for life ... Leaving, then, the white world, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses,—the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggles of its greater souls.

Du Bois articulates the "peculiar sensation" of the African American as a "double-consciousness" wherein the person ever feels his or her "twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body." Thus he describes the psychology and the spirituality of the African American as "strife." This "warring" on both the physical and metaphysical planes is experienced in the conflict between racism in the outer world of Africans and their descendants in America and a prior inner disposition as a spirituality influenced by African values that produces a fundamental tension at the heart of their contemporary African-American experience. It is a strange paradox that this "twoness" produces a tension that is itself the bridge to the next cultural step of the Africans in America: becoming a "new-old" people in succeeding generations. The categories in the following section help to explain the nature of the new-old dual spiritual heritage of African Americans.


African Conception of Time

    African scholars make it abundantly clear that Africans do not regard traditional religion as a separable element of their culture. The people's social life and spiritual formation are integral parts of their culture. God, or the Divine, is the beginning of everything, radically relates to everything, and binds everything together. This theology influences the African concept of time, which, in turn, affects every other aspect of the people's theological view. Therefore, to discuss African theology, one cannot simply discuss theoretical formulas. In the light of this, the descriptive task may be more adequately undertaken by also discussing Africa's social values as they are concretely lived within African culture. Mafico states, in this regard, that it is even difficult for Africans to grasp a theological lesson illustrated solely by theories because the people value actions more than words. This chapter, employing Mafico's method of doing theology, must therefore focus on certain key aspects of African culture that in and of themselves speak directly to African theology as it is revealed in its cultural context.

    In his discussion of African philosophy, Hountondji criticizes the great Senegalese thinker and physicist Cheikh Anta Diop for "postulating an essential affinity between the forms of social organization and the cosmology of the ancient Egyptians and ... the traditional world of black Africa." His hostility towards Diop's assertions is largely based in his assertion that Diop appeals only to the African past. Instead, Hountondji suggests, one must look toward the philosophy of Frantz Fanon for a more legitimate conclusion. He quotes Fanon: "African culture will take concrete shape around the struggle of the people, not around songs, poems or folklore." He writes that cultural expression, for Fanon, refers "not to a predetermined model offered by the past but to a reality that lies in the future as a perpetual creation: for him culture is not a state but a becoming."

    African-American spirituality, as influenced by the African past, does not raise this question of either/or—either the African past or the contemporary struggle. Hountondji essentially views the notion of the past from a Western philosophy of time. He understands the African past as a static time in pre-colonial African history that presupposes a collective cultural personality of the black race that is objectified in the forms of articulation of the traditional culture. In this sense he believes that it is an "ideological veil thrown over the interests of the new African bourgeoisie." Yet this is in conflict with the traditional African conception of time.

    To understand the cosmology of the traditional Africans, Mafico writes, is to understand that the African's conception of time is "qualitative and concrete—not qualitative and abstract." Time is "not uniform duration, nor is it a succession of qualitatively different moments." Time is circular instead of linear in nature. The universe is considered to be permanent, eternal, and unending; as John Mbiti writes, "In many places, circles are used as symbols of the continuity of the universe." In this African view, the universe—both visible and invisible—is an unending circle without limits or discrete moments. As a result of this concept of circularity, "African ideas of time concern mainly the present and the past, and have little to say about the future, which in any case is expected to go on without end."

    Although there will be no end, there was a beginning. This beginning is God. Mbiti writes:

The belief in God is found everywhere in Africa. When people explain the universe as having been created by God, they are automatically looking at the universe in a religious way. We can say, therefore, that the African view of the universe is profoundly religious. Africans see it as a religious universe, and treat it as such.

This circular view of time creates the possibility for a worldview that sees all of the ordinary and the extraordinary as radically interrelated or linked; indeed, it is difficult, from a traditional African worldview, to compartmentalize the two as separate and distinct. As many scholars have already noted, in the African worldview there is no real separation between the sacred and the secular-everything is sacred. (Therefore the word religion is used in a qualified manner in this discussion.) The awareness of the African view of the universe as profoundly "uni" or "one" results in the African view of all of the universe as religious. Not only is there a link between all that is created, as Mbiti states, there is also a vital link between earth and heaven. Though in many African societies it is believed that the universe is divisible into two (heaven and earth) or sometimes three (heavens, earth, and underworld), "African peoples do not think of these divisions as separate but see them as linked together." God is the beginning, and God is radically related to all of existence and binds existence together in a circular relationship of connectedness and interrelatedness.

    Therefore, in the African conception of time, there is no "graveyard" of "dead time" that is in the past; nor are past actions static or irrevocable. By way of contrast, a linear, Western philosophy of time views time as progressing in a straight, relentless, forward movement from past to present to future. There is no possibility of time moving backward from future to present to past or of it leapfrogging from past to future. In the West we speak of someone or something as being "dead and gone" or an event as "water under the bridge." We are told not to "cry over spilled milk." In the African circular conception of time, what is "dead and gone" is never dead and gone, and the past can continually and eternally speak to and either wreak havoc in or empower both the present and the future.

    The Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka expresses this circular view of time as explicitly within the temporal concepts of the Yoruba worldview. Soyinka writes:

Traditional thought operates, not a linear conception of time but a cyclic reality. One does not suggest for a moment that this is peculiar to the Yoruba or African world-view ... But the degree of integrated acceptance of this temporal sense in the life-rhythm, mores and social organisation of Yoruba society is certainly worth emphasizing, being a reflection of that same reality which denies periodicity to the existences of the dead, the living and the unborn.

More will be said about this in the following sections on the place of the ancestors and the roles of the grandparents in African traditional societies.

    The circular conception of time influences the African visual ideal. There is a clear connection between the cosmographic signs of spiritual symbolism in the African visual tradition and this circular worldview. For example, the Ashanti people created a wooden representation of a bird whose feet are pointed forward but whose head faces backward. What this symbol represents is the traditional African conception of time as circular. In other word, the past (the bird's head facing backwards) vitally informs both the present (the bird itself) and the direction of the future (the feet facing forward). In both Ashanti and Yoruba terms, ashe (the power to make things happen), the key to futurity and self-realization, is informed by the past. This philosophy of time, fused with new elements overseas, shaped and defined the black Atlantic visual tradition and black life in general as it is shaped and defined by African spirituality.

    Each of the building blocks of a unified worldview discussed below demonstrates how African culture and society are radically interrelated and interlocking. Beginning with the notion of God as the Supreme Being who is radically related to creation, this same theology guides the practice of community structure as it links together the ancestors (as the "living dead" in the spirit-world) with the living, first with the grandparents and then the parents, who through marriage are the link or bond with the future as the unborn.


Excerpted from RESURRECTION SONG by Flora Wilson Bridges. Copyright © 2001 by Flora Wilson Bridges. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 The African Legacy - A Unified Worldview 9
The Building Blocks of a Unified African Worldview 14
African Traditional Religion 26
African Traditional Morals and Values 37
2 The Quest for Identity 43
African Retentions 44
The Worldview of the Enslaved Community 68
The Black Church and the Enslaved 69
The Values of the Enslaved Community 76
3 The Call to Protest: Spirituality Embodied 83
Harriet Tubman 84
William Edmondson 94
Fannie Lou Hamer 97
Ruby Bridges 103
4 The Community 107
5 Scaling the Mountain Peaks of Spirituality: Thurman, King, and Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik Shabazz) 121
Howard Thurman 121
Martin Luther King, Jr. 130
Malcolm X 141
6 Black Film as Theology 151
Evil and Salvation in Contemporary Black Film 153
7 African-American Spirituality - A Definition 165
African-American Spirituality as Cultural Resilience 165
The Effects of African-American Spirituality 169
Notes 173
Bibliography 183
Index 191
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