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The Spirit of Black Power
An Ancestral Calling
"The Orisha manifest in the palais to send us on the streets ... [calls of ekuse (well done) and the rattle of iroke Ifá could be heard] ... Manifest in the parties and in the drums at the corner." With his piercing gaze, Baba Erinfolami brought us all into that moment. We could hear the drums, ringing out to call the people to the streets, going back thirty- five years to what we now call the Black Power revolution in Trinidad. His words rang out at the Sixth Annual Rain Festival at Ile Eko Sango/Osun Mil'osa, up in the back of the Santa Cruz Valley. Onstage in traditional African top and pants (buba and sokoto), with his iconic red velvet fila (a traditional Yorùbá brimless hat), Baba Erinfolami continued to weave a narrative that spanned decades, pulled spirits forward as active agents, and tied the present moment in 2005 to the protests and consciousness-raising of Black Power. He pointed to Khafra Khambon, a former student leader of the 1970 Black Power movement who was in the audience, and said, "We were fighting an uphill battle for those who went to prison, look two them sitting here." My mind lingered on the power of drums and how the spirits were not only called by the drums, but also on how the spirits used the drums to call us; the communication line worked both ways.
"I needed to find the source of the drums." Iya Sangowunmi recalled the urgency she felt when hearing the drums in her early childhood. She shared how that moment came around full circle for her in the early 1980s. When she planned the launch of her new organization, the African Women's Association, Iya asked someone to find a drummer to play at the opening. As she recalled:
He went and brought a man, now deceased, name Isaac Lindsay. ... And when we went down to the place on Sixth Street there, to the community center, this man came with his drums and started beating. It was such an awakening. It touched something in me that I didn't even know was there. ... It just was a different thing. And I became so interested in what was going on, 'cause I asked him what it was he was doing, and he said he was clearing the place before we could start and do whatever it was we were doing.
So on the actual family day I sat down to talking with him as they were beating drums ... and he told me about Orisha. He gave me enough to pique my interest, and I wanted to find out further. Because the only thing I had ever heard or known in that way when they started to tell me about Orisha.
It was those drums that brought back for her a half-buried memory of running up the hill in search of the source of the drums, of being caught and switched by her aunt, and then of quietly waiting for her mother to come home. (More discipline to come!) And it was in the conversation between her mother and her aunt that she heard the term for the first time:
Gyal — that is the first time I hear that word, I hear Baptist, eh, but I never hear Shango. Those Shango people beating drum whole night, whole day.
That name Shango remained with me for a long, long, long time. Because I didn't know what it was. You know? When she said "Shango people," what made them different from other people?
As a grown-up I forget about it. So when I came back, the whole thing with the Shango came back to me, and I started interacting with the tradition. It was almost like, well I know now that it was an ancestral call.
The drums had called out to the child, reaching something deep inside her. Decades later, hearing the drums again, Iya was able to reconnect to that moment and realize that the ancestors had been calling her. She was able to draw on her knowledge of Yorùbá cosmology, understand the collapsing of time and space, to place that early moment within a larger spiritual context. For it is not only we who reach out to the spirits, spirits reach out to us.
The ancestral call was a call to people in both the spiritual and the material realm, birthing spiritual citizenship out of a critical moment in the black radical tradition. I would hear different versions of this story, of the drums calling people to the Orisha, over and over again. And many of these stories were in the context of the 1970 Black Power movement. The years surrounding 1970 were a time when people could hear drums playing at night from the hills and valleys surrounding Port of Spain (Pantin 1990, 71). One way to understand this was as a shift of consciousness, a new awareness of a diasporic historicity tied to a newly valorized blackness. From another perspective, the spirits reached out to their children and called them home. Both readings lead to a singular outcome: social change had come with a fire of critique burning in the spirit of African ancestors.
Creolization of African Religions
An understanding of the emergence of African diasporic religions as a force of black liberation and decolonization in Trinidad calls for a necessary grounding in historical context. And central to the history of the Caribbean is creolization. As Édouard Glissant remarks, "The Caribbean is an archipelago of countries born of creolization" (quoted in Hiepko 2011, 256). While I agree that creolization is central to the history of the Caribbean, I seek to locate an earlier moment of creolization as vital to African religions in both West and Central Africa and the Caribbean. The creolization that I reference is not only of the European-African mixing of languages and cultures that is prominent in both the literature and the imaginary (Bernabé, Chamoiseau and Confiant 1993; Glissant 1997; Khan 2007; Palmié 2006; Price 2006; C. Stewart 2007; Trouillot 1998). Rather, these African diasporic religions first emerged from the creolization of numerous African groups, whose historical interactions from the continent were intensified in new configurations during the Atlantic slave trade, during slavery, and under colonialism (Adderley 2006; Gomez 1998; Mintz and Price 1992). This continental cultural and religious mixing laid a common groundwork for the new wave of creolization that was to occur across the Atlantic.
The Orisha religion in Trinidad is a renaming of what used to be called Shango in Trinidad and in the academic literature until the latter part of the twentieth century (for examples that use the term "Shango," see Herskovits and Herskovits 1947; Mischel 1957; Simpson 1965, 1978; Smith, M.G. and Paul 1963). Regardless of the name, African-based religious forms have been practiced in Trinidad since the relatively large settlement of African slaves at the end of the eighteenth century. These slaves mainly hailed from the French colonies, whose planters were fleeing their fear of an increasingly unsettled and rebellious slave population, and ultimately the Haitian Revolution. This later African "Creole" population became one of the important historical antecedents in the development of Trinidad's Orisha religion, contributing practices that are often more associated with Haitian Vodou. Among the other historical contribution to the multifaceted field of spiritual and religious complexes (interchangeably referred to as Trinidad Orisha or Orisha Work) include repatriated African captives that settled in Trinidad. Among the numerous African ethnicities that settled in Trinidad were "the Mandingo, Fulbe, Susu, Temne, Kissi, Kwakwa, Kromantee, Mine (Minre), Allada, Chamba, Hausa, Popo, Igbo, Northwestern Bantu, Ibibio, Kongo and Yoruba" (Lum 2000, 204 – 5), with the prominent African cultural groups being the Kongo, Yorùbá, and Rada (Adderley 2006, 159; Howard 2004, 161; Warner-Lewis 1991).
The Orisha tradition in Trinidad emerged, like so many Afro-Atlantic religions, within transnational spiritual networks that had touched ground at a particular historical conjuncture (see Hall 1995, 1999, 2003; Matory 2005; D. Scott 1991, 1999). In this specific colonial conjuncture at the turn of the nineteenth century, a large influx of French planters and their slaves settled in Spanish Trinidad. As described by Higman, "From a mere 1,500 (including only 200 slaves) in 1780, the population of Trinidad grew to 17,500 (10,000 of them slaves) by 1797" (1984, 44). Among this population were both African and "Creole" slaves who practiced varying versions of African religious traditions (Trotman 2003). Many of these practices drew on religious traditions from the west coast of Africa (what was then the Bight of Benin and the Gold Coast), what Houk has called "a family of religions" (1995, 53). Throughout the diaspora, African descendants have remembered, created, and passed on spiritual practices and doctrines that have been called by many names in Trinidad over the years: Shango (often confused with Spiritual Baptist names like Shango, Shouter, or Shaker Baptist) and finally, in contemporary times, Orisha and most recently Ifá or the compound Ifá/Orisha (which I use most often throughout the text).
African Religions in Trinidad: Spiritual Baptist and Orisha
Trinidad's colonial history shapes the contemporary cultural politics of nationhood, including changes in the Spiritual Baptist and Orisha religions and their relationship to the social and political order. In the 1800s, French planters and British colonial elites competed for control of the political, social, and economic resources of a country populated primarily by the descendants of African slave and free laborers and Indian indentured laborers. In the early and mid-1800s, the struggle between the dominant (Spanish/French) Roman Catholic Church and the (British) Anglican Church for the social and religious patronage of the elites provided a limited opportunity for the African and Indian populations to practice their own religious traditions in relative peace. However, by the late 1800s, both elites and the Creole middle class perceived the African-based traditions of Spiritual Baptist and Orisha as threats to a "civil" society modeled on European manners and customs.
By the late 1800s, the British claimed dominance in legal and social spheres, if not in the cultural and religious spheres, which were still dominated by a "Creole" culture and Catholicism. A principal site for the contestation of dominance was the church. The appearance of Christianity, in this case Catholicism or to a lesser extent Protestantism, was vital for many Africans (and Indians) to have social and economic security, or even the limited available mobility. Forms of masking deities and the blending of rituals have all been documented in Trinidad Orisha. This syncretism would be visible in a form familiar to Melville Herskovits and Frances Herskovits, American ethnographers who researched "African traits" in the Caribbean in the 1930s, including Trinidad's association of Orisha with the saints. This Roman Catholic iconology persists into the contemporary moment in Orisha religion, though it is fading even as the church loses its long-held spiritual dominance in Trinidad (figure 1.2). On the other hand, the Protestant tradition has contributed to a great extent to the Spiritual Baptist (also known as Shouter Baptist) and to a lesser extent to the Orisha faith. One consequence of the dual Christian influence in Trinidad is the existence of two interlocking but doctrinally distinct African religious traditions, Spiritual Baptist and Orisha.
Spiritual Baptists practice a Christian doctrine centered on the Bible as the source of the divine word. Congregations meet in a church and hold services in front of an altar. The embodied practices of worship resemble numerous Christian practices, but with their own particular form. Most important in locating Spiritual Baptists as a Christian practice is their acceptance of Jesus as the son of God, a savior who has come and will come again (with echoes of Shango myths of sacrifice and rising). Orisha also exhibits aspects of Protestantism, though mainly through the Spiritual Baptist rubric. The relationships between these two religions are complex, intertwined, and not fully documented; both Stephen Glazier (1983) and Kenneth Lum (2000) treat the religions as being predominantly separate. Glazier puts forth that "although there are many differences between Baptist rites and those of Shango, many assume that these two ritual forms are similar" (1983, 39). Sankeralli sums up the dynamic between the two: "It should be understood that for the most of the 20th century the major articulations of African 'religion' by this emergent community were the Spiritual Baptists and a 'folk' religiosity where the African appropriation of Catholicism was central, the latter directly related to Trinidad's Yoruba. ... Here Protestant Psalms or Catholic novenas can be used to pelt spiritual forces" (2002, 26).
In Trinidad, as elsewhere in the Caribbean, the theologies of dominant imposed religions such as Protestantism and Catholicism can be used to express the logics of African diasporic religions. So Christian prayers can throw negative energy at someone or, as Sankeralli states, "be used to pelt spiritual forces." Throughout Trinidad, regardless of religious adherence, there exists a widespread belief in supernatural forces (Khan 2000). These forces, be they a jumbie (spirit) in the night or the calling of goat-mouth (bringing something into being by saying it), are part of the cultural fabric.
In analyzing the relationship dynamic between the Spiritual Baptist and Orisha religions, thinking that depends on polarities to place the religions into neat categories obscures rather than clarifies. That is, the religious practices are not "either/or" but rather are "both/and." Another way to think of this is that Spiritual Baptist and Orisha are two branches of a shared root that are more rhizomatic than representative of the two ends of a continuum or spectrum. Houk, in his largely demographic work Spirits, Blood, and Drums (1995), estimates that "well over 50% of orisha worshippers are also Spiritual Baptists and participate in the activities of both religions on a regular basis" (36). Based on my fieldwork experience, I would concur with Houk and add the caveat "recognizably" Spiritual Baptist. This nuance reflects my experience that the majority of Orisha practitioners either are, or have been, Spiritual Baptists. Whether or not they currently practice in a recognizable manner (attend church, hold positions in the Spiritual Baptist theocracy, etc.), the doctrines of Spiritual Baptists are often apparent in the practices of the Orisha tradition, and at times vice versa. In fact, for the most part, there is a shared doctrine that is manifested in either the churchyard (recognizable as Spiritual Baptist) or the palais (recognizable as Orisha) and sometimes in both. Though the two manifestations are then representative of a shared body of beliefs, there is not a cohesive unanimity. Substituting Yoruba for Orisha (as is often done locally), Sankeralli states, "Yoruba and Baptist share a community and a cosmology and have profoundly defined each other, even though their respective work have remained distinct, many are indeed involved in both. This close association has in recent times given rise to the popular misnomer — 'Shango Baptist,' a confused but very widespread reference to those involved in the 'complex'" (2002, 26). Differences in interpretation, as in all religions, often create oppositional views that become the source of conflict between different branches. However, there is a contemporary branch of Orisha in Trinidad that is breaking away from this shared foundation of beliefs. I elaborate on these divisions and this Yorùbá-centered branch of the Orisha faith in later chapters.
The Years of Persecution
The state in Trinidad, whether colonial or postcolonial, has had a contentious history of relations with both the Spiritual Baptist and the Orisha communities that until recently were characterized by persecution and inequities going back to the mid-1800s. In 1917, British colonial authorities passed the Shouters Prohibition Ordinance (SPO), which outlawed the practices of the Spiritual/Shouter Baptists (bell ringing, shouting, etc.), criminalizing this African diasporic religion faith alongside other practices associated with "Africa" (i.e., drumming and dancing). This law was just one example of the persecution of non-European cultural expressions (Indian and, especially, African) justified in the British colonial promotion of the "civilizing mission." Throughout the first half of the twentieth century people perceived to practice African-based religions were subject to criminalization and discrimination, losing homes, jobs and at times their freedom. These persecutions were met with resistance and an organized lobbying campaign in the 1930s and 1940s to change the laws.
Excerpted from "Spiritual Citizenship"
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Table of ContentsNote on Orthography ix
Part I. Spiritual Engagements with Black Cultural Citizenship
1. The Spirit of Black Power: An Ancestral Calling 25
2. Multicultural Moments: From Margins to Mainstream 54
Part II. Emerging Spiritual Citizenship
3. Around the Bend: Festive Practices in a Yorùbá-Centric Shrine 71
4. Trini Travels: Spiritual Citizenship as Transnational 99
5. Ifá in Trinidad's Ground 128
Appendixes I-III 169
What People are Saying About This
"Trinidad and Tobago gives N. Fadeke Castor a rich and generative field to discuss blackness and pan-Africanism in new ways. Having amassed a deep and fascinating archive—tracing key individuals, rituals, and racial, color, and class consciousness—Castor makes an impressive and enduring contribution to the study of African religion in the Caribbean."
“Spiritual Citizenship is a tour-de-force of the twenty-first-century kind. It proposes a reconceptualization of the way that scholars understand notions of cultural citizenship, insisting that we consider the spiritual epistemologies engaged in sacred meaning making. Through an examination of the complex ways that new domains of belonging are being negotiated and lifeworlds made meaningful, Spiritual Citizenship moves the anthropological scholarship on Orisha religious practices to a new level of engagement with spiritual ontologies of citizenship. It is a must read for those committed to decolonizing anthropology through the last bastion of the enlightenment—that of decolonizing our epistemologies of knowledge.”