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The Religious Practices of Southern Slaves in America
Mamaissii Vivian Dansi Hounon, M.Ed
Contrary to popular belief, the Africans enslaved to build the economic foundation of America were not Christians.1 During slavery, African-Americans were not even allowed to worship as Christians. 2 The builders of this great nation were practitioners of the various African Religions popularly known today as "Voodoo", (Vodoun) Ifa, Orisha, La Reglas de Congo, and Mami Wata . A small percentage were even (African-styled) Muslims3, incorporating ancestral veneration and family deities into their ritual practice.
These spiritual practices of the Africans enslaved in America, have their ancestral origins not from Haiti, Cuba, or the Americas, but directly from Dahomey (Ewe [ev-way]), Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, the Congo, and other West African nations. The Spirits remained in their blood just as they did wherever the African was taken and enslaved in the New World 4
The West Africans also arrived in America speaking their native mother tongues, and were forbidden to learn English, or to read, including the Euro-Christian Bible. The Christian missionaries, (of whom the majority supported slavery), were not interested in actually teaching the tenets of Christianity to the enslaved Africans, but rather their primary focus was on civilizing them from their "idolatrous" ways, and making them compliant with their lamentable fate of chattel slavery. 5
Interestingly enough, many West Africans with an extensive history of pre-christian Talmudic(biblical) ritual knowledge and practice, even arrived in the Americas highly familiar with their own pre-Christian tales of the legend of "Moses" .6 They were not familiar with him as the Christianized Moses who led the Jews to the promised land, but rather as"the great conjurer," in which he was revered and celebrated for centuries as the "bringer of the law."
In some locations, Moses was even worshiped as a God. As someone who wielded great power with the High God. A great and powerful elder who dwelt among humans. He was directly associated with the symbol of the rainbow, serpent deity Dan (or Damballa) of the Vodou Religion in Dahomey.
Rainbow Serpent Diety.
Oldest manifestational form.
Though some forms of westernized Christianity made its way to many West African nations prior to the trans-Atlantic voyages, it effected little inroads into the lives of the millions of traditionalist Africans captured and enslaved in America. Thousands still continued to praise God, propitiate their ancestors and serve their tutelary and ancestral divinities.
Denied basic medical care, and distrustful of "modern medicine", millions of enslaved Africans in the South, still depended exclusively on the "root worker," for their medical and spiritual prescriptions to tend to their physical and spiritual needs. In the case of "Voodoo"(Vodoun), thousands more even performed secret rituals to their divinities of War, petitioning their aid in the numerous insurrections towards their liberation.
It was this latter ritual of African Religious practice, that incited the most fear and hatred in the hearts and minds of the slave owners, and American White citizenry. The slave owners learned only too well of the efficacy of its power.
This was so because "Voodoo's"(Vodoun) philosophical structure, and its ritual and cultural manifestation, emphasized the warrior gods who sustained and directly aided the Africans in their long struggle toward freedom. It was in this respect that the priesthood weld considerable power as they did in Africa.
As a result, an aggressive campaign was implemented to do away with African traditional religious practices once and for all. Heavy fines were often levied. Brutal forms of torture, severe beatings and even death was imposed on anyone caught practicing any from of the religion. Stringent laws were passed to prevent the Africans from speaking any African languages, building shrines, making ritual drums, or any musical instruments. Family members and neighbors were encouraged to "report" one another if caught practicing any form of the religion.
These draconian laws (which continued unabated until well after Reconstruction), included prohibitions against organizing in public; and any other method by which the slave owners suspected they might be "working " their magic.
Many priests and priestess' were murdered, some escaped up North, and nearly all who refused to [later] "convert" to Christianity and could not escape, suffered intense spiritual alienation and anguish due to the neglect of their Ancestors and gods. Thousands resisted and continued their practices underground. Forcing a once historically open and proud religious-cultural tradition to develop the underserved reputation of being "dark, and sinister" in the West.
These medieval, and unconstitutional laws were so successful, that in less than one generation, the many priests and priestesses who were not murdered, were forced to practice underground, and the new generations of enslaved Afro-diaspora had developed a learned afro-hagiophobia: a pathological fear and irrational intimidation of African spiritual and esorteric science, ancestral veneration, and its ritual and cultural expressions. The simplist spirit manifestations that were once understood in their cosmological context, now "spooked" the newly conditioned generations of African-Americans.
This relentless campaign of maligning and actively suppressing African religions continued throughout the decades by the colonial [and later United States] government.
Replete with its racist imagery, and demeaning Hollywood stereotypes, "Voodoo" became the universal standard by which Christian evangelicals, racist anthropologists, educators and the general public used to clump, classify and categorically dismiss all African religious systems under colorful pejorative labels as "evil, crazed, sex-frenzied, idolatrous, cannibals, primitive, fetish worshiping, superstitious, demonic cults"-devoid of any meaningful moral foundation, social structure or philosophical/esoteric content.
Intentionally, mocked as "Voodoo", no clear distinctions were made between the ancestral religious traditions and its beneficent practices, and the "darker" maleficent traditions such as "sorcery, conjuration, and witchcraft." Tantamount to the spiritual-genocidal equivalency of blending Satanism with Christianity proper.
Because the African diaspora welded no significant economic, or political clout, and most of what remained of its priesthood duly maligned and discredited, it became nearly impossible to present the true spiritual reality of what Vodou actually is, and its profound importance to the spiritual sustenance of the African diaspora.
Ancestral and spirit "callings" that manifested in their traditional modes, went unheeded, many lacking the philosophical/ ritual knowledge and expertise to tend to them. This would often escalate and deteriorate into mental illness, family dysfunction, drug addiction, violent outbursts, alcoholism, suicide, and other forms of self-destructive behavior.
Even today, much of the ongoing social malaise, psychic and mental confusion, and spiritual pathology that many in the diaspora are experiencing, may be directly related to their dis-connectedness from the very gods and ancestors who are inextricably connected to their soul and psyche, but many have now, through centuries of conditioning, ignorance, fear and shame have learned to mock and avoid. Many try unsuccessfully to seek solace in other Western spiritual practices and Eastern traditions, with little understanding of the reasons why they have found no home or peace.
In America, though many of the traditional ritual and ceremonial practices of "Voodoo" were lost, most of its healing, divinatory, and spirit manifestational elements , were later forced to merge into the magico-botanical practices of what came to be known derisively as"Hoodoo."
It is vitally important for the African-diaspora to understand that absence of the public expression of a religion does not negate ones ancestral lineage nor birth-right. The "Voodoo" is still present in the blood of those whose ancestors are born from it. They have never forgotten their children or rightful heirs. Thousands are still being born today carrying the Spiritual lineages of the ancestors. Many have lost the knoweldge of what to look for.
More thanfive volumes of this powerful oral tradition of our African-American ancestors spiritual mastery and God-given gifts has re-surfaced, leaving a powerful legacy to their descendants. A legacy not borne from Haiti, nor any other region, but the United States of America. A powerful testament to their lingering presence and gift to us of this ancient religion as their heir and true descendants who now carry their spirits.
More importantly, these ancestral spiritual lineages of the millions of Africans who for centuries cultivated and carried these Spirits in their blood was never lost, and arebeing resurrected today as we awaken from centuries of fear, ignorance, shame and forced amnesia of who we really are.
African Traditional Religions with over 50 million open adherents, world-wide, are becoming the fastest growing religions in the world. Religious traditions that harbor no history of violent inquisitions, persecution of others, nor coercive proselytizing.
This is so because they are at their fundamental and cosmological core ancestral religions, of spiritual growth and transformation thru the guidance, wisdom and earned power of ones immediate and divine African Ancestors and their appointed divinities. The birth-right of millions of African descendants in the diaspora, whose ancestors fought hard to maintain their sacred rights.
Today, it is up to all to lift centuries of racist labeling, stereotypes, and mistruths about these powerfully transforming spiritual systems. They are counting on us to lift the veil of ignorance and shame, by bringing both dignity to their ancient ["Voodoo"] Spirits and honor to their personal sufferings. In the end,the Gods will prevail.
Simkinn, John. Slavery: An Illustrated History of Black Resistance
3. SeeIslam & African Traditional Religion
4. See: A Slave In Brooklyn: Archeologists Uncover Ritual Artifacts
See also: Prof. Cora Agatucci Syllabus links to slave narratives from burial to worship using African Traditional rituals.
5."This was one of the main reasons why most plantation owners did what they could to stop their slaves from learning to read. Slaves were also forbidden from continuing with African religious rituals. Drums were also banned as overseers worried that they would be used to send messages. They were particularly concerned that they would be used to signal a slave uprising" (Simkinn 1988). 6. Hurston, Zora (1991). Moses, Man of the Mountain. xxiv. HarperPerennial. New York.
See also: Jewish Roots in Africa
Fig 1. Eveerett, Susanne. (1978). History of Slavery. London.
Fig 2. Paraphrased quote taken from Middleton, H. Hyatt. (1973) pg. 2154- 2155. Vol Three. Hoodoo-Conjuration-Witchcraft-Rootwork. Alama Egan Hyatt Foundation. Ill.
Fig. 3. Ibid. pg. 933.
Fig 4. Ibid. pg. 993.
Fig.5 Ibid. pg. 950.
Fig 6. "African [American] Grave". Century Magazine 41, no. 6 (April 1891): 827.
This article is reprinted with the permission of Mamaissii Vivian Dansi Hounon M.Ed