From Africa to America

Most of the Africans bound for the plantations, mines, and workshops of the New World embarked on their involuntary journey from the coast of western Africa that runs between present-day Senegal and Angola. Among the approximately ten million who reached the Americas, there were a few Christians and many more Muslims. But the vast majority observed traditional African religions, carrying their complex legacy to the New World. Today that legacy is part of the religious landscape of the United States. Though always subtly visible in the ChristianityChristianity is the religious tradition of Christians: those who confesses faith in Jesus Christ, follow the path Christ taught, and gather together in the community of the church. of black North Americans, it is vibrantly apparent in the religious traditions that were brought to the United States by Caribbean immigrants in the late twentieth century, including Cuban “Santería,” Haitian VodouVodou refers to the religious traditions of Haiti—a blend of Fon, Yoruba and Kongo traditions of Africa with French Catholicism. While Haitians do use the term Vodou, they more often speak of “serving the spirits,” the lwa, who are honored on altars..., Jamaican Revivalism, and Rastafarianism. The presence of these Afro-Caribbean traditionsAfro-Caribbean religions include a wide range of religious traditions that have roots in Africa, came to the islands of the Caribbean with African captives, and developed distinctive forms in this new environment: Santería or the Lucumi tradition in Cuba... in the U.S. has contributed to new forms of African-influenced religious life among African-Americans.

The African religious traditions that came to the Americas with the African captives share a range of qualities. All acknowledge a supreme GodGod is a term used to refer to the Divine, the Supreme being, Transcendent deity, or Ultimate reality., sometimes described as a “high GodThe term god with a small “g” is used to refer to a deity or class of deities whose power is understood to be circumscribed or localized rather than universal, or to refer to a plurality of deities.,” but emphasize the primacy of multiple spirit beings, called “orisha” in YorubaThe Yoruba are a West African people in the area now called Nigeria and Benin. The religious traditions of Yoruba culture formed the foundations of many Afro-Caribbean traditions, includin. Shango in Trinidad, Lucumi or Santería in Cuba, and, to a lesser..., in daily life. In reciprocal relationships with these godsThe term god with a small “g” is used to refer to a deity or class of deities whose power is understood to be circumscribed or localized rather than universal, or to refer to a plurality of deities., people enjoy successes, celebrate rites of passage, and cope with misfortune, illness, and grief. Like many present-day African traditions, these streams of faith and practice involve sacred dance and percussive music, used to induce immediate contact between worshippers and spirits in the form of what social scientists call “spirit possession.” The devotees are often called the “wives” or “horses” of the gods, and the gods, in turn, are believed to control and care for them. Worshippers in many such traditions make both food offerings and blood sacrifices to the spirits during celebratory feasting, cleansing, or healing rites.

Distinctly African traditions made their most obvious contribution to Caribbean and South American religions—Candomble, Shango and Umbanda in Brazil, “Santería” in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad, Obeah and Myalism in Jamaica, and VodouVodou refers to the religious traditions of Haiti—a blend of Fon, Yoruba and Kongo traditions of Africa with French Catholicism. While Haitians do use the term Vodou, they more often speak of “serving the spirits,” the lwa, who are honored on altars... in Haiti—while they were transformed into less recognizable forms in the United States. Scholars of African-American history, noting that presumably similar traditions appear to have endured only in cultural fragments until they were re-introduced via the Caribbean, have asked what distinguishes the Caribbean and South American countries from the United States.

First, experts observe that Haiti, Brazil and nineteenth-century Cuba had a much higher ratio of African to European inhabitants. Further, both Cuba and Brazil received sizable numbers of enslaved Africans until far later than did the United States, allowing the continual reinforcement of African forms of knowledge and ritual life. Second, these were Roman Catholic countries where the rich iconography and mythology of the Catholic saintsSaints are human beings whose lives have displayed extraordinary holiness and devotion. As such they become examples for others. Indeed some of the faithful may understand them to be intermediaries and seek their help in time of need. Roman Catholics and ... provided convenient symbols through which to honor Yoruba, Fon and Kongo gods, each with his or her own distinctive emblems and traits. As they continued to develop in the Americas, most of the African-inspired traditions incorporated Christian forms, particularly Catholic statues, lithographs, candles, and stories. For example, the Yoruba or LucumiThe African Yoruba-inspired tradition in Cuba came to be called La Regla Lucumi or Santería, the way of the “saints,” so named because of the correspondence established by worshippers between Yoruba orisha (in Spanish, oricha) and the saints of the R... tradition is sometimes called “Santería,” the “way of the saints,” for the identification made between Yoruba orishaAlthough African and Afro-Caribbean religions acknowledge a supreme God, sometimes described as a “high God,” they emphasize the primacy in daily life of multiple spirit beings, called orisha in Yoruba, oricha in the Spanish language of the Cuban Lucu... and the saints that are so popular in Cuban Catholicism.

Caribbean immigration to the United States since the late 1950s has established a whole new range of African-inspired religions that have then reshaped the pan-Africanist impulse among native-born black Americans. Some have joined these Afro-Caribbean traditions, while others borrow practices from them as part of their quest to re-establish a connection with Africa.

However, there was a movement among black Americans to reclaim their American roots decades before this new infusion of Afro-Caribbean culture and religion. Despite its distance from the West African source of the slave trade, the biblical “Ethiopia” became, for African American Christians, a beacon of hope as a source of black dignity. A political pan-Africanist vision reached its crescendo in the 1920s with the “back to Africa” movement of Marcus Garvey. Led by Garvey, the United Negro Improvement Association—the greatest massMass is a term used in the Roman Catholic Church for the ritual that culminates in the celebration of the Eucharist, the central rite of sharing the consecrated bread and wine in the church community. organization in African American history—embraced no single denomination, but declared missionizing and building the African homeland to be the responsibility of all African American Christians. Garvey’s redemptive pan-Africanism finds prominent successors not only in secular African American fashion and politics, but in religious movements like the Nation of IslamIslam in Arabic literally means “submitting” or “submission.” One who submits or surrenders his or her will to God is called a Muslim. While the whole of God’s creation is described as being inherently Muslim, human beings must choose whether to....

For many African American Christians and Muslims, identification with Africa did not imply identity with the non-scriptural religious traditions of Africa. Until recently, most African American Christians consciously downplayed their cultural and hereditary connections to Africa. However, the work of scholars such as historian Carter G. Woodson, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, and anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits has deepened the understanding of Africa’s contribution to African American culture and progress. Herskovits in particular argued that American culture, while not preserving distinctive Caribbean religious traditions, was nonetheless replete with “Africanisms,” or African survivals. Among these are the many forms of dance, movement, music, and the experience of being “filled with the Holy SpiritThe Holy Spirit is the Christian term used to describe the dynamic presence of God. Christians symbolize this presence as breath, fire, and dove, all expressing the mystery and freedom of God’s presence. The Holy Spirit is one of the three aspects or ...,” that the Black churchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... has contributed to American ProtestantismProtestant is a term used for the range of reform movements that broke with the Roman Catholic Church during the period called the Reformation. There are many branches of Protestantism, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists... in general and PentecostalismPentecostalism is a term used to describe a twentieth-century Christian movement that emphasizes Spirit-filled worship, including glossolalia or “speaking in tongues,” as is said to have happened on the first day of Pentecost nearly 2000 years ago in ... in particular. Another example is the continual presence of certain magical and healing practices in the South, called “Hoodoo,” “VoodooVodou refers to the religious traditions of Haiti—a blend of Fon, Yoruba and Kongo traditions of Africa with French Catholicism. While Haitians do use the term Vodou, they more often speak of “serving the spirits,” the lwa, who are honored on altars...,” and “Conjure.” Subsequent research presented the “ring shout,” most pronounced among the Gullah of the Georgia Sea Islands, as further evidence of the African connection.

Today, Americans identify with distinctively African culture and religion in many ways. Among African Americans in the United States, there is new consciousness of the contributions their forebears have made to the shaping of American culture, expressed in new forms of African-American celebration such as the nine-day KwanzaaKwanzaa is a seven-day African-American festival observed from December 26 to January 1. The festival was started by Maulana Karenga in 1966 and has taken hold as a popular African-American holiday. It celebrates family and community, includes songs and g... festival held in December. Americans from the Caribbean bring with them the heritage of Catholicism as well as Afro-Caribbean traditions associated with Haiti, Cuba or Jamaica. In addition, new immigrants from Africa’s many countries—including Ethiopia’s CopticThe Coptic Church is the ancient and still vibrant church of Egypt, an autonomous Christian church which dates its origins to Mark the Evangelist in the first century. It continues to be led today by a patriarch called a Pope; its liturgical life is condu... Christians, Nigeria’s PentecostalsPentecostalism is a term used to describe a twentieth-century Christian movement that emphasizes Spirit-filled worship, including glossolalia or “speaking in tongues,” as is said to have happened on the first day of Pentecost nearly 2000 years ago in ..., and Ghana’s Anglicans—have brought Christian traditions shaped by their own African cultures. These very different streams of tradition and culture, all linked to Africa, are now present in America.


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