Spirituality in the African American Community: The African Origins of 'The Black Church'
In recognition of February being "Black History Month" I wanted to share a little of my own culture. Being an African American man I have the fortune of being part of a very old and diverse community. While I'm on the subject of diversity, you may be shocked by the amount of diversity in the religious beliefs and practices in the history of African Americans. Most Black religious expression has the following attributes: It is animistic, or spirit-filled; anthropocentric, or human-centered; dynamic; expressionistic; shamanistic (believing in communicating with spirits); and thaumaturgic (belief in miracle working). There has been a cross-cultural (West African & Eastern European) expression of these elements seen in numerous religious traditions; for example:
⦁ Vodun/Voodoo practiced predominantly in Haiti & New Orleans (US)
⦁ Santeria practiced predominantly in Puerto Rico & Cuba
⦁ Obeah and Myal practiced predominantly in Jamaica
There are several others that embody this cross pollination of religions but as the title of this article states I want to focus on the African roots of what is today known as 'The Black Church'.
Roughly eight-in-ten (79%) of African Americans identify as Christians. Sociologists like E. Franklin Frazier have noted that African American religion originated in regions of Africa, e.g., the ancient kingdoms of Kush, Punt and Egypt, and was subsequently influenced by institutions of slavery and colonialism. African American scholar of African and African American religions, Albert J. Raboteau, wrote in his book Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Ante-bellum South, published in 1978, that African American religion is a re-worked Christianity that has its own character and style. Mr. Raboteau is not the only scholar to share this thought. Dr. Diana L. Hayes, Emerita Professor of Systematic Theology at Georgetown University, has stated that, "Black Christians’ belief system may have been structurally similar to that of whites, but it had a very different theological emphasis.”
During the period of slavery, most whites tried their best to refrain from publicizing the Gospel to Blacks and they especially didn't want Blacks associating it in reference to themselves, except in very strictly controlled circumstances. There are a few lines from Dr. Hayes book Forged in the Fiery Furnace: African American Spirituality, published in 2012, I feel really sum up the spiritual fortitude the enslaved Africans had to hold onto their native beliefs and identity:
“Buoyed by the spirit of their ancestors they dug deep within themselves to forge a link between the African spirituality of their past and the African American spirituality that was coming to birth. It was African spirituality that helped those forced into slavery to redefine themselves, find unity and express inner strength despite the experience of oppression. African spirituality buffered white slaveholders’ attempts to destroy African cultural identity."
The Black church emerged from the religious, cultural and social experience of Black people, with its roots on the continent of Africa and the Middle Passage (the transportation of enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and Americas). For centuries the Black church has provided structure and meaning for African people and their descendants in the Americas and aided them in their long struggle to survive; from the horrors of slavery to modern day racial oppression. It has functioned as the focal point of Black life, culture and heritage for much of the history of the African American experience here in North America.