Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dark Salvation: Faith in Chains

While the Carter and George families were free people of color since the 1730s, living in a community made up of a majority of free people of color, I have at times wondered how they must have felt--beyond the obvious--about their enslaved brethren.

As we learned in the series entitled, Ministers & Preachers of Township 5, black preachers recorded in the Census did not show up until 1880. This was mainly due to laws of segregation which made it necessary for ordained white ministers to oversee unordained black preachers. In addition, following Emancipation, many illiterate preachers joining organized denominations were required to seek education at a theological seminary which would prepare them for ordination.

The following chapter in Dark Salvation examines how the origins of enslaved people affected their spiritual identity in the New World.

Dr. Neil A. Frankel's,
The Atlantic Slave Trade and
Slavery in America

Part I: Background
Chapter II: The Slave and His Religion: Faith in Chains

Richardson states that:
Most of the Negroes who were brought into the Western Hemisphere came from the west coastal regions of central or sub-Saharan Africa, roughly the section that extends from Senegal (Dakar) in the north to Angola in the south. . . . The people of West Africa had well-developed religions (p. 14).
 Professor Gayraud Wilmore stated
. . . that the African religions. . . . are mature, enlightened beliefs and practices common to many religions and similar in many ways to contemporary Christian faith. . . . It is a continent comprising many nations and multiplicity of tribes large and small, each with its own language or dialect, its own culture and its own history. . . .  Even today in the city of Accra, a five-minute radio news broadcast takes thirty minutes. It must be given in five tribal languages in addition to English. Only in the broadest sense can one speak of anything as commonly or uniformly "African" (p. 15).
As a multi-culturalist, this has been my understanding for years; although, to some is is taken as an offense. The French professor and African scholar, Roger Bastide, warns that
care must be taken not to write ideas and phenomena of our own time into the history of three centuries ago, and not to arrange such knowledge as we do have to suit contemporary interests and biases (p. 15-16).
With this concept in mind, we must understand that from the African perspective, there was no separation between the secular and the sacred. Life was viewed as a whole...in unity. Their religions included elaborate moral and ethical systems, just as we find of the Hebrews in the book of Leviticus; and they understood that a creative God gave life and order to the natural world. Some accounts bore striking similarities or at least were compatible with the Genesis account.

I have heard it said many times that some feel that just as Africans' family identity, language, culture and religion were stripped from them in a repressive society, that Christianity--"the religion of white Europeans"--was forced upon them. Throughout my research I have seen a dichotomy in this respect. The planters were afraid that if a slave became baptized and given a Christian name that he would learn to read, giving him more power than they desired him to obtain.
It was in this system that black people, some originally from Africa, but many more born in America, tried to find meaning and purpose in existence. It was in this system that some slaves tried to find God (p. 23).
For this reason, Methodist ministers had to teach orally. Upon conversion, blacks participated in segregated white churches, sitting in the balcony or in the back, and taking communion after the whites.
It was this faith in the ultimate righteousness of God that enabled the slave to bridge the contradiction between the good god as taught by the missionaries and the god who would let His black children suffer. They believed in heaven and hell. Heaven let them look to a good end to this painful life, if not here, then at least hereafter. Hell let them believe in the ultimate righting of wrongs (p. 28).