Spirituality in the Caribbean has always been a fluid signifier, whose multiple meanings reflect accurately the many sources from which are drawn our plural culture(s). The items I have chosen below reflect not only this plurality, but also Caribbean spirituality’s defiance of easy definition and resistance to domination. Even with the pervasiveness of Christianity in the region, Caribbean spirituality has always evaded empiricism, reflecting in all its permutations an epistemology that is not only anticolonial, but also resistant to such a concept as a homogenous nation-state.
The syncretism of Caribbean spirituality reflects, to borrow from C. L. R. James, “an inherent antagonism between the consciousness of the black masses and the reality of their lives.”1 These practices exercise, indeed, an Africa that we have long been taught to despise, but which forms the backbone of a culture that sustains and defines us, even as it is the source of deep anxiety surrounding the question of “civilisation.” As such, questions of spirituality in the Caribbean are questions of power; it is less about what these beliefs and practices are, than it is about how they function. Many of these beliefs and practices have been or remain illegal (or “seditious”) and are performed in opposition to the colonial state. Despite this, they remain integral to Caribbean being and self-determination.
Caribbean spirituality takes for granted that the spiritual and the mundane cannot be separated and that our ancestors are present with and within all things, and that death is not necessarily a departure but a transformation. Indeed, the very syncretism of Caribbean religion reflects a unity that, to its credit, is constantly negotiated and negotiable, one that does not disavow but is defined by difference. This commitment to the spiritual – there are few atheists in the Caribbean – sustained us throughout our kidnap and colonisation, and shielded us from total annihilation by the “rational” materialism of our colonisers. It is through the spirit that the dispossessed can be repossessed, and that we can continue to navigate modernity and its aftershocks.
I hope to contribute to an appreciation of spirituality in the Caribbean as a strategy of survival, resistance and sustenance in the wake of the plantation. Enslaved Africans and indentured “Asians” interpreted and navigated the new worlds they created out of the totality of their domination, and the materials I have curated below converge on an understanding of spirituality as liberation, and of the “spiritual” as immanent in all things.
Curatorial Note: The Holy Piby, often referred to as “The Black Man’s Bible,” was published in The United States, South Africa and Jamaica in 1924, and written between 1913 and 1917 by Anguillan Robert Athlyi Rogers (6 May, 1891 – 24 August, 1931). In it, Rogers outlined the tenets of the religion of which he was shepherd, the “Afro-Athlican Constructive Gaathly.” The Holy Piby appears to be originally conceived of as an evolving text, “a book founded by the Holy Spirit to deliver the gospel commanded by the Almighty God for the full salvation of Ethiopia’s posterities’ – “Ethiopia” here being a general term for Africa. The Piby is an Afrocentric response to the Euro-Christian Bible, and in it Rogers claims Ethiopia as the “Promised Land” for Black people in the diaspora. As such, it is today considered one of the foundational texts of the Rastafari movement, heavily influenced by Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement and message, and the growing trend towards Ethiopianism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Title: Special issue of Jamaica Journal on Jamaican Folk Religion
Editor: Alex Gradussov
Steward: Digital Library of the Caribbean
Curatorial Note: This June 1969 edition of the Jamaica Journal was a special issue on “folk” religious practices in that country. It featured Edward Seaga’s ground-breaking ethnography, “Revival Cults in Jamaica;” an article by Olive Lewin on “cult music;” and Rex Nettleford’s “Pocomania in Dance-Theatre.” These articles reflect a growing academic interest in Afro-syncretic spirituality in the West Indies, as well as historical revision of the role of this spirituality in resistance to slavery. This revisionism is reflected in Mary Reckford’s overview of the 1831 Baptist Rebellion, as well as editor Alex Gradussov’s interview with and reflection on Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, Jamaican religious leader and folk artist (and advisor to Seaga). Closing the issue is Kenneth Ramchand’s “Obeah and the Supernatural in West Indian Literature,” which outlines how Obeah is explored and exploited in literary fiction.
Title: “An Act to Remedy the Evils arising from Irregular Assemblies of Slaves, Jamaica 1760”
Author: Diana Paton
Steward: Obeah Histories
Curatorial Note: The 1760 Obeah Act’s official title is “An Act to remedy the evils arising from irregular assemblies of slaves, and to prevent their possessing arms and ammunition, and going from place to place without tickets, and for preventing the practice of obeah, and to restrain overseers from leaving the estates under their care on certain days, and to oblige all free negroes, mulattoes or Indians, to register their names in the vestry books of the respective parishes of this Island, and to carry about them the certificate, and wear the badge of their freedom; and to prevent any captain, master or supercargo of any vessel bringing back slaves transported off this Island.” In the aftermath of Tacky’s Rebellion of that same year, the Jamaica Assembly (comprised overwhelmingly of English planters) passed this legislation in order to guard against future rebellion. First passed in Jamaica, the legislation extended, largely unaltered, across the British West Indies. Today, versions of the Obeah Act remain law in several Caribbean territories. With this legislation, Obeah and other African-derived, syncretic religions practised among the enslaved were equated to “wickedness” – as was Blackness itself – and the nuance of Obeah’s many social functions was discursively erased. Furthermore, it imagined into being an identifiable, unified “evil” phenomenon where one did not exist. It is this legislation, as have argued Handler and Bilby, “played a central role in creating public (mis)understandings of obeah across the Caribbean region.”2
Curatorial Note: Managed by Cynthia Duncan (with an associated blog administered by Eñi Achó Iyá), AboutSanteria states that its mission is “to provide accessible, accurate information about Santería as a religion, in hopes of breaking down misconceptions and negative stereotypes.” The site offers guides to and stories about various Orishas, vocabulary particular to the practice of Santería, and wellness advice. This is an excellent resource for finding background information on deities and rituals associated with Santería as practised in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the wider Hispanocreole Caribbean, as well as stories about the orisha, or “patakí.”
Title: Walkthrough of Guzzum Power: Obeah in Jamaica
Author: Bernard Jankee
Steward: African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank
Curatorial Note: In 2011, the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank staged the “Guzzum Power” exhibition, aimed at providing the general public with information about Obeah, what the speaker describes as a “little known, but highly feared practice.” From the curators’ point of view, Obeah remained a prevalent cultural practice, despite being illegal, and deserved preservation as a vestige of Caribbean spirituality that is rooted in and routed through Africa. Director of the ACIJ, Dr. Bernard Jankee, does display some trepidation however – emphasising that he does not seek to instruct the public on how to use Obeah, but to address the practice’s demonisation as “witchcraft;” Obeah still maintains its in-between status in popular Jamaican, West Indian imaginary: it is integral to our understandings of ourselves, yet suppressed in our self-expression.
Title: Kwadeboukè Seremoni - Veves Parts 1 and 2
Author: Eric Barstoe, Sabine Cadeau, and Hank Gonzalez
Steward: The Archive of Haitian Religion and Culture: Collaborative Research and Scholarship on Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora
Curatorial Note: These films, by Eric Barstoe, Sabine Cadeau, and Hank Gonzalez, depict houngan (priest) Empereur Mirgot drawing a set of veve – sand drawings and symbols utilised in Vodou ceremonies – in preparation for a ritual. Veves are usually drawn in powder made from cornmeal (sometimes ground cassava) and ashes (sometimes sand), and act as invocations to certain loa (deities) in the Vodou religion. Each of the 401 loa in the Vodou pantheon has their own veve and Mirgot can be seen here drawing those for Papa Legba, Erzulie Dantor and Dambala, amongst others. During the ceremony, the loa will be called (through the veve and through song) to “ride” their devotees (referred to as “horses”) in spirit possession. Improvisational, and designed to be temporary, the veve will eventually be erased through dancing.
Curatorial Note: In this trailer for the documentary film, The Madonna Murti, by Oyetayo Ojoade and Sharon Syriac, the filmmakers interview various religious leaders, academics and devotees about the significance of the Divina Pastora, or Divine Shepherdess, in Trinidad and Tobago. Hindus, Muslims, Shouters and Catholics alike all flock to the Pastora’s shrine in Siparia, south-east Trinidad, to pray to the figure who represents, in turn, Mary, mother of Jesus, and Goddess Kali, whom Hindus venerate for protections against famine, destruction, plagues, and epidemics. The Divina Pastora has various “origin stories,” which matter less than her function as a protector, and an emblem of Caribbean creolisation. Today, she is believed to heal and perform miracles on behalf of her believers.
Janelle Rodriques is an assistant professor of English at Auburn University, where she specializes in Caribbean and Black Atlantic literature. Her monograph, Narratives of Obeah in West Indian Literature, is published with Routledge.
Handler, Jerome S., and Kenneth Bilby. Enacting Power: The Criminalization of Obeah in the Anglophone Caribbean, 1760-2011. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2013.
James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1938.
Image used under a Pixabay license