Religion in Jamaica: Finding the Self through Finding God
“God and nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be. Follow always that great law. Let the sky and God be our limit and Eternity our measurement.”
The British seized control of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 and established large scale sugar plantations which relied on thousands of slaves imported from the Western Coast of Africa, mostly from the Gold Coast and Nigeria, whom “the British Planters insisted on…because of their sturdiness” (Barrett 16). Considering only the build and brawn of the slaves, the colonizers conveniently ignored their souls, sidestepping the haunts of enslaving actual people. Robbed of their dignity and humanity, African slaves began their lives in Jamaica with bodies fettered and souls denied. In all of the colonial projects in human history, Blacks have been victimized, brutalized, and oppressed. Like all colonial oppressors, the British in Jamaica attempted to render both the tangibles and intangibles of Black self—their bodies, souls, minds, histories, religions, rights—invisible. Black humanity was defined as property, and in such a world, “one can begin to understand something of the poor image of self that emerges among Black people” (Erskine 28).
The deprivations which the Black family had to endure were not only those inflicted on their bodies, but those inflicted on their personalities. The sense of community—so important to the African family—was destroyed…Every attempt was made to denude the Black families of their identity and any sense of responsibility within their community. (Erskine 27)
Throughout my studies here at the University of Vermont, I have been exposed to the historic struggle of Black people to form their own identities in a culture created by the oppressors. Whether in African American Poetry or Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, I have been a student of the Black struggle to establish an autonomous self rendered wholly true and affirming in the midst of fierce and entrenched stereotypes. Once again, I find myself witnessing such an interface as I come to understand the history of Jamaica. Black Jamaicans’ search for identity has an inherent and admirable element of rebellion, an element which is certainly self-evident when considering the fact that they are attempting to articulate their bodies and personalities in an environment of oppression beginning in the colonial era and persisting, sadly, to the present.
In this paper, I will address Black Jamaicans efforts at utilizing their own genius to make themselves what they want to be. Black Jamaicans genius is unique. The epigraph of this paper speaks to the framework in which I will explore the articulation and evolution of identity. For Black Jamaicans, the struggle to form and understand an identity of their own creation, to become what they want to be rather than what we (the Royal and Historic We) want them to be, is nearly inseparable from their struggle to form and understand religion. In Jamaican history, God has been imagined and re-imagined constantly. As Garvey duly notes, God may be the limit of Jamaicans’ creation of self as what they want to be, though interestingly, at the same time, God also seems to be limitless in the way he is utilized in Black Jamaicans identity. He (or She or They, depending) always seems to be there though because He is the strongest identifying agent and tool of rebellion. In his book Roots of Jamaican Culture, Mervyn Alleyne states that “from the very inception of the slave society…religion and rebellion became associated in symbiotic relationship” (83). Throughout Jamaican history, the successful articulation of a self for the Black subject is most fully realized and enduring when it unfolds within the context of religion rebelling against oppression. I will explore both the practice of African religion during the years of slavery and the birth of Rastafarianism during the twentieth century.
Believing Africans to be barbarians, the British considered them unqualified to both receive and understand the word of the Christian God:
The English planters in Jamaica adamantly refused to share their religion with the slave population. The Church of England and its high liturgy was considered too sophisticated for people of “lesser breed” and, further, the masters feared that the preachers—in their unguarded inspirational moments—would stretch the equality of humanity before God a little too far. (Barrett 16)
Left to themselves, the slaves were able to participate in the earliest form of covert rebellion through practicing African religion. While slavery manacled the maimed the bodies of Africans in Jamaica, they still maintained the agency of their mind and their memory.
Africans coming to Jamaica brought with them a certain set of religious beliefs; they brought with them too a memory, individual and collective, of certain structures of religious behavior and practice. (Alleyne 76).
The traditional African religions which made it to Jamaican soil were structured around the Obeah and Myal priests who “held sway in matters of religion, ritual, and healing” (Ohadike 81). The word obeah is derived from two Ashanti words oba—a child, and yi—to take. “The idea of taking a child was the final test of a sorcerer,” and so the Obeahman became the exerciser of evil influence on society, “plaguing both Black and White in the days of slavery” (Barrett 18). The Myal-man/woman was initially a priest or priestess who “wielded power to cast away evil spells inflicted upon individuals” by the Obeahman and were therefore famous for their ability to perform exorcisms (Ohadike 81). The word myal has come to mean “being in a religious state of possession” because of its association with the rigorous dance Kumina, which caught on among slaves and eventually became a slave religion (Barrett 18). Don Ohadike, author of Sacred Drums of Liberation: Religions and Music of Resistance in Africa and the Diaspora, explains the relationship between the Obeahman, Myalman, and Kumina this way:
The competitive activities of the Obeahman and Myalman resulted in the religious cult known as Kumina, an ancestor possession cult in which “hidden secrets, witchcraft, and bad medicine were detected and exposed.” For example, when an individual was troubled as a result of the assumed evil acts of the Obeahman, the troubled individual would be taken to a Kumina shrine to seek help. Under the supervision of a Myalman, the patient was made to go through a spirit-possession ritual believed to induce necessary healing. (81-82).
The Kumina is a distinctly African religious experience because of its emphasis on spirit possession, ancestors, music, and dancing. The spirit that possesses the patient is always an ancestor of either the patient of the person who called the Kumina. Spirit possession is achieved through tireless dancing which is accompanied by rhythmic drumming. The drum is the heartbeat of Africa, the heartbeat of the ancestor, and the dancing is the African body partaking in an ancient expression of identity. The dancing becomes so rigorous that the spirit of the ancestor takes control of the dancer’s body until the dancer loses control of their own agency and actually becomes the ancestor (Ohadike 82). It is under this full possession that “a revelation is given by the ancestors concerning the occasion for which the Kumina is called” which was originally to drive out the evil Obeah spirits. But when Kumina became more of an established religion among slaves, the ceremony would be called to acknowledge significant rites of passages such as birth, death, or marriage. The revelation spoken by the possessed ancestor-dancer is “sometimes given in an unknown tongue, very often in an African language” (19). Speaking in African tongues steeps the Kumina ceremony in a heightened sense of African-ness, and therefore, a seemingly heightened sense of human identity and belonging which the slaves so longed for. At these Kumina ceremonies, the presence of music and language (that was originally distinctly African and then became increasingly Black Jamaican) was unique. Music and language are a deeply associated in Black Jamaican conscience with rebellion and identity affirmation, and both are used later in the Rastafarian movement in similar ways.
The Ancestors are extremely important to African identity because they form the basis of community identity, and for Black Jamaicans, “the community provided the context in which the possibility of becoming more fully human in history became real” (Erskine 51). Slavery stripped away the sense of community and identity for the Black Jamaican. Kumina reestablished this sense, while at the same time allowing for a space in which ancestors could be recognized. The presence of ancestors created a sense of belonging, and reminded Black Jamaicans of their roots in Africa, a place in which their humanity was never denied.
The ceremony and religion of Kumina allowed for a bit of Africa to live in the midst of slavery. The slaves were rebelling against their physical oppression by fully engaging their minds and their bodies in an important identity building religion. Kumina became more rebellious when the Obeahman and the Myalman joined forces. The Myalman was the good guy in the early tension between Obeah and Myal. The Myalman would drive away the evil spirits and assist those afflicted by suffering. However, under the project of slavery, evil was far too great for the Myalman to tackle alone. The evils of slavery were atrocious and pervasive, and so:
The Myalman was…obliged to join hands with the Obeahman to fight the evil magic of the white masters. With their energies combined, the Obeahman and the Myalman instigated the formation of secret societies, which became the centers of secret plotting and rebellion. They provided slaves with necessary charms and medicines for protection and the tools to attack slave-owners and the plantation system. (Ohadike 82)
The societies formed by this union were secret because in part, the slaves did not want their masters to know of these occurrences, especially since it allowed them to have some agency over their identity. But also, early laws were passed banning the assembly of large number of slaves on Sundays and holidays. Here is an interesting passage from an Acts of the Assembly mandate passed in 1696:
And for the prevention of the meeting of slaves in great numbers o Sundays and holidays, whereby they have taken the liberty to contrive and bring to pass many of their bloody and inhuman transactions: Be it enacted by the aforesaid authority, that no master, or mistress, or overseer, shall suffer any drumming or meeting of any slaves, not belonging to their own plantations, to rendezvous, feast, revel, beat drum, or cause any disturbance. (Quoted in Alleyne 82)
“That no master shall suffer”!? What about the suffering of the slaves? These gatherings made the slaves feel more human, and so the masters could not have that. The oppressors go to any measure to strip the oppressed of all achieved identity. The power must remain in their hands.
This prohibition put an early end to the open, but not the secret, celebration of African religion. Myalism continued to be practiced by many slaves because it provided an important means in which Black people could “fight and destroy the harsh world of oppression” (Erskine 68). One way that the slave could fight oppression was by carrying around a charm prepared by the Myalman. The Myalman would “administer a mixture of gunpowder, grave dirt, and human blood, which was supposed to make one indestructible” (Erskine 68). Another way to fight oppression was to kill the oppressor, and often the Myalman would give the slaves a poison to slyly dose their master—“poisoning became one of the chief methods of fighting back which Black people used to deal with the world of slavery…the Myalman seemed to any means necessary within his environment to equip his people to carve out a new world in which to live” (Erskine 69-70).
The white master began to fear the power of the black religion and the control which slaves seemed to be attaining through their practice of African religion. Therefore, on December 21, 1781, the Jamaica Assembly passed a law calling for the punishment and death to the practitioners of Myalism (Erskine 44). The threat of death and punishment did not rattle the slave, for their lives were already rife with both. The practice of African religion allowed them an outlet to express of identity that was otherwise denied on the plantation. The slaves were holding tightly to what little humanity graced their lives, and who can blame them? African religion provided the arena in which Black Jamaicans could lay claim to the autonomous self that should be the right of every human. Myalism was extremely important to the lives of the slaves and granted them a sense of power.
Slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1834, though a system of indentured servitude and apprenticeship continued for decades under colonialism, and oppression is still felt today under neocolonialism. But the greatest oppression—the most acute form of physical, social, and cultural oppression and denial of Black Jamaican humanity—occurred during the years of slavery on the island. Compellingly, the slaves were able to carve out a space for their own identity through religion. Though small, this space was a space of rebellion and brought great strength to the otherwise weakened slave. The power and success of African religion under enslaved Jamaica is evident in its noticeable influence on Christianity and the creation of hybrid religious sensibilities from this interface.
Missionary work began in Jamaica in 1754, but the “missionaries in their zeal failed to understand the African religious beliefs, which they regarded as heathenism to be eradicated” (Gordon IX). However, African religion could not be eradicated because it existed so tangibly as a liberating, rebellious force in Black Jamaican consciousness. To the surprise of missionaries preaching the Gospel and the word of God, African religion could not be eradicated in any instance. This can be seen in the creation of three new religious cults in the Jamaica formed after The Great Revival of 1860-61 in which thousands of Black Jamaicans “flocked to the churches day and night…with much singing, crying, dancing, spirit possession, and loud prayers” could be heard (Barrett 21). Black Jamaicans were the majority, and being in this position, even when considering their oppression, they have the great motive force of change.
The Great Revival allowed the African religious dynamic—long repressed—to assert itself in a Christian guise and capture what might have been a missionary victory. Since then, Christianity has been a handmaiden to a revitalized African movement known as Revival religion (Barrett 22).
Revival! Rebellion through Religion—“capture” and “victory”! A breath of fresh air in a long history of oppression!
The endurance of African religion is apparent in its presence in Pukumina, Revivalism, and Revival Zion, three new sects which arose out of The Great Revival and which all contain, to varying degrees (Pukumina the most to Revival Zion the least) elements of African religion. Black identity survived! Through the created genius of oppressed slaves who cleverly undermined the authority of the colonizers through religious rebellion, an admirable creation of what they wanted to be succeeded. It seems that God was their limit, as Garvey claims in the quote at the beginning of the paper. The negotiation of identity and a demand to be recognized as a free, fully human self for the Black Jamaican seems to exist within the limits of an agenda of God. For example, the Samuel Sharpe Rebellion—which catalyzed The Baptist War of 1831—was a rebellion by a Baptist deacon who called for the emancipation of slavery based on an understanding that God was a savior of the oppressed. The Black Jamaicans of this rebellion/war “insisted that because they were human beings who had a right to freedom they had a right to withdraw their labor and attack the institutions that kept them in slavery” (Erskine, “The Roots of Rebellion” 113). For slaves, it wasn’t always simply “God” as their limit but often African religion as a whole, with its pantheon, ancestor worship, ceremonies, dancing, and magic. God as the limit is more evident in movements after the Revival when elements of Christianity openly fused with African religion on a large scale (small scale fusion had been occurring since the arrival of missionaries in 1754):
Whether one wishes to call them Zionist sects or Pukumina, certain things are clear. Traditional African modes of worship were evident in the revival style of worship. These included shouts, spirit possession, music, and dance. Though accepting the basic teachings of Christ, the Zionist preachers placed much emphasis on the Old Testament, while drawing from ancient African traditions…The Zionists saw great similarities between the suffering of blacks in Jamaica and the plight of the children of Israel in bondage. They also believed that oppressed Africans would regain their humanity through spiritual redemption. (Ohadike 84-85)
It is clear that “the memory of Africa dominated the consciousness of Afro-Jamaicans” and this memory was articulated through religion (Erskine, “The Roots of Rebellion” 111). It is under these circumstances that the Rastafarian movement began in Jamaica.
The Rastafarians are the successors of Marcus Garvey’s legacy, so in order to look at the ways in which they struggle to form their identity through religion let me first say more about Garvey. Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born and raised in Jamaica and became sensitive to racial discrimination at the age of fourteen. After being called a “nigger” by the family of a childhood friend, Garvey dedicated his life to, in a way similar to the Myalmen of old, carve out a new space in which African descendents could be free of white oppression. He was the founder of the Back to Africa Movement and was the foremost “prophet” of Black liberation across the globe in the early parts of the twentieth century (Erskine, “The Roots of Rebellion” 115). Garvey’s ideals and the rhetoric he used to articulate these ideals were steeped in religious themes, allegory, and understanding. He envisioned the return of Black Jamaica to their African homeland, a vision that was born out of his understanding that Black Jamaicans were like the Israelites of the Old Testament who were captives in the White man’s land like in the Book of Exodus. He believed that “it was God’s will that they experience exodus” (Erskine, “The Roots of Rebellion” 115).Garvey, like the slaves, held on tightly to Africa because it was in this land that they were understood to be fully human. Garvey’s cry was a cry of self-awareness:
He felt that an important ingredient in Jamaica’s journey to make peace with Blackness or Black consciousness was the affirmation of a sense of self-worth and self-esteem as crucial aspects of a healthy national psyche. (Erskine, “The Roots of Rebellion” 117)
It is clear that Garvey was highly aware of Black peoples need for self. He says “if you have no confidence in the self, you are twice defeated in the race of life” ( http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/marcus_garvey.html). Garvey was a Pan-Africanist and wanted to align the consciousness of all Africans in the diaspora to be one: One God! One aim! One destiny! God for Garvey was the God of the Old Testament, the God who saved the oppressed. Garvey could couch his teachings of Black power on biblical language “because the consciousness of African Jamaicans was suffused with religious consciousness” (Eskine, “The Roots of Rebellion 118).
Garvey admired everything Ethiopian. Ethiopia was one of only two countries in Africa that was never colonized. The claws of white oppression never strangled the land of Ethiopia, and this must have been attractive to Garvey whose goal was to assert the need for Black autonomy. Furthermore, Ethiopia has a long and stable history of Christianity, in the form of Coptic Christianity. These Coptic Christians had their own version of the Bible called the Kebra Negast. Ethiopians enjoyed liberties of free land and unique God. As Garvey aimed to instill pride and self-help into the minds of African descendents, what better nationality to align his sentiments with than Ethiopia? It was in the God of Ethiopia that Africans would find salvation:
If the white man has the idea of a white God, let him worship his God as he desires. If the yellow man’s God is of his race let him worship his God as he sees fit. We, as Negroes, have found a new ideal. Whilst our God has no color, yet it is human to see everything through one’s own spectacles, and since the white people have seen their God through white spectacles, we have only now started out (late though it be) to see our God through our own spectacles. The God of Isaac and the God of Jacob let Him exist for the race that believes in the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. We believe in the God of Ethiopia…We shall worship him through the spectacles of Ethiopia. (Quoted in Erskine, “The Roots of Rebellion” 118)
To see God through the spectacles of Ethiopia mean coming to grips with and embracing you African-ness. It meant racial pride and the recognition that God make Blacks to be free and autonomous beings, able to make their own history and identity and refuse to be made what others wanted Blacks to be.
In looking at the historic and current oppression of Blacks across the world, Garvey wondered, “Where is the Black man’s King?” He must come. As early as 1918, Garvey had begun to prophesize the crowning of a Black king in Ethiopia: “Look to Africa, where a Black king shall be crowned.” In 1930, his prophesy came true when Haile Selassie, the son of Ras Makenen and descendent of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (whose love affair is narrated in the Kebra Negast), was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was called King of King, Lord of Lords, and Conquering Lion of Judah, and at his coronation Selassie assumed the name Ras (king) Tafari. On this day, Garvey claimed that deliverance was near, and the Rastafari movement began. “Jamaicans’ strong attachment to Africa and their solemn passion for independence in matters of religion found expressions in the Rastafarian movement” (Ohadike 85).
The Rastafarians believed that Haile Selassie was God, the Black Messiah, and organized their faith around this belief to establish and found the first indigenous religion of Jamaica. Using ideas laid out by Garvey of Black liberation and assertion of self along with a mixture of the Old Testament and the Kebra Negast to develop their own liturgy, “the Rastafarian philosophy armed the downtrodden masses with the necessary ideology to confront their oppressors” (Ohadike 89). The masses of Black Jamaica were fascinated by the movements’ connection with Africa, their lost homeland. These connections reinforced the Rastafarian “appeal for black identity” (Ohadike 89). The emergence of the Rastafarian movement came as a “reaction not only to the native religions which the Rastas see as unreal in the presence of formidable sociopolitical forces, but also against the mission religions which they view as the religious arm of colonial oppression” (Barrett 28). Like their enslaved ancestors, Rastas are engaging the creation of an identity through the development of a unique religion which resists historic oppression. They are carving out a space in society to develop and reclaim their selves. Their struggle to legitimize their religion is a struggle to legitimize their selves.
The Rastafari are a peaceful people and their rebellion takes on more subtle forms of resistance than violent reaction:
Virtually everything that the Rastafarians did enraged the dominant ruling classes of Jamaica. The acceptance of Emperor Haile Selassie as the head of their congregation signified a refusal to conform to the Christian belief systems of the upper class. Their habit of smoking marijuana in public, as well as their hairstyle, offended the upper classes. (Ohadike 89)
The wearing of Dreadlocks by the Rastas is an affirmation of the natural. For the Rastas, God (Jah!) and nature are one; the material and the spiritual world are not divided. Rastas respect nature as a manifestation of Jah and see it as a vast source of knowledge. Dreadlocks form when the Rastas let their hair grow out naturally, and this style becomes a symbol of Jah. Furthermore, Rastas understand that ancient African warriors wore their hair in dreadlocks, and so their hair brings them even closer to their roots and is an expression of their unique identity. Herb is smoked as a sacrament to Jah; the smoke rising from the burning herb carries with it the hopes and prayers of the Rastaman up to Jah.
The Rastafarian movement is not monolithic. There are different types of Rastas ranging from the theocratic to the individual, from established churches to personal discipline of the body. They are united in their belief of the divinity of Haile Selassie and their deep desire to become articulate their freedom and humanity in the face of oppression. They use Old Testament rhetoric to assert the distaste for the oppressors, calling Jamaica under colonialism and neocolonialism “Babylon” and referring to Africa as “Zion.” Babylon is a powerful, biblical image. The Babylonians captured Jerusalem in 586 BCE and drove the Israelites people out of the area into captivity in Egypt where they were enslaved for four hundred years. Zion refers to Mt. Zion in Jerusalem where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God when the Israelites returned from captivity. Rastas see the plight of the Israelites as the plight of themselves. They too are held in captivity by Babylon. They are enslaved by the oppressors. In a search to assert their identity, Rastafarians, like their Black Jamaican ancestors during slavery, turned to religious interpretation and expression. They used God, or Jah, as the limit of who they could become. Rastafarians “promoted black consciousness and the necessary will to oppose white domination. The teachings of the Rastafarians liberated the minds of the Jamaican working poor” (Ohadike 89).
Liberating the minds of Black Jamaicans seems to be a recurring theme in the Rastafarian movement, especially when looking at some lyrics of the roots reggae movement. Roots reggae gave Rastafarians a prominence that they had never enjoyed in the past.
Some of the principal aims of the Rastafarian movement were to purge Jamaicans of their inferiority complex, instill self-pride in them, and create a bond of unity between them and their African brothers and sisters. It is in the course of resistance that many Africans of the diaspora re-constitute their history, a history that has been battered by slavery and colonialism…Reggae artists narrate the story of slavery and economic exploitation of the poor… expose all forms of social injustice, especially white domination, capitalist exploitation, police brutality, corruption and political intimidation. (Ohadike 92)
Roots reggae music—with its heavy percussion, African expression, and rebellious language—is like that of the Kumina ceremonies of old. In the realm of roots reggae music, Black Jamaicans experience a space for rebellion, religious expression, and identity formation. In Bob Marley’s redemption song, Black Jamaicans are reminded that they must be active in the creation of their own freedom and identity:
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy
Cause none a them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
Some say, ‘it’s just a part of it’
we’ve got to fulfill the book.’
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
Bob Marley was a Rastaman, and he his reggae music, like Rasta, is “the product of the race consciousness and race solidarity that had been growing throughout the Black World since the days of slavery and colonialism” (Ohadike 93). In this song, Bob Marley is calling on all Black Jamaicans to join together to fight oppression and seek freedom. Black Jamaicans are the only ones who can free themselves because all other forces are aimed about casting Black Jamaicans as something wholly different from what they actually are. Roots reggae was imbued with Rastafarian symbolism and became a music of religion and rebellion. Rastafarians were attempting to create as space in which their Blackness and history could be reclaimed and celebrated. Rastafarians wanted Black Jamaicans to be able to autonomous beings in the face of white oppression. In this movement we see how the formation of identity in Black Jamaica is nearly inseparable from the formation of religion.
The history of Black Jamaicans is at once atrocious and beautiful, sickening and inspiring, life-taking and life-giving. In the face of the most horrific human rights violations of all time, Black Jamaicans were able to find a way to rebel and assert their humanity again and again. I am reminded of a quote from James Baldwin: “To be a Negro man, one had to make oneself up as one went along. This had to be done in the not-at-all metaphorical teeth of the world’s determination to destroy us.” Indeed, the colonizers of Jamaica were out to destroy the bodies, souls, and minds of slaves. Their identity as humans was shattered under this oppressive regime, but slaves never resigned to this characterization. Black Jamaicans remade themselves as they went along, and they continuously turned to religion to do so. The history of asserting an autonomous Black Jamaican self seems to be inseparable from the history of defining religion on the island.
I deeply admire the strength and rebellion that I see in the Black Jamaicans history. Often, I wish that I could go back and time and change slavery. I really can’t believe that slavery is a part of my history, but it is. I am sorry, but I cannot stay sorry. Black Jamaicans ability to find and become a people of their own creation is a powerful characteristic. Their need for religion is amazing, and sometimes I wish that I wasn’t so doubtful of God and organized religion, because clearly it has large benefits and empowering agents. I am thankful to be exposed to the different black experiences across time and space thanks to my education at UVM. I have been exposed to lives of the oppressed from many different angles, and I am so pleased to be gaining a greater understanding of the ways in which the Black history is so very different from mine. I have very much enjoyed writing this term paper because, again, I am happily exposed to the dynamic legacy of history that I am inheriting.
by Elizabeth Nelson For Debate UVM