Rituals of Resistance, Links the Religious Practices Literature Review

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¶ … Rituals of Resistance, links the religious practices and theology of the Kongo region in West Central Africa to that of the slaveholding societies in the American South, particularly in the Sea Island region of Georgia and South Carolina, and particularly during the era of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This African Atlantic religious complex, shaped by the imperatives of the oppressive societies in which they lived and by the machinations of daily living, not only reproduced certain of their traditional western forms of religious rituals, but also demonstrated flexibility and change, and Young's thesis intends to illustrate that many of these religious modifications were shaped and structured by the slave trading practices of the American South.

Many of these religious rituals of the Kongo passed on to and shared by their relatives who were working on the plantations in the American South served as potent counter narratives to the brutalities of their daily life. Whilst the white slaveholders attacked the body, scarring it, violating it, offending it in countless ways, the African-Atlantic religious rituals focused on divinity, dance, and song as a way to transcend their brutal existence. Ritual and rites became a means of addressing their pains and oppressions, and so the Negro body became, on the one hand, the site of brutality and oppression and, on the other, an instrument of resistance.

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More so, Young goes on to show how the slave's resistance was also an attack against modernity itself. Increasing rationalism saw people in terms of objects -- as instruments to be used, just as the slaveholders imaged their slaves as 'bodies'. The slaves rebelled against that visualization too. Rather than bodies, they turned their plight into spiritual acts of resistance and, in this way, their action was an attack not only on the institution of slavery but also on the institution of modernity.

Literature Review on Rituals of Resistance, Links the Religious Practices Assignment

In essence, therefore, Young's objective is to demonstrate how the Negroes used their oppressed bodies as vehicles of resistance in religious rituals that were shaped by their oppression, and how their religion both shaped and was shaped by their misfortunes, ultimately transcending that and transcending the practitioner in turn by becoming an instrument of resilience.

Young's dissertation shows how the colored people used aesthetics, narrative, and religious rituals as instruments to transform their sufferings. They wove their sufferings into these instruments, which then served, in turn, to sublimate them. An example of this is shown in Chapter 4.

The purpose of Chapter 4 is to show how through the expressive arts the black community both in the Kongo and in the American South used folkloric records of flight and sacred movement as a vehicle with which to incorporate description of their transmigration to and from the American South. The motif of flight also serves as resistance. Here, the African slaves could sprout wings and fly off to heaven -- or to Africa, or, via flight, they could surmount their suffering in various ways.

The Methodologies and Approach used by this Dissertation

In presenting his thesis, the author relies on a wide variety of primary source material -- mainly qualitative and historical reports. Young, for instance, utilizes seventeenth and eighteenth century reports of Italian and Portuguese missionaries; he uses contemporary archeological material discovered in the Kongo and the slave south; ethnographic and anthropological reports; folk literature; and slave narratives, as well as the visual art.

In other words this dissertation is an interdisciplinary approach that is based on African primary source material but goes beyond that. It uses history, cultural studies, anthropology, literature and art history. Chapter 4 uses folkloric records of flight and sacred movement as a vehicle with which to incorporate description of their transmigration in flight to and from the American South. Depiction of this theme is usually -- but not exclusively -- found in the slave spirituals and in folkloric myths such as about Brer Rabbit, as well as in stories about witches who served to brutalize the slaveholders (their oppressors) in kind. Narratives of this kind were common not only in the Kongo region, but particularly along Georgia. Natural life, such as owls and buzzards, too partook in these narratives since they served as representations of the integration of flight with demise.

The project also uses various methodologies. By analyzing change over time, the project utilizes a historically grounded methodology; by clearly investigating the material culture of slaves, an anthropological approach is used, and by analyzing slave autobiography and the use of slave folktales, the literary approach is relied on. In essence, therefore, methodologies and subjects traverse various realms. Far from confining himself to one subject, the author is interdisciplinary in approach and employs various methods to investigate his subject.

Themes in the Dissertation

The author's main points are triple in content:

Firstly that the Africans in the Kongo regions of West-central Africa shaped a religion that served to convert their suffering into a narrative of meaning.

Secondly that the slaves sublimated their brutalized bodies into vehicles of spiritual transcendence.

And thirdly, that these slaves refused to allow themselves and their progeny who were enslaved in the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina to become reified objects. They rebelled against the rationalism of modernity by turning their pain into spirituality and transcendence.

Several other side themes inform this essay: one is the striking association between these religious rituals and the oppression and brutality endured by them. Secondly, is the fact about how their religious rites were modified and adapted by the historical dynamics of slavery and the slave trade, and thirdly how the slave body was resocialized from being a passive instrument of pain into being an active instrument of glory.

Young, himself, sees Rituals of Resistance as being a study of " both cultural recuperation, as captive Africans drew on a wellspring of memory and experience of an African past" (26) presumably through their religious rituals, and, secondly of representing "cultural generation as slaves in the New World mediated their differences into viable slave communities in the New World." (Ibid.) Their religious rituals served as the instrument for uniting both. Running throughout the thesis and uniting all these points is the strand of resistance: how African-Americans were able to transcend their suffering into one glorious act of resistance.

After running through instances of aesthetics, folk tales, ballads, rituals of death and folkloric records and myths, Rituals of Resistance concludes with the author's observation that the religious rituals practiced by the Kongo region of West Central Africa served as a way of uniting them with their progenies, relatives, and friends who were enslaved on various New World plantation communities particularly in the American south. Simultaneously it shows how their rituals were effected and modified by the various circumstances that they encountered, for instance by the prior exposure that some slaves in the Kongo had to Christianity due to their exposure to Christian missionaries. This in turn not only affected their rituals but also shaped their rituals into instruments of resilience.

Young (2002) shows how traditional rituals, such as the minski complex in the Kongo existed with similarities in the American South. The brutal circumstances of these slaves in the American South not only relied on these rituals as prop, but also revitalized them and elaborated on them in creative and innovative ways. In this way, the slaves took the spirit of the very same practices that sought to denigrate them and injected it into traditional rituals in a way that uplifted them and gave them meaning with which to transcend their suffering.

The specter of death was central to the slave theme and to slave trade. Associations, too, existed between the Kongo and the American South on ritual matters that dealt with notions of the body, spirit, and the motion of the soul from this world to the next.

The direction of influence was not one-way only i.e., from the Kongo to the American South. Many of the slaves returned to their homeland bringing their revitalized rituals back with them and so, in a reciprocal and regenerative cycle of influence, the Kenya was affected by the new spirited African faith, as were their associates in the American south influenced by their earlier rituals which they had modified and utilized as vehicles of renascence.

Chapter 4: 'All God's children had wings.." Just as Africans were taken captive to America, so did some escape and return to their homeland. Slaves back on the plantations crafted myths around these 'disappearing Africans' which incorporated themes such as that they had wings and could fly. The flight motif, argues Young, is seen throughout the West-central African mythology.

This flight motif was used by the slaves in various ways as means to sublimate their oppression: it could be used as an imaginary way of escaping the lash, or gaining a temporary reprieve from plantation work, or fashioned in the form of a witch who would assault their oppressors. Flight -- and particularly flight to Africa -- thus served as a motif… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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