Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Noel Leo Erskine's "Plantation Church"

Noel Leo Erskine is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Candler School of Theology and the Laney Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Emory University. He has been a visiting Professor in ten schools in six countries. His books include King Among the Theologians and From Garvey to Marley.

Erskine applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Plantation Church: How African American Religion Was Born in Caribbean Slavery, and reported the following:
From page 99:
“Jamie Parker’s grandfather, and fellow slave Scipio, was put to death for attempting to teach Jamie to read and spell from the Bible.” …The truth is that the relationship of the master to the enslaved person was not just one of the powerful in relation to the powerless, but of one who made decisions in matters of life and death in relation to enslaved families…. In order to institutionalize plantation ethics and etiquette, many masters devised and developed ways to ensure that enslaved persons internalized their own inferiority in relation to their beliefs and the superiority of their masters…. “Whatever his name, ‘every man slave is called boy until he is very old, then the more respectable slave owners call him uncle. The women are girls until they are aged, then they are aunts.’”
Plantation Church underscores the plantation as the new reality that confronted Africa’s children who were brought as human cargo to the New World. In spite of the inhumanity of the master class to enslaved persons they were open to the new religion of their oppressors. This is one of the mysteries this book seeks to answer – how could Africa’s children who were brought across the Black Atlantic as property in the holds of ships, turn to the religion of their captors and enslavers? A part of the answer is they found ways to maintain the integrity of their religious beliefs while at the same time they were open to the new that the sociological and theological environment suggested.

The book argues that for the first two hundred years of slavery Plantation Church was not a Christian but an African church guided by an African priest/herbalist. The priest was guided and supported by the world of spirits, good and evil. It was African religion carried by enslaved persons from the African homeland that engendered their survival “a long ways from home”, -plantations in the Americas.

The marks of Plantation Church are the embrace of African world views informed by the question, “Where do I stand in relation to Africa?” Other marks of this church are an openness to embrace the new in history in the quest for survival and liberation. An acknowledgement that there are evil forces in the world and a need to be protected from evil through the aegis of ancestors and the ministry of medicine man/woman or priest. The plantation was often seen as site of evil where drumming, dancing and “redemption songs,” serve as instruments of survival and liberation. There was the recognition that in Plantation churches the spirit often takes over the bodies of believers. To be possessed by spirit would mean that one’s body becomes an altar and medium through which the spirit would work.

The Black religious experience was born south of the border, in the Caribbean, and not in the United States. The African presence began in the Caribbean as early as 1502, well over a hundred years before Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. This calls attention to the historical and political priority of the Black religious experience being born in the Caribbean and not in the United States. Central questions are – What does it mean to be church when people of African descent are the political and cultural majority, which is the case in the Caribbean. And the converse is true. What does it mean to be church when people of African descent are the political and cultural minority, which is the case in the United States.
Learn more about Plantation Church at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue