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The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Community

Praise house, South Carolina, 1995
- Slaves' religious practice, selections from WPA narratives, 1930s (PDF)
- Slaves' religious songs documented in the southern states, early 1863-64 (PDF)
- The "religion of the south" and slavery, selections from 19th-c. slave narratives (PDF)
- An enslaved Muslim, memoir of Omar ibn Said, 1831 (PDF)
- Origins of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Richard Allen memoir, 1833 (PDF)

Consider this section Part II of Plantation Community (the previous section in this Theme), because African Americans' spiritual beliefs and practices were a core element of the worlds they created for themselves within the strictures of the white man's plantation. "Blacks fortunate enough to be settled in sizable groups on contiguous plantations or farms," writes historian Colin A. Palmer, "could interact with one another and forge a common culture with core beliefs and assumptions. Such an environment enhanced the process of beoming black American while simultaneously fostering the retention of much of their Africanity."1

The question remains among scholars—how much of African spiritual belief and practice was retained in African American religious life? Probably less than among the enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and Latin America where there were more slaves per plantation than in the British Atlantic colonies, and more of those slaves were African-born. "Nevertheless," concludes historian Albert J. Raboteau, "even as the gods of Africa gave way to the God of Christianity, the African heritage of singing, dancing, spirit possession, and magic continued to influence Afro-American spirituals, ring shouts, and folk beliefs. That this was so is evidence of the slaves' ability not only to adapt to new context but to do so creatively."2 The narratives, interview excerpts, songs, and illustrations presented here represent this "creative adaptibility" in the religious practice of antebellum African Americans, enslaved and free.

  1. Slaves' religious practice. Again we begin with brief excerpts from the interviews of formerly enslaved African Americans compiled in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal agency under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Several questions concerning religious practice were suggested to the interviewers: Due to the nature of the questions, and because the interviewees were enslaved from the 1820s to 1865, their responses relate primarily to Christian practice (except when addressing the inquiry about voodoo). What responses appear in a majority of the excerpts? What patterns do you find?

  2. Slaves' religious songs. Soon after the end of the Civil War, a collection of 136 religious and secular songs of enslaved African Americans was published as Slave Songs of the United States, compiled primarily by three white northerners who had gone to the South Carolina sea islands in 1862-63 to work with recently freed African Americans. The collection includes songs documented by the three editors and others throughout the Confederate South. The six religious songs presented here emphasize the community bond enhanced among the enslaved by singing. Two were sung at "the breaking up of a [religious] meeting," two at gatherings for the dead, and two for expressing the desire for freedom (with coded words to hide their meaning from slave-holders).

  3. The "religion of the south" and slavery. Whether slavery was inconsistent with Christian practice was debated by white people, but African Americans uniformly deemed slavery a contradiction in a Christian nation, as we read in these narratives from Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Austin Steward, and William J. Anderson, published between 1857 and 1861. "There is a great difference between Christianity and religion at the south," writes Harriet Jacobs; Frederick Douglass calls it the "the widest, possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked."

  4. An enslaved Muslim. Perhaps ten percent of the enslaved Africans transported to the Americas were Muslim. Omar ibn Said was an educated Muslim born about 1770 in Futa Toro (modern Senegal), captured at age 37, and brought to South Carolina to be sold. Although he converted to Christianity, his pastor (and later scholars) conclude that he also maintained his Muslim faith throughout his life. His brief 1831 autobiography is presented here in full.

  5. Origins of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The events that impelled freemen in Philadelphia to create an independent black church in 1794 and later the first organized black denomination—the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1816—are described by founder Rev. Richard Allen in his narrative, published posthumously in 1833.
In addition to the discussion questions below, consider the questions in #2, Plantation Community, as you study the wide variety of African American religious practices before emancipation. (22 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What sources of strength and identity did African Americans, enslaved and free, achieve through their religious faith and practice?
  2. How did religious practice express worship of the divine? strivings for freedom? rejection of white authority? personal despair? communal strength?
  3. In the WPA narratives, what range of permitted and secret religious expression do you find? How did they differ?
  4. In the narratives, what slaveholders' actions (related to religious practice) are praised and condemned by the former slaves? Why do some former slaves praise what others condemn?
  5. How did Christianity, as packaged for the enslaved, encourage them to interpret their bondage?
  6. What communal bonds are emphasized in the six religious songs from Slave Songs of the United States? Were you familiar with these songs?
  7. Summarize the Christian, Muslim, and "voodoo" practices of enslaved African Americans in these readings.
  8. Together, what do they suggest about the communal expression of religious belief?
  9. What blending of faiths and practices do you find in these readings? How do the authors explain the blending to themselves and to others?
  10. What do the blendings suggest about the religious practice of any enslaved people?
  11. How did free blacks pursue religious independence in the northern states?
  12. How did they act on the conviction that slavery contradicted the ideals of a Christian nation?
  13. For what audiences did Frederick Douglass, Richard Allen, and Omar ibn Said write their narratives? How did they construct their messages for their chosen audiences?
  14. From Omar ibn Said's memoir, what do we learn about about Islam in antebellum America? about white southerners' attitudes toward Islam? about Omar ibn Said's religious identity?
  15. Why did Richard Allen argue that his new black church should remain Methodist and not affiliate with another Christian denomination? Among the other black Christians in this section, who would agree and disagree with him? Why?
  16. How did enslaved and free African Americans pursue religious practice on their terms, not the terms of white slaveholders or church officials? What risks did this present?
  17. How did white people respond to the variety of African American religious beliefs and practice? What accounts for the differences in their responses?
  18. Create dialogues in which these former slaves discuss their differing perspectives on these topics:

  19. Topic 19th-c. narratives    20th-c. narratives (WPA)
    Variety of religious practices Omar ibn Said and Robert Shepherd & William Adams
    Christianity of the enslaved Austin Steward and Anthony Dawson & Litt Young
    Christianity of slaveholders Frederick Douglass and Sarah Douglas & James Southall
    Christianity of slaveholders Harriet Jacobs and Millie Evans & Emma Tidwell

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslaved and free African Americans construct communal identities in antebellum America?
  •  What obstacles did they confront from white people? from other African Americans?
  •  How did they respond to these obstacles?
  •  How did African Americans exercise autonomy and influence through community?

Religious practices:  7  (WPA narratives)
Religious songs:  3  (Slave Songs of the United States, 1867)
"Religion of the South":  4  (19th-century slave narratives)
An enslaved Muslim:  4  (Omar ibn Said memoir)
A.M.E. Church:  4  (Richard Allen memoir)
TOTAL 22 pages
Supplemental Sites
African American Religion, history and teaching guidance, by Prof. Laurie Maff-Kipp, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; in Divining America (TeacherServe®), from the National Humanities Center This Far by Faith: African American Spiritual Journeys (WGBH/PBS)

Religion, primary texts and resources, in Slavery and the Making of America (WNET/PBS)

Hidden Objects: The Spiritual World of Slaves, in Slavery and the Making of America (WNET/PBS)

The Black Church, documents in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS)

Historians’ commentary on religion and slavery, in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS) Texts and Guides in Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library African Methodist Episcopal Church, historical overview, from Religious Movements, University of Virginia

Richard Allen, biography in Africans in America (WGBH/PBS)

Richard Allen and African American Identity, essay by Dr. James Henretta, in Archiving Early America

On slavery in a Christian nation, narrative excerpts, from American Experience (PBS) Islam in America: From African Slaves to Malcolm X, essay by Dr. Thomas Tweed, in Divining America: Religion in American History, National Humanities Center

Omar Ibn Sayyid, overview, timeline, and images from Sayyid's Bible, from Davidson College Library

Omar ibn Said, overview and Arabic writings, from the North Carolina Museum of History

"Owning Omar," The Boston Phoenix, 6 July 1998, on the discovery, sale, and renewed research of Omar ibn Said's original manuscript

WPA Slave Narratives, 1930s, full text in digital images, Library of Congress An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865

1 Colin A. Palmer, Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America, Vol. I: 1619-1863 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 2002), p. 158.

2 Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, updated ed., 2004), p. 92.

- Praise house reflecting Gullah traditions with origins in African culture, on the Mary Jenkins plantation, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, 1995. Rev. Henderson was the pastor of the praise house. Julia Cart Photography, South Carolina. Reproduced by permission of Julia Cart.
- Prayers (Muslim and Christian), written by Omar ibn Said (detail of page). Davidson College Library. Permission pending.
- Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, engraving, 1804. Library Company of Philadelphia. Permission pending.
- "Goodbye," music transcription (detail), in W. F. Allen, C. P. Ware, and L. M. Garrison, eds., Slave Songs of the United States, 1867. Courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. The Enslaved Family   2. Plantation Community   3. Religion   4. Petitions
  5. Mutual Benefit   6. The Black Press   7. Fugitives   8. Canada

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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