The Sacred Fire, by B.Z. Goldberg, , at sacred-texts.com
Still groping in his dark way
HE, too, the African black man, belongs in the House of the Lord. To be sure, he did not come there of his own accord. His own gods had been stolen from him along with his freedom, and the new faith was thrust upon him as another yoke of servitude. True, too, he still is not quite at home with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is yet groping in his own dark way for a god not his own. But there he is, many millions of him, "standing in the need of prayer" and "wanting to be a Christian in his heart," feeling that "a little talk with Jesus makes it right." For all the ghosts of his ancestors in the bush, he visions Father Abraham "sittin’ down side ob de Holy Lamb." For all the tom-tom music he was wont to hear, he prays to Peter "to ring dem Bells." And for all the fears of his primitive soul, he trembles at the thought that they crucified his Lord Jesus and he, Jesus, "never said a mumblin’ word."
Had the black man remained upon his native soil, his heart would still beat for another god. He might now be worshipping Onyame, the Shining One, god of sunshine, or his children, in the form of rivers, hills and woods, or the abasomes, the many lesser gods Onyame had instituted upon
earth. Once Onyame was himself god to humans, kind and close at hand. But he was too near. In the shape of the sky he lay so close upon the earth that he interfered with a woman preparing to cook. Pounding her yams, she continually hit him with the pestle. This was more than Onyame would stand from humans, especially from a woman. For here was not only injury but insult too. Onyame knew only too well what the pestle signifies to humankind, and any god would resent such reflection upon his virility. So he withdrew to the heavens above, keeping aloof from humans and leaving the rule of the universe to his progeny and the lesser gods.
Again, the black man might be kneeling before Legba, male or female, whose image was to be found on almost every house. Legba, the male, was powerfully built, with a knotted club in his hand, the symbol of his creative force. Legba, the female, with more sexuality than feminine charm, was impressive in her strong and massive figure.
Onyame was in heaven; Legba upon earth. Onyame was accessible only through an intermediary; Legba might actually be embraced. But both were gods, great and true. They brought joy and happiness to the fearing hearts of black men and women. Their gods were in their own image, and they served them as they would serve themselves. Whatever the sacrifice to the god, beast or fruit or corn, it always ended in a feast of dance and song. And the song of songs is ever the song of love. It was love, boundless, physical, free and open that raised the soul of the black man to the throne of the Shining One in the heavens above.
But soon hard times were coming for the black man. Prince Henry of Portugal took back to Africa some Moors
he had captured in Spain. There, he received in return black men and gold dust. And while these bartered souls lived and multiplied in Seville, the Portuguese discovered the formula of turning them into virtual gold dust. A Genoese called Columbus had wanted to exchange five hundred Indians for live stock. Why should not a Portuguese exchange Negroes for ducats? So they shipped the black men to Haiti and sold them for slaves. And the first entry was made on the blackest page in the history of the white man.
While Isabella hesitated to permit the barter of red men for oxen, and Charles feared the fires of hell for permitting the sale of black men, a blessed bishop of the church came to ease the troubled Christian conscience. He was the accommodating Bishop of Chiapa, who returned to Spain from Haiti in 1517, recommending that each Spanish resident should have a license to import a dozen Negro slaves. Soon the concession to import four thousand negroes annually in Haiti sold for 25,000 ducats. Thus another lesson was learned by the cultured people of Europe: black men could be turned not only into gold dust but even into veritable nuggets. And a new business came into being—the traffic in slaves.
Ships commanded by silk-stockings and noblemen stopped in the lagoons along the west coast of Africa. Strong, cruel men landed upon the shore. They marched stealthily upon the peaceful population, setting ablaze whole villages by night and capturing those who would escape death in the flames. Those who were caught were kept in the hold of the ship until it was filled. Then the vessel proudly sailed on to civilized climes.
It was no easy task to catch the African black men in
the bush. It was much more difficult to deliver them in good condition. Many died before the ship set sail; larger numbers perished during the voyage. Less than half of those caught in the bush ever reached the auction block. But Africa is a large continent and many are her sons. There was no need of conserving black flesh and blood. There may have been a lot of waste, but gold was sure to follow, for the demand was ever growing. When George Washington retired from the presidency, his little state of Virginia alone had more than two hundred thousand slaves.
In the millions they were caught along the coast of Africa, these happy, care-free black men. In the hundreds of thousands they were brought into the Americas to build new worlds for the master of civilization and the humble servant of God—the white-skinned man. Indiscriminately were they caught, but even more so were they handled, bought, sold, and colonized.
And during all their long journeys, these black men packed together in the holds of the slave ships, were nevertheless alone and isolated. For there are countless numbers of dialects among the natives of Africa, and seldom could one slave speak to another save in the few words of English or Spanish they both had come to learn. And isolated as well were they in their religion. Various were the forms of the black man's gods. The Onyame of one slave was quite different from the Onyame of another; and one Legba would hardly recognize his fellow god. In transit, the African lost his tongue and his god and his love. For the males that were caught far outnumbered the females. There were thirty thousand more men than women slaves in Jamaica alone. And the beautiful young females, black though they were, were first reserved for the white master.
There they were, on the plantations of a strange world, these black men, mute and saddened, longing for home and god, both of which were gradually to fade from their memory. No one ever cared to know what was coursing through their minds as they toiled away, from early morn to sundown, picking the snowy cotton. But minds, even black minds, are bent on thinking, and hearts ever long and yearn. Having no language in which to express the workings of his mind, the Negro took to singing. And, where the song failed, the dance came to offer relief.
In the back yards of the plantations, off the fields of cotton, these black men lived, torn away from their own gods, yet not without some unconscious endeavor to fill the vacant places. As black night descended, great fear overwhelmed their empty souls. It was an accumulation of fears: the fear of the primitive man in the bush, the fear of the man caught in the fire and thrown in chains into the hold of a ship, the fear of pain and death that might come at any moment if the master be in an angry mood. Not having the Lord for a shepherd, the black man had ample reason to fear, and he had nothing to offset his troubles but the little bits of magic that clung to his memory and grew like a seed in his imagination. And it was upon these bits of magic that he built up the Voodoo worship so common among the black people.
But longing held a larger place than fear in the heart of the black man. He pined for the land of Onyame and the hut of Legba. In contrast to the severe life and unhappy existence in the West, his African past seemed like one glorious Paradise, out of which he had been driven by the lash of the slave trader. If the Christian still hopes
for the millennium and the Jew for the return to Jerusalem, after these many centuries, it is not strange that the
Click to enlarge
A Negro god
longing for Africa has been a force in the life of the Negro, a force not altogether lacking in this very day. The Negro
slave may have been little conscious of it, but the inner stirring of his heart in the universal desire for spiritual freedom and communion with God, expressed itself in his mute longing for a past he could only vaguely remember and a land he knew only from the stories of the old people. The black heart in the white man's home sought communion with the mass of brother blacks under Africa's burning sun.
Along with this hazy, unconscious racial longing, there was yet another pining for love that was never satisfied. Great was the black man's capacity for loving and, in Africa, ample were the opportunities for indulging in it. Here, in the cotton fields, the heart of the Negro was hungry for love—pure physical love as well as romance, sentiment, and attachment to an individual, all of which became the more necessary in his harsh and unfriendly environment. The African black man was love-starved on American soil. He had no black god to offer him relief or to provide him with an outlet for his suppressed emotions; nor was there a white god to take the place of Onyame and Legba in his lonely heart.
Great as was the need for religion among the Negroes, the master long hesitated to introduce the black soul to his white God. Would this woolly slave become a brother in Christ? How could one keep a brother in abject slavery? It was true that Abraham held slaves as did many another Biblical character. Therefore, it was perfectly legitimate for a white man in America, some three thousand years later, to keep them as well. But the slaves of Abraham were heathens. A believer could not hold another believer
in bondage. Of course, the Christian faith must be spread and all mankind brought under the wings of the church, but not at the expense of the plantation. The kingdom of heaven must come as soon as possible, but not before the tobacco had been raised and the cotton picked. In the meantime, the Negro must be kept out of the House of the Lord, lest he turn Christian and gain his freedom.
But there are great theologians in every generation who know how to apply religion to all necessities of life, however godless. Doctors of the church discovered that wonderful synthesis of doing their bit by the faith and yet keeping the cotton fields blooming. It was the simple idea that baptism does not free slaves. True, all were brothers in Christ, but some were white and others black, and the black ones were to serve their white brothers in a brotherly way. A Christian could be a slaveholder; he could also be a slave.
So it was that slavery entered the church and the slave followed the master to the very altar of Christ. But it was not to the very same altar. Master and slave could not properly appear together before the Lord. One must humble himself before God, and the white man could not humble himself in the presence of his slaves. Besides, the Negro slave required a religion somewhat different from that of the master. If the African black man was to enter the House of the Lord, he was to do so through a separate door and, once inside, he was to remain in a corner by himself.
Four years after the Pilgrims landed on the rock of Plymouth, a Negro child was baptized and given the glorious name of William. It was the first black soul to enter the white man's heaven. Almost a century later, North
[paragraph continues] Carolina passed a law forbidding Negro churches. And the black man had a longer struggle for admission to heaven than for freedom upon earth. The founder of the Quakers went about the country, impressing upon the minds of his followers their Christian duty of converting the slaves. That was about the middle of the seventeenth century. The first year of the eighteenth saw the incorporation of the Moravians, a society to aid the religious institution of the established Church of England, in America. This society was the first to formally dedicate itself to converting the Negroes along with the Indians. In New York City, it had on its roll fifteen hundred Negro and Indian slaves. There were many individual attempts to spread Christianity among the black people, but only too often they were wrecked on the rocks of slavery, or ruined by the fears of the slaveholder for his property.
The colonists themselves did not raise a finger to spread the Christian religion among the black men. All such endeavors came from without. It remained for the Baptists, a group of people that, as a rule, kept no slaves and could, therefore, be hostile to slavery, to start the Negro well on the way to Christ. They trained Negro preachers for Negro communities before the American Revolution, and the very year of the war saw the first formal organization of Negro Christians. The first Negro church was Baptist.
There was an additional reason why the Baptist church came to gain a foothold among the Negroes. It was not only the first and real friend of the black man, but it was also nearer to his understanding. The Episcopal church could not keep the Negro flock sitting passively observing its elaborate ritual; nor was the primitive mind of the colored worshipper affected by its prayers and devotions.
[paragraph continues] Once the Negro came into the church he wanted to do something there. His religion must be ever active, never passive. The Baptist, like the Methodist, gave the black man free play in his worship. Their exercises were spontaneous, their preaching evangelical. A black man could move and shout when he got religion. He could give up all control of himself when he felt the presence of his God. It was like going back to the old gods, Onyame and Legba.
Not until after the Civil War, however, did the masses of blacks come into the fold of the church. Today, there are probably some fifty thousands of church organizations among the African exiles in America, and almost as many religious edifices, with a membership of four and a half to five million people. The black man came to his own in the Christian church, but he gave Christianity his own individual turn. The church little changed the character of the Negro, but the latter modified the nature of church. In his new religion, his old yearnings and longings found a means of expression. But the smoldering fires of love, of freedom, and of the joy of living, bursting forth in flame once more took on a melancholy, saddened aspect.
To the Jew, the synagogue is a house of prayer and worship for all people. To the white Christian, the church is a place of communion with God. To the Negro, it is the very core of his social organization. Jew and Christian have developed a secular social life, apart from synagogue or church. The Negro's social life is still almost entirely within the house of worship. This fact explains the enormous church membership among the blacks in proportion to that of the whites. It also explains to a considerable extent
the appearance of numerous small congregations and religious communities that rise up like mushrooms after the rain. The church is the club of the black man, the modern form of the tribal meeting in Africa. Like the tribal meeting, it deals with matters, religious, social, economic. Like those meetings, too, it offers the emotional outlet for feeling pent-up in the ordinary affairs of life.
The office of the minister is another hang-over from African times. In the bush, the religious leader was also the medicine man, the magician, the feared leader, and the social lion. The dispenser of the faith still occupies the most exalted position in the Negro religious life. No one is properly introduced unless he comes through the minister. No cause will be aided without his endorsement and approval. It is the minister who advises the ignorant, who comforts the sorrowful, who aids the unfortunate. He is the walking encyclopedia, the fountain of all knowledge concerning both the natural and the supernatural. He is still the master of magic and witchcraft disguised under different names.
But even more characteristically African is the theology of the Negro church. Formally, there is no theological difference between black and white churches of the same denomination. A Methodist is a Methodist, whether white or colored. But it is not the written creed in the book that really matters in a religion, but what is accepted by the people. Not theoretical theology, but living theology counts. And the living theology of the Christian black man is quite distinct from that which was laid down by the fathers of the church.
The black man is little concerned with the virgin birth of Christ. To him this all-important dogma means little
indeed. He knows he is to believe that Christ came into the world by the Holy Ghost, and he tries his utmost to believe it. But the matter does not interest him. Virginity is no ideal of the black people. To this day, the cousins of our Negroes on the West Coast of Africa trace the hereditary line through the females because "one always knows who the mother is, but who knows who the father may be?" The black people did not pass through the stage of chivalry and the pains of spiritual love. Their natural instincts were not held in abeyance by the false ideals of chastity and celibacy.
Similarly, the idea of sin as a spot upon the soul that calls for absolution, forgiveness, or redemption, is still foreign to the mind of the Negro. The notion of sin is the product of an over-sensitive civilization. It is the snake developing in the crack of the personality, encouraged by inner conflict. The conflict is between man's ideal behavior and his actual behavior, the discrepancy between one's ethics and his instincts. In the personality of the Negro, no such crack has as yet occurred. His ethics arc, of course, superior to his instincts and superimposed upon them, but still the difference between the two is slight. At least there is no developed sense of guilt or original sin. The black man of Africa is still living in sunlight for the joy of existence. He cannot conceive of this life as a corridor of misery leading into a greater world.
To the man with a weak sense of sin, Christ's mission to save mankind from its sins is necessarily of little significance. The crucifixion of Christ by Pontius Pilate could not shock the slave who himself was being crucified almost continually by mere individuals. What impresses the black man most in the story of the Passion is that
[paragraph continues] Christ never complained, "he never said a mumblin’ word." The description of the crucifixion in the spirituals could just as well refer to a lynching. In comparison with the spirituals that refer to Old Testament incidents and persons, and in proportion to the place Jesus occupies in the church, there are mighty few religious songs in his honor. Where there is a groping toward the notion of Jesus as a savior, the actual sentiment is lacking. Were a white man singing "Steal Away to Jesus," he would put boundless emotion into the song. But as the Negro sings the spiritual, he might just as well be stealing away from the plantation to some kind friend across the Ohio.
Neither can the Negro appreciate the Christian ideas of the Trinity and the Virgin Mary. They are divine characters that the black man knows formally, having been introduced to them by the minister. He may hold them in the greatest awe and admiration, but he does not spiritually experience them. They are not his own. He has no joys nor sorrows in common with them to bind them closer to him. It is for this reason that God is commonly addressed as "Lord" by the black people. The word is impersonal; it may refer to any divine being, to any universal father. Lord is the maker of the universe and the ruler over man. He may be conceived in the latter's own image. He may even be a spiritualized Onyame or Legba. The God of the black Christians is what a god should be—a mere form for spiritual content, the container of the divine. The actual spiritual content, the divine essence, must be supplied by the believer himself.
On the other hand, the Negro gave to the Christian faith meanings and values that are missing in the religion of the white man. One is the fear of death. A Christian should
not fear life's end. To him it is only a crossing from the foyer into the parlor. Death is the embrace of God, and who would disdain a divine embrace? But the black man is afraid of death. So is every primitive man. Death is the greatest mystery, more incomprehensible than the dreadful ghosts in the dark of the bush. The black man was full of fear in the wilds of Africa. He is still afraid on the plantations of the South. Most of his religious outcries, as expressed in his spirituals, deal with death and his fear of it. He conceives it as the crossing of a river, the descent into inferior regions, or flight through the clouds—always, however, in fear and troubled spirit.
And the black man wants to die easy when he dies. True, the Christian in him comes to the fore. He wants to see Jesus near him, but he also wants to see his mother. In other words, he wishes to be among his own people when that terrible moment comes. Even when he refers to the "comin' of the Savior," he speaks in terms of farewell.
To the black man, death is like another descent to the dark hold of the slave ship, but all the more horrible because of the fires of hell. The Lord said, "He's gwinter rain down fire, dere's no hidin’ place down dere." The negro is even afraid of little Mary. "Oh, touch me not, little Mary, good Lord, I'm gwine home." He is ever worried about
where he may be "when de first trumpet soun’." He is forever asking his fellow men what they are "gwine to do when yo’ lamp burn down." He is hidden in the shadow of the rocks and mountains that are forever falling upon him. In short, if Jesus does not help him, he "sho’ly will die." And not much can be done for his troubled mind. He is conscious of his Christian inadequacy. He "done done" what God told him to do. God told him to pray, and he "done pray." God told him to sing, and he "done done" that, too. Yet the result is far from satisfactory. Neither he nor the church has gotten out of it what they could.
[paragraph continues] But no matter what he does, the church keeps on grumbling; and although he is "gwine cling to de ship o’ Zion," the black man cannot be so happy about it. For he, too, has reason to be "a-grumblin’," and he would have been doing so had he dared. His faith leaves him cold, as he leaves the church. For here is another value that the Negro Christian greatly emphasized, if he did not actually introduce it into the worship of the church—the sentimental longing.
Spending the evenings in the cabin on the plantation, the heart of the black man was eaten away by longing. It was the vague, indefinite feeling that often comes over the adolescent youth, making him wish to cry out of the fullness of his heart, although he hardly knows why. In the case of the Negro, there was not one but a whole series of longings that consciously or subconsciously made his heart heavy. There was his yearning for the land
of his fathers of which little was actually remembered but much was related. Seeking to console himself in his present plight, he gloried in the past. In his imagination, he reconstructed the grandeur of Africa as he sought to escape from the humiliations into which he had been thrown in America. What the coming of the Messiah was to the Jew and the kingdom of heaven to the Christian, the land of Africa was to the black man picking cotton in the South.
There was the longing for the tribal gods not completely forgotten yet not consciously retained; the longing for a god that was of the church yet not of it; a god that combined in his being both Jehovah and Onyame, Mary and Legba, Voodooism and Christianity. There was also the longing for the mate, the pang of love unsatisfied, love that once was free and full and that, combined with religion, brought the greatest joy of exaltation and ecstasy. Here he was wifeless, at the mercy of the master, who picked a woman for him without any consideration as to his liking. With her he was to live in strict adherence to the rules that white people had evolved—laws that the master himself honored more in their breach than in their observance.
These channels of longing merged in one great stream that assumed a religious form. Longing for God or Jesus or some vague heavenly state is the only outlet for the great stirrings within the heart of the black man. Sometimes he sings, "I feel like a motherless child, a long ways from home, true believer, a long ways from home." Then he recalls his religion and adds: "Sometimes I feel like I’m almos’ gone, way up in the heab’nly lan’." The two are really one. He is no more elated over the "heab’nly lan’" than he is over being a long way from home. He is not
only far from home, but friendless and lonely: "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, nobody knows but Jesus, nobody but Jesus." And Jesus does not seem to do anything about it. Nor does he feel that he can appeal to Jesus for help. For, after all, Jesus is also a stranger. At best, he is the keeper of the heavenly door and he does not worry himself over the sinner that may arrive a bit too late:
When the black man makes his appeal, he turns to the Lord himself. His cry is for deliverance, for removal from this environment. But this very same appeal carries within it the element of love. The antithesis of life here below, on foreign land, is not only "heab’n," but "heab’nly love" as well. The soul of the Negro is pining away, and he calls to God:
The black man of Africa may have accepted an entirely spiritual God but he could not live up to an entirely spiritual religion. Not for him was the dream of Nirvana, of peaceful contemplation and of passive union with the Divine Being. His faith was to be not only spiritual and emotional, but motor as well. He was to serve his God
not only with his heart and soul, but also, and primarily, with his muscles. In religious exercises, the Negro's muscles are so strained and contracted that one may almost hear the rattling of his bones. There is rhythmic movement in his feet upon the floor of the church. He waves his hands and outstretches his arms, tossing about his head and rolling his eyes. The services are continually interrupted by groans and shouts, or an occasional "falling out" as some member faints away when the Holy Ghost descends upon him.
Entire congregations join in dances that are not much different from those of the Indians or the Africans about their fires in forest or bush. One such dance is practiced by the members of the Zion Baptist Church in Florida. It is executed at the close of the communion service in the immediate center of the church. The leader stands in front of the pulpit and motions to the worshippers. They rise and form a circle about him and the pulpit, marching around in single file. Falling into regular step, the tempo of which is quickened, the dancers gesticulate and shout: "Rock, Daniel, rock, Daniel, rock, Daniel, rock, Daniel, till I die." They dance, not until they die, but until they fall into a swoon of rapture and ecstasy.
In Alabama, the faithful find even greater exaltation in the Roper dance. Here, too, they march about a central figure that claps his hands and shouts vociferously until he falls into a trance of ecstasy. This is a signal for the entire congregation to join in embraces between the opposite sexes, with all the force of maddened passion. The dance is commenced at the close of the services and continues indefinitely. Couple after couple gradually break away, some going into the dark corners of the church,
others to the corridors, there to give themselves to one another in the frenzy of sexual and religious passion. For once, Legba of the West Coast of Africa has triumphed over Mary and her Son in Alabama of America.
Many dances are engaged in by the entire congregation at every service. Others are executed only on certain festive occasions. But the motor element in religion is ever to the front in the Negro's worship, and still the soul of the black man is ever yearning for greater freedom and larger outlets. The groan and the shout and the dance are only the minor outpourings, like the thin vapors coming forth from the crater of the volcano. They are but slightly indicative of the enormous forces operating within. The eruption of the religious Vesuvius takes place in the camp meeting or revival. The revival is the elixir of black Christianity, coming periodically to wash away the dust from Negro souls and to bring re-birth in faith.
The great masses of black men entered the faith of the cross by way of the revivals and camp meetings held by several Protestant denominations a little over a century ago. There, Christ was crucified anew for thousands of black listeners so that they might attach their souls to his bleeding limbs. There, hell with its blazing fires and devilish tortures was vividly pictured. There, black souls found the glory of conversion and of communion with God—the merging of one's soul in love with the All-soul of the universe. And ever since, the revival has been the dream of the black devout, his oasis in the desert of the white man's faith.
Theodore Schroeder, with the great psychological insight that is so characteristic of his studies in religion, offers us a complete description of a Negro revival meeting. The
service opened at eight in the evening and lasted until midnight. The pastor began with some humorous remarks about common-place things, bringing his audience to laughter and thereby establishing a personal contact. He was no longer for them a man of God, cold and distant, but a neighbor, a friend and good fellow. Then, turning to religious topics, he elaborated upon the evils of sin and the tortures of hell. And as he did so, the laughter of the audience changed to groans, sighs, and humming, accompanied by rhythmic tapping of the feet, movements of the heads and clapping of the hands. The pastor himself was growing ever more excited. He jumped and shouted, threatened and exhorted. Here, he was rising to the angels; there, he was sinking into the fires of hell. Suddenly, he lapsed into a sing-song, monotonous intonation, his words hardly audible, certainly unintelligible. He seemed to be in tune with his worshippers. His fire was gone, his spasmodic exclamations diminished. He felt the approach of a kindly spirit, drawing ever closer and closer in perfect embrace.
It was just at this moment that the greatest excitation occurred among the worshippers. Wild shrieks broke in upon the rambling intonations of the pastor. Many jumped high from the floor; some leaped upon chairs and wildly waved their arms through the air. Others sat on the laps of their neighbors in rapturous phantasy. Pandemonium reigned. The Holy Ghost was busy.
While the pastor carried on in his silent, trembling way, others sought to take care of those who were "possessed of the Holy Ghost." One male attendant grabbed the arms of a young woman, who twisted back and forth convulsively. He pulled her arms straight. She yielded to his greater strength and dropped her head upon his chest,
resting quietly in his embrace. Another young man came and sought to open her clenched fist, but he was unable to do so. The two joined in an attempt to seat her, but her body refused to bend. She was carried from the room as rigid as a board.
There was another young woman, who began to gesticulate, slowly at first and then violently. Her movements were accompanied by song that turned into convulsive shrieks. Losing all control of her bodily muscles, she staggered about, extending her arms as if she were trying to embrace someone. Then she collapsed entirely. And as she did, a mulatto girl suddenly shrieked and jumped into a place in front of her, as if driven by an overwhelming explosion. Her body was twisting, every muscle in violent motion. Her breathing was spasmodic, loud, uncertain. In the ecstasy of religion, she, too, was ready to collapse when caught by two men, who supported her writhing body. And as they held her, her pelvis moved most vigorously backward and forward. Women came to assist the men in sustaining her sinking body. All the while, she twisted and wriggled as if to compel a release of the men's hold upon her arms. Gradually her body stiffened and grew rigid. Then she seemed to relax; the Holy Spirit was leaving her.
In all these cases, the intense emotion of the religious enthusiast is inseparably associated with the emotional outbursts that accompany a love experience. The black man, longing for love and companionship, found an outlet for his desires in the religion of the camp meeting. There, piety and love mingled in the flame of passion. And the negro opened his heart as he had done when he was happy and care-free in the African bush.
Great was the relief that the religious awakenings brought to the soul of the black man, but long were the intervals between. By its very nature, the revival is temporary, an occasional affair, a mere flash of light in a long, black night. Once it was over the Negro again found himself alone in the desert of his religion. And to get away from this isolation, he addressed himself to the strange faith of the white man in an attempt to make it his own. This endeavor resulted in Voodoo, a hasty, crude synthesis of African paganism and European Christianity. Here was the true communion of a black soul with a white God.
The Lord of the whites was a jealous God. He would have no other gods before Him. But the magic wand of Voodoo easily wiped away this divine jealousy. Both gods and God are being worshipped in Voodoo in perfect harmony. In fact, the black man appeals to the kind Virgin to intercede for him with his African gods of terror. These gods demand human sacrifices from him, and the Son of the Virgin forbids the taking of human life. Will not his Holy Mother take the matter up with the gods so that they may be satisfied with animal sacrifices instead?
The Virgin Mother must share her throne with Legba, the guardian of the gates, equally benevolent to all in need of solace and particularly close to the heart of the black people. The Holy Ghost has an additional function in the religion of Voodoo. His duty it is to pick up the soul of the black man and carry it back to Africa, where the sun rises, the ultimate abode of all and the place of true life. While the soul is thus carried away by the Holy Ghost, its owner falls into a state of ecstasy. And so, wherever a
black man may be, once he is in a trance, his soul goes back to Africa, the land for which he ever yearns. The God of the Christians must not disdain to have as his associate Legba the male, the black Priapus. He will find still other gods sharing the black man's worship with Him. Among these is Papa Nebo, who is both male and female, usually represented by a tall woman, wearing the skirt of her sex
Click to enlarge
The Virgin shares her altar with Legba
and the coat and silk hat of a man. He symbolizes the union of both sexes in one individual.
Both God and gods are worshipped on the same altar with the same offerings of flowers and cakes, corn and animal meat. And amidst the sacred offerings, there are always objects dear to other gods in other climes. Serpents in wood and metal are there to represent the great god, Damballa. The sacred bull, too, holds a place of honor
before the altar, while all about the place are figures of triangles and columns, so common in the temples dedicated to the generative divinities. Along with the pagan symbols there are always found a crucifix, a black statue of the Virgin, and a cross often painted like a totem pole.
Various are the forms of Voodoo ceremony. They differ according to the locality and the mode of living among the worshippers. In backward, agricultural countries, a goat may be sacrificed to take the place of a man-offering, just as the lamb was substituted for Isaac in Abraham's sacrifice. The blood streaming from the goat symbolizes the mystery of death and the purification of the soul. Poured upon the earth, it is believed to bring the blessing of fertilization. In such animal sacrifices, an egg is often used to represent rebirth. It is broken by the priestess who prays: "Legba, Papa Legba, open wide the gates for this, my little one!"
Again, Voodoo may be limited to the practice of magic and the use of charms and talismans. This is especially true in certain parts of the West Indies. W. B. Seabrook, in The Magic Island, describes a Voodoo love charm: "Two needles of equal length are stood upright, side by side, baptized with suitable incantations, and are given the names of the youth and his unwilling girl. . . . The needles are then left side by side, parallel but reversed, so that the point of each presses against the eye of the other. The point is symbolic of the phallus and the eye symbolic of the vulva. The reverse doubling simply increases the potency of the charm. . . ."
Crude and incongruous does Voodoo seem to us today. We have little respect and much less sympathy for it. Yet its ceremonies are merely the infantile steps of the black man in the House of the Lord. The white man has had
his Voodoo. When the European heathen was suddenly thrown into the House of the Lord, he, too, could not entirely forget his own gods and modes of worship. Then, too, a synthesis was attempted, an adjustment and compromise between the rival faiths. And this synthesis was no less crude, possibly, in the early centuries of Christianity
Click to enlarge
The Christian God worshipped in Voodoo fashion
than Voodoo is today. It took many centuries to smelt down the various components into a harmonious unit. It required a still longer time to refine the product of this synthetic process. The fathers of the church complained of strange practices in the church of the early centuries, much as men of religion complain of Voodoo today.
Were Voodoo left alone, it might in time develop into a
new faith upon a Christian foundation. It might become a great and worthy addition to man's cultural heritage. However, this esthetic evolution may hardly be expected. Voodoo will be given neither time nor opportunity to grow and develop and refine itself as it climbs the steps of progress. When white Voodoo was in existence, it was not at all out of tune with its time. In fact, it was the new Hebraic faith that was novel and out of keeping with the
Click to enlarge
Images of the Voodoo gods
social customs of the day. Nor did white Voodoo have an older brother to teach it right thinking and proper manners. Beyond it, except for the faith of the Jews in a faraway land, there was sheer paganism.
Today, in civilized countries, Voodoo is nothing more than black magic bordering on charlatanism and generally severely forbidden by law. There is a mother church that keeps a watchful eye over the religious development of the black man, and it will not allow him to wander off, spiritually, into the bush. Voodoo is destined to be up-
rooted. The black man will have to cling to his white God in the white way. Yet, there is something exotic about this struggle of the black soul in the House of the Lord. It is the flutter of love, warm and wild from the bush, against the cold, hard wall of self-denial.
Click to enlarge
The Spirit of God moving over the face of the waters