Slave Religion by Albert J. Raboteau

Author Albert Raboteau’s book will find a place in any American religious history canon.  Raboteau, being an African American himself, was able to bring out the compassion and earnestness in his cause – which is to bring to light the plight and travails of enslaved Black Americans from a religious perspective.  The book is written in such a tone that it opens more profound levels of understanding and appreciation for the reader.  In this way, the book is a piece of art as well as a document of history.  The book succeeds in taking the reader to the original setting and milieu that forms its background.  More importantly, the book adopts simple prose style that appeals to readers from all walks of life.  The rest of the essay will be a summary of the central points in the book.

The book takes the form of Raboteau’s responses to some of the reactions he had experienced over the years.  In line with his literary mentor Sydney Ahlstrom’s anticipation, the revival of African-American history as a field of inquiry in its own right also helped rejuvenate the allied subject of religion and history with respect to America.  This is also made necessary by the fact that any attempt to trace African-American history is inevitably linked to the associated religious traditions, and likewise, “the religious history of America cannot be told adequately without incorporation of the African-American experience”.

Raboteau’s narrative gives vent to the suppressed voices of African Americans of the past, quite reminiscent of some of the narrative techniques employed by African American novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.   This also serves as the “central theme in other liberation theologies”, and applies in significant ways to secular as well as religious history, leading up to contemporary practices.  Alongside the expression of black American sentiments, the book also notes the parallel historical events in the American continent.  The fact that most of the African American immigration to America has been un-volitional is recognized through out the text.

In an attempt to explicate the true implications of “slave culture”, the author is compelled to touch upon the political aspects of religion and argues in favor of their necessity.  In other words, this “creative means of continuation” of African cultural influences, frequently intertwined with European and Judeo-Christian origins, provides a sense of belonging and identity to the community, while leaving aside other aspects of slavery.  The book essentially provides the necessary foundation for the oppressed masses to rebel against authority and to free themselves from the repressive mental shackles of slavery.

The author claims that the basic motivation for writing this book “was the passing-on of unwritten traditions, oral traditions no longer heard”. Also, he intends to invoke interest in the subject through conventional methodology to educate the reader.  This, Raboteau believes, is the spiritual effort of contemplating about “a tradition that stands a continuing challenge to the complacency exhibited by most of Christianity”.

In respect of the task of documenting long-standing traditions, the book is quite good. The author includes hymns and songs, and anecdotes and verses, historical narratives as well as scholarly interpretations of various sources for the documentation of this little studied aspect of American religious history.  Raboteau incorporates in the text extracts from native African languages in addition to adaptations by black Americans already living in the Americas. The author also depicts in depth several practices and customs, including the “ring shout and belief structures”. For instance, the preservation of aspects of African deities and gods was usually more pronounced in the South American continent when compared to the predominantly Protestant North America.  Raboteau also gives different rationales for it, which takes into consideration “the greater possibility of syncretism and cross-identification of practices”.  Raboteau notes that, after a while, most of the American slaves were “native-born”, while elsewhere in the world (Caribbean and Latin American regions), there was a steady and gradual influx of immigrants from the African continent.

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