African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Misevich, Philip
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Young, Jason R.
Accession Number: 209577968
Full Text: Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery. By Jason R. Young (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. xii plus 258 pp. $40.00).

Debates over the cultural characteristics of particular groups of African slaves carried to the New World originated in the era of the Atlantic slave trade itself. Planters were known to favor captives from some parts of Africa over those from less favorable regions of the continent, often based on perceived differences in work ethic, skills in cultivating specific crops, rebelliousness, or mortality. While modern scholarship on the slave trade has cast aside the overarching stereotypes that accompanied earlier writings on Africans in the Americas, scholars have continued to disagree over exactly what African culture meant to slaves forcibly dispersed from their homelands: did slaves carry local or regional cultural practices with them into the Americas and, if so, how long did such practices survive? To what degree were conditions on New World plantations amenable to the continuity of elements of African cultures? How did the mixing of slaves from disparate parts of the continent affect the development of slave culture?

In Rituals of Resistance, Jason Young has provided a highly original perspective on many of the questions that have been central to studies of the African diaspora over the past three decades. The book explores the religious and ritual practices that linked West-Central Africa with the Lowcountry region of Georgia and South Carolina in the era of the slave trade. While lowcountry planters may have purchased slaves for their labor, "Kongolese" captives brought a complex set of symbols, signs and meanings developed in their homelands. Instead of proposing a pure transmission of these ideas across the Atlantic, Young posits a more flexible, dynamic and ultimately more sensible approach to slave cultural development in which African practices affected, informed and inspired blacks in the Lowcountry. While recognizing a significant degree of cultural interaction among enslaved and free peoples in Africa and the Americas, Young argues that this did not render Old World influences incomprehensible. Instead, he regards black cultural formation as "composite, composed of separate elements that, though not hermetic, were neither subsumed into a hazy cultural mist" (10). Africa is central to Young's view of the diaspora not just as a place from which culture is inherited but also as a site that is intentionally remembered, even as changes in status dictated changes in slave practices.

To assert the importance of particular cultures in the Americas, scholars often begin with demographic evidence. Between 1700 and 1807, more than one out of every three slaves carried to the Lowcountry was embarked at ports supplied by the Congo River in West. Central Africa. Young divides this period into three phases, arguing that West Central African slaves were particularly dominant in the early (1700-1740) and late (1788-1808) periods. Because of his periodization, Young is able to argue that the relative decline of the West Central African trade began in 1741, following the Stono Rebellion (in which slaves from this region played a major part), when Lowcountry planters began fearing the high concentration of slaves from ports near the Congo River. However, it was more likely the case that North American planters were simply squeezed out of primary slave markets in Africa by wealthier sugar barons in the Caribbean, which accounts for a similar increase in the import of slaves from Upper Guinea in the Chesapeake in the later half of the 1740s. More importantly, given the some what diverse provenance of slaves embarked in the non-Portuguese region of West Central Africa, it is not entirely clear why Kongo is the book's primary focus. The Kingdom of Kongo, whose socio-political history is briefly outlined in chapter 1, was in decline by the time West Central African slaves began arriving in the Lowcountry in earnest in the 18th century. And while some Lowcountry slaves were taken from within the region of Kongolese dominance, others came from further inland among the regions of Tio cultural and political influence, driven toward the coast by Bobangi and Vili traders.

One aspect that much of West Central Africa shared, however, was a series of religious beliefs due in part to an early exposure to Christianity but also to widespread indigenous practices. Chapters two through four analyze the development of a number of West Central African rituals--conversion, the use of minkisi (ritual objects), and burial practices--and show how they were understood, transformed and employed on Lowcountry plantations. It is here that the main thesis is developed, that slaves used religion as a means to resist not just their own enslavement but also the ideological underpinnings that supported the entire slave system. In transmigration, spirit possession, ritual internment and conjure, slaves affirmed their own beliefs about the world and about their bodies. Unlike those studies that have demonstrated how slaves used religion and culture to forge new social bonds and mitigate certain aspects of their oppression, Young argues that slave resistance was equally offensive in nature, to be "read as something of a political tract denouncing the varied justifications that members of the master class expounded in support of slave labor" (12). While this assumes that these forms of resistance necessarily worked in tandem, they may also have worked against one another. In other words, firmer planter responses against slaves who challenged the system may indeed have restricted the more limited ("defensive") tools that, slaves used to shield themselves from the more horrid conditions they faced as slaves.

Rituals of Resistance provides a persuasive and fluid interpretation of slave culture, demonstrating the centrality of African-derived practices without presuming a static nature of socio-cultural development on either side of the Atlantic. The book also leaves unanswered a series of compelling questions. For example, did age and gender play a significant role in the development of the Atlantic religious complex? How did the traditions that groups of West Central African slaves carried from their particular homelands interact to create the foundations for religious and ritual practices in the Lowcountry? Such questions are a testament to the innovative and thought-provoking nature of Young's work, which will surely receive widespread attention.

Philip Misevich

Emory University
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.