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Materialities of Ritual in the Black Atlantic

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Focusing on everyday rituals, the essays in this volume look at spheres of social action and the places throughout the Atlantic world where African–descended communities have expressed their values, ideas, beliefs, and spirituality in material terms. The contributors trace the impact of encounters with the Atlantic world on African cultural formation, how entanglement with commerce, commodification, and enslavement and with colonialism, emancipation, and self-rule manifested itself in the shaping of ritual acts such as those associated with birth, death, healing, and protection. Taken as a whole, the book offers new perspectives on what the materials of rituals can tell us about the intimate processes of cultural transformation and the dynamics of the human condition.

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1. On the Materiality of Black Atlantic Rituals

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Akinwumi Ogundiran and Paula Saunders

Ritual has been at the core of Black Atlantic studies since the pioneering works by W. E. B. Du Bois ([1903] 1982), Melville Herskovits ([1941] 1990), Fernando Ortiz (1906), Jean Price-Mars ([1928] 1983), and Arthur Ramos (1934, 1939), among others, appeared in the first half of the twentieth century. The term “Black Atlantic,” coined by Robert Farris Thompson (1983), was not in vogue at that time to characterize the overlapping, racialized, and cultural geography populated by peoples of African descent on both sides of the Atlantic. The broad concerns of the pioneering scholars, however, were not far removed from those of many of their recent successors, who have made this term the centerpiece of their conceptual project: to account for the cultural formation of Africana peoples in the modern world. Stimulated by those foundational studies, a number of publications in different disciplines have appeared in the past fifteen years, focusing on Black Atlantic religion in order to explore questions of identity, sociopolitical negotiations, and the historical processes of African cultural formation in the Atlantic world (see, e.g., Brandon 1997; Heywood 2002; Matory 2005; Murphy and Sanford 2001; Olupona and Rey 2009; Thompson 1993; Tishken et al. 2009). Of course, there is even a far larger corpus of studies that is geographically circumscribed in particular regions or nation-states of the Black Atlantic world. Many of these studies deal with issues of the impacts of Atlantic modernities on Africana religious traditions, belief systems, and their role in social and political spheres (see, e.g., Baum 1999; Palmié 2002; Raboteau 2004; Rucker 2007; Shaw 2002).

 

2. Reconstructing the Archaeology of Movement in Northern Ghana: Insights into Past Ritual Posture and Performance

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Timothy Insoll and Benjamin W. Kankpeyeng

Catherine Bell (1992: 109–110) has indicated how movement can form a key element of ritual, and how movement is, in turn, related to time, memory, and space in the overall process of ritual action. Interconnected with this is also the concept of “performance,” which, as its etymology and definition indicate, is complimentary with “ritual” (see, e.g., Lewis 1980: 33–35; Parkin 1992: 17; Schechner 2002). Unfortunately, the static is often given prominence in archaeological interpretation and conceptualization in relation to ritual and religion (Renfrew 1994; Brück 1999; Insoll 2004, 2009b). This is perhaps a correlation, albeit inadvertent, whereby encountering static material is taken to infer a static ritual (Insoll 2009a). Instead, it can be posited that the structures of archaeological materials were often products of much more dynamic, fluid, and active ritual behaviors (cf. Pauketat and Alt 2005; Pollard 2001; Gillespie 2008).

 

3. Sacred Vortices of the African Atlantic World: Materiality of the Accumulative Aesthetic in the Hueda Kingdom, 1650–1727 CE

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Neil L. Norman

Art historians researching the Bight of Benin region have convincingly argued that an amalgamative aesthetic underpins the ever-emerging character of modern Vodun (Drewal 1996; Rush 1999, 2001).1 Paul Mercier (1960: 212) argues that below the surface of apparent conservatism in Vodun lies innovation and the need to accumulate and assimilate, even to the point of acquiring entire cosmologies. Suzanne Blier (1995a: 62) similarly characterizes the organizing principle or “primacy of assemblage” in Vodun arts where artisans, commissioned by initiated clients, bind together various base materials, surface additions, and textures to create objects and spaces representing a sacred mixed media. In his investigation of Mami Wata, Henry Drewal (1996: 308) records that initiates start with exotic foreign objects and interpret them according to indigenous precepts, invest them with new meanings, and then re-represent them in inventive ways to serve their own devotional and social needs.

 

4. Cowries and Rituals of Self-Realization in the Yoruba Region, ca. 1600–1860

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Akinwumi Ogundiran

Billions of cowrie shells were imported into the Bight of Benin between 1600 and 1860 by European merchant ships, mostly as payment for the human cargo in the transatlantic slave trade. These cowries, in turn, served as local currency in the Bight of Benin and its far hinterlands (map 4.1). This chapter takes on a project of hermeneutic anthropology to examine how cowries became central to the everyday rituals of self-realization in the Yoruba region, and the preeminent resource for accessing power, harnessing authority, and engaging in social reproduction during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. This approach privileges the meaningfulness of social action and how it is constitutive of social life in historical and cultural dimensions (Gadamer 1976; Ricoeur 1976). To this end, I examine the depositional patterns of cowries in the archaeological and historical contexts, focusing on the implications for their uses in ritual practices. I then use these contexts of ritualization of cowries to explore the fields of “practical consciousness” and “vernacular knowledge” (see Apter 1992: 4) that defined the Yoruba experience of the Atlantic encounters.

 

5. Spiritual Vibrations of Historic Kormantse and the Search for African Diaspora Identity and Freedom

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E. Kofi Agorsah

This chapter is about the archaeology of memory and spiritual genealogies. It is an attempt to explain the formation of a spiritual identity by enslaved Africans in the Americas, and the possible relationship of that identity—including its oral, artistic, written, and performed religious expressions—to an historical community in Atlantic Africa. It examines how the “Cromanti/Kromantin” communities in the Caribbean and South America used the memory of Kormantse in present-day Ghana to generate discourses and practices of resistance against slavery and fight for freedom, as well as to create an autonomous African identity in the Americas. Historic Kormantse, a small village in modern-day Ghana, West Africa (figure 5.1), bears many historical and cultural markers, as well as archaeological indicators, that are useful for understanding the formation of identities among the peoples of the African Diaspora who are variously referred to as Kromantin and Cromanti, among others. Differences in orthography are the reason for the many and varied forms of the spelling of the word “Kormantse.” The spelling adopted in this chapter appears to be the most appropriate one based on the way it is used among members of this community in modern Ghana, though other spellings will be referred to depending on the source material. The terms “Cromanti” or “Kromantin” are variations or adaptations of “Kormantse” in the Americas by descendants of those whose ancestors had direct experience and/or memory of the location. Yet, many African Diaspora communities in the Americas refer to this historic Kormantse site as “home.”

 

6. Rituals of Iron in the Black Atlantic World

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Candice Goucher

For the African blacksmith and iron-smelter, technology was not distinct from ritual practice. Handling and hammering hot iron was not only dangerous but also afforded ironworkers access to economic and political power through their critical control of the supply of weapons and tools that ensured the continuity of life itself. Ritual in this context also became the voice of collective memory. Making iron was far more than abstract chemical or physical processes. No furnace was built nor smithy constructed without seeking and acknowledging the assistance of ancestors and spirits through specific ritual acts. Sometimes the ancestral references were as concrete as they were direct. Iron smelting required control over the natural elements of clay, ores, fuels, temperature, and airflow, as well as the metaphysical forces of unseen realms. The ritual embodiment of technological practice not only facilitated African technology transfer to the Americas; it also shaped the meaning and memory of iron in the Black Atlantic.

 

7. Transatlantic Meanings: African Rituals and Material Culture in the Early Modern Spanish Caribbean

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Pablo F. Gómez

Mateo Arará’s career as one of the most renowned healers of the early modern New Kingdom of Granada began with propitious events four thousand miles east of Cartagena de Indias. Sometime during the 1620s, Arará’s maternal uncle Soo chose him as the heir of the family’s most sacred tradition. Arará would become, as his uncle and many of his matrilineal ancestors had planned, the priest and healer at the king’s house. Three decades later, African ladino (acculturated and Spanish-speaking) translators from the Jesuit College in Cartagena translated Arará’s testimony. In front of Cartagena’s Inquisition tribunal, where he found himself after having been accused of being a sortilego (a conjurer), Arará declared that his healing gifts had been transmitted to him through the womb of his mother (Archivo Histórico Nacional de España, Madrid, hereafter AHN, Inquisición 1021, fol. 340r–341r).

African-born ritual specialists like Arará served as effective mediators of the cultural exchange between Africa and the Americas during the early modern period. His is just one of several histories of African ritual practitioners located in Spanish and Colombian archives. These rich depositories hold unique Inquisition, government, ecclesiastic, personal, and medical records related to populations of African descent coming from early modern New Kingdom of Granada (modern-day Colombia; see map 7.1) and several other Caribbean spaces. This chapter highlights the richness of available evidence related to the material culture of populations of African descent in early modern Spanish Caribbean records, and its value for the study of ritual practices in the seventeenth century black Atlantic.

 

8. “Instruments of Obeah”: The Significance of Ritual Objects in the Jamaican Legal System, 1760 to the Present

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Danielle N. Boaz

Many scholars have sifted through colonial documents searching for the “subaltern” voice of enslaved and oppressed individuals in the Americas. These researchers, as shown in the preceding chapter, for example, have attempted to uncover the spiritual practices of African and African-descended populations through deep and critical readings of “outsider accounts,” such as court records, legislative debates, statutes, journals, and newspapers. Unlike many of these studies seeking to reveal the rituals and beliefs of populations that did not document these practices for themselves, I utilize these official records to understand the objectives and strategies of the colonial government in describing and proscribing certain items and actions associated with African religion and ritual practices in the Caribbean. I believe that in order to analyze the origins and development of African culture in the Western Hemisphere, we must first understand the colonial definition, categorization, and suppression of these acts. I argue that the preservation, attenuation, and transformation of African Diaspora religious and ritual practices were shaped through interactions with the legal and media institutions of the colonial government. I focus in this chapter on the efforts of the state of Jamaica to suppress the practice of Obeah (a term used by the British to describe African-Caribbean medico-religious practices). I demonstrate that Obeah objects constituted the subject and focus of these suppression efforts, and the contestations that ensued between the state and Obeah practitioners.

 

9. Charms and Spiritual Practitioners: Negotiating Power Dynamics in an Enslaved African Community in Jamaica

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Paula Saunders

In recent times, the focus of African Diaspora archaeological research has moved to examine the spiritual-based practices of people of African descent throughout the Diaspora (see, e.g., K. L. Brown 1994, 2001, 2004; Fennell 2007b; Russell 1997; Stine et al. 1996; Wilkie 1997, on spirituality and ritual paraphernalia). The results of these studies often produce more questions than answers, and demonstrate the many complexities involved in examining such places of ritual activity, as well as the impossibility of creating standardized theories and methodologies to deal with such complex sites. As a result, archaeologists are still attempting to find ways to address the use of spirituality as one of the means whereby oppressed women, men, and children in the Diaspora negotiated power, resistance, and discourse inherent within the colonial state, as well as how these practices may be seen in the archaeological record.

This chapter presents some findings from the enslaved village at Orange Vale coffee plantation, located in Portland, Jamaica. This research applies an interdisciplinary approach by combining documentary, archaeological, and oral sources. In addition to information on daily living conditions and settlement patterns within the enslaved African village, additional findings include (1) the recognition of various levels of power negotiation, and (2) clues to the enslaved people’s ritualized spiritual practices through their use of charms. Further, this research underscores the importance of including descendant communities throughout the archaeological process, as well as the need to engage oral traditions in the interpretation of past societies, particularly for marginalized groups excluded from “official”—that is, written—stories of the past.

 

10. Mundane or Spiritual? The Interpretation of Glass Bottle Containers Found on Two Sites of the African Diaspora

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Matthew Reeves

Archaeologists of the African Diaspora have been drawn to the study of artifacts with potential spiritual use because of the many possibilities that these objects offer for a deep understanding of Black Atlantic cultural formation. The presence of such items on sites has been heralded as representing everything from African survival to resistance against hegemonic patriarchy (Leone 2005; Orser 1994; Stine et al. 1996; Vlach 1993; Wilkie 1997). Many of the scholars involved in this search have called for careful consideration of the archaeological contexts from which they were recovered (Wilkie 1997). In addition, researchers have also called for interdisciplinary examination of ethnohistorical texts to allow for interpretation (Leone and Fry 1999). In this chapter, I consider how the steps from observation to interpretation are enacted, specifically, how we take an otherwise commonly occurring artifact, such as glass bottles, to determine whether their placement at the site was intentional or a secondary result of disposal, and finally whether the intentional placement reflects their use as spiritual objects or simply for mundane purposes, such as storage. What makes bottle glass an interesting case study is its common occurrence on historic sites. Due to the multiple uses for bottles, their particular use and contents can be a bit enigmatic (Smith 2008: 22–28), but with proper study of context, it is possible to differentiate potential spiritual use of such bottles from those of more routine origins.

 

11. Ritual Bundle in Colonial Annapolis

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Mark P. Leone, Jocelyn E. Knauf,
and Amanda Tang

The 2008 archaeological discovery of an eighteenth-century ritual bundle in Annapolis, Maryland, was widely reported in the press (Johnson 2008; Wilford 2008). The reports rightfully acknowledge the bundle as a product of African-descended culture, rituals, and beliefs. The likely African cultural provenience of the bundle has also been highlighted in those reports. We revisit this ritual bundle in this chapter as the basis for understanding the spiritual and otherworldly beliefs in Annapolis before the Age of Revolution and its status as a new capital of the colony of Maryland. We argue that the Annapolis of the Enlightenment, well known for lawyers, printers, and patriots, began as a town characterized by paranormal beliefs and eclectic ritual practices, especially at the time when the official Maryland government first moved there in 1695. These beliefs and practices—both European and African—were important parts of everyday lives in Annapolis until the 1750s, the dawn of the local Enlightenment and its political offshoot, the American Revolution. We not only want to show an Annapolis most historians neglect but also an Annapolis with some evidence of African or African American ritual practices.

 

12. Dexterous Creation: Material Manifestations of Instrumental Symbolism in the Americas

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Christopher C. Fennell

In a larger-scale study, entitled Crossroads and Cosmologies, I examined multiple data sets of material culture uncovered at African American occupation sites in the historic period (Fennell 2007b). That larger study utilized theories concerning modes of symbolic expression, formation and maintenance of social group identities, and the role of individual creativity and innovation. I applied these analytic frameworks to the past creation and use of material expressions of core symbols within the diasporas of particular African and European cultures, such as the BaKongo, Yoruba, Fon, and Palatine German, among others. I explored the divergent ways those creative processes played out at sites in North America, the Caribbean, and South America. A multitude of independently developed beliefs and practices from Africa and Europe came to meet at the many crossroads of the Americas.

The selected case study examined in this chapter involves theoretical concepts that I developed in Crossroads and Cosmologies. Anthropologists have articulated concepts concerning the operations of “core” symbols within culture groups, which have also been referred to as “key” or “dominant” symbols (Ortner 1973; Schneider 1980; Turner 1970, 1973). Such core symbols express fundamental elements of a culture group’s cosmology and sense of identity within the world. Core symbols are communicated in myriad ways, including expression in ritual performances, spoken words, and tangible renderings in material culture (Fennell 2007b).

 

13. Ritualized Figuration in Special African American Yards

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Grey Gundaker

The larger, the more human, the less technical the problem of practice, the more open-eyed and wide-viewing the corresponding method. I do not say that all things that have been called philosophy participate in this method; I do say, however, that a catholic and farsighted theory of the adjustment of the conflicting factors of life is—whatever it is called—philosophy.

JOHN DEWEY ([1910] 1997: 44)

This paper explores the placement and ritualized use of statuary of animals, religious figures, and mythic beings in special African American yards to contribute to the philosophical “adjustment of the conflicting factors of life” (Dewey [1910] 1997: 44). Practitioners who make these yards call the spaces around their homes “yards” and view them as exceptional; certainly, they are not typical of African American domestic landscapes. Figuration in these yards is ritualized because, by drawing on a stable visual and material repertoire and recurring spatial practices, practitioners work toward, as John M. Janzen puts it, “the amplification of layers and layers of meaning, . . . [and] the addition of more lines of communication to those normally used between individuals” (1992: 174).

 

14. “I Cry ‘I Am’ for All to Hear Me”: The Informal Cemetery in Central Georgia

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Hugh B. Matternes and Staci Richey

The conclusion of the Civil War was a major turning point in African American history. For the first time since they or their ancestors were brought from Africa, recently emancipated African Americans were in a position to take charge of their lives and explore freedoms that they had previously been denied. Few of them, however, had the social and economic resources to take advantage of freedom’s opportunities. African Americans faced the challenges of building stable, functioning communities that were capable of providing the materials and services needed to survive in the postbellum South within and around a largely Anglo-American social context. These needs included ensuring that death did not disrupt the social network and providing the dead a stable and meaningful place in their community. To achieve these goals, some African Americans adopted traditional, institution-based burial grounds modeled after (and sometimes controlled by) the Anglo-American community. When these could not meet the freed African Americans’ needs, they created cemeteries that lacked an overseeing authority. In this chapter, we suggest that some African American communities explored alternative burial areas. These informal cemeteries developed in communities where no single institution was responsible for the entire cemetery. The Old School Cemetery in Wilkes County, Georgia, is an example of an informal cemetery.

 

15. Spatial and Material Transformations in Commemoration on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

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Helen C. Blouet

In 1862, missionary Brother Badham visited St. John’s Bethany Moravian Church and cemetery. During his trip, he wrote,” [the cemetery] is the resting place of members of the Mission family, . . . [it is] still the custom to bury laborers on the estates . . . [where] they . . . previously resided” (Moravian Periodical Accounts 1862: 425). The members of the mission family were, for the most part, German- and English-descent Moravian missionaries. The laborers to whom Badham refers were the free blacks (Africans) who worked on St. John’s estates. By this time, the majority of African–St. Johnians were Moravian and regularly attended services at Bethany and Emmaus churches. Although the churches included members of European and African descent, Badham affirms that the two broad ethnic groups often used separate burial sites. This chapter explores the use of burial sites and commemorative rituals for mediating race relations between St. John’s African and European Moravians and on the island as a whole between 1718 and the 1950s. The study presents documentary and material evidence for two church cemeteries and over fifty interment areas within household and estate properties (map 15.1a). While this is only a fraction of the number of grave sites created during the time period, the data provide significant information for the distinctions and similarities in commemoration over time. I contextualize mortuary sites and material culture through the application of Creole transformation theory (Armstrong 2003) and genealogies of place and practice (McAnany 1995; Mills and Walker 2008; Rakita and Buikstra 2005) to develop an understanding of St. John’s social and commemorative histories and the implications for Moravian race relations in the larger society.

 

16. “As Above, So Below”: Ritual and Commemoration in African American Archaeological Contexts in the Northern United States

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Cheryl J. LaRoche

Ritual objects excavated from African American archaeological sites blend elements of ancestral culture, spiritual intent, memory, and modern philosophy in revealing the dynamics of spiritual and cultural continuity (Idowu [1962] 1994; Mills and Walker 2008; Ogundiran and Falola 2007). Simultaneously, modern ceremonial expressions at sites such as New York’s African Burial Ground and Philadelphia’s President’s House sites stir deep expressions of public emotion in tribute to once-forgotten ancestors. Contemporary actors engaged with these sites honor ancestors to effect the present and influence the future.

In historic contexts such as the African Burial Ground, excavated objects of tribute establish evidence of ritual or ceremony later interpreted by archaeologists. For the most part, spiritual intent must be inferred through the written record, intentional artifact or skeletal placement, sequencing, and/or three-dimensional patterning (Mills and Walker 2008). Artifacts of ritual or spiritual expression recovered from archaeological sites, however, consign discussions of spiritual mediation to the past. From this temporal distance, the efficacy, spirituality, and intent of past ritual acts are hypothesized and theorized in the present. By theorizing ritual within historical frames and archaeological contexts, one need not confront the question of spiritual potency or the purported efficacy of objects or practices. This chapter questions the efficacy and consequences of ritual practices beyond the ritual itself. Ritual acts tend to be seen, teleologically, as part of pre-Enlightenment, pre-modern practices that either lacked or have lost their potency in the present. Bringing the discussion of “non-empirical powers” or ritual efficacy into contemporary moments and our lives necessitates acknowledging or, at the very least, questioning the potential “power from unknown sources” that are implied in ritual performance (Turner 1970: 54). Modern ritual and ceremonies held at archaeological sites force professionals and the public alike to assess their relationship with spiritual mediation. “Layers of complexity,” according to Mills and Walker, exist at the intersections between and within “memory and materiality, knowledge and practice, subjects and objects, and the past and the present” (2008: 5).

 

17. Cape Coast Castle and Rituals of Memory

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Brempong Osei-Tutu

The materialization of memory through landscape and structural designs has proliferated over the past two decades, and the study of memory-making and commemoration has become an important meeting point for several disciplines (Araujo 2012; Connerton 1989; Linenthal 1995; Macdonald 2005; Nora 1989; Reinhardt 2005; Ruffins 1997, 1998; Young 1993). Some of the best-known memorials include the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, both in Washington, D.C., and recently the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. In particular, the Holocaust memorials in Europe and the United States have provided models for commemorating other episodes of collective trauma (Ruffins 2006: 424; Young 1993). A significant development in this emerging trend is the establishment in July 2001 of the International Committee of Memorial Museums in Remembrance of the Victims of Public Crimes by the International Council of Museums (Murphy 2005: 75). Since the 1990s, UNESCO’s Slave Route Project has sought to connect significant sites and events associated with the transatlantic slave trade. This and other efforts have sparked debates and policy actions on the memorialization of slavery, particularly in Africa, where that subject has largely been sequestered from public discourse. UNESCO’s initiative has bolstered the Ghanaian authorities’ efforts to restore Cape Coast and Elmina castles, two of Ghana’s seventeen extant European fortifications—designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1979—as memorials to transatlantic slavery.

 

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