The Politics of Religious Freedom and the Criminalization of Blackness

Written by Alexander Rocklin in response to a podcast by Tisa Wenger interviewed by David Robertson

     There are ghosts haunting religious freedom. I was at a panel at the National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago, celebrating 50 years since the repeal of anti-“shouting” legislation in that country. The repeal ended the effective outlawing of the practice of the “shouters,” today called the Spiritual Baptist faith. At the event, Spiritual Baptist Bishop Ray Brathwaite, who described the movement as an Afro-centric Christian faith, drew parallels between the Spiritual Baptists and Afro-Atlantic religions in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti, arguing that they shared the same “template.”

     In the southern Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago and St. Vincent, beginning in the early 20th century, anti-shaking and shouting laws criminalized the gatherings of various independent Afro-Christian groups (many of them emerging from slaves’ and their free descendants’ reimaginings and recombinations of Methodist and Baptist, African-derived and inspired, and translocal esoteric traditions). Most typically, these groups put emphasis on faith in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, baptism, a vision-seeking practice of seclusion called mourning, and the embodiment of spirits from a network of spirit nations that includes Africa, India, China, and the Middle East. Brathwaite’s talk on the Spiritual Baptists’ history in part focused on what he described as the millions of ghosts of dead slaves who haunt the Americas and the slave coast of Africa.

     Bishop Brathwaite put the Spiritual Baptists’ struggles for religious freedom and government recognition in the larger context of the history of the dehumanization and violence of slavery and the racism of colonial and post-colonial rule. Brathwaite described how, a few years before on Spiritual Baptist/Shouter Liberation Day, the national holiday marking the ending of the “shouting” ban, his group had been inspired by God to go to the Queen’s Park Savannah, the central park in the capital city of Port of Spain, to hold a service of celebration. This was an opportunity for a once actively persecuted group to mark their hard-won religious freedom in the heart of the twin island nation.

     Before the commemoration could begin, though, as is typical for Spiritual Baptist gatherings, they had to purify the area, in order to move off the spirits who dwelled there, so that they would not manifest or “possess” the participants, interfering with the ceremony. The bishop estimated that normally it should have taken about a half an hour to do such a purification. Instead it ended up taking them three hours. Brathwaite explained that this was so because of the large number of spirits of African slaves who dwelled at the Savannah, the site of a former slave plantation and public thoroughfare used for the display of executed slaves.

     Bishop Brathwaite’s story points out to us the degree to which the ghostly histories of enslaved and colonized peoples continue to haunt the present from the graves of colonial infrastructures and through repurposed modes of colonial regulation. We can include in this the category of religion and its promised freedom as sites for such hauntings as well (both from the perspective of metaphorical and critical hauntology). In her interview, Tisa Wenger discusses the politics of the category religion as a colonial imposition and points us to the ways in which arguments over religious freedom play an important role in processes of religion-making, in the shaping of what gets to count as religion and what has been marginalized or outlawed as not-religion.

            The interviewer David Robertson mentioned the world-religionization of Hinduism and, connected to this, Wenger pointed out the fact that Indigenous traditions have typically not been constructed as “world religions” in the same way. In the British Caribbean, Indian indentured laborers, brought from South Asia to work in sugarcane fields, were promised the freedom to practice their religions (though all aspects of their lives, including what was understood to be their religions, were highly regulated by a violent and racist colonial regime). In Trinidad, both the colonizers and the colonized Indian laborers together, in a complex unequal exchange, constructed and argued over Hinduism and Islam as so-called world religions in order to help meet or deny religious freedom’s promised ideal. But although the British empire held out the ideal of freedom of religion for its colonial subjects, Afro-Caribbean traditions were almost never been given such considerations.

     The denial of the status of religion became a dehumanizing justification for the enslavement, colonization, and repression of peoples of African descent around the globe, a denial that still haunts the category of religion. The weight of slavery’s violence and racism has affected how Afro-Caribbean communities and their traditions were (and still are) categorized after slavery’s end. Although the interview did not have time to fully delve into questions of race, Wenger pointed listeners to the ways in which race and religion are co-constituted. Race-making and religion-making are wholly intertwined processes, with Africanity and blackness often disqualifying features for a social formation’s inclusion under the umbrella of religion. Instead colonial officials most often situated them among one of religion’s despised others such as superstition, barbarism, or obeah (a category used in laws forbidding “African witchcraft” or “the assumption of supernatural powers”). In other words, freedom has its limits, and those limits are racialized and racializing.

     In order for communities and their practices to count as religion, they had to meet colonial regimes’ norms for appropriate social life and full humanity, including norms for religion and race. An editorialist, quoted in Trinidad and Tobago’s Port of Spain Gazette in September 1939, railing against a proposal to repeal the anti-Shaker law on the island of St. Vincent, wrote:

 Here is obviously another case of a misguided idea of the meaning and limits of liberty and freedom: not without reason did a certain writer exclaim, ‘Oh Liberty! how many crimes have been committed in thy name.’ […] The Government is to be asked to grant to a section of the population [the “Shakers”] the right to indulge in practices which tend to exercise a pernicious and demoralising effect upon the inhabitants.

     Called a survival of African barbarism, a sect, or obeah, such groups of poor, black Christians, outside of the control of white church institutions, engaging in practices of late-night meetings with singing and bell ringing, speaking in tongues, and catching power (or embodying spirits or the Spirit, something considered licentious or “demoralizing” by colonizers), went against elite Protestant and Catholic norms for race, religion, class, and sexuality. However, when quizzed by curious anthropologists or grilled on the stand in court, such so-called shouters and shakers tended to emphasize “normal” practices that met colonial ideals for religion and asserted their rights to freedom in the Empire as practitioners of true Christianity. To quote the title of Wenger’s first book, they declared “We have a religion!” The institution of religious freedom involved the imposition of a set of norms that had to be incorporated and that became the ground for any claims to freedom. The Spiritual Baptists engaged in religion-making, adopting and strategically redeploying the colonial discourse on religion. And their hard struggles for freedom eventually led to the repeal of the bans.

     However, their struggle for recognition has continues  after the end of colonial rule. Just this past spring, Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley discussed delivering on long-promised government land grants for a Spiritual Baptist Cathedral, bringing about a measure of equality to a group not historically given the same access to government largess as other recognized religious institutions on the two islands. The slow pace of recognition must in part be traced to the fact that the Spiritual Baptists are a stigmatized community even today, still considered beyond the pale of religion. This is so at least in part because their practices go against elite Christian norms, but also because of their Africanity (something both celebrated and decried).

     When living in Trinidad, I was occasionally awakened in the middle of the night by singing and bell ringing from the Spiritual Baptist temple next door to my apartment. When I asked other neighbors about what had been going on, non-Baptists warned me to be careful of temple members because they might work obeah or “black magic” on me. But, during a group discussion about the hostility coming from outside their community, a Spiritual Baptist friend, who summons and embodies entities from the spiritual land of Africa, had his supporters read out Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands,” and sing God’s praises even louder.

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