Law, Religious Racism, and Religions of the African Diaspora [transcript]
Podcast with Danielle N. Boaz (13 September 2021).
Interviewed by Benjamin Marcus
Transcribed by Andie Alexander
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/law-religious-racism-and-religions-of-the-african-diaspora/
Religious Freedom, Africana, Diaspora, Racism, Law, Race, Power, Authenticity, Ritual
Benjamin Marcus (BM) 00:07
My guest today is Dr. Danielle N. Boaz. Dr. Boaz is an associate professor in the Africana Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she offers courses on human rights, social justice, and the law. She has a PhD in history with a specialization in Africa, the African diaspora, and Caribbean; a JD with a concentration in international law; and an LLM in intercultural human rights. Dr. Boaz’s research focuses on the legal prescription of African cultural and religious practices in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the modern-day impact of those laws on public perceptions of these practices. Today we’ll be discussing Dr. Boaz’s book published this year titled, Banning Black Gods: Law and Religions of the African Diaspora (PSU Press, 2021). Banning Black Gods is a global examination of the legal challenges faced by adherence of the most widely practiced African derived religions in the 21st century, including Santeria, Lucumi, Haitian Voodoo, Candomblé, Palo Mayombe, Umbanda, Islam, Rastafari, Obeah, and Voodoo, examining court cases laws, human rights reports and related materials. Danielle N. Boaz argues that restrictions on African Diaspora religious freedom constitute a unique and pervasive form of anti-Black discrimination. So, I’m so delighted to welcome Dr. Boaz to The Religious Studies Project podcast. Welcome. I’d love to begin by inviting you to tell our audience about your book, what does it cover and what doesn’t it cover?
Danielle Boaz (DB) 01:38
First of all, I just want to say thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be on the podcast and to have the opportunity to talk a little bit more about my work. So, the book as you just described, it really covers a very broad range of things. The book is about the right, the freedom to practice African Diaspora religions, which encompasses virtually every kind of Afro-diasporic religion, every religion that originates from the African continent but is practiced outside of the African continent. And it covers a wide range of topics related to the right and freedom to practice these religions. So, there are nine different chapters in the book, and each one focuses on a different thing.
The first one discusses the most pervasive kinds of violations of the rights of devotees of these religions, which is actual physical assaults on their religious freedom, on their temples, on priests, on practitioners. And then there are other chapters that get into what would be considered a lot more legal kinds of limitations on rights and freedoms, such as challenges to the ritual slaughter of animals or animal sacrifice: cases in which the custody of minor children has been removed from parents who are practitioners of these religions or parents who have sought to initiate their children in these religions. There are several chapters that deal with the right to wear religious attire or symbols of religions, including religious hairstyles such as locks or dreadlocks that Rastafarians use to use these religious symbols in public spaces, such as schools, courtrooms, and a variety of other public places, places of employment. And then there’s a section of the book that covers a variety of different issues related to the legal recognition of these religions. There’s a chapter that talks about Obeah, which is a term that’s used to describe Afro-diasporic religions in the former British Caribbean. And there continue to be laws against Obeah in about 14 different countries in the Americas today.
And so, I talk about the kind of challenges that come from actually having legal prohibitions on Afro-diasporic religions. I talk about recent court cases where judges have determined that either African Diaspora religions are not religions or religious by our current legal definitions, or where they have recognized that they are religions, but for some reason or another, are not protected in the same way that other religions are protected. And so, through this book, I tried to provide what is truly the first ever broad examination of what it means to have the right to belong to, to practice, to believe in an Afro-diasporic religion in the 21st century.
Thank you so much for that summary. That’s really helpful, I think, for our listeners. And one of the key, core concepts that you use throughout your book is this concept of “religious racism.” Can you tell our audience a little bit more about that term and the work that it does in your book?
Sure, yes, religious racism and the kind of promotion of this term—the use of this term to describe intolerance, prejudice, discrimination against African Diaspora religions—is really the core idea of the book. That religious intolerance in this context goes beyond just prejudice or discrimination, that it is actually a form of racism. And I can’t take credit for this idea. This is a concept that I heard for the first time when I was traveling in Brazil, and I was learning about intolerance against Afro-Brazilian religions, which is extremely common, extremely violent in the 21st century. And “religious racism” is a phrase that practitioners are using—or frequently using, not all of them—but that practitioners are frequently using to describe religious intolerance in Brazil.
So, the term in my view—and this is my interpretation, not necessarily Afro-Brazilian religious interpretations—in my view, the term means two different things. One of them is that discrimination against African Diaspora religions, it has all the hallmarks, all the characteristics of other kinds of racism, and other bases for racism that we see in society. And one of the easiest examples to give about this is that there are issues like over policing, of Africana religious communities. And I mean, we’d have to live under a rock to not know that in the past year or so in particular there have been a lot of discussions about over-policing or extreme violence against communities of color in many parts of the world, especially the United States, Brazil, certain parts of Europe. And one of the things that we see an intolerance against Afro-diasporic religious communities, is the same kind of targeting the same kind of suspicion that we see applied to communities of color. So, for instance, in Brazil, in particular, as well as the United States, African Diaspora religious ceremonies, especially, I would say, in the United States—Santeria, Lucumi—and in Brazil, kind of lay communities in particular, are often raided by the police. Sometimes during ceremonies, you’ll hear stories about police pulling up with 5, 6, 7 cop cars full of officers, heavily armed in SWAT gear, going in and interrupting ceremony, and holding practitioners at gunpoint, claiming to be looking for drugs or claiming to be responding to something as simple as a noise complaint, which makes one wonder why are they coming in with such force? And this kind of policing, this kind of aggression and policing, the violence that often happens when police do come into those communities is something that we’re not going to see, in most other religious communities. For instance, you’re not often going to see police officers surrounding a church service, a Christian church service, and going in claiming that they heard that someone had drugs inside or saying that the church service is being too loud and coming in and pulling a gun on the priests, who’s leading the service or things of that nature.
So, one of the things is this kind of intolerance that operates very much in the way that we see up racism operate and other aspects of society. The second reason that the term religious racism is a term that is useful, that is pertinent in the description of discrimination against Africana religions is that the discrimination against these religions, intolerance against these religions, is very deeply connected to the history of slavery and colonization of the Americas. These religions were prohibited in virtually every country or colony in the Americas at some point between the 18th and the 20th century. And initially, most of these laws were about the prohibition of slave rebellions, or the prevention of slave rebellions. So, plantation owners often feared—and this was reality, this was fact—that leaders of these religions would lead slave rebellions or would perform some kind of ritual ceremonies to protect the insurgents in slave rebellions. And so, a lot of early laws prohibited the practice of things like Obeah, in an effort to prevent religious leaders from organizing slave rebellions or encouraging slave rebellions.
And then after emancipation, there was this sense of “what exactly is going to happen with formerly enslaved people?” And colonial governments, former plantation owners, in general, colonists of European descent, were arguing or debating whether or not people of African descent were prepared to fully participate in society. And there were a lot of interest, a lot of people who wanted to keep them from participating in society, from voting, from holding government office, from being leaders, representatives of their own society. And so, one of the arguments that came about is these accusations these descriptions of Black religion as something that was so barbaric, that it clearly demonstrated, supposedly, that Black people were unprepared, or perhaps just entirely incapable of self-governance. And so, rumors started to circulate that Black religions, in particular, quote, unquote, “Voodoo” and Obeah involve some kind of cannibalism or human sacrifice. And these are myths that just appeared kind of out of nowhere in the post emancipation period, things that were never really discussed during slavery. There were never these ideas that cannibalism and human sacrifice and such practices were a central part of Black religions.
But suddenly this narrative develops that these practices are key components of all Afro-diasporic religions, and our practices and beliefs that Black people will, quote, unquote, return to, if they are released from white governance, white control. And so, at the very least, there are these narratives about superstitions that Black people engage in. And the idea that these beliefs, these practices, these religions are proof that people of African descent are not capable or not prepared to vote and hold public office. And so, during this post emancipation period, a lot of these religions were prohibited by law, and considered to be a kind of fraud. And there were active police raids of different ceremonies or temples, active efforts by the governments to control or suppress these religions. And so, what I argue in my book is that these past efforts to prohibit or suppress Africana religions, which were very deeply rooted in slavery and racism and colonization, are basically repeating today in a number of different ways, or that the ideas that underlined these attempts to prohibit Africana religions are still around today. That different views, different discriminatory perceptions of these religions today, are rooted in these narratives that developed during slavery. And during the immediate post-emancipation period.
As you talk about these different countries with different colonial powers, I’m wondering if today we see any difference in how Canada versus the United States versus Brazil, for example, recognize or fail to recognize these African diasporic religious traditions? Do you see any difference in the legal systems are some better able to recognize these traditions than others? And maybe as a corollary to that, when we’re thinking about these countries in the Western Hemisphere, Canada, the United States, Brazil, for example, is there a difference between those and perhaps the countries in the continent of Africa say, Nigeria, and how they are able to recognize the quote unquote religiousness, if we can use that word of these different religious traditions?
So, this question is really important to me, because one of the goals of the book, which is a very ambitious goal, is to really take a global look at the right and freedom to practice these religions. And so, I’ve never actually sat down and counted how many different countries are discussed in the book. But I know that I talked about Canada, the United States, Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti. I talked about a couple of different countries on the African continent: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya. And then I talk about some countries in Europe as well, in particular, France and England. And one of the things that I would say is that in general, most countries have a problem or a level of discrimination against African Diaspora religions. If I talk about the African diaspora, if I talk about places outside the African continent, I would say that there is probably no difference in how these different countries do or don’t recognize these religions or do or do not protect them from attacks against their religious freedom.
I think that there are differences in the climate of different countries, for instance, in Haiti and Brazil, as I talk about in the first chapter of my book, they’re extremely serious problems with vigilante violence against devotees of these religions. Following in particular the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the subsequent cholera outbreak, there was a lot of violence in the streets, against Vodou practitioners, who were accused of causing the cholera outbreak, of causing, in general, some of these environmental kinds of disasters, these health crises, and a number of practitioners were lynched in the streets. And the government of Haiti basically said, “Oh, the problems are under control, don’t worry, we’re looking into it.” And then, by all accounts, all reports, no one was ever arrested. No one was ever even identified for carrying out these attacks.
And similarly, in Brazil today, there’s an enormous problem with people setting fire to Candomblé and Umbanda terreiros, or temples, with stoning temples, and even sometimes stoning practitioners. In some cases, there have been series of murders of priests and practitioners in a particular metropolitan area that just basically entirely go uninvestigated, or police write them off as “Oh, this is just normal robberies or other kinds of community-based violence.” And in these countries, because of the particular problems they’re having, we see issues with religious freedom falling more along the lines of a kind of failure to protect. And so, in those cases, the discrimination that’s happening against African Diaspora religions, at least the most pressing discrimination is the idea that if these were attacks against any other religious community, if these were attacks against synagogues, against churches, or even mosques, would the government not step in and try to be investigating? What is going on? Are these organized attacks? Where are these ideas coming from that these individuals and communities need to be attacked, need to be eradicated? These things would be taken more seriously.
But then in other places where we don’t necessarily have the same kind of climate, there are still other kinds of discrimination and failure to protect going on. Also, in the US and Canada, in particular, what we’re seeing is a kind of over-policing of communities, a lot of instances in which officers are going and interrupting ceremonies, and sometimes looking for reasons to arrest practitioners—interrogating how they’re sacrificing animals, how are they keeping animals prior to sacrifice? Are they complying with noise ordinances? Are they violating any rules about the number of people who you can have in a particular space? Basically looking for ways to detain practitioners, or determining that some of the practices and beliefs that these communities engage in are not the kinds of religious freedoms that are protected by law, and not given the same, I guess, deference that other religions are given in terms of, for instance, a case that comes to mind in Canada is that there were a series of cases where some Jamaican Canadians were suspected of committing a crime, in one case, a bank robbery. And then in another case, being involved in a series of murders.
And police officers actually, in one case, hired a spiritual advisor, an Obeah practitioner, to perform fake rituals and serve as a government informant about what happened during those rituals, about what the clients, the practitioners, confessed during those rituals. And then in the second instance, a police officer actually invented an identity as an Obeah practitioner, posed as an Obeah practitioner, did all these things like arresting the suspect’s mother, staging a car accident with her, putting dead animals on her doorstep, all of these things to try to convince the suspects of his spiritual power. And then the state’s entire case was based on the evidence obtained from confessions during spiritual rituals that were designed to protect and cleanse the suspects from what they had supposedly done.
And so, what’s so striking about cases like this is that there is a Supreme Court case in Canada that explicitly states that an officer cannot pose as a priest to obtain the confession of a suspected criminal. But the courts made a distinction between posing as a Catholic priest and posing as an Obeah practitioner. And the state didn’t recognize Obeah practices. They didn’t they didn’t go so far as to say, “this is not a religion,” but that these rituals, these ceremonies during which these confessions happened, were not “religious,” or we’re not the kind of religion that the state wants to protect. And so, in these areas, it’s less about a failure to protect practitioners from violence, but it’s definitely still a similar kind of distinction between African Diaspora religions and other religions in terms of what is protected religious practice, what is recognized religious practice. And I would say that there’s no country in the African diaspora that fully and equally protects African Diaspora religions.
Wow. Well, thank you for that description. That’s really fascinating to learn about those cases in Canada. I know you discuss them in your book as well. We only have a couple minutes left. Could you just describe—I know, it’s a big question for one to two minutes—but could you give us, as a way to close out, just a preview of how and why does the study of law further the study of Africana religions and vice versa? Do you have just a quick thought about that, that we can leave our listeners wanting more and getting ready to buy or borrow your book?
Sure. So, the question of how the study of law furthers the study of Africana religions, I would say is a simple connect back to what I said earlier about how Africana religions were all prohibited at some point in the history of the Americas. And so, to understand the development of these religions, which by nature, African Diaspora religions, we’re talking about religions that came from the African continent but are practice and developing and changing outside the African continent, particularly in the Americas. And so, as these religions are developing and changing and becoming what they are, they’re doing so under the oppression of these discriminatory laws.
And so, laws are definitely in some way shaping the development of these religions, shaping our understandings of them. And in some cases, such as with the term Obeah, we really don’t have a good overarching term to describe some religions, except for a term that comes from the legal system. Obeah is a term that was imposed by the British to describe African spiritual practices in their country, in their colonies. And so, in all these ways, law is shaping Africana religions, and we need to talk about the development of law next to the development of these religions.
And then the response to how the study of Africana religions furthers the study of law is I think, a bit simpler. As I talked about earlier, in my response to the definition of religious racism, I think that we can’t talk about law and about race and law, and in particular, about religion and law, or religious freedom, without talking about Africana religions. And if we do, we’re furthering the racism that has historically said that these are not religions, that they’re not worth our study, that they’re not worth legal recognition. These need to be a part of our history because they were an integral part of the history of every country or colony in the Americas, of every Black society in the Americas. And to ignore them is to ignore a key part of race and law, and to ignore a key part of the history and presence of law and religion or law and religious freedom.
Thank you so much. I think that’s a really excellent point to end on. I have really enjoyed our conversation about your book Banning Black Gods: Law and Religions of the African Diaspora. Thanks also to our listeners, I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did, and we do hope you tune in for the next Religious Studies Project podcast. But for now, thank you, Dr. Boaz for an excellent discussion, for an excellent book, and we hope you enjoyed the experience.
Thank you so much for having me.
Boaz, Danielle N. and Benjamin Marcus. 2021. “Law, Religious Racism, and Religions of the African Diaspora”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 13 September 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 13 September 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/ law-religious-racism-and-religions-of-the-african-diaspora/.
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