Obeah and Experiments with Power
Podcast with J. Brent Crosson
Interviewed by Ray Kim
Transcribed by Jacob Noblett
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/obeah-and-experiments-with-power/
Caribbean religions, Category of Religion, Magic, Obeah, Pentecostalism, Race, Secularism
Ray Kim (RK) 0:01
Hello, everyone. Thank you for tuning in again to The Religious Studies Project. Today we are pleased to have Dr. J. Brent Crosson with us here to discuss his award winning book, Experiments with Power: Obeah and the Remaking of Religion in Trinidad, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2020. Dr. Crosson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, as well as the coordinator for the University’s Caribbeanist Labs on Religion. And his book, Experiments with Power, won the 2021 Clifford Geertz Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion, and is currently shortlisted for the Albert J. Raboteau Prize from the Journal of Africana Religions. Welcome, Dr. Crosson.
J. Brent Crosson (JBC) 0:54
Thanks, so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Well, to get things kicked off, could you start us off by sharing a bit about Trinidad that you have come to know over the course of your research?
Sure, yeah. It’s a subject I love talking about. I was trained as an anthropologist–a cultural anthropologist–and so I did ethnographic research in Trinidad. What that means is simply living and breathing a place, and taking the time that it takes to be transformed by a place, at least partially. And so I lived there for about two years and have gone back continually since. So my research is based on that time I spent there. And to a certain extent, that meant making new kin networks, new friend networks, and learning from the people there. And so one of the kind of cornerstones of the book is kind of reversing a dynamic between object of study and agent of study, or, in other words, what is theory and what is case study? And so I see Trinidad itself as not just an object of study, or an island, geographical frame, but a lens through which to see the world or to see worlds.
So to talk about Trinidad, you know, as a context–I want to make clear that it is a particular context. It’s comprised of in terms of census categories, and I’m going to complicate those hopefully, in our conversation. But in terms of every, the everyday census categories, comprised almost equally, the two largest categories are people of African descent, and people of Indian descent, from India. And I just want to make that clear, because a lot of the time that’s not what people think about when they think about the Caribbean. So Christianity, Hinduism, Islam; in all of their variety of forms, again, I’ll complicate these categories, but they’re all present there. African religions, orisha, which is a Yoruba inspired tradition in the same way that Santería or Lukumi and Cuba or Candomblé in Brazil, are our Yoruba inspired traditions to a considerable extent. Those are all present there, as well as forms of esotericism that often get grouped under the category of Western esotericism. That’s called Kabbalah in Trinidad. Oh, which is not the same thing as what we might be familiar with through Madonna or whatever pop cultural reference or through actual study of the Jewish Kabbalah.
There’s a particular tradition in Trinidad, which involves spirit manifestation of entities that are Kabbalistic entities that include a variety of characters who might be professors, priests, criminals, esoteric writers. And so these are in that’s a part of what I call the threefold path. And so in Trinidad, the threefold path of African religions is comprised of orisha, which is again is a Yoruba inspired tradition devoted to the orishas from West Africa, also absorbing Central African elements. The second one is spiritual Baptists, and that’s overtly Christian again; many orisha practitioners are Christian. Many partitions of Kabbalah are Christian, because these aren’t mutually exclusive categories. In fact, the threefold path refers to people that, to some extent, practice all three of these things.
The spiritual Baptists are a Christian group that practice a form of blindfolding that’s rooted in a biblical passage and has biblical justifications. And this blindfolding is meant to stimulate the spirit to separate from the body and to travel in a world called, or multiple worlds called the Spiritual Lands, in which one might travel to the bottom of the ocean or to the spiritual nations of Africa, India and China, but also to a variety of other locations. And so these are also the principal physical homelands of Trinidad’s people: Africa, India, China, also Syria, but people also travelled to the north polar Europe. I’ve heard different stories about that. But there’s also spiritual nations, and someone who, of African descent, who doesn’t claim any descent from India might find that they’re Indian in the spirit that’s fascinating and have to start adopting certain practices that would be identified with Hinduism or Islam, sometimes those two get conflated. It’s a complicated situation.
So what I’m saying is that Trinidad is not just a small island in geography in the way that we often think about the Caribbean. It’s a lens through which to see the world. And in fact, it contains the world, or a considerable extent of the world, religiously, ethno-racially, and much more. So I’m kind of following in the footsteps of the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, to look at the ways that we can reverse the dynamics between what we’re studying and what we assume to be the agent of study. And so I see not just Trinidad, but also Obeah, which we’ll talk about as lenses through which to reinterpret some of the universals that we use on an everyday basis. And the book most especially is trying to re-conceive of universals of religion, race, community, ethics, secularism, sovereignty, justice, and law. And it’s divided into three parts that address these universals, adopting Trinidad, and my interlocutors’ theorizations as the way through which to really reinterpret these everyday categories that are used all over the world now.
Yeah, and I really appreciate it. I think, reading your book, how you didn’t treat your interlocutors as simply informants. It came off on the pages as partner-theorists, right? That they had deeply complex theories about what religion is, what Obeah is, how it functions, and all these things, and you didn’t simply just kind of treat them as passive objects to learn from or to extrapolate data from. It really felt like you were doing a lot of theorizing with them.
Yeah, I really…I wanted to try to not just treat people or a place as a case study or as an example of an argument, but to be in dialogue in such a way as to transform my own presuppositions. And my own arguments that I was trying to make as I did field work is that, you know, formulate and reformulate whatever it was I was doing there. And it really was a dialogue, where sometimes the tables got turned. And I remember one time explicitly, the guy insisting on interviewing me, after I interviewed him a little bit, and then he was like, ‘okay, now I’m going to interview you.’ That was great. But it wasn’t happening.
Yeah, that’s fair.
And it was happening in other more informal ways, to where people would ask me what I was doing. And sometimes, even in one case, somebody had a dream that I was, a person like me was going to come, although she got–in her dream, it was an Indian man, but it turned out to be a white man. But she had this dream of, of somebody who is coming to, not to become a part of the tradition, but to get a better understanding to learn about it. And she, she opened up to me because of that dream. And so there’s a, there’s a variety of ways of dialoguing that transformed my own presuppositions. And so that’s kind of the foundation for the ethnographic process of the book.
And you already mentioned this word, Obeah, and it’s in your title. If you were to explain it to somebody who’s completely unfamiliar with this term, how would you describe it? How would you define it?
Well, Obeah is many things. And I say in the book that, although I think they made me put in the description for the book that I define what Obeah is, or at least address the question, which I always kind of wanted to resist, because everybody always wants to put Obeah in this box of maybe what a religion would look like or what magic would look like. We’ll talk about that. A lot of the book is written against distinctions between religion and magic. We’ll talk about that later. But I always kind of resisted that, but I think it’s worth talking about. And so Obeah becomes a category in the archival record. And of course, the archival record is, is through the lens of colonial observers, largely in the 18th century, as connected to slave rebellions, slave conspiracies. In particular, the largest slave rebellion of the of the British Caribbean, which was Tacky’s Rebellion, or the Coromantee War of 1760.
Obeah is criminalized as a result of being connected to this rebellion. And what’s foregrounded in accounts of Obeah from British colonial observers is oathtaking. So Obeah becomes connected with taking oaths, mostly the secrecy packs to rebel and with protection in battle, wearing something that might protect one in battle or treating one’s body in such a way as to protect one in battle. And I want to make the comment here that these are mundane practices that can be found in any number of what we call religions. And so wearing something into battle for luck, wear protection, or using a religious object or book or whatever to seal an oath, for example. In a court of law, those are pretty mundane practices, but they were marked as being African in the colonial record, and dangerous.
And they were also described at times as science. And again, in the 18th century, science had a broader meaning than it, or a different meaning than it does to us now that science could mean ‘knowledge.’ Generally, it wasn’t a professionalized practice divided up into various disciplines unnecessarily, as the way we classify science now. So it’s described as science. Described as something that was brought from Africa. And then in debates with abolitionists in Britain, Obeah was used by pro-slavery advocates as an alibi for slavery. As a way to explain the high mortality rates that investigators were finding on slave plantations as a result of something other than horrible working conditions, malnutrition, slavery itself. Yeah, and so it sounds silly, but there was, you know, there was an attempt, in some of the reports to Parliament, to say that, you know, it wasn’t all these horrible conditions. It was somehow fear of Obeah that could cause slaves to die.
So there’s this ambivalence from the beginning of treating Obeah as if it’s very real, as if it has very real and powerful consequences. But slave rebellions, protection in battle, death; but at the same time wanting to say that it’s not real, that it was actually superstitious belief that would cause one to die of fear, rather than, than the actual power of Obeah itself. However, outlawing something and attributing all of these effects to it, obviously, so it will be as a very real threat. And so from the beginning, there’s an ambivalence in the language. And that continues after official emancipation in the British Empire in which Obeah is, is again, comes to be criminalized over the course of the 1800s and gets definitions that define it as, eventually, as any assumption of supernatural power. It’s the wording of the law in Trinidad, but it’s criminalized across the Anglophone Caribbean. So Jamaica, in Jamaica, it’s still technically illegal, as it still is, and in many parts of the independent Anglophone Caribbean. In Trinidad, Obeah was decriminalized in the year 2000. And we can talk about that a bit later.
And so that’s kind of how Obeah becomes a term. Even Diana Payton, who’s a great historian of Obeah, has called it a ‘catch all’ term, a catch all term for any number of practices that might, you might be interested in criminalizing, stigmatizing and coming under a broad umbrella of this idea of supernatural power, which is incredibly vague. And so people that identify as Hindus, Christians, Muslims; are all prosecuted for Obeah, in different ways in Jamaica, and Trinidad into different statistical proportions. So you get this also complication that, despite being identified with Africa, and Africanity, it can be used to prosecute people who are not identified as being from Africa, the indentured laborers from Asia, South Asia, mostly. And so that’s a part of the history of its criminalization as well. And as I said, it’s still technically illegal in many parts of the Caribbean. And there are still negative attitudes as well as positive and vindicatory attitudes toward Obeah.
Across the region, it also played a key role in a Canadian Supreme Court case and number of court cases about the use of the police impersonating Obeah practitioners in Canada to obtain confessions. Why is that acceptable, when it’s not acceptable, for example, for a Catholic priest to obtain a confession and use that as evidence in the court of law? Yeah. And it’s played a key role in British popular culture, to some extent in US popular culture. There’s examples of Luke Cage series and Marvel comic series. But it definitely plays a key role in Britain and Canada, in the US, in the Caribbean, and Central America as well; because they were, Caribbean diaspora is there, and the Caribbean coast of Central America is a part of this story as well.
Okay. And so that’s Obeah. How, how do we relate that to, I guess, power? Power is another recurring theme and a central motif throughout your book. And I found it fascinating, right, that you title your book Experiments with Power, and your interlocutors frequently shoot the term, actually, a lot of the times, explicitly, they’re like, this is not a tradition, right? This is a, this is an experiment, right? And then you have an entire chapter on electricity of Obeah. Could you unpack that a little bit more? Why did you relate Obeah with power?
Well, this is a part of its criminalization. And so on the one hand, there’s a desire to refute this idea that if religion and power do mix, it’s something exceptional and should be criminalized or, or, or denigrated. The argument here is that religion and power, that’s a mundane thing. Religion and power mix and are arguably inseparable. However, there is a process of purification discursively that’s continually happening where the project of the West, and again, though the West is a project, not a place, and it’s a project that happens in many different places, in the project to the West part of its tradition. And again, here, I don’t see tradition and modernity, as opposed. Tradition is simply one modality. I focus more on experimentation. But tradition is an equally valid modality, it’s just that that has already been the focus of how we define what gets called religion.
And so the book is focusing on experimentation, as again, something that is a modality; that things we call religion engage in, it’s not just Obeah. But why is it that Obeah is criminalized for it. And so as far as experimentation, I’ll start with that term, then I’ll move to power. Experimentation is associated with science, to some extent with the arts. But I make the point that it’s a modality that religious formations do engage in, and that Obeah is explicitly experimental, particularly at moments where norms, for example, I talk about a burial a justice-seeking burial, where the very order and orientation of a burial is inverted, turned upside down, violated; to achieve a kind of unprecedented effect, which is the prosecution of, of police officers who shot and killed two women and one man at my field site. And there’s a long history of Obeah being connected to justice-seeking, that’s a part of its history that I just went over, obviously, through slave resistance.
But the idea that Obeah is experimentation, in some ways, goes against the ideas that we have of tradition, or even of magic. Although, at different moments in time, magic has been seen as experimental, or even as a kind of proto-science in the anthropological literature. But I’m working against purifications here that constantly seek to define religion, whether implicitly or explicitly through oppositions to science, modernity, or experimentation. And so I show how Obeah is experimental. How practitioners are willing to try out new sources of inspiration, which, through books, through dreams, that can then be accepted or rejected based on trial.
And so one of my key interlocutors who I called ‘Pathway’ in the book, he’s like a father to me in the research. He says, “I don’t believe and I don’t doubt until I experiment.” And that was his philosophy of religion. He used to, he used to be a pastor, but he rejected that, became indigent, because he did that, because all of his networks were through the Christian church that he was involved in. Yeah. And he adopted this philosophy of religion, which I think is incredibly common, although it’s not often remarked upon, except perhaps in studies of spiritual but not religious, or New Age, where it’s kind of seen as being some kind of buffet picking by white people of Eastern traditions or something. But I think there’s something else that’s going on here. And so he had an experimental philosophy of religion, and that it was based on trial experimentation, and also experience, which is a root of the word experimentation.
So I see Obeah as experimental. And that really comes up in chapter six when I’m talking about this way that, in the Anglophone Caribbean, Obeah, the word ‘Obeah’ and the word ‘science’ are synonyms. And they have been for quite some time, as I remarked upon. And so how is it that Obeah, the epitome of so-called African superstition, in many popular and colonial accounts, could be equated with science, which is supposed to be the epitome of modern Western rationality? And so part of the book is deconstructing this opposition and seeing things that might get categorized as magic or religion as experimental. Again, I don’t talk about this modality of tradition as much, but you could say Obeah is traditional. Again, I don’t see tradition as opposed to modernity. In fact, I see modernity as being traditional as the project of the West and part of its tradition is projecting onto others’ magic, projecting onto others’ irrationality.
And we do unpack that a little bit, right? The sanitization of this category of religion, right? Religion, what gets officially recognized as religion, or all these things that are, it’s not superstitious. It’s not backwards. It’s not illogical. It’s geared towards ethics. It’s about transforming an individual towards leading an ethical life, X, Y, and Z. All things that are framed through a dominant lens, right? And the one who is to use this term, in power, setting the terms about what falls into that category of religion. And then I think as you demonstrate, using force, violent force to exclude those who fall out of that category.
Right, yeah. So I guess that brings me to power. I got to go back to your original question about experimentation in power. There has been an attempt, as you say, to purify religion from power, and to transcend power, which is a part of the project of liberalism that I talk about. Again, in talking about that, I don’t want it to be confused with what we call liberal on the US political spectrum. But I’m talking about liberalism, rather, as a kind of philosophical movement that’s bound up with the project of the West, that’s in economics, tied in with capitalism, free market ideologies. And on the social side, the classic theorist is [John] Locke, and is, it’s bound up with this idea of religion being able to transcend power, and that that’s the way that we’ll see achieved secular tolerance.
But bound up in this project is an attempt to purify religion of power, which is in itself violent, and uses power to try to enact this impossible purification. And it, it does so through a constant tradition, or projection. And so projecting improper mixture of power and religion on to Islam or Obeah. And so it’s a project of reform, and it needs others to reform. And so this is a part of the tradition of, of modernity, that, again, I’m focusing on experimentation in power. And I see, power is a mundane feature of religious practice. But there’s an attempt to purify religion of power. And I think this goes to one of your later questions. What are the implications of this desire, this attempt to transcend power? That is integral to what I call liberalism.
In your book, you write the idea that good religion or good governance can be separated from coercive force, is the foundation for the ideas of liberal secularism, and you brought it up just a moment ago. What do you think we can begin learning once we free ourselves from this kind of implicit bias or assumption, perhaps?
Right, and again, when I’m talking about liberal, it’s not the same as liberal as we use it on the US political spectrum. It’s the kind of ideology that in some ways, encompasses both dominant Democrat and Republican ideologies in different ways. But I think the very idea that we could be freed from this assumption is itself a kind of premise of liberalism, which is an ideology of freedom, with freedom defined as opposed to power. So that’s where I think idealized liberal visions of free markets, and democracy come from, which are constantly trying to get away from power. The idea that democracy can be an idealized form of governance, this idea of cryptocurrency with people that are all into that in saying that we can make a–this revolution that will be totally self organizing, using the free market to change society for the better. These are kind of idealized visions of free markets on the one hand, and democracy on the other. And my point is that there are moral, or ethical presumptions behind this desire for the transcendence of power.
And that leads to the need to project these problems onto others. And I think the idea that religion can be separated from coercive force is part of the project of reform, that is the West. Now, there’s a question there about to what extent maybe it’s not a perfect project, but it’s a direction to move toward. For example, isn’t it bad when a religious leader uses power, violence, or coercion to control other people, for example? And certainly, there are limits to this, where it’s quite obvious that we can draw lines, but to some extent, the idea that religion is chosen, and this is the basis for Locke’s ideas of tolerance, is that religion must be chosen by the individual. But the idea that religion is simply chosen and doesn’t involve any kind of power or force isn’t really tenable. And so with Obeah, Obeah is kind of rendered as being aberrant in colonial laws, because it’s an assumption of supernatural power to get things done. And that kind of brings up the magic/religion divide which has been the classic divide, which is indebted to this idea that religion can be separated from power where magic is instrumental. Magic is what tries to get something done, whereas religion is just devotional or ethereal or otherworldly and not instrumental or manipulative in any way.
And that brings me up another question, and which is interesting, because throughout your book, you also discuss the Pentecostals, who are quite literally waging a crusade against what they perceive to be Spiritual opponents, right? This spiritual war against Obeah. And, and other religious competitions, right? Why is that not always viewed as an instrumentalization of faith or instrumentalization of prayer? Right? If you are waging war against the powers and principalities that you can’t be seen, right? At least is what as the Pentecostals believe. Praying against these demons, could we not characterize that as being an instrumentalization? Or an experiment with power as well?
Yeah, I think so. That’s a really great point. And I talk a lot about spiritual warfare in the concluding chapter, chapter six, where I focus on a series of what were called demonic possessions that happened at the secondary school where I did my field research, and the ways that this was attributed to Obeah, but also to other things such as the principle of being Muslim, or various other kind of non-Christian influences. I think you’re absolutely right. And that’s where it gets complicated, right? Because I don’t want to return to invectives against magic to, to render Pentecostal practices as being bad in some way. And I think that there are also a variety of viewpoints, there is a minority viewpoint within Pentecostal churches, which is a decentralized movement, and people can have a variety of opinions there; for a variety of opinions in regards to the place of African identified traditions.
And so you even see Pentecost. There’s a Pentecostal church that does public rituals with spiritual Baptists, who are often spiritual, are often considered to be representatives of Obeah or Africanity. But there are Pentecostal churches that would be open to that. However, there is power of spiritual warfare ideology, which is the idea that we’re involved in a battle of good and evil: Christianity and non-Christianity. And that’s a war. And so obviously, wars are violent, right? So this is not religion, divorced from violence, even if it is spiritual violence. So those we see in various cases that can bleed over into actual physical violence against African religions. Danielle Boaz has written a great book about that, which I think was reviewed on your network. And I wrote a response to it about this kind of violence, often stemming from Pentecostal movements against African religions in Brazil, other parts of the Diaspora or West Africa.
So yeah, we could say that this is an experiment with power. The distinction I make in the book is that there’s a certain idea of morality, on which that war is based. That is different than the kind of ethics that I often found amongst spiritual workers. Spiritual work is really the emic, more neutral term for what gets called Obeah. Problem solving spiritual practices that are often identified as being African but which have a variety of inspirational sources. The contrast there is that in spiritual warfare, there’s a definitive battle between good and evil in which the lines are very, very clearly drawn in victory of good over evil, will release us or usher in an age of redemption. Now, what I found amongst practitioners of the threefold path of African religions in Trinidad, was an idea of morality, which I detail in chapter three of balance, and of there being a balance between positive and negative. And that being an ethical, ethical ideal.
You give the analogy of the car battery, right? The positive and negative, like, they’re neither good or bad. They’re just, they’re both.
Yeah, I call it electrical ethics. And so it’s not an idea that certain negative forces aren’t bad, because they may be dangerous. They maybe want things that you wouldn’t want to approach or play with, but that they exist in the world and that the ability to know them, to some extent, can be a source of power, and that that power can be harnessed in certain ways for justice making or for ends that would be perceived as being desirable. And there’s even a sense that ways that that gets inverted, especially in the Kabbalah, because the Kabbalah is kind of the most negatively viewed of the threefold practices of African religion, where the Kabbalah you know, includes demons or demonology. And within the threefold, within the field of African religions, there’s no consensus about whether that’s acceptable or not, some people don’t want to have anything to do with Kabbalah. Even though there are practitioners of African religions, because it deals with Christian demonology. It deals with things that have been often considered the very epitome of, of evil.
But there’s even an attempt. There’s even a way that Kabbalah will sometimes flip these moral hierarchies back and forth in talking about what’s light and dark, what’s good and bad, in order to generate knowledge and power that can be harnessed and used in ways. And so the idea is that power has negative and positive polarities, and that rather than kind of eradicating the negative polarity and just having the positive one, it needs both to flow. And for electricity to flow there has to be both of these polarities. That doesn’t mean it’s not ethical, because this is an, this is an ethics with virtues. But it’s not the same kind of ethics as that which is involved in spiritual warfare, at least, partially. Because again, there’s, and this goes to your question about [Émile] Durkheim, but what I highlight in the book is the disagreement within communities that we might call one religion, or one viewpoint, but that there’s even disagreement within, like I said. There’s disagreement amongst Pentecostals. There’s disagreement amongst practitioners of African religion, as to the ethics of different practices. And so that could go to your question about, about Durkheim, and ideas about magic and religion.
I know we’re running close to the time. So I’m going to ask this one last question. And I guess it’s more of a speculative question for you. What do you think is in store for the future of Obeah? In Trinidad, right, I know right now, there are very limited protections against practitioners of Obeah, of spiritual workers in general, that there’s still a very negative perception socially about Obeah. And the spiritual workers, regardless of whether people seek them out or not for their services, right? Do you think that will be, could one day become protected under these quote unquote, “religious freedom laws?” Or is that even something that spiritual workers of Obeah seek?
Yeah, I think it’s a good bet. It’s interesting, though, that when Obeah has been decriminalized, for example, in Trinidad, it was in reference to freedom of religion protections in the Constitution. However, it wasn’t necessarily freedom of religion for Obeah, it was the idea that Obeah could lead to discrimination against other forms of religion that were recognized as religion. That discrimination against Obeah could lead to discrimination against all African identified religions. It wasn’t a vindication of Obeah, so much as the idea that Obeah being a catch all category in a very discriminatory category, could adversely reflect these practices that did have recognized religious organizations, that were affiliated with one political party or another. That was the rationale given for Obeah. So even when it’s in reference to freedom of religion, it’s not necessarily freedom of religion for Obeah itself, although, again, these lines between Obeah, what is Obeah, what is religion; are incredibly complicated.
So I think there is hope, and there’s active movements, you know, in Trinidad. I should say to you, one of the arguments of the book is it’s, it’s a gross oversimplification to state that Caribbean people have simply internalized all of these colonial anti-African and anti-Obeah sentiments, and thus have these entirely negative views of Obeah. The first chapter really takes that argument, what I call the ‘colonial false consciousness argument’ to task, and I show how people have complex views about Obeah that are context contingent. So even one person, within one person, there might be different views on Obeah, that get activated in different situations. So I talked about the so-called mass demonic possessions at the local secondary school in the way that Obeah was really pinned onto the, onto the region where I worked. Stereotyping it as being backwards or full of witchcraft. And that’s why these things were happening. And so in that moment, I found a lot of people dissociating from Obeah and saying, ‘no, this isn’t something that we do here.’
This is something we identify with. This is something, you know, those people in the cities practice, and they just come down here looking for it. It’s where we’re just, it’s a kind of rural region that had been stigmatized, or even sometimes celebrated as being a cradle of Obeah. So there’s dissociation in that event. Then I go to the police shootings with the police shot two young women and one man in a really brutal episode, and Obeah got activated during the protest as being a source of power that could trump the prejudices of the criminal justice system, or the inertia of the criminal justice system toward actually prosecuting police. And so in that way, there was an avowal of Obeah in various ways. So I think that there already are a variety of attitudes toward Obeah. Although it generally gets kind of hidden under this umbrella of negative and that this is an internalization of colonial false consciousness within Jamaica, to take another example, there are movements to decriminalize Obeah. And it’s within reference to religious freedom protections, but also with reference to African heritage and heritage protection.
Now this gets complicated because I was called in to do this radio interview in a radio station in Antigua. Where three Indian nationals men from India, who were guest workers there, had been arrested for practicing Obeah for doing kind of Hindu astrology in a place of business. And that wasn’t recognizable as Obeah to the people that called in from Jamaica, because their rationale for decriminalizing Obeah that it was an African heritage that should be protected. So there are limits to all of these rationales. Another argument could be that, well, because Obeah was a catch all category, that’s precisely why it needs to be decriminalized because it could include just about any practice if it was practiced by a subaltern non-white person. And so that’s precisely the danger of, of keeping Obeah criminalized. But within this, these contexts, certainly born-again Christian movements play a big role in the region. And there is a lot of anti-Obeah sentiment that, that’s still active. For example, in the Antigua case, it was a born-again Christian movement that had really protested outside of the Hindu astrologer’s place of business and got them deported. That made that an event and activated anti-Obeah sentiments and anti Obeah-laws.
So these things are still being worked out and struggled with. Obeah shows the limits of some of these liberal ideals of tolerance and religious freedom. And so I think that’s important to recognize, too, is to look at the limits of some of these protections. Another example is the Canadian Supreme Court and high court cases where Obeah was declared a religion that could be worthy of protection under Canadian law, but that it was still okay for a police officer to impersonate an Obeah practitioner to gain a confession, which is very forcefully, like the police officer ran into this woman’s car, ingratiated himself into her as an Obeah practitioner, left dead crow on her doorstep, did all of these–I don’t know how they got a dead crow.
But if you did all of these things, it did all of these things to, you know, really forcefully push themselves on this woman to, in order for her to incriminate her. Her children are adopted children. And it was deemed to be okay because Obeah in the trial was either totally evil or not dedicated to a moral purpose, whereas some Christian confession would be. So again, there’s this double standard where even within ideas that religious freedom is valid, there could still be these moral, what I call ‘moral racial distinctions’ that can still be activated to deny rights. And so it’s important to pay attention to the limits of religious freedom protections.
Well, in closing, I just want to say Experiments with Power was such a fun book. It has so many rich stories that I think really challenges every, any reader, right? About what presuppositions, about what these categories of religion, tradition, magic mean; really challenging us to think through the nuanced interfaces between religion and power, right? Whether power is construed as state power or divine power, and overall, I just found this so fun to read. Thank you for joining us. Dr. Crosson thank you for being so generous with your time.
Thanks so much, Ray. Thanks for the wonderful questions. It was a really great exercise for me.
All right, well, take care everybody and see you next time!
Crosson, J. Brent and Ray Kim. 2022. “Obeah and Experiments with Power”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. Transcribed by Jacob Noblett. Version 1.0, 09 April 2022. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/obeah-and-experiments-with-power/.
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