“The Misappropriation of the Concept of Culture in Black Diasporic Religions: The Case for the ‘Black Church’ and ‘Haitian Vodou”

I wrote this piece below three years ago, precisely in November 22, 2018. I might need to refine it for the sake of greater rhetorical clarity, but my basic thesis stands. It deals with the relationship between theory and practice, and the intersections of religion and culture, and other elements and practices that enrich our shared humanity. It rejects the common thesis in African American abd Haitian Studies that make religion an essential aspect of Black culture. In other words, it rejects a form of (Black) religious ontology connected to a particular form of (Black) cultural essentialism.

I developed this thesis with greater exegetical detail and analytical interpretation in one of my most important books, “Revolutionary Change and Democratic Religion: Christianity, Vodou, and Secularism” (2020)

“The Misappropriation of the Concept of Culture in Black Diasporic Religions: The Case for the ‘Black Church’ and ‘Haitian Vodou”

One of the major issues in Black Diasporic Religious History is the misinterpretation and misappropriation of the concept of “culture” to the sphere of (Black) religion. While African Americans scholars have argued that “The Black or Negro Church” is the birthplace of Black culture, similarly, Haitian scholars have contended that “Vodou” is Haiti’s culture. In both perspectives, black culture is identified with religion as an essential category of black life and existence. In other words, black existence is essentially a religious phenomenon the same way black culture is essentially a religious practice.

It seems to me we’re dealing with a categorical misappropriation and conceptual misunderstanding in both contexts: that of African American, and that of Haitian. Culture includes the sum of all (human) practices, beliefs, philosophy, ideologies, traditions, lifestyle, language, food, music, food, clothing, painting, the arts, ideas of beauty, aesthetics, values, worldviews, rites of passage, family, morality, ethics, etc. Culture is not restricted to just and only one (“cultural”) phenomenon or (“cultural”) element, as noted above. Culture is a broad concept that encompasses multiple (human) expressions, modalities, and the soul of the human experience.

It is a false misappropriation of the concept of culture when one posits that one particular item such as religion constitutes a people’s full and integral culture. The existence of a nation, a people’s or racial group is not contingent to its religious worldview–as important as religion as a human tradition is and might be to help us see through the soul of a people or racial category. Religion is not the sole denominator of a people’s dignity and personhood, in the collective sense. While we understand that religion is an essential characteristic in human existence, but human existence should not be equated restrictively with religion. Religion is not just spiritual, it is a form of social identity in the same way human beings are spiritual as much as they are also relational, rational, and social animals or beings.

Therefore, as social animals, human beings express their humanness (or ontology) through music, painting, food, dance, or any form of entertainment that articulates the human experience in the world. These are different forms of human communication, which do not necessarily associate with faith or which do not have to be linked to religion. Religion is a form of human connection and communication.
In the same line of thought, human beings as complex entities articulate their sense of themselves and ways of being in the world through various ethical, religious, and philosophical beliefs and worldviews. A belief does not have to be associated with religion the same way religion can be construed as a body of thought (belief) and as a body of practical rituals, performances, and physical expressions. A philosophy as a body of knowledge is not essentially connected to religion; all philosophical systems are not essentially religious ideas the same way that all ethical frameworks are not essentially philosophical, moral, or religious. On the other hand, there are some philosophical and moral beliefs that have a religious connection or basis.
Further, religion not only constitutes a system of belief–whether theological, moral, ethical, philosophical, political–but also a system of practices or rituals. Religion is not only a body of ideas; it also includes everyday practices, but not all ideas are religious in nature and not all everyday practices are (and should be) essentially religious.

Comparatively, it is also a terrific misunderstanding of the idea of religion to be the engine of culture just because of the fact of the complexity of human nature and the various expressions of human interplays in the world. The human (“The Black Experience”) experience is not one of a religion, but some experiences can be religious and non-religious, equally. The elevation of religion to the whole of the human experience in the world, as “The Black Church” (or “The Negro Church”), a form of religion and an expression of the African American culture, is said to be the “birthplace of black culture” and that the whole of the Haitian culture and identity (cultural identity) is essentially linked to “Haitian Vodou,” a form of religion and an expression of Haitian culture, is a categorical fallacy, which needs to be reassessed, even rejected in contemporary African American Religious scholarship and contemporary Haitian Religious scholarship.

Culture is not religion, and religion is not culture. Nonetheless, religion is a constituent of culture or a cultural element and expression just like language, music, dance, food, and painting are various forms of cultural communication. These various forms of culture are either religious and non-religious, profane and spiritual. Religion is one category of the broad concept of culture. Black Diasporic and African-derived religions such as the Shango of Trinidad and Grenada; the Candomblé of Brazil; the Vodou of Haiti, the Santería of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic; the Kunina and Obeah of Jamaica; the Kele of St Lucia; the Confa Obeah of Guyana; and the Vodou and Hoodoo of the United States had their genesis in the broad notion of (Afro-Diasporic) culture; they are all cultural expressions in religion. By consequence, “The Negro Church” is not the birthplace of Black (the African American) culture, both before and after slavery. From the same perspective, Haitian culture is not originated in Haitian Vodou. As previously argued, religion has always been a cultural category and an essential element of culture, both in continental Africa and before the institution of slavery, and after the emancipation of the African people in the United States and the nation of Haiti. While the “The Black Church” emerged from the system of slavery and it is in fact a form of slave culture, African American religion is connected to the pre-slavery (Black African Religious) tradition. This same argument can be made for Haitian Vodou and Haitian culture.”

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