What is Africa to Me? When Chinua Achebe is Wrong!
In my current research for a book chapter, I’m investigating Chinua Achebe’s interpretation of African traditional humanism and African traditional religion (s). In reading his important work, “The Education of a British-Protected Child,” Achebe articulates an important statement about African pre-colonial past and achievement, and Black Existence and Dignity:
“I do not see that it is necessary for any people to prove to another that they build cathedrals or pyramids before they can be entitled to peace and safety. Flowing from that, it is not necessary for black people to invent a great fictitious pas in order to justify their human existence and dignity today. What they must do is recover what belongs to them–their story– and tell it themselves.”–Chinua Achebe, “The Education of a British-Protected Child”
Generally, I agree with the general intent of Chinua’s powerful statement above. Accordingly, I do not have to tell a racist that my ancestors had built great civilizations in precolonial Africa to prove my humanity as a black person. To put this simply, “I created therefore I am.” Chinua would reject this premise in the Cartesian logic.
Hence, we must separate black personhood and black achievement. They belong to two different categories or spheres. In the same line of thought, black dignity should not be dependent on racial achievement or heritage. In other words, Black lives matter regardless of the education, social standing, and wealth of black people. Black personhood is linked categorically and naturally to black existence, and that black dignity is premised on black existence. Black existence Is!
On the other hand, Chinua’s declaration has compelled me to reconsider a few more things. There are many problems with his articulated position. First, what if the process of recovering what rightfully belongs to them (the African people or the black Diaspora) involves the telling of their historical (pre-colonial) past–Isn’t that a belonging?–and the defense or vindication of their past achievements. Secondly, what if the process of recovering what rightfully belongs to them also entails their claim of entitlement of their historical accomplishments in global history?
Telling the collective story of a people could be construed as an attempt to teach and reteach others about what has been forgotten or intentionally ignored by others–such as the contributions of the people in question to universal civilizations and modernity.
For example, why should any black person be ashamed to affirm that W.E. B. Du Bois was the first African American of Haitian descent to receive a PhD from Harvard University? And the same Du Bois is a founding father of modern sociology? If our past is great and awesome, why not celebrating and making it known to the world?
Religion, Religious Affiliation, and Haitian National Identity
In this brief post, I would like to communicate a few ideas about three important issues that are intertwined and closely related to each other: religion, religious affiliation, and the construction of self and collective national identity based on certain religious tradition or system. The emphasis of this brief reflection will be on Haitian Vodou and Haitian (national) identity. Here are my 13 propositions:
1. Religious experience could be both personal and collective.
2. Religious piety is not spirituality.
3. Religious affiliation is a choice–at least in most Western societies and nation-states. (I understand it may not be a personal choice in certain countries where religious freedom is limited or not prized!) It is also observed that some countries in the Middle East, for example, have adopted a state religion such as Islam.
4. While a person may be born into a particular religious tradition or system–such as Haitian Vodou, Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.–genuine religious affiliation, however, should be a personal choice of the individual.
As we say in Kreyol, “Yo pa achte Lwa” (“One cannot buy a Lwa/Spirit) (Nonetheless, I do understand that Vodou is also a family religion, and the religious heritage can be passed on from one generation to the next. However, that in itself does not qualify a family member to automatically become a Vodouizan, a Hougan or Mambo. Allow me to share a personal example: my grandmother from my mother’s side was a mambo (Vodou priestess), and my grandfather from my mother’s side served many lwa, even married to several of them (Spiritual marriage in Vodou). Nonetheless, my mother never practiced Vodou nor has she inherited the tradition or passed it on to her children. My father’s parents (my grandparents) were not Vodou practitioners). From this vantage point, religious affiliation is certainly not an entitlement.
5. Hence, to be born into a Haitian family does not automatically make one a Vodouizan or Vodouist.
6. Haiti is a country. Haitian is a national identity. Vodouizan is a religious affiliation. These three things are not the same and certainly not synonymous or interchangeable.
7. Haitians, both in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora, have embraced various and competing religious affiliations. Haitians are Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Catholic practitioners, Protestants, Agnostics, Atheists, Secular humanists, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, etc. As a result, Haitians are free to embrace any religious worldview or system.
8. Vodou is one among other religions practiced by Haitians both in Haiti and the Diaspora. Our ancestral faith is not monolithic; it is rather pluralistic. (In fact, Vodou itself is not a homogeneous religion.) Our African ancestors who were brought by force to the island of Saint Domingue brought with them various traditions, practices, customs, and competing religious practices and worldviews including Christianity, African Traditional religions, Islam, etc. While living on the island, they also adopted the religions of the Native Americans, and incorporated them into the religion of Vodou; they have also integrated Christian rituals and theology, and Masonic humanist morality and rituals into Vodou. While a large number of the enslaved population practiced what is now labelled as Haitian Vodou, not all of them were Vodou practitioners.
9. To embrace another religion other than Vodou should not be construed as the devalorization of the Haitian culture—since religions and cultures are human inventions and part of the process and theory we call social constructionism. In a true democratic state, the individual is granted the right of religious freedom and preference.
*The ideology in contemporary Haitian scholarship is that to be Haitian is to be a Vodouizan. Many Haitianist scholars have “essentialized Vodou” as the religion of all Haitians, just like certain individuals have “essentialized” race and culture. This tendency among scholars, both in the Anglophone and Francophone worlds, does not do justice to the reality and the lived-experiences of the Haitian people–both in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora. I would suggest that Vodou, Christianity, and Islam had played a pivotal role in the Haitian Revolution since Vodou itself is a syncretized faith which integrates Christian moral theology and ritual into its own brand of practice. Secondly, Francois Makandal, Dutty Boukman, and other important maroon leaders, and revolutionary leaders embraced Islam; they were also Vodouizan. Thirdly, the founding fathers Toussaint Louverture and Alexandre Petion were devout Roman Catholic by confession. In 1816, President Petion had invited Protestant Christianity in Haiti–what is now called today “Evangelical Christianity—only 12 yrs after the founding of the new nation of Haiti ( I do understand there is a great divide between Evangelical Christianity of the 19th century and that of the 21st century, as to their political affiliation and theological confessions). Fourthly, a large number of the enslaved Africans practiced Vodou as a religion; on the other hand, the enslaved Congolese who were brought to Saint-Domingue at the end of the 18th century were equally Catholic Christians as Catholicism became the state religion of Congo in early 15th century– even before Christopher Columbus visited the Americas. A large number of the enslaved Senegalese who were brought to the island were Muslims–an important point Jean Price-Mars affirms in Chapter 3 (L’Afrique, ses races et sa civilisation”) in “Ainsi parla l’Oncle.”
In summary, in Haiti’s contemporary society, there are three major religious practices: Vodou, Protestant/Evangelical Christianity, Vodou, Roman Catholicism. (Islam is growing rapidly in Protestant Christianity is practiced by 45% of the Haitian population. It is probably more in 2016–giving the wide spread of Evangelical Christianity in post-earthquake Haitian society.). While Vodou is among the most practiced religions by Haitians in Haiti, Haiti doe not have “one single religious tradition.” Our ancestral faith is also Vodou, Christianity, and Islam.
10. To be a Haitian Muslim or Christian does not make one an inferior Haitian Patriot.
11. In the same line of thought, the Vodouizan is not a superior Haitian than the Haitian atheist or agnostic.
12. Freedom of religion means the opportunity one has to choose or reject a certain faith among others. Religious freedom means a person who is affiliated with a certain religious tradition is free to share his or faith with another individual of a different religious persuasion or to someone who has no religious affiliation.
13. Since religion like culture is a social construction or human invention, no religion or culture has the monopoly.
My new book has arrived today. It is so good to finally hold it in my hands.
Radical Humanism and Generous Tolerance: Soyinka on Religion and Human Solidarity (2016) by Celucien L. Joseph
Dr. Celucien L. Joseph, Assistant Professor of English at Indian River State College, talks about his new book on the Nigerian public intellectual, social critic, and esteemed playright Wole Soyinka, Radical Humanism and Generous Tolerance: Soyinka on Religion and Human Solidarity (Hope Outreach Productions, 2016).
Dear Friends and Faithful Readers: I’m pleased to announce the publication of my new book, Radical Humanism and Generous Tolerance: Soyinka on Religion and Human Solidarity
Radical Humanism and Generous Tolerance: Soyinka on Religion and Human Solidarity (Hope Outreach Productions, 2016) Authored by Celucien L Joseph, PhD
List Price: $19.99
6″ x 9″ (15.24 x 22.86 cm)
Black & White on White paper
BISAC: Religion / Comparative Religion
Radical Humanism and Generous Tolerance articulates the religious ideas and vision of Wole Soyinka in his non-fiction writings. It also analyzes Soyinka’s response to religious violence, terror, and the fear of religious imperialism. The book suggests the theoretical notions of radical humanism and generous tolerance best summarize Soyinka’s religious ideals and religious piety.
In response to religious violence and fanaticism in the world, Soyinka turns to the ethics and values of humanism as a better alternative to religious exclusivism and claims of absolute truths, and as a way to promote global peace, planetary love, and cultivate interreligious dialogue and understanding. Soyinka’s radical humanism is grounded in the religious ethos and sensibility, and the moral vision of the Yoruba people, as well as in the Western theistic Humanist tradition and secularism.
Through a close reading of Soyinka’s religious works, the book argues that African traditional religions could be used as a catalyst to promote religious tolerance and human solidarity, and that they may also contribute to the preservation of life, and the fostering of an ethics of care and relationality. Soyinka brings in conversation Western Humanist tradition and African indigenous Humanist tradition for the sake of the world, for the sake of global shalom, and for the sake of human flourishing.
Celucien L. Joseph, PhD (University of Texas at Dallas) is an Assistant Professor of English at Indian River State College.
The book can be purchased on amazon by clicking on the link below: