Tag Archives: religion and slavery

African Spiritual: Religion and Children’s Books

The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child does not specifically say that a child has the right to choose his or her religion.  However, it mentions both religion and morality several times.  In Principle 1, it says that “Every child, without any exception whatsoever, shall be entitled to these rights without distinction or discrimination on account of . . . religion”.  Principle 2 argues that “The child shall enjoy special protection . . . to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially”.  Principle 6 says that the child should grow up “in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security”.  Principle 7 says that children’s education should develop a “sense of moral and social responsibility”.  And Principle 10 argues that “The child shall be protected from practices which may foster racial, religious and any other form of discrimination.”  But today I am taking as my starting point for a discussion on religion and the UN declaration Principle 9, which states that children “shall not be the subject of traffic, in any form.”

At first glance, this principle does not seem to have anything to do with religion.  But in fact, the historical period when African children were most likely to be trafficked, that is, the period of European enslavement of African people, was the period when Africans were most likely to lose their traditional forms of religion.  During enslavement, some African people were prevented from practicing their religion in a community.  Some were too young to remember or have learned the traditional religious practices of their community.  Some were given incentives to convert (or at least appear to convert) to Christianity.  All of these had an effect on the way that people of African descent in the Americas, the Caribbean and in Europe practiced religion—and these effects can be seen in children’s books right up to today.


Morna Stuart’s story of two boys enslaved in Haiti and in France during the revolution includes reference to Yoruba religious tradition.

Many of the enslaved African people came or were descended from West African tribal groups, including the Yoruba people.  The main religion of the Yoruba was based on multiple deities and spirit guides, or orisha.  When Yoruba people were enslaved and brought to the Americas and the Caribbean, their religion changed.  In West Africa at the time, one of the gods, Ogun, was the deity associated primarily with iron—used for weapons but also agricultural implements and hunting tools, and thus a destroyer and creator god.  John Parker points out that in Haiti, “It was the aggressive, warlike attributes . . . which came to the fore on the Caribbean island, where hunting and smithing were less important than in West Africa” (Journal of Religion in Africa 28.4: 495).  Many of the French-speaking islands had enslaved people who practiced a modified version of the Yoruba religion, one which often mixed in elements of Catholic religious practices and saints; the modified religion is referred to as Vaudou, Voudou, or Voodoo.  This change can be seen in Morna Stuart’s Marassa and Midnight (New Windmills 1969) when one of the main characters calls on “Ogoun . . . the African God of fire and war” (4).  Stuart is unusual in portraying African-based religion as ordinary and acceptable; most writers whether Black or white (Stuart was white Scottish) depict alternative religions as at best anomalies practiced only by outsiders and at worst superstition.


This cover of Benjamin’s Coming to England declares that “Belonging is the most important thing”–but white Christians did not make Benjamin and her family feel welcome in the church, even though the Benjamin family had always been Christian too.

Indeed, by the 20th century, many people of African descent in the Caribbean (and the Americas) were members of a Christian (usually Protestant) religion.  However, their method of worship was often very different from European (and European-descent) Christians, so even when they were practicing the colonizer’s religion, they weren’t always accepted.  Floella Benjamin, in Coming to England (Puffin 1997), discusses her visits to traditional Church of England services when she and her family first arrived in England from Trinidad.  “Inside, the light from the stained glass windows shone on the handful of people taking part in the mild, controlled, unemotional service—not at all like the ones I was used to” (113).  Trying to make herself feel at home, Floella sings the hymns in the manner to which she was accustomed—i.e., loudly and joyfully—only to overhear the white congregation criticize her on the church steps.  Her family eventually switches to a church started by other people from the West Indies, “always full to the brim with people rejoicing out loud” (114).


The cover of Tony Medina’s I and I, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson. The phrase “I and I” was not meant to signify rugged individualism, but rather a connection to God and to the community.

Other people of African descent created their own forms of worship.  Probably the most well-known (though not necessarily understood) of these on a global scale is Rastafari.  Rastafari began in the 1930s in Jamaica, and mixed Protestant religious ideas with Pan-African ideals and a mysticism attained through a simple diet and the use of cannabis.  Bob Marley, perhaps the most famous Rastafarian to date, is one of the few who are portrayed entirely positively.  Most Rastafarians are presented as loners, sometimes spiritual but always outsiders.  Tony Medina explains the title of his biography of Marley, I and I (Lee and Low 2009) by saying, “The ‘I and I’ of the title is, like Bob himself, multifaceted.  It is a way of referring to oneself, yet it means more than simply ‘I’.  ‘I and I’ can refer to the unity of God . . . and every human—meaning God is within all of us and we are all one people. . . . It discourages thinking of oneself solely as an individual but instead as part of a community” (n.p.).  But Rastafarians in Britain often faced not only isolation from their community, but trouble from the white police force.  Farrukh Dhondy, in “Go Play Butterfly” (Come to Mecca, Collins 1978) shows his character Jojo “wearing a red, green and gold tam” (119), a symbol of Rastafari, right before he is beaten by the police at carnival.


Colin Williams’ illustration of Dhondy’s “Go Play Butterfly,” on the cover of a later edition, does not include the Rastafarian character being beaten up by the police.

It’s enough to make a person of African descent want to give up on any religion connected to European traditions in any way, and return to the religion of their ancestors.  This is, after a fashion, what Tomi Adeyemi does in her debut novel, Children of Blood and Bone (Macmillan 2018).  The novel is a fantasy, but it uses Yoruba-based gods and goddesses (including Ogun) and their traditionally-allocated spheres of influence.  Adeyemi, who is Nigerian-American, uses Nigerian understandings of these spheres; thus, Ògún is the deity with influence over iron and earth; fire belongs to Sangó and war to humans.  The novel itself depicts what happens when a child is ripped away first from her mother and then from her religion (although it is called “magic” in the novel, it functions as a religion).  When Zélie realizes she has lost her magic, “The realization reopens a gaping hole inside of me” (456) and notes that “It’s like losing Mama all over again” (456).  Adeyemi’s novel serves as a powerful (and possibly unconscious) metaphor for what happened to Africans who were taken from their mother country and then had their religion taken from them as well, often by brutal force.  Children have a right not to be trafficked—in no small part because doing so can take away or alter their ability to believe in, or reject, the faith into which they were born.


The cover illustration by Rich Deas for Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, which blends a fantasy world with traditional Nigerian religion.Mo


A Band of Angels Coming After Me

As people across the world mourn the shooting of nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church, comparisons have been made with shooter Dylann Roof’s act and that of four white supremacists who, in 1963, planted bombs at another historic church—the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls. This is an apt comparison, even though it may seem incomprehensible that a person would attack a church group, whether killing little girls or accusing the people gathered for peaceful Bible study of “raping our women and taking over the country.” The Black church (not just in America, but in all places where slavery existed) has been seen as a threat from its inception because it separated itself from the whites—and remains separate, even though Blacks are no longer banned from or allowed only in the back of white churches. In the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves who gathered on Sundays for worship were often suspected of sedition. And indeed, the Black Church was a place where the rights of the enslaved were advocated and protests organized. In general, as Kadir Nelson puts it in Heart and Soul (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), “White folks thought that if slaves learned to read or write, they could read the Bible for themselves . . . and begin to question their master’s behavior” (24). Many of them did just that: Jamaican Sam Sharpe, for example, was one of the church leaders who instigated a protest that led to the 1831 rebellion in that country.

After slavery ended, the position of the Black Church as a place for civil rights organizers and advocates continued. These advocates were often met with violence, as in the case of another Jamaican rebellion led by church leaders George Gordon and Paul Bogle, the Morant Bay rebellion. Therese Mills, in her collection of biographies of Great West Indians (Trinidad: Longman Caribbean, 1973) writes that George Gordon “founded a native Baptist chapel in Stony Gut, in the parish of St. Thomas, and this brought him into close contact with many of the poorest people” (12). These poor people were often accused of crimes, and then tried by their own employers. Gordon and Bogle, a deacon in the church, organized their members to protest this injustice, but their pleas were ignored by the British governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre. Peaceful protest led to outright rebellion, and Bogle was hanged for his attempts to gain justice for his people.

Bogle and Gordon in Therese Mills book.  Illustration by Tony Evora.

Bogle and Gordon in Therese Mills book. Illustration by Tony Evora.

Despite the deep connection between faith, people of African descent, and the violence and racism perpetrated against them, children’s books often have a difficult time balancing a discussion of all those things—and religion tends to be the loser if one thing is to be left out. Sometimes this happens through omission. There are no children’s biographies in print of Sam Sharpe, and few of Paul Bogle, even though they are both considered national heroes in Jamaica. Therese Mills’ biography, mentioned above, seems to indicate that Bogle was chosen to be a church deacon because of his radicalism rather than his religion: “Bogle was one of the former slaves in Stony Gut who was able to vote, and he was a natural leader,” she writes. Nothing more is said about religion. Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul has, despite the quotation above, few references to religion in his poetic history of African Americans.

Children’s books about clearly religious figures also struggle with this balance.  Abolitionist and Women’s Rights advocate and preacher Sojourner Truth changed her name from Isabella Baumfree because, as she puts it in her autobiography, “I went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them. Afterward I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare Truth to the people.” But in Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp-Stride by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney (New York: Disney, 2009), her name change is explained this way: “She gave her slave name the boot, and called herself Sojourner Truth. She said the name Sojourner was just right for someone who was a traveler. And Truth—well, that was what Sojourner did best—she told it like it was.” This alteration shifts the agency to Sojourner Truth and away from any religion or deity. Although the book cannot escape a discussion of Truth’s faith altogether, it avoids linking religion and radicalism by stating that she preached about “her beliefs about what the Bible meant to her.” She does not preach about what the Bible meant, or even about how other people should act based on Biblical teaching, according to this text; her “beliefs” only mean something to her.

She can go her own way: the Pinkneys' version of Sojourner Truth.

She can go her own way: the Pinkneys’ version of Sojourner Truth.

Even a children’s book that describes the racism and struggle experienced by singers of spirituals can leave out religion. Deborah Hopkinson’s A Band of Angels (New York: Atheneum, 1999), with its lovely illustrations by Raúl Colón, tells a fictional story based on the origin of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, was founded by three men, two of whom were ministers, and sponsored by the American Missionary Society. (It is still affiliated with the United Church of Christ today.) The Jubilee Singers were named after a passage in the Book of Leviticus, and became famous through singing spirituals—songs that were religious and radical, advocating the freedom of black people throughout the world.  The racism they faced in the north is discussed, but not their religion.   “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Many Thousand Gone,” are both quoted in Hopkinson’s book, but she otherwise entirely avoids any mention of the singers’ religious faith. The songs that the Fisk singers perform are “song[s] of freedom” and the Jubilee singers were so named because “jubilee means a time of hope and freedom.”

Singing about God, without God in Hopkinson's book.

Singing about God, without God in Hopkinson’s book.

Whatever an author’s (or reader’s) personal beliefs about religion, it has inspired many people throughout history to both good and bad behavior.  It is unfortunate that many children’s books are so hesitant to talk about one of the strongest motivating forces of some of the heroes of Black History—especially when white murderers have no trouble making the link between the Black Church and Black people’s freedom and equality.