By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 06, 2020
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, early on Sunday mornings, we would hear the bells ringing out loudly in the street as a band of women, dressed immaculately in white with varied colored head ties proceeded to the Tacarigua River to conduct their religious rituals. At the tender age of six or seven I did not know what such celebrations (I saw it as a celebration) were about. All I knew was that my Tantie Lenora was among that band of women. Somehow, I felt embarrassed or even ashamed.
Tantie Lenora was born on November 13, 1895. I don’t think I ever saw her worshiping in the St. Mary’s Anglican Church which my mother, brother, sister and I attended. Come to think of it, I never saw my father in attendance at that church either. Like his mother and grandmother they worshiped their African gods, practiced their African rituals, but baptized their children in the Anglican Church.
My parents and grandparents and their African ways made an historical compromise with Christianity in the new land in which they found themselves. Although they sent their children to the Anglican school, which was located behind their residence, my grandmother (they called her Tan Darling) assisted Mother Gerald, the leading Orisha devotee in Tacarigua, cooking the salt-less meats for the Shango festival that took place annually in October or November. On those nights you always found her in the chapelle or the palais.
Although my grandmother recognized the ideological role that Christianity played in the society, she also paid abeyance to her African religious heritage. Three years ago I visited my first cousin, Mislet Harry, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She had lived with my grandmother. The day I visited her she wanted to go to a Caribbean market to buy some fish. It seemed a major preoccupation. I asked her why she wanted that fish so urgently.
She explained: “Every September or October I prepare a meal for our ancestors. It consists of one slice of salt-less fish, rice, dhal and any kind of provision. Then I place a glass of water and a glass of white rum beside the meal. Then I begin to pray to our ancestors, calling them by their names, saying I have brought you food and drink and ask you to guide all of us. Then I leave the food overnight for them.”
I asked her why she performed such a ritual. She calmly explained: “I saw Ma [Tan Darling] doing it. When Ma died, I continued to do it.”
Africans brought their religion with them when they came to the New World. L. A. A. de Verteuil believed a large number of them were “Yarrabas” from Yoruba land. Each spoke an African language and perceived their world, both religious and secular, in terms of an African cosmological and social system. The Spiritual Baptists, most of whom came to Trinidad from other West Indian islands, were a part of that cosmological order.
Many people are under the illusion that before we came to the West we knew nothing about a supreme being, life after death, and the theological concepts we associate with Christianity. However, Africa’s historical contribution to humanity was the abandonment of polytheism (the worship of many gods) and the development of monotheism (the belief in one God).
Egyptians believed in an afterlife as early as 3200 B.C. when Pharaoh Menes united Egypt under his rule as demonstrated by their practice of embalming. Indeed, the construction of the pyramids was bound up with the Egyptian belief in the afterlife. The notion of three persons in one God and even the cross (the Egyptian ankh) which Christians wear so proudly, both were taken from the Egyptians.
Coming to the New World and cut off from their ancestral lands, Africans adapted their customs to the West. The Spiritual Baptist religion was born out of those compromises. Melville Herskovits argues that the Spiritual Baptists represented “a point of transition between African religions, represented in Trinidad by the Shango cult, and undiluted European forms of worship.” In short, the Spiritual Baptist is a syncretistic religion that embodies elements of Yoruba religion and other European forms of worship.
Religion is concerned with the sum total of doctrines and beliefs, modes of behavior, attitudes, rhythms of life and social structures that give meaning to human life. The struggle the Spiritual Baptists waged in Trinidad was nothing more than an attempt to give voice to their religious beliefs and way of life in a foreign land. In doing so, they expanded the democratic and religious possibility in their new land. Cardinal Carlo Martini, one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most influential thinkers and papal contender, acknowledged: “The delicate game of democracy provides for a dialectic between opinions and beliefs in the hope that such exchange will expand the collective moral conscience that is the basis of orderly cohabitation” (Belief or NonBelief?)
I congratulate the government for contributing $10 million towards the construction of a Spiritual Baptist Cathedral where believers can worship in their own way. I imagine Tantie Lenora smiling wherever her Spirit finds itself, happy at the pronouncement that her people now have their own house of worship.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon argues that “in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” It took me a long time but as I grew in knowledge I understood that I need not be ashamed or embarrassed about how Tantie Lenora practiced her religion. These heroic souls knew only too well that a people who are ashamed of their religion are only ashamed of themselves.
They had more integrity than that.