African Retentions in the Gullah Religion

The Gullah people of the South Carolina Sea Islands have retained many aspects of African culture. Their religion is a result of the acculturation of African belief systems of the Upper Guinea region with Christianity. The Gullah people relied heavily on religion to create community and keep order. Their humanistic worldview and transcendent beliefs of life and death also aided them spiritually and emotionally with the abuses and violence of slavery.

A specific example of a ontological retention of the Gullah people is that they “professed” Christianity and formed church based societies with leaders. These retentions reflect the Upper Guinea initiation processes and secret societies such as the Poro and Sande societies which helped maintain social order and belonging. According to Margaret Washington in Africanisms in American Culture:

The Poro council was supreme. It stopped village quarrels, tried and condemned social criminals, intensified holiday spirit, and gave permissions to declare war.

She goes on to explain how in the Gullah churches and societies “Elders and members scrutinized personal behavior, and the praise house functioned as a religious court.” This social organization that determines values and tries and punishes members largely resembles the Poro and Sande societies of Africa.

An example of a theological retention of the Gullah people is their view of Jesus (God) as a supreme deity and law giver. Washington says:

The laws of God were synonymous with correct conduct toward other members of the slave quarters.

Though there are parallels between the white Baptist beliefs and African beliefs of a supreme deity the way that the Gullah people showed respect to God is closer to African beliefs of community than Christian beliefs. The Gullah church centered on community and up-keeping good conduct between members. It was by being a good member of the community that the Gullah people showed respect to God, and not by offering prayer or tithing directly to God.

An example of a cosmological retention of the Gullah people is the burial practice of positioning the deceased with their face facing east. This is echoed in Central West African cultures. This signifies the belief of the sun marking the cycle of creation and life, of death, and of rebirth. In BaKongo afterlife beliefs the rising of the sun signifies creation and birth, the falling of the sun in the evening signifies maturity in life, the setting of the sun signifies death and midnight signifies when the sun is shining on the underworld which begins rebirth. The significance of burying a person so that they face the east is because that is the direction that the sun rises, and would be symbolic of the person greeting a rebirth.

Acculturation of the Gullah people took place in two phases. The first phase is that of acculturation between changing dominant African groups of the plantations in South Carolina. The slave holders changed preference between Upper Guinea and Kongo slaves over the years and retentions from cultures in both areas can be seen in the Gullah people such as the societies like that of Upper Guinea and burial and afterlife beliefs that reflect BaKongo beliefs. The second phase was acculturation of the Gullah people to white culture, in this case Christianity. According to Washington:

Memories of African social and spiritual traditions were often nestled within Christianity but were still making a forceful impact on Gullah life, thought, and culture.

In other words the Gullah people taking on Christian beliefs was not an example of assimilation but one of acculturation since the Gullah people molded Christianity to suit their needs and match their beliefs instead of converting completely to the white Baptist church.

These examples of retentions and acculturation give a lot of insight into the experience and evolution of African spirituality and religion in the New World. The mixture of retentions from different African groups shows the diversity of the African peoples who cam to the New World. Each example seems to be preserved dependent on what majority cultures were present and how complex the beliefs are for specific aspects, such as the major complexity of BaKongo afterlife beliefs. The acculturation into Christianity instead of straight assimilating conversion also shows the partial isolation and segregation of the Gullah slaves from white society. This acculturation and correlations between African beliefs and Christian beliefs also shows how syncretism was used to preserve African beliefs and practices without interference from oppressive white society.

The Gullah worldview of humanistic values and community shows how they used religion to deal with the abuses and violence of slavery and post-slavery. Using the church as a point of community allowed people to gain a sense of belonging and worth among their peers. Their views of death and the afterlife helped them to cope with the violence of war, slavery and violence because they believed in an afterlife and a cycle of transformation and rebirth. This made them fear death less and not have a view of it that was of permanence or morbidity. The appropriated viewpoint of a good heaven and bountiful afterlife was also helpful as it led to the belief that freedom would be attained at death if not in life.


One thought on “African Retentions in the Gullah Religion

  1. This is a great post. Your language is eloquent, you have very well researched and supported examples and you really seem to know what you are talking about. Great job!


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