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Women and Religion in the African Diaspora

Knowledge, Power, and Performance

edited by R. Marie Griffith and Barbara Dianne Savage

Publication Year: 2006

This landmark collection of newly commissioned essays explores how diverse women of African descent have practiced religion as part of the work of their ordinary and sometimes extraordinary lives. By examining women from North America, the Caribbean, Brazil, and Africa, the contributors identify the patterns that emerge as women, religion, and diaspora intersect, mapping fresh approaches to this emergent field of inquiry. The volume focuses on issues of history, tradition, and the authenticity of African-derived spiritual practices in a variety of contexts, including those where memories of suffering remain fresh and powerful. The contributors discuss matters of power and leadership and of religious expressions outside of institutional settings. The essays study women of Christian denominations, African and Afro-Caribbean traditions, and Islam, addressing their roles as spiritual leaders, artists and musicians, preachers, and participants in bible-study groups. This volume's transnational mixture, along with its use of creative analytical approaches, challenges existing paradigms and summons new models for studying women, religions, and diasporic shiftings across time and space.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Lived Religions


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This volume is part of a larger project on Women and Religion in the African Diaspora, generously funded by the Ford Foundation and sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. We are grateful to Ford and to our visionary program officer Constance Buchanan for helping shape the project from the beginning and supporting it thereafter. We also wish to thank Robert...

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pp. ix-xx

Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “To the Diaspora” evokes a journey from some unnamed point of departure to “Afrika,” a double movement that opens possibilities for dialogue and reflection. It is a voyage of personal discovery and understanding that circles back to the self...

Part I: Diasporic Knowledge

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Chapter One:

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pp. 3-18

For the religions of the Afro-Atlantic diaspora, whose roots are in the trials and traumas of the creation of the New World, the experience of slavery is a foundational element, embedded in the structure and meaning of these traditions and present in their contemporary expressions. The examples are myriad, from the continuing power of spirituals and the Old Testament stories of the Israelites’...

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Chapter 2: “I Smoothed the Way, I Opened Doors”: Women in the Yoruba-Orisha Tradition of Trinidad

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pp. 19-36

In June 1981, Iyalorisha Molly Ahye publicly defended the legitimacy of Trinidad’s Orisha practice to an international audience attending the First World Congress of Orisha Tradition and Culture in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. At the conference, a Nigerian priest of the Yoruba tradition expressed his delight in the number of representatives from African diasporic...

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Chapter 3: Joining the African Diaspora: Migration and Diasporic Religious Culture among the Gar

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pp. 37-58

How does the consciousness of belonging to the African diaspora figure in the discourse and practice of religious communities? This essay takes identification with the African diaspora not as given but rather as acquired and negotiated in dynamic processes of group self-definition and social exchange. The inquiry is anchored in a case study of the Gar

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Chapter 4: Women of the African Diaspora Within: The Masowe Apostles, an African Initiated Church

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pp. 59-80

The suggestion that Masowe Apostles, an African Initiated Church whose members are scattered across sub-Saharan Africa and gather to worship in the literal and metaphorical wilderness rather than in central places, belong to “the African diaspora within” poses a challenge to prevailing conceptions of diaspora. Masowe Apostles are displaced Shona-speaking people who interpret their marginality and dispersion as exile, which they associate with journeying from place...

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Chapter 5: “Power in the Blood”: Menstrual Taboos and Women’s Power in an African Instituted Church

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pp. 81-97

Menstrual taboos are often associated with low social status and the exclusion of women from arenas of explicit formal power.1 However, the gender practices of the Church of the Lord-Aladura (CLA), an African Instituted Church (AIC)based in Nigeria, complicate this relationship. In this church, menstrual taboos coexist with the ordination of women and a symmetrical structure of parallel male...

Part II: Power, Authority and Subversion

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Chapter 6: “The Spirit of the Holy Ghost is a Male Spirit”: African American Preaching Women and the Paradoxes of Gender

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pp. 101-127

African American women played crucial roles in the development of black urban religion in the Unites States during the Great Migration. That diasporic component of black women faithful who, in the words of Richard Wright, left the land “for the streets of the city”1 served as church builders and spiritual leaders. In a striking departure from prevalent patterns in the rural South, black women assumed visible leadership in the many storefront churches and even in the larger...

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Chapter 7: “Make Us a Power”: African American Methodists Debate the “Woman Question,” 1870–1900

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pp. 128-154

By the mid-1880s, black Methodists throughout the United States were debating the woman question. In the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, they asked whether women should be licensed to preach, ultimately affirming that while they were eligible for such licenses, women were disqualified from holding a pastoral charge. In the Colored Methodist Episcopal (CME) church, a proposal to create the office of stewardess, while initially met with laughter, was...

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Chaper 8: “Only a Woman Would Do”: Bible Reading and African American Women’s Organizing Work

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pp. 155-178

Sometimes, the best ideas for research come from others observing what you take for granted. One of my colleagues, a New Testament scholar, was summoned for jury duty in the large city where we both reside. When I inquired about the process of jury selection, he remarked: “You know, it makes for a boring day, but all of the African American women read their Bibles. At least they received something...

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Chapter 9: Exploring the Religious Connection: Black Women Community Workers, Religious Agency, and the Force of Faith

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pp. 179-196

A month before she died in 1913, Harriet Tubman told club and race woman, Mary Talbert, that she was “at peace with God and all mankind.” Tubman sent a message to the women with whom she had stood in 1896 when they formed the National Association of Colored Women, encouraging them “to stand together for God will never forsake us.” We think of Harriet Tubman as “Moses,” as the...

Part III: Preforming Religion

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Chapter 10: The Arts of Loving

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pp. 199-221

Central to the blueswoman’s ballad is a black diasporic premise that expertly prescribed and properly charged objects—charms, roots, potions, gris-gris, jujus, tobies, goofer dust, and, in this case, a hoodoo hand and a black cat bone—can harness an object of desire and abet hunger for emotional control...

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Chapter 11: “Truths that Liberate the Soul”: Eva Jessye and the Politics of Religious Performance

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pp. 222-244

In writing about her birth on a Sunday morning in Coffeyville, Kansas, Eva Jessye (1895–1992) highlighted a convergence that seemed to portend her lifelong commitment to interpreting and performing spirituals and other religious music. At the very moment she was born in her parents’ house, “the ‘Amen Corner’ in the Macedonia Baptist Church across the street was at the boiling point. ‘Hallelujahs,’ ‘Praises to God’ and the frenzied ‘stomp’ of sisters in the throes of...

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Chapter 12: Shopping with Sister Zubayda: African American Sunni Muslim Rituals of Consumption and Belonging

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pp. 245-265

Zubayda lives in an ethnically and economically diverse community in Los Angeles. The main streets of this sprawling suburb feature stores owned by the region’s conglomerates, from Rite Aid drug stores and Vons grocery stores to a heart-stopping array of fast-food restaurants. From the four- and six-lane highways that crisscross the region, it is difficult to observe community life. The city...

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Chapter 13: “But, It’s Bible”: African American Women and Television Preachers

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pp. 266-292

As I turned onto the gravel road, Gail Thomas’s new home came into full view. Our conversation the night before had hinted at her pride in first-time home ownership. 1 When I heard her excitement, I thought immediately of fine brick walls, a landscaped yard, and a two-car garage. When I arrived, her home appeared much humbler than I had imagined it, a doublewide trailer underpinned by brick...


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pp. 293-356

About the Contributors

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pp. 357-360


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pp. 361-374

E-ISBN-13: 9780801889011
E-ISBN-10: 0801889014
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801883705
Print-ISBN-10: 0801883709

Page Count: 400
Illustrations: 13 halftones, 1 line drawing
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Lived Religions