- Plantation Church: How African American Religion Was Born in Caribbean Slavery by Noel Leo Erskine
noel leo erskine
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014
Plantation Church is organized in six chapters: “Migration, Displacement, Resistance,” “The Memory of Africa,” “Black Church Experience South of the Border,” “The Plantation Church,” “The Making of the [End Page 498] Black World,” and “Toward a Creolized Ecclesiology.” Throughout these chapters, Noel Leo Erskine endeavors to explore the question of the structural, psychological, and cultural factors presiding over the birth, theological orientation, and roles of the black church during slavery. According to the author, and as suggested by the subtitle, a full comprehension of this institution requires that one probe into the Caribbean context, for it is there that the black church began, for two primary reasons. First, many enslaved Africans were brought there prior to being deported to the North American mainland; and second, unlike in North America, Africans constituted the overwhelming numerical majority of the population there as well—which explains the greater degree of African retentions and practices still observable in the Caribbean and the unmistakable Africanness of the black church in the beginning. As time went on, though, this early Africanness would progressively become less pronounced, and be replaced with a creolized identity, characterized, among other things, by the worship of Jesus, rather than African deities.
The book opens with Erskine introducing himself and his project in the preface as well as the introduction. The author identifies himself as a pastor of Jamaican ancestry, with a grandfather whose parents had been enslaved and who venerated African divinities, while the author’s parents “chose” to worship Jesus instead, a path obviously followed by the author himself. This highlights from the onset the main and highly personal articulation of the whole book: the exploration of the origins, manifestations, and possible resolution of the tension between African consciousness and slave consciousness, the latter being shaped by Christianity during the slavery era in the Caribbean and North America. As Erskine explains, “There was a constant struggle between Africa and Europe for the souls of Black people. It is [in] this crucible between Africa and Jesus, enculturation and acculturation, that the parameters for this investigation—Black churches and slavery in the Caribbean and the United States—unfolds [sic]” (i). Erksine specifically focuses on how this “constant struggle” impacted the religious experience of enslaved, and then free black people in the Americas who created, at first, “African” churches devoted to and imbued with African spirituality, and which progressively turned into black Christian churches.
This dichotomy between Africa on one hand, and Europe and Jesus on the other is, for Erskine, a false one, and was not perceived as an either/or choice by enslaved Africans, but was blurred by a demand for liberty. In [End Page 499] fact, the author argues, enslaved Africans were willing to take up any religion that would eventually give them weapons to achieve their ultimate objective, a much-coveted freedom—be it African religion or the Christian religion. While the author is quite blunt and honest throughout the book about the intimate relationship between slavery and Christianity, and identifies the latter as a means to make the Africans accept an inferior social and ontological status in an attempt to provide the planters with the social stability necessary to conduct their lucrative plantation business, it is nonetheless the author’s view that Christianity proved capable of providing enslaved Africans with the tools necessary to forge liberated spaces, where they could affirm their human dignity and organize for actual physical freedom. This position should come as no surprise since the author is working within the parameters of “Black Theology” (the book is dedicated to the main proponent of this school of thought, James H. Cones, thus situating the author’s own ideological stance although it is never declared or elaborated upon in the text). Thus, according to Erskine, both the African church and the black church managed to create a “culture of resistance in search of the virtues of freedom, equality, and humanity” (9). The Africans recognized that the...