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African and African American Religion – Dr. Victor Anderson

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Some thirty to forty percent of Africans practice traditional religions, many of which survive in Western monotheistic faiths. These traditional religions, generally tied to ethnic groups in the subSaharan region, are dramatic more than philosophical; oral more than literary; and mythical and magical more than conceptual.

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Some thirty to forty percent of Africans practice traditional religions, many of which survive in Western monotheistic faiths. These traditional religions, generally tied to ethnic groups in the subSaharan region, are dramatic more than philosophical; oral more than literary; and mythical and magical more than conceptual.

Prominent dramatic features include masks, special clothing, dancing, singing, ecstatic utterances, and special rituals. Oral traditions include folklore, riddles, proverbs, and stories (many of which are oriented to teach children about the ways of their elders). The mythical and magical components include sacrifices, spirit mediums, and belief in ancestor spirits.

These typically monistic religions affirm that all reality flows from one substance or principle, which is believed to be manifested in many different gods, values, powers, and practices. Gods are therefore both good and evil; a trickster deity often expresses the fundamental ambiguities of human life. Life is seen to achieve its wholeness through a balance of opposites. Though Christianity had an early African influence (especially in North and Northeast Africa), Islam spread throughout Africa during the 8th and 9th centuries.

Most Christian influence in Africa came in two waves: that of European mercantilism (1400 – 1600, mostly Catholic), and north European imperialism (19th and 20th centuries, primarily Protestant). Yet most traditional beliefs are quite consistent with Islam and Christianity and have combined with them. African religions were transported to the New World with the slave trade, taking root in Brazil and the Caribbean in movements including Candomble’, Umbanda, Xango, Tamor de Mina, and Nago.

In Brazil, these religions have mixed with the Catholic veneration of the saints, as practiced by the majority of the population; they affirm the existence of Orishas (lesser gods), voduns (spirits), santos (saints), guia (guides) and entidade (deities). Voudoo (voodoo) is a hybrid of traditional beliefs and Roman Catholicism. Santeria (or worship of the saints) is a magicoreligion directly related to the Yoruba religion of western Africa. In North American, the enslaved AfricanAmericans converted primarily to Protestant Christianity with an emphasis on holiness, sanctification, and charismatic practices.

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