- A Brief History
- Basic Beliefs
- Practices, Diet and Attire
- Calendar & Holidays
- Major Life Events
- Major Denominations
My culture and faith have always been important to me and my family. Unfortunately, I had a negative experience discussing my faith at my previous job. My supervisor was Catholic, so I felt comfortable sharing a little bit about what Catholicism had in common with Vodoun. My supervisor was clearly offended that I’d likened his religion to my own, and later asked me if I was “partaking in any animal sacrifices” that weekend. The question was posed in jest – but since then, I’ve mostly kept my beliefs to myself. I don’t like having to defend myself, so I find that it’s easier to not bring up my faith at all.
In my current workplace, they say they welcome diversity of all kinds. I so badly want to participate in their diversity initiatives; however, religion isn’t addressed at all in any of their current initiatives. It’s like they’ve purposely left out religious identity. My ethnicity and heritage are so closely related to my faith, that I don’t feel I’d fit in if I joined the African American Employee Resource Group, for example. I don’t want to participate unless I know for sure that my religious beliefs and practices will be taken seriously, and be viewed as an element of diversity – not something that my co-workers should be afraid to ask me about.
A BRIEF HISTORY
From the 15th through 19th centuries, the Caribbean basin was the site of an extended encounter between Europe and the Americas with Spain, Holland, Portugal, France, and the British Isles competing against each other for control of the Caribbean islands as well as Central and South America. The major European colonies in the region included Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Martinique, Curacao, Grenada, St. Lucia, and many smaller islands, as well as countries such as Belize, Honduras, Brazil, Suriname, French Guiana, and Guyana. In addition to enslaving the native population, the colonizers brought Africans from Central and Western Africa as slaves to the region to provide labor on tobacco and sugar plantations and sought to convert them to Christianity.
In each colony, Christian religions (such as the Anglican and Dutch Reformed churches and the national Catholic churches of France, Portugal, and Spain) became the state religions. Christian sects other than these state churches suffered persecution and non-Christian religions such as Islam, American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN)religions, and traditional African religions were often actively suppressed. Nonetheless, some indigenous Caribbean and African populations resisted conversion and held onto their own religious beliefs while incorporating elements of Christianity. This process resulted in the creation of a variety of religious forms that incorporate elements from indigenous Caribbean beliefs and West and Central African religions, as well as institutional and popular forms of Christianity and even folk religious traditions practiced in Europe.
One example of this integration involves the role of Catholic saints in Afro-Caribbean religious traditions. In some instances, slaves from Africa would continue to worship their own spirits or dieties, called lwa by connecting them to Catholic saints, using the saints to hide the continuation of their religious practices in plain site. In other instances, Catholic saints were truly integrated into Afro-Caribbean religious traditions and given the status of lwa.
According to the 2008-09 American Community Survey, US Census, there are approximately 1.7 million Afro-Caribbeans immigrants living in the United States. The Afro-Caribbean population is most prominent in Miami, New York City, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Boston.Of these, it is extremely difficult to determine how many actively practice Afro-Caribbean religions, also known as African Diasporic Religious Traditions. Furthermore, it is important to note that individuals who do not self-identify as Afro-Carribbean may practice African Diasporic Religious Traditions.
Afro-Caribbean religions teach that the Supreme Being and spirits are interdependent and do not live in a world apart from humanity. Rather, the material and spiritual worlds are inseparable from one another. Humans and other natural objects are believed to be both natural and divine—participating in and influencing the spiritual world. As a result, a major focus of concern for many believers is how to access various kinds of spiritual power in order to wake up to one’s divinity in order to manifest one’s destiny and live with purpose.
Many of these religions accept the world as it is, though they believe that the world can be made better and that the situations of individual people and groups can be improved (religions with different overall philosophies include Rastafari and Revivalism, among others). Although most Afro-Caribbean religions believe in reincarnation, the emphasis is not on future lives but rather on personal and communal fulfillment in the present life. For their adherents, then, religion is the resource for dealing successfully with the physical, social, psychological, familial, spiritual, and financial obstacles they experience in life. These problems may be overcome through rituals that make use of the powers that are available in the natural world and in the various spirits they worship.
Major Afro-Caribbean traditions include Candomblé, Santeria, and Lukumi (collectively referred to as the Orisa or Orisha traditions), Palo Mayombe, , Vodoun, Rastafarianism, and Revivalism.
In the Afro-Caribbean religious groups with the strongest Christian influence, such as Revivalism and Rastafarianism, the Bible is a central sacred text. Rastafarians in particular view the Bible as a sacred text that Christians in general and the colonizing European churches in particular have willfully misinterpreted and misunderstood in order to oppress and exploit people of African descent.
In these traditions the Bible also plays additional roles that are unknown to most North American Christians. For example, some Revivalist churches view the Bible not only as a source of doctrine, salvation, and divine revelation, but also as a book of magic, with the Books of Psalms and Revelation being especially potent sources of magical power for the person who knows how to use them correctly.
Some traditions also venerate the writings of key leaders. Rastafarianism utilizes the writings of Marcus Garvey as sacred texts, while Caribbean Spiritists sometimes use the works of Spiritism’s French founder, Allan Kardec (aka Hyppolite Rivail), as sacred texts, including his Selected Prayers, Book of the Medium, and Book of Spirits.
Santería, Candomblé, Palo Mayombe, and Vodoun, although influenced by Catholicism and incorporating some Christian concepts and symbols, do not utilize the Bible as a sacred text. The most important sacred texts in these traditions are orally transmitted songs, stories, and prayers.
PRACTICES, DIET AND ATTIRE
Although the particulars of practice vary among traditions, the main ways in which believers practice fall into a few broad categories. Many Afro-Caribbean religious traditions have no central religious authorities. However, some religions such as Ifa (from which Candomble, Santeria, and Lukumi originate) has a world spokesperson.
Historically, there has not been religious literature available for most Afro-Caribbean religious traditions because information was passed down orally. Over the last 40 years both scholars and practitioners have produced literature on Afro-Caribbean religious traditions that is widely available to others. Examples include African Religions: A Very Short Introduction by Jacob Olupona; Black Religion and Aesthetics: Religious Thought and Life in Africa and the African Diaspora by Anthony B. Pinn; and Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practice Rituals by Luisah Teish.
Because of their histories of persecution during the Colonial period and afterward, and because contemporary society and media continue to demonize them, there is a high level of secrecy around Afro-Caribbean beliefs and practices. Traditionally, only priests, other initiates, and active devotees in a tradition take part in rituals and worship.
The daily routines of members include devotions practiced at altars in their homes. Adherents pray before an altar dedicated to one or more of the deities they worship and leave offerings of flowers, incense, water, or alcoholic beverages, and occasionally small sacrificial animals consecrated by a priest.
Afro-Caribbean religious practitioners are often protective of their rituals, highlighting the need to offer privacy for prayer and ritual observances whenever possible, especially in the workplace. Employees may bring in special food, icons, candles, or natural objects (e.g., rocks, sticks, etc.), though it is unlikely. If an employee brings these devotional objects in for prayer, they will likely want that object for symbolic protection and will keep that object on their person or within their personal space.
Some Afro-Caribbean religious practitioners may want to engage in prayer rituals during the day. If available, quiet rooms or interfaith prayer rooms will be appropriate for many of these prayers. In traditions such as Candomble, Santeria, Palo Monte, and Vodoun observers may perform acts of libation by pouring small amounts of water in a bowl, plant, or outside in nature while speaking the names of deities or loves ones who are deceased. As a result, some practitioners may need to pray in the open air or find a space where they can perform acts of libation.
Divination, a ritual process of using ancient oracle systems to connect with the unseen or spiritual realm for guidance, is a core practice in Santería, Candomblé, and in some varieties of Palo Mayombe. The purpose of divination is to gain guidance that will help devotees become conscious, self-actualize and co-create their destiny with the Divine. Devotees approach priests with a problem, and divination allows the priest to diagnose its causes. Although Vodoun does not make use of divination techniques of this sort, initiation into the highest ranks of the Vodoun priesthood is believed to grant the power of clairvoyance.
While Santería, Candomblé, Palo Mayombe, and Vodoun are generally not congregational religions, there are certain traditions throughout the United States where it is common for priests and priestesses to lead spiritual communities which serve as places for worship on a regular basis. Some of these communities have open services, and offer occasional ceremonies that bring large numbers of worshippers together. In the United States, traditions such as Candomble, Santeria, and Lukumi – known collectively as Orisa (or Orisha) traditions – have spiritual communities referred to as iles (houses) that are led by priests and priestesses. Some of these communities have open services and/or annual celebrations in honor of orisha which are called bembes.
At typically religious services, the main activities are singing religious songs accompanied by drumming and dancing. In certain ceremonies the practices of singing, dancing, and drumming together call upon the religion’s deities and invite them to visit the ceremony by taking over the body of one or more of the priests. Once possession occurs, the deity is dressed in special clothes and interacts with worshippers before departing. These ceremonies usually end with a closing ritual followed by a communal meal, which is shared with the deities by placing food in front of their altars.
Healing constitutes a major focus of these religions. Whether a problem is social, psychological, or physical, devotees make use of herbal medicine, ritual healing, and counseling provided by their spiritual leaders. The healing process is meant to explore what an individual needs to align with physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and identify any blocks or obstacles to be addressed. In some traditions, problems may also be believed to be the result of malevolence (sometimes referred to as “sorcery”), and a portion of any healer’s work is dedicated to combating the effects of such malevolence.
 Orisha are spirits and deities that act as intermediaries between the Supreme Being and human beings.
Santería, Candomblé, Vodoun, and Palo Mayombe have no explicit, universal dietary restrictions, although some individuals may adopt dietary restrictions through practices of divination.
Many Rastafarians eschew pork and salt and follow Jewish dietary laws as well
as a modified vegan diet called ital (from the word “vital”). The general principle of ital is that food should be eaten in its natural state. Thus, some Rastafarians avoid food which is chemically modified or contains artificial additives (e.g., color and preservatives); strict interpretations prohibit foods produced using chemical pesticides and fertilizer. Most Rastafarians avoid all red meat, many do not eat fish (or at least fish that are over 12 inches in length), and some are strict vegetarians. Some also avoid shellfish and alcohol consumption. Santeria devotees who have been initiated into the priesthood of Obatala also avoid alcohol consumption. Some Afro-Christian churches also have fasting requirements.
Adherents of Afro-Christian churches also may ascribe healing properties to certain foods and may wish to maintain a diet that they believe provides spiritual balance. These dietary restrictions exist in Santería, Candomblé, Vodoun, and Palo Mayombe and stem from one’s relationships with the specific spirits or deities one serves. For example, in Santería, the orisha Oshún is believed to keep all her magic herbs and sacred objects inside a pumpkin; she is also associated with the patron saint of Cuba, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. Therefore, those who worship Oshún are barred from eating pumpkins, which are a special food reserved for the orisha. This dietary restriction is especially important on Oshún’s/La Virgen’s Feast Day, which falls on September 8.
If providing a meal for an individual who ascribes to an Afro-Caribbean tradition, find out whether the individual abstains from meat, fish, chemically modified foods, artificial additives, or other ritually significant foods. Some individuals will prefer to eat food they have prepared themselves, which should be accommodated in the event of a catered social gathering or meeting in the workplace.
Generally, there is no religious dress that is worn on a daily basis, although special outfits may accompany rituals. Some Afro-Caribbean individuals may choose to wear charms or amulets that are believed to ward off evil spirits. Santería and Candomblé devotees may, however, wear distinctive bead necklaces and bracelets (including ankle bracelets), which act as both a distinctive badge of membership and spiritual protection. In the Orisa traditions of Ifa, Lukumi, Santeria the distinctive bead necklaces are known as ilekes and the bracelets are known as ides. They symbolize that someone has gone through a specific ritual and offer spiritual protection. The color of the beads correlate to particular deities invoked during the ritual.
Some Rastafarians will wear their hair in dreadlocks, in which the hair is worn in long, ropelike locks, as an expression of their faith. Dreadlocks are associated closely with Rastafarianism, but are not universal among, or exclusive to, adherents of Rastafarianism.
There is one instance during which both Santería and Candomblé require particular religious garb. During the period of a year or more following a novice’s initiation into the priesthood, the person is expected to dress entirely in white clothes and to wear head coverings (a hat for men or a white cloth tied around their head for women). Women may wear long white dresses, coats, jackets, and stockings that cover most of their bodies. Both men and women in this situation are viewed as especially vulnerable, and white is seen as a spiritually pure color that protects that vulnerability. It is important that people in this situation continue to be dressed only in white clothes and be allowed some form of white head covering if at all possible.
CALENDAR & HOLIDAYS
Since there are links between many Afro-Caribbean religious traditions and Catholic saints, many of these traditions celebrate saint dyas. However, these holidays differ somewhat by country, because some saints are the patron saints of particular countries and therefore holidays have both religious and nationalist significance. For example, the Catholic celebration of Our Lady of Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, corresponds with the celebration and recognition of the Santería deity Oshún.
Some American holidays, like Halloween, have been treated in the same way. For many Vodoun worshippers in the United States, Halloween is an occasion for ceremonies directed at spirits associated with the dead and graveyards.
The more public celebrations on saints’ days tend to incorporate drumming, dancing and possession feasts while private observances related to an individual’s relationship to a particular deity are generally celebrated at home with sacrifices, offerings, and divination. Different people interpret offerings and sacrifies in different ways—for example, a sacrifice could include surrending or releasing a limiting view of a situation, and an offering could be a prayer, meditation or song.
MAJOR LIFE EVENTS
Birth: It is common for Afro-Caribbean mothers to have a great deal of support from older women in their families during childbirth. Traditionally, new mothers rest for anywhere from two weeks to 1½ months after childbirth. During this time, female relatives or neighbors help care for the mother and newborn. In addition, pregnant and postnatal women are thought to be especially vulnerable to supernaturally influenced health problems. Thus, many choose to stay inside and avoid strenuous activities. Amulets or charms may be placed around the baby’s wrist to ward off evil spirits. These rituals are not specific to Afro-Caribbean religious traditions and are common practices in Caribbean culture generally.
Death: Given the importance of extended family and faith communities, an Afro-Caribbean individual is likely to receive a large number of visitors near the end of life. If an Afro-Caribbean employee has an extended family member who is sick or nearing death, they may request time off to visit their loved one. Some employees may also need to travel to the Caribbean to attend a loved one’s funeral. In some Afro-Christian churches, this can include a wake lasting three or more days in addition to the funeral itself. Many families will delay a funeral for as long as two weeks to allow relatives to come from other countries. Afro-Caribbean employees may therefore need to take off about a week of work when a loved one has passed away.
Funeral Rites and Post Death Practices: There are extensive rituals in Afro-Caribbean religions surrounding death, many of which are not shared openly. One example of a private practice that has been made public is the Haitian Vodoun death ritual. Practitioners of Haitian Vodoun believe that the dead body can be separated from the various spiritual entities that animate it. Haitian Vodoun teaches that each human has both a gwo bonanj (big guardian angel) and a lwa (spirit). Shortly after death, the gwo bonanj must be removed from the person through the death ritual. During this ritual, the dead also speak to the living through spirit possession. The spirits of deceased ancestors often inquire about living family members, and raise problems that they are able to observe within the community.
This is only one of the many rituals that may take place post death. Many are unknown to those who are not initiates of the particular tradition.
Marriage: Marriage customs among Afro-Caribbeans are usually governed more by culture than by religious dictates. In many Afro-Caribbean cultures guests are invited to the wedding through word-of-mouth while handwritten notes are rare. One common aspect of Afro-Caribbean weddings is black cake, a cake made with dried fruit that has been soaked in rum.
People in Afro-Caribbean households generally choose who to marry, although parental approval, especially from the mother, is still valued. Afro-Caribbeans today are likely to marry at a later age than their parents did, and increasingly have smaller families with one or two children instead of larger families that include many children and extended family who play a prominent role in the family structure.
Practitioners of Santeria may have wedding ceremonies that include rituals, prayers, and offerings to orishas (spirits). Some practitioners of Santeria may be licensed by the state to perform marriages, but this is not common, and in most cases a couple has a civil ceremony or a Catholic ceremony in church.
In Haitian Vodoun, practitioners may choose to marry a spirit (lwa) instead of, or in addition to, another person. Marriages to spirits involve rituals such as singing, dancing, and praying in order to coax the spirit to materialize.
Divorce/Other Marriage-Related Practices: Although legal marriages between two people are becoming increasingly common among Afro-Caribbean families, traditionally other marriage structures have been more common. These structures include common-law unions, where couples live together but are not legally married; visiting unions, where the wife lives in her parents’ house instead of her husband’s; and single parent families. In addition, Afro-Caribbean families are often matricentric (centered around the mother), and it is common for the maternal grandmother to play a prominent role in raising children.
Divorce is infrequent among Afro-Caribbean families, although it is not unusual for common-law unions to dissolve. This can lead to the practice of child-shifting, where children are sent to live with relatives because their parents have ended their relationship or started relationships with other people. Rastafarians are particularly opposed to divorce and remarriage, which are regarded as abominations to Jah (God).
Major Afro-Caribbean traditions include Candomblé, Palo Mayombe, Santería, Vodoun, spiritism, Rastafarianism, and Revivalism. Many of these traditions are strongly associated with a national identity—Candomble with Brazil, Vodoun with Haiti, Santeria and Palo Monte with Cuba, and Rastafarianism and Revivalism with Jamaica.
Though Santería, Candomblé, Vodoun, and Palo Mayombe are diverse and members can and do differentiate between varying forms of practice among them, there are no prominent, formalized divisions. However, some Afro-Christian churches have a history of conflict with Rastafarianism, and the Catholic Church has historically had conflicts with Santeria, Palo Monte, and Vodoun. These conflicts continue to influence practitioners of Afro-Caribbean religions today, and are part of the reason why these practitioners may choose to keep their faith private in the workplace. In addition, American pop culture has presented, and continues to present, followers of Afro-Caribbean religions in a derogatory light through negative stereotyping. This history may also contribute to Afro-Caribbean practitioners’ wish to be private about their religious beliefs and practices.
God, an array of other spirits, and the natural world constitute a single interdependent reality. The names of God and the major deities and spirits vary among traditions:
MAJOR DEITIES OR SPIRITS
SPIRITS OF THE DEAD
Orixas, Vodouns, Nkisis
Olodumare Olorun Olofi Dios
Eguns, Los Muertos
Lwas (generally refers to someone who was noteworthy religiously, socially or personally); Les Morts (a more anonymous category; literally, “the Dead.”)