Adapting, Coping, and Evolving: Slavery and Vodun
Author of “The Negro Family”, E. Franklin Frazier believed that the centrality of the Bible, structure of Black worship, and notion of God that evolved from the invisible institution to the Black Church was a confirmation of the power of white power. He contends that these developments were adaptive methods used by slaves to worship in a confined space. However, Frazier’s beliefs are undermined by Gayraud S. Wilmore’s description of Vodun in his book Black Religion and Black Radicalism. While admittedly Vodun’s organization was probably “infiltrated by Roman Catholicism” and exhibited some white influences, the ultimate goal of New World Africans in practicing Vodun was to adapt and understand their lives (Wilmore 43). Frazier’s conception of black religion assumes that slaves were essentially a blank and passive slate absorbing all white impact, which Wilmore shows was not the case. Although white influence was forced upon New World Africans, slaves did not passively accept this influence but rather actively interpreted it to create a new, place-based Vodun religion: Vodun adapted to New World conditions, functioned as a coping mechanism, and possessed evolutionary qualities.
Frazier’s argument neglects the adaptive ability of religion. Frazier’s idea of black assimilation due to no cultural retention contradicts Melville Herskovits’ idea, articulated in “The Myth of Negro Past,” that you can link black people to Africa in context of the rich cultural tradition. Specifically, Frazier contends that the difficulty of the transatlantic passage and youth’s inability to retain culture caused the death of black religion in the New World. However, Wilmore’s explanation of Vodun emphasizes the adaptability of religion: while Frazier believes that all slaves had no retention or recollection of their previous culture, Wilmore believes that Vodun present in America was “based in various strains of African religions that became a residual mixture in the slave community” (41). Therefore, this new Vodun was not a monolith and instead was multifaceted, contained various forms of cultural retention.
Vodun’s ability to adapt allowed slaves to tailor religion to cope with what they endured, experienced, and lived in their daily lives. This psychological aspect of religion, according to Frazier, would have been sculpted and mocked by white influence as a desperate attempt to make sense of their position in society. However, New World Africans harness Vodun “as a response to the demoralizing...