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The Religion of African Americans during the 20th Century


There are approximately 4200 religions in the world today. Most of these groupings are characterised by organised behaviours, membership rules, and adherence criteria. The main aim of this essay is to take an in-depth look into the issue of how literature helps to illustrate the theme of religion in a society. In some instances, it appears as if religion is a form of slavery. It is used by those in power to perpetuate their control over the masses. The current essay analyses how this issue is reflected through works of art, specifically literature.

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The two texts of reference, which are used to discuss this essay are, “Of One Blood” by Pauline Hopkins and “Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History” by C.L.R James. Based on the findings from the two texts, the author will discuss elemental aspects of religion, such as belief systems, rituals, and practices. The various aspects identified are explored in this paper from the perspective of oppression as illustrated in the two books. In addition, the author analyses how this practice is used to create the plot of the narratives in the books. A critical analysis of the two texts reveals that religion features prominently in the plot. The two authors use belief systems to tell their story and to give their characters life.

Elements of Religion in “Of One Blood” and “Toussaint Louverture”

As already mentioned, religion is made up of rituals, sermons, deities, sacrifices, and festivals. Believers also observe feasts, prayers, and other aspects of religious culture. Religion is sometimes used to refer to faith, belief systems, or a set of duties that an individual is expected to carry out. However, it is important to note that this concept differs from private belief. The two phenomena are different given that religion is something that is eminently social (Hopkins 34). What this means is that private belief is limited to the individual. However, on its part, religion brings a number of people together in a form of a social gathering. A critical analysis of the book “Of One Blood” indicates the presence of these indicators of belief. Private beliefs are seen when characters in the book hold personal convictions that may not impact on the other members of the society. For example, when Dianthe gets into a trance while alone, this becomes a personal element of her belief. However, when she uses the same to predict future events, it turns into a religion that affects the people around her (Hopkins 34).

A number of religious indicators in “Of One Blood” are analysed in this section. They include the people’s believe in curses and supernatural powers, the power of prophecy, religion and oppression, spiritual revelations, symbolism, and the use of Biblical texts in the novel.

Believe in curses and supernatural powers

Instances of religion are evident in “Of One Blood”. Characters in the text hold personal convictions on the reality of curses. One such instance is evident where Dianthe associates incest to a curse. In the text, these elements (curses) are seen as phenomena that transcend from one generation to another. In this particular instance, the curse occurred after Mira was raped by Aubrey Livingstone. The former was the mother of Reuel, Dianthe, and Aubrey (Hopkins 23). Incest took place considering that Aubrey was Mira’s half brother.

Religion considers curses as punishment for sin. The text illustrates that incest is regarded as a sinful act in Dianthe’s religion. Gruesser suggests that the effect of sin is suffering and death as illustrated through the superstitious behaviour of the characters (21). In the text, Dianthe is seen as holding a belief that since her parents and grandparents were raped, she too will face a similar fate.

In most religions, there is a tendency to hide female beauty. The male chauvinism associated with most religions creates the impression that the beauty of women is a temptation to sexual perversion. In a similar light, Greusser points out that all female slaves were indoctrinated to believe that rape will occur if they expose their beauty (21). Maybe this is why Aubrey Livingston raped Dianthe. The latter was so convinced that her curse and beauty were contributors to the calamity that befell her.

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In the book, Hopkins tries hard to avoid using explicit language to express the apparent sexual violence. However, in spite of her efforts, a critical analysis of the various scenes in the book reveals this abuse. For example, Hopkins states that, “A hand was on her shoulder-a hand of iron. Back it dragged her-into the room just left, shut the door and locked it, held her in its sinewy strength till other doors were locked” (181).

In this excerpt, Hopkins shows how Aubrey dragged Dianthe into a room. The image of violence and looming doom is created. The description sets the scene for a horrific occurrence. Hopkins points out that, “the hand then bore her to the bed, placed her upon it, and then released her. And there she sat, white and silent as a grave, whilst before her stood Aubrey, pale as herself but no longer silent” (181). Based on this sexually explicit scene, the reader becomes fully aware of what transpired when the girl was roughly thrown into the room. Dianthe’s rape acts as an affirmation of the character’s belief in curses and other misfortunes brought about by incest and female beauty.

The element of supernatural powers is common in religion. In most cases, there are select individuals who possess these capabilities. In the story told in the novel, “Of One Blood”, Hopkins highlights this concept among the characters (13). The element of supernatural powers suggests some form of hierarchy in beings, which can be accessed by tapping into certain mental positions.

In the text ‘Of One Blood’, female characters are seen as experiencing psychological challenges. Hopkins points out that some of the enslavement of women affects them psychologically (180). The upside to this mental instability is that some of the female characters end up exploiting their super powers. Mira is one of the women who used her mental instability to tap into some ‘supernatural powers’. The rape experienced left her hysterical and at times in a trance (Hopkins 180).

Based on the illustration in this section, it is clear that religion manifests itself in literature through a number of avenues. Hopkins creates the impression of hierarchy among beings leading to the availability of supernatural powers (120). On a separate note, Greusser uses superstition to illustrate the effects of curses (20). In both cases, religion appears to have a firm hold on the people under the shackles of slavery.

Religion and the power of prophecy

Prophesy is also a common aspect of religion. According to Celucien, this capability fosters hope and reinforces the element of faith (19). It is apparent that prophesy has a strong hold on the adherents of a particular religion. Hopkins illustrates its impacts through the actions of Mira (51). Aubrey sent her into a trance during a party. The action was a form of entertainment to the guests.

The actions that followed the humorous trance suggest that prophesies were revered. Mira kills the joyous atmosphere by making the prophesy that, “your houses shall burn, your fields are laid to waste, and a down trodden race shall rule in your land. For you captain, a prison cell and a paupers grave” (Hopkins 51). The terror inflicted upon the guests illustrates the strength of prophesies. In the outburst, Mira appears to be receiving instructions from God. The prophecy was meant to warn the southerners of a bleak future in the days after the war.

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In the previous section, religious power is seen to lie in the performance of supernatural acts. In this regard, prophesies are seen as supernatural acts, resulting in their reverence. It is evident that Mira possesses paranormal powers given her ‘sterling’ performance when in a trance. She was able to illustrate her power by exercising her control over the oppressors by predicting their downfall, notwithstanding the mockery (Hopkins 50). Religion creates individuals who wield immense power in a society that is used to exercise authority.

The authority of religion is illustrated through the abstraction of the powers bestowed upon an individual. According to Michel-Rolph, prophetic powers allow an individual to enter into a different state of being (398). Hopkins illustrates this sentiment when Dianthe suggests that, “I know much but as yet have no power to express it. I see much clearly, much dimly, of the powers and influences behind the veil, and yet I cannot name them” (40). As in the case of Mira, when Dianthe is making a prophecy, she becomes a different person. Prophetic powers transport an individual into a totally different realm helping to assert its authority as an aspect of religion.

Prophetic utterances are dependent on the historical leanings of a religion. According to Michel-Rolph people of different backgrounds have prophetic utterances unique to their community (397). For instance, among the African-American community, there are prophecies made with specific connotations to the community. In their text, Du Bois illustrates the same through the prophecy of ‘the veil’ (6). The divination speaks of the genealogy of the African-American community. According to the author,

“the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, (…) a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois 5).

The prophetic utterances suggest that the Black American community is inferior to other races. In addition, it implies that struggles and sufferings are common. Using ‘the veil’, Du Bois points out that African-Americans see themselves as the descendants of ‘the seventh son’ (6). The ancestor was a male child who was born with a cloak, giving him the profile of a second rate citizen. The belief that African-Americans are covered by “a veil” is an aspect of religion. Based on this belief, the African-Americans perceive themselves as historically being blinded to the issues that enslave them.

Religion and fighting oppression

In the book, Hopkins presents religion as a tool that can be used by downtrodden women to improve their welfare. Women achieve this through mesmeric trances. Religious songs are also used by some of the characters in the novel to achieve divinity. For instance, Dianthe sings “Go down Moses” in a strange voice (Hopkins 67). The undertaking allows her to go beyond her ego. She is able to transform herself into a supreme being (Hopkins 67). The fascinating voice is what attracts Reuel to Dianthe. The engagement helps Reuel discover his royal origins in Africa.

Spiritual revelations

Prophetic utterances and spiritual revelations often create the impression of superior power within a religion. Michel-Rolph suggests that whenever spiritual revelations are made, religious adherents channel their reverence to the source (398). Dianthe is a manifestation of the paranormal strength associated with her African ancestry. Religion in the book allows people to change into spirits, highlighting their mystical endowments resulting in reverence from members of a community.

Spiritual revelations are common concepts in literature. Dianthe’s mystical capabilities are closely related to her ability to appear and communicate to specific people as a spirit (Hopkins 57). A similar scenario is illustrated when Reual saw the girl singing on stage and is frightened since he had met her spirit several times, especially during Halloween (Celucien 23). The girl appears to the boy on the grounds of a ghostly building. Consequently, the residents start to believe that the possessed house is holding many secrets. Such spiritual revelations prompt community members to become superstitious.

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There are cases where individuals propagate the fear of spiritual revelations by failing to disclose the truth. Based on religious understanding, exposure to spiritual revelations poses a threat to the society. In light of this, persons who are able to shift into a spiritual realm often try to conceal their ‘identity’ (Celucien 33). The mystic nature of the spiritual concealment helps to promote reverence to religious activities.

Based on the text Dianthe remains silent and does not reveal what she knows. However, Reuel finds her to be irresistible. The man is concealing his racial and ethnic background from people around him. In her spirit form, Dianthe leads the man to his African motherland. The people’s belief in spirit is also seen when Reuel meets an African queen who looks exactly like Dianthe (Hopkins 34). To this end, the anonymity of spiritual revelations enhance the mystic nature of a religion

Religious symbolism

The belief in curses and supernatural powers, prophecy, and revelations are often regarded as elements of religious symbolism. Hopkins clearly highlights the symbolic nature of African-American beliefs in religion through the prophetic utterances (27). Their past belief systems are made apparent through the happy ending that is illustrated through Dianthe’s character. While she was on her deathbed, the female character finally sees her hidden self past “the veil” (Hopkins 186). Hopkins says that, “She (Dianthe) hears the chant of thousands of voices. It was the welcome of ancient Ethiopia” (Hopkins 186). It is erroneous to interpret the girl’s state of mind as a form of psychological disorder. The reason is that when analysed carefully, this existence brings out the religious beliefs of the African-Americans. The beliefs afford them a sense of peace. They believe that they are reunited with their ancestral origins.

Religious symbolism is present in the practices propagated by members of a particular religion. In light of this, Hopkins explores the idea of religious practices associated with African-Americans in the early times (180). One of the rituals clearly brought out in the book “Of One Blood” entails the use of voodoo magic. It is clearly seen in the character of Aunt Hannah. The woman is the mother to Mira. She is also Dianthe’s grandmother. According to Hopkins, “she (Aunt Hannah) is the most noted voodoo or witch in the country” (Hopkins 174). With the help of this magic, the woman has accumulated special powers without the need to induce trance.

Belief in curses illustrates Is a symbol that religion helps to instil fear among a people. Like most of the female characters in the book, Aunt Hannah has a traumatic past given that she is another victim of rape (Hopkins 177). However, Hannah does not allow her oppressors to bring her down. She performs a number of religious roles for her community. Such activities include singing dirges after the death of a community member. She sings “a funeral chant sung by the Negroes over the dead” (Hopkins 175). The symbolism of songs helps to consoles the members of a society.

The role played by Aunt Hannah is a symbol that is used to provide the reader with the notions of death and subsequent happenings. Annah appears to be aware about an idea of the religious activities carried out after the death of a member of the African-American society. Unfortunately, the text fails to provide a clear explanation as to why the character is able to deal with the trauma in her life, while other women are unable to do so. However, one possibility is that she is able to access her African soul by carrying out traditional religious rituals, such as voodoo.

Voodoo practices are of African descent. In the text, voodoo practices act as a symbol to suggest that the religion has its roots traced back to Africa. The ceremonies associated with this religion are devoted to the spiritual world. They exalt the spirits associated with this community. It includes the spirits of the deceased (Hopkins 34). Religion makes use of religious symbols to assert its authority over the members

Biblical texts in Hopkins’ book

In the book “Of One Blood”, religion is visible through the extensive use of Biblical texts and comparison to stories and characters in the holy book. One can clearly see that the reason why Hopkins chooses to use Ethiopia in her plot is to appeal to the un-colonised Christian (Coptic) kingdom. The ‘fiefdom’ has an ancient history and a distinguished military force. By referring to Ethiopia, Hopkins also aims at tapping into “Ethiopianism”. The ideology uses Psalms 68:31 as its foundational document.

Hopkins brings out Ethiopia as a superior nation that cannot be conqueredhe Ethiopian context is described as one with protection from God. Such a perspective cannot be said of other countries in the region. The description of Ethiopia paralleled to the one narrated in the Bible. The similarities are plenty. In the Bible, it is stated that, “Princes shall come out of Egypt, [and] Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands to God” (Hopkins 560). The verse can be interpreted to predict a future of glory for Africa and people of African descent. It also brings out Ethiopia as the symbolic homeland of humanity. It is on this religious text that the main argument of the plot is enhanced through the major character, Reuel. In literature, reference to religious texts helps to strengthen an argument.

Biblical similarities are seen in the book “Of One Blood” when Ai, the Prime Minister of Tellesar, takes Reuel on a tour of the city. He says, “At our feet the mightiest nations have worshipped, paying homage to our kings and all nations has sought the honour of alliance with our royal families because of our strength, grandeur, riches, and wisdom” (Hopkins 560). Ethiopia is viewed by other countries as a nation with an almost god-like ascendancy.

The text presents a consistent and comprehensive account of the differences between Africans and their white oppressors. However, Hopkins goes to great lengths to connect all Africans to a common ancestry in the region (531). Hopkins tries to bring out the fact that all her African-American characters are connected to the continent (531). A similar connection is seen in the Bible. For example, all biblical Characters trace their origin to Adam and Eve. Other ideas explored in the novel are tailor-made to reinforce this Biblical model.

The place of worship used by the Ethiopians is seen during Reuel’s walk through Tellesar with Ai as his guide. Ai describes to his visitor the decorations of a great temple, which he holds in high esteem. He says that there is nothing that can be compared to the great temple. The importance of the structure as a place of worship for the Ethiopians can be seen in the amount of time and other resources they use in decorating it. According to Hopkins, “The decorations of the hall are prepared with natural flowers (…) floral garlands are subjected to the fumes of the crystal material covering them like a film and preserving their natural appearance” (120). The process of decorating these places of worship is carried out with a lot of care.

The tradition is handed down to members of the younger generation. The future owners of the temples are taught by having them observe the techniques used in the preservation of these important structures. It shows the importance the Ethiopians attach to their places of worship. In itself, the temple is evidence enough of religious worship and beliefs in early African societies. It disputes the common belief that Africa was an uncivilised continent with no religious beliefs in the early times of history. Hopkins illustrates this issue very clearly in the book.

Religion in “Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History” by C.L.R James

Like in “Of One Blood”, religious beliefs are evident in this book. They are discernible in some of the characters in the novel. Toussaint’s career begins when he becomes the leader of the 1791 slave rebellion. The uprising took place in the French colony of Saint Dominique. The successes of this character lie in restoring plantation systems, negotiating for better labour pay, and improving the economy is mostly attributed to his political skills and the use of a highly disciplined army (Celucien 45). In most cases, the role played by religion in his success is overlooked by many people. The few who acknowledge it often conclude that its contribution was insignificant.

Religion acts as a justification for religion. The arguments in the text suggest that religion and slavery are joint partners used to control the masses. The harsh effects of religion and enslavement resulted in a revolution. Toussaint’s followers and army decided to follow their leader in pursuit of freedom, through the religion (Celucien 92). As a Marxist, Toussaint saw the growth of religious movements in countries under colonial occupation as an expression of real suffering and an inspiring form of protest against subjugation.

Other aspects of religion are seen through the life of Toussaint. For instance, many religions outline rules regarding the social aspects of a given community. Such regulations include the criteria and procedures that should be followed based on select subjects in a society like marriage. In this regard, the religion depicted in this text does not prevent marriage between related persons or incest. Toussaint takes a close relative to be his wife in the person of Suzanne Baptiste. He goes ahead and fathers sixteen children with her. Eleven of them died before him. In spite of the obvious act of incest, the people still accept him as their leader. The development indicates that marriage between close relatives was a common practice during the early religious lives of slaves (Celucien 96).

The occultic practice of voodoo magic is seen as another religious practice that is common in the book. The practice can be traced back to the tribal nations of West Africa. The practice of voodoo was carried by the slaves who were moved to Saint Dominique from Africa (Michel-Rolph 397). Voodoo is brought is characterised by individuals who revere and worship spirits. The major deities include gods and spirits of ancestors who are appeased through drums and dances.

The practices are common in other religious rituals. In the book, drum beating in a voodoo ceremony is described as “a great rattle of drums” (James 56). One can clearly see how isolation of a nation makes it possible for religion to grow and develop. A case in point is the growth of Voodoo. In Haiti, the religion developed with its unique set of rules. The development was possible because of the separation between the religious system and the influences of the outside world.

The slaves in the book seem to have created their own new religion of voodoo worship. It is mainly because those who were taken from different parts of Africa came together and shared common belief systems. At the same time, newly resettled slaves spent time in comparing notes about each other’s traditions and gods. For many enslaved Africans, spiritual traditions and practices provided a vital means of mental and emotional resistance to the hardships they were facing (Celucien 68). Their beliefs did not offer them freedom. However, they were able to intimidate their masters.

Like most Haitians, Louverture is depicted as a follower of voodoo. He is able to peacefully marry Catholicism with African animism. During the first rebellion in the island, Louverture takes part in a ceremony prepared by a Jamaican voodoo priest. The aim of the occasion was to invoke spirits of ancestral Africa to punish the masters who were oppressing the slaves. Some religious aspects of the slaves are seen in this ceremony. For instance, it is clear that these subjects believe in the spirits of dead people (Michel-Rolph 398). Their religious belief is very strong given that after the voodoo ceremony, the slaves feel courageous enough to rebel against their oppressors. According to James, “Enslaved Africans take centre stage, meeting in the forest to plan their uprising, drawing strength from Voodoo” (56). On this night alone, many French whites are massacred and their plantations set ablaze.

From the beginning, Toussaint is described as a character torn between the enslaved Africans’ old faith in Voodoo and kingship and the new revolutionary ideals of the French religion. He is pulled in different and conflicting directions by his varying religious beliefs. For instance, he is hesitant to drink the blood of a stuck pig during a Voodoo ritual. There are also numerous instances where Toussaint’s growing belief in God is seen clearly. He reads books that talk of how the enslaved have to be led to freedom (James 69). Toussaint says, “White men see Negroes as slaves. If the Negro is to be free, he must free himself. We have courage and numbers. Thou has shown me the light, oh God! I shall be their leader” (James 70). His reference to God shows his religious belief in a being that has an overall power over life. He constantly refers to God and gives Him powers, such as knowing what he thinks and believes. For instance, he says that his God has shown him independence in his sleep. He foretells that blacks will be liberated from the shackles of slavery and colonialism (James 93).

There are instances in the novel where it is made clear how religion affects some of the choices made by the characters. The belief system is used to influence the decisions taken by the slaves during the revolution. In some instances, religion brings out positive emotions and power among the people. However, in other cases, it is used negatively to portray the feeling of oppression and suppression. An instance where Christianity is portrayed negatively is when Toussaint says, “If we had depended on education and religion, we would never have got our freedom back. Education and religion, but freedom must come first. We shall keep our freedom” (James 95). It is evident how religious beliefs are manipulated by the leaders for their own benefit.

The French are accused of teaching African slaves their education and religion. However, the masters do not follow what they advocate for. Toussaint says that the whites do not practice what they teach. The people in power use religion to enforce their rule (James 90). At times, they even use the faith to justify their acts of injustice. For instance, there is a scene where a slave is hanged after he is accused of propounding ideas that are dangerous to Christianity. It appears that religion and the state are the same. It is the reason why the leaders take such violations seriously. The hanging of the slave based on religious grounds shows the extent to which faith is manipulated to suit the needs of those in power.


Religion in the early days of slavery is evident in the two books analysed in this paper. The books “Of One Blood” by Hopkins and “Toussaint Louverture” by C.L.R James provide an insight into some of the religious practices associated with African-Americans. Hopkins and James illustrate the religion and the related practices have a direct impact in the lives of individuals. To this end, literature can develop the plot of a given text by making use of religion as one of the main themes. Hopkins achieves this by bringing out the religious beliefs of the characters early enough in the text (14). On his part, James portrays believe in Voodoo among the slaves. It is evident that religion takes centre stage in the two books. It is also made apparent that religious practices were carried out by Africans in ancient times. The realisation is contrary to common belief that religion was introduced to Africans by the outside world.

Based on the discussions in this paper, the theme of religion enables an appreciation of historical backgrounds of a people. The African-American society is seen to affirm to the concept of subordination, which encourages their slavery (Michel-Rolph 378). The two books support the idea that religion is a form of slavery as illustrated by the firm belief in ‘the veil’. Information of such a nature helps to support trigger the society to making a necessary response to the shortcomings in religion.

However, further research is necessary to establish a more concrete link between religion and slavery. In the case of Voodoo magic, the followers were freed slaves. They had the option of adapting to a more free and robust society. Nevertheless, the notion that ‘religion is a form of slavery’ is supported by the wilful enslavement of the African-Americans.

Works Cited

Celucien, Joseph. Race, Religion, and the Haitian Revolution: Essays on Faith, Freedom, and Decolonisation, New York: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012. Print.

Du Bois, Burghardt. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. 2nd ed. 1903. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. Print.

Gruesser, John. The Unruly Voice: Rediscovering Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1996. Print.

Hopkins, Pauline. Of One Blood, Or, The Hidden Self, New York: Washington Square Press, 2004. Print.

James, Cyril. Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012. Print.

Michel-Rolph, Trouilliot. ‘Voodoo and Politics in Haiti.’ American Ethnologist 18.2 (1991): 397-398. Print.

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