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New Religious Movements: The Current Landscape (September 2013): African Diasporic Traditions

By Stephen Bales

African Diasporic Traditions

African Diasporic religions are among the most maligned NRMs, largely because of Hollywood exploitation and anti-cult hysteria.  This misrepresentation is doubly unfortunate because it has biased people against practitioners of these faiths while obscuring theologically and philosophically sophisticated religions.  Haitian Vodou is likely the most frequently targeted of these religions.  Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth, and Reality, edited by Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and Claudine Michel, counters the many falsehoods attributed to Vodou.  This collection of essays, all composed by Haitians, discusses the religion and its relationship to history, art, education, medicine, and women, building a nuanced profile of sub-Saharan Africa’s most visible religious export.

For a general introduction to the history and culture of the African Diaspora in the Caribbean, readers should seek out Central Africa in the Caribbean: Transcending Time, Transforming Cultures by Maureen Warner Lewis.  The book is a comprehensive treatment of Caribbean culture with a substantive chapter on the Caribbean adaptations of Central African religions.  Another excellent introduction to African Diasporic religion is Nathaniel Murrell’s Afro-Caribbean Religions: An Introduction to Their Historical, Cultural, and Sacred Traditions.  Murrell surveys Vodou, Santeria, Palo Monte, and the Creole religions of the Southern Caribbean and Jamaica.  Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in a New World, edited by Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, fleshes out the connections between transplanted African religions and cultures such as the Kongo-Angolan, Ghanaian, and Yoruban.  Finally, another collection of essays, The African Diaspora and the Study of Religion, edited by Theodore Louis Trost, covers many of the same religions found in the previous three books, but is also worth consulting for its essays on Rastafarianism and the Nation of Islam.  African Diasporic religions are becoming world religions, establishing thriving communities throughout the Western Hemisphere.  Two recent books explain how these NRMs continue to expand.  Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa by Paul Christopher Johnson gives theoretical, historical, and ethnographic accounts of transplanted African religion, beginning with the Caribbean countries and tracing the NRMs’ movement into New York City.  Bettina Schmidt’s Caribbean Diaspora in the USA: Diversity of Caribbean Religions in New York City is a detailed ethnographic report of religious communities in a major American city.