The Plantation Church: a Q&A with Noel Erskine
In honor of Black History Month, we sat down with Noel Erskine to learn more about the Plantation Church—the religions that formed on plantations during slavery—and its roots in the Caribbean.
How was the Plantation Church formed?
The Plantation Church was formed through the traffic across the Black Atlantic of Africa’s children, packed like sardines, and treated as human cargo, to work on plantations in the Americas. The plantation was at first a site of human bondage, and provided the context for chattel slavery, where the entire family was brutalized as they realized that there was a connection between higher sugar prices and cruel treatment of slaves. In plantation society the political power of the African chief was transferred to the white master, except in the context of the plantation, there were no safeguards for women and children. The entire family was dehumanized. Plantation etiquette required submission to the wishes of the master and failure to comply would often elicit a violent response. The will of the master applied to every aspect of plantation life. The master had the right to whip, sell, or trade members of the family whenever or for whatever reason. Africans found it difficult at first to mount a credible form of resistance against the violence perpetrated against them on plantations.
Why was the Plantation Church formed?
It is often forgotten that Africans who were captured and brought against their will to work on plantations in the New World left institutions of their clan and tribe behind. The creation of the Plantation Church was an attempt to hold body and soul together in an alien environment. In the Plantation Church, which was at first an African Church, Africans “stolen from the homeland” had to compensate for the loss of language, culture, and the constant change of environment as they were often sold and separated from members of their families. The cruelty meted out to Africans who traversed the Black Atlantic on route to the Caribbean and North American colonies for work in plantation society is beyond compare in the annals of the history of slavery. The Indians and Spaniards had the support and comfort of their families, their kinsfolk, their leaders, and their places of worship in their sufferings. Africans the most uprooted of all, were herded together like animals in a pen, always in a state of impotent rage, always filled with a longing for flight, freedom, change, and always having to adopt a defensive attitude of submission, pretense, and acculturation to the new world.
What characterized the Plantation Church?
Enslaved Africans on plantations “a long ways from home”, remembered home, and the memory of Africa became a controlling metaphor and organizing principle as they countered the hegemonic conditions imposed on them by their masters. There was a tension between their existence on plantations here in the New World and there in Africa, their home of origin. Here in plantation society they longed for there, their home, Africa – the forests, the ancestors, family, Gods and culture. They remembered the forests and they relived their experience of forests through the practice of religious rituals in the brush arbors, often down by the riverside. The memory of ancestors and a sense that their spirits accompanied them served as sites of a new consciousness on the plantations in which the struggle for survival and liberation took precedence. This awakening convinced them that they would survive through running away to the forests or through suicides that would reunite them with families and the Africa they remembered. It was primarily through religious rituals and the carving out of Black sacred spaces that enslaved persons were able to affirm self and create a world over against plantation society which was created for their families by the master. With the creation of the Plantation Church, the African priest and medicine man/woman were able to prevent the enslaved condition from dominating their consciousness and rob the children of Africa the freedom to dream a new world. It was the community’s memory of Africa that provided hope for dreaming the emergence of new worlds whether in Haiti, South Carolina, or Cuba.
Why is the Caribbean so important to the Plantation Church?
There were more than eleven million enslaved persons who were transported across the Black Atlantic and forced to work on plantations in the New World. Of this number, about 450, 000 arrived in the United States and all the rest went south of the border to the Caribbean nations and South America. More than twice the number of Africans who landed in the United States arrived in each of the islands of Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba. Additionally, it must be noted that slavery began in the Caribbean as early as 1502, well over a hundred years before the first twenty Africans landed in James Town Virginia in 1619. The historical priority and the numerical advantage point to the Black religious experience being born in the Caribbean and not the United States of America. W.E.B. Du Bois puts this in perspective, “American Negroes, to a much larger extent than they realize, are not only blood relatives to the West Indians but under deep obligations to them for many things. For instance, without the Haitian Revolt, there would have been no emancipation in America as early as 1863. I, myself, am of West Indian descent and am proud of the fact.”
Noel Leo Erskine is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Candler School of Theology and the Laney Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Emory University. He has been a visiting Professor in ten schools in six countries. His books include Plantation Church: How African American Religion Was Born in Caribbean Slavery, King Among the Thologians, and From Garvey to Marley.