In two classes today I had the opportunity to consider the role Christianity plays when considering the history of religious experiences of Africans, descendants of Africa and African-Americans. The delineation of Africans, decedents of Africa and African-Americans is intentional, as not all Africans or descendants of Africa who reside in America consider themselves African-American. Without delving into the conversation on African retentions, the argument can be made — and has been made — that Christianity should not be considered as the beginning of religious experience for Africans, historically speaking.
In one class we discussed the danger of using Christianity as as historical starting point when discussing the religious practices of enslaved Africans. To do so would be to negate any previous religious experience these very Africans had prior to enslavement. In that same class, there was also the question of whether it is responsible to produce scholarship that suggests all slaved converted to Christianity. We all agreed such an approach should be avoided at all costs.
The question was asked, ‘How do we know what really happened,’ when it comes to historical religious events that may have occurred several hundred years ago. The answer, I believe, comes from my background as a reporter: You go to the source. In this case the ‘source’ would be the narratives of the enslaved that have been collected over the years. These document, which are accessible through a number of ways, should be read and considered carefully. Questions have to be asked, not only questions like: “What is this person saying?” but also, “What is not being said here?” and “What is missing from this account?”
We, as scholars and recipients of information, have to start doing our own research which means reading some primary source documents. The same principle applies in the neighborhood when you want to know what really happened between Mr. You-Know-Who and Ms. So-And-So. While everybody seems to have a version of the story, including people who don’t even know them, your best sources of information are the primary players: Mr. You-Know-Who and Ms. So-And-So.
Anyway, I just found this sliver of my day worth recounting.