Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, African History. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: Google Scholar Indexing; date: 09 December 2023

African Religion and Healing in the Atlantic Diasporaunlocked

African Religion and Healing in the Atlantic Diasporaunlocked

  • John M. JanzenJohn M. JanzenDepartment of Anthropology, Univeristy of Kansas


Religion and healing are useful scholarly constructs in summarizing, consolidating, and interpreting a myriad of details from the historic African-Atlantic experience. For heuristic purposes, religion is understood as the worldviews, rituals, and supernatural beings that represent ultimate reality; healing is the understanding of, and responses to, affliction and misfortune, and the struggle to achieve wholeness. Combining religion and healing in an overview of the African diaspora experience will consider the following: original African worlds in four regional contexts in Western and Western Central Africa (e.g., Senegambia, Upper Guinea, Southern Guinea, Kongo-Angola); the traumatic middle passage refracted in the “broken mirrors” of memory; how this memory is mixed and reinterpreted with the New World experience of slave markets, plantations, maroon settlements, and during post-slavery, post-empire times; scholarly models of continuity and transformation; and modern constructions of religion and healing.


  • African Diaspora
  • Medical History
  • Oral Traditions
  • Religious History

Religion, Knowledge, and Healing

Religion and healing are scholarly constructs that are useful to summarize, consolidate, and interpret the work and lives of thousands of priests, healers, power brokers, and ordinary people in the African-Atlantic diaspora from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The words “religion” and “healing” seldom appear in the self-perceptions of those peoples and groups we are covering. Similarly, the views of scholars and other observers (the historiography) of these phenomena shift from one era and author to the next so as to appear unrecognizable one to the other. For heuristic purposes, religion is understood as the worldviews, rituals, and supernatural beings that represent ultimate reality to the subjects and scholars under review; healing is the understanding of, and responses to, affliction and misfortune, and the struggle to achieve wholeness and well-being. In many of the African and Atlantic settings, healing combines knowledge and application of the materia medica from the natural world, the divination of causes of misfortune, and interventions into social relations and community issues. The outer parameters of such healing are notoriously difficult to establish since they include far more, in far wider contexts, than post-Enlightenment biomedical notions. Illness is often defined as being caused and altered by either natural causes or human will, or both in complex connected ways, varying from one to the other in the course of a case, addressing individual, social, and spiritual dimensions. Many scholars and published collections have joined religion and healing as if they are part of the same dynamic process.1 However, important dimensions of known “healing” in the African traditions of the Atlantic diaspora include knowledge of the natural world, and an ability to apply it to available natural resources. Also, modern research of the African diaspora world shapes consciousness and therefore memory and construction of experience. Thus, such research incorporates this unfolding knowledge, including scientific understanding, into the study of religion and healing.2

These dimensions of religion, knowledge, and healing in the Atlantic-African diaspora experience must be contextualized more precisely. A generalized depiction of African diasporas would include not only the Atlantic, but also those of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.3 The Atlantic diaspora focuses historical coverage on the (mostly slave) emigration from Africa’s western coastal areas to the Americas from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Other works treat the vast and complex story of the Atlantic diaspora as shifting ethnic and national identities,4 or focus on the tracking of several of the major regional nationalities like Kongo-Mbundu from Western Central Africa and Yoruba from West Africa.5 Other authors focus their history of the Atlantic diaspora on the creative forces of upheaval and displacement that produced change and creolization of cultures with new identities.6 Finally, several recent scholars approach the Atlantic diaspora as a contemporary imagined global community of black consciousness and Pan-Africanism standing against the negating forces of colonialism.7

Religion and Healing in Original African-Atlantic Worlds8

The four regional religious traditions along the coast that figured in the Atlantic diaspora include Senegambia, Upper Guinea, Southern Guinea, and Kongo-Angola.9 The first of these regions, from the Gambia River northward to the edge of the Sahara Desert and inland from the coast to the floodplain of the upper Niger, saw Mande-speaking hierarchically organized and caste-based communities where kings held major ritual responsibilities associated with agriculture, fertility of the land and of women, initiations, divination, blacksmithing, and other specialized knowledge. These kingdom communities often retained their distinctive traditions while making accommodations with Islam, sometimes to resist enslavement, other times because of warfare against them. The resulting mixed religious systems were carried across the Atlantic as spirits associated with smithing, war, and healing, identified in the Americas as “houses” or “nations” of the Mandingas or Siniga (Senegal).

In the “Upper Guinea” region, extending from the Gambia River southward to the Liberian–Ivoirean border, societies ranged from small kingdoms to town republics to stateless societies with other modes of governance. The religions of these societies feature a high god and lesser deities, organized into gender-specific secret societies whose leaders hold significant public authority. During the eras of slavery and mercantile trade, these organizations served to distribute the resulting personalized wealth so as to mitigate against social disorder. Iron, war, and healing shrines increased in this region during slave raiding and trade activities. In the New World the people of Upper Guinea were identified as Felupes (Diola) and Brames (Manjaco) in Spanish provinces of Peru and Argentina. 10

Lower Guinea’s “Slave Coast” extended from today’s Cote d’Ivoire to the Cross Rivers area of the Nigeria–Cameroon border. Religious traditions here reflect supreme beings with male and/or female characteristics, for example, Mawu-Lesa of the Fon-Ewe area (today’s Togo, Benin, Dahomey) with respectively female and male features, and other specialized deities including the trickster.11 Shango and Obatala similarly represent this characteristic of more fluid gendering in the Yoruba pantheon suggestive of an emphasis on reproduction.12 In diaspora settings, due to situations of oppression of African spiritual practices, and the dominant culture’s influence, the deities of these traditions are often blended or submerged in Catholic saints. Nevertheless, possession by the various deities remains common, sometimes as a result of the spiritualization of the memory of slaves sold by relatives.

In the Equatorial African region, extending from the Cross River down to the southern edge of Angola, distinctive religious features include the high god Nzambi-Kalunga, who is associated both with the creation of the world and with the pervasive realm of water—kalunga—that surrounds the known universe and provides access to the supernatural. Lesser zambi deities represent the forces of nature and the techniques of human culture. Throughout the entire region, the power of these technologies is embedded in minkisi (singular, nkisi), a sacralized cluster of invocations, applications, material representations, pedigree from a visionary healer or ancestor, and name that personifies and embodies the power and other attributes of the nkisi. This system of deities, heroes, and minkisi was often invoked to create responses to the destabilizing effects of slavery and the mercantile trade. The Lemba order of the Congo River area is one example of such a nkisi of social and economic reordering, of healing the disjuncture of personalized wealth in a society where egalitarian sharing and redistribution had prevailed.13 In New World settings, these features persisted in providing access to power, the strength of resistance to oppression, and loss of identity.

Despite scholarly admonitions against over-generalization about Africa religion and healing in the face of the great range of local and regional religions, basic characteristics may be suggested that distinguish African religions, in the 15th to 19th centuries in these regions from which most of the African captives originated. A first general feature of the religions of this region is the prominence of a narrative about the world and its origin.14 These oral traditions are widely shared and compare to the sacred texts of the Abrahamic traditions, for example. They usually include the creation of the universe ex nihilo by a high god who is usually not represented visually nor addressed directly in rituals. Human contact with the divine is usually done by and through consecrated human priests or mediators who invoke ancestors or lesser, lower deities representing various issues of human experience (e.g., fortune, misfortune) or the natural world (e.g., lightning and storms, fertility and infertility).15 Another dominant feature of religions of the western coast is the prominence of ancestors that mediate the ultimate, and beyond reach, power of the high god. Because of the sedentary agrarian character of these societies, such ancestors as are approached through prayer and sacrifice are usually present in cemeteries or shrines dedicated to their recognition and homage, and consulted by the living in times of crisis or celebration. Recognition of such spiritual and natural power gives rise to the prominence of priests, healers, prophets, and spiritualized elders who are given the responsibility of interceding with such powers on behalf of humans. The structures of society and religion are often heterodox enough that variation and change are constant, especially in response to crises. The spirit world is regarded as powerful and lively such that all of these traditions allow for the spirits to possess humans either singly as devotees, as reformers, or collectively in rituals. Through possession Christian or Muslim teachings and rulings are made legitimate and “Africanized.”

The spiritual structure described above is often invoked in healing, that is, in the intervention by priests, healers, prophets, or elders to resolve problems or restore well-being among the living, or to protect the community from the forces of evil. But such spiritually legitimated healing actions also utilize a common-sense, empirical, understanding of natural materia medica and conflict management in the human world. These societies have centuries, indeed millennia, of experience of domesticating and raising crops and livestock, of making a living in the tropical or arid environments; of drawing directly from the natural world of plants and other materials; of creating metals, and making tools for domestic applications and warfare; of living in organized societies; and of reproducing their own kind. Thus we may suggest that the religious traditions are fused to practical actions that serve the human community in a myriad of ways.

The Traumatic Middle Passage within Colonialisms

The nature of religion, healing, and knowledge in the African Atlantic was profoundly shaped by the middle passage of the slave trade that increased in prominence and violence within the mercantile trade from the 16th through the late 19th centuries. Thorough examination of shipping records establishes the total numbers of African slaves torn from their homes and forcibly embarked at 12.5 million, nearly 2 million of whom died during the voyage.16 The searing experience of slave capture, walking under guard in a caravan to the coast while shackled, being again shackled in the hold of a ship; the terror of the cross-Atlantic voyage with its outbreaks of disease, storms, and inadequate and bad food; and finally relocation in the New World inevitably left a lasting trauma on individuals and subsequent generations.17 The shape of healing aspirations and actions was shifted to address the wound of memory of this middle passage, and the pain of the new reality of slavery.

The varied character of European colonial empires—Portuguese, British, French, Spanish, Dutch, and United States—as well as pirate leagues that sometimes controlled Atlantic shipping ports and seaways also shaped the experience of slavery. Despite the common features of slavery and the middle passage, the colonial empires established long-lasting distinctive structures that spanned the African coastal areas and the New World with identifiable cultural, linguistic, religious, economic, and political features. Likewise, the scholarship on religion and healing has been couched in the varied languages, mindsets, academic traditions, and national cultures of the colonial settings.

Sites of Trauma and Refractions of the “Broken Mirrors” of Memory

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.18 Derek Walcott, Fragments of Epic Memory.

Across this vast and varied landscape following the experience of capture and the middle passage, several New World relocation sites stand out: the slave market, the plantation, the urban household and factory, the fugitive community, and the process of slavery’s abolition. Each of these shapes the manner in which identity is refashioned, and memory of the traumatic experience will be allowed to surface in representative fashion. The metaphor of the broken mirror—or of the broken pot, Derek Walcott’s memorable passage above—is useful in imagining how pieces of experience survive, or are lost, distorted, or reshaped. Before looking at each of these settings, we need to highlight the basic question that ties together trauma, memory, and healing: On what basis are particular elements chosen for creative persistence, left to disappear, highlighted for their efficacy and power, or buried in obscurity?

Research into the nature of the connections among trauma, memory, and healing in the African-Atlantic diaspora experience has followed a range of lines, from searching for continuities,19 to affirming the underlying dynamic power of African forms of expression—song, dance, story—in which the slave experience was addressed in a common set of expressive mediums that spanned ethnicities and languages. Within this continuum from essentializing continuity to creatively recombining fractured reality, scholars have formulated different models of how to see the fracturing and rearranging of cultural elements, usually prompted by the varied historical junctures of the African-Atlantic experience. “Syncretism” has been applied to instances of multiple traditions coming together, with apparently random selection and recombination of elements and themes. Some scholars have identified a process common in traumatic memory of “voids” where there had been cultural substance previously, or where the painful experience of slavery and oppression has been unconsciously or sometimes willfully suppressed by elders who do not wish to relieve their children and future generations of their bad memories.20 The label of “cultural schizophrenia” has been applied to situations in which there is a loss of coherence, where practices formerly in some harmony are now helter-skelter, used without the previous narrative. Another scholar has written of “parallel revelation” where two traditions like African religion and Christianity exist within the same context, both manifesting their distinctive features and serving more or less the same purpose in that single context.21 Most current scholars use the concepts of “hybridity” or “creolization”22 to speak of cultural blending. These terms suggest, on the analogy of language, a process whereby the underlying grammar or structure survives, but the words, or ritual elements and symbols, are borrowed and added to the earlier structure.

The first of the sites of trauma are the slave markets in port towns and sites where numbers of African slaves were brought for sale and purchase. At play were the questions of whether anything resembling continued relations to familiar individuals would be allowed, or accidentally happen, and whether and to what extent a common language would continue or a new mixture of language and culture would be required. Relationships and bonds that may have survived, or formed in the middle passage, were freshly torn asunder in these markets, as marriage partners, or children and their parents, were separated, to end up in the control of different owners. Later, bonds created between slaves in their work sites would be freshly destroyed as slaves were sold, and bought. Slave markets inflicted trauma on all those who were moved through them, creating a layer of self-identity and internalized pain that persisted, finding expression in song and dance, as healing rituals.

A second context was the plantation, widely represented across the Americas, where the controlling and oppressive hand of the master and the ruling class would to a degree shape the life of the workers, how they would mix, and what kind of opportunities for common life, worship, and community would be allowed. Research into the plantation life of the southern United States establishes the widespread presence of recognized healers and midwives within the slave population, with established methods—often African derived—of using available materia medica and techniques to deal with common health issues.23 The knowledge of African pharmacopeia of former rainforest dwellers was projected upon the American landscape from which the same plants, or similar plants, were chosen for treatments.24 Specialists at conjuring grappled with social issues and “psychosomatic” afflictions. These herbalists, midwives, and conjurers were often viewed with suspicion by the masters and white doctors, who commonly accused the slaves of malingering to escape work, and at the worst, of harboring attitudes of resistance and rebellion. Religion and healing spanned the master-controlled and overseen life as well as the surreptitious activities in the slave community such as keeping secret shrines and altars in back corners of the slaves’ houses, recently discovered by archaeologists.

A third context was in urban households and factories, where a closer relationship often developed between slave and master. Here we find the occurrence of indulgent members of master families introducing slaves to literacy, religious practices, and ideas. Here we also find the most frequent occurrence of sexual contact between master and slave—usually male master and female slave—and the birth of children of mixed-race parentage, as in the much publicized case of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.25 The ears of the household slave would pick up conversation and family activities and apply it to their own lives. Here is also the most frequent possibility of mutual antagonisms such as poisonings, occult violence, a legacy of fear of the other26 due to close interactions, or slave revolts by those in wider contact with like-minded fellows in the work site or trade network.27 Memory here would often include name and identity taken over from the master family.

Fourthly, in every slave setting there emerged fugitive communities of “runaways,” from the ruling order. These were called “maroon” communities in French, Spanish,28 Dutch, and English colonies, or in Portuguese Brazil, quilombos,29 after a southern savanna name for initiation camps or military squads. Despite the all-out efforts by colonial authorities to hunt down and eradicate these enclaves of escaped slaves, they persisted and even thrived in places like the swamps of Florida,30 the mountains and jungles of Brazil, and the remote mountainous reaches of Hispaniola. Some even were able to organize as states. After emancipation some of these enclaves became recognized regions of distinctive culture contributing to the diversity of national societies, enriching economic activity, linguistic variety, and religious and festive performances. African healing practices were more likely to survive in these settings than in any of the others.

Fifthly, the 19th-century legal abolition of slavery in the colonial empires changed the circumstances of each of the above four settings. This transition occurred early (in the British Empire) to later in the century (U.S. Civil War, 1864), about the same time in Portuguese regions and Brazil. Unfortunately, it did not mean economic freedom and prosperity in most cases; often nominally freed slaves continued to work in the plantations and industries of their former masters. For the maroon and quilombo communities, it meant freedom to continue carrying on their ancestral culture, including modes of celebration and healing, while at the same time figuring out how to thrive in a modern nation-state where they were often already marginalized. Without a doubt the end of legal slavery served to make physical movement and migration easier, often to the cities where work may have been available, and the consolidation of community possible. Thus, people came together with memories of experiences in the varied circumstances of their enslavement, sharing stories, rituals, and lives across cultural divides. In the cities creole languages and cultures thrived. The urban and new immigrant communities of New York, Rio, Havana, Miami, and many other places found centers of religion and healing in ever-more-nuanced elaborations.

The power of spiritual awakening in the African-Atlantic experience, as well as in its African template, needs to be recognized as a source of survival and artistic enactment of renewed life. The “dialectical intention” in trance experience brings to the fore figures and situations from collective memory that uniquely address the need of the moment, the particular conjuncture of experience, with an original combination of stories, arguments, symbols, and truths.31 The question with which this section began—on what basis are particular elements chosen for creative persistence, left to disappear, highlighted for their efficacy, or buried in obscurity?—is ultimately answered by the fulcrum of individual agency in actions that cannot be explained by historians as “mass movements” or monolithic cultural upheavals.

The cultural blending, obscuring, assimilation, and transformation that occur in these sites of trauma, memory, and healing will be given more vivid voice and image in the following case studies of religion and healing in the African-Atlantic experience.

Survivals, Revivals, and “Ironic Tenacity”

Plants used in medicinal preparations as well as symbolic representations of social and spiritual realities are widely documented in the African-Atlantic world of religion and healing. This is not surprising, as all Atlantic coastal societies from the Gambian River down to Angola were (and are) agrarian societies in some of the richest rainforest and savanna landscape on earth. The way plants convey both meaning and material efficacy—in foods, medicines, symbolism—has been widely noted and is everywhere an important dimension of healing. It is not possible to simply track continuities across the Atlantic, because plants were rarely or never taken by slaves on the middle passage to be replanted in the New World. Rather, enslaved herbalist-healers recognized New World plants that resembled those of their African herbaria. To the extent that they were allowed to harvest or cultivate such plants, there is evidence of continuity as well as creative appropriation in this knowledge.32

The place of plants (as well as other natural things) in African and African-Atlantic societies often reflects the nature spirits that define the sacred sources of life such as springs, waterfalls, caves, streams, and rivers in relation to the land and sky. This overview essay only allows for a cursory illustration of this topic so important to healing. The nsanda fig tree in Lower Congo and in Brazilian ecology and spirituality is a good example. In two settlement plant inventories initiated by this author, nsanda was the first-named plant, because it was known as a harbinger of good soil moisture, allowing the many domestic plants that would grow in peoples’ backyards to thrive.33 This moisture-indicating aspect of the nsanda tree also gave it the connotation of representing Simbi water spirits. Therefore many religious and therapeutic rituals, like the Kimpasi crisis and initiation rite, incorporated the nsanda fig tree. The 18th-century prophetess Kimpa Vita, Dona Beatrice, who considered herself a priest of the Bisimbi spirits, a matron of Kimpasi, wore nsanda-bark-cloth clothing. Her prophetic role in seeking to restore the Kongo Kingdom brought her into conflict with Capuchin priests in 1704.34 She was tried for heresy and executed; her devoted following were sold into slavery. Recent research has determined that they were probably behind the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in the 1730s.35 The semantic extension from being an indicator of soil moisture, that is, water and life, to being the symbol of renewal and identity in time of crisis was also conveyed to the Central African slave communities in southeast Brazil.36 The nsanda fig tree demonstrates the multiple and unfolding semantic movement of a particular plant in African-Atlantic healing from soil moisture to water to life to symbol of renewal, resistance, and identity during times of crisis.

Haitian Vodou offers a particularly rich challenge for cultural analysis, with its intricate interweaving of Western African, Western Equatorial African, and Catholic-Christian names, spirits, ritual codes, and laa. The underlying ritual structure of Vodou reflects a Dahomean origin, whereas many of the deities that descend upon the devotees during the rites are either Yoruba orisha or Ewe loa in name and character, as well as Kongo-Angolan minkisi. The former usually occur in the Rada or first section of the rite, whereas the latter occur in the “Action de Grace” that represents vestiges of 15th- to 18th-century Kongo Christianity, including the dance around the cross within a circle, traced on the ground in white, resembling the mpemba used in Candomble and lukumi ceremonial practices.

The blending of various traditions and creative renewals seen in Haitian healing also characterizes the African religions of Brazil. The classic work by Roger Bastide traces the origins of these religious communities in African slave immigrant nations, and details the further consolidation of rituals and their penetration by varied Catholic rites, Protestant movements, and other forms of expression and institutionalization like Spiritism. 37 Umbanda, with its origin (at least by name) in the Great Lakes and southern Savanna Central Africa, combines the orisha of Yoruba religion—for example, Shango, Exu, Ogun, Oxossi—as well as caboclos (native American spirits) and “Old Negroes.” 38 In some Umbanda circles a darker, more evil, side mirrors these spiritual beings under the classification of Macumba. Yet these are submerged into Catholic saints, and Bantu nkisi figures, as well as some elements of astrology. As in much Brazilian African religions, many of the adepts are of non-African (European) identity. Bastide considered Umbanda in Brazil to be not quite a full “religion,” but rather an open form that allowed almost anything to flow into it in “syncretic” fashion.39 In contrast, Bastide considered Candomblé to be a more “mature” African-Brazilian religion that had spread from Bahia. The Nâgo rite of Yoruba origin, with devotion to orisha, organized by leading babalowa, seemed to Bastide to be the central organizing force in Bahia, where this Old World “religion” found a New World renaissance.40 Yet it incorporated the Dahomean and Kongo/Angolan inkissis into its spirit categories through correspondences from one tradition to the other, and in various communities also to the Catholic deities and saints. Bastide traces the regional variations in Candomblé in Brazil, as well as ways in which the “orthodoxy” of the Yoruba/Dahomey rites were transformed to accommodate outside influences.41

While Bastide takes the comprehensive overview perspective of Brazilian-African religion, more recent scholarship provides insights that come from the identification of personal experience of historical individuals and historical fictional accounts. Thus the remarkable case of Domingos Alvares, a slave taken from his home in Dahomey, West Africa, to Brazil in the 18th century. He shows the power of African healing and religion in the hands of a charismatic individual determined to serve his community against all odds.42 Alvares became a popular diviner-healer in the slave communities of Recife and Rio, with enough freedom to spread knowledge of his skills and to attract a significant following. His techniques included a calabash filled with water over which he waved a knife to identify causes and sources of misfortune and disease. Devotees were possessed by spirits of Dahomean origin and identity. This replication of Dahomean religion and healing became a hierarchic organization with named figures around him who assisted him in the public rituals. He gained his freedom in midcentury, only to be tagged by the Inquisition as an opponent of the Catholic Church. (His Inquisition interrogations provided the main sources on his life.) Eventually he went to Portugal, where he lived out his life.

Mahommah Baquaqua’s rare 19th-century account43 of his career details his enslavement in his homeland Benin, the middle passage to Brazil, his subsequent escape on a ship to the United States, and his encounter with abolitionists who freed him and helped him publish his story. Later he spends time in England, converts to Christianity, and becomes a missionary to West Africa. He is one of the very few literate slaves, dating from his youth in an Islamic school. A third example of the re-creation of tradition and the slave experience is 21st-century Angolan author José Aqualusa’s novel Creole.44 The novel features the daughter of a mid-19th-century Kongo king who is enslaved and shipped to Brazil on the last slave ship, named “Creole Nation.” She manages to escape slavery with the help of a lover, following which they, together, acquire a plantation, including slaves. From there they flee to freedom in Europe, but she returns to Kongo to reunite with her family as an urban household owner. All three of these accounts reconstruct the pieces of the slave experience to include the entire gamut: capture, the middle passage, New World oppression, eventual freedom, the struggle to restore noble identity and status, and, in the case of Baquaqua and Agualusa’s heroine, return home to Africa.

Any formalization of analysis of the cultural processes involved here need to recognize the dynamic creativity by agents of change—prophets, priests, reformers—or the creative genius in mapping out survival and identity in the midst of oppression. Ochoa’s study of the Cuban Yoruba-derived Santeria and the Kongo(or Yombe-) derived Palo (or Lukumi) in the hands of a Havana healer-priest is a magnificent illustration of creativity. This study centers around a practitioner-healer who combines the several African traditions around the composition of an nkisi-like ritual object-body called the prenda, made up of plants, bric-a-brac, and invocations, and activated by invocations and spitting anointments of rum. The identity of one of the practitioner’s prendas is especially intriguing in terms of its cosmic placement. The prenda Judaica identifies itself with the underground Jewish survival among faux converts to Spanish Catholicism, during and following the Inquisition.45 The symbolic space of the time from Good Friday (the death of Christ) to Easter Sunday (resurrection of Christ) becomes the time when non-Christian spirits including those of Judaism and of African origin may emerge to be given their moment of reality, to be celebrated and affirmed. This subtle elevation of spiritual power negated by the dominant religion attests to the underlying demand for justice in the pluralistic cosmology of Cuban-African religion and healing. It also attests to the “double consciousness” of the practitioners of Santeria and Palo within a larger symbolic-spiritual framework.46

Sterling Stuckey’s “ironic tenacity” as a mode of seeing the African-Atlantic contribution to religion and healing remains to be addressed.47 Although he does not explicitly address medicine or healing, his understanding of the “arts” of African Americans in slavery settings highlights many elements of knowledge and skill that are combined in the distinctive array of African healing: a clear knowledge of the material world, with skills in gardening, food preparation, blacksmithing, and weaving, but especially the social skills of hospitality, sharing, generosity, music and rhythm, and storytelling. His focus is on the creative dimension of aesthetic sensibility within the slave experience. Nowhere is this more vivid than in the seemingly spontaneous composition of songs produced in the plantation or slave–master interaction of a household setting. Such songs became the spirituals and art songs that lasted far longer than the setting of their origin, and became a corpus still recognized and performed far beyond the African American community. Stuckey’s “ironic tenacity” contains the assumption that this “art” of African American life was self-conscious, because any criticism of the conditions of power and subjugation needed to be veiled to protect the singer/speaker/subject from punitive sanctions. It needed to be veiled in metaphor, allusions to folktales, or idiom in such a way that it did not imperil the speaker/dancer/artist.

Stuckey’s analysis of slave creativity and its contribution to American art and culture provides a corrective lens to much writing on religion and healing in the Atlantic world. The middle passage and what followed for generations of African immigrants forever changed the way they continued their African ways and adapted to the new setting. Stuckey’s ironic tenacity suggests that the reservoirs of African tradition, while being changed and blended, used song-dance and all the skills of making a living and living in society to survive in the adversities of slave life. It provided the wherewithal for healing, and just as in Africa, song-dance had been a widespread and integral aspect of therapeutic communities and networks.48

Constructions of Memory, Knowledge, and Healing by 21st-Century Seekers

The combination of features that make up African Atlantic healing—that is, empirical use of materia medica from the landscape, the engagement with spiritual agents, and the manipulation of relations and community dynamics—recur in most of the case studies and illustrations given above. That they continue to be the hallmark features of African healing traditions in the 21st century is evident in this final section, which describes the pursuits and passions of five New World individuals who have shared with this author their search for wholeness through African religion and healing. In today’s world of instant communication, and widespread available historical and disciplinary research, their quests were accompanied by thorough exploration of the scholarly literature as well as acquaintance with those who had training and expertise in spiritual practices. They include both individuals of African origin as well as several of European identity who are looking to African religion and healing for wholeness. At least one identified himself as a disillusioned former Christian. At least three of the five had been initiated to a New World African religion, usually with multiple traditions of Yoruba and/or Kongo origin (Santeria, Vodou, Palo-Kongo, Palo-Mayombe). Several describe in publications their patron/matron or ancestral spirit and its direct link to the African past and present. Their reasons for contacting this author had to do with their desire for study materials, their interest in Old World (especially Kongo) historical sources, and their interest in learning more about the language in which earlier (pre-slavery) practices were embedded. One of the contacts sought Africa connections and counsel in making travel arrangements. Several were curious about the author’s religious affiliation and whether during his field research in Kongo he had participated in Kongo religion. For the record, the response was that he and his wife had participated in heavily Christianized Kongo worship, divination sessions, funerals, conflict resolutions, healing services; in a separate visit to the Sudan in 2004, they had worshipped with a Sufi Islamic community. Three of these “seeker-scholar-practitioners” agreed to be featured here as a demonstration of the ongoing vigor of African-Atlantic diaspora religion and healing.

Norman Bayard is a Philadelphia-based educator who seeks to integrate his knowledge of African culture, history, and religion with his teaching. He formerly was dean of students at the Sankofa Academy, a magnet school with an African curricular emphasis. In 2015 he moved to the Germantown Friends School to become Lower School Dean of Students and Community Life.49 He has a particular passion for African American youth and men, believing strongly that they can “find themselves” better if they are taught the full depth of an African spirituality, and given respectable African models to follow. As he writes,

For the past three years I did some “healing” things with Rowan University’s Men of Color Retreat that has aided the participants in addressing the value in remembering and honoring their personal ancestors; creating a safe space for the young men to acknowledge past traumas to begin to move forward to heal; viewing themselves as spiritual beings and their connection to earth (which involved the use of [Kongo-identified] “mpemba” or kaolin chalk and a tree); helping to create bonds of brotherhood; and sharing my take on manhood … this is something I have been passionate about for quite some time and I am able to do fairly well. I most humbly say a gift that I chose prior to coming to this plane of existence.50

Anthony Richards is a biochemist/botanist whose current professional title is “Consultant in Food & Biotechnology Management, Barbados.” He manages food-safety initiatives and oversees or approves food-licensure programs. He is also passionately interested in the historical and contemporary place of plants in the African-Atlantic world, their biochemical properties, and their symbolic applications. Richards and this author have corresponded regarding the symbolic significance—in Kongo-Angola and in the Caribbean—of the common grass kimbansia (Crab grass in the United States) to puzzle out the seeming high importance of this grass in Kongo ritual and plant classification. Why would it be used so widely in ritual, with references to God and the ancestors? He has access to most of the archival literature and follows Kongo-Atlantic scholarship online as well as during his trips to the United Kingdom and the United States, and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Recently he wrote that he had a strong interest in medicinal plants that have an anti-sickling effect, since he is a carrier of the sickling gene, and referred the author to a recent article on plant analysis in this area. A recent project by Richards and colleagues focuses on the landscape-marker plants in the Atlantic diaspora with Central African symbols.51 Another project narrows that interest to “sword plants and spirits in African and American graveyards,” as described in the following abstract.

Scant regard has been given to questions of the contribution of the African genius to the ritual landscapes of the New World. The archaeological literature suggests that African Americans, in the southeastern USA employed Yucca (Spanish bayonet) and lilies as grave markers in 19th–20th century cemeteries. The phrase “pushing up yucca” has been coined to describe these graveyards, and there was a Gullah belief that spiny plants restricted the movement of the spirits of the dead. Recent surveys of 50 cemeteries in 10 Eastern Caribbean countries found that yuccas were not common grave markets. However, other plants with lance-like leaves are prominent. Sanselviera sp (Dracaenaceae) are ubiquitous. Cordyline fructicosa (Dracaenaceae) dominates cemeteries in the south, while amarylids such as Hymenocallis littoralis are more common in the northeastern islands. These preferences are compared with published descriptions of the widespread traditional use of Dracaena arborea as a grave marker in West Africa.52

As is evident here, Richards wonders whether the exchange of African and American plant knowledge and use has contributed to the shape of (post) modern global culture beyond popular music and the arts, including the impact of African sacred/medicinal knowledge on the history of Atlantic biomedicine. He explores the uses of the houseplant Dieffenbachia as a possible example of this spread and synthesis of botanical knowledge.

[Dieffenbachia] is native to the Americas. It belongs to the taro/cocoyam family, several examples of which are used in in West & Central African food and medicine. They play an important role in the cosmology of Native American peoples, and this has been appropriated by Africans in various parts of the Americas. The milky latex produces irritation and inflammation of tissues when consumed. It is said to have been deployed in the punishment of slaves in the Caribbean, and poisoning by this plant may have been feared by the white people. Later, it was linked with Nazi medicine, and is currently among many plants being explored by bio-medicine. The milky, cactus-like plants of the euphorbia family have comparable associations. This large family is represented by many American plants (manioc/cassava and Jatropha), and African plants imported into the Americas (Castor/Ricinus, milk hedge/ pencil plant).53

M. Jacqui Alexander is a transnational feminist scholar and author, formerly professor of women’s studies and gender studies at the University of Toronto, and more recently founding director of the Tobago Centre for the Study and Practice of Indigenous Spirituality in Trinidad and Tobago. These two identities—university professor and practitioner of indigenous spirituality—represent two intersecting dimensions of Alexander’s life. The first reflects an accomplished North American academic career with major book publications, lectures, and conference presentations. Her voice in transnational feminist politics and a wide range of intersectional, social-justice issues is widely acclaimed. The second identity reflects her devotion to her ancestral heritage, and her engagement in the creation of solidarity communities across the globe. In her magisterial Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (2005),54 she folds the second theme of engaging the spiritual world of the African Atlantic into the first of her academic interdisciplinary perspective. Or, perhaps it is that the existential engagement with ancestry, land, and community grows out of, yet supersedes, her scholarship.

In the embrace of African-Atlantic sanctuaries of Vodou and Lukumi practices—via New York, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago—Alexander discovers her spiritual anchor, Thisbe, an 18th-century enslaved woman who lived and died a few miles from where she grew up. A scant two paragraphs in the local archives recount Thisbe’s role as a healer among the slaves and her involvement in an insurrection, her consequent execution by beheading, and the grotesque parading of her disembodied head around the square to terrorize slaves into submission. Alexander’s spiritual pilgrimage takes her to the forests of Mayombe in Lower Congo and into communicative sessions where she is possessed by the spirit of Thisbe, revealing her true name as Kitsimba. In a moving possession soliloquy, Alexander speaks/writes as Kitsimba, telling her (Alexander) what she must do to be allowed to write Kitsimba’s story: she must become one with Kitsimba.55 The embodied memory, the recounting, of this historic bad death in the clutches of the bad life of slavery becomes the healing of the community. In this limited space, a somewhat arbitrarily chosen paragraph will suffice to offer Alexander’s scholarly explanation of the workings of African-Atlantic religion and healing.

The knitting together of mind, body, and Spirit finds another pivotal anchor in the world of spirit possession. Here, body becomes the means by which mind, which has fashioned itself as autonomous is propelled outside of itself in order to invite the return of Spirit. Body, in this complex, becomes a means of communication, simply because Spirit requires it—although not only—to mount its descent. There are many representations of possession that rely on exteriority to make the point about the visible transformation that takes place in outward appearance as a way of providing evidence for what practitioners take to be real. But that outside, visible dimension cannot be unmoored from an interior transformation that sets up the terms for the descent of Spirit. Crucial to those terms is surrender, a handing over of autonomy in the service of Spirit, without which that transformation, itself a struggle with surrender, would never occur.56

The Continuing Quest for Wholeness in the Atlantic Diaspora

The scholarly abstractions “religion,” “knowledge,” and “healing” in the African-Atlantic diaspora have been fleshed out with particular historical traditions, eras, and settings. The research enterprise that seeks to uncover the depths of human suffering, the pain of slavery’s traumas, and the creative effort marshalled to survive and overcome this legacy over many generations requires as much restoration of individual stories and accounts as possible. The topic has only truly come to life in the conversation with individuals who themselves, each in their unique ways, live out the quest for wholeness in the African-Atlantic diasporic tradition.

Discussion of the Literature

The key terms of the topic are defined at the outset of this writing with special attention to the uniqueness of an African and therefore African-Atlantic diaspora, and understanding of religion, knowledge, and healing, in relation to comparative works on religion and healing,57 on the one hand, and religion and science,58 on the other.

This is followed with a review of the various threads of scholarship on African-Atlantic diaspora studies, a necessary framework for an overview on religion and healing. Works that focus on simple continuities of African culture in the New World59 are complemented by a focus on the conscious agency of scholars and practitioners60 in this tradition, and the creative energy applied to assuring the relevancy of the tradition’s practices, often through blending of institutions and innovative adaptations. Scholars and students interested in a single source for this task should consult Joseph Miller’s Companion to Atlantic History.61

It seemed appropriate to further delimit the scope of the “African” side of the Atlantic diaspora. The literature on African religion is vast and complex; Baum’s review of religion in coastal African societies from the Mauritanian Desert down to Angola, with one or two supplemental monographs for each region, suffices to establish a basic account of the regional traditions that figure in the African-Atlantic diaspora.62

Similarly, the scope of literature on the middle passage seemed too vast to review here, although this essay would be remiss not to mention basic works in connection with the deep trauma it caused, and therefore its central relevance in any research on Atlantic diaspora healing.63

The literature on the “Sites of Trauma and Refractions of the ‘Broken Mirror’ of Memory” of the diaspora experience covers both the varied settings and times that produced different outcomes in the fate of African religion and healing, as well as an array of analytical models with which to conceptualize the recombinations of cultural elements and memory, and the creative energy and conscious intelligence applied to New World adaptations.64

Recent (late 20th and early 21st centuries) research into Atlantic diasporic religion and healing reveals the richness and complexity of particular case studies and the importance of newly uncovered sources not found in earlier research. “Survivals, Revivals and Ironic Tenacity” offers a few of these published case studies that challenge the received theoretical models. These examples represent the author’s list of most interesting and significant publications, by no means exhaustive.

The final section, “Constructions of Memory, Knowledge, and Healing by 21st-Century Seekers” is a subjective compilation of the topic based on the author’s personal acquaintances. It is intended to demonstrate the topic’s continuing reality a full century and a half after the last slave ship reached the New World in 1866. Several of the author’s interlocutors are private individuals who sought meaning and coherence in their lives by researching and adopting African religious tenets and practices. Others, like Philadelphia educator Norman Bayard, Barbados biochemist/botanist Anthony Richards, and feminist scholar and spiritualist Professor Jacqui Alexander, are also accomplished publically recognized scholars, teachers, and practitioners of African-Atlantic diaspora religion and healing. Their work and lives bring a contemporary sophistication to this enduring topic of trauma, memory, and healing in the African-Atlantic diaspora.65

Primary Sources

Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States (often referred to as the WPA Slave Narrative Collection) was a massive compilation of slave narratives from interviews made from 1936 to 1938 by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration. These records were one of the main sources used by Covey’s study of medicinal plants in southern plantations.

The visual record of photographs and drawings regarding the religion and healing on the frican Atlantic diaspora is available on Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr.’s website The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record. This source includes a separate section on “Religion and Mortuary Practices.”

Several of the works on the slavery experience are based in large part on Inquisition archives. James Sweet’s Domingos Alvares, for example, draws from the local Brazilian Inquisition records. A more accessible digital source on the Inquisition in Spain, and elsewhere, is the Notre Dame University Hesberg Library website Inquisition Archives Worldwide.

Some of the active work of archaeologists in the African diaspora is regularly published in the Journal of African Diaspora Archeology and Heritage edited by Christopher Fennell. Here one can find evidence of cemeteries, altars beneath floors of slave quarters, household wares, and many other features of the African diaspora newly revealed in ongoing archaeological research.

Landscape and botanical surveys provide an important source of plant and ecological information, and cemetery and boundary markings, as found in the work of J. M. Janzen, Herbert Covey, and Anthony Richards. Useful primary-source material is found in Robert Voeks and John Rashford, eds., African Ethnobotany in the Americas (Springer, 2013) and more significantly in the National History Museum of London 2006-8 project Slavery and the Natural World, which brings archival and oral information into book and online access. Particularly chapter 8 on medicines is relevant here.

Historical linguistics, that is the tracing of words and grammatical forms, has been used by many scholars to trace migration and identity histories. Basic Old World vocabulary from the Bantu languages is available in Jan Vansina’s Paths in the Rainforest (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990) and the work of his students and colleagues. This method has the potential to be applied in the New World African-Atlantic languages and cultures. Robert Farris Thompson and others have applied similar research to tracing physical gestures, dance, and motion in New World settings. All of these techniques would be applicable to religion and healing research.

Further Reading

Encyclopedias with Short Entries

Joseph C. Miller, ed., The Princeton Companion to Atlantic History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015),Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat offers the most up-to-date comprehensive overview of our topic in a published volume, with essays on “Religions, African,” Robert Baum, 395–397; “Religions, African, Historiography of,” Wyatt MacGaffey, 398–401; “Religion, African, in the Americas,” Stephan Palmié, 401–404; “Healing, African,” John M. Janzen, 230–232; “Healing, African American,” Pablo Gomez, 233–234; “Healing, European,” Kelly Wisecup, 234–236.

The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York: Macmillan, 2005) offers many entries on African and African diaspora societies and practices, including Karen McCarthy-Brown, “Healing and Medicine in the African Diaspora.”

Classics that Represent High-Quality Research of an Earlier Era

Melville Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat and Roger Bastide, The African Religions of Brazil: Toward a Sociology of the Interpenetration of Civilizations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Studies of Religion and Healing in Southern U.S. Plantations

Sharla M. Fett, Working Cures: Healing, Health and Power on Southern Slave Plantations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Herbert Covey, African-American Slave Medicine: Herbal and Non-herbal Treatments (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2008).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Noteworthy Monographs of Religion and Healing in the African-Atlantic World

Karen McCarthy-Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, 4th ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat James Sweet, Domingos Alvares, African Healing and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Todd Ramón Ochoa, Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

Works of Especially Theoretical Importance in Understanding the Existential Setting of Religion and Healing in the African Atlantic Diaspora:

Sterling Stuckey, Going through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994);Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (London: Duke University Press, 2005),Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat esp. ch. 7, “Pedagogies of the Sacred: Making the Invisible Tangible.”


  • 1. Linda L. Barnes and Susan S. Sered, Religion and Healing in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  • 2. John Hedley Brooke and Ronald L. Numbers, Science and Religion around the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  • 3. Joseph Harris, ed., Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1993).

  • 4. Paul E. Lovejoy and David V. Trotman, Trans-Atlantic Dimension of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora (London: Continuum, 2003).

  • 5. Christopher Fennell, Crossroads and Cosmologies: Diasporas and Ethnogenesis in the New World (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007).

  • 6. Linda M. Heywood, ed., Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Linda M. Heywood and John K. Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

  • 7. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Annalisa Oboe and Anna Scacchi, eds., Re-charting the Black Atlantic: Modern Cultures, Local Communities, Global Connections (London: Routledge, 2008); Jean Muteba Rahier, Percy C. Hintzen, and Felipe Smith, Global Circuits of Blackness: Interrogating the African Diaspora (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010).

  • 8. This heading uses the title of Daryll Forde’s African Worlds: The Study of Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954).

  • 9. Robert M. Baum, “Religion, Africa,” in Princeton Companion to Atlantic History, ed. Joseph C. Miller (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 395–398. Baum offers succinct summaries of these regional religions in relation to the Atlantic diaspora.

  • 10. Robert Baum, Shrines of the Slave Trade: Diola Religion and Society in Precolonial Senegambia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

  • 11. Judy Rosenthal, Possession, Ecstasy, and Law in Ewe Voodou (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998).

  • 12. T. Falola and M. Childs, The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

  • 13. John M. Janzen, Lemba 1650–1930: A Drum of Affliction in Africa and the New World (New York: Garland, 1982).

  • 14. John Middleton, “Religion and Ritual,” in New Encyclopedia of Africa (Farmington Hills, MI: Thompson, Gale, 2008), 306–313; John Mbiti, African Religion and Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970); Baum, “Religions, Africa,” 395–398.

  • 15. Middleton, “Religion and Ritual”; Baum, “Religions, Africa.”

  • 16. Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database; Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972).

  • 17. One of a growing number of publications identifying the middle-passage experience with collective and transgeneration trauma is Joy Leary Degruy, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (Milwaukie, OR: Uptone Press, 2005); see also Matthew V. Johnson, Sr., “The Middle Passage: Trauma and the Tragic Re-imagination of African-American Theology,” Pastoral Psychology 53.6 (July 2005): 541–561.

  • 18. Derek Walcott, fragment from Fragments of Epic Memory Sotosay Posted November 17, 2009 by Kamalakar; referenced January 6, 2017. Kindly suggested by Anthony Richards for inclusion in this essay.

  • 19. See Melville Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), which seeks to identify major points of continuity of African culture, especially Dahomean, in the Americas, to counter the “myth” of the total loss of culture in these traditions; and Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983), which traces Kongo, Yoruba, and Ewe traditions in Africa and their New World diasporas.

  • 20. Marwa Ghazali, “When the Heart Grows Sad: Loss, Absence, and the Embodiment of Traumatic Memory among Somali Bantu Refugees,” in Medical Anthropology in Global Africa, eds. Kathryn Rhine, John M. Janzen, Glenn Adams, and Heather Aldersey (Lawrence, KS: Publications in Anthropology, 2014), no. 26, 165–170.

  • 21. John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

  • 22. Linda Heywood and John Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

  • 23. Sharla M. Fett, Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

  • 24. Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009). Herbert Covey, African-American Slave Medicine: Herbal and Non-herbal Treatments (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2008)

  • 25. Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008).

  • 26. Suggested by Anthony Richards, personal communication, October 27, 2016.

  • 27. Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

  • 28. See, for example, Jane Landers, “The Central African Presence in Spanish Maroon Communities,” in Linda Heywood, Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 227–241.

  • 29. Leonard Abrams, dir., “Quilombo Country: Afrobrazilian Villages in the 21st Century,” DVD (New York: Moving Eye Productions, 2006).

  • 30. William Loren Katz, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage (New York: Simon Pulse, 1986).

  • 31. John M. Janzen, “Deep Thought: Structure and Intention in Kongo Prophetism, 1910–1921,” Social Research 46 (1979): 106–139; “Renewal and Reinterpretation in Kongo Religion,” in Kongo Across the Waters, eds. Susan Cooksey, Robin Poynor, and Hein Vanhee (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013), 132–139.

  • 32. Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009). Covey, in African-American Slave Medicine, offers a herbarium of southern U.S. plantations based on interviews with former slaves in the Works Progress Administration archives. The plants of this herbarium are about 15 percent the same as those of healers’ herbaria in John M. Janzen, Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 243–249. See also Fett, Working Cures, for accounts of medicinal plant use in U.S. southern plantations.

  • 33. Ficus sp.=Moraceae. For graphic displays of these landscapes, see Janzen, Quest, 164–168, 243–249; and John M. Janzen, “Teaching the Kongo Transatlantic,” The African Diaspora Archaeology Network (Spring 2012, newsletter), 7.

  • 34. John Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684–1706 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

  • 35. John K. Thornton, “African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion,” American Historical Review 96.4 (October 1991): 1101–1113.

  • 36. Robert Slenes, “The Nsanda Tree Replanted: Kongo Cults of Affliction and Plantation Slave Identity in Brazil’s Southeast, ca. 1810–1888,” Resume in Cahiers du Bresil Contemporain 67/68 (2007): 408.

  • 37. Roger Bastide, The African Religions of Brazil: Toward a Sociology of the Interpenetration of Civilizations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

  • 38. Cecilia Pennacini, Kubandwa: La possession spiritica nell’Africa dei Grandi Lughi (Torino: Il Segnalibro Editore, 1998).

  • 39. Bastide, African Religions of Brazil, 320–331.

  • 40. Roger Bastide, Le Candomble de Bahia (rite Nago) (Paris: Mouton, 1958).

  • 41. Bastide, African Religions, 173–219.

  • 42. James Sweet, Domingos Alvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 2011).

  • 43. Robin Law and Paul Lovejoy, The Biography of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua: His Passage from Slavery to Freedom in Africa and America (Princeton, NJ: Martin Wiener, 2007).

  • 44. Jose Eduardo Agualusa, Creole (London: Arcadia, 2002).

  • 45. Todd Ramón Ochoa, Society of the Dead: Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

  • 46. See Gilroy, The Black Atlantic.

  • 47. Sterling Stuckey, Going through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). See especially ch. 3, “Ironic Tenacity: Frederick Douglass’s Seizure of the Dialectic,” 32–52.

  • 48. As established in the widespread therapeutic idiom “ngoma”: J. M. Janzen, Ngoma: Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

  • 49. Norman Bayard, personal communications, 2014–2016.

  • 50. Norman Bayard, personal communications, October 18, 2016.

  • 51. Michael Sheridan and Anthony Richards, “Boundary Plants in the Eastern Caribbean,” unpublished paper, 2016.

  • 52. Anthony Richards, “Sword Plants and the Spirits in African and American Graveyards,” Society of Ethnobiology Abstracts (May 2015). Available online

  • 53. Anthony Richards, personal communications, October 27, 2016.

  • 54. M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (London: Duke University Press, 2005). See especially ch. 7, “Pedagogies of the Sacred: Making the Invisible Tangible,” 287–332.

  • 55. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, 313–315, in the section “Knowing Who Walks with You: The Making of Sacred Subjectivity.” Thisbe/Kitsimba’s life and tragedy were dramatized in a March 23, 2013, performance in Toronto. See “Reflections on Revelations,” Tobago Centre for the Study and Practice of Indigenous Spirituality. Available online

  • 56. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, 320.

  • 57. Linda L. Barnes and Susan S. Sered, Religion and Healing in America.

  • 58. John Hedley Brooke and Ronald L.Numbers, Science and Religion around the World.

  • 59. Melville Herskovits, Myth of the Negro Past; Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983).

  • 60. Especially Paul Gilroy, Black Atlantic.

  • 61. Joseph C. Miller, Princeton Companion to African History.

  • 62. Robert Baum, “Religions of Africa,” in Miller, Princeton Companion, 395–398.

  • 63. Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database; Curtin. Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census.

  • 64. See especially Linda M. Heywood and John K. Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), and Sterling Stuckey, Going through the Storm.

  • 65. M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing.