Spirit and Spirituality

The Caribbean is unquestionably a region of deep and widespread religious/spiritual conviction. In its nationalist, anticolonial beginnings (when ironically its aesthetic was most colonial) Caribbean writing often seemed uncomfortable with this fact. In Orlando Patterson’s Children of Sisyphus (1964), there is an explicitly materialist, quasi-Marxist, rejection of religion, in this case of Rastafarianism and Afro-Christian salvationism, as false consciousness, and in many more novels of that period there is an equation between the religions of the folk and an unstable emotionalism of spirit, dangerous delusions and the vulnerability of followers to oppressive and self-interested religious leaders. Novels such as Sylvia Wynter’s The Hills of Hebron and Andrew Salkey’s A Quality of Violence exemplify this tendency. Beyond a commitment to secularism, it is possible to reads in this approach a class-based, ambivalence towards the culture of the “folk”, the working class and rural poor whom the writers were supposed to be discovering as the most authentically Caribbean people. It is no accident that in George Lamming’s Season of Adventure (1960), Fola, the middle-class and light-skinned young woman who sets out on a journey to find herself, only visits the quasi-Haitian tonnelles of San Cristobal at the behest of her teacher, Charlot Pressior, a white “stranger” who “learnt all that I know in England.” This echoes Claude McKay’s Banana Bottom (1933) where the returning Bita Plant, who has been educated out of involvement with her people by the missionary Craigs, is brought back to an appreciation of that world by Squire Gensir, an elderly Englishman, based on the real-life figure of Walter Jekyll, McKay’s own old mentor and compiler of Jamaican Song and Story (1907). Both McKay and Lamming makes the point that revulsion from the religion of the folk is so deeply ingrained in the Caribbean middle-class consciousness that only the authority of English approval can shift it. The limitations of the approach of writers such as Wynter, Salkey and Patterson to the religious practices of the folk is one of the arguments of Kwame Dawes’ Natural Mysticism where he looks at, for example, the negative literary stereotypes around the figure of the prophet as a self-deluding rogue, contrasting this with the way reggae connected to such figures, as in Burning Spear’s song “Estimated Prophet”. Such negative attitudes have by no means disappeared in the present. The colonial demonization of African religions as black savagery, with stereotyped images of witchcraft and sorcery, is deeply ingrained. The practice of Obeah, for instance, was both illegal and invariably associated with malign tricksters who preyed on the ignorant and credulous. In social terms, African ancestral religions were seen as the delusions of the lowest stratas of society, and despised by respectable Black people. Kamau Brathwaite has reported in LX: the Love Axe/l the hostility he experienced when he talked seriously about Ogun (Yoruba orisha) to students at UWI in Jamaica.

There are parallel processes at work in the fiction of Indo-Caribbean writers such as the early VS Naipaul (The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira), Shiva Naipaul (Fireflies and The Chip-chip Gatherers), and Harold Sonny Ladoo (No Pain Like this Body and Yesterdays), where the image of Hinduism, and particularly of the pundit, is of anachronism, ignorance, arid ritualism and fraud. On the evidence of such novels, Caribbean Hinduism ought to have disappeared long ago as a living faith in the region. For some Indians, the social status of Christianity compared to Hinduism (whose pundits and followers were seen as ill-educated and uncivilised) clearly created a sense of shame that was part of the motivation for conversion, together with the fact that until the 1950s Christianisation (via the Presbyterian Canadian Missions) was a necessary route to education. About 20% of Hindus in Trinidad and Guyana converted to Christianity – with a higher percentage in Jamaica and islands with small Indian minorities. The conflicted psyche of the Indian Christian convert is the subject of stories such as V.S. Naipaul’s “A Christmas Story” in A Flag on the Island, and in Clyde Hosein’s “I’m a Prebyterian, Mr Kramer” in The Killing of Nelson John and Other Stories (1980), both of which explore their character’s emphasis on moral virtue, Protestant hard work and a conflicted sense of Indianness. In Shiva Naipaul’s A Hot Country, one of the characters anglicises himself from Maha Lingham (great penis) to Mallingham. Arnold Itwaru’s novel Shanti (1988), though, represents an attempt by a writer who came out of such a background to find a way back to a more inclusive sense of Indianness. In contrast to the Presbyterian angst, Moses Nagamootoo’s Hendree’s Cure, set in the Guyanese village of Whim, which is mainly inhabited by the descendants of South Indian Tamils (Madrassis), suggests that a significant number of Madrassis found a comfortable fit between their ancestral culture with its female goddesses and the position of Mary and the saints in Catholicism.

In contrast to Hinduism, Islam (about 15% of the indentured Indians who came to the Caribbean were Muslims) has been remarkably resistant as a faith to Christian proselytization, though Ismith Khan’s novel, The Jumbie Bird (1961) echoes the novels of that period which deal with Hinduism in portraying a sense of forgetfulness and loss of relevance amongst at least one of its main characters. In more recent years there has undoubtedly been an Islamic revival, funded generously from the Middle East, visible in the wearing of Islamic dress. Again in recent years an increasing number of African Caribbeans have converted to Islam, though the influences here were primarily African American. Abdur-Rahman Slade Hopkinson’s Snowscape with Signature includes his later, deeply moving poems of Islamic faith, whilst Brenda Flanagan’s Allah in the Islands (2009) gives a persuasive account of the attraction of radical, politicised Islam to impoverished Black islanders whose corrupt, ostensibly Christian political leaders has failed them, and also of the irresponsible adventurism and reactionary gender politics within the Islamist movement. (The novel is modelled on the Islameen failed coup in Trinidad in 1990).

Religious practice in the Caribbean inevitably carries the baggage of its history. The case of Christianity is complex and contradictory since it arrived in the region as the ideological arm of conquest and genocide (explored in shocking but historically accurate detail in the ‘Conquistador’ episode in Kevin Baldeosingh’s The Ten Incarnations of Adam Avatar). Yet though the stereotype is that in the period of slavery and its aftermath, Christian missionaries preached obedience to “lawful” oppression in this life, the actual reluctance of the slave-owners to give missionaries access to the enslaved suggests they suspected that the enslaved would find different messages in Christianity, particularly as taught by the Baptists, to do with equality in the sight of God and would find inspiration in such narratives as the exodus of the Israelites from slavery. It is clear that missionary activity lay behind at least some of the region’s major uprisings of the enslaved: Demerara in1823 (see Karen King-Aribisala’s The Hangman’s Game) and the Jamaican Daddy (Samuel) Sharpe rebellion of 1832. And by the time of the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, the Black insurgents of the Stoney Gut church of the Native Baptists (see V.S. Reid, New Day), had clearly found support within the Christian gospel for the cause of individual and communal liberation. It is also evident that the Europeans who put down both rebellions with savage zeal did so out of the conviction that it was their Christian duty.

Divisions within Christianity’s institutional forms have marked the region, where the dominance of particular denominations was established by the history of colonial conquest: French and Spanish Catholicism (supported by Irish Catholic priests), English and Dutch Protestantism. Garth St Omer’s A Room on the Hill (1968) and Earl Long’s Leaves in a River (2008) both give acerbic accounts of small island society (resembling St Lucia) still dominated by a socially reactionary Roman Catholic church, whereas Opal Palmer Adisa’s title story in Until Judgement Comes offers an image of Jamaican Protestantism at its sternest, most guilt-riven and unforgiving. In A Room on the Hill, a character who dies in an accident is only offered a third-class funeral because she was “illegitimate”, whilst at school she has been made to wear a special uniform that signified that unsanctified state. Christianity’s institutions have also reflected the region’s racial and social segmentation: there are the denominations of the high (Catholics and Anglicans) and of the low (Baptists and Charismatics). In Trinidad and Guyana, Presbyterianism is almost exclusively the denomination of converted Indo-Caribbeans.

The challenge to the hegemony of the colonially endorsed religious denominations was at first ‘subversion’ from within, though more recently African centred religions such as the Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad have achieved greater equality in their treatment by the state, a marked shift in status from the kind of persecution and proscription that is the background of Earl Lovelace’s novel, The Wine of Astonishment (1982). Initially Christianity was Africanised from within, partially as in the Spiritual Baptist churches, or almost wholly as in the case of Santeria or Vodun where the outward shells of the Christian saints became the containers of African Caribbean orishas or loas. Myriam Chancy’s novels The Scorpion’s Claw and The Loneliness of Angels explore the social reality of such syncretism and the states of mind that live easily with such hybrid realities.

The connection between Christianity and external missionary activities has continued. The influence of the fundamentalist Protestant American churches and the preaching of the televangelists beamed in by satellite has been profound. Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religion in the region, and though its impact has been claimed as spiritually reviving, others such as George Lamming and Edgar Nkosi White in Deported to Paradise have spoken out against it as a damaging form of cultural imperialism with a socially conservative gospel. Stories such as “Clap-hand Church and Mule” in Rooplall Monar’s High House and Radio portray the new evangelist churches as one of the agents of cultural fragmentation in the Indian village, whilst Sharlowe Mohammed’s The Elect gives a satirical portrayal of the damage inflicted by one such fundamentalist, Americanised and literal-minded mission. However, several of the stories in Kwame Dawes’ A Place to Hide give a more nuanced picture of such churches, suggesting that they too have become Caribbeanised.

In more recent years, the flow of external missionary influence has not been limited to Protestant fundamentalism from the USA. A good deal of funding from the Middle East has reached Muslim organisations, whilst the spate of temple building in Guyana attests to the inflow of money from India. Just how much direct continental Indian involvement there was in the phenomenon of the rapid growth of the Sai Baba groups in Trinidad in the 1970s and onwards is not clear, but it shows that influences from outside the region remain important in the shaping of Caribbean religions of all ethnicities. There is little evidence of any external support for the African centred religions of the region.

Over the past two or three decades the gulf between the actual, all-encompassing spirituality of the region (existing side by side with nihilistic hedonism and gangster violence) and Caribbean imaginative writing has begun to disappear. It would, of course, be wrong to allow the impression that Caribbean writing in the earlier period had no place for religious expression, but it was largely confined to lyric poetry (see for instance John Figueroa’s The Chase) or to the explicitly religious verse of Mervyn Morris’s Holy Week, or the exalted devotional poetry of John Robert Lee (see Elemental) and to reflecting the mainstream Christian religious expression of the educated middle class. This has become much less true. Now, it would take less space to number the poets who express a defiant secularism than to list those who are comfortable sharing their professions of faith with the reader.

Kamau Brathwaite has argued that a religious view of the world is a defining characteristic of the Caribbean aesthetic, as opposed to the nihilist materialism of European mercantilism. For Brathwaite this is proof of the survival of an ancestral African consciousness whose cosmological centre is a spiritual relationship to the natural world, to the ancestors and to the gods. Recent novels by Marcia Douglas, Opal Palmer Adisa, Patricia Powell and Curdella Forbes (see Orishas, Afro-Christian religions, Possession) are examples of this kind of vision. Criticism is only just beginning to catch up with this development. Joan Dayan’s work on Voudoun in Haiti, History and the Gods (1995), by bringing a literary sensibility to the texture of her study, has been important in encouraging the kind of critical work that explores connections between literature and African-based religions in the Caribbean, such as those collected in Margarite Fernandez Olmos and Lizbeth Paravanisi-Gebert’s Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santeria, Obeah and the Caribbean (1997).

It has been increasingly recognised that for enslaved Africans, the ex-enslaved, Indian indentured and ex-indentured workers, religion was the shield that enabled psychic survival, whether within Christianity, Hinduism or Islam or within the neo-African practices of Voudun, Orisha, Cumfa, Kumina, the Spiritual Baptists or Pocomania. For writers this raises questions about the social functions of religious practice, the inner experience of adherents and the frameworks within which the observer/writer tries to make sense of such phenomena. The devotee of the Orishas or Kali Mai can, simultaneously, be one of the dispossessed and divinely possessed, raised up to the level of a god. How is the writer to represent that state? Are possession rituals an escape for the powerless into illusions of power? Are they states of divine inspiration or at least states akin to the highest levels of inspiration of the writer? Are they states that nurture an opposition to the dominant Euro-inherited inequalities of the region or states that nurture accommodation to them? The role of the hounfours in Haiti during the Papa Doc, Duvalier years makes the point that the religions of the folk can be co-opted into the service of oppressive power just as readily as the religions of the elite, though the novels of Myriam Chancy, The Scorpion’s Claw and The Loneliness of Angels, are persuasive in their vision of a spiritual dynamic that survives political co-optation in the service of social control because she portrays practitioners who stay true to the cause of both spiritual transcendence and political freedom.

There have been some real advances in the acceptance of what was submerged. In the 1970s, the Guyanese government, for instance, recognised Cumfa as an authentic African religion rooted in the Caribbean. A growing number of writers, such as Mark De Brito in Heron’s Canoe and Dorothea Smartt in Ship Shape reveal themselves as adherents of African ancestral religions and express that involvement in their work. Other writers such as Marcia Douglas in Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, Curdella Forbes in A Permanent Freedom, Geoffrey Philp in Xango Music, Lloyd Brown in Duppies, Stanley Greaves in Horizons and Orlando Menes in Rumba atop the Stones have gone to the orishas for metaphorical inspiration. Jane Bryce in Chameleon and other Stories shows the passage of Shango from Nigeria, via Cuba to the Trinidad carnival.

Yet cultural sensibilities and religious faith do not necessarily go hand in hand. Kwame Dawes’ verse narrative, Prophets (1995), dramatises such tensions. In this narrative of conflict between two prophets, the charismatic Clarice and the quasi Rastafarian Thalbot, it is clear that it is the victorious Clarice who has received divine revelation, whose gifts of faith and her ability to see into the souls of her followers make her a powerful spiritual leader. But Dawes does not duck the awkward fact that Clarice’s God is unquestionably white, her Jesus blue-eyed, and in that she denies part of her essential self. On the other hand, whilst the quasi Rastafarian cultural credentials of the defeated prophet, Thalbot, are much more persuasive, he is shown to be spiritually powerless against the certainty of Clarice’s revelation. Elsewhere in Dawes’ work (see Natural Mysticism (1997) and A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock (2007) and the “Measure” section of Wheels (2011) that explores a visit to Ethiopia) there are further explorations of his attraction to the cultural vision of Rastafarianism, whilst wholly rejecting its foundational beliefs and its gender politics.

More recent Indo-Caribbean writing has also caught up with the fact that Hinduism is not going away. This has been a shift in ways of perceiving as much as a response to the fact of survival and revival. The shift is prefigured in the increasingly ‘Hindu’ philosophical concerns in VS Naipaul’s work beginning with Mr Stone and the Knight’s Companion, Finding the Centre and in particular The Enigma of Arrival. Writers such as Sasenarine Persaud (Demerary Telepathy, Dear Death and The Wintering Kundalini), Vishnu Gosine and Churaumanie Bissundyal work within an explicitly Hindu framework, whilst the work of Cyril Dabydeen, Lakshmi Persaud, Lelawatee Manoo-Rahming (who in Curry Flavour advances the Caribbean relevance of Hinduism alongside a feminist critique of the gender politics of its institutional representatives), Rabindranath Maharaj, Moses Nagamootoo, amongst others, portray Hinduism and its followers as very much a living part of the Caribbean and its spirituality. Lakshmi Persaud’s novels in particular offer a very pertinent corrective to those of V.S. Naipaul since they are set in much the same period of time, the 1940s and early 1950s. Her accounts of temple-going in Butterfly in the Wind, of domestic Hinduism in Sastra show, without any special pleading, how meaningful Hinduism remained to its adherents. At the same time, Lakshmi Persaud’s novels criticise the social and cultural restrictions on the role of Indo-Caribbean women, for example the ideological use of stories in the Ramayana to support male ideas of submissive womanhood. Where there are quarrels, as in Rooplall Monar’s iconoclastic collection of poems, Koker, it is a quarrel within Hinduism over the vestiges of caste and the tendency to look backwards to a golden India rather than the reality of an Indo-creole existence in Guyana.

If the overall picture of Caribbean spirituality is one of great diversity, there are a number of common patterns that make it possible to think of it as possessing a submarine but contrary unity. Within almost all faiths there have been pulls between the attraction of innovation and the calls of tradition, between the desire for authenticity and the tendency towards cultural syncretism, between outbreaks of spirituality that are emotionally dynamic and the desire for respectability. Thus the Orisha chapelles in Trinidad (see Francis Henry, Reclaiming African Religions in Trinidad: The Socio-political Legitimation of the Orisha and Spiritual Baptist Faith) are divided between those that seek Yoruba authenticity and those, such as the Spiritual Baptists, that welcome participants of all ethnicities and are comfortable with innovation. So, too, in the Kali Mai churches in Guyana (see Stephanides and Singh, The Feast and Festivities of Mother Kali) there have been churches that see themselves as Madrassi-centred and traditional, and other more syncretic churches that open themselves to African Guyanese participants. The very existence and growth of the Kali churches, involving as they do animal sacrifice and possession, signify a marked opposition to the dominant tendency within Caribbean Hinduism, towards respectability or sanskritisation (the process within Hinduism of movement towards brahminical norms – see Steven Vertovec, Hindu Trinidad: Religion, Ethnicity and Socio-economic Change).

But it is perhaps the processes of interculturation and symbiosis that arise from contiguity which give the region’s spirituality its most distinctive feature. Indeed, the Caribbean has synthetically created what is now virtually a world religion – Rastafarianism – from its outcast origins in the 1930s to its 1970s and 1980s prominence through reggae. As Kwame Dawes has argued in Natural Mysticism, the Rastafarian/reggae project brought spirituality, politics and the sexual/erotic into an undivided whole, giving it an iconic significance beyond the actually fairly small number of genuine adherents. N.D. Williams’ ‘My Planet of Ras’ in Prash and Ras treats the Rastafarian project with great respect but also suggests – in the way his characters must not only reject all the material advantages of Babylon and isolate themselves as if on a separate planet – why its true core membership is small.

Whilst religion has been co-opted into the cause of ethnic assertion, what seems more significant is the possibility that the intercultural flow between Caribbean spiritualities will be too strong to allow divisive forces to hold back the emergence of a Caribbean cosmology that holds all its parts in interactive relationship.