Jason R. Young. Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery. (Baton Rouge: Louisianna State University Press, 2007). 258pp.  ISBN: 0-8071-3279-9. Reviewed by Benjamin G. Wright, for the Journal of Southern Religion. 

Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery derives from Jason R. Young's dissertation, which he completed under the guidance of Sterling Stuckey at the University of California, Riverside. In addition to being an impressive piece of scholarship in its own right, Rituals of Resistance can be read as evidence of the enduring value of Stuckey's own Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (1987), a ground-breaking work that demonstrated the indispensability of folklore in understanding North American slavery and black identity. 

". . . Young's fresh historical synthesis demonstrates the imperative of transcending efforts either to authenticate black identity or to dismiss cultural interaction under a hazy mist of creolization."  


In a dauntingly sophisticated introduction, Young rejects the notion that Latin and South American slaves retained a greater degree of African culture than their North American brethren, arguing that "blackness is not such a quantity that might be compared and evaluated from one context to another" (8). Behind this contention is the belief that African culture in the Americas is not the result of "vestigial survivals or retentions but is the product of cultural memory, mediation, and creation." In fact, "slaves remembered Africa intentionally and deliberately" and put their ancestors to use in creating a community identity. While much of this theoretical posturing follows the work of postcolonial anthropologist David Scott, Young's fresh historical synthesis demonstrates the imperative of transcending efforts either to authenticate black identity or to dismiss cultural interaction under a hazy mist of creolization. 

Young next analyzes resistance, successfully contending that religion provided a tool for resistance not only by assaulting the system of slavery through work slowdowns, theft, the destruction of tools, feigned illness, or rebellion but also by assailing the very ideological foundations of the institution. It is in his exploration of ideological resistance that Young is at his most creative and compelling, as he argues that a foundational element of the religious resistance to the ideology of slavery was epistemological. As the master class increasingly depended upon the scientific rationalism of modernity, slaves nourished an enchanted worldview, replete with permeable barriers between the living and the dead, ecstatic worship, and elaborate rituals of conjure.

The narrative begins with a view of the political and social structure of pre-colonial Kongo where monarchs in the city of Mbanza Kongo struggled to keep control over their vast kingdom. When the Portuguese and Spanish arrived, along with the slave trade, the influence of the monarch slipped and the kingdom began to decentralize. In addition to the slave trade, Europeans brought Christianity to Kongo, converting King Nzinga a Nkuwu as João I in 1491. For the first two hundred years after João's conversion, Christianity was confined to the urban nobility and deployed as a political weapon to strengthen the influence of the monarch over local religious leaders. Young explains why our definitions of conversion must be "malleable" as "Kongo converts regarded Christian missionaries in much the same way they did ritual Kongo ritual experts and demanded that they act accordingly" (50).

Baptism was notably emblematic of the manner in which converts interpreted Christianity through the terms of traditional Kongolese religious practice, as the sacrament was viewed as a protection ritual to guard against the dangers of the slave trade. Despite the invocation of such protective rituals, the slave trade wreaked havoc throughout Kongo, carrying so many across the ocean and into the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia. It was here that enslaved Africans "mediated the faith and its rituals to respond to the immediacy of their lives and the specificity of their own symbolic and cosmological constructions" (76). Baptism became less of a protective ritual and more of a connection to the passage between the temporal world and the spiritual world of the dead.

Slaves eschewed the worship of their masters as often as possible, preferring to gather in the praise house for a decidedly different brand of religious expression. Young compellingly illustrates how the modes of slave worship were constructed to resist the ideologies of slavery. While slavery demanded unrelenting submission from its subjects, slave worship emphasized free will and improvisation. When religious ecstasy seized the slave body, the control and ownership of the master class was subsumed by that of the divine. Slaves mounted an ideological attack on the foundations of human bondage by emphasizing a worship of boundless liberty.

In addition to Christian practice, Africans on both sides of the Atlantic relied heavily on conjure and other folk practices. Remarkably, Young shows that some folk practices appeared to have developed simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic, demonstrating that African culture in the Americas was not always derivative. In Africa minkisi, or ritual objects imbued with supernatural power, fed into the conflict between the urban elite and the resistant countryside, as the minkisi became a rallying point in the resistance against the political authority of the ruling class and their Christian missionary allies. In the Lowcountry, conjure manifested as spiritual resistance against the authority of the master class as slaves established their own form of justice and retribution outside of the antebellum legal system. Young argues that when whites acknowledged or participated in the folk practices of African conjure—which clearly they did—the authority of rational medicine or antebellum law, and their supporting ideologies of modernity suffered. In the practice of conjure, enslaved Africans created a spiritual world beyond the control of the master class.

Following the discussion of conversion, baptism, and conjure, Young concludes with a treatment of death and funerary ritual. Once again, Young finds resistance in the folk practices of Lowcountry slaves, as rituals of mourning took on an ecstatic emotional intensity, allowing slaves to define themselves as more than objects of exploitation. Ultimately, the afterlife offered the greatest opportunity for retribution against the master class as slaves constructed a netherworld of righteous punishment.

Rituals of Resistance is not another attempt to show the similarities between African cultures on both sides of the Atlantic, but rather is a demonstration of how enslaved Africans in the Lowcountry reinterpreted traditional African religious practices and deployed them in resisting both the system of slavery and its supporting ideologies. The sophistication and elegance of Young's analysis is a breath of fresh air in the study of the African Atlantic, which has lately been hijacked by debates over ethnic provenance. For students and scholars of the slave trade, antebellum religion, and African American folklore, Rituals of Resistance commands attention. The introduction may initially feel inaccessible to some non-theorists. Nonetheless, despite Young's evident interest in the theoretical implications of this history, the analysis remains focused on the historical moment and grounded in the source material and offers valuable new insight into the creative ways in which enslaved Africans deployed religion as a means of resistance.

Benjamin G. Wright
Doctoral Student in History
Rice University
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