Water as Death and Life: Traces of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Funerary and Baptismal Rites

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The cultural practices of birth and death are part of the basic fabric of a society. There is no discussion of death and the afterlife without a complementary discussion of life and birth, both physical and spiritual. These ideas are intrinsically linked, and no doubt the system of slavery, in all its violence and suffering, increases the importance of these links. The difficulties in connecting the different legacies of slavery in the Americas because of disparate ethnic groups coming from Africa, disparate physical experiences of slavery, and disparate geographical regions, have plagued historians of the slave trade. But in studying the funerary and baptismal practices of slaves and their descendents, certain patterns of similar practices begin to emerge. This is particularly evident in the use of water as a dual conductor of death and life, particularly in the Christian faith as adopted by enslaved Africans in the Americas and their progeny. Apart from syncretized religions such as Haitian Vodou or Candomblé, which also have a particular sacred relationship with water, many African-Americans have retained a spiritual affinity to water, yet attached them to Christian practices. They have clung to the idea of water as a conduit of death and life, and water plays a distinct role in the baptismal and funerary practices that have created order within disorder for centuries. It has become entrenched in that uplifting and sacred category, the Negro spiritual, in conversations about the death and the afterlife, and in the salient practice of immersion baptism. A poignant moment from the WPA slave narratives arises in one of the Georgia slave narratives, where an elderly man discusses his recent joining of a Baptist church. He says, “Lak to a got lost didn’t I? If I had stayed out a little longer it would have been too late, and I sho’ don’t want to be lost.” The problem is not necessarily that he’s afraid he will not get into heaven, but that he will be alone: he still desires that sense of community. The preservation of these rites, of funerals and baptism, and their accompaniment in the form of spirituals, took the time and space that slaves had for freedom and established a community in an unfriendly world. This community would ensure that these rites were maintained, and were undoubtedly part of an unconscious strategy of collective resistance. Even when slavery ended, and African-Americans faced the hardships of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, they returned to these moments of community action to remember and to preserve their sense of self. Unlike the Gullah dialect, the legacy of slavery inherent in the African American spiritual, and sustained through its continued usage during funerals and baptisms, cannot die out or be replaced. These songs have been mainstreamed and they are now part of a national Christian identity, a Baptist identity. The traces of slavery present within them will always linger.
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