The processes and methods of a culture’s ability to survive in a hostile environment is the essence of an African centered analysis. Marimba Ani (formerly Dona Richards) in the article “The Implications of African-American Spirituality”, proclaims, “I shall maintain that Africa survived the middle passage, the slave experience and other trials in America because of the depth and strength of African spirituality and humanism. The spirituality allowed the survival of African-Americans as a distinctive cultural entity in New Europe.” This sentiment is in stark contrast to the belief that Africans were tabula rasa (a blank slate) when encountered by Europeans and therefore needed to be taught culture and were in effect not quite human. However, since Africans were forcefully brought to the shores of the Americas, it is clear they had a firm grip and keen understanding of their culture and the power of their spiritual belief through the phenomenon known as conjure.
The word conjure is not limited to any particular religious belief. Instead, conjure has been known to encompass everything from the practice of Voodoo, to Spiritual Churches and includes innocuous day-to-day individual efforts to control and manipulate the immediate environment. Theophus Smith argues that conjure is a metaphor for the “ritual, figural and therapeutic transformations of culture”; or more simply, conjure is a method of communication, using symbols and symbolic phenomena to interpret, understand and shape the physical and spiritual world. Further, conjure can be employed as a pharmacopoeic agent as well as a mode of prophecy to help predict or control future events. In other words, conjure is an African method of spiritual agency.
Popular understandings of conjure focus almost exclusively on the practice of Voodoo in New Orleans and/or Haiti. However, conjure as a spiritual system encompasses much more than a folksy superstition and can be traced to a variety of belief systems indigenous to the continent of Africa. Moreover, it is a belief system that is practiced in the home, where people (particularly women) use specific items (animal bones, human hair, bottles, crucifixes, and certain metals) combined with distinctive words and gestures for a desired response or outcome. These responses or outcomes are not always as grandiose as prophecy, many times it may include something as trivial as re-growing hair for balding men, being able to get a love interest to take notice or some extra luck at the local gambling establishment. The point of conjure is to make the spiritual world work for you and to form a symbiotic bond with the unseen world.
Historically, the connection between conjure practices and the rituals of mainstream religious belief (Christianity and/or Islam) is undeniable among African Americans. Those forced across the Atlantic brought their beliefs with them and many times maintained knowledge and practice of traditional belief systems by cloaking them behind a veil of Christianity or Islam. This was done because open practice of traditional African belief systems was met by a vicious effort to convert the enslaved. Conversion was nothing less than a mandate to violently strip African peoples of any visages of their culture in an effort to create more docile and manageable individuals who capitulated to authority. However, this effort was quite unsuccessful as African Americans have maintained their beliefs and allowed them to evolve despite the attempts to suppress the African spirit. Albert Raboteau supports: “despite discontinuity and innovation the fundamental religious perspectives of Africa have continued to orient the lives of the descendants of slaves in the New World.”
In order to retain their culture and humanity, enslaved Africans wove their beliefs into the tapestry of their oppressor’s religion as a mode of survival. Africans caught practicing their religions or speaking their language, were many times met with violence. Violence, for European enslavers and settlers, was primarily a method of conversion and control. Despite this, however, Africans created amalgamated religious systems, which synthesized the beliefs of their foremothers and fathers, the philosophies of their enslaved comrades from other African nations and the dogmas of their oppressors in order to simply survive the violent conversion experience. As a result, what exists now in many conjure traditions is a language of religious belief that is thick with complexity.
Further, conjure traditions took on many different forms. Participants use dance, food, songs, masks and spells as methods to communicate with the ethereal world. Some conjure traditions such as Rumba focus on conjuration through dance. Whereas, certain Vodun traditions serve particular deities whom had individual necessities that had to be met before they would act on behalf of an individual or community. Charles Long discusses another type of conjure within his outline of cargo cults in the Americas. In these cults, particular items had to be procured to build and maintain a sense of power. Specifically, cargo cults acquired items from Europeans believing they had certain power that came from the ancestors. Regardless of the specific lineage of a particular tradition, conjure, as a cultural phenomenon, is a dynamic and ever evolving method of spiritual communication that is not restricted to a monolithic approach. As well it is a tool that is used in tandem with other religious beliefs, not only for subterfuge, but to increase the power or effectiveness of the belief.
As African people were being torn from their land and families, culture was all there was to sustain them. More specifically, language, the foundation of all human culture, survived the process of enslavement. This is not an argument for Ebonics (although that perspective is valid), instead, I submit that conjure is a language that allows Africans to communicate amongst themselves as well as the natural and supernatural worlds. This form of communication can be verbal as well as nonverbal (where the body, through dance, gestures and postures communicates certain ideas and/or moods) and ethnically unique from group to group. Further, as a language it has a syntax and vocabulary that has evolved through the experiences of African people and has taken on a variety of forms that support African practitioners in their particular environment. The following series of essays will analyze and discuss different forms of conjure that have grown from West African traditions, through Haiti and New Orleans, to modern day manifestations in North American urban centers.
 Dona Richards (Marimba Ani). “The Implications of African-American Spirituality.” African Culture: Rhythms of Unity. (African World Press: Trenton, New Jersey, 1996), 207.
 Theophus Smith. Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 4.
 Albert J. Raboteau. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” and the Antebellum South. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 75.
 Claude F. Jacobs and Andrew J. Kaslow. Spiritual Churches of New Orleans: Origins, Beliefs and Rituals of an African-American Religion. (The University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, 2001), 11.
 Melville J. Herskovits. The Myth of the Negro Past. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990).
 Albert J. Raboteau. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” and the Antebellum South. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 67.
 Ibid., 42.
 Janheinz Jahn. Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. (New York: Grove Press, 1990), 62.
 Karen McCarthy Brown. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
 Charles Long. Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. (Davies Publishing Group: Colorado, 1995), 125-137.
 Ibid., 128-129. This does not suggest that Africans understood or viewed Europeans as deities. Instead, it is congruent with the fact that people (particularly people of color) loose much of their pigment upon death. It is a natural biological process of the cessation of the movement of blood in the body, which causes skin to become pale. Moreover, the coming of the Europeans was seen as a process of renewal. However, Long understands this phenomena as an expectation of the Africans that was never met by Europeans. He states, “The beliefs of the Westerners insofar as they speak of the sacred seem hypocritical, for not only do they not fulfill the structure of expectations related to cosmic renewal but they also fail in the minds of the indigenous people to live up to the new strange beliefs that they teach.”
 Molefi Asante. “The African Essence in African-American Language.” African Culture: Rhythms of Unity. (African World Press: Trenton, New Jersey, 1996), 233.
Written by Paul Easterling
One of the first things that can be noticed by African American scholars of Religious Studies is that there is not much work done by intellectuals of Religious Studies within the realm of Africana Studies. There is much “lip service” paid to the issue of religion and/or spirituality within Africana/Black Studies circles, but there is not much rigorous research done in this realm by Religious Studies scholars. This may be because African American Religious Studies as a discipline is a fairly new and emerging field. However, this may also be because scholars of Africana Studies take for granted the supposed “spiritual” nature of people of African descent. Meaning, it is often remarked that African people are a spiritual people without clarity of what that actually means.
It is to this end that this essay is directed. That is to say, this composition will be the first in a series of essays devoted to the scholarly pursuit of Africana Religious Studies. Though not a formal title, Africana Religious Studies is defined as the scholarly engagement of religions that have been formulated or impacted by people of African descent. To continue, Africana Religious Studies seeks to engage in the academic investigation of religions of the African continent and the African diaspora (Yoruba, Santeria, Voodoo, etcetera) as well as those that have impacted the landmass of Africa and its people (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and so forth). This will be done in an effort to fill an intellectual void within the Africana Studies research community and to bring scholars of African American religion and scholars of Africana Studies into much needed conversation.
To elaborate, leading scholars of Africana Studies do well in directing others toward the pursuit of religious scholarship, but do not have the training to engage in the conversation within Religious Studies. For example, the introductory text, Introduction to Black Studies by Maulana Karenga, devoted an entire chapter to Black Religion, but the author of the text does not have the training to engage Religious Studies. Karenga also published a book entitled MAAT: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt, a worthwhile area of study within the discipline of Africana Studies as well as a much-needed publication, however one that lacks key insight into the language, theories and methods of Religious Studies scholarship.
As well, Karenga’s contemporary Molefi Asante, a scholar who is given much credit for providing the name and shape of Africana Studies as an academic discipline, does well in noting the importance of Africana Religion in his theory of Afrocentricity, but has little training in this area as his expertise is in the field of communications. This is not to overlook the theory of Afrocentricity or the efforts of scholars like Asante and Karenga; however, it is to highlight the need for greater clarification and further research in the area of African American Religious Studies within the discipline of Africana Studies. Further, the point of this is only to highlight one of the major shortcomings of the field of Africana Studies in general and African American Religious Studies in particular, scholarly arenas that have much to say about each other but have not said much to each other as a field of study or as scholars.
It seems a bit odd that scholars of these fields do not converse more, particularly since there is shared interest in the subject matter, that being people of African descent. But this silence is understandable and not completely unique to these fields because of what may be termed as disciplinary unanimity. Meaning, to be an academic discipline that field of study must adhere to the structure it has created for itself. Even for disciplines that claim interdisciplinarity there are bounds, mandates, and structures that must be followed. This is evidenced by the theories and methods created within disciplines. However, having said that, within interdisciplinary fields, there is an expectation or maybe an assumption that these bounds must have certain flexibility to them so as to not become rigid and monolithic, which is the very thing that interdisciplinary disciplines find problematic in traditional disciplines, particularly those of the Eurocentric variety.
Going back to the point of this introductory essay, African American Religious Studies is part of Africana Studies by virtue of its subject matter: African people. Therefore, there must be some effort on the part of both disciplines (Africana Studies and African American Religious Studies) to engage each other in an effort to develop solutions to problems that have and still do plague African people. It matters not if the problem(s) is/are rooted in some sense of spirituality, politics, economics, psychology, law, and so forth, what matters is the past, present and future well-being of African people across the globe.
This series of essays will survey the nature of Africana Religious Studies using the methods of Africana Studies, again, in an effort to bring these academic communities into conversation. Conversely, the methods of African American Religious Studies will be employed to examine aspects of Africana Studies. For instance, borrowing again from Asante these essays will analyze aspects of African American Religious Studies from an African-centered perspective. Some query that may offer relevant conversation: does Janheinz Jahn’s understanding of Muntu have anything to offer Anthony Pinn’s understanding of African American humanism?
On the other side of this argument, Pinn’s understanding of African American humanism can be employed to evaluate the merit of African-centered research and analysis. For example, does Asante’s development of Afrocentricity speak to Pinn’s understanding of African American humanism.  Or, can Karenga’s Kawaida theory answer the “who, what, when, where and why we are” of Pinn’s interpretation of the nature of Black religion. Or are these ideas compatible enough to even come into conversation at all, and if not, why? This dialogue is important for the simple reason that the conversation concerning African/a people has much overlap across academic disciplines, theories and methods. Much has been said about African/a life and culture and Africana Studies has attempted to provide a theoretical starting point (Afrocentricity) as well as disciplinary cohesion to that conversation. Continuing in that effort, this series of essay will bring Africana Studies and African American Religious Studies into academic conversation.
 Maulana Karenga. Introduction to Black Studies. (University of Sankore Press: Los Angeles, 2002), 233-298.
 Maulana Karenga. MAAT: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt. (University of Sankore Press: Los Angeles, 2006).
 Molefi Asante. Afrocentricity: A Theory of Social Change. (Amulefi Publishing Co.: Buffalo, 1980). See also: Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge. (Africa World Press: Trenton, New Jersey, 1990). The Afrocentric Idea (Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 1998).
 This is something the author of this essay has observed while attending both of the conferences of the Nation Council for Black Studies (NCBS) and the American Academy of Religion (AAR) as well as engaging in conversation with scholars of both fields. To use an analogy: they are like scholarly ships passing in the night, talking past each other but never (or rarely) with each other.
 Janheinz Jahn. Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. (Grove Press: New York, 1990). Jahn’s work centers on literature and linguistics in the African world.
 Anthony Pinn. The End of God-Talk: An African-American Humanist Theology (Oxford Press: New York, 2012). See also: African American Humanist Principles: Living and Thinking like the Children of Nimrod. (Palgrave McMillian: New York, 2004). Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion. (Augsburgh Forstress: Minneapolis, 2003). Pinn was trained in the study of Religion at Harvard University.