Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Shared Possessions: Black Pentecostals, Afro-Caribbeans, and Sacred Music

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Shared Possessions: Black Pentecostals, Afro-Caribbeans, and Sacred Music

Article excerpt

She was left undisturbed, allowed to continue her solitary dance to music that had long since ceased. As she danced, the evening worship service progressed in the usual manner--a few more testimonies, the offertory, the beginning of the sermon. Soon after the start of the sermon, her dance subsided, and the ladies in white went to her side to fan her, wipe the sweat from her brow, and escort her back to real time. "The Lord is doing a work in her," the preacher observed in a momentary digression from his sermon. The congregation responded with "amens" and other devotional affirmations, grateful for this evidence of the Lord's work, and unbothered by its spontaneous interpolation into the normal unfolding of things.

This scene was one of many similar phenomena that I witnessed at Open Door Church of God in Christ in Gary, Indiana, the black Pentecostal church of my childhood from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. There were many labels for this particular brand of the Lord's work. The solitary dancer might be described as "getting the Holy Ghost," "doing the holy dance," "shouting," "being filled," "catching the Spirit," "being purged," or simply as someone "getting a blessing." Whatever the descriptor, the phenomenon was familiar to all members of this religious culture. And it was understood that music-not just any music, but certain music--could facilitate such manifestations.

While "getting the Holy Ghost" and "catching the Spirit," the parishioners at my urban, black-American church had no awareness of the many parallels between our Spirit-driven modes of worship and those common to our Afro-Caribbean counterparts. We were completely unaware, for example, that members of Trinidadian Spiritual Baptist communities, Haitian Heavenly Army churches, and Jamaican Revival Zionist groups entertained and embraced religious phenomena very similar to ours, and that they, like us, used terms like "catching power" or "catching the spirit" or "being filled" in reference to Holy Spirit manifestation. We were even less aware of the threads that connected both black-American and Afro-Caribbean religious expressions to their West African origins. And although the term "spirit possession" was nowhere in the parlance of my particular church, it aptly describes the divine encounters both in our congregation and in the religious contexts of African diasporal groups around the world.

Spirit possession is a phenomenon common to nearly all African societies, one that underscores the boundless interchange between the physical and the unseen in African consciousness. Some writers, such as Kenneth Anthony Lum, distinguish between spirit possession and spirit manifestation. While I use the term spirit possession primarily in reference to the phenomenon wherein an individual worshipper's consciousness, emotional state, and physical gestures are entirely subjugated to divine presence, I may use this term somewhat interchangeably with spirit manifestation.

Spirit possession occurs when, through acts of worship involving ritualistic drumming, dancing, and chanting, the divine agent temporarily, yet dramatically, inhabits the body of the devotee. This divine incarnation brings on a state of transcendence during which the worshipper serves as conduit for the manifestation of the deity's presence. Writing about the ubiquity of spirit possession in Africa, Samuel Floyd (1995) states that "ceremonial possession was brought about by rhythmic stimulation (drumming and chanting), energetic and concentrated dancing, and controlled emotional and mental concentration." He contends, however, that "the whole of the ritual experience," which includes "dance, music, costumes, and at times storytelling" makes the possession effective. Floyd states further that while hallucinogens sometimes help to facilitate possession, "these sacred, blissful, and altered states" are "brought on principally by drumming" (20-21).

Spirit possession was as central to my black-American, Pentecostal upbringing as it is to religious cultures throughout Africa. …

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