Trabelin’ On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith. By Mechal Sobel. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1979. 247 pp.
With her 1979 work, Trabelin’ On, historian Mechal Sobel, then and now a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, joined a burgeoning throng of revisionists who argued that many African spiritual and cultural traditions amazingly survived the long ordeal of Anglo-American slavery. In Trabelin’ On, Sobel contends that African-American slaves melded traditional African beliefs that they had retained with white Baptist ones that they encountered to form a unique and coherent “Afro-Baptist” Sacred Cosmos, which was then institutionalized in scores of black Baptist churches that sprang up in the antebellum South. Sobel shows that such churches, contrary to the traditional notion that they were “hidden,” were operated openly and independently by their black members whose “freedom in Christ” to do so was generally honored by the white establishment. Indeed, in 120 pages of appendices, Sobel traces the history of each “formally organized black Baptist church” in America from 1758 through 1864. But while the appendices are a boon for scholars, the general reader will more likely be interested in Sobel’s theory that the faith practiced in those black Baptist churches syncretically blended African pagan and white Baptist influences.
To prove that theory, Sobel must first demonstrate that African spirituality somehow survived the slavery experience. According to Sobel, the “chief evidence that African world views came into America . . . is the fact that belief in Voodoo actively permeated all of slave life.” (p. 41.) Voodoo was based on the belief that “spirits” influenced human events and that such spirits could be controlled by expert “practictioners.” Besides voodoo, Sobel contends that slaves retained the traditional African notion of “dual” souls, i.e., that each man has within himself a “‘little man’ who existed before his body came into the world and who will continue to exist after his body dies.” (p. 21.) Moreover, that “little me in the big me” (p. xix) could “trabel” by means of ecstatic visions; during such “trabels” by the “little me,” the “big me” would frequently appear to outsiders to be in a trance, often frenzied in nature. Such trances were also experienced collectively as when slaves participated in an organized “ring dance” or a “shout.”
As Sobel notes, such visions, trances, and frenzied “shouts” were a “carryover from the ritual surrounding the ecstasy of the possessed medium” (p. 143) common to Voodoo practice. But Sobel also points out that the American evangelical revivals known as the First and Second Great Awakenings that occurred in the 18th and early 19th Centuries commonly featured “frenzied” and “ecstatic” behavior by white converts and believers. Given their traditions of visions and “shouts,” many blacks related naturally to the revivals’ frenzied effects on whites and wound up as converts themselves to evangelical Christianity, particularly its Baptist and Methodist strains.
As the 19th Century wore on, Sobel recounts how the frenzied behavior that characterized the Great Awakenings dissipated from white evangelical circles but not so readily from black ones. Even when whites started monitoring slave church services more carefully following the slave uprisings led by Denmark Vessey in 1822 and Nat Turner in 1831, slaves would secretly hold nighttime “ring-shouts” in the backwoods so as not to scare their white overseers.
Voodoo practices and beliefs also died hard amongst converted slaves. Though voodoo practitioners were increasingly viewed by Christian slaves as having obtained their powers from the Devil, there was no denying that they had real powers. Also, as Sobel describes, “[t]hose who claimed not to believe in Hoodoo were often the very ones who wore amulets or who sprinkled their houses with special concoctions.” (p. 245.) Sobel further notes that Christian slaves “clearly translated the African witch doctor curse into Christian terms” when they “prayed for evil to befall their enemies.” (p. 132.)
The traditional Christian concept of “sin” also needed “translation” into terms the slaves could understand. As Sobel explains, African spirituality did not recognize sin but, rather, the breaking of “taboos,” and “immorality came to be anything that hindered the development of the community.” (p. 232.) As such, individual conduct was judged by the community in Africa, a practice paralleled by the Baptist tradition of having local congregations police the conduct of their members. Thus, black Baptist church assemblies gradually assumed “the functions of the African social community.” (p. 230.) For this reason among others, slaves were attracted to the Baptist faith.
Sobel supports her theory by drawing upon primary and secondary archeological, sociological, and historical sources. But Trabelin’ On is somewhat disjointed and frequently redundant; its footnoting too leaves much to be desired. Still, those failings are more than overcome by the fascinating subject matter and Sobel’s intriguing theory.
Joe RzeppaTrabelin’ On: The Slave Journey to an Afro Baptist Faith. By Mechal Sobel. 1968.
Sobels’ wrote his book focusing on how Africans brought their own worldviews into North America and how West African cultures meshed with white cultures and blended into a new black culture in the South. This culture is labeled a neo-African consciousness; it is one that evolved into a coherent Afro-Christian faith, following the Baptist influences dating back to 1750.
The first part of the book deals with African values and their growth in early America. The second part deals with the Black Baptist churches organizations and independent stance in the community. According to the author, his theses is corroborated by the black narratives and White church records. Sobel claims that the black church practice and participation was not hidden in secret as previously argued but that they openly practiced as an institution. He also claims that they practiced their West African cultural traditions publicly. These churches established their own independent leadership, were formally recognized in the upper and lower south, and claimed to propagate black freedom through Christ. The authors’ research relies heavily on churches records found in white congregations about the black church community.
The author claims that white perceptions about black language, Christianity, and culture were biased and racist. He claims this is due to a view that white people had of blacks as ignorant and primitive; this assumption is allegedly based on the created black hybrids of Christianity and Creole language uses. As Africans did not emulate white culture by mimicking them entirely, whites assumed they were ignorant. Sobel claims that whites were incapable of understanding that blacks who were trying to hold onto their West African cultures while combining both white and black cultures. The same issue comes about concerning the Creole language; according to the author, what whites perceived as poor phonetic skills on behalf of blacks, Sobel claims is a hybrid of West African language and white speech. Therefore, he claims that whites that were teaching and observing the Creole language spoken by blacks misjudge black language skills.
This book is difficult to read and even more difficult to follow as the author goes to great lengths in explaining self-labeled definitions about the strains of black ethnocentrism, parallel social structures, a West African Sacred Cosmos, Niger-Congo languages, and the ever-changing worldviews that defines his thesis about black faith development. The authors’ prose is poetic and clouds the thesis statements. Sobel draws from a few authors’ works such as Alex Haley, Geoffrey Parrinder, and James McPherson to interpret the black narratives, histories, faith development, and cultural practices. Of interest was chapter seven, entitled Coherent Lives and Visible Institutions that dealt with the establishment of black churches in the era of pre revolutionary and antebellum period. This chapter is divided into records in chronological order about black Christianity reflected in1740-1822 labeled the radical white outreach to blacks, 1823-1844 which details the dangerous black independence coming out in churches, and 1845-1865 dealing with renewed white outreach to blacks in the Baptist faith. This chapter appears to clearly express Sobels’ thesis about a visual acceptance of black Christian culture and practice and acknowledgment of Black Baptists in the south. This work appears at times to be more about social science than it is about social history. I would only recommend it to show how not to write about Afro-Black Christianity.