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Liberating Revivalism through the spirit and work of Edward Seaga

Kirt O.
Henry

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

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THE death of former prime minister of Jamaica and anthropologist Edward Phillip George Seaga has engendered a great deal of public discourse around the significance and place of Revivalism in Jamaican culture. I wish to address this matter as we continue as an independent nation to grapple with the legacies of colonialism that perpetuate the decentring of African-derived spiritual expressions. I salute Seaga for championing the liberation and understanding of Revivalism through his writings and practice from as early as 1953.

THE EMERGENCE OF REVIVALISM IN JAMAICA

Many scholars, such as Joseph Moore, Edward Seaga, and Barry Chevannes, have understood Revivalism to be an Afro-Jamaican folk religion that emerged in Jamaica during “The Great Revival of 1860 and 1861”. However, Martha Beckwith (1969) stated that, “Revivalists are said to appear a great deal earlier…” in the Myal tradition which focused on practices of healing and spirit possession. Myalism, before its metamorphosis into Revivalism, could not be openly practised because of the rife restrictions on African expressions during enslavement — quite similar in nature to the Slave Code of 1740 that banned drums in South Carolina and the Obeah Act passed in 1898 banning the practice of obeah in Jamaica. Shalman Scott, in his article, 'The Rise of Revivalism in Jamaica' asserted that Revivalism is a blend of native Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal beliefs and practices with modified African beliefs and practices. However, what Scott did not mention is the influence of the indentured labourers, such as the East Indians and Chinese, on the spiritual manifestations of Revivalism. The East Indians and Chinese were contracted to replace Africans on the sugar plantations following Emancipation.

The Revivalism of 1860 and 1861 gave way to two unique religious expressions — 60 Zion and 61 Revival. The 61 Revival has received a lot of prejudice and stigma because of its deep practices of African rituals and beliefs in ancestor worship. Such prejudice and stigma are reflected in the use of the term “Pocomania”. Seaga, in advocating for Revivalism, contested the term Pocomania and linked the term to its Spanish translation which means Poco (a little) mania (madness). It is a fact that Revivalism in Jamaica and other spiritual practices throughout the British West Indies have been associated with madness as a strategy to erase and police African derived religions. Dr J W N Hudson, for example, drafted a Bill to Parliament in 1931 calling for the prohibition of Revivalism in Jamaica due to the belief that the practices of Revival were the cause of insanity among Jamaicans. In like fashion, the Shaker Prohibition Ordinance was introduced in St Vincent in 1912, and the Shouter Prohibition Ordinance in 1917 in Trinidad, prohibited the practices of these religions. Revivalism in Jamaica still struggles against the colonial prejudices that the country has inherited.

IMPACT OF REVIVALISM ON JAMAICA'S CULTURE

To understand the impact of Revivalism on Jamaican culture one needs to understand the symbolism and significance of such a religious movement in the fight for liberation. Despite the effort of Edward Seaga and others, Revivalism in Jamaica, like in many other countries such as India, continue to struggle and negotiate their place in society because of the Eurocentric ideologies that permeated the slave plantation and society today. The ethos of Revivalism is one of cultural resistance to imperialism. Because of this resistance, the philosophy of Revivalism as an indigenous expression remains to be under scrutiny and rejection. Revivalism among other Afro-Caribbean spiritual expressions has offered a refuge for the retention, preservation and protection of our African identity. In the words of former professor of literature at Columbia University Edward Said, Revival culture is one that resists the distortions inflicted on our identity through the project of colonisation. Although colonialism, through its assertion of political power, is one that denies a people of its common history, identity and heritage, Revivalism is a critical entry point to the conversation of a national cultural identity in terms of our African heritage. Revival churches today can be found in countries such as Panama, Canada, England, and the United States.

Sociologist and well-known authority on Rastafari, Professor Barry Chevannes postulated in his book Rastafari: Roots and Ideology that Revivalism is of “national significance in scope and character”. Revivalism serves as a “memory bank” that continues to hold together the traditions and identity of the Jamaican folk. Additionally, Revivalism is a reflection of Jamaica's multicultural identity as it incorporates and practices elements of predominantly African, but also Indian, Chinese and European spiritual and religious beliefs. The contribution of Revivalism to the cultural identity of Jamaica can be seen through the manifestations of its dress and music. Revival dress and its complex belief system is an indigenous aesthetic expression that proudly celebrates our African identity.

Revivalism and Rastafari are two post-colonial movements that constantly serve as a reminder of our African ancestry in everyday life. The music is another aspect of Revival's significant contribution to Jamaica. Revival music is often used by Jamaicans at home and in the diaspora at nine-night events. In fact, although Revivalism itself is not appreciated by some mainstream Christians, the music is occasionally played at concerts, a 'set up' for the deceased and at funerals.

DI WORK NUH DONE

Edward Seaga, in advocating for Revivalism, reminded us of the need to appreciate Revivalism beyond its entertainment and cultural value and to see Revivalism and the role it plays in the fight for liberation through African retention in a country that is governed by Eurocentric ideologies. The death of Seaga has further institutionalised and allowed the nation to recognise the national significance and importance of Revivalism in Jamaica. I call on Revivalists to continue the work that Seaga did to educate the population and demystify the colonial knowledge that overshadows the folk religion. I call on Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia Grange to establish an Edward Seaga Revival Collection at the African Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/Jamaica Memory Bank from Seaga's personal collection.

The death of the former prime minister has not only given way to a revival of Revivalism but it has showed that, despite the struggle the folk religion faces, Revival culture is alive and well in Jamaica.

Kirt O Henry is a cultural studies PhD candidate at The University of the West Indies, Mona. His research explores the meanings of dress in Jamaica's Revivalism. Send comments to the Observer or kirthenry62@gmail.com.


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