At the Emancipation Day parade in Trinidad, something happened that I didnâ€™t expect: Jesus showed up.
The truck we had been walking (and dancing) beside and around throughout the parade had been playing a mix of African and Caribbean music all day. Most of the artists I didnâ€™t know and it was too loud for me to stop and ask someone, but I recognized Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, and the calypso, soca, and reggae beats of several songs. It was a soundtrack I wanted to take home with me. Then all of a sudden, the music switched, and a gospel song I had never heard before came on. It had a calypso beat, and people kept grooving with the music just as they had been doing all morning, so I donâ€™t think I realized right away that gospel music was being played over those six jumbo speakers in the truck. But I did notice that the demeanor of some of the revelers was slightly different. Less winding, more holy dance. And then I found myself singing along with this songâ€”
Â When my heart is overwhelmed
Lead to the rock that is higher than I
–as if I knew its lyrics and notes by heart. Iâ€™ve since downloaded the song (â€œHear My Cry, Oh Lord,â€ by Marvia Providence), and it is repetitive and easy to follow, but its lyrics also are direct passages from Psalm 61. The book of Psalms is, if nothing else, a book of music full of optimistic messages for believers, and that perhaps explains I saw one of the chaperones lock arms with her niece and praise as they walked, why I saw another student in our group tilt her head towards the sky and wave her hand, and why I found myself crying. (Tears are my praise dance. I donâ€™t shout or run around the church.)
Silly, I know, given the prevalence of Christianity in Africa and the Caribbean, but I didnâ€™t expect Jesus to be at the Emancipation Day parade. (I can feel a reader wanting to turn this into a sermon. Proceed if you wish, but just warning you, thatâ€™s not where Iâ€™m going with this.) Itâ€™s a day to celebrate freedom from oppression, and letâ€™s just be honest: in the transatlantic slave trade, Christianity was the oppressorâ€™s faith and often his justification for participating in such an immoral business (yeah, weâ€™re selling people, but itâ€™s cool; weâ€™ll bring salvation to the savages!). Why honor that there?
Short answer: no matter how I feel about the means by which Christianity made its way across the Atlantic and throughout the African continent, itâ€™s very much a part of who Black people everywhere, even Black people who donâ€™t believe in it because Â they think itâ€™s a white manâ€™s religion, are.
(I donâ€™t have a longer answer yet, but I bring this up now for a few reasons. 1) I didnâ€™t get around to blogging about this experience until now. 2) Iâ€™m taking the class â€œReligions of the African Diaspora,â€ and these questions about Christianity and Black identity will come up in the class. And 3) I want to explore those questions in writing a bit more. So just FYI, more is coming.)