Cobie Kwasi Harris’s narrative, “ River of Memory: The Ebb and Flow of Black Consciousness,” (Visions Across the Americas, Sixth edition, Warner and Hillard) builds a compelling metaphor- the river with its estuaries, twists, and turns symbolize the struggle of the African people during a period in history when brutal attempts were made to keep them enslaved.
Harris affirms, “The struggle of the African people in their quest for freedom is best represented by the metaphor of a river because rivers twist and turn, and when a river’s path is blocked, it finds another way to flow.”
Harris reminds us that the slaves were creative and resourceful enough to continue to observe their religious practices during a time when they were being forced by their slave masters to adopt Christianity.
The myriad African religions were perceived as being inferior by the slave masters, thereby demonstrating their limited understanding of religion and its characteristics. Emile Durkheim taught that the most fundamental characteristic of religion is its sense of the holy and sacred. Awe, he claimed, develops into observance. The African slaves were in awe of nature and creation and considered both sacred. In their quest for freedom of religious expression, Harris reminds us that the slaves blended their unique belief systems with those of Western religion, and later this fusion created what we have come to know as Condomble (Brazil), Santeria (Cuba) and Voodoo (Haiti).
These belief systems, even today appear misunderstood and viewed with suspicion. Some of their parallels to Catholicism are overlooked. In present day Haiti, devotees of Iwa, the spirit of love still make their pilgrimage to Sant d’Eau, a waterfall where Vodooists believe Iwa appears in the form of the Virgin Mary. This would be sufficient to send most Christians reeling, if they failed to understand the spiritual need the slaves had to create a fusion of religions in order to continue to reflect on the holy and sacred for survival.
Rigid Western thought might also fail to accept that the Holy Spirit moved on the earth even before Christ came into the world. So the presence of the sacred was well embedded in man’s spirit and sought expression.
Harris makes reference to the “hush spaces”- wooded areas and swamps remote from the slave master’s homes where the slaves could quietly pursue creative expression via religious observances and elaborate on the strive after liberty.
In addition, Harris points out the dominance of the “indomitable spirit” of the African people which motivated them to go after freedom even in the face of persecution.
He refers to the spirit of resistance whereby the slaves developed courage to persevere, as a mystery.
“It is the mystery of the spirit of resistance against all odds that makes the Black Liberation struggle for honor and justice
one of the defining activities of modern times,” Harris writes.
His narrative teaches us that all oppressed people can preserve their consciousness, integrity and dignity as they reflect on the example of the African people’s drive for justice and freedom throughout history.