“On Leaving and Joining Africanness through Religion: The ‘Black Caribs’ across Multiple Diasporic Horizons”

Paul Christopher Johnson


I began the class discussion by putting the ethnogenesis of the Garifuna in historical context.  My first goal for the discussion was the establish the greater moment in history that this ethnogenesis was occurring.  The origin story the Garifuna trace, like a folklore, dates to a 1635 British slave shipwreck on the island of St. Vincent.  That was a booming year for colonial European powers: France declared war on Spain and colonized Guadeloupe, Martinique, and claimed Dominica; also, the Thirty Years War just ended and more British colonies in North America were being established.  My purpose of pointing all of these seemingly “fun facts” out was to show how little attention was given to the tiny Island of St. Vincent because it was not a profitable plantation environment, when in actuality, a new ethnicity was being formed.  This was a point I reiterated throughout my presentation.

I thought the structure of the article’s historical background lent itself nicely to a map in order to follow the movement of the Black Caribs on their journey to becoming the Garifuna.  I drew the following (and very not to scale map) on the board and added arrows to show their movement as I went through the history.   

As I lead the discussion, I made sure to reference the important connections the Garifuna had between the Island Caribs, West and West Central Africans, and Catholicism (mostly from French missionaries).  In order for the Black Caribs to survive on St. Vincent without being slaves, they had to recognize that the threat of enslavement was constantly around them and play the colonial powers to their advantage.  This led to a strong relationship with the French against the British.  While this eventually ended with a British victory over the Black Caribs and other inhabitants of St. Vincent and their forced relocation to coastal Central America, the Black Carib’s association with the French had an important impact on the Garifuna religion.  I drew the diagram below on the board to help the class visualize the truly transcultural nature of the Garifuna religion:

The main highlights of this transculturation were moments of selective appropriation by the Garifuna including: the spirit geography of St. Vincent, the drums used in rituals that come from Africa (similar to Vodou), and the baptism rite from Catholicism.


When I took over the discussion, I wanted to explain the author’s attitude on “diaspora” and how it applied to the ethnogenesis and identity of the Garifuna. The author discusses the meaning of diaspora relating to the spatial and temporal aspects of it. The spatial aspect referring to the feeling of separation or gap between the homeland and the host land. The temporal aspect refers to the group memory and consciousness of the homeland which can be lost and regained. The two aspects cause the idealization or nostalgia of the homeland and the forming of transnational ties. Additionally, a main point about how groups can come into and out of diaspora depends on these two aspects diaspora. This frame provides an analytic definition that can be used in studying the diaspora over time. In order to better explain the author’s interpretation, I also went over the conditions in which a group is not in or has left the diaspora.

To describe how the Garifuna left and then rejoined the African diaspora, I first went over how their ethnogenesis and identity changes overtime resulted in them leaving the diaspora and becoming a new group of people. I touched the most important parts of their ethnogenesis. When Africans first came to St. Vincent and the surrounding islands, Africans of multiple ethnicities were present. As a result, a central African identity did not form. Also, there was strong pressure to become Carib to avoid enslavement and resist European colonization. After the end of the Seven Years War and the population of the Island Carib diminished heavily, the Black Carib were self-ruling and were in a process of selective appropriation. Taking influences from the Island Carib religion, African religions and Catholicism, the unique blend that is Garifuna took form. St. Vincent became the new home for the Black Carib, and this sentiment was strengthened when they were forcibly removed from the island to Central America. Now separated, the time of the Garifuna on St. Vincent became remembered as a golden age and St. Vincent itself became sacred in their diasporic religion. The completion of the ethnogenesis meant the Garifuna were no longer in the African diaspora. The spatial and temporal aspect of their diasporic identity were dependent on St. Vincent. Many forgot or were not aware of their African roots, and would not rejoin the African diaspora until arriving in the United States. The memory of Africa was no longer present amongst the Garifuna.

I then went over how being in the United States and being racialized, causing them to be grouped in with Blacks, Africans and Afro-Hispanics, resulted in the Garifuna becoming reconnected to their African roots and religion. The rediscovery has not been well received with the Garifuna in Central America, who believe they are the authentic followers of Garifuna, I then went into how the identity of the Garifuna is fluid and has served many purposes in the past. In Central America, Garifuna strongly identified with Hispanic issues when it came to land disputes and in the United States, strongly identified with African issues such as black pride. The fluidity of identity plays a strong role in how groups can leave and join diaspora across multiple diasporic horizons. The article’s description of how memory influences diaspora identity is an interesting concept and can be seen with the Garifuna. This would influence the ending discussion questions.


We ended our discussion by asking two questions to our classmates.  Mario came up with asking if any of our peers felt as if they or their families were in diaspora, since this article did share a new concept of diaspora as memory.  Susan came up with the question about selective appropriation in their own lives, each of us citing instances of it in our own lives.  The two responses we got were very interesting and, since neither were personally involved in the Caribbean diaspora, demonstrated how flexible understandings our diaspora can be and how vast it is among other cultures.