New Professor Studies the Impact of Slavery on Religion

Oct. 10, 2007 — Jalane Schmidt joins the University of Virginia as an assistant professor of religious studiesn this fall.   She studies African diaspora religions of Latin America and the Caribbean to better understand how the legacy of slavery and colonialism has shaped contemporary belief systems.

Schmidt received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2005 and previously taught at Oberlin College.  Her research employs an up-and-coming religious studies ethnographic methodology that combines anthropological theory with field work as well as the more conventional examination of historical religious texts.

“Especially in religious studies, scholars have traditionally studied official texual reports,” says Schmidt.   She notes that such accounts can be attributed to literate and presumably upper upper-class individuals.   As a result, this information may only represent one perspective.   With her blend of methodologies, Schmidt aims to integrate the experiences of everyday people.

Schmidt lived in Cuba for over a year conducting field work around syncretism — or the melding of disparate religious traditions, which is common in Latin American and Caribbean countries that were influenced by the slave trade.   She carried out historical research, built relationships with people, and attended public religious festivals.   Eventually she was invited to observe and participate in some very intimate rituals.   Schmidt’s forthcoming book “A Virgin in the Streets: Public Spectacles in 20th Century Cuba” is based on these experiences.

According to Schmidt, many Cubans today practice Santería — a symbiosis of Catholicism and the spiritual beliefs of the Yoruba,— a major West African ethnic group.   This amalgamation of the polytheistic Yoruba religion and Catholic devotion to saints is evidence of the lasting influence of Spanish colonists on African slaves.   For instance, the Yoruba tradition of worshiping many deities, or orishas, would conflict with the Catholic tradition of worshipping only one god, so slaves found ways of likening orishas to Catholic saints.   This creative resistance allowed slaves to continue practicing their spiritual traditions even under repressive European rule.

Understanding the evolution of religion as well as its impact on culture has broad relevance, especially in light of world relations and rapidly shifting demographics.   “It’s important to understand these historical processes — this borrowing back and forth of religions — this constant evolving,” says Schmidt. “It’s a much more widespread phenomenon than people realize.”

Despite academia’s traditional quest for secularization, Schmidt cites an “explosion of interest” in the study of religion over the past six years.   Student interest has increased, as has financial support for research related to religion.   Schmidt attributes this to both the terrorist attacks of Sept.ember 11, 2001 and the 2004 U.S. pPresidential election of 2004.   These events have provoked much scholarly debate and illustrate the significant and complex role that religion still plays in society.

“There is more of an urgent need to study and understand religion, especially with the political ramifications of these events,” Schmidt says.   “It’s an exciting time to be in the field, because people are recognizing the importance of such critical inquiry.”