Theses Doctoral

Occupying Space: The Public Life of Africana Religions in New York

Athias-Robles, Hillel Horacio

This study describes the public life of Africana religions in New York City, the religions brought to New York City directly from Africa, or from the African Diaspora, particularly from the Caribbean and South America, where traditional African religions brought by the enslaved during the times of the Transatlantic Slave Trade were adapted to the new circumstances. Historically, practitioners of these religions have faced harsh persecution, whether during the time of enslavement when they could face death for their practices or when they came to the United States in the last century, where their religions were seen by many as evil and could lead to persecution by the authorities. Therefore, in the context of the United States, these religious traditions have for a long time been practiced in secret, in basements, and behind locked doors. In the last few decades, however, Africana religious practitioners have been trying to leave their secrecy behind and to become more public and visible.

This study suggests that the improvement to the standing of these traditions and their devotees has occurred, and will continue to do so, precisely by occupying space, by actively reclaiming spaces hitherto denied, both physically and metaphorically--a notion that will be understood holistically across several practical and conceptual domains. The first chapter of this study explores the history of Africana religions in the United States and the public attitudes towards them, as they have evolved from facing extreme persecution and stigma to greater acceptance and a more significant public standing.

The second chapter discusses in more detail the impact that practicing in secrecy has had on devotees, their rituals, and their religious lives. Also included in this section is an analysis of the ceremonies that are now being practiced in public in New York City and their related spatial reclamation, be it in beaches, in parks, or different types of public venues.

The third chapter looks at the way Africana religious presences have manifested through and taken space in the cultural domain, widely defined, and at the way that the diffusion of these presences has impacted on the make-up of the city itself. The fourth and final chapter considers the visibility and popularity Africana religions are now gaining in popular culture and the arts, including in music, concerts, and dance performances; in the visual arts; in public art; and in television and film. This research was conducted from the perspective of a practitioner of Africana religions seeking to advocate for the rights of Africana religious practitioners with respect to equality, visibility, and public presence without discrimination.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ewing, Katherine
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 15, 2021