Danielle Boaz’s Banning Black Gods: Law and Religions of the African Diaspora is an impressively expansive account of racialized discrimination against African diaspora religions, focusing on how this manifests in the legal systems of multiple countries. “Religious racism,” the term that Boaz uses for this discrimination, was coined in Brazil, one of the countries that makes repeated appearances throughout the book (2). The author defines religious racism as “the intersection of religious intolerance and racism” (2). She argues that religious racism is enacted in ways that resemble racial discrimination more broadly, and that “prejudice against these faiths is typically motivated by anti-Black racism” (3). Boaz organizes the book into sections that cover specific religions, and chapters within those sections address specific legal issues faced by practitioners of those religions. For readers new to these religions, she provides sufficient background information while still addressing complex legal issues related to the practice of African diaspora religions, from laws about animal sacrifice to child custody cases and much in between.
Banning Black Gods covers the enactment of religious racism in the legal systems of the United States, Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, South Africa, multiple countries in the Caribbean, and many other nations. The sheer breadth of the legal systems and issues engaged in this volume occasionally make the book difficult to follow, especially given the significant differences between the legal systems of various countries. However, the book’s wide-ranging nature is also its great strength. Its expansiveness allows Boaz to explore the transnational contours of religious racism in ways that a more confined study would not. One illustration of this is chapter 5, “Headscarves, Dreadlocks and Other ‘Disruptions’: African Diaspora Religions and the Right to Education,” which connects French controversies about headscarves in public schools with cases of Rastafarian students in multiple countries being prohibited from wearing their hair in dreadlocks. Boaz argues that these two forms of religious discrimination reflect the confluence of European gender norms with prejudices about African diaspora religions.
Boaz gives useful context for her case studies, enabling readers to follow her arguments regardless of their legal training (or lack thereof). For example, chapter 7, “Continued Proscription: The Rights of Western Versus African ‘Witches,’” covers how anti-witchcraft laws, rooted in the English legal tradition, are still used to punish Obeah practitioners in Anglophone Caribbean countries, Canada, and South Africa. Boaz traces the entwined histories of anti-witchcraft and anti-vagrancy legislation in English law (both in the UK and in the Caribbean) to provide greater context for the ways these laws have continued to be deployed against Obeah practitioners, even as legal reforms have prevented Wiccans and self-identified witches of other traditions from being targeted by those same laws. Boaz also goes beyond legal systems to discuss how broader societal shifts have impacted practitioners of African diaspora religions. For example, Boaz chronicles how Vodou was scapegoated as the reason for both the 2010 earthquake and subsequent cholera outbreak in Haiti. This scapegoating led to physical violence against Vodouisants and prevented them from receiving post-earthquake aid offered by Christian NGOs (30-33).
Banning Black Gods: Law and Religions of the African Diaspora is well worth reading for anyone interested in religion and law, Africana religions, religion and race, and many other fields. Boaz’s broad scope and bold insight combine to make a cogent case for religious racism as a framework for understanding the legal challenges faced by practitioners of African diaspora religions transnationally.
Alexandria Griffin is a visiting assistant professor of religion at New College of Florida.
Date Of Review:
February 19, 2023
Danielle N. Boaz is Assistant Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
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