In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is J. Brent Crosson. Crosson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. His book is Experiments with Power: Obeah and the Remaking of Religion in Trinidad.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
J. Brent Crosson: Experiments with Power grapples with the relationship between the violence of the law against lower-class Black people and the violence against African-identified religions. It argues that there are “moral-racial” foundations to these forms of violence—foundations that determine what is considered proper religion and who is considered a proper citizen. The book tells the story of the horrific police killing of two women and one man in the place where I have done long-term research in southern Trinidad over the past two decades. In the protests that followed these shootings, the criminalized term for African-identified spiritual power—Obeah—played a pivotal role as justice-making force that exceeded state law. Obeah was first criminalized as the alleged motivating force for the largest slave rebellion of the 18th century-British Caribbean—Tacky’s War or the Coromantee War. Trinidad repealed its anti-Obeah laws in 2000, but Obeah remains a crime in much of the former British Caribbean. Rather than treating obeah simply as an object of study, I take obeah as a theoretical lens that brings the contradictions of Liberalism into focus. Liberalism is a doctrine of the rule of law, religious tolerance, and rights-bearing “Man,” but it was formed in Western Europe at the height of trans-Atlantic slavery. Liberal ideals seek to transcend coercion and violence, but they can only do so by projecting improper violence onto others. European invectives against African-identified religion—what they called “fetishism” starting in the 18th century—were key to asserting that West and western Central Africa were places of political disorder, despotism, and violence ruled by superstition. Enlightenment Europeans thus justified the profound, wide-ranging violence of slavery itself by saying that others were supposedly violent or in need of moral reform. The postcolonial state is heir to this moral-racial discourse, articulated largely through ideas of securitization in the neoliberal present. Experiments with Power takes Obeah as a lens that brings the violence of Liberal ideals of law and religion into focus.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
One thing I hope that activists and community organizers could take from this book is the idea that Africana religions possess technologies for thinking about power, politics, ethics, and justice in ways that are applicable to struggles against state violence. The book presents one example of a relatively successful protest movement against police violence that employed Africana ideas of spiritual power (among a range of other tactics). The book also positions police violence and the criminalization of Blackness in a global perspective that exceeds but connects to Northern contexts. I note how the police killings in Trinidad occurred around the same time as other pivotal police killings of Black people in the US and the UK—Trayvon Martin and Mark Duggan. While police violence in the Caribbean, Brazil, or Latin America sometimes does not get the same kind of media coverage, there is a global story to be told about state power, securitization, and resistance. The same held true for the killing of George Floyd—in the weeks after this murder, three men were killed by the police in Trinidad and, in the protests that followed, the police killed a pregnant protester (Ornella Greaves) while suppressing a nonviolent manifestation. The Prime Minister and Chief of Police in Trinidad discounted the protests as disorderly violence enacted by “gangs.” As in many other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, public fervor against violent crime often condones exceptional violence and the violation of civil rights. The book discusses some of these violations in the context of the 100-day-long State of Emergency in Trinidad, which began shortly after the police shootings at my field site and widespread protests across the country on this and other issues. I hope that the book could make some contribution to bringing attention to lesser-known struggles against state violence.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
The book is divided into three parts, with each attempting to unlearn a different hegemonic ideology (essentially, law, religion, and science). The first part deals with ideas of law, justice, and ethics in the wake of the police shootings and spiritually-informed protests against them in Trinidad. I am trying to unlearn the idea that religion is separate from power, which is a foundation of post-Reformation ideals of religion. In the wake of the police shootings, some spiritual workers asserted the right to use spiritual force against the police to force their confessions and bring them to justice. Under pressure of spiritual affliction, one of the officers confessed to the murder-for-hire racket in which the police unit was engaged (paid for by organized crime networks that included the police). I question the idea that good religion must be separate from power and force, drawing on African ethical ideals of a balance of forces, as opposed to black-and-white Western ideals of absolute good versus evil.
The second part of the book is about unlearning ideas of religion, race, and secularism. I show how race and religion have been inextricable categories for subaltern people in Trinidad. I draw on the dynamics of spiritual work—glossed as Obeah—to propose an idea of religion that is not based in the idea of mutually exclusive confessional communities. Instead, religious work is about relations across difference—the difference between humans and divinities, negative and positive, or different ethno-religious groups. I thus propose an idea of secularism that is based on an Africana ethos of relations-through-difference, rather than the transcendence of difference through state law (as in Western ideals).
The third part of the book is about unlearning hegemonic ideologies of science. Science is a long-standing synonym for Obeah across the anglophone Caribbean, going back to the earliest 18th-century accounts. Rather than a legitimating mask (i.e., science as a Western camouflage for stigmatized African practices), I note that science is like Obeah for spiritual workers because it is powerful yet potentially dangerous. This does not mean that science or Obeah is bad—it is simply a more “mature” basis for ethics that recognizes that power has the potential to heal or harm in human hands (a reality that we can more readily recognize in the healing-harming potential of other forms of power, such as economic or political power). In contrast to popular Western ideals of science as ethically neutral, transparent observation, Obeah and science are based on the specialist mediation between the unseen and the seen to put power to use. This is as true for subatomic particles (unseen forces that can fuel or destroy entire cities) as it is for spirits. Again, this does not mean that science or Obeah are “bad.” Rather, the equation of Obeah and science obliges as ethics that takes power and its effects into account (rather than hiding beyond absolutist, moral-racial ideals of good versus evil).
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
I am inspired by two of Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s ideas. First, I employ his critique of “North Atlantic Universals,” as projects of reform based on ideals with universal pretensions but specific origins in North Atlantic cultural milieus. For me, these projects would include, most significantly, the modern nation-state, science, the rule of law, race, and religion. Trouillot argues that “modernity” and “the West” do not represent a place but rather a project of reform. Ideals of governance, rationality, or proper religion are the “universals” against which postcolonial others are invited to gauge their (in)adequacy in Western ideas of development. These “universals” are thus exclusionary and particular, and these are the ideas the book wants to critique and unsettle. Second, I draw on Trouillot’s idea of unsettling the dynamics between agent and object of study in anthropology and academia. In the typical relation, the scholar is an agent that studies an object, producing descriptions and theory about it. In anthropology, these “objects” are cultures and people. Trouillot suggests upending these dynamics by treating one’s interlocutors as theorists rather than informants. Experiments with Power is based on the theories of Obeah and the theoretical interventions of spiritual workers that transformed my own conceptions of science, religion, or law. So, rather than an object—a circumscribed tradition that can be seen and catalogued by the observer—Obeah becomes a theory of power. In a sense Obeah, since it is based in a politics of invisibility (or “opacity” as Martinican theorist Édouard Glissant called it) forces such a recognition. Obeah challenges the limits of politics of visibility and recognition, and forced me to think about science or law as based in occlusion or mediation, rather than “transparency” (as Liberal ideals would have it).
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
I might suggest Deborah Thomas’ Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation and Tracey Hucks’ Obeah, Orisa, and Religious Identity in Trinidad—Volume 1: Obeah. Both books immerse readers in an affective, visceral engagement with colonial and postcolonial violence in the Caribbean. Thomas presents testimony from residents of the “garrison community” of Tivoli Gardens in Jamaica, the target of the Jamaican military incursion to remove that community’s “don” Christopher “Dudus” Coke for the purposes of US extradition in 2010. Rather than making these residents the classic humanitarian victims, Thomas’ photographic portraits and collected testimonies seek to invoke a kind of “witnessing” that affirms their humanity. In Experiments with Power, one of my objectives was to incite this kind of witnessing that refuses the dehumanizing pornography of violence that characterizes depictions of Black suffering at the hands of authorities in both the Caribbean and abroad. Thomas’ photographic portraits realize what I attempted to do through the book’s interludes—the witnessing that engages readers viscerally to honor the complex humanity of those who suffered state violence. Hucks’ book provides a gut-wrenching description of the violence of early British colonialism in Trinidad, foregrounding the role that prosecutions and executions for Obeah played. While the story of this colonial regime has been told many times before, Hucks makes the terror of this period palpable in a way that standard histories do not approximate.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.