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Comfa, Obeah, and Emancipation: Celebrating Guyanese Freedoms While Captive in Cultural Politics


This thesis examines a singular event commemorating the 1838 emancipation of enslaved Africans in Georgetown, Guyana. When slavery was abolished in the British Empire it had rippling effects throughout the rest of the slave-holding world, as well as within the politics of cultural self-determination and representation for those newly “freed” yet still colonized people. One change that occurred was the re-evaluation and interpretations of Obeah, a wide-ranging complex of knowledge and practices utilized for harnessing empowerment to effect changes in people’s social, “spiritual,” and bodily well-being. Prior to emancipation colonial authorities considered Obeah as a malignant tactic of rebellion, and even revolution, requiring vigilant action to suppress. Directly post-emancipation colonial policies aimed more at controlling Obeah as a cultural form epitomizing a Euro-American-imagined “Africa,” one deemed culturally and intellectually “backwards” and in need of “Christian civilizing.” For these combined reasons, and others, Obeah was outlawed and popularly demonized throughout Anglo-Caribbean societies, leaving an ambivalent legacy to follow for those who continue to utilize it, and similar ritual practices, today. A 2014 Libation Ceremony in Georgetown honoring the 1838 emancipation featured a constellation of sensory and performative atmospheres that invoked an aura and memory of “Africa” and African identity, including the use of varying ritual practices associated with Obeah. Analyzing vernacular speech acts and other performance features of audience/participants during this ceremonial night reveals conflicting and often ambiguous understandings of Obeah’s connections to cultural politics. Primarily framed through local and contemporary politics of national and religious identity construction, this study also engages cultural politics of transnational global significance, and through historically informed perspective.

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