African-American Traditions and Prayers

A gospel choir singing in a church.
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The African-American community has a variety of traditions and prayers that exemplify the importance of religion and spirituality. Most of these traditions arose out of slavery and the subsequent period of racial segregation. Some, such as the ring shout, infuse African cultural practices with Christianity. Others, especially the spirituals and Kwanzaa holiday, speak to the African-American desire to transcend the limitations of the contemporary life. Finally, the prayer life of the Nation of Islam links African Americans to the larger Muslim world.

1 Ring Shout

The ring shout is a form of African-American religious expression with roots in West Africa. Enslaved African-Americans used the ring shout as part of their religious practice. Participants form a circle and proceed by rotating in a counterclockwise direction to the beat of a drum. The people shout in response to the beat, narrating a religious theme. The slaves often prayed in this manner secretly because the ring shout's African origins were threatening to many slave owners. These prayer meetings would take place at times in secret locations known as hush harbors. Some African-Americans on the coastal islands of Georgia and South Carolina still perform the ring shout. Many Christian churches with predominantly African-American congregations allow individual responses and shouting in their services, a practice that has its origins in the ring shout.

2 Spirituals and Gospel Music

Spirituals are religious songs that impart a message of salvation. African-Americans created the spirituals during slavery. The lyrics were often coded references of the desire to be free. In these songs, “heaven” referred to the free states in the North, for example. The spirituals equated the harshness of slavery in America with the story of the enslaved Israelites in the Old Testament of the Bible. They are the predecessors of gospel music, which developed in the urban North of the 1920s among African-American migrants from the South.

3 Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a traditional African-American holiday observed annually from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. The last day of Kwanzaa, New Year's, is a day of meditation. African-American adherents of the holiday reflect on their lives. It is a day to make new declarations of improvement. The overall goal of the day is to focus on ways to be the best person of African descent possible.

4 Salat

The Nation of Islam, a black nationalist organization, formed in 1930 as a religious group to challenge racial oppression of African-Americans. Members practice salat, the traditional Muslim form of prayer. Salat consists of five daily prayers, performed at sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset and 90 minutes following sunset. Though most of the world’s Muslims recite the prayers in Arabic, those in the Nation of Islam may use English. Prior to praying, believers wash their body in a ritual known as wudu.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.