Whitewashing African Spirituality
By Dalian Adofo (Ancestral Voices Co-director)
In the not too distant past, Africans were faced with a grave decision under the threat of death. In bondage and servitude, both continentally and in the Diaspora, they were to either relinquish their Ancestral traditions in favour of their Oppressor’s own or face the most gruesome of deaths.
For those on the continent, some aspects of their culture could not be entirely erased due to location – they could keep their naming ceremonies (even though the adoption of western names was heavily encouraged), languages and certain aspects of the culture. Yet these were still frowned upon as backward and negative, such that generations later, some continental Africans are not even able to speak their own native tongues or possess a basic knowledge of their cultural philosophies and norms.
In the Diaspora, it was far worse. Total renunciation of all aspects of being African was demanded –from names to all aspects of identity and cultural expressions, with the aim being to create ‘a blank vessel’ onto whom could be projected, a European consciousness and ‘state of being’.
The one theme we find consistent on both sides of these crimes against humanity was the common understanding by the coloniser, that the main source of resistance and rebellion for the African lay in their Spiritual philosophies and practices and so was to be eradicated by all means. This is not surprising as the primal philosophy within the Spiritual knowledge systems is the principle that all humans are born free, with the right to self-determination and autonomy.
In this light, why would one accept that their only purpose in life was to be in eternal bondage to another – how could such a purpose be ‘divinely-ordained’?Why would a spirit decide to manifest on the physical plane with its sole purpose being to be subservient to another rather than to achieve its fullest potential?
Laws were made to prohibit its practice, examples made of practitioners to deter others and a vehement religious propaganda campaign enacted to frame it in a negative and fearful light. A successful campaign because to date we still experience its pernicious effects, with most African/Black people still convinced their Ancestral legacies are nothing but ‘devil-worship’, not forgetting ‘backward’ and ‘superstitious’, in contrast to the religions their enforcers subjugated them to in the most barbaric of ways; enacting genocide and an African Holocaust that would last at least 5 centuries.
Understanding the language of Spirituality to be one of symbology and metaphysical references, the Diasporans were faced with a choice- loose their legacy forever or find creative ways of retaining it. They chose the latter and used references in the Christian iconography of their colonisers to map/syncretise their divine archetypes onto – to serve as reference points for directing psychic energy and communications in order to maintain the connection. Note it was not to replace the African archetypes, but to provide points of reference.
So in Cuba for instance, Ogun from the African pantheon would be syncretised to Catholic Saints (such as Paul) who had depictions of carrying a sword or other forms of weapons – metals which related directly to the representations of Ogun on the continent or in Brazil where Oshun from the Yoruba pantheon would be syncretised with Our Lady of Aparecida (the Virgin Mary). In so doing Africans could carry on their traditions in secret, unbeknownst to their oppressors.
As intangible as spirit is, not pandering to man-made ‘colour-codes’ it was enough to serve their needs. African Spirituality would be the fuel for rebellions across the Americas and Caribbean – from Cuba to Brazil to the first Black independent republic in the Western Hemisphere; Haiti.
Now whereas the clever ‘disguising’ of our practices was essential during the period of chattel-enslavement, it becomes imperative to ask of what use they can serve today, particularly in the dynamic of Africans reclaiming the legacies forcibly ripped from them? Does having the Europeanised representations of African archetypes cause us more harm than good?
Well I will contend the former and will explain starting with my own experience as a continental African who ended up re-aligning fully to my Ancestral ways via my experience in the Diaspora.
In my mid-twenties after graduating from university I visited Cuba, interest more being to see a longstanding socialist utopia where ‘racism and any of its off springs such as colourism didn’t exist’. Those were my naïve expectations that was shattered my very first evening in Havana. I was young and impressionable, what can I say? smile
On a Sunday, in a town called Trinidad, I told my host I was going to the beach in the little Spanish I knew, ‘Playa’ I said, gesturing to the beach. He eagerly said something in response but I did not understand, so he clasped his hands together in a Christian prayer fashion and closing his eyes and I got his meaning and nodded.
He pointed to himself, he was what we may describe as a ‘Latino person’, perhaps a shade darker than say, Fat Joe the rapper. He then said, and I write phonetically, ‘Relihio African’ – that was not hard to understand so I nodded again.
He run into his room and came back with some pictures for me to look at. I looked at the pictures and saw a whole procession of all kinds of people- from dark Africans to the palest of Europeans carrying this statue of the ‘Virgin Mother with Child.’
As I was raised Catholic, mentally I was like ‘why has he told me he practices African Religion, but was shown me what I interpreted as a Catholic Mass- no different at all than the enactments I’d participated in since a child. I was totally lost, why wasn’t it an African lady in a position of power, he just inferred he practised an African religion so I was expecting a Black person??
All I felt was distance and alienation.
My confusion must have been visible as he promptly collected the pictures. I was never invited to any shrine or even shown an altar and off to the Beach I went, none the wiser.
Years later, blessed with an audience with the Dagara healer Sobonfu Some, her words brought home the importance of ‘Divine Representations’, she emphasised their importance for our psyches to have this ‘physical anchor’ to aid our spiritual connection and development.
So my first point on the importance of the need to re-imagine and reclaim our Deities is the power it brings to the seeker looking to find ‘home’ after centuries of separation. They can see themselves in the Divine and this of outmost psychological importance for self-appreciation and value.
The second point I seek to broach is the potential it holds potential for addressing social changes in the growing inequalities and treatment of Black people especially worldwide. Having images of Africans in Divine Splendour demanding respect and attention will consequently result in changes in perception and treatment of Black people, much in the same way the imposed images of European characters has done for ‘whiteness’.
I will illustrate this point further by using what many consider the seminal work on Santeria – ‘Santeria: The Religion’ by Marie Gonzalez-Wippler (2nd Edition, 2012). Very important we note at this juncture that this is no direct or implied attempt to brand her ‘racist or prejudiced’ as I have respect for her work, it is just being used to illustrate this continued paradox of representing African sacred archetypes as ‘white’/European when the threat to do so no longer exists in the same way as it once did?
In the opening chapters she delivers the first bombshell when explaining how Santeria came to be. “As the magical rituals of the Yoruba became more popular, the Spaniards, slowly overcoming the natural reticence of the African priests, managed to learn most of the intricate legends and rites of the cult, until they were allowed to participate in the initiation ceremonies. As soon as the initiate reached adepthood, he renamed the Yoruba practices and called them Santeria”
What was most saddening for me reading that was she makes no efforts whatsoever to highlight this as (mis)appropriation but alludes to it being the actual genesis of it, which by implication totally subverts and undermines anything the Africans were practising beforehand.
Santeria, a term derived from the Spanish word ‘Santo’(saint) literally meaning ‘the worship of the saints’. Now we must ask ourselves, how does the religion of the saints that once upon a time only sought the totally destruction of the African spiritual culture, get to decide its definition? Where exactly is the logic or social justice in that?
Nor does she make any efforts whatsoever to even touch on the fact that many opposed this re-labeling as there was already a reference for it – Lucumi. Even today, we find Lucumi practitioners very insistent on not being described by the term Santeria – offended by the implication that it’s the Saints who give ‘credence’ to the African system.
This over-sight is thematic throughout; when it comes to describing the other African-derived systems in Cuba, notably Palo Mayombe, there are no attempts made to rectify the negative associations because they maintain their African identity foremost and sought no integration with Catholicism.
“Brujeria or witchcraft is not a common practice of Santeria. This type of magic is known as Palo Monte or Palo Mayombe.”(pg 238)
She explains that practitioners who use ‘the Christian cauldron’ and are ‘baptised’ are viewed as ‘good’ and work with ‘God’ whereas those who are ‘unbaptised’ are ‘bad’ as they work with “Kadiempembe”, the ‘devil’. (pp238-239)
To read such simplistic descriptions from a highly versed initiate was not only troubling but also very sad as it reflects just how much our programmed social bias can impact deeply on our spiritual consciousness and consequently affect our behaviours.
Note again that there is no direct submission on my part that the author has Colourism issues, but rather she may merely have been describing the situation as is. Yet even so, as one involved in a system of which there are many expressions, it is telling that the narrative she chose panders to notion of ‘black magic’ and ‘white magic’ – where the former is negative whilst the latter is positive…perfectly aligned with racialised theories concerning Africans.
When she gives direct examples, one of a woman who secures an unwitting lover via Oshun in the Santeria system versus one who secures an unwitting neighbour’s house via Palo Mayombe, the latter narrative is explained very negatively almost as ‘devilish work’ whilst the former positively praises the powers of Santeria, even though both examples involve the appropriation of something subversively! The double-standards in perception is highly problematic and again only serves to continue with the stigmatisation of the systems that do not seek validation via the same systems that once tried to obliterate them from existence.
Her own life experience is telling again of this state of affairs. By her own admission, her first experience with Orisha (Chapter 27; Maria- A Spiritual Beginning) came via an experience with her personal (Black) servant as a child. In the social reality, she held a position far superior to her servant, and in her spiritual reality too, Santeria visually reinforced that power dynamic visually, so it would make sense she would favour to identify with Santeria rather than Lucumi or Palo Mayombe as she can see herself in it!
Now let’s consider this – how much more powerful would this be if its Divinities were in their African form? Would a ‘white’ person who would willingly kneel before and prostrate to an African Deity leave the shrine house and then willingly abuse a Black person they see on the streets? Chances are high that they would not, because the veneration maintained within the shrine house would carry over into the way they also choose to engage with the Black people they interact with socially. This is what I mean by the potential re-imaging the Divinities has for changing social realities and encouraging social justice.
The final aspect to ponder relates directly to the positive implications it has for the personal development of all Africans/Blacks. How does this impact their own self-perception and development of inherent potential if we are to continue with the ‘whitewash’ that leaves the African with no representations of themselves as Divine?
How can they see themselves as nothing more than servants and expect to be treated as such when there are no embodiments of themselves in ‘positions of Divine Authority’?
By Dalian Adofo (Ancestral Voices Co-director)
Further information on African Spiritual philosophies and practices can be found in our Home Study Course.
This article contains Amazon affiliate links