Looking After Liberation: African-rooted Spiritual Traditions in the Caribbean and Brazil

Leclerc's veterans storm Ravine-a-Couleuvre (Snake Gully) in 1802.

Leclerc's veterans storm Ravine-a-Couleuvre (Snake Gully) in 1802.

It must, and can not be overstated, that African-rooted spiritual traditions of the Americas - for the sake of this discussion Candomblé, Lukumi, Palo Mayombe, and Haitian Vodou - were created specifically in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti. Seems like common sense, right? Bear with me. The roots from which these traditions derive originated - and still exists - in Africa, of course, but these traditions are decidedly of and for the Diaspora. They developed in accordance with the conditions present in the Diaspora and the people there. Those specific conditions were slavery (in the Americas), colonialism, and eventually post-colonialism.

The quote below elucidates the nature of those conditions within the Brazilian colonial reality.

In Brazil the African civilization (of which religion was an integral part) became a group subculture. It is therefore necessarily involved in the class struggle, and slaves dramatic effort to escape their position of economic and social subordination. We must now look at Negro resistance to slave labor and at black racial protest......Protest could be either individual or collective; it ranged from the murder of the white master to armed insurrection, from the flight of a slave who feared punishment to the establishment of Quilombos.
— Roger Bastide, The African Religions of Brazil

Pre-colonial Africa was a very different set of circumstances from that which people of African descent encountered upon arriving to the Caribbean and South America as a result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Diasporic spiritual traditions were not in the service of a complex hierarchical structure used to maintain royal lineages. Diasporic spiritual traditions were, despite whatever their original purpose was on the African continent, in the service of liberation and survival. Palo Mayombe was created to combat and destroy the evil of slavery. Haitian Vodou was the catalytic energy shifting force that initiated the Haitian Revolution, and eventually secured Haiti’s position as the first, free Black nation in the Western hemisphere. Lukumi innovated an intricate series of rituals to ensure the survival of orisa cults and the spiritual tradition as a whole. The terreiros of Candomblé stand strong, to this day, as sites of resistance against all kinds of oppression that centers spiritual transcendence as the energetic font from which all it’s adherents must draw in order to achieve and sustain liberation.

I take the time to explain this because all of these traditions are examples of the spiritual innovations that people of African descent consciously created in accordance with the realities of the conditions in which they found themselves. Replication of the precise rituals and ceremonies from their African homelands could not be efficacious because the circumstances were starkly different. Thus, they created a new tradition in the new lands based on their lived experience of their traditions as practiced in their homelands. These new traditions had similar resonances but with a host of new ingredients, understandings, and necessities to address. Innovations have continued to occur, arguably as Cubans, Haitians and Brazilians left their countries and brought their spiritual traditions with them to new places. In these discussions, socio-geographic conditions matter.

In 2018, especially with the large and increasing numbers of African-Americans going to Africa for initiations into Isese Yoruba and other traditions, the discussion, inevitably I suppose, is focused on whether the Diaspora is still able to serve the needs of the Diaspora, or if we ought to search for our salvation in the Motherland. Underlying these conversations are definitely notions of purity (Africa is the real thing), access (cheaper, for now), and ease (less time needed to initiate).

I get it, these are all considerations that merit serious reflection; however, I would urge any child of the African Diaspora of the Americas who may find themselves making this particular decision to consider the socio-geographic conditions of the place where the tradition lives and works. The realities of Yorubaland (Nigeria) or Ewe and Fon territories (Benin and Togo primarily) are not those of NYC, Miami, Seattle, LA, Havana, Port-au-Prince and certainly not those of Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, or any Brazilian city in 2018. Should you proceed with an initiation in Yorubaland or Ewe and Fon lands, consider if you will be able to acquire the liturgical and ritual knowledge necessary to adapt and innovate the tradition for the needs of your socio-geographic reality. Do you know the language? Can you learn it? How do you verify that what you are being taught is even sufficient for you to be self-sufficient?

These are the questions, I respectfully pose for discussion with colleagues and elders within and across communities and traditions. The one thing I do know, is that the African Diaspora has a centuries long reputation of training it’s people in liberation writ large. It worked during colonialism and it works well now and it reveals to you how boundless this liberation business truly can be. But as I always say, don’t believe me. History tells a more detailed and interesting story, with lots more intrigue.

This post is dedicated to my friend and colleague Rael J. Salley, PhD who co-curated an exhibition titled Looking After Freedom and wrote a stellar text, which he shared with me last year that really mirrored the spirit, via an art lens, of how I feel about African-rooted spiritual traditions in the African Diaspora of the Americas. Learn more about the exhibition here.

Negarra A.  Kudumu

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