The Purity Trap: A Brief Note

Badge with Lily of Purity, 14th-15th century, tin/lead alloy. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Badge with Lily of Purity, 14th-15th century, tin/lead alloy. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Humans like to think of themselves as singular. This is magnified where religion and spirituality is concerned. This position is minimally laughable, but on a broader scale it is problematic because of its ahistoricity. Regarding African and African-rooted spiritual traditions, migratory patterns on the African continent and enslavement trajectories heavily influenced the timing and process through which certain African ethnic groups met and eventually mixed.

It is important to understand that African people, throughout the continent, were in contact with each other and with other peoples on other continents previous to European and Arab colonization. As a dear friend is wont to say, “Y’all did not introduce us to us.” The great kingdoms of Africa, of which there were many, were comprised of, allied with, at war against, and absorbed other African ethnic groups.

When you look at the Orisa venerated both in the African diaspora of the Americas and in Yorubaland today, you see that the Yoruba absorbed into their corpus spiritual entities cum Orisa from the Nupe people, Fon/Ewe, and the Egbado to name a few. You will also see, if you look carefully, the influence Islam has had on the cult of Orunmila in Yorubaland. Within the Haitian Vodou tradition, there are lwa derived from Yoruba, Fon/Ewe, Bantu-Kongo, as well as those home grown in Haiti.

Within Las Reglas Bantu (Palo Monte), the tradition pulls from practices associated with the Bakongo, the Bavili, Baluba, and the Ovimbundu, amongst others. In Cuba, certain branches of Palo Monte established pacts and agreements with Haitian Vodou and Abakua. Others with Lukumi and Espiritismo. Within Lukumi, there is an entire branch called Arara, which has maintained a tradition of initiating the Orisa Babaluaye directly, which is, as a rule, is not the case in other Lukumi branches. In West African Vodou, the cult of Mami Wata, while connected to ancient African spiritual concepts of the great mother and water spirit veneration, its popular iconography is a relatively recent (19th century thereabouts) addition to Vodou on the African continent.

I say all this to say that, whether in the African Diaspora or on the African continent, purity - as understood by a single, untouched, unsullied, belief system - simply does not exist. People travel, they trade information, they learn from one another, and they incorporate the ideas and practices they like into their own. The uglier sides of the historical record show that people also kill and pillage their neighbors, and later enslave, often with no remorse. Enslavement is a very efficient mixing pot. Very profitable too. 

That is the story - with differences specific to geography and culture - of how Diaspora is formed just about everywhere it is formed. This is how you get African-Americans in the Diaspora whose DNA represents a plurality of African ethnic groups. Follow the routes and timing of those slave ships and you’ll see who went where, from where, and you’ll eventually be able to put together the reasons why.

To complicate matters further, especially where the African diaspora of the Americas is concerned, Africans were enslaved and delivered to a land already inhabited by peoples with highly developed societies with their own spiritual beliefs. These people were in large part - but not 100% - exterminated in the Americas through genocide. Here we - Africans in the Diaspora of the Americas - are attempting to reconnect to our own indigenous traditions, alleging that one tradition is better than the other, for whatever reason. But do we acknowledge that we are visitors on this land too? And that when our offerings work it may in fact be - at least in part - because the spirits of this land condone it and give the ok?

I wonder.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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