'Jesus Hasn't Saved Us': The Young Black Women Returning to Ancestral Religions
Christianity still exerts a powerful force in many black communities, but some young women are turning their back on the faith and returning to the older, traditional religions of their ancestors.
Illustration by Grace Wilson
Michelle Yaa does not feel she converted to Comfa, the Afro-American religion practiced in Guyana. "I call it an awakening." she says. "It's just waking up."
Yaa, like increasing numbers of the African diaspora, decided to stop practicing Christianity in favor of a religion of African heritage. Raised a Seventh Day Adventist, she spent her childhood questioning Christian doctrine. When she didn't receive the answers she sought from church, she stopped attending.
It wasn't until the end of university that Yaa reconnected with any form of religion. One day, she says, she began hearing voices. Rather than call her doctor, she called on her ancestors, writing down the names of those she could remember and surrounding herself with the slips of paper. She claims that this took place before she knew what the practice of ancestral worship was.
"I just did it automatically. And I cannot explain to you why I knew what was happening to me was not a negative thing," she recalls. "When I went back to finish my studies, I [wrote about] spirituality for my dissertation because I wanted to understand what happened to me. I didn't believe I was mad—so what was it?"
She began communicating with her ancestors frequently through rituals; her research eventually led her to Comfa, a religion where contact with ancestors is commonplace. "Everything started falling into place. I was trusting myself all the time and I wasn't doubting for once."
Verona Spence-Adofo, a 30-something year old filmmaker from London, describes a similar sense of clarity after her decision to engage with indigenous spiritual practices. "It was like somebody had taken a veil off my eyes," she recalls.
The past few years have seen the black community express similar sentiments of "awakening"—or "wokeness," if you prefer. From university education to beauty standards, there have been widespread calls to decolonize our ideas and institutions, and shake off old colonial beliefs and strictures. Traditional African religions appear to be the final and most controversial frontier.
Emboldened by her new found faith, Spence-Adofo decided to shoot Ancestral Voices, a documentary debunking the myths surrounding African spirituality. But people didn't receive her project with the same enthusiastic response that meets most attempts to demystify elements of black history.
"I received a lot of hostility from both friends and family members," Spence-Adofo laments. "To this day I have people who kind of distanced themselves from me—they're scared I might try and put some sort of hex on them."
For hundreds of years, colonialism saw Africa—the planet's second largest and second most populous continent—robbed and ruled by a handful of European nations. The only countries considered not to have been colonized are Ethiopia and Liberia—and even they were briefly occupied by others. No African nation hasn't been shaped by the process in some way.
Despite attempts to undo colonialism's effects on the black psyche, the colonial stigma against African religions seems to be hardest to shake off. That's partially because of how aggressive the campaign to wipe it out was—a large part of the colonial defense of slavery was the onus on Europeans to save the so-called African savages, preaching about the blood of Jesus as they gleefully spilt other races' in the pursuit of land and resources.
Indigenous religions were not only outlawed but literally demonized not just on the continent but across the entire black diaspora. In 1781, for example, the Jamaican Assembly passed a law calling for the death of the practitioners of Obeah, a religious practice originating from West Africa that bears similarities to Haitian vodou, known more commonly as voodoo.
It's a direct colonial legacy that we've held on to.
"Any Negro or other slave who shall pretend to any supernatural power," the act said, "and be detected in making use of any blood, feathers, parrots-beaks, dogs-teeth, alligators-teeth, broken bottles, grave-dirt, rum, eggshells, or any other materials relative to the practice of Obeah or witchcraft... upon conviction... [shall] suffer death." Obeah and myalism, another folk religion, remains outlawed in Jamaica under the Obeah Act 1898.
Sanctions such as these left later generations wary or outright terrified of their own cultural practices. "It's a direct colonial legacy that we've held on to." Spence-Adofo says. "That we're not good enough in our in our natural form and we have to conform to everyone else's ideology."
Many slaves that were shipped to the Americas continued their practices in secret, but over time syncretized and fused with Christianity so that they could practice openly under colonial rule.
This is most visible in Afro-American faiths such as Santeria, which paired its deities—the orishas—with corresponding Catholic saints. Changó, the lord of fire and thunder, was matched with Saint Barbara; Oshun, the orisha of love and fertility, with Mary.
SOAS senior lecturer Dr Jörg Haustein explains how colonizers used Christianity as a control mechanism to replace traditional African religions: "The Portuguese banned amulets and 'charms' during the Inquisition—the objects in question were certainly used for what we might call religious practices today, but they were also tokens of political allegiance and economic relations in the various networks between villages and states," he says.
"By naming them 'fetishes,' they were absorbed into the Christian religious universe as 'idols'' and replaced by Christian items: statues of Mary, crucifixes and the like—seen by African chiefs as tokens of allegiance to their new powerful allies."
Parallels between Christianity and indigenous African religions allowed the latter practices to survive—but also serve to highlight a number of double standards.
We need to stop building churches and start building institutions—Jesus hasn't done it in over 400 years. He hasn't saved us.
"We can go to any church and you'll see an altar with a candle on it and Jesus's photo and no one says a word. But when Africans do it—it's witchcraft, it's devil worship, it's evil," says Spence-Adofo.
Yaa makes the same point, citing as an example the highly controversial 'trance' where Santeria priests are possessed in order to facilitate direct communication with the orishas. "But if you're going into trance in a church, that's okay because it's the Holy Spirit," she says.
Some also fail to reconcile Christianity's message of love with the brutal way it arrived on African shores, as well as its use as a control mechanism by colonial masters.
"[Christianity is] a distraction," Benedicte Songye Kalombo says emphatically. She is the digital editor of New African Woman magazine; her religious practice fuses together traditional faiths hailing from Congo, where her family is from. Like the others, she is passionate about destigmatizing the religions she feels have enriched her so much. "We need to stop building churches and start building institutions—Jesus hasn't done it in over 400 years. He hasn't saved us."
Watch: Summoning Healing Spirits in Post-Earthquake Haiti
People like Kalombo believe that a return to indigenous faiths can help to empower the African diaspora that has now spread across the world. Both Christians and traditional practitioners of religion agree on one thing thing: These practices are powerful, whether you believe in the supernatural or not. Vodou is credited for the success of the Haitian revolution, in which Haitian slaves ousted the French—the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state free from colonial rule. It was during a vodou ceremony that slaves planned the first uprising—a ceremony that was later spun by Christian missionaries as a "blood pact with Satan." It's a counter narrative so potent that, some 220 years later, Christian televangelist Pat Robertson argued that the so-called pact caused Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake.
"That's been their mission ever since colonization: Kill African spirituality. And that's what's made us weak," Kalombo sighs. "We're spiritually stronger than anybody else but we don't realize—if don't tell a lion as a baby, they won't know they're the king of the jungle. You've removed their teeth."
The misinformation has persisted in every sect. Mami Wata, for example, are best known in parts of contemporary Nigerian culture as part succubus, part mermaid bogey-women, as opposed to a pantheon of ancient water deities as they were worshipped as in pre-colonial West Africa.
Similarly, Yoruba followers of Ifa consult a priest known as a babalawo, who uses an opele chain and palm nuts in a process known as divination, in which they attempt to foretell future events or discover hidden truths supernaturally. But the word "babalawo" alone, like "Mami Wata," provoke fear and mistrust amongst much of the Christian West African diaspora.
The media has no doubt continued the colonial legacy, playing its part in reducing age-old religions to hocus pocus and rag doll pricking. As seen by Angela Bassett's vodou queen Marie Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven and the villainous Dr. Facilier in Disney's The Princess and the Frog, traditional practices like vodou are portrayed as the polar opposite of good-natured, dreams come true, Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo magic. Celebrity site E! News even sparked outrage after claiming that the tragic suicide of actor Lee Thompson Young was due to his conversion to a Yoruba religion. But these practices have now been thrust center stage in a more positive light by a bevy of black female celebrities.
Azealia Banks introduced her social media followers to the orishas when she announced she was practicing Santeria a few years ago, while twin musical duo Ibeyi are named after the orisha of the divine twins—their song "River" is inspired by Oshun. But one of the most high profile nods to traditional faith came in Beyoncé's visual album Lemonade: For "Sorry," the singer enlisted Yoruba artist Laolu Senbanjo to paint her dancers with his signature body art—which he calls the Sacred Art of Ori—similar to the kind used in dedication ceremonies to worship of Orishas. In the video for "Hold Up," a grinning Beyoncé channels Oshun as she smashes store windows and car windows in a yellow dress—the Orisha is famously depicted as a beautiful, long haired woman in yellow, known for her maniacal laughter when angered.
But whilst most see it as a deliberate nod on Bey's part, Spence-Adofo sees things differently. "I see it as Oshun manifested herself in a Beyoncé video. The Orishas, they're showing us, 'Look, we're here!'"
It isn't a surprise that it is black women who have thrust these beliefs systems back into the limelight. For some, worshipping a Christian god that has persistently been depicted as a white man simply doesn't sit well. Whilst fathers and sons dominate Abrahamic faiths, women play an equal and integral role in African spirituality. In Santeria, for instance, Yemaya is one of the most powerful Orishas in existence, having birthed all living things and most of the other Orishas.
"If you look in African spiritual cultures across the continent, they are about the duality within nature and existence." Spence-Adofo says. "There's a belief that you can't have one without the other and a balance between masculine and feminine. So if there's going to be a male deity, there's going to be a female counterpart, and vice versa." This duality even extends within a single deity's existence: Olukun, the Orisha of the ocean, is depicted in some traditions as male, and in others female.
"We can't spend all our time honouring a deity who is masculine and not acknowledging the female," Spence-Adofo adds. "Because of this constant imbalance, our reality at present is imbalanced." She is optimistic about the future of African indigenous religions. She hopes it will become as ubiquitous as Christianity within the black community and that in a few years, shrines to the Orishas will be as commonplace as crosses.
"It's natural progression. Things in life always go in cycles and it's that time. Even now with the Black Lives Matter protests that have been going on here and the US, there is a strong energy of black empowerment which—even up to a couple of months ago—wasn't there."
But despite black identity riding high on the political agenda, centuries of stigma won't necessarily wash out over night. Colonialism hoped to eradicate these belief systems entirely, and to eradicate all memory of indigenous practices. Whilst they didn't quite manage it, they did enough to ensure any attempts at a full blown renaissance would face an uphill battle of Sisyphean proportions.
"The colonists didn't stop until they completed their goal," Benedicte Songye Kalombo says forcefully. "We have to work as hard as they did to destroy it. Are we willing to?"