Below (in italics) is a statement I wrote to support a friend of mine in court. He’s a Cuban Santero and Palo priest. His English ex-wife is making up all kinds of lies about his religion in order to prevent him having any access to their child after the divorce, making out he forced her to drink chicken blood and other garish nonsense. He’s a just regular guy, gentle-spirited and friendly, and she is using Western fear of African religion to screw him over in court. I couldn’t stand for that so I wrote this. I’ll let you know how he gets on.
I urge everyone out there to think about the assumptions that are made about African religions, how African spiritual practices are so quickly and easily demonised and dismissed as naive superstition at best, demonic evil at worst.
I say: blanket fear of African religion is what lies at the heart of racist thinking and Black self-hatred. Know thyself my peoples.
Say it loud: I-MAN A ORISHA MAN AND PROUD!! ÀSE!!!
To Whom It May Concern
I am a Phd candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and an initiated Orisha priest in the Afrocuban religion Regla de Ocha.
Within academic circles it is now well understood – and has been for some thirty years or more – that the wide range of traditional spiritual practices of African descendents in the Americas are legitimate religious activities that should be accorded the same respect and freedoms granted to dominant world faiths like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.
African-derived religions such as Candomble (Brazil), Vodou (Haiti), Regla de Ocha/Santeria (Cuba), Palo Monte (Cuba) and Shango (Trinidad) have been demonised ever since European slave-owners first realised they were being practiced right under their noses. The categorising of enslaved Africans as fundamentally “Other” became part of a systematic project to dehumanise all African peoples and forms the basis of modern racism.
The prevailing notion, current for at least two centuries until the post-colonial period in the mid-twentieth century and the challenges to Empire it wrought, went something like this: “Africans are like children or animals, ergo their religion is superstitious nonsense at best, demonic evil at worst.”
While several of the most disgusting and disgraceful aspects of European racism have rightfully been cast into the dustbin of history, the tainted view of African and African Diaspora religion, propagated energetically by European observers and even, eventually, by Africans and their descendents themselves, has become so completely ingrained in mainstream popular consciousness as to be virtually invisible. We don’t see it because it is considered self-evident. It is a ‘truth’ that requires neither evidence nor burden of proof. It is simply a given. The Way Things Are. One need only say the word “Voodoo!” to invoke bloody notions of cruel animal sacrifices, strange incantations, diabolic powers and all manner of irrational, bestial madness.
These fears are nothing more than the fantastic, racist projections of the Western mind onto an African “Other”. It is the ‘Heart of Darkness’ at the root of the European imaginary. Unscrupulous people take advantage of this to sully the reputations of decent, ordinary folk by claiming lurid stories that feed into this popular, entirely false, notion.
The traditional religious practices of Africans and their descendents in the Americas are distinct and varied. Yet there is enough correspondence amongst those I mentioned above (Regla de Ocha/Ifa, Palo, Candomble, Vodou) to justify speaking in generalities. A few points to note:
- These are not dangerous cults with messianic leaders.
- Participation is voluntary – they are not coercive and no-one is forced to do anything against their will or better judgement.
- They are characterised by open, porous, democratic strucures and flexible attitudes to worship practices.
- No ritual takes place without the full consent of everyone involved.
- Anyone is free to enter or leave these religions at any time.
- The whole community is involved, from children to the elderly.
- Both public and private rituals tend to be characterised by a friendly atmosphere full of ease, warmth and kindness.
Some of the essential features of African Diaspora religions include:
- A priesthood that is responsible for the preservation and performance of sacred knowledge (songs, chants, prayers, offerings to the deities etc).
- Consecrated sacred ‘power objects’ forming the basis of shrines that are the foci of prayer, flowers, foods and other offerings.
- Divination to enact communication between worshippers and deities.
- A class of priests who go into trance.
- The honouring and remembrance of the ancestors.
Just like religious practices worldwide these are collective attempts to understand and apprehend notions of the divine and the mysterious. They are designed to bring a sense of order and meaning to messy human existence. Though they may appear strange and alien to unfamiliar eyes they are not so remarkably different in kind or degree than any of the religious practices that are better known to mainstream Western or Asian observers:
In Dehli a taxi driver burns incense and puts flowers on a shrine for the Hindu god Ganesha; In Manchester an elderly woman places flowers and cigarettes on the Christian grave of her deceased husband; In Tokyo an accountant kneels before their Gohunzen shrine and chants from Buddhist scripture; In New York a Jewish schoolteacher lights Shabbat candles and recites a blessing in Hebrew; In Indonesia a Muslim slits the throat of a lamb in the name of Allah to render it halal; In Havana a Palo priest offers a rooster to his shrine and afterwards eats its meat; In Rome a Catholic widower offers a candle to his deceased wife and receives the sacrament in a church ritual. In Istanbul a Sufi whirling dervish dances ectatically to sacred music; In Los Angeles an Orisha priest dances before the sacred bata drums and is entranced.
All of the above examples are legitimate sacred practices from a wide variety of backgrounds and locations. All of them are equally mysterious/irrational/absurd. Only the traditional practices of African peoples and their descendents, however, are so ruthlessly and consistently demonised and feared.
In the 21st century, when basic human rights such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech are considered to be the cornerstone of a civilised society, the claim that, for example, an Afrocuban priest is involved in coercive intimidation, like some kind of spiritual bully, is one that relies upon the deeply-held mainstream fear and distrust of African religious practices for its cogency. It is racism. Any claim like it should not be taken seriously by those interested in truth and justice.
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