Monday, April 7, 2008

Gimme that old-time (tribal) religion

I admire a good ghost story, especially a “true” one. I read tales of the paranormal. I watch those ghost investigator shows on television. And I’ve been known to take ghost tours in cities that I visit. I am intrigued by the idea of unknown realms beyond our comprehension. I love that glance-behind-you-and-make-sure-the-closet-door-is-shut chill that lingers for days after hearing a particularly delicious spooky tale. And I am fascinated by the places where history and the paranormal meet, like Gettysburg, Pa. But one aspect of ghost stories—true and otherwise—that I am not so fond of is the demonization of the traditional spirituality of people of color.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard reputed hauntings attributed to Indian burial grounds, angry shamans or the mere fact that “y’know where your house sits used to be Native American land.” (Cue ominous music…duh, duh, duh, DUH!)

Not as popular, but too common, is the “slaves were here” explanation. Watching a DVR’d episode of Ghost Hunters the other night, I heard a woman at a historic house that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad explain a supposedly haunted room by sharing the accepted lore about the space: (paraphrase) People say some slaves got in here an sacrificed an animal. (Cue ominous music…duh, duh, duh, DUH!)

Why do we never hear this?

Worried homeowner: I just don’t understand what is happening. Furniture is moving about the house. My wife hears disembodied voices in the laundry room. Our little Billy is interacting with a shadowy figure in the backyard and the dog refuses to go into the basement.

Ghost expert: Well, Mr. Homeowner, we’ve done some research and…some Episcopalians once held a church service right on this very land! (Cue ominous music…duh, duh, duh, DUH!)

What? Not scary enough for you?

As a black woman, I am sensitive to the ways that traditional African or African-influenced religions get a bad rap in American pop culture. I say this, even as someone who was raised a Christian.

The words Voodoo and Santeria conjure up all kinds of nasty images, thanks in part to racist Hollywood depictions of the faiths. Even I once bought into these beliefs being spooky and satanic. It wasn’t until I took a fascinating class on radicalism and the black church, taught by none other than Rev. Jeremiah Wright, that I learned the truth about African religions and how people of the Diaspora adapted them, using them for spiritual strength and to spur the battle for freedom and civil rights.

Voodoo is a religious tradition originating in West Africa, which became prominent in the New World due to the importation of African slaves. West African Vodun is the original form of the religion; Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo are its descendants in the New World. Read more.

Santeria is one of the many syncretic religions created in the New World. It is based on the West African religions brought to the New World by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. These slaves carried with them their own religious traditions, including a tradition of possession trance for communicating with the ancestors and deities, the use of animal sacrifice and the practice of sacred drumming and dance. Those slaves who landed in the Caribbean, Central and South America were nominally converted to Christianity. However, they were able to preserve some of their traditions by fusing together various Dahomean, baKongo (Congo) and Lukumi beliefs and rituals and by syncretizing these with elements from the surrounding Christian culture. Read more.

You may not agree with these belief systems, but I maintain that they are no more frightening than the Celtic polytheism that influences a lot of modern New Age belief and indeed some of traditional Christianity. Why is New Ageyness seen as benign, if not a bit silly, while African-based traditions on the other hand are viewed as dark and demonic?

Oh, I know this is a little thing. Ghost stories are meant to be harmless fun. I take them in that spirit. But it rankles when I see drumming, gyrating, chanting, scantily-clad Africans, bathed in firelight, used as shorthand for impending evil in some film. And it annoys me that the tour guide at the Underground Railroad stop mentioned above would assume slaves were summoning ghosties with their dark tribal religion, instead of, say, gathering spiritual strength for what must have been a harrowing journey to freedom.

File this under minor racial annoyance…another dull ache.


mrshadow33 said...

Tami this is a subject that I have grappled with for a long time. I am one who believes that all wothwhile and positive spiritual beliefs lead to the Creator of the Universe. I am troubled by our people's lack of knowledge concerning the spiritual practices of our ancestors and the history of many relgions: Christianity being the most practiced in the Western world. The narrow minded attitudes and judgements that many of our people exibit is troublesome as well.

When I was in college, I played Macbeth in an all Black production that took place in Haiti. The Voodoo element and practices were emphasized in a respectful manner. Much research was done on the religion to make sure that it was presented right. In fact the director brought in an actual Yoruban Priest to talk to the cast about the true religion.

Have you looked at the site Mami Wati West African and Diaspora Religion? You can find it at Also the book "The African Origins of the Major Western Civilizations" by Dr. Yosef Ben Jochanan is a good read informative read as well.

Tahnks again for another thought provoking post. Talk to you later.

Tami said...

Mr. Shadow,

That performance of Macbeth sounds really cool. I'm going to check out the Web site you recommended, too.

Anonymous said...

Tami, I have a friend from St. Lucia who wrote a book about the real African religions and how not only there is a dark side or the evil that is portrayed in these movies and shows but more importantly like life, there is an opposite more powerful balance. The elders on her island shared things with her that make me wish as a race we were all exposed to.

Her book is amazing, she is an amazing woman. Talking with her as well as reading her book made this little black Catholic girl more spiritual than church or 16 years in Catholic school ever did. She connected so much for me as a black woman and our roots. How we truly are one with spirituality and that being black, actually helps with our connection not only to each other but to the higher consciousness.

It's not just a great history lesson but an even better personal story, I highly recommend reading: Secrets Of The House Of Dahomy: Guarded Secrets Of The Caribbean Elders by Elsa Pinel.

We as a people need to learn more about ourselves and be proud,not just take the information we are fed that keeps us from tapping into our power and fulfilling our dreams and honoring our true past, not the horror stories we are fed to believe we come from. We have an amazing history as a people, we just need to embrace it and share it.

Thanks Tami!


Tanisha said...


You are so on point with this post. African based and influenced religons have been dogged by this culture since day one. Thanks for showing the hypocricy.

Tanisha said...


You are so on point with this post. African based and influenced religons have been dogged by this culture since day one. Thanks for showing the hypocricy.

Danielle said...

Great post Tami. I've been thinking alot about this subject. The combining of Western Catholic Saints and African Orishas was a practice used by our people to keep their religion.

Thanks so much for this information because we must continue to learn all we can.

bradski said...

What's so nuts about the whole supernatural terror associated with Native American or African-American burial grounds, etc. is that if those people had that kind of preternatural power, why wouldn't they use it against their conquerers?

Seriously, given the millions killed in the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears, there should be whole heck of a lot of angry ghostly activity! If ghosts existed and had power, why wouldn't they have stopped the abuse of their loved ones?

Miranda said...

Turning peoples' spiritual traditions into ghost stories and horror tales is certainly one way to project the fear of and unwillingness to look at one's shadow side.

NOLA radfem said...

Love these observations! So true that you won't hear about a Unitarian haunting.

I was just reading a book about slavery on the Louisiana sugar plantations. During grinding season, slaves worked anywhere from 16 to 20 hours a day (sometimes two ten hour shift within a 24 hour day). And STILL slaves would find time to meet in the middle of the night to practice their religion together. Some also managed to find time to gather spanish moss, which the riverboat men would buy from them to sell to mattress makers, which was one of the few ways slaves could make and keep their own money (this, and anything they sold out of their kitchen gardens).

That just blew my mind that people working 20 hours a day, for weeks on end, still managed to meet at midnight for church. I was trying to figure out how they found the energy - all I could come up with was that maybe feeding their souls kept their bodies moving.

Brother OMi said...

as someone who is preparing to get initiated, i want to thank you for this post.


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