Reflections on an African Diasporic Spiritual Citizenship

Our Commitments to Those Who Have Come Before: Reflections on an African Diasporic Spiritual Citizenship

I find spiritual citizenship rooted in the African diaspora and the Black radical tradition where the understandings of belonging, community, freedom and good character (iwa-pele inYorùbá) are embedded in a way of understanding and being in the world (ontology) informed by a holism, where the political and the religious are not separate spheres. Extending from this are a series of rights and responsibilities across generations, both to those who will come, and those who have been, directed at making the world a better place. My formulation of spiritual citizenship grew out of what I learned over two decades in Trinidad working with dynamic religious communities informed by ancestral and contemporary West African faith practices, which go under many names historically: Shango and Orisha Work, and more currently Orisha, Ifá and Ifá/Orisha. 

In my book Spiritual Citizenship: Transnational Pathways from Black Power to Ifá in Trinidad, I trace the idea of spiritual citizenship from the ways that religion and politics mutually inform each other and work together to focus community and ritual on a project of Black liberation (rooted in the local, regional, and global Black Power and Pan-African movements). My articulation of spiritual citizenship focuses on the responsibility of relationships to caretake and build community on multiple levels: familial, economic, environmental, political, and spiritual. Alongside this are the complicating levels of multiple geographies and temporalities. The African diaspora spans the globe, including the African continent, encompassing geographies where African people and their descendants have made their lives over the past 500 years due to both forced and free migration. In these locations are locally grounded African diasporic religious cosmologies with multiple orders of temporality: from the linear segmented time familiar from work regimes, to the expansive and mutable time of ritual, to the circular temporality visible in divination, where our future is both informed by, and informs, both the present and past. In this essay I embrace these multiplicities while drawing from my 2017 ethnography of the African-based religions of Ifá/Orisha in Trinidad to examine moments of spiritual praxis where spiritual principles and knowledge are put in action towards social justice and healing.

I locate the spiritual practices of West African religions at the heart of my concept of spiritual citizenship which I define as the rights and responsibilities of belonging to a larger community (not necessarily limited to the national, also inclusive of the global, transnational and international) that are informed by a relation to the divine. I originally envisioned spiritual citizenship as part of the numerous social and political visions of life that go past the nation-state which have emerged in the shadow of modernity and the dispersion of millions of Africans that we understand as the African diaspora. In my earlier work I elaborated on how I see spiritual citizenship as being an active component of the Black radical tradition, both in the contemporary moment and historically (for example in Pan-Africanism, Black Power, Négritude, the Movement for Black Lives). An important part of the diasporic frame is this understanding of Black freedom as global and not limited to bounded nation-states. In much the same way as spiritual citizenship is diasporic in my conceptualization, it is also global and transnational, drawing on spiritual networks spanning countries, regions, and continents.In my research I have located in these networks a critical praxis linked to the core ideals of an African Diasporic Spiritual Citizenship that includes respect for all religious paths alongside a commitment to social justice and healing. We are reminded by the ancestral spirit Kitsimba in M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing that, “Healing work is the antidote to oppression.” 

In embracing the centrality of healing to liberation we move our theory and praxis away from an exclusive grounding in Western enlightenment thinking and shift towards an alignment with Black feminist principles, African and Indigenous ways of being (ontologies, recognizing that there are multiplicities and not a singular way) and organizing our world into categories of knowledge (epistemologies). In doing so the analytical separation of inherited European categories (so many of them binaries) falls away including the divides between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ and ‘political.’ “As Audre Lorde told us, ‘The dichotomy between the political and the spiritual is also false.’ ” My study of Trinidad’s 1970 Black Power Movement (understood by many in Trinidad as a revolution) uncovered the intertwining of the political and the spiritual. As M. Jacqui Alexander reminds us, Luisah Teish said, “We were political because we were spiritual.” In contemplating contributions from the entanglements of Black feminist praxis that shaped my research positionalities and ethnographic sensibilities within the African diaspora I draw on a vision informed by Spirit of an unfettered engagement with religio-spiritual worlds, with their ways of being and organizing their worlds, in an engagement that doesn’t foreclose possibilities – that recognizes knowledge as emanating from a spiritual praxis inclusive of embodied, disembodied, and multiply embodied agents. My approach to our relations with self, Spirit, and each other is informed by what Solimar Otero calls an “archive of conjure” that is, “based on the dead as active agents”  who are  engaged with us in liberatory work.

One example of the intertwining of healing, liberation, and ritual with multiplicities of time and space is visible in the photo on the cover of my book. Pictured is a group of Ifá and Orisha initiates and devotees, dressed all in white, assembled on a hillside in front of a small grouping of stones with a machete and clay vessel.  In the foreground is an Egungun and Obatala priest, Chief Alagbaa Awo Ifa Tayese Erinfolami, holding a container of palm oil. I took this photo in 2015 at an Ifá conference and ritual at the Ile Eko Sango/Osun ati Mil’osa (IESOM) up in the hills of the Santa Cruz valley, off of Trinidad’s busy urban east-west corridor. There in a wooded sacred grove of winding paths, outside shrines, sculptures, and roofed gathering spaces on a brief visit I got to witness and participate in the establishment of Trinidad’s second Asẹ́wẹlẹshrine. Thisshrine at IESOM serves as a locus of social action for the local Ifá community to address the losses of the Atlantic Slave Trade (AST), the human trafficking from West Africa to the Americas that tore apart families, communities, towns, and cities causing personal, familial, and community devastation throughout West and Central African nations (and beyond into the remaining continent). Among the many losses and adaptations forced upon those people captured and enslaved were challenges in observing rites of passage. These rituals that mark birth, puberty, and death are central to many of the cultures and religions of the West and Central Africa regions. With a focus on “the twenty million people who died during the enslavement period…”  my spiritual elder in Ifá, Olóye Solágbadé Pópóọlá wrote in a Nigerian Ifá magazine, “With the rites not done for them, how could anyone expect  peace and progress in its real sense on both sides of the Atlantic?” The Asẹ́wẹlẹ shrine is one answer to address this great need for the healing and elevation of spirits, with an attending social and political impact for our present and futures.

In the closing chapter of Spiritual Citizenship a section on Asẹ́wẹlẹ explores Pópóọlá’s argument and its embodiment in the seating of the first Asẹ́wẹlẹ shrine on Trinidad’s east coast. I detail my own reluctant participation as drawn by Spirit to say prayers I found myself, 

being pushed up an incline towards a tree, by some rocks. I felt more than saw the elders standing there. For as I reached I was pushed, literally pushed, by the force of spirit down on to the ground so that my head touched the stone in full prostration, or dobale. And then it came. A wave of sorrow washed over me. I felt their screams, the pain of the collective souls left to wander so far from home. And I screamed. I howled. I cried and writhed, bawling, knowing that this recognition wasn’t enough. It could never be enough. It was a start though. Relieved, I felt hands help me up, even as the weight I had been feeling lifted, buoyed by my release (lighter but not gone, never gone). And I arose with my body covered in dirt and my face covered in salt, from the waves and from my tears. I knew then that we had made an important step in honoring those spirits who had felt forgotten and whose souls had never been put to rest.

It is in this embodied experience of a healing ritual, whose power touches those who come before, those yet to come, and us here now, that I uncover the power of spiritual praxis to shape a different world. And it is here in the power of a healing ritual to reach back to the past to transform what was into what will be (for a better future) that I locate spiritual citizenship. Through these Asẹ́wẹlẹ rituals I located a “spiritual citizenship of ritual knowledge and movement that recognizes, reclaims and reconnects the lost souls of the Diaspora. For at one point were we not all travelers? To be clear this ‘we’ that I invoke here is a diasporic ‘we:’ the descendants of those not meant to survive; those Africans who crossed the Atlantic (and in lesser numbers, in another oft forgotten diaspora, the Pacific). Are we not all indebted to Asẹ́wẹlẹ?” Are we not all indebted to those who have come before us, including Asẹ́wẹlẹ? To those spirits who made their transitions to the spiritual realm lost and far from home? 

Ritual healing work that addresses the unrest of souls from the Atlantic Slave Trade on both sides of the Atlantic, from a diasporic perspective, is important to the liberation of Black people. One place to start is in the Caribbean (beginning in Trinidad but hopefully spreading throughout the region) and the African continent (starting with Badagry, Nigeria but hopefully spreading throughout West and Central Africa). Not to be forgotten as the location of future shrines are the other regions largely impacted by the Atlantic slave trade where millions of souls were buried (or lost at sea) far from their homeland. Brazil is at the top of this list having received approximately half of all African people captured, transported, and sold into slavery. A brief glimpse of Brazilian society will affirm the need for social justice that addresses structural racial and class inequality. Certainly, there are spirits in Brazil that can be addressed and appeased through the energy of Asẹ́wẹlẹ. Another site largely impacted by the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, and imperialism is the United States of America. One look at current events reveals the ongoing legacy of white supremacy and structural racism. In a social environment of state sponsored violence against Black bodies (the continuous and continual killing of Black men and women by police officers, largely unprosecuted) new social movements have coalesced to declare that “Black Lives Matter.” Indeed, the souls of the recently departed who were denied justice can fall under the provenance ofAsẹ́wẹlẹ compounding the need in the US to appease those souls buried far from their home. Certainly, as my new research explores, attention to Spirit and the systems of sacred technology anchored in African-based religions represent one potent form of spiritual praxis. This activation of spiritual knowledge through practice towards social justice, not just for those in the present moment but also for those who came before us informs a core element of an African diasporic spiritual citizenship: the creation and caretaking of community, grounded in sustainable spiritual, economic, political, and social practices of relation to the Earth, to Spirit and to each other, centered in the manifestation of Black freedom and liberation.