Sat | Oct 21, 2017

Spiritual Healing: The key to black empowerment Pt II

Published:Sunday | March 22, 2015 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Dr Maria Hamilton Abegunde
A man takes a look at the exhibition put up in celebration of International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade at the United Nations.
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This is part two of a three-part interview with Dr Maria Eliza Hamilton Bispo de Jesus Abegunde.

Does a group soul or racial archetype exist? Can it overpower the individual spirit? Please relate to the black experience.

If one believes in reincarnation, then both are possible. But the question and any answer to this, for me, moves towards a type of essentialism in the way that one would say: 'You sound black or that is something that black people do'. There is not one black experience. As a Nigerian man once said to me rather angrily: 'The whole world thinks all of Africa is Nigeria and that all Nigerians are Yoruba'.

There are black experiences. As someone of Caribbean descent, I am always reminded of this. I was reminded of this many years ago by an elder: During a lecture by a scholar who was speaking about the black experience of slavery, this elder - who was in her 70s - said to him: 'Young man, not all of us were slaves'.

In my spiritual tradition and work, one chooses her head and life before birth. This is very controversial and, if not discussed fully and understood in relationship to memory, responsibility, healing, cultural contexts, can wrongly lead to blaming victims for their plights in life.

If we are talking about this, then the 'black experience' must be extended to account for the full number of experiences that black people have had and continue to have. It is difficult for us to have honest discussions about our lives because we want to believe there is a 'black experience' we all have. But, my experience as a West Indian descendant living in America, my English was different, my skin colour was different. Both whites and African Americans treated me differently: I was not fully American, not fully 'black'.

We cannot exclude the experiences of other groups who have had 'black experiences' in other lives. For example, I once met a white man who was born in Europe. From the moment I met him, I understood that he had been an African in another life and had survived the slave trade. As a white man in this life, he had the resources in the skin he was in - and a type of obsession - to tell this story. And so he tells it and helps others tell it.

Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel (Yon Ha Shoah) ... where everything falls silent ... even cars stop when the sirens blare, is significant on multiple levels. It's an acknowledgement of the past and form of closure, is it not? Can African leadership follow this path in addressing our genocidal experience that is still unsettled?

Yes, this is an acknowledgement of the past and a form of closure. However, it is also a form of memory and remembering. This is more than an acknowledgement and closure. This is an active form of making certain that this history is never forgotten, that it is in fact re-inscribed and embedded into the memories of present and future generations. There is closure, but there is also active remembering - a refusal to forget what has happened. Marianne Hirsch's work on post-memory and the Holocaust is very instructive on this.

Can African leadership follow this path? Sure they can. Maafa commemorations happen around the world. Can leaders do it? Yes. But is it the thing for them to do? Would the communities agree to it? Would they believe it is the right thing to do? But, would that look the same in Nigeria and Congo? Sudan and South Africa? Given some of the other issues that African countries and leaders are facing, where would we recommend they start or stop? In approaching trauma, which trauma do we address first? How do we determine which of the traumas suffered is the true point of origin of the wounds that have not yet healed?

Not every black person is interested in remembering slavery or studying it, or reliving that pain even from a distance. I would argue that part of the reason we have been able to survive and thrive is because forgetting has been an important process of the remembering and memory process. Yet we cannot forget, can we?

Is there a correlation between a group's economic lot and its religious and cultural bearing?

This, again, would depend on what you believe. And if this correlation could be made for certainty then given the vast wealth of our ancestors - what does it mean to draw this correlation now?

Again, this can fall into a type of essentialism that leads people (as someone did several years ago) to connect a nation's suffering to their non-Christian traditional African beliefs and practices.

Can you offer some concrete plan of action for us as a people to explore, if not implement?

I don't believe in concrete plans of action. I do think that plans of action are necessary and should be pursued. They must, however, leave much space for growth in order to avoid stagnation and attrition from communities.

Abegunde is an egungun (ancestral) priest in the Yoruba Orisa tradition.

Her areas of research include memory and trauma; embodied memory; the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Middle Passage; community healing, grieving, and ritual Yoruba Orisa practices; Thanatology; ancestral practices; and mourning and funeral practices.

She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University.

- Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby. Dr Glenville Ashby is a social critic and president of Global Interfaith Council.