Religion & Culture | Christianity, Vodun and the identity conflict
In my book, The Believers: The Hidden World of West Indian Spiritualism in New York, I chronicled the many interviews I conducted with the diasporic communities of Brooklyn and Queens. The majority of interviewees professed their Christian upbringing and ongoing belief in the faith. However, when asked if they had ever visited a practitioner of Orisa, Vodun or other Afrocentric religions during times of crisis, 90 per cent answered in the affirmative.
My findings suggested that there is an unconscious belief among black people that their ancestral religion is more efficacious than any other faith; that ancestral religions effect change swiftly; and that African religion forms an indelible part of the black archetype, despite centuries of colonialism and its attempt to erase it.
According to Carl Jung, an archetype is a generational memory bank or a collective unconscious that is accessible to a people. In other words, Africa and its ancient traditions are inherent in the psyche of every black person. Many may openly reject the existence of an archetype but my studies have shown the overarching power of our ancestral roots.
This explains the ease with which we have unconsciously and consciously injected Africa into our every expression, be it dance, music, art, food or spirituality.
It explains our many syncretic practices. For example, in America’s South, Congolese slaves fused their African spiritual beliefs with Christianity to create Hoodoo, a spiritual system that remains very popular.
In Old Style Conjure, author Starr Casas commented on how the celebrated Harriet Tubman, a devout Christian, was also a conjurer who frequented the graveyard for wisdom.
“Tubman,” she pens, “was a conjure woman and very gifted. It is known that she treated folks with herbal remedies and healing work. Folks interviewed in 1860 believed that she had supernatural powers [and that] she would walk in the graveyard around midnight praying and gathering roots and herbs. Yes, ‘Mama Moses’ (as she was called) was indeed a Christian, but she was just not a mainstream Christian, being more of a Conjure type worker.”
Another interesting figure during slavery was Gullah Jack (b.1822), a Methodist and spell worker notorious for inciting rebellions in South Carolina.
With the growing popularity of Ancestry/DNA, this archetype, once latent, now looms. More than ever, Africa is calling her sons and daughters home. Many are reclaiming their roots, while discovering the systematic lies and prevarications directed at Vodun, Pocomania, Orisa and Condumble. Many are discovering that these Afrocentric religions are not unlike mainstream religions, having their own body of ethics, aesthetics, cosmology and salvation.
Christianity, though, has ably responded to the surge in pan-African consciousness. It has pushed back hard, with a concerted effort to evangelize all of Africa. This has led to an identity crisis among people of faith.
If a practitioner is comfortable brewing diverse religious practices, there is no conflict. However, it is common to find a conflict of identity among the majority that don a Christian persona in public and secretly dabble in African traditional religions in times of trouble. Most of us are unable to embrace both.
Research has taught me that dabbling in African traditional religions while courting Christian beliefs usually leads to a split psyche or internal conflicts.
This mental disease (guilt, fear and ambiguity) is due to the skewed and erroneous belief that salvation is realisable only through the Christian Saviour. Regrettably, the seeds of this mistruth are so firmly rooted that many are unable to supplant them with reason.
I recall two of many cases that demonstrate the raging conflict that beset black folks.
Both involve trusted friends. In the first case, Monica (not her real name) made the decision to initiate into the Orisa faith. A social and cultural activist, she decided to reclaim her African heritage. During the ceremony, a daunting feeling overcame her. Her early Christian upbringing surfaced and she suddenly questioned her decision. She abruptly aborted the initiation, all the while harangued by guilt and fear of Jesus’ retribution.
In the next case, Donna (not her real name), participated in an ancestral ritual involving blood sacrifice. For two years, she struggled with guilt, believing that her deceased mother, who was Christian, would be incensed.
Kwame M.A. McPherson’s My Date with Depression: From Mental Uncertainty to Self-Fulfillment supports the inner-conflict argument.
Of his experience, he penned, “Being baptised had not stopped my struggles and things only got worse. I became more isolated and clung to the church as the battle raged within me, especially after being aware of my ancestors’ true story. I felt that religion, whether Christianity or any other, played a massive role in enslaving them and it was harder to balance and digest its involvement in my life and my efforts in seeking so-called ‘salvation’.”
Over the years, I have learnt that we must resolve inner-conflicts to enjoy a fruitful spiritual life. This does not mean that we should embrace one religion at the expense of another. Indeed, religious syncretism is edifying, if only we could liberate ourselves from the burden of Christian guilt.
- Dr Glenville Ashby is the award-winning author of ‘Anam Cara: Your Bridge to Creativity and Enlightenment.’ Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and glenvilleashby2gmail.com, or tweet @glenvilleashby.