Europeans Accusing Africans of “Cultural Appropriation” of African Faiths

Link to this article: http://soulmindbody.net/esu/nZ92N

There seems to be a sad but comical trend lately, of “initiated” Europeans accusing Africans of cultural appropriation for practicing spirituality that we grew up with, and is our ancestral birthright.

Though I have in the past responded to this sort of thing with anger, when I took the time to realize how pathetic it is, and what kind of feedback they are going to get from Nature for it, I’m not mad anymore.  I feel sorry for them.

I have European friends who practice Vodun and other African and diaspora spirituality mindfully, so I don’t see being European as any excuse.  One can’t say about this, “Well, this is just how ‘white’ people are…” especially since I see some organizations doing the same with regard to European and Asian spirituality.   African faiths are not uniquely put upon by the “Babylon” mentality that everything has to be documented and submit to some (when all illusions are stripped) arbitrary human authority.  It is also not unique in that people co-opting it from cultures outside presume they are somehow doing it better…the subgroups of westerners who think they’re out-Buddhisting Asian Buddhists spring to mind.

How can one explain to these people who apparently missed the entire Pan-African movement that we are not as worried about people who follow our faiths borrowing from one another, and filling in educational and philosophical and practical blanks where needed, as they are?

For Africans in the community, life goes on.  We’re not really worried about these people as they dig their own graves with this focus on the wrong thing.  We have bigger fish to fry.  So long as they’re doing the work, my main criticism is just the treachery against the people who carry African spirituality in their blood and in their hands.

Who they ought to be worried about is people who make up fake initiations and massive profits telling lost Europeans looking for some exotic pseudo spirituality that makes them feel like rebels.  Then again, in many of these cases of Europeans (can’t help but laugh) demanding that I name drop and tell them who initiated me into Obeah (LOL!) and who are my “god parents”, may well be the victims of such scams.  They’ve invested a good deal of time and money in their orders and organizations, and the idea that someone can get the same thing being a fisherman, that they got from spending $2000 and getting a pretty necklace and a “spiritual experience” they can tell their friends about, is horrifying.

Real African Spirituality

For the sake of consumer information, a site with no Africans is not representing African spirituality.  Be mindful that not all Africans have dark skin.  Still, someone should at least have some affiliation with African and diaspora activism and community aside of the spirituality.  One of us is living in us and sharing our concerns.  If they have no idea of the conflict in the Congo, chemicals leaked into the ground from unscrupulous copper mining, or “white” supremacists still being active in South Africa, they’re not African enough.

If you don’t see any photos of any Africans there doing anything but posing for a portrait, it is not representing African spirituality.  The only excuse would be if they are a European living in an area where there are no Africans around, but you will see clearly that they are doing their best with what they have.

If it is racist against any group of Africans or trashing any diaspora Africans for their spirituality and not because they actually did something wrong to someone, then it is not representing African spirituality.  The moment you see any trashing of Africans, you know you are at a site run by Europeans who are defending their money, not African spirituality.

I have no problem with my enemies worshiping my Gods.  If they want to beg my Gods, this is fine with me, and will hopefully lead us to peace or a physical victory to go along with the psychological one.  So I have no problem with Europeans, most of whom are not my enemies, worshiping the Vodun.  It is only when they attempt to take them away that I think to myself that since they didn’t manage that with 400+ years of slavery, I don’t see how they’re going to do it with trash talk.

The people with a problem with us usually don’t even know any or many people with recent African ancestry.  If they did, they would be given the same “beg my Gods” speech I just did…or since we are definitely not all angels, maybe they’re being coddled for what may or may not be an entirely ethical reason.

Real African spirituality is not dependent on any organization or priesthood, even though we rely on the recognized and/or hereditary priesthood in Africa as the keepers of our history.  Santeria is only one of very few non hereditary systems in the diaspora with more than locally or group recognized ranks.  I am told that this is not even the rule for many Santeros as customs vary and not everyone agrees.

When Santeros, whose system is syncretized with Catholicism and mixed with a lot of western spiritism, start calling others frauds and “cultural appropriators”, this is a red flag that maybe they aren’t very aware of the history of African and diaspora spirituality.  There may however, be something else going on…

Infiltrators and Informers

Another, perhaps more sinister reason this is happening could be government or other hostile groups attempting to infiltrate Santeria and the African spiritual communities.  They may fear that too many people involved in African spirituality may threaten their interests, and have recruited infiltrators and informers to report our activities and sow discord.  This has already happened in Cuba.  According to this article in the Sun Sentinel:

Many santeros are influential members of Cuban society, and recently it was revealed that state security had infiltrated Santeria circles.

Because many people involved in African spirituality would now be seen as radicals or possible terrorists even for small things like promoting self sufficiency, sustainable energy solutions, home farming, and natural diets, the people in power want us discredited.  Since Santeria is one of the most popular and organized streams in the diaspora, they would naturally be used to attempt to stamp out others.  Santeros should be very watchful that their houses do not get infiltrated, and make sure that one of the vows is to stand up for and protect the children of Oduduwa.

Just be careful out there.  If you find yourself being targeted by infiltrators and those who steal our cultures and put them in boxes as if the Orishas, Alusi, Lwa, Spirits, etc. belong exclusively to them, just let them know you aren’t going to take it lying down, but don’t get overly emotional about it.  They’re just lost or informers, and every morning, you still wake up African, and they wake up…not African.

Sheloya

Webmaster of SoulMindBody.net and lead artist of Sheloya Mystical.

6 Comments:

  1. Sheloya,

    I just want to clarify:

    1. Haitian Vodou, Yoruba Traditional Orisha Worship, Cuban Santeria and Brazilian Candomble are all initiation-based. You cannot provide services to others, charge them, or partake in a massive number of religious ceremonies without initiation. You can be a worshiper of Orisa but you do this THROUGH initiated elders. You note this. And this is KEY to this whole discussion!

    2. The world is globalizing. Now there are plenty of initiated folks who aren’t African in biological ancestry. There are white folks who are initiated in all of these traditions. By initiation, training and spiritual lineage, they can and do have the right to uphold the rules of these traditions. They can call out folks who aren’t initiated for providing supposed initiations. They can call out folks providing divination without the authority to do so. Additionally, plenty of orisa priesthood initiations even among the Traditional Yoruba are not only biologically hereditary. Some are indicated by odu and look much more similar to Santeria. In the end, those who are authorized by tradition to know the rights and wrongs of their tradition CAN AND SHOULD and HAVE A DUTY to police the borders.

    3. When (non-initiated) hoodoo folks give out esu/eleggua and mimic the Santeria or Yoruba way of doing it, they are doing something inappropriate. There are NO historical ways that what they are doing could be acceptable. NO African-derived group that worships an orisa allow someone to give out orisa without them being initiated and trained. That’s bottom-line. When you say, “noone has a monopoly on the orisas” you’re only half correct. Yes, we can all worship and honor orisa. But not one historian, priest, anthropologist or legitimate Yoruba elder in Benin or Nigeria would allow half of the things that non-initiated white folks (who always hide behind Wicca or Hoodoo) are doing. That is the issue.

    4. This isn’t about individuals or personal feuds. It’s about honoring our ancestors – whether spiritual or hereditary. The bottom line is that orisas weren’t made by everyone and just given out willy-nilly EVER ANYWHERE until Americans and Cubans started doing these things in the name of getting rich and lining pockets. That’s what all of us who are in lineages, or are priests, are concerned about. None of our ancestors would have recognized these ceremonies. None of these ancestors would have watched someone who knows not one prayer-song in Yoruba “birth” or “bless” or “enchant” a stone in the name of an orisha. NOT ONE ancestor from the Caribbean or Africa would have watched these things and called them legitimate. They might be well-intentioned, they might be filled with love and heart but they aren’t legitimate orishas in ANY historical context. That’s all any of us are pointing out.

    It isn’t about race, it isn’t about personal feuds. It is about honoring the legitimate history that we have been given. It’s about asking people to respect that they need to be in a lineage – whether biological or initiatory. This mix-and-match, pick and choose in the name of getting wealthy approaches aren’t respectful of our ancestors and elders. That’s all it is about.

    Feel free to merge and invent new religions. But don’t call it historically-accurate. Call it a “reconstructionist” faith and stop selling it in ways that make it seem like it could be traditionally, historically accurate.

  2. Johnny, I will try to address your points as respectfully as possible, but please do bear in mind that I see this whole debate as the farmers fighting over the color of Eshu’s hat.

    1. Initiation by an (initiated) elder varies between tribes, clans, and sometimes individual families. Just because someone wasn’t initiated into Santeria, Haitian Vodou, Candomble, etc. doesn’t mean they aren’t initiated well enough by Yoruba, Fon, Igbo, and other Motherland standards to practice normally. In time, and often by necessity, some will rise to a priestly level of expertise, and those will inevitably at least either make the pilgrimage to Africa or contact people who can assist them. She is just as much my sister who was bathed in blood and jumped in, in San Diego, as who was given her marks in Osogbo, or who was possessed in an ally and fought off ten gangsters with her fists and a pair of well wielded stilettos (and then consulted an elder for clarification and ceremony) in New York.

    You don’t get to decide who is initiated or not. The Orishas do, and secondarily, the elders of that person’s tribe, family, or organization do. They choose us, not the other way around.

    No ceremony in the world is going to give you Eshu if he doesn’t want you. (Horrible thought, and perhaps unlikely, but still…)

    The question is whether you believe in the Orishas or not, or whether you believe a human can somehow mess up anything for an Orisha that wouldn’t screw themselves. I believe in the Orishas, and I believe they do what they want to do and go where they want to go, and no human can control or contain them. So if some dummy wants to be a poser, it’s our job to educate people on the right way, rather than to push our specific organization or local ways.

    You personally may not push your organization on others, and run around calling people frauds because they don’t defer to your group’s standards, but I have seen this done enough…and I have personally had enough of it.

  3. 2. Initiation is just the wedding, not the marriage. Police my borders when you know what they are.

    A non African is going to have some trouble with this, not because they are non (recently)African genetically, but because they were raised in a non African way. They are just going to have more trouble wrapping their brains around some things that a person raised by Africans would not.

    The teaching of concepts like Ubuntu and getting their heads out of an over-civilized, self-pitying, slavish mentality is a long and difficult road. Unless or until someone has gotten African-ness, they are not going to get African warriorship. They are not going to have an idea what they should be fighting or what they are fighting for.

    I get called a racist for saying that mainly because people conveniently forget that I have similar problem with African Americans who have it in their blood but can’t let go of their bits of slave mentality. It is, by the way, this slave mentality that leads to frauds who sell out their Ancestors by capitalizing on people’s ignorance about African and diaspora faiths.

    On the list of things to fight, I worry more about spiritual commoditization in general than cultural appropriation specifically. I don’t believe in someone presuming to hold Orishas hostage for a price, regardless of where or by whom they were initiated.

  4. 3. I feel you on this one. It is absolutely essential that anybody delving into Orisha worship consult the elders. Partly because Ancestor worship is such a big part of Vodun and other African and diaspora systems, the legacy is important with regard to perspective and experience and alignment, and, and and…

    I am not saying that one does not need the elders at all. What I am saying is that different elders have different ways, and their not being as popular or as convenient to someone else’s comfort is not the measure of legitimacy.

    If there is a measure, perhaps it is metaphysical soundness, whether or not it works, and whether or not a reasonable case can be made for these.

    It definitely does need to be stressed that most African belief systems are not built around the solitary practitioner. Obeah and similar may have a kind of monastic tinge once one has advanced far enough, but this would develop in a person after many years of study and then service to their community.

    So it isn’t a do as you please and whatever you like on your own as an individual thing, partly because the well rooted African mind is not overly individualistic.

  5. 4. I truly wish that you were right about it not being about personal feuds, but it is. Some people have profited a lot off of others, and when this is threatened, they act to defend their interests.

    Now, if Catholic saints still remain in Haitian or Cuban diaspora systems, they have no room at all *at all* to talk to anyone else about what is legitimate or what is truly African/Yoruba and what is not. They have no place to tell an African American who doesn’t even delve into that swarm of parasitic pseudo monotheistic claptrap that is pope centered Christianity, and instead fuses their beliefs with Native American or Asian or old European faiths according to their ancestry or calling, that what they are doing is not legitimate based on the systems.

    Save the legitimacy arguments against people who don’t believe in anything really, and just steal people’s money without doing any work, or make promises of community ceremony results for mere wishful thinking and *maybe* a stick of incense.

    You don’t get to borrow from hither and yon, and mix and match and then “call people out” for doing nothing worse than what you have, and sometimes doing better.

  6. In summary…

    Yes, cultural appropriation is something to be worried about, but not overly paranoid about compared to spiritual commoditization in general.

    There is a line between natural fusion or development or syncretization, and outright cultural theft that should be minded and minded well.

    Africans trade notes. I say again, Africans trade notes. That it assaults the senses of whatever Babylon princess still resides in your psyche is a good thing. She should hurt. She should hurt until she dies so the African in you can arise beyond her fluff coated evil.

    You are going to see Haitians borrowing from their Santeria, Odinani, Palo Mayombe, and Hoodoo brethren and sisteren from time to time. That’s just the way it is.

    Still, wherever one draws one’s inspiration deserves respect, as do the Ancestors who birthed and nurtured it. If you are not ready to give respect to them, don’t mess in their stuff.

    Sometimes people on different sides of the world worshiping the same deity are going to come up with the same symbols and come to the same conclusions. Sometimes a person may receive dreams or visions in which the Orishas give them similar information and guidelines…especially Eshu. It is not a good idea to tell him what he can’t do and with whom. I wouldn’t chance this.

    I believe enough in the Orishas to understand that nobody can mess things up for them. We humans can sure mess things up for each other though, and if we disrespect any Orisha, there is a natural price to pay for this. So I’m not worried for them, but for the humans who mishandle them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*