Lately, there has been some buzz in the community about cultural appropriation of African belief systems. We’ve talked a lot about the problem, and I think it’s time we addressed some realistic solutions. The global spiritual community has always shared information, but the speed has increased dramatically since the internet. Sometimes speed isn’t such a good thing when one is dealing with ideas that can take many years to grasp, even for someone who belongs to the culture in which it arose.
It is very important that diaspora practitioners, who sometimes have the western tendency to be a bit focused on maintaining identity in a way that Africans in their ancestral homelands don’t have to worry about, understand the way others learn about the Vodun. If you are multi generation legacy, the way you learned is not the only way or the only legitimate way. For some, this is a journey they began as an individual, or their legacy may be only one or two generations deep, or may have been secret.
In some cases, someone may have been called/contacted by a Vodun, Orisha, Lwa, or other African flavor of Energy/Spirit even though they are practicing a non African faith. In some, they find that African ideas fill in some space in their belief system that others don’t. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of liking an idea and incorporating it into their practice. These aren’t necessarily bad, but can turn bad if they are misinterpreting something, and don’t have the guidance to correct it.
Heritage, Tradition, and Innovation
A great artist, Pablo Picasso once said that one should learn the rules so that one can break them like an artist. Though African spirituality tends to be more like a science no matter where in Africa it is from, one should learn the traditions well before taking it upon one’s self to deviate from them. For this reason, if you are not a practitioner of west or central African belief systems, but were called nonetheless, or you are incorporating Spirits whose relational identities were crystallized in Africa into your belief system, you should take it upon yourself to contact a priest/ess in or from Africa.
All of us in the diaspora with the option and any level of respect, have connections with priests and practitioners in Africa. All of us.
Be aware that most traditions were local and based around families, clans, and villages, and that the people and geography and climate were important and unique. What is a blessing in one place may be an abomination in another, as far as general practice, but at the more esoteric level, many things start to merge. You will do well to be in touch with someone aware enough and deep enough in actual practice, to advise and guide you even though you are far from their local area.
Even if you don’t intend to fully commit to an African belief system, it is important to have this line of communication to avoid doing things that may be disrespectful or just imbalanced or nonsensical. If, for instance, you are Wiccan, and you like Yemaya, that is all good, but if you want to get the most positive energy from that, you should ask Eshu to open the way for you to speak to Yemaya. There is no Yemaya without Vodun, and in Vodun, we (generally) call to Eshu (or the Gate Keeper by another name) before we contact other Orishas. There are many good reasons for this that a priest/ess would be able to explain to you in detail.
We keep in touch with those in the Motherland so that even if our ways are quite different, we stay within certain bounds of sanity and soundness.
Now, using the Yemaya example again, once you understand why you should ask Eshu to open the gate first, and the ways to go about this, you may think of ways to do this “seamlessly” in a Wiccan ceremony or observance. This is an innovation, and it is okay. Just get some feedback from your African guides, and perhaps discuss this with others who are doing something similar.
Once you know the traditions, you can understand how to deviate from them in a respectful way. Respectful deviation is far, far away from negative cultural appropriation. It is good innovation, and nobody should have a problem with it, though some will anyway.
Doing it Wrong
The wrong way to go about appropriation/incorporation is to steal bits and pieces of practices without any regard for their cultural origins, or to claim titles specific to certain organizations without actually earning them.
It is the habit of many neopagans to call themselves priests and priestesses of whatever deities they like. We don’t do this in African systems. To be a priest/ess of a deity, you must pass through the initiations and rise through the ranks of the cult of that deity. There is no way around this. The first members of this deity’s cult may have had to go it alone, but once it was established, it became a matter of community.
This does not mean that you are not permitted to worship an Orisha. Some today are running around telling people that they are not entitled to worship or mention Orisha because they have not been initiated, but this is just a bald faced lie. The Orishas are forces of Nature, and all living beings live in the same Nature. Atheists call it “ocean”, and we call it Olokun. It doesn’t matter what it is called, it is what it is. Thing is, if you’re going to utter the name Olokun in reverence, you must respect the fact that the name and its legends come from west Africa. Part of that respect is respecting the priesthood unless or until the day comes that the priesthood no longer respects Olokun, and I don’t see this happening anytime soon.
In the diaspora, there are priests and priestesses within their specific systems. In this case, they will add which temple or group in which they serve as a priest or priestess, so as to avoid confusion with the temples in Africa. The ranks may not imply what they would in Africa though. In some groups, being a priest/ess may mean that they have begun service to the community, and may still be in a phase of training, whereas in other groups, they have passed through the highest initiation for one of more deities. African systems are alive, and new groups develop all the time.
It is wrong to treat Vodun and other very alive African belief systems as if they are dead, and nobody knows what they should be doing. It is very much alive, and for anyone in the world with internet, guidance is just a click away.
It is also wrong to attempt to force African belief systems to fit Christian or western “hippie” sensibilities. Though we do believe that one’s beliefs affect one’s behavior and energy, and therefore one’s life, there is no thought policing in Vodun. We do not insist that everyone think the same or behave the same or according to the same set of rules and taboos. Not only do traditions and pantheons vary from place to place, but what is a good deed and what is a “sin” or unwise or negative action varies from head to head. Sometimes person to person as well.
We believe that all of Nature deserves respect, not denial, and that things that are negative or evil should be coped with honestly. The “white light” way is not and should not be universal. Conflict feels like an unfortunate aspect of life, but life could not exist without it. Your body must draw air in and out in order for you to survive. Sometimes a person must kill in order to protect themselves and their loved ones.
One of the hardest things some of us have found in teaching non Africans and over-assimilated Africans, is getting them to understand that some things others can do and get away with, that they cannot, and vise versa. What is sweet for one may be bitter to another. What would depress or degrade one may uplift and exalt another. There is no one way for everybody.
…which brings us to the differences in practices in Africa and the diaspora. No African priest/ess I have yet encountered has faulted anyone in the diaspora for doing what was necessary to survive, or for adjusting the belief system to their local or ancestral needs. Not one. All will correct someone if something they are doing is disrespectful or unsound in any way. I have seen some criticism of many things, and condemnation of many things, but I have never seen anyone claim that a new world incorporated Orisha whose origins may be Native American or even Chinese, doesn’t exist or that people should stop worshiping them, for instance. Also, even though many would not do this themselves, I have never seen an African priest/ess actually condemn a Lukumi or member of another diaspora system that is influenced by Christianity, for having saints or angels.
It is wrong for members of one diaspora system to look down on another for the adjustments they made for survival. By extension, it is wrong for you to ignore, deny, or disrespect your own Ancestors, in an attempt to erase your history and replace it with African belief systems. One of the principles of Vodun is to honor one’s Ancestors. If someone tells you to forget your Ancestors, it may feel convenient if your Ancestors made mistakes and did bad deeds. However, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Your Ancestors are with The Ancestors now, so they are being dealt with by Nature as all are in the end of this human life. Don’t come to African belief systems to escape. Come to us to improve…that is, if it would improve you. If you already have something that works fine for you, then just respect-check whenever you incorporate an African deity into your personal pantheon, with an African priest/ess.