Reclaiming the Self: A Return to Ancestral Wisdom

The Black church is currently experiencing an exodus of its millennials who are seeking community and spiritual fulfillment elsewhere. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center stated that four out of ten millennials are likely to claim no religious affiliation (Cox, 2019). It is assumed that those who are leaving the church are becoming atheist or agnostic, however, this is not necessarily the case. As the church experiences an exodus, many millennials are finding their genesis in traditional African spiritual systems and the wisdom of their Ancestors.

What are African Spiritual Systems?

African spiritual systems are those that predate the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and were practiced on the African continent prior to European colonization. While the spiritual tradition varies dependent upon where one is on the continent, two that are most widely known throughout the diaspora are Ifá and Vodun. The practice of both systems has been vilified throughout history, but particularly after the Haitian Revolution because during the Haitian Revolution, an important Vodun ceremony took place at Bois Caimen that helped assist the enslaved Africans defeat and drive away their French colonizers. The vilification and demonization of these systems has helped ensure that diasporic Africans remain disconnected from their Ancestors, and therefore themselves. Though the systems may vary, there are a few key elements that translate between them.

Ancestral Veneration: It is often assumed that in African spiritual systems, people are worshiping those who have transitioned. To venerate means to pay homage to and show deep respect for someone or something. The Ancestors are given a high level of respect because they are their descendants’ first line of defense, and a connection to the spiritual realm. They are able to help guide and direct their descendants, as well as keep them from harm or unwise decisions. It should be noted that all cultures have a form of Ancestral veneration but may not realize it. For example, when going into an elder’s home, you may see that they have a collection of obituaries on their mantle, and photos of the transitioned all throughout their home. Though they may balk at the idea of setting up an Ancestor altar, they are engaging in a form of ancestral acknowledgement. Additionally, when one “pours one out for the homies,” it is a libation used to honor those that are no longer physically present. Elements of the African worldview and thought process are syncretized into modern day practices, often without a true understanding of where the traditions originate from.

Belief in a Divine Creator: African spirituality is often viewed as polytheistic due to the presence of Orisha (Ifá) or Loa (Vodun), who practioners can work with and call upon. However, there is still the belief in a singular Divine Creator who is not assigned a gender and is considered to encompass both genders.

Divination: In Christianity and Islam, one of the primary tenants is faith. However, African spiritual systems include divinatory abilities. Practioners do not have to guess if they are in alignment, making good decisions, or moving in purpose. With the ability to divine on a matter, practioners are able to move throughout the world in a more effective manner with a certainty that what they are doing is correct, or that what they are doing will lead towards harm.

“Bevier Pot” by Adrienne Cacitti for Living Artist Project

Why is Returning to Ancestral Wisdom Important?

2020 has shifted everything, including worldviews and ideologies. This time of quarantine and social distancing has allowed many to sit with themselves for the first time in years, or first time ever. During this time of sitting with oneself, many have come to realize that the ideologies and expressions of self they were taught to hate and fear, might hold the key to their wellbeing. The Ancestors are our first line of defense, as such, it is necessary to be still and listen to what they are trying to teach us. We cannot claim to be their wildest dreams if we are not taking heed to their advice, or diminishing their practices. It’s not enough to rally against systemic anti-Blackness if one does not address internalized anti-Blackness that is present through the demonization of one’s own traditions. Regardless if one chooses to participate in an African spiritual system, it should be understood that there are alternative epistemologies, and wisdom to be gained.