A typical Sunday morning as a millennial five-year-old Black girl may have gone like this:
She awakens. She needs to go to the bathroom, but if her mom sees her, she may be sent back immediately to get dressed for church. So she holds it, in exchange for five more minutes of shut-eye. The attempt is futile. The entire house vibrates, as the Praise radio station saturates it with Yolanda Adams, Marvin Sapp, Hezekiah Walker, and Kirk Franklin. She hears the shower shut off abruptly, knowing that her turn to get in and wash up after her mother is inevitable.
Preparation for church is a morning filled with ruffled socks, itchy tights and dresses, Mama’s sweet singing along to the radio, the smell of Luster’s Pink Oil Lotion, hiding from the comb, and a very quick breakfast in the car. Upon arrival, she prays that she isn’t too late to go into Sunday School; otherwise, she will have to surrender to endure another strenuous, esoteric two hours in the sanctuary, where the overzealous pastor’s message seems to always go over her tiny, ballie-topped head.
Sixteen years later, as I reminisce about these precious moments of my childhood, I smile. I would probably call it more of a smirk though. My bright-eyed, cartoon-voiced, younger self would never have pictured the woman that I am now.
Now twenty-one years old, I am a practitioner and devotee of the Yoruba spiritual tradition of Lukumi, also known as the Orisha tradition. Rather than a religion, it is more accurately characterized as a lifestyle that embodies ritual, divination, song, dance, community, ancestor reverence, and centuries-old ways of honoring the many faces of the Divine. “Ori” is defined as “consciousness,” and “sha” is translated to “Protector of.”
My journey unknowingly started when I was a baby and was revisited in high school when I learned of two orishas – angelic forces of nature or protectors of consciousness – called Yemaya, and Oshun. Yemaya is the force of the ocean and symbolizes motherhood, healing, fertility, and wealth. Oshun is the force of the river and symbolizes sensuality, prosperity, family, love, and creativity. She was a major influence in the area of embracing my sexuality and eroticism as a gift from God, instead of a taboo. There are 401 orisha total, and about 13 recognized in the New World, but I will be highlighting these two, as they can serve as a major inspiration for Black women.
I was fascinated and taken aback by how these divinities resonated with me, especially during a time when I was dealing with both depression and anxiety as a teenager, dealing with an abusive father, and separation from my mother on a regular basis. Two Black goddesses that looked like me? Who would’ve thought! I got a rush every time I researched these feminine energies in secret. I envisioned them holding me in their ethereal arms, standing in on behalf of my mother when she couldn’t be there in my physical realm, due to my father’s oppressive nature.
Still, there was no way I could tell anyone about my infatuation with another spiritual practice; as the sweet little Christian girl I was perceived to be. The members of my church would have crucified me. Pun intended. Just thinking about the deep disappointment on the faces of the elders’ who’d known and loved me since birth, made me fraught with guilt. For a short time, I abandoned my pull toward the orisha.
When I attended Spelman College in Atlanta in 2015, I liberated myself from a staunch frame of religiosity and delved into the world of African spirituality. I allowed my curiosity to roam free during my search for my roots. I wondered, what was out there spiritually that really spoke to my cultural identity and truth. I loved the example of Jesus, and the biblical teachings of love, but they did not authentically resonate with me as I grew older.
I continued to research the traditions of West Africa that people told me were “of The devil”, and let go of the last piece of guilt I held inside for leaving Christianity. I finally decided that not embracing a spirituality that my ancestors practiced, simply because it wasn’t Christian, was utterly preposterous. Hindu-practicing individuals of Indian descent are generally globally accepted. Chinese and Japanese Buddhists are as also globally accepted, including their ancient practices of ancestor reverence. As I compared my experience of a lack of societal acceptance, as a Black woman of African descent wanting to embrace my ancestral spiritual traditions, I got the clear message.
I realized the hard truth. To a large portion of the planet, everything African-centered was going to be viewed as grotesque, wicked, or ugly. Even to some of my own people.
In spite of this, the quickly rooting seeds of my evolution started to germinate during a trip to the beach with my mother, who started to come to the same realizations about her spiritual path. She was lonely for Africa too. To this day, we continue to share the sacred ritual of presenting our offerings of wine, pennies, and watermelons to Yemaya, gently placing them in the water along with our love, devotion, and prayers. In return, the goddess gave me a love everlasting. She baptized my soul in her waters, and her sea-salt scent remained on my mother. Inevitably, my bond was strengthened with them both.
Following an offering day, my mother recalled a time when she took me to the shore for the first time as a baby. Just the two of us. My mother was young, single, beautiful, and wore long braided extensions. Upon our arrival, she scooped my tiny, chubby, bubbly self in her arms and led me to the ocean’s waves. She dangled my feet in the cool, salty arms of the water. I didn’t’ fidget. I didn’t coo. I didn’t whine or do any of those typical baby things. Instead, I was silent. Reverent, almost. My mother told me that even as we sat on our blanket, I would not cease my silent, serious staring at the ocean; which was unusual for a two-month-old baby.
When she told me this story in the car on our way to work one morning, I knew. I just knew that Yemaya was whispering her secret hopes for my life, to me. She wanted me to find her again as she watched over me through my mother’s eyes…to become a devotee of Lukumi after concluding my necessary and needed Christian journey…and she made it known that she was deeply touched to meet me again with my earthly mother.
Eventually, I was formally initiated into the Lukumi tradition (the Cuban branch of Orisha), and my life changed for the better, forever. The colorful ritual was so moving, and I came into contact with the certain peace and solace in God that I had been searching for all of my life. It felt like a rebirth and renewal. It made me softer, and even kinder to those around me. I became more aware of my purpose and role as a Black woman in this world. My teachers filled me to the brim with knowledge and wisdom; it downloaded into my soul. I began to have vivid, powerful dreams and became more reverent toward nature. My once low self-esteem began to soar, and my path became clear.
When people tell me that my faith is wrong and that the only way to the Almighty is through Jesus, I simply smile and reply, “This was my ancestors’ way to God. And now it is mine.”
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