Black Haitian Consciousness: Self-Identity and Culture within the Context and Intersection with Western Philosophy
The year was 1985. As a seven-year-old, I was fascinated with my environment. I liked to catch lizards and frogs. I liked to watch where the ants went and how they worked together, to build their homes. I liked to watch the clouds move and reshape into identifiable images. I tried to peer at the sun’s rays and try to imagine how far it really was. I loved nature. And seemingly a close counterpart was the sound of drumbeats. I was both in love and afraid of the ominous sounds throughout the night-the rhythms of drum beats which seemed to echo in my chest. I needed to find it…be a part of it all…
My community was that of Immigrants from Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico. Spiritual practices seemed to permeate every aspect of our community. On any given night, the drum beats heard could be from any of the surrounding neighbors holding ceremonies in the Santéria, Vodoun, or Taino lineage. These seem to merge into a convalescence of self-expression and performance.
Ironically, my mother did not subscribe to such native traditions; we were 7th Day Adventist Christians. The general thought was that even the drum beat was of the devil. During our home’s bedtime rituals of praying and singing hymns, the drum beats would resonate and reverberate through our walls. On many occasions during our evening prayer, my singing would detour into the syncopation of the drum beats, and my waist would begin to gyrate with the rhythm-at which point, my mom would pop me with her hand and warn me to stay focused; that I was inviting the devil into my body. My mom’s prejudice extended beyond our walls, as I noticed her air of difference as the neighbors gathered and chatted in spirited conversations which were probably vulgar to my mom. She’d frown as she passed them by, responding to their appeals with a mere hand raising; her hand would be raised just near her cheekbones as she’d nod and cock her head to one side in acknowledgment, but as a sign to say, that’s enough; I don’t wish to hear more.
Our weekends were interesting. Most spiritual parties were done during the weekend. Although invited, we never attended. It was without a question. We attended church on Saturday’s. On these holy Sabbath days, the neighbors would never see us. We’d leave early and return late-never to exit the doors until morning. The drum beats would lull me to sleep. On Sundays, my hair was always washed after a late breakfast. For some reason unbeknownst to me, my mom would always dress me up really nicely-in church dresses. I’d wear chiffon dresses, laced socks and patent leather, shiny Mary Jane shoes. My hair was long and filled with barrettes to hold my pigtails. She’d also place bow knots of ribbons on each side of my head.
One Sunday afternoon, as I pranced and paraded the pavilion in my “Sunday’s best”, the neighbors, who all seemed quite weird to me, were joking and sharing stories. I felt comfortable with them because my father seemed to be friends with them. I felt like their daughters despite my mom’s aversion to them. They complimented me as I twirled from side to side for them like a proud peacock. I felt pretty, loved and safe. They were drinking rum, beer and smoking cigarettes; they were having a great time and laughed boisterously. Although I tried, I could not understand their colloquialisms and their merging of Kréyol and Spanish.
All my neighbors were eccentric, and I loved them. They were good. I felt them and wished my mom would be nice to them. They were old looking and disheveled, probably from the heavy drinking and late-night spiritual parties. The only African American amongst them was Bill and his wife. Bill had moved to Miami with his wife, Mary from Alabama. They had a pet raccoon which they eventually ate for dinner. Mary loved me and always whispered in my ears during her many gut-wrenching tight embraces, that she loved me like her daughter. She had no children of her own and in retrospect, was probably depressed over it. Her breath always smelled of cigarettes and beer but I loved her. I didn’t mind. Her eyes carried bags which really seemed to hold water which would spill over at any second; and her eyes were always bloodshot red. Mary, may you rest in peace.
On this Sunday, Mary and Bill, Hector the Cuban, St. Remy the Haitian, Joe the Puerto Rican, and another Haitian neighbor I can only recall I called, “Cha-Cha -Cha” in triplet staccato, were there on that pavilion. They seemed to be arguing, but would break in hysterics of laughter- jumping, marching away from one another and returning to the group-maybe due to epiphanies of thought, or sharing of some extraordinary pieces of news. I yearned to know what they were talking about. The attention was away from me at this point so I stopped parading up and down, and sat amongst them-as a lady would, straightening my dress as I sat and gracefully placing my folded hands on my lap. Finally, I would join them-be a part in adult pleasantries and in a defiant yet challenging move to test whether they would send me away. They continued their banter.
Not missing a beat in their conversation, and not asking me to leave, they continued, and although I tried, could not follow the conversation. Maybe in my child’s memory, the conversation was yet too deep for me to comprehend. Either way, St. Remy said a word I understood: “Bon!” He exclaimed, Good! I’m going to show you! He said this in English, Spanish and then Kréyol.
St. Remy picked up the Heineken bottle resting on a raised piece of wall and bit down into it. I yelled an uneventful, “Hey?!” Shocked at what I was witnessing but more shocked from the jeers and whistles and laughter of the others. Without a hitch, cut, spilled blood or anything, he carefully bit off pieces of the glass and chewed the green glass and swallowed each bite. St. Remy ate the entire bottle! He ate the bottle! When he was done, he poked his tongue out for all to see, and they clapped, laughed and whistled at the show of spiritual possession.
By the time I ran inside to get my siblings to share in the experience, everyone had dispersed.
The nightly drum beats continued and I imagined what wonders I would see if I ever attended. One night, I would experience it. Because I am recounting this tale from memory, I am deceived by time and cannot say whether this actually happened, or if I dreamed it all. Nevertheless, it will leave a lasting impression and curiosity in me which has impacted the person I am today.
The drums did beat! The pulsating grooves hypnotized me and I drifted from my bed. I was teleported out of the safety of my sleeping home and I drifted towards the sounds of wailing, laughter, singing and dancing. As I approached, I smelled wood burning, cigarette smoke, drunkenness and smells of the spirits. Smells of the spirits are concoctions of Rose Water, Florida Water, Basil and other unknown ingredients. The full moon shone and illuminated the men and women in white; their heads were tied in white handkerchiefs and some had bells in their hands and waist. The Mistress of Ceremony held a colorfully beaded maraca (called a Tcha Tcha or Asson in Kréyol). She swung her Asson over the bellowing smoke from the bonfire to invite the spirits in: From North to South, From East to West…and she chanted in an indistinguishable language. Then she began the call to Legba the gatekeeper:
Nou antré nan lakou-à
Nou antré nan barrier à
Nou antré nan lakou- à
Legba L’ouvri barrier li
Manman tanbou a chanté o se lide’l
Manman tanbou a chanté! Se lide’l sa, se malé’l sa
Ouvri barrier- à pou nou, Legba-e pou’n antré
Translation: We enter the yard/We enter the gates/We enter the yard
Legba Open your gates (or Legba opened his gates)
The Mother drum sings/that’s her wish (or right)
The Mother drum sings/that’s her right/that’s her wrong (or risk)/That’s her right
The participants (serviteurs) watched as the Mistress, the Manbo (Vodou Priestess) danced on the cornmeal outline of Legba’s symbol (shown below) on the ground as they kept the chorus of song:
With each beat, I found that I came closer to the center of the ceremony. There was a tall pole erected in the center of the party with white, four thin flags hanging from it, being held by four dancers who danced about the pole, circling it in rhythm.
The drummers continued drumming and before I could assess the entire situation or what was taking place, a Hougan (Vodou Priest) sprayed Barbancourt rum on my face from his mouth-twice. Hey then greeted me: Kneeling on one knee, and then switching to the next knee.
I stood there, planted-unable to move, nor knowing what to do.
Others came and greeted me in the same fashion: Men kneeling and women kissing each of my cheek and turning around 360° and repeating the gesture. Each would dance away from me in perfect choreography: An African dance of stepping away while their shoulders arched and descended with the rhythm as their arms synchronously and gracefully elevated and descended like a bird in flight. The women held the tails of their white skirts as they floated away. I witnessed some would even touch ground and point at the sky without breaking the rhythm of dance.
And the danse (Vodou ceremony) continued.
After visitations of different spirits, messages brought, and possessions of the hosts, the ceremony quieted and people ate the abundance of food after it was offered to the spirits.
I do not recall walking back to my house. Neither do I recall the actual end of the ceremony. Nevertheless, I was in my bed when my mom woke me up the next morning, refreshed and ready for another day in the second grade.
In today’s times it becomes important to revisit our notions of African indigenous religions. It behooves me to at least from my experience discuss these social injustices afforded to culture and religion. Thus, I aim to dissect the intersection of self-identity within Haitian spirituality and my much-influenced Western religious philosophies to find validation in my original culture’s levity, significance and inevitability in becoming a whole person. One without a positive self-identity seeks inclusion into another way of being and abnegates the power inherited through lineage. I make the claim that spirituality and existentialism, or the idea of our human experience, is intertwined in our self-identity and culture. With this taken away, one is left indigent and without real actuality. (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1963)
I also make a plea to challenge those who speak of indigenous religion and spiritualism as myth and imagination. Even as I speak from the Vodoun framework, I use this term to include all indigenous rites throughout history. In the book, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Maya Deren (1953) talks of myth as, “Facts of the mind made manifest in fiction of matter” (p.21). The historical legacy of Africans is passed and practiced in oral form from generation to generation to maintain its livelihood and legitimacy through time. Deren discusses how her learning of the Vodou/Vodoun religion predicated her initiation into this ancient religion. Vodoun is one such religions and cultures. Whereas its authentic basis and placement in time before Christianity, remains known as a superstitious and mythical system of uncivilized peoples; its basis questioned and delegitimized as were all African religions.
Also, to consider, is how according to Claudine Michel and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith in their Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers book (2006) on the subject, discusses in depths how, “African religion were dismissed with terms such as polytheism, primitivism, paganism, heathenism, and animism, seen through European eyes as impediments to progress and material development. The patronization that informed the “white man’s burden” became a liberal notion whereby the little brown brother might be educated and elevated beyond his primitive beliefs” (Michel & Bellegarde-Smith, 2006).
Yet, to its “serviteurs” (practitioners) and Haitian, like other peoples (regardless of religious affiliation), its practice and functionality is not based just in the ritualistic practices which as I learned later, are held for specific needs and/or for the practice of showing gratitude for “break-through” of varying degrees. Vodoun and other indigenous cultures don’t compartmentalize religion the way Western culture does. It is an existentialist paradigm of being: Whereas, every aspect of daily living and culture is Vodoun. This encompasses native dance, literature, art, masonry, agriculture, textile and even steel work. Vodoun portrays a region’s culture, not religion.
Although Vodou comes from the Fon (Africa) tribe word for “Spirit”, it is to reveal that these Unseen beings live and are interwoven parts of its society. Vodou, the practice and Vodoun the lifestyle is separate only in the sense that Vodou is used to conjure magic and initiate healing practices. Our culture of Vodoun is the fabric of our everyday living, whereas ancestors participate in its endeavoring to help further the works which they could not fulfill during their passage through physical existence. The ultimate goal of “Houses” of Vodou is to further perpetuate works left behind and augment the lineage’s legacy, so that our children and children’s children reap the benefits of family work. Fundamentally, since as Appiah discusses, we aim to leave the earth at a better position than entered, within our cultures, this work is conducted with the help of the Unseen but very present ancestors.
Ancestors/Spirits are without form. They need physical bodies to carry out works. In this mutual relationship of reciprocity, practitioners and family members rely on these beings to alleviate the hardships of life. As Spiritual beings, they are able to see ahead in time, protect, warn and help in maneuvers of life. However, it takes the physical member, family member to carry out works. So, in practice, they seek to “mount” their “horses” or “Chwal” in Kréyol. This is, to pass on a message in real time, participate in gaiety and danse; they enter ones’ bodies and for that period, can actually “live” again for a moment. The mounted individual takes on the personality and based on his or her spiritual level and experience, can co-exist and actually remember. A novice opening herself to the spirits will find herself completely powerless, confused, tired and without any knowledge of the occurrences of the mounting. As one becomes experienced, she negotiates what she will allow, be in full consciousness during the mounting, and is not left used and utterly tired in the end. Spiritual and psychological grounding is key to remaining mentally healthy throughout such experiences. There have been cases where one is mounted, and never returns-being totally taken over by a selfish spirit seeking another chance at life. Usually, however, this would occur to someone who was not “chosen” to participate in the ritual, or one not belonging to that Spiritual family.
Despite all which is done to depreciate the Vodou religion, one retelling cannot be untold: The story of how the Haitian Revolution took wind and was successful due to the invocation and help of the spirits. In his 1963 revision of The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James tells of the life of slaves as property, how the owners, with the help of Mulattos and French Revolutionists fought to maintain the slave culture. His recounting of the Slave revolts which led to their independence and the rise of Toussaint L’Ouverture solidifies the how’s and why’s of a people’s need to reclaim self-identity. This was only achieved through violent endeavoring which supports how change can only be achieved through violent reply. That is, in order for any change to occur there must be a violent occurrence.
This theory of violence begets change is proven even within nature: The formation of planets is from the violent crashing of stars; the creation of nebula in outer space is the result of other cloud dusts, hydrogen, helium and plasma crash, collapse and bind together, just like sedimentary rocks which form over long periods due to drastic changes in climate; spontaneous fires naturally control and regulate trees which predate humans; rivers are born by forcing passage ways through the earth, cleansing it and feeding it the process with necessary nutrients. Even the formation of our continents is evidenced by a cataclysmic event which propelled separation. I do not aim to romanticize violence; I speak to the balance it brings in the scheme of attaining change. The effects notwithstanding, nothing happens without a “violent” or significant occurrence.
To further prove this point, Frantz Fanon’s, The Wretched of the Earth (1963) his literature with overtures of violence. Fanon discusses the microaggressions of being Black and how this delineates a person’s place in the world. He discusses how colonization robs a people of their economic, cultural, and self-dignity to be further dominated in all aspects of their lives. This important work makes a demand for change; a change which can only be arrived through violence.
Violence. While my idea and approach to Fanon’s philosophies on violence is less physical, I can subscribe to the fact that the domination of people and all the acts which is endeavored to achieve this is violent. When he discusses culture, it is within a universal context in which he calls for a National consciousness and protests that it is not nationalism, but the individual factor to acquire international dimension. Fanon’s philosophy tells us that culture is inadvertently dead without a concomitant connection with the African consciousness. However, he discusses abnegating native traditions and rituals because he sees them as an unfortunate and wasteful dispersion of revolutionary energy- lest one is lost in idealisms, schisms, and traditions which effectively divide the peoples of Africa (The Wretched of the Earth, 1963). But African consciousness is just that-a strict connection with the metaphysical self which is grounded in the earth; being connected with the universe and supreme energy source through the spirits and/or ancestors. And/or is used to refer to African regions (again, across the world) where spirits of divinity are both ancestral and spiritually divine such as Angels and celestial beings who has never touched earth; while some thought would argue that all spiritual beings are both divine and ancestral. Either way, a pervasive thought throughout the peoples and cultures of this world is that there are imperceptible guides and powers or energies unseen, which watch and mediate and intervene on our behalf. African consciousness includes connecting to the higher self, higher energy/power and God/Goddess within. Whereas, Western thought asks that we pray to the masculine God in the sky. So when Fanon claims that a call to national and African consciousness is not the fact of a metaphysical principle but of the mindfulness of a simple rule to act in violence against colonialism, I say it cannot be achieved without its participants’ inclination to reject, as Fanon warns (The Wretched of the Earth, 1963), the need for assimilation into the colonizers’ culture, which often times take place at the expense of ones’ original culture. The dialectic reasoning behind this thought is that to reject all versions of seeking the energy source is an exercise in futility. The productive approach is always to acknowledge the power within, which is legitimately valid and appropriate in the endeavoring of building a collective consciousness and community.
Although written in the contexts of eradicating colonization of mind and physicality, Fanon’s philosophies transcend Angola, and speak to the global ill it is. Apart from colonization’s cancerous prowess and ability to undermine indigenous cultures, its scars are generational. It produces generations of servitude and the perpetuating instilment of not fully becoming. The needing of someone, something to worship, to come save, to revere. Personal choice and empowerment are non-existent or lacking.
There are many angles from which to discuss this issue. Granted, I opened with a very religious ritual; nevertheless, I demand that our existence and all thereof, is created by us, for us. With that said, my interpretation of Haitian indigenous culture of Vodoun is more than a religion of ancestral or spiritual worship. My intension is not to “worship” spirits at all. I challenge the demarking of Haitian spirituality through the media because Vodoun’s ethos exceeds that of popular thought: That it is essentially a practice to inflict evil upon others and that its use of magic is conjured for, like Western philosophies, to be saved from “evil”. My explorations of the culture have taught me that stepping into my inherit components of being included the understanding that my existence occurs in various paradigms, with the ability to connect with the unseen, and self-actualize into the God/Goddess Western parishioners aim to worship. The manner and tools to achieve centeredness, connectedness with the Divine Earth is essential to a psychological well-being. Furthermore, African practices are too interwoven in daily life/culture, to be sub-categorized as religious. For example, I opened with a danse, or fete which is customarily a gathering, party or ritual-whatever your language connects as a gathering of people who are celebrating in hopes of gaining throughout and in at its end. These rituals are more symbolic in nature than act. For example, the drum is the vehicle which teleports sound waves between realms for the purpose of communication, calling and answering. It produces a rhythm which is unique to a family of lwas or spirits. This “calling” is an invitation to participate in the fete and live in our paradigm, through our physical bodies and tools (i.e. drums). The drum beats resonate both up and down, sending waves of sound energy to the cores of the earth and upwards by wind to celestial and cross-dimensional spirits/ancestors and energies. Based on a particular drum beat, a dynasty of spirits is called/invited. The “poto mitan” or Middle Pole is a transmitter, grounded in the earth, it is also a vehicle which connects and transport spirits from up and below, up and down through dimensions, as a metaphoric subway. In trance, its brilliance is blinding and the white worn by all allows transcendence, transparency and a connection to all without particularizing which energy is allowed or invited to the gathering. Because not all energies are benevolent, the Priest or Priestess speaks to the four corners of the earth, binding that which intends harm upon their guests. Our judge and jury are ourselves; and we through power of psyche and attraction condemn ourselves, by “planting seeds” non-conducive to a happy life. The cycle of life being 360°; the frequency waves we transmit shall haunt or elevate us. So, we ask ourselves for mercy. For true forgiveness begins with self. That said, if we cannot forgive ourselves, and love ourselves, there is no hope for this positive projection unto others. Therefore, Haitian spirituality is communal; but it demands a psychological growth and balance with self. Like chakra levels and color levels, energies operate within the scope and interwoven-ness of colors. The belief, as my father told me is that when white is worn, or a white candle is lit, no one ancestor can be jealous. It is a universal symbol that all, good, spirits are welcome.
How ironic? That it is again, the color white which stands as the symbolism for all things good? In the same breath I protest it is both, white and black-the proverbial balance of all, which is the true indicator and inclusion of the all. Western thought robs a people or peoples of their principled thoughts; that is, that their method of finding connection to their world, earth or deities is evil, mythical and barbaric is hypocritical and unfounded at best. The thought, it’s conception-even before implementation was/is in essence criminal.
What about the denigration of women in the process? Carol Christ (2006) discusses the role of women in Western philosophies and how She is subservient to “God the father, son and even a male holy spirit”. All Her actions subject her to this order of being and falsehood of attaining and maintaining a purity which contradicts the very establishment of procreation. Her duty as wife and mother are reduced to that of breeding cattle: To faithfully, without feeling or sexuality engage in sexual acts to produce a child in sin; whereas, the deified being and only female to hold that place of purity and esteemed piety, is one which denotes a character falsified by its very myth and a contradiction to the science of giving birth. Rather, a trio of men governs and dictates all, and like the colonizers Fanon discusses-are here to save the Wretched that they’ve placed in the deplorable state to begin with. And further in step with the colonizers, these Western religious “gods in one” are the architect, authors, navigators and supreme final word on a life one doesn’t choose neither destine.
Females are the roots to the world’s problems. As a child, my brother would always refer back to the Biblical tale of Eve and Adam to support his claims on how Women are evil and “mess it up for everybody”; that by Eve’s “act” of betrayal to “God” by eating the fruit in the garden, brought upon inevitable death and illness to all. Even the natural wildness of animals is stemmed from Eve’s deception. This opening theme justifies women’s subjugation due to our untrustworthiness and devious methods to acquire what we desire. We are to be silent and obedient to gain virtue. When Christ (2006) discusses how the philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir accounts that men benefit from having the endorsement of a god in their code/law making, exercising supreme authority over women by the powers vested in him by God, it is to help us understand and make a conventional analysis on our psychological and political dictates which in the end leave women powerless and in a continual state of guilt. Contesting this notion is against God and the Savior who wishes to make us, “White as snow” by the washing away of us, inherit sin which cannot fully be washed away to begin with. Christ (2006) completes the thought with, “Religions centered on the worship of a male God create “moods” and “motivations” that keep women in a state of psychological dependence on men and male authority, while at the same time legitimating the political and social authority of fathers and sons in the institutions in society” (Why Women Need the Goddess, p. 212). Being female in Western thought means that I am an affliction unto mankind.
It is with these tenets that I sought to relive my middle-of-night experience. I lived with the secret of that experience for a long time. My Christian family attended the demonizing-women services more than three times a week. These psychological traumas had lasting effects upon me. As I entered puberty, I was no longer allowed to play with boys. Playing with boys would lead to sex which would defile my body-the body which didn’t belong to me in the first place because it was the, “Body of Christ”. I would need to ignore any sexual urges, lest I sin against God who created me in his own image and likeness. So as a child, I wondered: If God made me in his likeness, did he feel sexual urges? And if he did, how did he act upon them? Did he deny himself as Buddha and Jesus did during their time on earth? Didn’t he have the capabilities of getting any woman he wanted? In my young mind, I imagined I would definitely be his bride should he have me-he ruled the universe! Then again, I also imagined it would be a lonely and challenging union, given his extensive work duties. And his angels would be so jealous. And I’d have to share him with the universe! Furthermore, I really could do no wrong, with the pressure to be a good example and all…it made for a tormented existence.
In pursuance of my thoughts, I imagined how the goal was to be “saved” from our sins. God made us, but we are born in sin-in his likeness. Sure to die because of the sin God bestowed upon us in the first place. And ah, there was an out: Redemption. To be redeemed from my sins, I would need to disavow myself and follow Jesus. No, not just follow Jesus, but marry him-surrender completely to him. And unless a man wants to burn in the lake of fire, Jesus is the only man he can marry. Ah, you see there? The homosexual over and undertones fit; however, if a man dares couple with another man, he will be doomed to eternal damnation-that is, unless he disavows himself, and his lover and take up Jesus as his husband. And because God loves us, we cannot escape his wrath. He’ll kill us dead should we disobey his word. After all, as it reads in the Bible-he, “Gave his only begotten son so that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have ever lasting life.”
Because my outcome in life was predetermined by divine intervention, what I did, did not matter. Regardless of how hard I worked, my path was already ordered. And we sang for this effect into our lives in hymnals. We begged to be downtrodden and subjugated. The titles of some hymns should have posed a red flag, but the colonization and brainwashing ran centuries and generations deep: “I surrender all”, “Try me, Lord”, “Humble me, Lord”, “I worship you”, “Take it all”, “Make me white as snow”, “Use me, Lord”, “As the deer pant-eth for the water so my soul longeth after thee”, and the self-depreciating list of hymnal titles go on and on! We were well trained to be subservient, obedient and grateful for the domination of the White Lord and Savior-and in reality, White people.
These questions swarmed my head throughout my growth and development. It shaped my politics and understanding of the world. Africa was basically evil. Drumming was used to conjure up the Devil. Those who liked to dance secular music were lost souls. Abortionists were murderers; Gay people were going to hell. Androgynous people were spawns of the devil. And since God made no mistakes, being gay was a grave and stupid choice-and abomination against God. Self-pleasuring was out of the question; so much so that I would sing hymns and try to think of other things like the day’s happenings, homework, Jesus, even, while I bathed myself. When I learned that I was also attracted to women, I was ashamed; even now, I discuss this sparingly. Drinking and smoking was also heavily frowned upon. My life was the living hell I sought to escape.
My mom, I felt, was a White Supremacist. Everything White was right, down to the religion. Never forgetting that experience as a child, I often read the works of African American scholars. One of my favorite was W.E.B. Du Bois (1940/1971), who introduced his analysis by naming White supremacy as the enemy of African Americans, arguing that economic inequality has been forced on the Negro race “by the unyielding determination of the mass of the white race to enslave, exploit and insult Negroes” (p. 322) (p. 69) he was also discussing how colonization, enslavement and the post-slavery left peoples of the African diaspora destitute-without culture, education and self-identity (Brooksfield & Guy, 2009). Like Fanon, DuBois understood how colonization was a deliberate act of erasing a legacy. If the very essence of our culture, drums, were evil, and everything else relating to my culture was not of God, I wondered what my fate was and what the likelihood was of me ever going to “heaven”.
I like the now clichéd quote of Desmond Tutu who could have well taken this from someone else when he said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
Nevertheless, Anthony Appiah (2007) discusses the ethical despondence to not having self-identity. In Ethics of Identity, he discusses psychological scars left on Africans of the diaspora because of slavery; he talks of how psychologically, it altered the moral development of slaves and this altered the goals of enslaved individuals. The “enlightened” and “civilized” slave wishes to participate in the dominating culture for inclusion, validation and participation in a religious affiliation, cultural association, or in the attempt to have an elevated status and standard of life. He believes that external (European) factors influence/dominate what people aim to become. Appiah further discusses how these external factors shape our education, environment, formal schooling, the media, and the ideas of friends and relatives (Ethics of Identity, 2007). While some rely on the status quo to survive, those who determine their own paths are deviants or crazies of our society which we aim to “save” through Christianity and “The Blood of Jesus”. I was depressed as I schemed to get myself out of that stronghold of thought, environment and culture.
When I began to break free from those ingrained thoughts, I began to experience real freedom. I will not pretend I stood up to my mother and found acceptance in being me-following my own path. It took a much more drastic change than that. A violent act is what it took-at least whereas my parents were concerned. During my senior year in High School, and against their wishes, I applied to at least three out of area schools. This was my break into freedom. While this change seemed drastic, I later wished I had had the courage to go farther north from the southeastern end of the United States. I settled for Florida A& M University-too afraid to go to my other options of New York University or Howard University in D.C.
Through this journey, my fascination was in my connection to the spiritual world. It was a different feeling than what I learned in church. I read any and everything I could find on religion, spirituality and culture, often. During this quest was when I truly lived and held vivid dreams of making love with beings from other worlds. I would experience myself in different forms: Man, Woman, Birds, Mermaid, Snake, even as a fiery phoenix! My fantasies were vivid, and they confected with my reality and psyche.
During my second year of college, I decided that it was time to drop the “purity until marriage” notions and have sex. My boyfriend of eight months was probably at the brink of breaking up with me when I told him I was ready to experience him. All too excited, we entered another dimension of spiritually invoking connections which transcended all I knew at that point. Grateful to the universe for I had always deemed this act overrated, I relished in it. During one experience, I led the meeting with unexpected fervor, not feeling myself, I became one with my goddess with all the provocativeness and confidence she bestows. At the point of apex, he gasped and thrust me off of him. Shaken and disoriented from my heightened descent I asked him what was wrong? His face was that of disbelief and after a few unspoken moments said that he saw me transform into an illuminated strange woman-not me, that I had changed into a much more beautiful woman and he felt ashamed that he was immediately and immensely in love, in a place of peace and love, and felt love through and from her. He shared that his explanation did little justice to what he felt and the bizarre experience scared him. We broke up soon after that.
I yearned to connect my psychic tendencies to its origin; that which I was convinced was an ancestral gift, and demanded exploring. I also felt androgynous as the great Haitian Goddess Ezulie Dantor, the wife of Ogou Feray, and yet commands the men she loves, and who also enjoys dried meats, rum and cigarettes. Yet, in the spirit of Mother Ma’at, Ezulie is mother to all, and matriarch who fiercely protects her children, is balanced and fair-yet merciless when angered.
As a young child, I connected with the Great Siren of our culture, Simbi “nan dlô” (Simbi of the water), and Simbi “an de zo” (Of two bones). At the age of ten, I nearly drowned. Although I didn’t feel like I was drowning. I felt at peace and felt myself grow fins. I wished to swim away to that beautiful city below the sea, where my other family awaited. This predates Disney’s Little Mermaid. But I had seen the movie Splash and till this day, it’s one of my mom’s and my favorite movie. If I questioned Tom Hank’s Splash to be the influence of my fascination, at a ceremony a few years ago, when I was “mounted” by the Siren, it eliminated all doubt. I had to be doused in water. I felt like I was without oxygen and couldn’t stand up. This was not in ceremony-although everything as discussed before is ceremonious. Those who recognized what was happening were unabated. They helped me unto a lawn chair where I laid, wet and drinking all the water I could. Only when I was given lots of water to drink, and water was poured over me by the bucket-full, did I feel safe. After the height of her mounting passes, even if she is still present, water is no longer necessary. She then enjoys cigarettes, mirrors, sweets and fish to eat.
While my journey into my many beings is new, continual and not fully actualized, each encounter graduates me closer to my goddess self. Its lesson and classroom are facilitated by life-where all I experience is neither bad nor good, but necessary to achieve the balanced being I am to be. With each mounting, a chosen one feels more in control and have more flexibility to control what happens. As all beings, we are afforded powers from the four corners of the earth. The earth being our grounding, our gravitational pull to the core/center of the earth is also metaphysical in that it is connected to our brain frequency. Our mental health depends on this grounding, this anchoring which supports our learning and leaning in all directions. In meditation, I imagine being covered in earth. Nevertheless, there is an invisible shiny anchor which goes deep to the earth’s core-there, I am planted. The anchor reaches up, pierces the earth, and pierces from my lowest, basic chakra-to flow upwards, towards my crown, where light beam burst all about me. And light beams from each level burst outwards. This does not just signify my planting to the earth, my grounded-ness. It also speaks to my complete and utter connection to life’s great energy source-this being neither male nor female; and male and female. This being me, of me and of all who breathes air-without this foundation, souls/life beings are lost. We travel through this existence with and without grounding, belonging, regard for life, plants, animals, spirits, the higher self, dignity, compassion, love, peace and balance. This equilibrium we call life demands to find balance.
The slave masters robbed many peoples of this balance. When slavery was over, the colonizers came and disrupted its yet fragile state again. Self-identity, spiritual grounding continues to be the thread which binds us all in a space to first be grateful for the experience of life, and appreciate the differences we all share; for in this space, we’ll find that physical differences are yet minimal. We have more varying personalities than anything else. For our character and personalities, like mine, is shaped by our earliest of experiences. Each being different, even members of the same family will inevitably be starkly different. Yet, they survive and are able to co-exist. If all understood how our bodies and brains were based on physics and metaphysics, and how we are scientifically connected, I believe we would perform to this standard. What religion, nationalism, colonialism, schisms, and -isms have done to humankind is criminal. People are killing people in the name of religion. False idealisms rooted in delusions of thought through propaganda and brainwashing. This is what the Christian churches, the Muslim mosques and the Judaic temples have done to wo/mankind.
On my journey of scholarship, I find peace in the knowledge that I am not alone; that my spirits-that is, my higher and lower selves have never left me since that first encounter of initiation. I am grounded because, while I celebrate all cultures, I am grounded in mine and have no misgivings about some other entity coming to “save” me. I am in control of my destiny and I work with my Unseen beings, which are ever-present to participate and witness in my success and growth. They also conspire to make everything work out for me. Success is measured by the obstacles we overcome to achieve levels in our lives-not the people one steps on to get there, but the ones she helped along the way. Ridding ourselves of microaggressions, racism and stereotypes is a daily task. A consciously deliberate decision to be totally free! Reconnecting to self allows for a glimpse of ones’ spiritual elements and tools; nevertheless, the greatest element is that of choice. I could very well choose to not engage with my Spiritual family; just as in the physical realm, if I chose to not engage with my physical family, I’d survive…granted, one far more arduous, but definitely doable. As masters of our world, we dictate how we wish to live our lives. Nevertheless, our responsibilities as active members of families and communities mean that we have an ethical obligation to ourselves, our children, our families-Seen and Unseen, and to our communities. Until we change our paradigms of thought, we will continue to fester in this overwhelming circle of de-connection, de-construction, and de-humanization. Connecting to the life-giving energy source, others and more importantly, our true selves is the first step.
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Brooksfield, S., & Guy, T. (2009). W.E.B. Du Bois’s Basic American Negro Creed and the Associates in Negro Folk Education: A case of repressive tolerance in censorship of radical Black discourse on Adult Education. Adult Education Quarterly.
Christ, C. P. (2006). Why Women Need the Goddess. In E. Hackett, & S. Haslanger, Theorizing Feminisms (pp. 211-219). New York: Oxford University Press.
Deren, M. (1953). Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. London and New York: Thames and Hudson.
Fanon, F. (1959). Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom. Wrethched of the Earth Speech to Congress of Black African Writers. Pelican.
Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
Michel, C., & Bellegarde-Smith, P. (2006). Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers. Gordonville, VA: Palgrave Macmillan.