2018 Consultation Reflections: Real Community

Real Community

by Kathlene Corley

M.Div. Student, Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina

I decided to attend The Daughters of the African Atlantic’s consultation only knowing that a trusted mentor said I would enjoy it. Reading over the proposed workshops and forums energized me, setting a high expectation that would miss the mark. What I found during the consultation was a place that felt like home. The feeling of familiarity, similar to a grandmother’s loving hug, set the atmosphere, created a clear difference between The Daughters of the African Atlantic’s consultation and any other conference or consultation I have attended. Each workshop, event, forum, and meal was community focused. None failed.

Content quality could be discussed for days; however, there was one item, in particular, that will be the focus of this post as it will likely stick with me for the rest of my life. A time was set aside for Community Building and Engagement in small group break-outs. Each group included an interpreter, women native to Brazil, and women from other areas of the diaspora, intentionally creating opportunities for exchange that may not take place otherwise. Each person openly shared the first time they met a Black person from another country, a Black woman from another country, and their experiences with privilege and a lack thereof as a Black woman. Listening to the sisters speak, I heard similar emotions attributed to differing encounters and experiences. Some of them caused us to laugh while others weighed heavier on the group. Though their words greatly shaped my take-aways, I will not attempt to tell any of their stories here. However, I will attempt to share something I verbalized for the first time during that group.

My first thoughts of being less than equal had nothing to do with the beautiful brown that adorns my body. As a young woman in a poor urban area most of the people around me were Black. The injustices I experienced, as understood by a child, were attributed to my gender, not my Blackness. It was easy to see that my younger brother was given more praise, trust, and respect than I was. My mother was treated differently than my step-father and uncle. Men were applauded for being present, even though the women themselves were never absent. My baby brother’s future was bright because the world was at his feet, and, on the other hand, I may do well if someone decided to date the girl with glasses who stuttered when she spoke. Value (or lack of value) was placed on five-year-old me based on the chances that I may be valuable to a man one day.

Life and changes in our familial income showed me that it was not only being female that changed how I was perceived and addressed. A Black girl could not be as smart as the White girl and was only in the top class because they needed a Black girl, according to my classmates. During school I fought to prove I belonged. That was a waste of time. It was painfully clear that everyone in the room was expected to be better, brighter, and more worthy than me because I was Black and female. During those formative years, many of my Black friends stated they wanted to be White or have hair like White girls, and it baffled me. I understood how much harder and more painful it was for us, but I was proud to be the one who was overlooked and still smarter than anyone realized. There was joy in my personal celebration of what is to be a Black Girl.

Graduating from college, entering, and continuing in my career opened opportunities that would have otherwise been closed for me. As my career was beginning, I associated privilege with a change in economic status. For the majority of my life I saw no benefit in being a Black woman living my reality. To be clear I am not stating that there are no benefits or that I would want to be anyone other than a Black woman, but being a Black woman is hard. We are abused and not heard; we are the engine that is not cared for; and a Black woman is the one who is discarded when the ship comes in. The tenacity of Black women kept me proud to be who I am.

While contemplating how to answer the small group question about experiences of privilege, I realized the first time I felt there was a privilege in being a Black woman. It occurred during the 2017 women’s conference at Shaw University. The theme was “Lives of Black and Brown Girls Matter.” Latinx women were describing the horrific experiences of children being taken from hospitals and deported to other countries. Women who look like me and love their children with the same fierceness with which I love mine were living a nightmare removed from my reality. I sat there embarrassed because I had no idea this was happening. I felt powerless because my voice did not carry the weight to create the change needed to stop it. The only difference between them and me is that there was less chance that this horror would happen to me (although thousands of Black mothers and fathers have seen their children wrongfully taken into the foster care system) because I am a Black woman born in the United States. That was the first time I recognizably felt there was a privilege in being a Black woman in this country.

Realizing that truth hurt. My mind continued to process it for weeks after returning home. I began this blog comparing the atmosphere of the consultation to the safely and solace one may find resting in their grandmother’s arms. That atmosphere provided the space where I was able to be completely raw in my experience as a Black woman and to learn from openness of others. My journal notes from the consultation continue to inspire me. So, if I may add to my answer from the small group session, this is it: It is a privilege as a Black woman to be in spaces like the one created by The Daughters of the African Atlantic. It is a space where individuals are challenged holistically and cared for throughout the process. And rigorous, critical analysis is never lost in the process. It was a privilege to be among Black women from around the world and to know that I am home by listening to what cannot be heard with human ears and embracing what I did not know I possessed.

 

 

2018 Consultation Reflections: Brazil Is Like the United States, Except…

Brazil Is Like the United States, Except…

by Shoshana A. Brown, LMSW

This summer I took on the exciting and edgy experience of traveling to Brazil with The Daughters of the African Atlantic Fund to attend their African and African Diasporan Women in Religion and Theology consultation. As a Black mixed-race Jewish femme, I certainly had my reservations of what the experience would be, particularly as I was attending alone and without any particularly special invitation. As a Tzovah in the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, I have been on a journey to discover the language that best describes my practice of Judaism that incorporates indigenous Senegalese spiritual practices. I looked forward to allowing this consultation to help me refine and root deeply in the language I was writing about. I also sought to learn about Brazil and Brazilian culture and history.

Learning from some amazing Brazilian Womxn scholars and Candomblé practitioners was exactly what I hoped. Brazil is much like the United States. Brazil has a similar history of slavery, though much larger and longer. This means that there are many Black folks in Brazil and the nature of the way people identify their race is also more nuanced. The rates of violence against women is similarly high, and yet the homicides of Black women (quoted as 51 percent of all attempted homicides) are not considered gender violence. This along with research showing that Black womxn in Brazil have higher rates of risky abortion (which is illegal there) demonstrates the lack of value placed on the bodies of Black womxn in Brazil. The same can be said for the United States as we witness the devastating murders from Eleanor Bumpers (1984) to Crystalline Barnes (2018) and notably #SandraBland in the surge of the #sayhername movement. It was evident throughout the panels, side conversations, and personal anecdotes that Black womxn in Brazil share similar experiences to Black womxn in the United States.

While there are lots of similarities between the institutionalization of racism and sexism in Brazil and the United States, there is one difference that stood out – indigenous practice. The practice of Candomblé in Brazil was shared through a number of panels as well as an immersion experience in a Candomblé house. We learned about the vulnerability of Candomblé right now resulting from escalating violence on Candomblé houses mostly by people who are Christians, Protestant or Catholic. Religious intolerance continues to be a major topic of debate in Brazil.

Here in the United States, earth-based spiritual practices are flourishing as more activists find some of the policies and traditions of the Black church oppressive towards queer folks or inconsistent with their personal politics. You can find Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors discussing these tensions in the On Being podcast. While many folks feel pushed out of the church, they are finding roots and home in earth-based and embodied practices such as burning sage, crystal magic, meditation, and yoga. These practices are on the rise and are thriving. Many churches have begun to incorporate these spiritual aspects as a result.

So, while Brazil is very similar to the United States, the spiritual landscapes of the two countries are on an opposite trajectory. This consultation was affirming for my research, and I certainly obtained what I intended to. While I always expect to experience Christian hegemony as a Black Jew, I had hoped that at a consultation of African and African Diasporan Women there would be a bit more embodied practice and integration of spirituality actually infused throughout the experience. We must always remember that the absence of spirituality and religion does not actually create equality; rather it reinforces the dominant narrative – here it was Christianity.

 

We Honor and Celebrate Marielle Franco!

We Honor and Celebrate Marielle Franco!

The Daughters of the African Atlantic Fund abhors the murder of black Brazilian activist Marielle Franco.  In solidarity with movements for black empowerment in Brazil, we share Kia Caldwell, Wendi Muse, Tianna Paschel, Keisha-Khan Perry, Christen Smith, and Erica Williams’ collective statement on Franco’s murder, originally published on The Black Scholar‘s website. Click here to read that statement entitled “On the Imperative of Transnational Solidarity: A U.S. Black Feminist Statement on the Assassination of Marielle Franco.” 

Afro-Brazilian Retentions: A Reservoir for Deepening Diasporic Knowledge

Afro-Brazilian Retentions: 

A Reservoir for Deepening Diasporic Knowledge

by Katie G. Cannon

Introduction

When the Society for the Study of Black Religion (SSBR) announced a 2012 travel-study seminar to Brazil, my response was an immediate “Yes, I want to go.” I was drawn to this extraordinary excursion, and also found resonance in the theme, Traveling the Ancestral Road, because over the years I have created African-centered courses in order to teach seminarians about retentions embedded in the experience of the dislocation and dispersal of Africans as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.  I was also enthusiastic about studying with Dr. Rachel E. Harding. Her book A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness (2003) is a meticulously researched study, a required text in my classes. I welcomed the experience of walking the city streets of Salvador with Professor Harding, benefitting from her wealth of knowledge and fluency in Portuguese, while conversing informally with SSBR colleagues as we moved from one place to another in the countryside of Bahia.

Traveling the Ancestral Road was a major intellectual and life-changing adventure—not only were we introduced to prominent religious, political, social leaders, first-rate interpreters of the Portuguese language and keen travel guides in Salvador, but there is a treasure trove of disaporic knowledge available, when one can see, up close and personal, richly decorated Candomblé terreiros, gold-laden churches, hand-painted tiles, folks in beautiful laced, white hooped skirts dancing in counterclockwise circles, translucent, porcelain-like cowry shell jewelry, and children in rhythmic drum corps marching in the Independence Day parade along narrow, cobblestone streets.

In numerous ways, conversations with members of the Brazilian Candomblé Terreiro do Cobre community illuminated underlying presuppositions about African elements in religious culture. The opportunity to witness the Candomblé Ceremony for the Orisha Xangô Ayrá at Ilê Axé Iyá Nassô Oka, the oldest Candomblé temple in continual existence in Brazil, aligned closely with the signature features in all of my African-centered courses.

Against this backdrop, participating in Dr. Harding’s seminar, Traveling the Ancestral Road: A Journey of Cultural and Religious Exchange to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, had double significance: first, our visit to the Tanuri Junçara terreiro to hear the lecture, on Art and Aesthetics of Candomblé, by Dr. Jaime Sodré, introduced me to pertinent information for a larger and more engaged discourse about Ethics, Ethnicity, and Architectonic Texts. Second, going to the home of historian/healer/ritual specialist, Elder Priestess Makota Valdina Pinto, for the workshop, Sacred and Medicinal Herbs of Candomblé, provided valuable insights I can add to the section on healing pharmacopoeia in my course, Character, Culture, and Craft in African Traditional Religions. Therefore, in this essay I reflect on my exposure to two avenues that deepened my research database regarding Afro-Brazilian retentions in the religion of Candomblé: architectonic aesthetics and healing pharmacopoeia.

Architectonic Aesthetics

Dr. Jaime Sodré’s lecture, Art and Aesthetics of Candomblé, was spiced with engaging anecdotes and laced with warm humor. Sodré, a Professor at the Institute of Federal Education, Science and Technology (IFBA) campus Salvador, Bahia State University and the College of the City of Salvador, earned a Master’s degree in Theory and History and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Social History. Based on his repertoire of knowledge about African customs, traditions, and art, Sodré is one of the world’s most renowned researchers of African-Brazilian culture.

The general theme of Professor Sodré’s lecture was to situate Afro-Brazilian art in its socio-historical context and to identify the roots of its material modes and intimate continuities with an Angolan worldview. Even more specifically, focusing on how African ancestry merged with existential life experienced in Bahia, Professor Sodré increased our visual vocabulary by showing slides and talking about perceptive and transformative images intricately carved in Afro-Brazilian sculptures, masks, chairs, and other artistic patterns and designs. The styles and techniques of these creative expressions are transatlantic conduits of mediums and messages, concrete and recognizable entities of both form and function of dialectical retentions of what was and what now is.

Sodré’s presentation gave us the vantage point from which to understand visual politics as categories of cultural truth that are not written narratives, but living aesthetic documents. In other words, this lecture provided intellectual means for us to exegete architectonic texts, non-scribal scriptures that artists receive from the spirit world and express as emblematic objects and mythic images. The range of culturally determined media and materials—selection of designs, colors, dyes, patterns, textures–glass beads, cowries shells, wood, metal, clay, ivory, and fiber—is essentially the same in architectonic texts as the selective reportage of written sources designated as holy.

Origin and age are fundamental to understanding the aesthetic influence of representative art, as well as knowing who can own it, and what it is worth. Artistically, graphic language can be both sacred and profane, beautiful and vulgar. Even when artwork is controversial, there is little evidence, thus far, of a symbolic text being censored or considered too extreme to be included in the Afro-Brazilian eclectic canon. A fundamental understanding is that architectonic aesthetics are nuanced visual statements representing multi-stranded, thickly textured, open-ended pluralist expressions of African people’s memories and movements in the Americas.

According to Sodré, it is precisely because of the artist’s direct access to the spirit world that the meanings of some of the colorful emblems of the Orishas used in ceremonies are concealed from outsiders and the uninitiated. Bahian craftpersons’ affinity with West Africa and Candomblé enable indigenous carvers, weavers, painters, ceramists, printmakers, and sculptors to use their skills, imagination, and special “eyes” to receive visions, to dream dreams, to signify certain religious messages about what is important in the public and private, official and unofficial religious life.

Sodré, who has done major work on Orisha fidelities and ancestral responsibilities, talked about the retention sensitivities of iconographic motifs in Candomblé. Affiliations with orishas, the refusal to split, to dichotomize, to become disembodied with detached remoteness from the divine presence in the daily fabric of life, enable artists to express internal revelations in external modalities. With very few exceptions, Afro-Brazilian art, rooted in the coexistence of religious sentient and cultural specificities, is a strong articulation of diaspora literacy.

Furthermore, I am most appreciative to Dr. Sodré for introducing me to the aesthetics of inventive sculptured totems in the work of a Bahian artist, Deoscóredes Maximiliano dos Santos, popularly known as Mestre Didi. Sodré provided us with a close look at the artist Mestre Didi,[i] who was initiated as a priest in Orisha worship and whose icongraphic figural sculptures are known for their beautiful, asymmetrical balance. Artists, such as Mestre Didi, use multiple approaches in order to bear witness to departed ancestors who are present in the lives of the living. Most significant is that the themes and inferential details in Mestre Didi’s mobile totems defy traditional assumptions about distinctions between humans, animals, and the divine.

In other words, by creating unbalanced inventive sculptured totems, Mestre Didi, as an artist and priest, uses artistic technology to transcend fixed boundaries and to communicate ontology as an uneven vital spirit-force in the realm of divine beauty and existential power. Unproblematic for Mestre Didi is any effort at a counterpoised position. His productive linking of tradition with talent enhanced his ability to create works of art as coherent designs of antithetical equilibrium. The message of Mestre Didi’s medium can be summed up in the metaphysical language of liberation ethics—humans share the sacred force of beingness with members of our species and the wider environment in which we are situated.

Healing Pharmacopoeia

It has been known for centuries that there is an inseparable cultural retentionary link between indigenous religions and medicinal healing found in West Africa, and that this retentionary link and heritage of traditional pharmacopoeia extends across the Atlantic Ocean as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.[ii] Medicine women and men know the names and properties of herbs, trees, roots, seeds, bones, birds, animals and mineral sources. Similar facts are known about other sorts of potent elements found in nature that herbalists use in the cultivation and preparation of healing recipes and folk remedy formulas.

Those of us who teach African Traditional Religions understand how healers work as diviner-counselors, diagnosing illnesses, removing obstacles, and discerning people’s troubles of every sort. They perform rituals to drive away witches, exorcize evil spirits, offer protection from danger, remove curses, detect dishonesty and theft, eradicate aggressive anger, and offer patients safe traveling mercies. A reality I learned early on is that some healers inherit the position of medicine men and medicine women, while others are called via dreams or through a series of spirit visitations.           

On Friday morning, June 29th, when we arrived at the home of Elder Priestess Makota Valdina Pinto for the workshop, Sacred and Medicinal Herbs of Candomblé, it was clear that Elder Makota was well-versed in the rudiments of the healing arts. In the early 1970s, Elder Makota left Catholicism, and in 1975, was initiated into the religion of Candomblé. Throughout her lecture, she integrated her curative knowledge with her role as priestess. She shared with us the properties and uses of plants in religious rites, such as prayers and offerings. Elder Makota can identify which Orisha is making a request of someone, as well as diagnosing illnesses caused by another individual. Even though the core of Afro-Brazilian medical lore is sacred, Elder Makota willingly shared important wisdom with us outsiders, and we are grateful that she considered us worthy of receiving it.

Elder Makota introduced a variety of living plants that are indispensable to life. Some were fresh leaves, others dried roots. Numerous green trees surround her house, transforming energy from the sun into healing vibrations and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere through the mechanisms of photosynthesis. She indicated that her intention is to continue unearthing the healing mysteries embedded in germinated seeds and to catalogue the apothecary of incredibly diverse flora growing in her organic pharmacopoeia in accordance with their utility and significance in the religion of Candomblé.

In describing culinary herbs used for the restoration of health, Elder Makota pointed to instances in which some plants are used for purification, a few mediate disputes, and one or two provide protection against danger, and others serve as energy sources for perseverance against great difficulties. She said, “Every household should have at least one sword plant (what is known in the USA as a snake plant) to ward off evil.”

Echoing throughout her presentation were examples of the mutual relationships and interactions between religious rituals, prohibitions, taboos, and ecological justice. This means that there should be no separation between what we believe and our embodied styles of life. Religious people need to be good stewards and become more resourceful regarding our planet. Elder Makota asked, “What is earth?”  Immediately she followed her inquiry with this answer, “Earth is a packet of healing energies, created by God for life. We need the soil, sun, water and wind. If there are no leaves, there is no earth.”  Elder Makota’s message was clear: “We can no longer ignore how our negative behaviors affect humankind and the rest of nature.”

Intrigued while listening to Elder Makota, I remembered how in the past when I talked with medicine women in my hometown in rural North Carolina, they too were well versed about the various ways plants provide us with essential healing oils and curative seasonings. For instance, it is worth mentioning that in 1959, I witnessed, first-hand, one of our local healers, Ms. Lottie, perform the ritual of talking the fire out of my body.  As a pre-teen, I was seriously burned while using a steam iron. When Ms. Lottie completed the ritual of talking the fire out, the pain of my burn vanished. There was no scar, no inflammation, not even a blister in the spot where my flesh was burning only moments before. Medicine women, like Ms. Lottie and Elder Makota, know how to distinguish between seeds and fruit that are toxic and poisonous and those that restore health and wholeness. As naturopath-herbalists, they know how to treat illnesses by extracting medicinal drugs from flowers, tree-barks, stems, leaves, and roots.  Elder Makoto articulated it this way, “The smell and shape of a plant will tell you what you can use it for. Also, your eyes will tell you what plant is good for you.”

However, it was Elder Makota’s prophetic articulation of an earth ethic that made my visit with this particular sacred healer different from all others. In Salvador, Bahia, Elder Makota presented her usable, botanical wisdom within an expanded view of our moralscape. She reminded us that the Afro-Brazilian retention of effectively treating illnesses with medicinal properties of plants is essential to our ongoing existence. She said, “The time it took to create this planet, the process the planet has to go through takes a long, long time. Some plants have not evolved. We may be destroying things that have not yet come to life.” Actualizing responsible earth ethics is not only necessary, but is a mandate for genuine doers of justice.

Elder Makota’s conclusion is prophetic. The focal point of her lecture is that humankind will self-destruct, if we continue contaminating, corrupting, and genetically modifying living organisms. Within the shifting matrix of the world’s powers and principalities, it is high time for us to rethink what it means to participate in wholistic common action for the well-being of the common good. In other words, if planetary healing is mandatory, more work needs to be done to place human health and earth wholeness into a balanced interactive relation to each other, in order to extend the horizons of both.

Conclusion

Traveling the Ancestral Road was an intense cultural immersion experience, wherein each day of our journey was like seeing through a prism the reflection and refraction of precious Brazilian gemstones. The richness, rigor, and breadth of our daily agenda, cast off light in many directions, creating a variety of meaning-making encounters that increased my conceptual sensibility to artistic beauty, to the healing arts of Candomblé, to live dance and talking-drum performances. All of this dramatically deepened my understanding of Bahia as the capital of African culture in the Americas.

This reservoir that increased my diasporic knowledge consists of exposure to an array of conceptual and thematic African retentions, as well as elements of cultural reciprocity in the daily lives of Afro-Brazilian women, men and children. The growing-edge here is that, participating in this study-seminar enabled me to grasp the prominence of mythical iconography, wherein, before, I had only read about it. This new mindset loosened presupposed, conventional knowledge about spirit possession in indigenous religions, sharpened critical reflections about imperialism and the enslavement of Africans by Portuguese enslavers, and heightened appreciation for the gifts of healing present in the African American context.

In order to create a more provocative learning environment when I teach African-centered courses in the future, I will integrate mental and visceral knowledge regarding ritual repetitions and festive arts with innovative methods that bridge these two realms, so that students can obtain answers to research questions that expand our intellectual discourse about Afro-Brazilian religious, social, political, and cultural realities.

Previously, in each African-centered course, we viewed documentary films and video clips about African Religions in the Americas, along with reading and analyzing weekly required texts. When local museums presented African exhibits, we took field trips. With a commitment to keep my memory green about life-lessons learned during this 2012 seminar, Traveling the Ancestral Road, my task is now to create processes of learning that will enable students to hear a multitude of voices performing and to see with new eyes Candomblé’s sharing of votive food with visitors during festal assemblies.

For a greater awakening of diasporic discoveries and imaginative possibilities, it will be worthwhile for us, as co-learners, to participate in a variety of meaning-making artistic expressions. Furthering the medium of performance pedagogy, I will now invite seminarians to make their theological perspectives tangible, by writing creative commentaries, crafting feeling-pictures, composing fragmented collages, etc., so that silences can be heard and graphic literacy can be brought to life. Moreover, I will expand the course requirement of annunciation-celebration, by providing opportunities for us to listen to talking drums and pay closer attention to documentaries that include spirit-possessed choreography. Of course, to state these pedagogical changes another way is to say, I will encourage students to investigate African religions via non-hierarchical, multiple entry and exit points, and expand the range of knowledge-sharing via sources available in cyberspace.

Furthermore, I note that amidst the busyness of our 21st century technopolis, I will create a digitized educational component on earth ethics. Hopefully, by mixing-and-matching generative surges of sustainable possibilities with interdependent, harmonious trajectories, seminarians can become informed participants in the environmental justice movement. In turn, we can reduce our destruction of non-renewable natural resources and expand our consciousness as humans, who are not only dependent on plants for medicine, but also for food, beverages, shelter, clothing, tools, and fuel. In essence, the bottom-line, organizing question is this: How are we affected daily by the pollution in our air, water, and soil, pollutions that cannot be dispersed, diluted, decomposed, recycled, nor stored in some harmless form?

To sum up, this travel seminar to Salvador, Bahia provided me with distinct sites of data for my Afrocentric courses. New questions emerged about varying constellations and connections between Brazilians who make up the largest African diaspora in the Americas, indeed in the world, and people of African ancestry in the United States of America. In essence, Traveling the Ancestral Road expanded my territorial horizons, enlarged my religious consciousness, challenged codes of meaning within my eco-justice-faith formation— deepened my African soul.

Notes

[i] Mestre Didi is the son of Maria Bibiana do Espirito Santo (“Mãe Senhora”) who was Iyalorixá of one of Bahia’s most important Candomblé terreiro communities – Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá – from 1942-1967.

[ii] See, also Manoel Raimundo Querino, The African Contribution to Brazilian Civilization, translated by E. Bradford Burns, Arizona State UP, 1978; Shelia S. Walker, ed. African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas, Rowman & Little, 2001.

Katie Geneva Cannon is Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.