For The Ancestors
*Taking a break from the Race series today. This subject was on my mind and I had to express myself*
When I was thirteen years old, my art teacher took our class to see an exhibit at our local art museum. The exhibit was entitled:’Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African America’. The artwork came from all over the African Diaspora and focused on the transformation that ATR(African Traditional Religion) was forced to undergo to survive in the New World among African slaves and their descendants.
I can still remember the emotions that coursed through my body as I looked at the altars and paintings-the majesty of the Candomble altars, the vivid colors in the paintings depicting the loas of Haitian Vodoun, the Orishas of Cuba brought by Yoruba slaves. And even though I was a Christian-a Baptist at that-and was not supposed to feel any connection to such “pagan” things, and was supposed to view it all as evil witchcraft-there was an immediate mental and spiritual attraction. I didn’t feel that anything I was viewing was bad. On the contrary I felt it was beautiful. Looking at the displays and reading the stories associated with them, however, left me with a feeling of immense sadness. It took everything that I had within me to keep myself from collapsing to the floor in a pile of tears and wailing. Melodramatic and possibly insane? No not at all. For when I viewed the exhibit all I could think of what was done to my ancestors. Brutally separated from their homeland, they were denied even the comfort of their own beliefs. Those whose ships stopped in the Caribbean and Latin America had to go underground, with Elegua becoming St. Peter and Yemaya becoming Our Lady of Regla, and so on and so on.On that day, it was as if their pain and sadness was coming through me. But what could I do with those feelings? How could I feel any connection or real sympathy for my forefathers? For while my own church taught me to respect the struggles of my people, it did not teach me to respect the continent and culture that we sprang from. Our enslavement was certainly wrong and immoral, but our forced conversion to Christianity? That was a topic that wasn’t really brought up, much less criticized.
Any manifestation of African spirituality was bad. We weren’t even supposed to buy African carvings, masks or figurines, for fear that we’d bring demon spirits into our homes(and before you ask: I am dead serious, people really believe this stuff)! Spiritually and mentally all of this was quite confusing. On one hand I was supposed to respect my ancestors, yet on the other I was to shun and maintain distance from what they believed. It didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now. What my mind and my spirit told me conflicted with what came across the pulpit. There was no way I could reconcile the two.
But today, seventeen years later, I finally feel like I no longer need to do that. One positive aspect of leaving organized religion is that it has freed me from this struggle. I don’t have to think of my African ancestors as misguided,wicked or evil for their religious beliefs. I don’t have to maintain a disconnect from them in order to satisfy any rigid dogma.