Christianity in the Black community is one of those confusing pieces of history no one really likes to talk about. The religious institution rests at the heart of the Black community, where movements were mobilized, families saved, and children raised. So, questioning the ‘new to us,’ Westernized religious practices of Christianity would be like shifting the foundations of a treasured 500-year-old building. The point is, African American Christian faith stems from a convoluted mixture of religious concepts, theories and ideologies from ancient Africa and White Westernized beliefs and practices.
As a result of these conscious concepts of self-identity spreading among groups within the African American community, Black people are constantly reflecting on our ‘past life’ in an African nation, connecting with the ancestors and remembering who we are. Spirituality is part of the movement. Heavily infused in our Christian practices, consciously or subconsciously, Yoruba spirituality, an ancient African religious and spiritual practice, is alive and present in our community today.
Understood by most Westernized Christians as a pagan tradition, Yoruba principles are founded in the belief of one source, Oludumare or God. Then there are the orisha, or angel-like figures who assist in the “spiritual evolution of humankind.”* Religions across the world have Yoruba influences, i.e., Greek mythology.
The orisha are called “gods” and “goddesses” and act as messengers of Oludumare and assist in the development of daily activities. In antiquity, the orisha helped raised a nation of people.
“In the Yoruba religious system, one must believe in the orisha in order to ascent to god-consciousness –in order to reach the divine state of being. Yet a disruption of this endeavor has been brought about by Christian and Islamic influences.” * According to historical record, the Yoruba people dominated the culture of Africa as far back as 65,000 B.C. With the rise of slavery and colonization in Africa, Yoruba traditions began to become diluted or covered over by European religious practices as well as Arabic religions.
Baba Ifa Karade explains that most African slaves came from the Yoruba Empire, which was spread throughout the Atlantic coast of Africa. “As a result, the New World became inundated with a people knowledgeable of their culture and who were initiated members of its higher teachings,” he writes. “It is of no small wonder that Yoruba culture became the dominant theme of African American transference.”
As Diasporic Africans were converted to Christianity, some rejected or suppressed their traditions while others infused their traditions with the master’s practices, sort of masking Yoruba spirituality with Christianity. Catholicism made it much easier for the Yoruba to continue their traditions, maintaining worship and practices that emulated prayer to Catholic saints.
“The African maintained the ‘Africanness’ of religious being through spirituals; getting the Holy Ghost (a form of possession); shouting; speaking in tongues; intense preaching; etc.,” Karade states. “In general, the African soul was not extinguished, but simply transfigured to meet the Euro-social pressures under New World bondage.”
If you have ever heard of Santeria, predominantly practiced in Spanish speaking countries, Candomble, Voodun, or other Christian infused spiritual practices, you may be familiar with Yoruba. According to Karade, America was most successful at “domesticating Africans” by using religion and other culture-stripping methods; therefore, only remnants of African spirituality survived.
Today, more African Americans are returning to the traditions of our ancestors, unlearning Westernized religion. More and more Blacks across the nation are dedicating their spiritual lives to Nigerian influenced practices, where Yoruba culture is most prevalent. Some small kingdoms have even been sprouting up over the decades in the U.S.; towns dedicated to traditional Yoruba. The African kingdom near Beaufort County South Carolina called Oyotunji was established in the 1970s. Free from Western influences, the village people of Oyotunji freely practice African traditional spirituality and celebrate their ancestors. Visitors are welcome to learn, grow, and experience the movement back to Africa. More information is available at www.oyotunjiafricanvillage.org.
*The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts by Baba Ifa Karade pg. xiii