Look to Oshun.
This was the random phrase that came into my mind during meditation — the one that started me on a nearly decade long journey into practicing a much maligned and largely misunderstood tradition. At the time, I had no idea of its meaning or the changes that delving into it would bring to my life. In fact, I didn’t even know who Oshun was.
I did, however, know enough to at least take some time to do a little research, and doing so led me to studying and practicing a tradition that I never would have imagined on my own.
The tradition in question is Ifá, one of many African diaspora traditions that are practiced around the world. The few times I’ve mentioned my tradition to people, they’ve immediately associated it with voodoo, or the media version of it anyway, another African diaspora tradition still practiced in parts of the South and Caribbean. Because of a combination of media misinformation, racism and general misunderstanding, these traditions have become synonymous with black magic, blood sacrifice and zombies. Needless to say, these misunderstandings give people a very negative view of my tradition and, by extension, myself, when in fact the tradition has more to do with honoring your ancestors and the earth than poking people with voodoo dolls.
In the Ifá tradition, Oshun is the Goddess of creativity, beauty and love, a fitting Goddess for a writer. Indigenous African traditions were brought over to the Americas during the era of slavery, when many of them blended and synchronized with both Christianity and the beliefs of the local indigenous peoples to form new religious systems such as Vodun, Candomblé and Santeria.
It was also during this time that the demonization of these traditions began. Practitioners were told that their religion was savage and evil, tantamount to devil worship and forbidden to practice. This view of African diaspora traditions still exists today. Fueled by historical oppression and modern day media images, any mention of African religion still brings to mind images of voodoo dolls and blood sacrifice. It’s little wonder then that although the reclaiming of these traditions — especially by young African Americans — is growing, it’s still something that is kept relatively under the radar.
Many black families are deeply religious, and the church still has a major influence on culture, community and family life. Though my family is not as religious as some, this was still true for me growing up, to some extent, and has certainly played a role in why I’ve largely hidden my new religion from my family.
When I offhandedly mentioned to my grandmother, for instance, that she reminded me in some ways of the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple proprietor, who I’d made friends with while researching a book, she was genuinely shocked and expressed heartfelt concern for the safety of my soul. After getting this reaction over a mere friendship, I realized it might be best to keep my practice largely to myself — even as far as my family is concerned.
My mother, who considers herself agnostic, is the only one who knows, and as open-minded as she is, she’s largely avoided talking to me about it in depth.
Dating has been a whole other challenge. It’s not that I’ve sought out people who have a similar practice, but rather that the reactions I’ve gotten from the few romantic partners I’ve told have been so negative. They range from condescension that I, an educated person, would believe in something so “silly” and “primitive,” to horror that I would practice “witchcraft” or “devil worship.”
Needless to say, both of these reactions come from people who don’t know the first thing about the actual beliefs or practices of African tradition. In truth the tradition is one of the oldest in the world, predating the concept of the devil by thousands of years. It’s a complex system based on ancestor worship and reverence for the natural world that, like most indigenous traditions, is anything but primitive.
What’s more, the practice of Ifá has been immeasurably good for me and brought immense positivity into my life since I began studying it. My Iya, short for Iyanifa, a priestess of the tradition, has become like a second mother to me. I’ve spent countless hours at her house just talking about life — mine as well as hers — and getting guidance. Sometimes this guidance is in the form of spiritual divinations, but more often it’s just solid, good advice from an elder family member. The handful of times I’ve met other practitioners, they’ve also often felt like instant family; the community vibe is very much encouraged at least in the diaspora traditions that I’ve seen.
Practicing Ifá has also encouraged me to look into my family history. To be more aware and grateful for the sacrifices of my ancestors, both known and unknown. It’s given me a new perspective on the importance of nature, family and community and, in my opinion, has made me a more patient, happy person overall.
I will probably always get negative reactions from some people whenever I mention the tradition I follow, but in some ways I’ve found this to be a good thing. It serves as a sort of litmus test for new people. Anyone who would make judgments on an unfamiliar tradition is probably not someone I would get along with in the long-term anyway. Most family members have come to be at least understanding of the urge to connect to a culture and ancestry that was stolen generations ago. Overall, following this tradition has improved my relationship with the world around me immeasurably, more than making up for any short-term negative effects.
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