Gimmie That Old Time (Tribal) Religion

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

I admire a good ghost story, especially a “true” one. I read tales of the paranormal. I watch those ghost investigator shows on television. And I’ve been known to take ghost tours in cities that I visit. I am intrigued by the idea of unknown realms beyond our comprehension. I love that glance-behind-you-and-make-sure-the-closet-door-is-shut chill that lingers for days after hearing a particularly delicious spooky tale. And I am fascinated by the places where history and the paranormal meet, like Gettysburg, Pa. But one aspect of ghost stories—true and otherwise—that I am not so fond of is the demonization of the traditional spirituality of people of color.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard reputed hauntings attributed to Indian burial grounds, angry shamans or the mere fact that “y’know where your house sits used to be Native American land.” (Cue ominous music…duh, duh, duh, DUH!)

Not as popular, but too common, is the “slaves were here” explanation. Watching a DVR’d episode of Ghost Hunters the other night, I heard a woman at a historic house that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad explain a supposedly haunted room by sharing the accepted lore about the space: (paraphrase) People say some slaves got in here an sacrificed an animal. (Cue ominous music…duh, duh, duh, DUH!)

Why do we never hear this?

Worried homeowner: I just don’t understand what is happening. Furniture is moving about the house. My wife hears disembodied voices in the laundry room. Our little Billy is interacting with a shadowy figure in the backyard and the dog refuses to go into the basement.

Ghost expert: Well, Mr. Homeowner, we’ve done some research and…some Episcopalians once held a church service right on this very land! (Cue ominous music…duh, duh, duh, DUH!)

What? Not scary enough for you?

As a black woman, I am sensitive to the ways that traditional African or African-influenced religions get a bad rap in American pop culture. I say this, even as someone who was raised a Christian.

The words Voodoo and Santeria conjure up all kinds of nasty images, thanks in part to racist Hollywood depictions of the faiths. Even I once bought into these beliefs being spooky and satanic. It wasn’t until I took a fascinating class on radicalism and the black church, taught by none other than Rev. Jeremiah Wright, that I learned the truth about African religions and how people of the Diaspora adapted them, using them for spiritual strength and to spur the battle for freedom and civil rights.

Voodoo is a religious tradition originating in West Africa, which became prominent in the New World due to the importation of African slaves. West African Vodun is the original form of the religion; Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo are its descendants in the New World. Read more.

Santeria is one of the many syncretic religions created in the New World. It is based on the West African religions brought to the New World by slaves imported to the Caribbean to work the sugar plantations. These slaves carried with them their own religious traditions, including a tradition of possession trance for communicating with the ancestors and deities, the use of animal sacrifice and the practice of sacred drumming and dance. Those slaves who landed in the Caribbean, Central and South America were nominally converted to Christianity. However, they were able to preserve some of their traditions by fusing together various Dahomean, baKongo (Congo) and Lukumi beliefs and rituals and by syncretizing these with elements from the surrounding Christian culture. Read more.

You may not agree with these belief systems, but I maintain that they are no more frightening than the Celtic polytheism that influences a lot of modern New Age belief and indeed some of traditional Christianity. Why is New Ageyness seen as benign, if not a bit silly, while African-based traditions on the other hand are viewed as dark and demonic?

Oh, I know this is a little thing. Ghost stories are meant to be harmless fun. I take them in that spirit. But it rankles when I see drumming, gyrating, chanting, scantily-clad Africans, bathed in firelight, used as shorthand for impending evil in some film. And it annoys me that the tour guide at the Underground Railroad stop mentioned above would assume slaves were summoning ghosties with their dark tribal religion, instead of, say, gathering spiritual strength for what must have been a harrowing journey to freedom.

File this under minor racial annoyance…another dull ache.