Porsche Little, a Brooklyn-based artist, diviner, and aborisha — or someone who serves the Orisha, a group of spirits central to the Yoruba and other African Diaspora religions — says that she has received a huge increase in requests for divinations and readings throughout the pandemic.
“There’s so much happening right now in the world to everyone, and I know for certain that all of this is happening for a reason,” she says. “A lot of people are stuck in the house and can’t really make sense of their lives, but that’s what I’m here for.”
Little says when she counsels people in her community these days, they specifically want to talk about challenges arising from this tumultuous time we’re living in. Between a terrifying pandemic, a major racial reckoning, an existential crisis that climate change presents, and a government that fails to address any of these things, some Black people are turning to African and Black Diaspora traditions as a means of comfort, community, healing, and liberation.
“With the pandemic and the anxiety and the fear and all of those emotions that all of us are dealing with right now … in the beginning my spiritual practice helped keep me connected and grounded. It helped me understand this moment in the larger context,” says Akissi Britton, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University and Lucumí priestess for 36 years.
The Black Diaspora has been through centuries of struggle, resistance, and joy since being scattered from our original homelands. And through it all, many of us have connected with those original practices — food, family structures, languages — as a way of healing and building community with each other. The same goes for African and Black Diasporic spirituality, like the Yoruba, Lucumí, and Santería traditions; many practitioners of these religions offer a different type of healing, one that is removed from traditionally Westernized versions, which generally stress individualism and independence. African traditions, instead, are reliant upon collectivism, strong communities, and healthy interdependence.
Most of these traditions revolve around Orisha (sometimes referred to as Orisa, or Òrìṣà in the Yoruba language, or Orixá in Latin America), a group of spirits from the Yoruba religion that provide guidance. Yoruba and other practitioners are often connected to one Orisha, usually called their guardian — like Oshun, the goddess of love, fertility, and success, and Babalú-Aye, Orisha of healing, including against airborne diseases that can cause epidemics. People who seek practitioners like Little are looking for guidance, which comes from rituals that invoke the Orisha, like baths or offerings and sometimes the reading of tarot cards. Sessions and ceremonies are often private and individualized.
Britton says that growing up in the Afro-Cuban Lucumí religion, which is derived from the Yoruba tradition, gave her a fulfilling sense of self. “I am not separated from my Orisa, from my ancestors, from the spirits, as well as from my community,” she says. “When my sense of self is much broader and attached to other things, I don’t feel so isolated. I don’t feel so alone, like I’m trying to figure it out on my own.”
Britton spiritually counsels others, but she encourages them to seek therapy if they can, too; Lucumí priestesses are not necessarily trained therapists, psychiatrists, and psychologists. Britton has sought out therapy for herself, and says that it works well with her spiritual practice. Often in therapy, she says, “I have gotten information that my ancestors and Orisa have given to me, which is just confirmation.”
Jo, a former student of Britton’s and an Afro-Boricua artist and community organizer, says that the Lucumí religion offered her healing after a tumultuous relationship with both race and religion as a child. Growing up with a white mother and in the Christian church, Jo had little connection to her father’s Puerto Rican family. Still, she was always drawn to the beauty of the complex cultural practices in the Boricua community.
Early in her life, Jo says, she didn’t receive much affection from the people who were “supposed to love” her, and instead she experienced a lot of pain. She completely rejected Christianity and religion altogether, until she found strength and healing in Lucumí. Although she didn’t come to Lucumí until adulthood, she feels much of it has always been with her.
“In some weird way, I always felt protected,” she says. “My angels and ancestors have always been the ones to bring me that feeling. As an adult, I was led right back to the same innate practices I believed in when I was young. I reconnected with the voices and knowings I had turned away from for so long. And it changed my life.”
The liberation in connecting with African spirituality
For practitioners of African spirituality, healing often comes in the form of liberation and resistance. These traditions are made even more pressing considering the centuries-long attempts by European slave owners, colonists, and neo-colonists to suppress and demonize these religions. And now, in a time when America’s racist foundation has been pushed to the foreground, seeking solace in this connection feels especially poignant.
During slavery, Christianity was used to justify the horrific practice. As such, the enslaved were often forbidden from practicing their indigenous religions, and other religions like Islam. Even in places like Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and Trinidad, European colonists and slave masters attempted to obliterate the humanity and autonomy of enslaved Africans, Britton says. Many in the Black Diaspora embraced Christianity, finding a different sort of liberation in a religion meant to oppress them — a radical tradition that continues today, especially in the African American Episcopal Church (AME).
However, as a form of resistance, other enslaved Africans syncretized their indigenous religions with Christianity, creating traditions like Santería, Vodun, and Hoodoo. For instance, the word Santería means “honor to saints,” and the religion is infused with the Spanish Catholicism that was indoctrinated into enslaved Africans early on. In fact, some practitioners correspond Orishas with Catholic saints — Eleguá, associated with roads and paths, corresponds with Saint Anthony, the patron saint of travelers and lost things — while others believed in removing the Catholic component altogether, as they saw the European influences as antithetical to goals of decolonization and autonomy.
But syncretizing practices wasn’t a matter of happenstance. “[Africans’] ingenuity, their creativity, their brilliance allowed them to maintain certain practices from home while masking them in the practices that Europeans insisted upon,” Britton says. Santería was “the masking behind the saints … that in itself is a liberation practice,” she says.
Britton points out that the Haitian Revolution — the only successful slave revolt and an event that led to the creation of the first free Black republic — while not specifically Lucumí, was “the coming together of Africans, different ethnic groups too, that had a ceremony that inspired and gave strength for the revolution that made it.”
“Africans and their descendants [have] refused to allow Europeans slave masters and colonialists to dictate their full humanity,” Britton says. “This gave them a very strong sense of identity, inspiration, spiritual grounding that was liberatory in the sense that it allowed them to think differently and understand themselves differently than the dominant models do.”
Little, who is studying Ifá and Lucumí traditions, says honoring Orisha and her ancestors helps her connect with her past before enslavement and colonization. She has been following the path to become an initiated priestess, which is mostly focused on immersing oneself in community as they guide you, something that can feel like coming home for so many Black people. “I spent a lot of my life wondering who I was, and where I came from, but now I don’t question that. It has truly reconnected me with not only my roots but with people that I’ve known from past lives,” she says. “There’s a certain power that comes with remembering where you came from.”
Because of the oppression people in the Black Diaspora faced, however, stigma against African spirituality exists today. The Roman Catholic Church has often viewed these practices as akin to demon worship. I know in my own family, some people see these practices as evil or dangerous. Others embrace it.
Little says that we should interrogate those ingrained beliefs and where they come from, particularly relating to Christianity and other religions closely related to “conquest, murder, homophobia, sexism, and slavery amongst so many other forms of violence.” For Little, it’s worth questioning why some in the diaspora have been taught that African religion, which she says “connects you with your personal power, identity and lineage,” is evil. She suggests that “people need to decolonize their own minds and then see what serves them best.”
Ruqaiyyah Beatty, who grew up practicing Christianity, Islam, and other other African religions, is a now practitioner of Ifá, a Yoruba religion and system of divination. She says that through her practice, she was able to find healing through connection. “I was able to connect to Nigeria, it gave me a global network of spirituality, divine guidance, family, and love, and I was able to create and sustain a great relationship to god,” she says.
For those looking to get involved with African spiritual traditions, Britton stresses that research is key. She suggests reading books by independent scholar John Mason, who wrote Black Gods — Orisa Studies in the New World, which discusses 13 Orisha, including their symbols, personal characteristics, philosophical values, animal familiars, and feast days.
She also says it’s important to enter these spaces from a place of respect, seeking mentorship and accountability, and above all, community. “You cannot do this by yourself,” she stresses. The best way to guard against misinformation, Britton says, is to go slow, research, and talk to people.
While African spirituality can keep us connected during a time that can feel especially isolating, Little says, it can also keep us empowered. “I just want people to know that although there is a higher power, remember that you have power as well. I want us all collectively to start using our intuitions ... and to question everything.”