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THÉRMASMA MAGAZINE - Approved Draft N.7, 2004

Origins Of African American Spiritualism

It was a very typical African afternoon, the sun was high, hot, and muggy. People were everywhere in the village square under the few coconut trees. As the drums began to beat, suddenly people could be seen running and hurrying to the square from every direction. There seemed to be an air of expectancy. Something was happening and once in a while there was a loud noise from the crowd. But this was no play. It was not even a political rally. No one seemed curious because everybody knew what was happening, for that moment it was a sensational happening of great importance. Now as one looked one could see a tall dark skinned man in the center of a human circle wearing only a white waist cloth covered with white clay. He also wore several talismans around his neck, ankles, and arms. Now he gyrates in circles and steps as if walking on fire. The drums beat and several women in white, who seem to be his assistants, begin to feel his movements as if he is in fact talking with them. These are the Okomfo, and one by one they stand up and raise their hands. The right hand is lifted and then stretched up and forward with the second and third fingers pointed to the dancer, who by this time is in a frenzy. He is the most revered priest of the Klote Lagoon the keeper of the oral traditions, the interpreter of the gods, who knows all things present and in the future. The people shout in fear, admiration, and respect. Now his eyes are focused on the crowd and his chest is wet and the drops of sweat shine on him like little stars at night. He begins to move towards the audience and now he displays his knowledge handed to him through the years. He takes a walk and as if he is a lion, and then a bull. The audience now in fear and anticipation moves back. The priest shouts and does several somersaults and waves his lion’s tail, the Awuja, to emphasize his power. He jumps high. The great fetish is now being possessed by the great Lagoon Spirit. Now he moves around and his eyes dilate, he now speaks in a tongue that no one understands. The Okomfo bring him a potion to drink in a special bowl and they dance around him, moving back and forth . Now the high priest is in full possession of the Spirit of the ancestors and he waves his lion’s tail, the Awuja, towards his audience. Now whoever he points to is automatically possessed and moves into the circle and dances without hesitation. This begins to take hold of the audience and soars like a wind through it. Some are dancing in a frenzy and tearing off their clothes. The women priests move in to make sure that no one is hurt. The possession of the spirit is no respecter of persons. It works and subdues any and all.
The priest who is considered the great and only true mediator between men and the gods is also the mediator between the family and the ancestors, between the weak and the strong. He will pour libation for the possessed to help them maintain a proper connection with their dead ancestors. They will have to return later with food, goats, and other tokens of respect and hospitality and then perform the proper rituals as mandated by the Holy Priest who in his possession by the spirits has seen the destiny of the possessed who were overcome by the spirit. This is the ultimate spirituality; for in African traditional life spirituality is the foundation of one’s being. One’s destiny is bound up in it from the time one is born to the time one dies. And through this ritual of spiritualization the gods are able to transfer a sacred consciousness to the High Priest who can then share it with the people . Hence the priest in his state of spirituality is able to help to ensure that the people are in balance with the gods, the ancestors, and other living persons, families, and nature.
The desecration of Africa in the past by the Western European powers seriously and adversely affected the traditional cultures of the indigenous African people and in consequence many traditional beliefs, social vaules, customs, and rituals were demeaned or disvalued as “pagan” or “superstitious.” True culture is the what and the how of a peoples’ creative survival, and the introduction of European Christianity separated the indigenous Africans from the ancient roots of their traditions and their identity. Traditional African religion is centered around the existence of one Supreme High God. However, the Europeans who spread Christianity in Africa never understood or properly appreciated the African’s own conception of the Great Creator. They saw no similiarity between the God they preached and the African’s own belief in the One Supreme God and creator who was , king, Omnipotent, Omniscient, the Great Judge, Compassionate, Holy and Invisible, Immortal and Transcendent. The traditional African belief is that the Great One brought the divinities into being. He, therefore is the maker and everything in heaven and on earth owe their origin to Him alone. He is the Great king above all Kings and can not be compared in majesty. He is above all majesties and divinities. He dwells everywhere. Thus He is omnipotent because He is able to do all things and nothing can be done nor created apart from Him. He is behind all achievements. He alone can speak and acomplish his words. Therefore there is no room for failure. He is Absolute, all wise Omniscient, all Seeing, and all Knowing. He knows all things and so no secrets are hid from Him. If there is rain it is God who wills it and if the fish do not run it is by His will. This Great Creator is the final Judge of all things, but he is able to be compassionate and merciful. He can look kindly and most mercifully on the suffering of man and is able to smooth the rough roads through his divine priests and the ancestors. But the God of the African Traditional Religion is also a Holy God both ritually and ethically. He is complete and absolute since He is never involved in any wrong or immorality. Traditionally Africans believe that the holiness blinds and can not be approached by mere mortals. He is a spirit and thus he is invisible. How is this God to be approached? He is to be approached directly and indirectly only through his chosen priests. Libations or prayers are the only supplications acceptable. And they are made by his chosen priests in traditional rituals and ceremonies. The priest becomes the keeper of the welfare of the people and subsequently is entrusted with the sacred rituals of worship. The African, therefore does not need to prove the existence of God to anyone. God is self existing and needs no proof. His existence is self-evident and even children know by instinct that the Great One exists. There is a proverb that says, “No one points out the Great One to a child.” This God then is given regular and direct worship at regular intervals and the calendar is kept by dedicated priests. However, there is continuous indirect worship on a daily basis through the divinities and ancestors at all times during the day by each family and individual. The ritual altars in the African villages are the indigenous peoples’ way of reaching out and praising the Great Creator. To the Africans they are the boundary between heaven and earth, between life and death, between the ordinary and the world of the spirit. The constant pouring of drink, food and sacrificial animal blood makes them sacred and no one would dare abuse them. Some altars are simple, especially the ones in homes, but some communities and villages have communal altars for the entire village as vehicles for channeling the positive forces from the Great one and the ancestors to the whole community.
These are some of the components of the traditional beliefs that the Africans who were brought to the Americas as slaves brought with them . They arrived in this hemisphere with the cultural imprint of the traditions of their elders, and what they retained in fact or symbol is the very essence of contemporary black spirituality. Thus there are many common and latent traditions and cultural behaviors among contemporary African Americans that could be derived from the traditional African beliefs and religious systems. Religion today plays such an important part of the contemporary African America’s life that it would be hard to ignore the vestiges of African tribal life. Indeed today, in spite of the hurt and suffering, the denial of the existence of Black Americans, the denial of equality in all aspects of American life, the Black church is still the only viable social institution which is dominated, operated, and totally controlled by African Americans. It is a tribal instinct which has survived years of change and abuse. The Priest Leader and spokesperson is still the Black Preacher. The intense need to be free motivated African Americans to adapt their Christianity to the African way of life and the tradition continues today. The African traditional religious life has always considered all life to be the sphere of the Almighty, the powerful(the Otumfoo), the Omnipotent(Gye Nyame). He is wise, and all seeing and all knowing. He is the Great Spider (Ananse Kokroko), and the Ancient of Days (Odomankoma).
In the private and public life of the African religious rites, beliefs, and rituals are conssidered an integral part of life. Life then is never complete unless it is seen always in its entirety. Religious beliefs are found in everyday life and no distinction is made between the sacred and the secular. The sacred and the secular are merged in the total persona of the individual African. Life is not divided into compartments or divisions. Thus there are no special times for worship, for everyday and every hour is worship time. There are no creeds written down because through the traditions of the Elders all creeds and functions are carried in the individual’s heart. Each individual by his very nature and life style is a living creed from the time one rises until one retires at night. An understanding of the basic nature of the African religious tradition surely illuminates the meaning of spirituality in the contemporary African American church.
In the Black Church to be full of the Holy Spirit is being filled with such inspiration that one can feel as it were the breath of God. It gives one power to do the impossible. In contemporary language it enables some to “do great things for God,” to even love your neighbor though that neighbor may be your enemy or your oppressor. The Holy Spirit does not free one from harm. Evil may abound and burdens may be heavy, but the Holy Spirit enables the faithful to say of God: “Though He slay me; yet will I trust Him.” Like the biblical Diaspora, the people of the African Diaspora have deep wellsprings of spirituality for they too were taken by force, stripped of their dignity and had their identity blurred by centuries of abuse.. But in spite of this devastation they managed to persevere and to keep in tune with God, even in a foreign land. Like their African cousins, African Americans still have extended families, and they still break out in spontaneous song and joyful music. And they still drum, even in the church. Dancing goes with music as it always has in African culture, and colorful processionals mark the beauty of African American spiritual life. There is a pronounced and evident African residual in African American spirituality that gives it the uniqueness of “soul,” and there is a deft synthesis of the sacred and the secular in much African American music just as there is in Africa. Many African American songs reveal the same improvisations found in the music of Africa and also feature the same improvisations found in the African village celebrations.
But it is at the Sunday worship service that the perfect welding of God and man takes place in a formal and ritualized setting. There in the black churches African American spirituality achieves its most complete expression in a rich variety of forms. When the Great Spirit , by whatever name, moves among the worshippers some may cry out in release from the accumulated tribulations of the week gone by. Some may testify, bearing witness to the goodness and graciousness of God. Fervent prayer, joyous singing, powerful preaching and the rekindling of the bonds of love and fellowship bring God and humankind together in a festival of spiritual celebration. This is the African American Church at its best. This is African American spirituality transcending its origins in the regeneration of the faith that had its origins at Pentecost.

- Rev. Peter E. Adotey Addo -
United Methodist Minister of the Western North Carolina Conference
Poet and Storyteller, Theologian, and Biologist
Website: www.addo.ws

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