(Beyonce as featured in the Redemption section of her 2016 visual album Lemonade)
Since the moment that human beings developed religion as an aspect of culture, women have been powerful priestesses, healers, and conjurers across various spiritual traditions. Not surprisingly, these ancestral traditions nearly always worshipped female-presenting deities just as equally as they worshipped male-presenting deities. This divine equity allowed cultures to maintain many liberties for women, such as independence from male ownership, bodily autonomy, and sexual freedom. Clear examples of these traditions exist across the globe, and were prevalent throughout Africa. Through colonialism and enslavement, African spiritual traditions were prohibited, demonized, and denounced, and the religion of the European and Asiatic captors were adopted by African people for survival. While African people throughout the diaspora were able to effectively mix their ancestral and folk traditions with the mandatory religious systems they found themselves in (creating spaces that preserved their cultural practices and ultimately felt more familiar, i.e. the black church), the absence of female divinity in these new religions could be considered the basis for the sexism and patriarchy found within them.
(Historic image of African-American church in the 19th century)
Despite oppressive gender roles, denial of positions of power, and allegations of physical and emotional violence against women and children, black women have remained bound to the black church over centuries. Embracing roles that they were allowed to fill, black churches were often a haven for black women, freely giving of themselves, their time, and their resources as their social and religious duty even though they were often forced to adhere to sexist values and hold them as religious truth. Generations of women, born to religious mothers, are raised to learn their role as women in society through the patriarchal ideology of the black church. This ideology often perpetuated male ownership over women’s bodies and enforced rules around modesty and sexual suppression.
More often than not, a woman’s sole responsibility was reduced to serving man and serving God, even to her detriment. Suddenly, the generation that would come to be known as Millennials come of age, and are largely disinterested in continuing their spiritual lives under such oppression. Millennials are leaving the church in large numbers and black women are a substantial percentage of that, opting to release religious dogma but finding ways to maintain the more empowering cultural aspects of African religious systems that heavily influenced the black church in America. This left a space to be filled for black women’s spiritual connection and identity.
At the same time, as if on cue, current black female artists and entertainers began more frequently creating projects and portraying images of themselves and other black women as sacred, sexual beings, alluding to African female deities and spiritual leaders in their work and depicting ritual practices that had not before been presented in mainstream media without the condescending tone of uncivilized primitivity. In this vein, we began to see performances such as Angela Bassett’s compelling and sensual portrayal of New Orleans Voodoo Priestess Madame Marie Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven in 2013. Superstar Beyoncé Knowles-Carter presented her album Lemonade in April 2016 with moving visuals that beautifully depict the importance of family history and ritual (including her grandmother’s lemonade recipe), African spiritual concepts and black women embracing their femininity and sexuality. Though critiques say these images were taken out of context and don’t deliver a full understanding of African spirituality, the attempt of the revolutionary images were enough to evoke new, critical thought as well as inspiration for African-American women.
(Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven, 2013)
The same year, the Oprah Winfrey Network debuted the television series Queen Sugar, directed by Ava DuVernay and based on a novel by Natalie Baszile, in which we saw Nova Bordelon (played by Rutina Wesley) portrayed as the neighborhood activist, herbalist, and modern-day conjure woman (who also happened to be unashamedly queer- shoutout to these intersections!), conducting rituals and divinations for her family and friends. Queen Sugar also portrayed funeral practices and last rites rituals that are influenced by African traditional religions, African fraternal organizations, and subsequent syncretic folklore and meaning-making as enslaved Africans combined their traditions with the religions of their owners and created spaces for themselves throughout history. Later, rappers like Azealia Banks and Princess Nokia publicly stated their affiliations to African traditional religions, and songstress duos like Ibeyi and Oshun make clear their influences of African spirituality in their names and their music.
(Rutina Wesley as Nova Bordelon centered in funeral scene from Queen Sugar series)
These projects and many others seemed to culminate in an explosive interest and reclamation of African traditional religions as black women finally saw themselves represented as sacred, seeing a viable way to resist the explicit oppression imbued in the religion they were raised with. These images of black women were no longer presented through the lens of sexism and patriarchal religion. Instead, images of black women began to hearken back to the age when women were revered and free. These ancestral traditions boast liberatory, inclusive doctrine, rich with history and able to be individualized for a person’s needs, became much more attractive than Eurocentric, one-size-fits-all systems. Even if they do not plan to commit to these ancestral religions, Black millennial women have been inspired to syncretize their own beliefs, finally seeing themselves in the divine and reclaiming their sacred spaces, their self-agency, their autonomy, and identity apart from their relation to men.
by Anika T. Rich