by Constance Garcia-Barrio
– Part One of Two
Speak of Yoruba, Vodun (Voodoo), Akan, Santeria or Palo, African religions that crossed the Atlantic with the slave trade, and people may laugh or look alarmed. When I told family and friends that now, in my 60s, I would be initiated as a Yoruba priestess, their manner cooled, as if they suspected I would spend my old age in the cellar sticking pins in dolls.
I haven’t raised zombies in my backyard — think what L&I would say — but I have joined a vibrant community. Odunde, the annual June festival in Gray’s Ferry to honor the Yoruba river goddess Oshun, draws some 200,000 (???) people. The National African Religion Congress (NARC), founded in 1998 by Gro Mambo Angela Novanyon Idizol, a high priestess of Vodun, is headquartered in Philadelphia. NARC, which seeks tolerance for African-based religions, has organized international conferences.
Age brings the loss of dear friends and a deeper valuing of kindred spirits and community, but becoming a priestess has had more to do with re-knitting a frayed heritage many of us black Americans share.
Years ago, I had a conversation with Afro-Peruvian powerhouse Victoria Santa Cruz Gamarra about black culture in our respective countries. Victoria, a poet, dancer and former professor at Carnegie Mellon asked me, “Didn’t your mother teach you any African dance steps?”
“No,” I said.
“Then much has been lost.”
Victoria’s words about a diminished heritage grieved me, but rang true. My studies and travels had taught me that blacks have lived along South America’s Pacific coast for 500 years. Their numbers — and often isolation — helped them retain more African lifeways than did my ancestors on Bellaire, the Spotsylvania County, Virginia, plantation where some of them toiled. Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Georgia and Carolina Sea Islands also had the critical mass to sustain African roots.
That said, I cherish threads of the past I’ve inherited. My great-grandmother, Rose Wilson Ware, or Maw, born into slavery about 1851, lived her 113 years, first at Bellaire, then after freedom came, on the farm she and her husband Jake bought with money from sharecropping. My late mother, Cleoria Coleman Sparrow, would take us “down home” to Maw’s farm for a week during the summers of my childhood. I would gather eggs warm from the henhouse, draw cold water from the well and hold my nose in the two-seat outhouse, but I had no sense of the importance of Maw’s memories. But my mother, raised in part by Maw, passed on some of her stories and with them bits of an African past.
“Your great-great-great grandmother walked with a coffle of slaves from Maryland to Virginia,” my mother said. “Her name was Hannah, and she may have been African.”
My mother also had at least one West African custom. Once, just after a visitor left our house, she swept from where he had last stood all the way out to the street.
“Why’d you do that?” I said. “The floor’s clean.”
“To sweep out his presence so he’ll never come back.”
Once grown, I did my own sweeping, but in time I needed more. The last 12 years arrived festooned with razor blades: illness, deaths and heartbreaking troubles. I attended Episcopalian, Jewish and Kemitic healing services at the Auser Auset Society, whose spiritual practices hark back to ancient Egypt. I got counseling and began meditating through the Penn Program for Stress Management. I began Re-Evaluation Counseling, where people work in pairs, listening to each other and helping each other release painful emotions. All of these approaches nudged me toward hope and balance.
Familiar with some Yoruba ways through Odunde and covering a NARC conference for a local newspaper, I asked a friend, a Yoruba man, to direct me to a priest for spiritual readings. Sessions with an aged Brooklyn “babalawao,” a priest who dedicates his life to “Ifa,” the Yoruba system of divination, helped prop me up. Maybe that comfort moved me to include Yoruba rituals in a story I was writing.
“Can’t you suggest someone nearby?” I asked my friend later.
That someone turned out to be a priestess within walking distance of my home. She not only reviewed the story but invited me to gatherings where I heard singing in Yoruba and unbelievable drumming. Awkward at first, I joined the other teachers, janitors, judges, doctors, welfare moms and other members of the community in dancing and receiving counsel that came through spirit possession. The Yoruba practices I’ve learned feel like home to me, a treasure retrieved.
I don’t have to renounce my Episcopalian roots or my mother’s voice still singing spirituals within me. After my June 2011 initiation, I began my year of wearing initiates’ white. I pray to go forward with keener consciousness and a deeper sense of service.
I say amen to this autumn blessing, or as the Yoruba say, “Ashe!”
Constance Garcia-Barrio, a resident of Mt. Airy, is a retired professor of romance languages at West Chester University.