I – The Usher: I’m Tryna Be Like Them
Porsche Little seemed to have it all. At the tender age of 22, she had an apartment in Brooklyn, several thousand dollars cushioning her pockets, and the satisfaction of having proved her parents wrong. She attended a community college in New Jersey, where she took a fashion photography class, and fell in love with the camera. She was good at it — so good that the first gig she landed after dropping out was a $12,000 magazine shoot. Photography quickly became both her career and her purpose.
With thick, coily black hair, sunkissed-tan skin and a glossed lip, Porsche was the quintessential Black it-girl: she had style, a confident walk, and an aesthetic balance of femininity and masculinity that captivated her peers. On the outside, she emitted a Rihanna-like energy strong enough to grab the attention of boys who are beneath her (though don’t acknowledge it) and the awe of girls from schools across town.
To one such girl, Arianna Craig, who only knew of Porsche and her similarly clad friends through shared social networks, she was an inspiration. “I was like, ‘I wanna be like them. I’m tryna be like them,’” the now-28-year-old digital analyst recalls.
But all isn’t always enough.
On the inside, Porsche was unhappy. The fast-paced, city lifestyle her burgeoning career afforded made her egotistical. By day she dreaded her photoshoots, and by night she partied hard and blew her riches. She was driven by a perfectionism that gnawed at her insides and left her feeling anxious and unfulfilled. “I would have this dying need to feel like I need to create, and I would feel sick until I did it,” she says. “And then I would create something, and it was so temporary.”
She felt lost, so she sought to find herself.
Her journey began in 2017 with tarot, pulling spreads of the decorated cards for herself to make sense of her emotions. She called it “harassing her spirit guides for answers,” when we spoke late last year, referring to the unembodied, spiritual entities her mother told her would guide and protect her when she was a child. As she memorized the meaning of each card, she knew she’d tapped into a skill greater than any she’d known before. That was just the beginning.
Porsche was one of many young Millenials, and now Generation Zers, who adopted New Age spirituality, a set of beliefs and practices accumulated from various non-Abrahamic religions, to make sense of the world around them. From astrology to tarot cards and oracle divinations, these young people flocked to the practices to find the inclusive community and affirmation that their parents’ religions didn’t provide.
For many young Black people, these practices have become a gateway to the spiritualities of their imagined past: African and Diasporic traditional religions (ATRs/DTRs). Traditions like Ifa, Lukumí, Vodou and Hoodoo have become a respite from recent years’ heightened racial tensions and social unrest. As they connect with their ancestors through self-made altars and spiritual practices, many form deeper understandings of their heritages and affirm their African roots and Blackness. ATRs provide a refuge, too, as each tradition’s philosophy makes more space for their multifaceted identities than the Christian churches they grew up in.
A 2021 Pew report on faith among Black Americans found that Black millenials and Gen Zers are less religious than those who came before them, but this decline doesn’t capture the full picture. Beneath the surface of the survey’s findings are hints of African and Diasporic spirituality, signified by praying to ancestors, burning sage and consulting diviners, some of which are practiced in similar quantities by the religiously unaffiliated and the devout.
These young Black Americans seek salvation by another name and from a different place — one that they believe will connect them with the rites of passage that chattel slavery separated them from. They’re finding it in ATRs, and they’re calling it a homecoming.
As Porsche dove deeper into spirituality and magic in 2018, the practices she’d turned to for guidance became her new lifestyle. From tarot, she advanced to Hoodoo candle magic, combining candles with herbs, oils and intention to manifest her desires. She picked up astrology to learn how the planets’ positions influenced her and others’ personalities, and she purchased rough-cut crystals for protection and spiritual support. She connected with other young spiritualists for more readings and camaraderie.
Despite her devotion, astrology, magic and tarot never completely quelled her inner turmoil. She still felt lost and unsure of her purpose. So a spiritual friend introduced her to a priest of Lukumí, an Afro-Cuban tradition adapted by enslaved African people brought to the Caribbean, for a reading using one of the tradition’s divination systems. Then everything fell into place.
The priest read her fate from a cowrie shell pattern, channeling a message from Eshu Eleggua, the deity or orisha of pathways and destiny in Lukumí. “You’re meant to be in front of the camera, not behind it, and you’re meant to make your money with your words,” he told her. “You feel a loss because it’s me that’s missing.”
“And he didn’t lie, because I haven’t been lost since,” she says.
Porsche realized her purpose is as a diviner, rather than a photographer. She is now on the path to becoming an initiated priestess. She honors her ancestors and prays to the orishas of the Yoruba pantheon, paying special homage to Eleggua in a secret ritual every Monday. Throughout the week, she divines for herself and a long roster of clients using tarot cards, a method she’ll switch out with Lukumí’s divination systems once she completes her initiation.
Since connecting to Lukumí in 2019, Porsche has found herself in her history and heritage. As a descendant of enslaved African Americans, who had their original cultures and languages stripped from them during the Middle Passage, she finds that Lukumí raises her confidence because it connects her to her roots. She now knows what traditions her ancestors practiced and understands her origins in a way a DNA test could never unearth. “Technically, I’m not even supposed to be practicing this because of everything that took place throughout the slave trade,” she says. “But I found my way back to it, and for some reason, I feel like it’s even more beautiful. It’s even more sacred to me.”
And why wouldn’t it be? The tradition has reunited her with the way of life that she would have always been connected to had slavery not erased it from her bloodline. “I’m a diviner. I’m supposed to be a priestess. It’s my birthright to be a priestess,” she says. “I should have been initiated the day I was born.”
Derived from an amalgamation of West African traditions, Lukumí developed in 19th century Cuba following the forced import of 500,000 to 700,000 enslaved Africans into the territory, according to the Harvard University Pluralism Project. Its followers believe in an omnipotent, genderless force called Olodumare whose power manifests in their ancestors and the orishas, the deities of the Yoruba spirituality that undergirds the tradition. Enslaved Africans blended their spiritual tradition with Spanish enslavers’ Catholicism, identifying the orishas with Catholic saints. Practitioners worship the orishas through prayer and song, altars, offerings and sacrifices.
In Lukumí everyone is born a child of the orishas. The question is whether they realize it in their lifetime. Those who do learn of their orisha through a ritual divination called a head marking, which can only be conducted by an initiate. To get your head marked by an orisha is to become a conduit of their energy, to become their child and receive their blessings and protection.
Children of Eshu Eleggua share his duality — an unrestrained dance between calm and chaotic — represented by the two parts of his name. Like Eleggua, they’re mature and wise, sage with advice, meditative and self-aware. As Eshu, they’re tricksters, mischievous and cunning with a penchant for sweet treats and petty theft.
My first interaction with Porsche was in her Instagram DMs, when I reached out to request an interview on a Friday evening in mid-November. She responded a few hours later (“Yes, I would love to!”) and maintained that enthusiasm throughout our conversation, calling me “sis” in the culturally informed way that only Black women can.
As we settled into our Zoom call, she told me sprawling stories about the moments of mischief that colored her life before her crowning: At 3 years old, she locked her half-naked mother out of their home in New Jersey so she could steal a popsicle. As a teenager, she fabricated a weekend with friends in New York to cover up a trip to LA, where she crashed on the couch of a random Twitter acquaintance. As a young adult, she twerked on tables and got absolutely shitfaced in New York bars. We jokingly dubbed this her “drunk baby era,” after the words a random woman tattooed on her left ankle at a bar in Brooklyn when she was 18.
Porsche wasn’t religious at the time. Her family was Christian, though not particularly devout. Throughout her childhood in Roselle, New Jersey, her parents practiced a watered-down version of African American Baptism, defined by their annual Easter viewing of The Ten Commandments on TV. They rarely attended church. “They didn’t really give too much to religion at all,” she says with a giggle.
She never saw her parents praying or reading the Bible either. They did, however, use the scripture as discipline, reminding her and her sisters that they may end up in hell if they acted out. But to Porsche, their lack of devotion made warnings of a fiery afterlife seem empty. Despite her parents’ hollow faith, she recalls being more religious on her own as a child. She felt deeply connected to God and talked to Jesus throughout the day. Her devotion was so strong that it sometimes moved her to tears, but her mother was always more spiritual than religious, calling a medium to bless their home and smudging the house with burning sage.
By the time Porsche was 10, she’d decided that the Christianity her parents parroted wasn’t enough for her. At night, she and her older sister Lexus would stay up past midnight lobbing questions about God to each other from their twin beds.
Do you really think, you know, that Jesus is God?
Do you really feel like God is just a man, or do you feel like there’s a feminine side to God as well?
I’m going to start praying to Mother God to see what happens.
With her sister’s influence, she replaced Father God with Mother God, and eventually prayed to her ancestors and spirit guides instead. When her family would denounce tarot and non-Abrahamic religions as demonic, she only grew more intrigued. Her 12-year-old curiosity was the purest form of heresy and the beginning of her break from Christianity.
“That sounds in line with what you were saying about the trickster, Eshu, right?” I asked her. “This is something that you’re told to stay away from or that is bad or evil, and then you’re more intrigued by it.”
“Yes! Exactly,” she replied. “I’ve never even put that together.”
Connecting to Lukumí was how she began to pull back from what she calls her “drunk baby” spirit. She carried herself like a king because Eleggua told her she was one. She became more introspective, less impulsive and made better decisions.
Her friends found her conversion confusing. They would see her drunk, twerking on a bar table at one point, and locked in her room lighting sage at the next. She had figured out who she was, accepted her duality and learned to tame her Eshu, rather than get rid of him.
Unlike in Christianity, she saw a path for where she wanted to go in life. Lukumí and Eleggua made it clear. “I didn’t know where I was going. I was just stuck praying, you know? So as a Christian I remember praying, damn near begging for things,” she said. “But when I’m in this faith, I don’t have to beg. I know who to go to, I know how to ask, I know that there can be a sacrifice, there can be an exchange between me and my orisha. And while I’ve already obtained what I wanted, my Christian self would have still been praying.”
In almost every photo on Porsche’s instagram, she’s bathed in warm sunlight or surrounded by billowing plant leaves. Her medium-sized locs are always front and center, splayed across the background from a hair flip or dangling like vines by her hips. Sometimes her eyeliner forms a thick cat-eye wing along her lashline, and other times she sports a natural look with lightweight eyeshadow and a glossy lip.
Porsche’s occasional, scantily-clad thirst traps lie in wait amidst the artsy self-portraits taken in exotic-looking locations around Los Angeles. Among those are pictures of tarot cards, abstract artwork, “tarotscopes” written for each astrology sign, and self-promotional posts. Each image boasts a creative caption with an uplifting message, a spiritual lesson, a nod to her beauty or an ode to Eleggua.
Online, Porsche is @theorishasbaby, a popular tarot diviner for the everyday spiritualist, the blue-check verified and everyone in between. Her page embodies the tarot influencer mystique — an earth mother aesthetic wrapped in spiritual piety and effortless sex appeal — and in the digital artifice she’s curated for her more than 10 thousand Instagram followers (plus 12 thousand others on Twitter), the image sells. The product? Hour-long, personalized spiritual and romance tarot readings for $80 a piece or bundled for $125.
Porsche, now 27, started offering readings at the start of pandemic lockdowns in 2020, pulling six-card spreads for two clients each day. She capitalized on the growing number of young people taking interest in New Age practices, according to 2018 Pew research. Since then, she’s grown her divinations into a lucrative business and expanded her capacity to four to six clients every day except Saturday, her designated day for rest.
She divines over the phone, through voice messages and pictures: First she asks the client to say a prayer to their ancestors to let them know they can trust her. Then she sends them a photo of the spread. Behind the screen, she sits at a table outfitted with lit candles, incense and a bowl of water for the spirits. Clients can’t respond until she’s finished divining. But, she says, they don’t often have much to say. “A lot of the times they’re just like, ‘Nah, I got what I needed.’”
Arianna Craig has become one of Porsche’s main clients. She’s gotten three readings to help her navigate childhood trauma, parenting, and difficult changes. When she couldn’t decide whether to move back in with her parents, after living in Puerto Rico with her toddler for three years, Porsche helped her gain the courage to buy the plane tickets and return to Rahway, New Jersey. “Porsche let me know that it’s okay to be scared,” she says. Porsche explained that whatever decision she makes will be an opportunity for growth. “Being comfortable in uncomfortability is a good thing.”
Porsche has become a source for The New York Times and other news organization’s stories about tarot and manifestation, and a face for publications covering Lukumí, too. She’s graced magazine covers, dressed in the futuristic high fashion that she once dreamed of photographing, with her cowrie-shell studded idol of Eleggua by her side.
In December, she began producing a spiritual bath made with Eleggua’s herbs to create opportunities for those who use it, with her spiritual godfather and teacher Kiev Martinez, the priest who read her destiny just two years prior. Though only he knows all of its ingredients, the bath was another step that Eleggua instructed Porsche to take. In Instagram and Twitter posts, she announced that she’s selling the sacred water for $150 alongside her end-of-the-year tarot readings.
As I look at the red, white and black label she posted, I’m reminded of her conviction in our first conversation: She is a diviner, she’s supposed to be a priestess, and she feels a special responsibility to introduce others to the tradition in the name of Eleggua. She called her connection to Lukumí a homecoming, one made especially poignant by the fact that she brought it home.
“I led my mother back to that. I’m leading my sisters…,” she says. “My friends that are around me got their heads marked with my godfather — now they’re being led back to this path as well. It’s like that path just keeps opening.”
II – The Teacher: You Should Look Into Your Heritage
“Please take responsibility for the energy you bring in this space,” reads a black and white sign leaning against a curtain-shrouded windowsill. I sit across from the poster among Kiev Martinez’s godchildren in the living room of one of their apartments in Bed-Stuy, listening as the 38-year-old explains our purpose for the night.
“We sit in a circle so the energy flows,” he says, referring to the metaphysical connection between the living and the dead that the open séance, known as a misa in Lukumí, facilitates. It helps you identify the spirits who are looking out for you and develop your mediumship skills, he tells us.
Kiev sits to the right of the bovéda, a small table in front of the windows covered with a white tablecloth and white lilies. A clear bowl and six glass goblets filled to their brims with water sit on the table, and several white tea lights burn among them. On the floor beneath the bovéda is a bin filled with the cleanse, a mixture of Florida water cologne, rose water, rum and other liquids.
The bovéda is like a “telephone to the spirits,” he says. He gestures to the goblets and explains how to distinguish the bubbles that collect on the side because of evaporation from those that accumulate because spirits are present.
The spiritual mass, anthropologist Migene Gonzalez-Wippler says in Santeria: The Religion, is meant to appease the ancestors in the face of “disturbing influences” around a priest or practitioner, or honor the ancestors before a ceremony. Participants gather after sunset to ascertain messages from the dead through visions and, sometimes, spirit possession. It is one of the few Lukumí rituals that is open to non-practitioners.
Attendees typically dress in white (though bright colors are occasionally allowed), and anyone who identifies as femme must wear a skirt. Matching head coverings are a must to protect one’s ori, the spiritual and physical head in Yoruba spirituality, from negative influence, Kiev told me beforehand via email.
Because this is his godchildren’s first misa, Kiev takes an instructional approach. He walks them through the proper way to conduct the ceremony: Participants start by cleaning themselves in front of the bovéda before repeating the ritual prayers five times. Then they sing and chant the songs of the ancestors and begin the mass. We don’t quite do that.
“I sing like a donkey being fucked by a cat with spikes on its penis,” Kiev says, sharing yet another reason why this misa won’t be like any others his godchildren will attend; they didn’t memorize the prayers he emailed them, only he knows the songs, and — much to my surprise — I’m the only person wearing all-white and a head covering. I learned early on that Kiev is as knowledgeable as he is outlandish. Both work in his favor.
The misa is something like a Quaker meeting. The seven of us sit in silence and tune into the energies in the room as Kiev instructed. The sounds of sirens blaring and cars whizzing down the street bleed through the quiet. He encourages us to speak when we feel, envision or hear anything because it could be a message from the spirits. “My hand kind of itches,” the first godchild says, peeking out from behind closed eyes.
“Probably because you tried to touch yourself this morning,” Kiev quips.
For a half hour, we cycle through silence and revelations, most of which come from Kiev. When one of his students feels the imminence of a potential message, he explains how to strengthen it. One godchild feels the sensation of gripping a spear in their hand. Another sees a vision of an animal in a field.
“Ashlee, you’re going to find a blue feather from your spirit guide,” Kiev tells the goddaughter sitting to my right. He’s seeing an image of a blue bird and a woman having a conversation with it. “You have Native heritage, right?” he asks. The woman he sees is topless with a blue wrap around her waist, mixing a powder. “You should look into your heritage.” Ashlee nods.
Unlike her godsiblings, Ashlee stayed quiet during the misa, her eyes closed and her head slightly bowed. She seems transfixed until Kiev breaks the spell at the end of the séance. He instructs us to cleanse before the bovéda again and encourages his students to complete more misas on their own.
As I gather my belongings to head home, Kiev asks his godchild to give me a green apple. “You want to rub yourself down from head to toe with that to capture any negative energy that might have stuck to you,” he says. “When you finish, leave it outside where an animal could get it.”
I walk down the front steps of the apartment building and turn the corner with the apple in tow, awkwardly rubbing myself down as I stroll and stopping whenever a stranger passes. When I feel that I’ve rid myself of any spiritual residuals, I lay the apple in a corner of a winter-barren flower bed along my path and pick up my pace. If an animal doesn’t get it, I think, maybe a bug will.
“Maybe it’s a part of megalomania or pride, but I see a lot of my students as people who are going to have impacts on the people around them,” the Brooklyn-bred, expat to Hungary said to me during our Zoom call on a chilly day in December.
Kiev explained that Lukumí’s American roots grew in the “poorest ghettos” of cities like New York and Miami, brought by the influx of Cuban immigrants after the revolution ended in 1959. That history inspired his 15-year plan to turn his house of students into an incubator for priests and priestesses, who will further his goal of ministering to the flock of working class, Black and brown kids in the city. In five years, he hopes to open a temple in the States that empowers them with a religion that’s deities reflect them and provides any community member with the spiritual guidance they need. After presiding as priest for 10 years, he wants his protege and only student of Eleggua — Porsche — to take over for a decade, train the next initiate and pass it to them.
As a child, he spent every summer divining on his block along Classon Avenue at $20 a pop because his mother made him. He’d always had a deep connection to the metaphysical, and she capitalized on it; he even spent his teenage years doing witchcraft for money. He entered the Lukumí tradition in his early 20s after attending a drumming ceremony (a tambor). He was initiated 13 years ago.
He sat at a counter in a sterile-looking, white room in the apartment he recently moved into with his boyfriend; it was empty save a lone ghost chair in the background and a tapestry-turned-curtain of ancient Greek goddess Hekate over the window. He wore a black t-shirt emblazoned with a metallic, gold skull design that showed his arm tattoos, and his dark beard stuck out against his fair skin and shaved head.
He rolled a blunt out of view, pardoned himself and started to smoke it. “I want to interrupt you for a second,” he said to me when I started to switch topics. “I’ve actually dreamed about you before.”
He told me that I have good ori and a wide open path for whatever I wish to pursue, and continued to drop mystic recommendations throughout our nearly two-hour conversation. When I mentioned that cooking is a meditative activity for me, he recommended that I set out a candle and a cup of water for my ancestors as I did it. When we discussed the spiritual bath he made with Porsche, he encouraged me to make a basic one myself with fresh parsley. “If you can get your mom to make it for you even better,” he said.
“I don’t think she would,” I replied.
“Is she a ‘good Christian?’”
I told him I couldn’t be a judge of that; she’s just very busy. I don’t think he believed me.
My family’s devotion to Christianity fluctuates. My grandmother and father sleep with pocket Bibles underneath their pillows, and my mother prays over each meal. My second oldest sister minored in theology during college, and my other two sisters occasionally say the Lord’s name in vain. I attended a private Methodist charter school until I was 10, and I don’t know where my brothers stand. None of us regularly attend church (though my grandmother loves to watch Joel Osteen’s Sunday service).
Beneath the surface of our religiosity has always been an undercurrent of magic tied to my Jamaican grandmother’s knack for prophetic dreams and my Liberian father’s lifelong interactions with traditional Kisi spirituality.
He filled my childhood with stories of village medicine men and spiritual secret societies. His father and stepfather were soko, protectors and healers who intercepted dark magic from those using the tradition for evil, and his grandmother was a zo, one of the most powerful oracles in the village. I heard more stories of Kwelain practitioners using their magic to harm than to help.
So when Kiev made his suggestions, I hesitated. Not because I believe in Christianity, but because I believe in African spirituality. Part of it scared me.
Before our conversation ended, he asked me if my last name was Greek. I said I didn’t know — my father told me that an ancestor stole it when he was working on a Greek ship. Tandanpolie is not a native Kisi word, so I’d always wondered what it actually meant. “Your last name is associated with coastal cities in ancient Greece, about the 16th century,” he said. “Tandanpolie actually means a city that you see over the hill into the ocean.
“That’s why I was [thinking],” he finished, jokingly, “‘You look awfully Black.’”
III – The Liberators: That is Where Their Salvation Came
Harvard Divinity School’s Sixth Annual Black Religion, Spirituality and Culture Conference opens on a mid-February evening with up-tempo, jazz instrumentals. Organized by members of Harambee: Students of African Descent at the Harvard Divinity School, the online conference calls attendees to imagine African traditional religions as a bridge between spirituality, health and wellness within the diaspora.
Its theme, “Rooted,” emphasizes the richness of “Black history and cultural heritage(s)” as the Black communities the college serves express them. “We seek to improve Black, African, and Indigenous livelihood by uplifting and amplifying our narratives, spiritualities, and discourse grounded in our roots,” the BRSCC website reads.
Jean Appolon, the founder and artistic director of Boston-based, Haitian dance company Jean Appolon Expressions, begins the key-note from his living room. Blonde-tipped locs contort into his messy, high bun, and his West African-patterned shirt adorned with colorful necklaces brighten the beige of his background. “Culture can save us. Tradition can save us if we really get in touch with it respectfully,” he says.
The tradition that saved him was Vodou, a blend of Fon, Kongo and Yoruba spirituality with French Catholicism developed in his home country, Haiti. Though Catholicism ruled his household, he knew Vodou ran through his veins. When his mother was a child and her twisted ankle swelled to the “size of an elephant,” her father used herbal remedies to heal it. He worked the pain from her foot with his hands, mixing orange pulp with oil, salt and garlic, and massaging the black and blue splotches away with the balm. “The next day you see my mother walking like there were no pain at all…,” Appolon says.
He migrated to the states as a teenager and brought with him the spiritual dance and song of his culture. “We cannot continue to be afraid of who we are…,” he says, emphasizing the validity of Black spiritual traditions. “What we have as people, what we have as Black people, is just very powerful.”
Appolon rises from his seat and walks toward his computer to start the music for the folkloric dance workshop. Rhythmic drum patterns he recorded with his musicians in Haiti blare through the speakers, and he beckons us to stand for the warm-up. He’ll start by teaching us the yanvalou, a spirited piece meaning “we are one.” He moves his body back and forth, swinging his arms out and in like he’s trying to fly.
As the dance intensifies, Appolon incorporates more moves. He spins to the side, throws his head back, and spins to the other. The movements spread from your spine, to your chest and crown, he says, “everything moves.” He brings his arms to the front and positions them to form a snake in reference to the Vodou snake lwa, or deity, Dambala.
The drum pattern changes, and he transitions to the mayi, a faster dance celebrating the corn harvest with stomping. He encourages us to breathe. “We are breathing for the world,” he says. “Wherever there’s stress and challenges, misery, poverty, war, violence, egos, inequality, injustice… [we are] finding peace and cleansing in the world.”
At the core of African and Diasporic traditional religions is an herbalism that centers spiritual and physical healing. These “sacred wisdom systems,” as Dr. Yanique Hume, a Lukumí priestess and associate professor of cultural studies at the University of West Indies Cave Hill calls the traditions, possess embodied practices developed in the atrocious and debilitating conditions of slavery.
Enslaved people used the knowledge stored within African traditions to fashion medicines out of leaves and roots, and treat their illnesses when enslavers withheld care. They sought healing through dreams of what resources one could pull together, offerings of fruit and ceremonies replete with song and dance. Those who were severely ill underwent full initiations into the traditions when herbs weren’t enough. “They heeded the call and then followed the path and that is where their salvation came,” Dr. Hume says.
Jean Appolon appears among the screens of the other initiated panelists during the session on healing in African traditional religions. The moderator asks the group of scholars and artists to describe their traditions, and Appolon answers first. Vodou is a way of life and of finding one’s roots, he starts. His mother forced the family into the church, but Catholicism never felt right to him. He snuck out to attend Vodou dances and, when he gained a serious interest in the tradition, his grandmother encouraged him to seek information from his extended family. His mother, however, disapproved.
African spiritual traditions have long been disparaged because of ritual offerings, like animal sacrifices. Western colonial powers have tried to criminalize the traditions over time with varied success. Obeah, an amalgamation of West African rituals and practices developed in the Caribbean, has been illegal in parts of the region since the 1700s. Other traditions were pushed into obscurity.
But what’s demonized isn’t necessarily evil. Appolon believes that initiates are responsible for helping their communities heal. In Haiti and Cuba, medical doctors may send their patients to priests of Vodou and Lukumí, respectively, when they suspect the ailment is spiritual rather than physical. Hospitals will also call in priests and priestesses to conduct protection rituals over patients before they’re taken in for surgery. “If it wasn’t for Vodou, you’d see people dying every day in the street because there’s no hospital for them,” he says. “14 million people living in Haiti, [and] there are maybe three ‘okay’ hospitials.”
What Appolon imparts is simple: African and Diasporic traditions do save, and healing isn’t just a part of them. It’s their very fabric.
Appolon’s pride in his culture and Vodou becomes the theme that unites each session on African spirituality even when he isn’t speaking. His constant reminders to embrace African traditions as a means of healing and preserving ancestral wisdom despite their stigma reverberate through the stories other speakers share throughout the day. Haitian Vodou takes center stage because of what it represents for him and other practitioners. “It’s life, it’s an archive,” Kay Thellot, a Vodou priestess and Yorkville University graduate psychology student, says. “It’s how my ancestors and people today organize societies, still organized families, still organize personhood.” It’s liberatory.
Prior to the Haitian Revolution, enslaved Africans in Saint Domingue used Vodou ceremonies as meeting places to plan revolts. Many historians believe that the Bois Caïman ceremony in 1791, a meeting of enslaved people to finish preparing for the subsequent insurrection, was a Vodou ceremony sealed with a blood ritual. It was the catalyst for the Haitian Revolution, which ousted French colonial rule and established Haiti as the first Black-led republic and first independent Caribbean nation.
Resistance in Haiti predated planning for the revolution, Thellot says. It began when enslaved people first reached the land. Vodou practitioners used the tradition to “respossess the Atlantic Ocean,” transforming its shores from sites of enslavement into a sacred place for initiation, a ground for exchange with indigenous groups, and a place for the dead to transition into ancestors.
Ancestor worship forms the foundation of West and Central African spiritual traditions, and that reverence resounds through liberation efforts across the Black Atlantic. Diasporic spirituality, then, became as much about freedom as it was about healing and survival as ancestors engaged the traditions throughout history. During slavery, communities of maroons, formerly enslaved people who freed themselves using the magic of their ancestors, arose in small numbers throughout the Caribbean, South America and southern United States. Enslaved devotees resisted in minor ways, continuing to blend their traditions with Christianity in what some scholars consider a mode of cultural preservation. “All these spirits are around me and guiding me to where I am today,” Appolon says of his ancestors.
Afro-descendants look to past actions like the Haitian Revouliton and the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1900s to imagine the potential for liberation today, its most prominent leaders seen as ancestors who paved the way. In an article from Religion News Service, Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors called BLM’s collective protests a “spiritual movement,” inspired, in part, by her study and adoption of Ifa, contemporary Yoruba spirituality, in her 20s. She and other activists honor Black victims of state violence during demonstrations by pouring libations and chanting “Ashe,” the Ifa equivalent of “amen” meaning “may it be so,” after each name.
“This work is bigger than us, it’s about our ancestors and the foundation they’ve laid for us to do this work today,” Khan-Cullors wrote in a 2018 letter commemorating the fifth anniversary of BLM’s founding. “This work is about our descendants because when we fight for them now, we make the world a little more palatable, and a little more safe for them in the future.”
As night falls, the organizers conclude the conference with the presentation of the Sankofa Award, given to an African descendant in the Boston community who embodies the spirit of sankofa: reclaiming the forgotten past to inform the present and build a better future.
Stevie Wonder’s smooth vocals on “If You Really Love Me” give way to the voice of the announcer awarding Jean Appolon for his work teaching and showcasing folkloric dance in Boston and Haiti. They play a pre-recorded video of him accepting the award, his locs wrapped tightly in a top knot, and his black-and-red patterned shirt striped with gold and brown.
“This is what our ancestors left for us to keep their legacies and voices alive,” he says, referring to the breadth of Afro-diasporic traditions represented in the conference. They’re valuable because one can engage them for healing, educating and serving the community as the ancestors did across the diaspora.
As the screen fades to black, he reminds viewers to stay rooted in themselves and where they come from as “beautiful Black people” — to not be ashamed of their ancestral traditions — a clarion call of unity and resistance echoed in every session. “We shall overcome, yes. Black Lives Matter, yes. L’union fait la force (Unity makes strength), yes.”
IV – The Seeker: Let the Horse Come to the Water to Drink
Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ashlee Coakley never felt like she fit in. She was the black sheep of her family, a warm-beige-skinned, brown-eyed tyke surrounded by the pale-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed German cousins on her mother’s side. She never had a relationship with her father or his family and, in turn, never had a relationship with her “Black side” either.
As a child she was always excited whenever she saw another Black person on the street. She was eager to connect with them — maybe a little too eager, she admits, recalling her childhood excitement with a gasp. “I just want to be near them. I just want to be close to them.”
But they were always just out of reach, she told me over Zoom. So was the closeness she’d wished for, the unspoken camaraderie within Black American culture, the culture itself. Much like many other Black-and-white mixed kids, she had been deprived of it. To make matters worse, she had no one and nothing to show her how to access it.
She had to teach herself how to be herself. How to style her loose black curls and wrap them at night so she wouldn’t have to restyle them in the morning. She had to learn how to be comfortable in her Girl Scout troop where her brown skin stuck out against that of her white peers. Luckily, she never had any traumatizing experiences with racism. Her family didn’t treat her differently for looking different. The hardest part was learning how to love herself. “Looking at commercials or books — even children’s books — my hair was never glorified. My skin was never glorified,” she says. “It’s always, ‘Her skin being as silky as snow.’ It was never, ‘Her skin being as rich [as earth] and glistens in the sun.’”
Though she’d always felt spiritual, her grandmother’s Catholicism and mother’s “sweet baby, Jesus” Baptism didn’t fit either. She gestured to the maroon-colored walls of her living room, filled with decorative crosses. What did fit, though, was the bliss she felt when talking to God.
Throughout high school in the mid 2010s, Ashlee had no time for a spiritual or religious life. Her mother crammed her schedule with sports to keep her out of trouble. The most time she devoted to religion was the Sunday mornings she helped her mom with her Bible study group. It wasn’t until college in fall 2016 that she began to explore her own spirituality. Seeing a friend’s tarot card tattoo pushed her to start getting readings, which led to her dabbling in astrology.
With a shift in faith came a shift in self-image. Freed from the cocoon of her white family’s beliefs, Ashlee became more political and aware of systemic racism. They raised her against seeing color, but she realized her color mattered more to others than she thought. Her character and goodness weren’t enough in a world that deemed her skin tone a death sentence at worst and a barrier to prosperity at best. Somehow that made her Blackness all the more precious.
All her wants converged then. She yearned for an understanding community, a fulfilling relationship with a God — it didn’t matter whose — and most importantly, a continuation of her relationship with her grandmother, who died in 2016 after breaking both hips.
“Having her gone physically made sense, but spiritually didn’t,” Ashlee says, the smile that seemed plastered on her face fading for the first time. “I think I just wanted to find a way to get closer to her, to honor her, to let her know that she’s still loved and she still holds a place in this family. And she still holds a place in my everyday life as well.”
Then Ashlee met Porsche Little, and she saw the world she longed for.
Ashlee began exploring African Spirituality in the summer of 2020. She had received readings from friends and online diviners, but a session she had with Porsche was different. Porsche told her she was deeply connected to the spiritual world and encouraged her to talk to her ancestors. Soon after she built her ancestor altar and began her worship, praying and sometimes sharing portions of food with her forebears.
She’d always suspected that she and other African descendants had a spiritual system of their own, she just never knew anything about it. That is until she met Kiev. She booked the cowrie shell reading with him in January 2021 that acquainted her with the Yoruba Ifa Orisha Tradition. “You will eventually be initiated, the orishas are calling you home and you are loved,” he told her.
“How can I give my love and appreciation back to them?” she wondered. The rites of Ifa provided her answer.
Ifa refers to Yoruba spirituality as it has developed in present-day Nigeria, Benin and Togo, and one of the culture’s divination systems. It’s an oral tradition, and practitioners learn its lessons, lore and wisdom from elders and priests in their community as devotees have for centuries. They worship the orishas and honor their ancestors through prayer, offerings and sacrifices.
Ifa’s practices are cloaked in secrecy, says Chief Sekou Alaje, a Babalawo, musician and founder of health and wellness organization 256 Healing Arts in Brooklyn. “It’s not a religion like Christianity or Islam that is open to everybody, that is come one, come all,” he says. He compares it to secret organizations like the Masons in the United States. “That’s part of its power, and it’s part of how our ancestors passed it down to us.”
That’s the miraculous part of the culture, he continues. “You have to leave room for the Spirit. So as much as you can advertise about what is available to people, still you have to allow people — like they say, let the horse come to the water to drink. People still have to come to seek more information.”
Governed by 256 knowledge categories, known as odu, that contain the wisdom, rites and rituals of the religion, Yoruba spirituality is the basis for many Afro-diasporic traditions, including Candomblé in Brazil and, to a lesser extent, Vodou in Haiti. Their differences stem from adaptations and cultural mixtures made necessary by enslaved Africans’ new environments in the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade from the 16th to 19th centuries. Ifa remains a lifeline among many African descendants, connecting those strewn across the diaspora via a rich history, community and way of life.
It is a very old story. “And to bring out the magic, the amazingness of our people, is to bring out that storyline. To focus on 1000 years is just a smidgen of time when it comes to people of African descent,” Chief Alaje says.
I first met Ashlee at the misa in January. In an imperfect way, she was something out of a fairytale: Disney Princess-like in demeanor, thin and long-armed with acne scars dotting her face and old-school, metal-framed glasses resting on her button nose. Shy, quiet and a little awkward, she had a light voice that enunciated every consonant as though they might run away. But when she got comfortable, she had a girlish giggle and a child-like enthusiasm for meeting new people that only a 23-year-old who has spent a lot of life by herself could.
Before the mass began, Ashlee and her godsiblings sat around the wooden dining table just off the kitchen, waiting for their pizzas to arrive. Lemongrass incense burned from a holder in the orange-accented living room, and Kiev quizzed them from behind the counter on spiritual leaders, orishas and history. In between the questions, he and his older godchildren traded riddles and smoked freshly rolled blunts. When he was ready to begin, he asked Ashlee to grab a bucket and prepare the spiritual cleanse for the ritual.
By the way she talked and jumped to complete the task, Ashlee just seemed happy to be there. “I’ve never had that community,” she says. “Yeah, I have my family, I have my cousins. But, I never had that sisterhood — that intense community — or the culture that I think we can learn from each other.”
She now has that in Ifa. Practitioners belong to a house, led by a godparent, who initiates them into the mysteries of the tradition. That godparent’s godchildren become each other’s godsiblings, and they become part of a spiritual family. These clans can span generations as initiated godchildren take on their own godchildren; they are “expected to help and protect each other in the same ways they would help and protect their real families,” Gonzalez-Wippler writes.
Ashlee’s spiritual family formed a microcosm of the Black Atlantic — she has a godsibling who’s a Gullah descendant from the Carolinas and a godbrother who’s the son of Afro-Caribbean immigrants — and she was at its center. She spiritually connected with their collective ancestors whose lineage spans the diaspora and beyond it.
There, surrounded by her godsiblings and godfather, she had found her mecca. “Accepting this religion has blessed me in many ways, regardless of my transformation, my healing, my wellness,” she says. “Getting to know myself as a young Black woman in America, getting to know African women as well as knowing that we still have the same struggles and worship the same gods.”
Ashlee’s silence throughout the misa affirmed her connection to Yemoja, the orisha of sea waters, maternity and womanhood who rules over mental health. She was overtaken by the energy in the room and couldn’t speak, a trait common among children of Yemoja. Her children are spiritually sensitive, intuitive and often stuck in their heads. Ashlee struggles with severe anxiety, but her panic attacks always resolve with a calming, feminine energy.
The following Monday, Ashlee woke at dawn for her first Ifa ceremony, the Ilekes, or Necklaces. Because of the tradition’s secrecy and the differences between each practitioner’s experience, she could only share vague details and her thoughts at the time.
The ritual begins before the recipients arrive at the location, writes Gonzalez-Wippler. Priests and priestesses make batches of the colorful beaded necklaces that each represent a different orisha. They cleanse them in a ceremonial sacred water and “baptize” them in the blood of sacrificial animals.
Kiev instructed Ashlee and another godsibling to close their eyes and carted them off to an undisclosed building in New York. He performed a ritual breaking and cleansing, utilizing a spiritual bath and conducting Ashlee’s ceremony with Yemoja at the helm. After ensuring that the orishas were satisfied with their work, Kiev dressed Ashlee in white clothing, signifying her purification and new spiritual clarity, and took her home. They spent the rest of the day relaxing, learning about the tradition and eating hearty meals.
With the cool feel of the sacred water rushing over her, Ashlee felt an overwhelming release that she’d never felt before. The tension and “toxicity” sloughed off her body like the chrysalis of a newly metamorphosed butterfly.
“I felt rebirth, I felt love, I felt free,” she says.
Ashlee begins her day at 5 a.m. by saying a prayer to Yemoja and lighting the white candle she leaves with a glass of water by her door for Eshu. She prays to him and the other orishas, a personal ritual she’s practiced since August 2021. She addresses her ancestors next, bowing her head before the ancestral altar she outfitted with her late grandmother’s glasses, portrait and jewelry. Then she dresses for the day.
For a week in the middle of January, Ashlee can only wear white. The Ilekes ceremony requires it. She must also wear the handful of necklaces she received during the ritual for seven days. She unwraps them from the white silk she stores them in and places them on her neck one by one.
The longest, mostly white with two, five-bead interruptions of red, is for Obatala, the orisha of purity and peace. The shortest, made of transparent gold and yellow beads, sits snugly on her chest for Oshun, the spirit of river waters, love and kinship. In between them are a white and red beaded necklace for Shango, the orisha of thunder, fire and power; a special, white and sky-blue bead pattern for Yemoja because she crowns Ashlee; and a loop of alternating white and black beads with a purple accent bead for Eshu.
Depending on the day of the week, she will either stay inside of her mother’s home or go to work at the University of New Mexico’s hospital as a lab tech. Per the mores of the ritual, working is the only reason she may leave the house. She must also wear the ilekes at all times, removing them only to sleep and bathe. Fielding the ebbs and flows of the healthcare industry requires a strict spiritual routine, so she says prayers to her spirit guides and the orishas throughout the day.
“When I’m at work and I’m irritated, I’m like, ‘Obatala, please let me keep a cool head and not fight everyone in this building,’” she tells me through a toothy grin.
She also takes care of her ori by treating herself to the activities she enjoys most. That task is made more important by her baba’s warning that her rebirth would dredge up past struggles. In the days following the ritual, thoughts of past lovers, anxiety and depression reemerged, leaving her feeling “low vibrational,” lethargic, conflicted and unwilling to do anything. To remedy that, she takes refuge in meditation, exercise and sacred baths filled with Yemoja’s favorite herbs.
When the day is done, Ashlee returns to her room to complete her routine. She unfurls the silk cloth and removes her necklaces, saying a prayer to each orisha as she nestles the beads in the fabric one-by-one.
“Thank you, Obatala, for helping me keep a cool head,” she begins. Thank you Yemoja. Thank you Eshu. Thank you Shango. “Thank you, Oshun, for making me love myself and finding beauty within myself.”
She says one final prayer and lights the candle by her door. Then she wraps her hair and goes to sleep.