Spiritualism and the African Diaspora

As I started writing out the spiritualist timeline, I was aware that there was no easy way to do justice to the immense African contribution to spiritualism in an abbreviated format. Spiritualism has a deep sympathy with the African Diaspora faiths. Almost as soon as it was a thing (ca. 1850s), spiritualism becomes a big thing in Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil, and…okay, you get the idea: everywhere. Bam, in no time, hybrid Afro-Spiritualist techniques are everywhere. I want to talk about that a little at length.

It will be a few decades (ca. 1890s) before charismatic and insightful leaders begin to codify these practices and lay the foundations for most of the readily identifiable religions of the African diaspora (like Palo, Ocha, the Candombles, Kumina, Shango Baptist…again, you get the idea), but when they do spiritualist techniques will be an inseparable part of the mix that goes into their composition. Spiritualism also plays a part in shaping religious life back in Africa, so as people go back to deepen the African roots of the practice, they’ll find practices that are similarly inflected by spiritualism.

The intensity, vibrancy, and durability of ‘Afro-Spiritualism’ suggests that the exchange was good for both. While unmixed spiritualism slides into decline soon enough that it is mostly a footnote in Western religious history, African-inflected spiritualism thrived and has become a properly global phenomenon. There is something in the ‘African’ worldview that spiritualism desperately needed to live.

Spiritualism’s influence on the African diaspora is clear enough. Spiritualism comes into its own in the latter days of slavery, as abolition unfolds, when freedmen and freedwomen are trying their damndest to make a place for themselves. A lot of slaves had managed to preserve aspects of their tradition, a few even holding onto substantive practices, but there are some pretty big gaps. Spiritualism fills those gaps and, in some places, offers some simplifying innovations.

The influence of the diaspora on spiritualism is more obscure. I suspect a portion of that influence derives from the traditional ‘cults of affliction’ in Africa. On this model, people are admitted into a ritual group based on an affliction shared with them. You join up with a group not because you want to, because you totally groove on some spirit and want more, but because a spirit has latched onto your life, is making a hash of it, and won’t let go unless you start doing what it needs.

That way of doing things makes spirit work intensely personal. It isn’t about dialing up grandpa to see if he is happy (which is a fine thing, but doesn’t drive a religion), but about making life livable. It makes spiritualist work personal and serious, because failure to undertake it risks failure in life. As time goes on, the process seems to become more moderate, more outrightly helpful, both on a personal scale and on a religious scale, but the hardship leaves a deep imprint. We might call this more ‘shamanic‘ and I don’t think we would be wrong to do so. However, the term carries with it a misleading  association with romanticism and exoticism I would rather avoid. That association often makes the term both too concrete and too universal.

It is concrete in the wrong ways because focuses on what is different and unusual to us, rather than toward a deeper spiritual reality that invigorates the practice. It focuses on the unusual outfit or rhythm, the broadly alien form of a ritual, rather than attend to the intimate motivations of person and spirit. Without an appreciation for those animating inner features, the seemingly strange surface becomes a vehicle for fantasies that tell us more about the fantasist than anything else.

For that reason, I would rather stick closer to home and talk with a language that is less immediately exotic and which might let us get at the proper mix of concrete and universal. Remember the Yeatses on arcons? Well, dust off that stuff again, because what they are talking about parallels this cult of affliction business as well as being better rooted in the spiritualist matrix. The harassing spirits that make certain kinds of art possible are almost surely related to those driving cults of affliction. I’ll talk about that comparion in detail in a future post, but here I want to highlight a key difference.

That difference lies with the development of the community of affliction. In the African case, the affliction is conceived as something that you can undertake with others, not just suffer individually. That leads to the development of social avenues for understanding what is going on and taking action in regard to it. The so-called cults of affliction aren’t just religious societies, then, they are veritable laboratories of spiritual work.

Ironically, that is part of what makes it difficult to describe in brief, because African contributions to spiritualism were deeply social, the work of a community, rather than of this or that individual. As communal practices, they de-emphasized the role of individuals and emphasized the many hands, even where a single hand played an important role. You don’t see a strong emphasis on authorship but lineage and ancestry (even if both were understood to have spiritual dimensions that transcended blood ancestry).

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