(RNS) — If there is a hell and it has Wi-Fi, one can only imagine how elated the European colonizers who enslaved our African ancestors were to see the viral clip of a sermon given by poet and itinerant minister Jackie Hill Perry last week. In the clip, Perry bellows the same white supremacist sentiments 19th century slavers once put forward, all to the approving whoops of a majority Black congregation.
“I don’t know who told us you gotta be a witch to be Black,” Perry opined from the pulpit. “You are not more Black by engaging in witchcraft. That is propagating a white supremacist lie that Black people in Africa didn’t know Jesus.”
I am angry that the powers that be — in social media and in culture and in music and in Beyoncé’s music and in Kehlani’s music and in whatever the others are–that they are really trying to convince us that all spiritualism is the same. And we have digested this impurity. We want so bad not to be legalistic that we actually become profane.
Perry likely chose to name these two artists because of their public spiritual journeys to reconnect with African spiritualities. In recent years, Beyoncé has incorporated visuals into her music videos seemingly inspired by aspects of Yoruba religion such as orishas (spiritual mediators) and the fertility goddess Oshun.
Kehlani has been open about observing Lucumí — also known as Santería — a mix of Yoruba and Catholicism developed in Cuba by the Africans trafficked there.
It was common practice for European colonizers to outlaw African spiritualities and religions as part of their campaigns of imperial conquest, labeling these traditions “demonic.” They sought to sever their African captives’ ties to sources of spiritual power that might be used in revolts against white rule.
And they were right to fear the spirituality the Africans brought with them. The Haitian Revolution, which ultimately yielded the first free Black republic in the New World, began with a Voodoo ceremony. Some of the most famous and successful slave revolts in colonial Jamaica were led by a Queen Nanny of the Maroons, who practiced an outlawed healing tradition rooted in African spirituality called Obeah.
The Europeans also knew they’d never be able to conquer the African continent without Christianizing the native populations. We know this because they said as much in their writings.
In his 1883 book “The Congo and Coasts of Africa,” British naval officer Henry Stanley wrote, “To establish a complete rule over the African it is necessary to plant a superior religion in his heart, and to encourage the growth of the missionary spirit.”
In a speech to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1900, the colonial administrator Théophile Delcassé argued: “In Africa, the missionary is the forerunner of civilization. He prepares the way for the colonial soldier, and, when the soldier has done his work, the missionary is there to consolidate it.”
In a letter to the German colonial authorities in East Africa that same year, the Lutheran missionary Georg Schreiber wrote, “I am of the opinion that the suppression of the rebellious tribes by force of arms must be undertaken as soon as possible, in order to establish German authority and make it possible to carry out our mission work.”
The colonizers wanted to monopolize access to spiritual power and consolidate it into their religious institutions, to make sure said religious indoctrination would serve the interests of their respective nations.
Perry’s sermon, and the applause from a crowd of Black Christians, is evidence of the continuing success of their project. Black people have so completely internalized the lesson, they no longer need the threat of violence from white colonial authorities to preach fear and contempt about African spiritualities. Sadly, we’re keeping that tradition alive ourselves.
The final irony is that Perry accuses Beyoncé and Kehlani of aligning with supremacy for doing something white supremacy has always tried to prevent us from doing: connecting with the divine through some other channel than the colonizer’s church. It is Perry who plays the colonizer in this situation, trying to gatekeep access to the divine using the colonizer’s religion.
It adds insult to injury to scapegoat Black musicians as a spiritual source of depression, anxiety, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, hypertension and a host of other health problems in Black communities today — as if we don’t know the systemic sources of our generational trauma and mental health challenges are directly linked to Perry’s kind of preaching. We’re still carrying the trauma of anti-Black, Christian supremacist violence in our bodies, and being retraumatized daily by the same cruel, exploitative logic of our country’s colonial foundations.
Perry is correct in saying that some version of Christianity was present on the African continent before the era of colonization. Some of the oldest Christian traditions exist in Ethiopia and Egypt. However, it’s disingenuous to exaggerate the presence of those traditions to say a knowledge of Jesus existed through the whole African continent before Europeans arrived there.
The colonizers’ religion was spread throughout the continent, furthermore, through violence. Many Christians have tried to argue that the violence was justified because it introduced West African people to the Europeans’ supposedly superior religion and cultural mores. But an omnipotent God could’ve found a more humane way to introduce Christianity to West and Central Africa than whips and guns. An all-benevolent God wouldn’t have been willing to use violence and coercion to spread the “good news.”
Nevertheless, the influence of African spirituality was never fully repressed. It lives in Black Christianity in the Americas today. The ring shout, the counterclockwise shuffle so common in our worship services today, has its roots in West and Central Africa and may have initially been part of ceremonies directed toward ancestors and African deities. The Black church is a product our African ancestors’ own spiritual traditions meeting whatever truth they could find in their oppressors’ religion. Therefore, Black Christians like Perry should be careful about what they demonize.
Those who ignore these facts end up doing our oppressors’ dirty work, thinking they’re just championing orthodoxy or holiness.
There is good reason to be careful about how we go about exploring spiritual traditions. Even present-day practitioners of Voodoo, Obeah and other traditions attest to that. In pursuing any spiritual path, one would do well to seek out trusted mentors and as much information as possible. I write as someone whose uncle went off to learn Obeah and disappeared into the hills of Jamaica, never to be seen again. His is an example that spirituality is not a journey to be undertaken flippantly.
However, one must be careful not to assume that their understanding of spirituality is the only legitimate form of spirituality available to us.
God has always been bigger than the colonizer’s religion.