Discover more from a sorcerer's notebook
Ancestral Practice as Anti Racist Esoterica
*Subscriber note: This may be more a result of my PHD work into the history of Black Esoterica in America, but this post is indicative of the new direction this newsletter will be headed in for the foreseeable future.*
Ancestral Practice as Anti Racist Esoterica. I have been thinking about this subject for a long time. For one obvious reason that white boy racists love to point out on social media: I have a white Mama.
Her name was Loretta Mary Bernedette Duncan. She was my everything. I have written extensively about the complicated way this makes me walk in the world as a Black Queer. Like in two books so far. But for these dudes it’s a real “gotcha” moment!
They assume wrongly I haven't done the spiritual, emotional, and therapeutic work to synthesize what it means to be considered an “abomination” by both extremes in either culture. Or that my mother was somehow this being without autonomy or power in her or my my life story. As a white woman with a family in the Mountains of PA she actually had the most power in my childhood, but I would have never known.
You see, Loretta tried to move us to the suburbs a few times. Into “white” culture. Of course she and my dad fell for that capitalist racist dream that somehow moving to a bunch of apartments near cul de sacs and no public transportation, that this will somehow not only solve their problems, but it would be safer for us as family.
My parents got married in 1978 less than 11 years after Loving V Virginia, although legal in PA since the 1830’s, like no one did that shit.
The first excursion to the suburbs a neighbor heard my Mom and Dad arguing, called the police on the new nigger and the nigger lover down the street, and he got arrested for a few 4 inch marijuna plants he had in the living room. Some crappy sativa they loved in the late 70’s and 80’s. He got 2 years in the pokey for that.
The second one is the boys I talk about in the United States of Grace whose father ended up at our doorstep wearing the Stars and Bars and a shotgun.
My point is these white boys never considered the fact that my Mother chose to raise us in Black community because it was safer for us. It was her lifelong desire for us to be in community with Black people. Our people. My mother was the only white person I knew other than my Grandparents until my teens. The only one I ever saw on a regular basis other than teachers and police. She was the outsider. She learned and thus earned her place in community with Black women in the 70’s and 80’s. That was her whole life. She never left Black community even after my Dad and her separated and he moved to an almost completely white town.
These white boys who say this stuff to me online never thought once that many of our parents in their own ways had already been resisting the Empire. Or that for us today this fight is generations old. For my Mother the proudest day of her life was when I found “my place” in Black community as faith leader and Black writer. When I embraced my heritage, which meant serving it in some small way.
I had a choice, I know many who have similar birth circumstances that don't consider themselves Black. I have always found it strange, but have let them have their choices.
But if they are right that means Bob Marley isn’t Black. Paschal Beverly Roberts. Marie Laveau. Jehu Jones. Countless others. Like all the children of the first forced generations to be born here, many of whom were born lighter than me, we are Black. It’s what my white Mama taught me as a kid. She said the opposite of most white people in my life, not only do I actually have an incredible culture, but I should be more proud of it. She is the first to tell me to read Langston. To make sure I watched Roots with my Father on TV for what seemed like a year at that age. But I digress since that is a personal journey and I am just sharing where I landed.
Consequently I have thought a lot about “how does one do good ancestral work when large parts of my line might be oppressors?” “ Is that the kind of work I want to do?” “Should I even do Ancestral work?” Before I address all those issues, I want to answer the obvious question for some of you.
What is Ancestral Work?
From my perspective, it is any indegenous, cultural, or spiritual practices ( with some caveats), that is about communication, veneration, or the healing of ancestral lines through ancient culturally appropriate practices, and some universal ones. They also have a spiritual “entourage” effect on the practitioner, while not the goal of most ancestral practice, it has benefits for the worker through communication with what some call Heaven, the Ancestral Realm, the Egungun in Ifá, the way I found my ancestral practices. Or wherever you believe the living energy of a soul goes in your particular cosmology.
Whether the “Cloud of Witnesses”, or the wisdom of the Elders, almost every tradition, including Christianity, has a major rite for this. All Saints for example. Ancestral work takes that responsibility out of the Churches hands, and places back in yours. You become the priest drawing the ethereal closer. It bets on your ability to start to interpret your own story.
For those of us doing work outside the lines of the Churches coloring book, how I describe the realm of the mystical to children and Bishops, not doing this work is detrimental I believe to our development.
So this of course leads those of us who are doing this work and have ancestry they recently discovered may, or may not be responsible for the fall of civilization, with quite the quandary right?
For me as a Black queer when the world started to melt, I had a tradition to turn to, kind of.
The road there has been my whole life and it wasn’t easy. It started through my Great Aunt Gussy’s van van oil she rubbed on our ears while tucking a St. Peter cards in our pockets on the way to “play her number”. Sometimes a piece of fabric wrapped with whatever she had in her strange byzantine drawers only she could navigate wrapped in it. Able to punch you as quick as kiss you, to love and scold you in way that made you want to weep for every hurting her. All of these traits being mesmerizing and terrifying as a child, she was an early road into the idea that Elders were not as weak as they taught me in school. Here or in the hereafter. They were and are innovators in the Realm of the Spirit I suspected as a child, as magical as I always thought. In her 90’s, all I know is Gussy hit the lotto or the street number every 2-3 months for exactly what she spent on them, and all her bills or any other trouble that came her way. My entire childhood.
It came from Great Aunt Sissy on my mothers side who taught the proper candles, saints, herbs, and prayers with almost every letter she sent me as a child, ones she painstakingly wrote to me at 89, for any problem I wrote to her about in my childish way.
It came through familiar roads that are perilous for the marginalized in any culture, complete with gatekeepers to tell me I didn't belong disguised as elders.
It came with stories, proverbs and language you can't find complete agreement on, and the most important ingredient, Divine Mystery.
And those two elders to honor. Think about your childhood. Who were the people who have passed on, who taught you just how thin the veil between us and God really was?
Ancestral Work is just a series of practices that I have developed to tap into that fount of Divine Wisdom, it’s Spirit, and others like these two Spiritual Mama’s along my bloodline. Like most people I know, I had a ton of trepidation exploring not only my family's past of Black generational trauma, but also had to face the dual half of the same sword. The half that was my literal family's complicity in that same history, and I had no choice but to face it head on.
It has been, and continues to be some of the most fulfilling spiritual work I do.
As a Babá Awó in Ifá and trying to synchronize, quite openly, the message of the Liberating Christ I encountered in the Gospels, and earth based practices that connect me to the Divine in ways that I believe are truly emancipatory, it occurred to me that most of what we have seen in the last 20 years or so in this country could start to be healed spiritually through all of us doing good Ancestral Work. By all of us I’m talking to my so-called “white” readers too.
White is a category that only exists in America to create a false culture and a supermajority to oppress Black and Brown bodies. Before your ancestors came here they were Italian, Irish, Scottish, Norwegian, Swedish, and you had practices. Beliefs. Saints hidden as God’s. God’s hidden as saints. You had ceremony, practice, and culture all your own that is literally sitting right there for the taking.
To become “white” in this country you give all that up. Your ancestors did this in the way we all do, in exchange for power. For entry into a category that was policed and was tough for your ancestors to get in. But being not BIPOC they were. One by one by one. Once the rest of “whiteness” decides you have been civilized. Made American. You are in. You are white. Congratulations. How is that working for you?
The white prosteant church did its part and slowly eroded away anything that even resembled the incredible ways you touched the Divine over the centuries. With the State’s insistence on Assimilation rather than Amalgamation, and our own faith leaders own complicity, it’s no wonder Ancestral Work and practice seems “exotic”.
But I bet if you dig back just a few generations you will find culturally appropriate means to start this work.
You want to dismantle whiteness? Start ancestral work.
Discover who your people were before you were cast into Babylon with the rest of us and were taught, and eventually started to believe, this was your homeland.
Find out how they did liturgy if you are still attached to the Church. How they celebrated All Saints in their homes. 10/1 there is a meal involved.
Your ancestors did terrible things, awesome, get to know who they were, what they did and own it as part of your sacred story. Mine has horror too. Then find the stories of those who resisted supremacy in your line. Who lived by their own tune. Ask them what their wisdom was. Ask them to help you to be better than they could be. If you are the first in your line to see the rottenness of the American dream (which I doubt), even more reason and responsibility to work with the energy of those whose mistakes of the past affected everyone but you. Pray that the Divine heals them of that perhaps, or start the process of making our own souls better equipped to not make those same mistakes.
I don't think my white readers shouldn't do ancestral work, I think it’s actually one of the remedies to what ails the world, along with a host of other things, but incredibly necessary. Divesting yourself of whiteness means spiritually too.
For those of us who are of the African Diaspora I know the trepidation of possibly running into big pockets of Spiritual Trauma from your own family's story. I know the church has taught some of you that your Ancestors and the practices to know them in your bones is “of the Devil”. I know for Black queers like me, and Black woman you have met gatekeepers in African traditional spirituality and religion.
I also know the immense healing the ability to fully integrate my whole story into my cosmology gave me. To spiritually transmute not just my trauma into healing, but sometimes get the feeling I am also doing that in some small way for my ancestors. It’s amazing when the feeling comes.
I also believe the revolution doesn't stand a chance if it doesn't have a working spiritual component for those who still wish to use one.
Not a belief system, but shared practices so we may still experience the Divine and liberation together. I believe that Ancestor Work is one doorway into what we can do together not just here, but possibly on the other side of the veil.
Written in Love and Liberation
Olosun Oshundayìísi Baba Awósun
Rev. Lenny Duncan he/they
Ile ti Okuta ni Owurọ
“House of the Cliff at Dawn”
Co Host and Co Creator of “Blackberry Jams” Presented by Ben and Jerry’s and produced by PRX
I will be offering an Ancestral Practice as Anti Racist Esoterica Class starting in November, online and locally in person. I have 25 spots for the online class. The class runs for 3 weeks. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details or check out the website in my signature for some of the stuff I am doing with my work lately.