My mom and I were inseparable. When she died, I didn’t know where to turn for her wisdom, solace, and companionship. But as I’ve lived with my grief, I’ve realized there are many ways I can stay in contact with her, whether I’m cooking a meal that we once made together (buttered chicken, tikka masala with naan) or watching a show or film we both loved (This Is Us, Pose). I feel her with me while watching videos of her as she looks directly into the camera or listening to old voicemails. She calls me “babygirl” and dances around playfully, bringing everyone around her to tears because she was just that funny. Whenever I have a brief reconnection with her infectious joy, I always wish I could hear from her just one more time.
A couple of weeks after my mother passed away, I reached out to a friend I’d met through local Black feminist circles in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was shocked to hear about my mom. She asked if I wanted “a reading.” When I agreed, I heard a deck of cards being shuffled over the phone. I was struck by how accurately the cards synced with the current situations of my life and likely events of the future. I inquired about the basis of the reading, and she explained that it was a spiritual practice called hoodoo. Hoodoo (also known as conjure or rootwork) is a Black American spiritual practice rooted in African traditions. It was created by enslaved people from various spiritual practices that they adapted to the land they found themselves in. I became fascinated by it and wanted to practice it alongside my Christianity, visiting Curio, Craft & Conjure in the NoDa area of Charlotte to get more readings, collect information on the practice, and assemble materials to create my own altar.
I found podcasts (A Little Juju Podcast, Hoodoo Plant Mamas, and Mama Rue’s Ancestral Musings) and Instagram accounts (@K6mil, @ehimeora, @osunmurewa, and @Myeshxa) run by Black women and Black nonbinary people sharing inspiring personal testimonials about their connection to these Afro-Indigenous practices. I learned that this form of spirituality often intersected with the politics that I deeply believe in of Black feminism and abolition, working toward a better world without state-sanctioned violence, punishment, and inequality.
When the pandemic hit, I, like many, was stuck inside the house most of the time, and I felt the progress I had made with my grief beginning to regress. I began to question whether trying to practice spirituality was even worth it considering the current state of the world. To see so many people fall ill or lose their lives to such an intense virus made it difficult to believe in the power of God or ancestors. Still, the spiritual mentors I followed online never seemed to lose their faith. How, if at all, had their sense of spirituality shifted during the pandemic, I wondered, and how did their Afro-Indigenous practices meet this moment? I reached out to three of them to find out.
“I’ve had a lot more time to be still and quiet. I also feel that in that stillness and quietness, I have to listen to my spirits more. I’ve had to sit with my ancestors more. In that, you learn a lot about where you come from but you also learn a lot about yourself,” says Juju Bae, host of A Little Juju Podcast and an avid practitioner of the hoodoo and Ifa traditions since 2016 and 2018 respectively. Ifa is a six-thousand-year-old Yoruba African tradition in which earth is viewed as divine. To live a fulfilling and balanced life, one must worship those that created the land, the orisha (natural forces), and venerate the Egun (ancestors). All medicine and healing practices are rooted in natural herbs. Bae admits that her spiritual commitments were challenged by quarantine, particularly when the pandemic started. “I had moments of not believing and taking my altar down,” she says.Juju BaePhoto: Courtesy of Juju Bae
Social distancing made it difficult for spiritual gatherings to continue as they might normally. “It is a community-based religion,” Bae says of hoodoo. “We do things in person. We work together. We are making baths together, we’re healing together. Initially a lot of that had to stop. A lot of our meetings and teachings that we do together had to be online.” Now, Bae is slowly starting to go back to in-person meetings with her spiritual family in Baltimore. “I think that spiritually and energetically the quarantine showed us that we have to stop sometimes and reassess what we’re doing,” Bae says. “I hope that people stopped for a minute. I hope they look at the time to reflect as needed and start to move toward some kind of action and make a change within their own lives. I hope we get to come out of this and bloom and be better people to ourselves and each other.”
Zalika U. IbaorimiPhoto: Courtesy of Zalika U. Ibaorimi
Zalika U. Ibaorimi—a Black studies scholar, performance artist, and practitioner of the Ifa tradition as well as Christianity—saw her spirituality deepen during the pandemic. She moved back home when the virus struck and was able to spend time with her godmother, Darasia Selby, who is well versed in the rituals and practice of Ifa. In September, Ibaorimi received the hand of Ifa, a shrine where offerings can be given to ancestors and blessings can be received. It’s traditionally given as a first initiation into the tradition. The person will also receive a reading as well as an Odu book. (There are 16 major books in the Ifa tradition that outline the inner workings of the religion.) The choice of Odu books and reading determines the Orisha—a spiritual force or deity that guides one’s consciousness—that the person will practice under. “Monthly, I’m able to go to my godmother to do that work,” Ibaorimi says. “If I were somewhere else, I wouldn’t be able to have contact with her.” She emphasizes how spiritual traditions can have a strengthening effect when it comes to social justice. “I hope that people can see it as a way to live. This is technology that I hope Black people can see is theirs. Ours.”
Kamil Oshundara—a Black gender-fluid writer, artist, cultural curator, and practitioner of Ifa—notes that the tradition is actually based around self-reflection, which served them well during a time of social distancing. “Ifa is based around Ifa corpus, which is six thousand years old, and that’s where we study our scripture. There’s lots of work about moments of transformation or turning within and finding solace during isolation,” they explain. For Oshundara, that meant they were already “home with myself, my altar, and my thoughts and experiences.” Their practice of Ifa is rooted in a goal of “allowing autonomy to be in the hands of Black-Indigenous people,” they say. “Autonomy over their spirituality. Autonomy over their bodies. Autonomy over their relationship to everything. That’s the future that I see.”
Kamil OshundaraPhoto: Courtesy of Kamil Oshundara
Listening to Bae, Ibaorimi, and Oshundara share their appreciation for Afro-Indigenous spiritual traditions during quarantine felt like a warm communal hug. I was reminded how hoodoo and Ifa are wonderful guides to aid us in healing after a year of tragedy. Now, I sit in front of my altar and stare at my mother’s picture or hear her advice for me through readings. I cry as I feel my body tense and release at the constantly changing world around me. The world with my mother and before COVID is gone. But as this community has confirmed, there is a future, full of autonomy and without oppression, to bloom and be better people, where I can revisit my mother and her joy. There is a light at the end of what seemed like a dark tunnel.
When asked what she hopes for those who practice these spiritual traditions in the future and after the pandemic, Ibaorimi says, “I hope that we commit to fight against these oppressive systems and we engage in principal struggle with others. I think that there is so much that our spiritual traditions can do in movement.”