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Ancestral Veneration Hidden in Plain Sight

As both a transracial adoptee and a descendant of Ancestors from Africa who were stolen and enslaved, I have done my fair share of processing around loss and seeking Ancestral kinship. Decolonizing and indigenizing have long been at the center of my movement toward liberation. When I first sought to decolonize my spirituality, I believed that The Church, through colonization and white supremacy, had stomped out our link to our original African spiritual practices. Still, I soon realized this wasn’t the case. Traditional religion and spiritual practices, such as Hoodoo, were kindled by our fore-parents and covertly woven into Christianity in the late 17th and 18th centuries, with many of these traditions still in place today.

Before brick-and-mortar Black churches were built as sanctuaries to convert to Christianity cosmetically, we made our own ‘church’ spaces. We connected in tobacco fields, at riverbanks, in secret cabin meetings at night, within the trees and wilderness of parts of the Underground Railroad, and in the song of Negro Spirituals. Our Blackness was our first spiritual home.

The United States was born into Christianity. As a people, we were not. Whether through force or recognition of the potential for liberation through this cosmetic conversion, Black enslaved people in the States adopted Christianity as a means to congregate, for spiritual and political conversation, and to continue our traditions covertly, while in plain sight. Rootwork, conjure, and the craft were absorbed into Christian tradition and, simultaneously, consciously and unconsciously into daily life.

Through the Church, Ancestors and Deities were relabeled as Saints. Baptisms functioned as spiritual baths and cleansings; Possession as catching the Holy Ghost; Light language voiced as speaking in tongues; Offerings and sacrifices as tithing and communion; Ancestral altars as church altars; Songs, spells, and manifestations spoken as prayer; And oils, mojo bags, talismans, and divination tools operating as the cross, anointing oil, incense, the Bible, and rosaries.

Though actively discredited through media in the Western world as credulous superstitions, the ‘old ways’ or traditions of Black mysticism are a system of beliefs built around Ancestral connection and wisdom, with ancient customs revealing to us how to connect with or repel spirits. There is much to this world that cannot be seen or realized by the naked eye, and this practice shines a light on what can’t be plainly understood by rooting us in connection to our forebearers.

Although deeply embedded in Black tradition, ancestral veneration isn't only visible in the Black community. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this veneration is practiced everywhere in some form or another. The untrained eye might not see it, but there are altars all around us. In gas stations and nail salons, schools, and homes - when you celebrate items or photos or songs that remind you of someone, you are creating an altar for them. And, of course, you can honor a loved one or family member this way, but it’s really about honoring people who align with you; toward your highest good and ease.

When you prepare recipes that were passed down to you.

When you sing a song that a loved one used to sing.

When you cook a meal on a certain day to honor your loved one.

When you name something after them, like passing down a family name or naming a scholarship fund in their honor.

- That’s ancestral veneration.

Ancestral veneration is happening even when it’s not recognized as such.

When we name a building after someone harmful in history, we venerate them. When we exchange money printed that only features White politicians, put up statues, or celebrate holidays rooted in exploitation, we’re thus allowing these people and the acts they’ve done and their values to be honored.

For decades Marion Sims was popularly regarded as the Father of Gynecology and, quickly into his career, was elected president of the American Medical Association even after uncovering that to earn this accolade, he experimented on enslaved Black women without anesthetic. According to Sims, the enslaved black women were "willing" and had no better option, even though they could not refuse. He was the first physician with a statue to be built in his honor. Although we eventually removed the one in Bryant, New York, in 2018, he is still commemorated in Alabama and South Carolina to this day.

Thankfully the enslaved Black women are now recognized as the Mothers of Gynecology, and they are featured in a long overdue monument in honor of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey.

This is why it’s so important to be aware of how and when we’re paying respect.

I’m still waiting for my $20 Harriet Tubman because she deserves her flowers.

As you can see, venerating can be dangerous if done improperly or without consideration. Honoring someone who has actively caused harm or not fighting for the veneration of our deserving Ancestors is incredibly problematic because it energetically amplifies people and their acts and can serve to minimize the energy of our Ancestors and those with whom we’re morally aligned.

So what does conscious ancestral veneration look like? It’s in taking control over who you honor and why. It’s in recognizing when you’re practicing veneration and in magnifying the voices and acts of those we resonate with. Your religious or spiritual background doesn’t matter, but your intention does. If interested in beginning, start in a place of grounding – cleansing, protection, shadow healing, and work. We naturally do this work communally in places of worship. Take time to reconceptualize and feel out what this practice looks like at home, openly living out our traditional practices.

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