African Spirituality and the Power of Religious Reclamation

Still image from Beyoncé’s video for “Hold Up.” Photo: Parkwood Entertainment/Colombia.

Return to the moment you first saw Beyoncé emerge through the iron doors in the golden-yellow gown as water flows down the steps onto the street. As she swings the baseball bat, smashing cars, destroying cameras, and bursting fire hydrants, Beyoncé personifies a Black womanhood that is feminine and sexual yet gloriously angry. To many, Beyoncé’s aesthetic in that video may not have been evident. But for those who are more familiar with African spirituality and the Yoruba religion specifically, the visual presence of the Yoruba goddess Osun is obvious. Though some may question Beyoncé’s motives in using this religious symbolism, especially within conversations around capitalism, she ignited a broader discussion about the past and present significance of West African spirituality. This circulation of knowledge from scholars, socio-cultural commentators, and practitioners of Yoruba and other African spiritualities reveals an often overlooked religious history in the lives of Black people across the African diaspora, and it exposes a wider audience to a tradition that has radically and productively transformed lives.

The Yoruba religion, known for being one of the few traditions to survive the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, originated in Nigeria. For Black people across the Diaspora, the Yoruba religion has served as a medium for establishing self-definitions and understandings of blackness, gender roles, and sexuality that exist beyond the confines of the white gaze. Yoruba traditions have helped create liberatory identity reformations because they remain un-infiltrated by whiteness and Western understandings of race and gender. For example, within the traditional Yoruba religion, women are not seen as secondary to men, but men and women are valued equally. Access to this sort of dynamic alternative worldview is transformative for Black people given the historical dominance and impact of hetero-patriarchy.

Tracey E. Hucks writes extensively about the history and significance of religious reclamation in her book Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism. Hucks explores the significance of African Diasporic religious practice in Black nationalism during the 1950s and 60s as an effort to challenge “the systematic devaluing of black humanity.” She discusses how African Americans who practiced Yoruba traditions sought to combat the ways Western Christianity had characterized and subjugated Africa and blackness. During this period, African Americans made the Yoruba religion “their own” in order to “re-envision their African identity,” transforming the ways they understood blackness more broadly.

Hucks argues that the Yoruba religion provided African Americans a chance to “remake themselves according to their collective understandings of Africa” and to “reject racist and oppressively political, cultural, and economic systems.” The Yoruba religion also helped to facilitate racial solidarity amongst African Americans as they recognized that their long-standing subjugation in the United States was the common denominator across their experiences. Yoruba fulfilled their yearning to re-establish a connection to the land from which their ancestors had been stolen in hopes that this connection would change the ways they understood themselves.

Exterior of the Temple of Osun in Osogbo, Nigeria, on November 16, 2009. Photo: Alex Mazzeto – Jurema Oliveira.

In the Yoruba religion, there are numerous dynamic, multi-dimensional images of Black womanhood that contradict the dominant Western depiction of Blackness and womanhood as one-dimensional and subordinate. The goddess Osun, often associated with sweet water and golden-yellow attire, is known for her all-encompassing nature. She is nurturing and protective, warrior-like and angry when need be, yet also feminine and sexual. The complexities of Osun as described in texts like Osun Across the Waters: A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas represent the dynamism of Black womanhood without the restrictions of social and structural barriers.

Due to issues like racism and sexism, Black women have been and continue to be forced to suppress their feelings of anger and frustration, minimize their power and dominance, and limit their sexual expression. Failing to adhere to society’s harmful gender norms puts Black women at risk of being labeled as angry, emasculating, hypersexual and promiscuous—all of which are harmful tropes that have been prescribed to Black women since the Atlantic Slave Trade. These stereotypes, created and perpetuated by Western definitions of Blackness and womanhood, have functioned as powerful limitations for Black women.

However, seeing an image of a Black woman existing holistically provides space for personal and collective liberation. Osun gives Beyoncé and all Black women impacted by these societal limitations the opportunity to feel and express a full range of emotions, whether in response to infidelity or other issues. More broadly, Osun and the Yoruba religion facilitate the opportunity for Black people, particularly Black women, to collectively re-imagine themselves in much fuller ways beyond just emotional freedom.

Audre Lorde standing in front of board reading "Women are powerful and dangerous." Source: The Guardian.
Audre Lorde standing in front of board reading “Women are powerful and dangerous.” Photo: The Guardian.

Beyoncé’s artistic incorporation of African spirituality can be situated into a history of other Black women artists and writers who have used aspects of African religions in their work. In the 1960s and 70s, for example, the poet Audre Lorde fused components of the Yoruba religion into her life and poetry in hopes of creating a renewed self-identity where she was not bound by the limitations and expectations of what it meant to be a Black queer woman in the United States.1 Her works like Zami and The Black Unicorn reflect her mission to use language and African spirituality to write herself outside of those limitations and restore power and value to her own voice and experiences. Lorde used her poetry to criticize Christianity and the Western worldview that perpetuate the subordination and subservience of women, the subjugation of Blackness, and homophobia. As Ann Louise Keating has noted, “By replacing her Judeo-Christian worldview with one which validates her African roots, she affirms her identity as a Black woman warrior poet…By reclaiming figures from African mythology in these poems and others, Lorde simultaneously redefines herself and celebrates her access to language’s transformative power.”

For example, Lorde’s 1970 poem “The Wind of Orishas” acknowledges the restraints of societal limitations and the historical silencing of women, yet Lorde uses five Yoruba entities as the tools to be freed of that bondage, each revealing parts of the woman to herself. Ultimately, the orishas help the woman exist holistically. It was Lorde’s reclamation of the Yoruba religion and the redefining of her Blackness, womanhood, and sexuality that facilitated profound restoration and freedom from confines brought on by white supremacy. Within her poetry, Lorde expressed that she believed that an alternative religion or spirituality was necessary for Black people to escape the evils of white supremacy. Given how Black experiences in the US and across the globe have been and continue to be largely shaped by how whiteness has historically defined blackness and humanity, the necessity of this sort of alternative, validating worldview is understood.

Beyoncé, Lorde, and global practitioners of African spirituality help us to understand how incorporating African religious traditions such as Yoruba allows for an interpersonal understanding of self that opposes oppressive societal norms. For Black people, finding beauty and value in our hair, skin complexions, and cultural traditions can feel nearly impossible given the centuries-old perpetuations of Eurocentric standards of beauty and diminishing stereotypes. However, having access to traditional African religions like Yoruba establishes a connection to meanings and depictions of Blackness, womanhood, and sexuality that are dimensional and valuable.

  1. Valdés’s text explores Lorde’s incorporation of African spirituality and provides multiple examples and analyses of these pieces. Valdés also includes analyses of similar religious fusions in works by Ntozake Shange and Sandra Maria Esteves.
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Emerald Rutledge

Emerald Rutledge is an English PhD student at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include 20th Century African American literature, Black queer literature, Black queer theory, and Black feminisms. Follow her on Twitter @emeraldfaith.