Episode 5: Healing as Resistance


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Healing as Resistance — Introduction:

The middle passage subjected enslaved Africans to an ordeal the depths of which are literally abysmal. That is, the further and deeper one looks at the Atlantic Slave Trade, the more and more suffering one finds. New evidence continues to emerge that suggests to historians that we have not yet begun to approach the depths of the African experience on the Atlantic Slave Trade. Like the bodies of countless Africans whose bones lie somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic, the full breadth of the experience of enslaved Africans may never be fully uncovered.

Between Africa, the Atlantic Slave Trade, sale in the Americas and the 2 year “seasoning” period of adjustment in the Western Hemisphere, an estimated 35 to 80 percent of Africans who left the continent perished. To be sure, however, many survived due largely to the various elements of African culture in the western hemisphere and healing traditions that helped Africans to survive the ordeal of enslavement.

As we saw in Episode 3: Africa in Historical Context, “culture” has been defined as, beliefs, practices and modes of being of a particular people in a particular setting adopted as a means of survival. We saw how and why Africans in the various regions in Africa structured their lives (their religion, artistic traditions, and social organization) in a particular and distinct way based on their particular setting. West African culture laid the groundwork for African survival in the Western Hemisphere through the process of acculturation: Cultural modification of one group by borrowing and adopting the cultural traits of another group as a means of survival.

We can see this process even today in the practice of Santeria in the Caribbean nation of Cuba. The African origins of Santeria stem largely from the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria. In Cuba, the Yoruba Orisha worship practices fused with Roman Catholic traditions and formed the Santeria. Santeria evolved as the Yoruba deities which numbered more than 400 in Africa were reduced to several dozen relevant entities in the New World and juxtaposed onto Roman Catholic symbols and rituals. Thus, Africans could continue a mode of traditional worship now disguised within the structure of Roman Catholicism to honor their own gods under the guise of Roman Catholic saints. To this day, the African deity Babalu-Ayé, horribly disfigured god of smallpox and disease, who governs disorders of the skin and is popularly referred to as “the doctor of the poor” is associated with with St. Lazarus. Obatalá, god of peace and tranquillity whose leaves are called on to heal blindness and paralysis with Jesus Christ, and Yemayá, goddess of the oceans who rules over intestinal illness and tuberculosis is synchronized with the Virgin mother.

Because the setting is different, however, many of the articles and symbols used in African healing traditions in the Americas are substituted or improvised. Yemaya, who is a river goddess in West Africa, for example, becomes the goddess of the ocean in the Santeria healing tradition. Likewise, the plants and herbs governed by Yemaya that are used in healing are indigenous to West Africa. So they must be substituted for those found in the Western Hemisphere. Some of the substitutions occur through trial and error and some through contact with indigenous peoples and further infusion with Native American practices.

Santeria can also be placed within the context of Black Nationalism. A common denominator of all nationalism is the high value placed on self-definition and self-determination. Nationalists believe that the ethnic, religious or linguistic group to which they are most intimately attached is undervalued and oppressed by a dominant society. For constant elements of Black Nationalism are defined as: racial consciousness, religious separatism, a focus on cultural history (including promises of the reemergence of African greatness and restoration of racial pride) and self-determination which centers on a quest for political autonomy.

So, as we’ve seen, African cultural elements helped enslaved Africans survive in the Americas, but some modification was necessary as a result of a change in their setting. The result is a mode of survival which is neither African, nor European, but African American.


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