Black Estrangement • Vol. XLV FictionSeptember 10, 2023 |

Possession

I wanted to worship Black gods. Had paid hundreds of dollars and driven hundreds of miles for manic, promiscuous, messy, sometimes-wise, sometimes-foolish gender-fluid divinities who looked like me. And so when I saw white Jesus, bleeding and emaciated, staring down at me from the wall in Ade’s basement, I felt like I’d been cheated. Like I’d wasted both my time and my money. I knew that Santería was a syncretic religion, a melding of Yoruba traditions and Catholicism, but I did not know before entering Ade’s temple that Christ was actively worshipped, and seeing a statue of Jesus there, towering over the Orishas, only confirmed what in turning over my money to Ade I had begun to suspect. She couldn’t give me what I was looking for. Maybe no one could. Maybe what I wanted didn’t exist anymore.

Like an ever-growing, but mostly silent, number of Black people, I had become disenchanted with a deity who bared no true resemblance to me. In Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora, Joseph Murphy argues that “there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who participate in the tradition, ranging from relatively fewer committed ‘godchildren’ of a particular line of Orisha initiation, to numberless clients seeking consultation.” I found myself in Ade’s smoke-filled basement, rum tipsy, holding a basket of sunflowers and honey, waiting to be possessed because I wanted to become one of the committed few.

The first recorded accounts of possession in Europe arose during the medieval period. In them, Catholic priests claimed that parishioners, all of whom were women, were under the influence of demonic forces. In Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism, Moshe Sluhovsky argues that the dialectic of spirit possession and exorcism arose as a way to punish women who had divine revelations. More often than not, “a woman who claimed divine experience was much more likely to be found to be possessed by demons, deceived by Satan, or simulating her possession or her sanctity.” Because women were considered less self-possessed than men, they were, supposedly, more open to possession by an outside force. Exorcisms arose as a means of bringing to heel individuals and communities whose religious experience did not align with church and state doctrine. Catholic and Protestant missionaries, finding religious practices in Africa and the Americas that, to them, were incomprehensible, uniformly labeled them spirit possession.

I’d met Ade through Kay. Kay was—is—a performance artist, and what I attempted to do through research, she rented out venues for and did through dance, embodying for audiences both the Orishas and her ancestors. Ade was Kay’s college professor but became her godmother and spiritual advisor. We were in graduate school together, and in the African American studies classes we took to try and learn something about ourselves we ended up on the opposite side of every argument. However, in our third year, after I’d split a hotel room with her and her ex at a conference in San Juan, we realized over mofongo that we had more in common than we thought. They flew back to Chicago early on the last day of the conference, and when I awoke that morning, I found the bed next to me empty. After I showered, I saw that Kay had left a note for me in the mirror fog saying that she enjoyed our conversation and was looking forward to having more of them. She could have texted, but for some reason, a reason I spent the whole flight back pondering, she wanted her words to find me when I was at my most vulnerable.

Possession is fundamental to how we define personhood. Citizenship, human rights, and political agency all hinge on whether or not a person satisfactorily performs self-possession. Possessive individualism, a term coined by C. B. MacPherson, is the idea that possession of the self as property, and the ability to accumulate property, is a condition of personhood. As Karen Richman writes, “private, individual ownership is not merely the goal of modern culture; it is a way of knowing,” of being. Possessive individuals engage objects—and persons, in the case of the Atlantic slave trade—in the world as either property or potential property. It’s no coincidence that “enlightened” ideas about who is and is not human arose as European merchants, monarchies, and clergy were looking for reasons to justify slavery and colonialism.

By the time I started dating Kay, I had been researching Yoruba religion, Vodun, Santería, Candomblé, Haitian Vodou, and American Hoodoo at the Herskovits Library for just over five years. This ceremony was my opportunity to practice what my scholarship tried to preach. I paid Ade hundreds of dollars, cooked and set aside extra food, and collected dirt from graveyards in order to keep at the forefront of my mind the debt I owed my ancestors. When we stayed with Ade—slept on her floor, cleaned her kitchen, cooked her food, walked her golden retriever, and mowed her lawn—Kay would not look at or touch me. At the time, she told me that, as the oldest godchild in residence, the one who had traveled the furthest along the road of the saints, she didn’t want to seem like she was giving me special treatment. When we broke up, she said it was because Ade told her that she couldn’t stand to see her looking lovestruck. It wasn’t until very recently that marriage between a man and woman stopped meaning that the former has exclusive rights over the latter. The presumption of ownership haunts all romantic love but, for heterosexual relationships in particular, this past-present logic can be especially worrisome. Given this legacy, I can’t blame Ade for wanting to protect Kay from romantic love and claim her for the Orisha, for her ancestors, for her community, for herself—though mentor/mentee relationships, more often than not, are subject to the same sort of possessive pitfalls.

The idea of the human that undergirds subjectivity, citizenship, and human rights arose in contradistinction to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century accounts of “possessed populations” in Africa and the Americas. As Paul Christopher Johnson contends in Spirited Things: The Work of “Possession” in Afro-Atlantic Religions, “spirit possession, the ownership or the occupation of the body by unseen agents, emerged out of an analogical relation with material possessions and lands. . . . As possession’s locus par excellence, Africa served as chronotope of the anti-citizen and the ungoverned state, a place and time (the past in the present, the primitive) of frenzy and the horde, a socially undifferentiated and uncontrollable mob.” Black people, according to missionaries and Enlightenment philosophers, were not in possession of themselves or the lands upon which they lived, making them objects instead of subjects. “While subjectivity,” Fred Moten writes in In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, “is defined by the subject’s possession of itself and its objects, it is troubled by the dispossessive force objects exert such that the subject seems to be possessed—infused, deformed—by the object it possesses.” It is impossible to own things without, to some degree, allowing them to own you.

I went to Ade’s because I wanted my ancestors to speak to me. Initiates embody their ancestors’ spirits in order to wrest their memory from the capital-driven systems that killed, enslaved, commodified, and oppressed them. “The ability of the emerging nation to speak,” Sharon Holland writes in Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity,“hinges on its correct use of the ‘dead’ in the service of its creation. Here the dead are the most intimate ‘enemy’ of the changing and growing nation. Should they rise and speak for themselves, the state would lose all right to their borrowed and/or stolen language.” The myth of America—the specious belief that here, anyone, anywhere can become rich, own things, ascend—depends on the silencing of all those who have been, and to a large extent still are, systematically denied its promise. I’d been taught in school and, to a lesser degree, in church, that my ancestors were ignorant heathens—with no history worth teaching, no beliefs worth learning—and that I should be grateful to have been born in the Christian land of opportunity. I wanted to raise the dead, allow my Black ancestors to speak through me in order to expose these lies and bring to light the rot at the root of the American Dream.

Seeing white Jesus in Ade’s basement reminded me of my mother who, if she could not find a Black Jesus or Santa, bought a white one and painted it.

“Stealing away,” Saidiya Hartman writes in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, “exploited the bifurcated condition of the black captive as subject.” Since slaves were considered objects, they would “steal” themselves to visit friends and relatives at other plantations, participate in parties, and attend praise meetings. Moreover, the practice of the “ring-shout, a form of devotional dance, defied Christian proscriptions against dancing [and made] the body a vehicle of divine communication with God in contrast to the Christian vision of the body as the defiled container of the soul or as mere commodity.” Black religion in the Americas turns the racial logic of personhood and property on its head.

A few months before the ceremony, I brought Kay to stay the weekend at my parents’ house. I brought Kay home with me to Tennessee so that she could see Memphis and spend some time with my people. When I came to pick her up, she was holding a stone statue of Elegua. When she got in the car, she told me that she had thrown cowrie twice that morning and both times the sign for car trouble had come up, and so, for protection, she’d decided to bring Eleggua along, balancing him first on the dashboard, then on the console. Part of being an initiate, especially for those who wanted to become priests and priestesses, was to divine the future using cowrie shells. Which, at least when we were together, was something that Kay did twice a day, every day, and before major life events. This, as well as the thrice-a-day prayers, the rules about what and how to eat, how to clean, how to be, was to keep the ancestors top of mind. I agreed with this in theory but had trouble practicing it, which was the root of most of our arguments. The argument we had that day was more about divination in general than about Elegua in particular. Ade, after throwing cowrie shells one morning, called Kay and told her that we didn’t belong together and that I was better suited to Kay’s sister.

Possession in the African diaspora looks nothing like the Catholic rites from which the name is derived. In these traditions the possessing force comes not from without but from within, as it is believed that each individual is their own multitude, an amalgam of ancestral spirits. So when you are possessed, if you are possessed, it means that a single ancestor is shouting out above the din of the collectivity that is you, and if the possessing force is an Orisha, it means that you are embodying the supernatural force that most aligns with the way you inhabit the world. During ritual spirit possession, Descartes’s “I think therefore I am” is exchanged for the Yoruba proverb “I am because we are.” Here, personhood is not possessive, not defined by the ownership of objects, but in and through community. The possessed—in the barracões of Brazil, the ounfò of Haiti, the bembé of Cuba, or the sanctified falling out in Black church congregations all over America—are saying with their bodies that they do not belong to themselves, or their things, but to each other. It is impossible not to be possessed. Impossible not to tell the story or who you are without defining your relationships. The only question is who, or what, possesses you? Is it your family? Your community? Or your desire to own things? There is no freedom in the capitalist system into which we have all been initiated, save the choice of to whom or what you decide you belong.

I was twelve the day I first felt the spirit in church. That Sunday, like all the others, there were songs and a sermon; only this time, when the preacher said that the doors of the church were open, I found myself standing instead of sitting, and before I knew it, I was in front of the pulpit. The program was done—but then my Uncle Larry struck up the organ, the choir stood, and church started all over again. My grandmother was the first to lay her hands on me, then my grandfather, mother, father, sister, and cousins. I’d never felt anything like that before, and I haven’t since.

“The Negro,” Zora Neale Hurston contends in The Sanctified Church, “has not been Christianized as extensively as is generally believed. The great masses are still standing before their pagan altars and calling old gods by a new name. As evidence of this, note the drum-like rhythm of all Negro Spirituals. All Negro-made church music is dance-possible. . . . Then there is the expression known as ‘shouting’ which is nothing more than the continuation of African ‘Possession’ by the gods.”

It was Eleggua who, as with the argument in the car, occasioned my parents’ invitation to Kay and me to join them at church. When my mother discovered him behind the bedroom door, she stared but didn’t ask about him. The next day, she had my father knock before dawn and ask if we’d brought clothes respectable enough for church. The church my parents attend, Mount Tipton CME, was built in the 1880s by my great-great grandfather. The CME denomination was founded in Jackson, Tennessee, in the wake of the sanctified movement but, unlike the more famous Church of God in Christ, founded just down the road in Memphis, its reach never went much further than that.

In “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” Hurston writes, “I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww! I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way. My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue. My pulse is throbbing like a war drum. I want to slaughter something—give pain, give death to what, I do not know.” Hurston is talking about listening to music in a jazz club, but when I was little, this is what it meant to go to church. The C in CME now stands for Christian—Christian Methodist Episcopal—but when the building was raised it stood for Colored, and I can’t help but wonder if something was lost in translation.

To be possessed, to allow a god to make your head their throne, is to form a contract with the community to manifest, both in ceremony and everyday actions, the attributes of that divinity. At first, Ade thought my head belonged to Shango, the axe-wielding warrior-god of thunder who takes only sons, but after she got to know me, the spirits told her that I belonged not to Shango but to Oshun, the divinity of rivers, fertility, promiscuity, love, and sweet boys. I’d been told more than once while growing up that I seemed like I “might have a little sugar in my tank.” Kay herself had spent most of the two years before we started dating assuming that I was gay, and to her, Oshun ruling my head explained her misperception of my sexuality. In my letter to Oshun, I wrote about this and how I thought I was going to become a preacher until I learned that the man who baptized me took sexual advantage of his parishioners.

Mount Tipton is an old-style A-frame church. One room until the ’50s, when the preacher’s office was added, and two rooms until the ’80s, when the building fund got just big enough to build a reception hall and kitchen. The cemetery behind the church houses almost every deceased member of my father’s family going back to the 1870s when they came over from East Tennessee after being enslaved by the Fain family for almost one hundred years. The church house is small, but when I was a child, it rocked. The music never stopped, and the only time you had to sit down was the beginning of the sermon, because the preacher was doing something wrong if you weren’t on your feet by the end. Here sermons were less homilies, more what Hurston called “barbaric thunder poems.” Mount Tipton’s sanctuary had always felt small, but with Kay next to me it felt even smaller. That day the congregation numbered less than twenty, and the youngest people there besides Kay and me were my parents. All the young people had either moved away or gone to one of the megachurches down in Memphis.

“Just so you know,” Ade said, lighting a copy of the letter on the candle that burned before Oshun’s altar, “this door, once opened, can never be closed.”

I was onboard with Santería in theory, but I decided a few weeks after the ceremony that I couldn’t devote my life to something I didn’t feel. I wanted more than to admire the principles of spirit possession. I wanted to feel it. The day I quit Santería, I went to my friend C’s apartment and let him smoke me out. I went there straight from the park where Kay and I broke up. C and Kay only lived two Red Line stops away from each other. C was having problems of his own around then and was smoking up every day to cope with them. C and I both thought we knew who we were, but we were only just beginning to learn what all of ourselves we didn’t know we didn’t know. I hadn’t smoked since joining the Religion—supposedly it confuses the ancestors, hides you from them by turning you the wrong way. Which was fine with me. By then, all I wanted was to be left alone. I didn’t want to be burdened by my debt to my ancestors. I wanted to be selfish, to belong to just myself.

That night C and I ordered two large sausage and pepperoni pizzas and binged the latest season of American Horror Story. Only I couldn’t help but notice how inaccurate the show’s depictions of Marie Laveau and Baron Samedi were. And that the still water C poured me had begun to form bubbles, which meant that the spirits wanted my attention. And that when C took our plates to the kitchen to wash, he stacked them, which was disrespectful to the ancestors. Even now, I can’t help but think of Oya when passing a graveyard, or Elegua when I’m at a crossroads, or Oshun anytime I’m near fresh water.

When our break was over, Kay and I met at a park near her apartment to talk. She smiled and hugged me and told me how much she missed me. She said that she felt better now. That she had been worried over nothing. During our break, she’d had Ade throw again and, this time, the cowrie shells had shown her something different. She no longer believed that Dee and I belonged together. As soon as Kay said this, I knew that we had to break up. I knew that, as hard as I had tried to, I couldn’t live by what cowrie shells did and did not say. Now I know that throwing shells is meant to acknowledge the forces in life that are larger than you, to allow something larger than your ego to guide your decision-making. I didn’t know who I was yet, and so I was afraid of giving myself over to something bigger than myself.

I can’t tell you that I don’t believe in Jesus, or Obatala, or Oshun, or that I know for sure that each person has two souls, one they make through living and another that has lived an eternity. I can’t deny the Four Noble Truths, the Five Pillars, or even the Nation of Gods and Earths’ claim that Allah means “Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm, Head,” even though I could never wrap my head around the Supreme Mathematics. I can no longer open a door without wondering who or what I might be inviting in. I can’t eat, or think, or read, or write without remembering all my ancestors endured in order for me to exist. I can’t help but wonder what my family’s and friends’ lives would look like if they worshipped gods who grew out of their culture and resembled them. Religion, like relationships, types you like a page. Time passes. The ink fades. But the imprint remains.

Works Cited

Murphy, Joseph. Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Holland, Sharon Patricia. Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000.

Hurston, Zora Neale. The Sanctified Church. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1998.

———. Hurston, Zora Neale. “How it Feels to be Colored Me.” World Tomorrow 11 (May 1928): 215–16.

Johnson, Paul Christopher, ed. Spirited Things: The Work of “Possession” in Afro-Atlantic Religions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Richman, Karen, “Possession and Attachment: Notes on Moral Ritual Communication among Haitian Descent Groups,” in Johnson, Spirited Things, 207–24.

Sluhovsky, Moshe. Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Photo of Rickey Fayne
Rickey Fayne is a fiction writer from Tennessee. His first novel, All God’s Children, is forthcoming from Little, Brown and Company in 2025.

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