When life shakes us at our core, we long to find something to ground us again. For me, that grounding has come in the form of expanding my spirituality after the death of my beloved Grandmother on Christmas Eve of 2015. I have always been spiritual; being raised Baptist by her (though I don’t claim a denomination at this time), but also knowing that there was a desire in finding a deeper understanding and a firmer purpose to what I believed in. My Grandmother fervently instilled that God brought her through her trials, and it was that same God that answered her prayers of bringing someone into her life after enduring 5 losses in 1983, which included my grandfather, her mother, and brother. That someone was me; a blessing she made sure God understood she was grateful for every day for the 30 years I had her.
But when it was time for her to transition, I knew I needed to find something that went beyond Christianity to connect with as I moved through my grief and the new reality of living without her. It was then that I embarked on a journey that many people have done, and found myself a part of a trend of Black people who are either merging or leaving behind traditional religions for new rivers and lakes that are making us whole.
The Trend of Exploring Alternative Spiritual Practices – Black Women & Femmes Leading the Way
The trend of exploring alternative spiritual practices within the Black community should not be a shock to anyone; it has been well-documented as to how and why Black Millennials and younger Gen-Xers, especially, are on a mass exodus from the Black Church. Many of us who have left or have found a way to reconcile, yet keep our Christianity (or another religion) as our bedrock faith, are all too aware of the hypocrisies witnessed, experienced, and/or taught that went against what actually is written in the Good Book.
The oppressive nature of, and harm endured and/or seen by those within the Church, has called many to question if the God they served sees them as good or an abomination, as needing to be “cured” from their disabilities, or being the cause of any trauma they sustained. The perversion of Christianity due to the bigotry and -isms/-phobias that run rampant has ostracized, alienated, and disrespected many in our community who have found themselves wondering if they were truly “wonderfully made” in the image of God… or was God ashamed of them?
Black women and femmes, especially, have led the wave in discovering and finding comfort in studying and embracing the ancestral paths we were forced to leave behind. It would be Black women and femmes moving the dial on spirituality and bringing it to the surface for those of us who want more from our Gods and faith – that is what we do with everything we touch and set forth upon.
It is those Black women and femmes, found online, who are teaching the curious and seekers the ways of our ancestors and removing the stigma surrounding witchcraft, hoodoo, voodoo (vodou), tarot, and the like. Black women and femme astrologers, lightworkers, witches, etc., are also discussing how the distancing we have had as a people to these ancient practices were due to oppression and how we can reconnect to our roots in ways to unearth the spiritual fulfillment we desperately need for survival and healing.
The need for spiritual practices to be a means of survival and healing are instrumental to the exploration taking place. Many of us are incorporating these newfound practices into our healing work (such as therapy) so that we can redefine ourselves that are outside of the falsehoods that we understand that are not who we are and are purposeful about shedding.
The one group that I noticed that is engaging in this trend typically goes under the radar – disabled Black folks. I started to notice that the people in my spaces were either practicing alternative spiritual paths or were curious about how it relates to them. I decided to gauge what was transpiring, and share these important insights for Black History Month 2019.
Black, Disabled, & Into Alternative Spiritual Practices
In January 2019, I put out a tweet wanting to know of Black, disabled folks who are into paganism, witchcraft, tarot, just a curious soul, etc. I was surprised at the number of people who responded stating that they fit this profile, and I thought, “why not explore this more, possibly for Black History Month?” And that is what I I set out to do by creating a Google form and asking those who replied to my tweet to complete it.
Participants’ Demographic Makeup
In a matter of over a week, I had 14 participants who took the time to answer the questions I had, which were mostly open-ended.
Here is the breakdown of the profiles of the participants:
Note: For gender, participants were able to write how they identified in lieu of being provided a list. What is listed above is how participants identified themselves, and I wanted to keep the authenticity of identification with language and phrasing for the results sharing.
- Generation identity:
- Xennial: 14.3% (2 participants)
- Millennial: 64.3% (9 participants)
- Gen Z: 21.4% (3 participants)
Note: Though I had Gen-X listed as a choice for this question, no one identified as being a member of that group.
Alternative Practices Undertaken?
After demographics came the “fun” part of learning: what practices did my participants undertake? As you can see from the graph, they are an incredibly diverse group with their exploration.
“Tarot/Oracle” and “Astrology/Numerology” led the practices with 57.1% (or 8 participants). Interestingly enough, “Light work/Medium/Tarot Reader” and “Just curious and finding out more” tied at 50% (or 7 participants), followed by “Hoodoo/Conjure” with 42.9% (or 6 participants). Participants were also given the ability to share practices/beliefs that were not listed: Santeria, Atheism, and Yoruba each had 1 participant response.
Note: The “blank” category on the graph is “Light work / medium / tarot reader.”
The diversity of practices led me to see that Black disabled people are exploring beliefs that are ancestral grounded, which coincides with the trends of Black women and femmes who have been interviewed about this migration. Connecting with our ancestors, and for some, removing faiths that are of the oppressor, is essential to developing the spirituality we long for and have been forced to distance ourselves from.
The “Why” – Reasons For Exploration
Understanding the “why” is the reason for this research, and my participants had various reasons for their spiritual paths.
Connecting the dots to what family did that were steep into rituals:
Witchy Whitney: My grandma’s death set me on my journey to hoodoo. After she died, I began to analyze the weird little sayings, habits she had( like her making me sweep the floor a certain way or spitting on the broom if I swept over my own foot), and I began to research why and found out that although she NEVER identified as a hoodoo practitioner or conjure woman, she had sooooo many habits that could be traced back to conjure folks. I was intrigued.
Being Autistic and wanting to find something to relate to:
LeeAnn: When you’re an autistic Black girl in a world where Autistic Black girls don’t exist, you look for and at anything to help figure out why you think and feel so differently from everyone you know.
Unpacking fear of curiosity:
Anna: I’ve always been drawn/interested in alternative spiritual practice, yet warned (frightened) away/against them by Christian family in ways that made the ways I sometimes experience the world more frightening. So I’m at a place where I want to unpack that anti-Blackness in ways that may also, potentially, be healing/soothing. Interestingly, I’ve also drawn people in my life now that can help me begin that work.
When Jesus isn’t enough:
Loryn: Jesus just wasn’t enough for me anymore. I became agnostic as it pertains to the idea of a Christian God…and the tarot readings, new moon rituals, and reading I have done on Yoruba/Orishas spoke to me more than sermons at church have.
Merging Alternative Practices Into Formal Religions:
When asked if they would incorporate their alternative practices into a formal religion (for example, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.), there were mix responses, with close to half stating no.
Some had this to say:
Witchy Whitney: No. I’m an ex-Christian, and although I use parts of the Bible for rituals, I’d rather just use them for the wisdom contained in the text than to conform to any one denomination.
Reaper: I don’t have anything against established religion personally (discounting its bloody history + all), but I don’t really identify with it. I do like a lot of Buddhist doctrines.
Jazi: No and I don’t plan to. I haven’t because it doesn’t fit cleanly although I see a lot of overlap between my beliefs and Christianity.
Others noted that they have found ways to integrate their practices into formal religions:
Nyx: I still go to episcopal church with my mother and read my bible but i also read my cards, light candles, and prayer spells and crystals.
Littlegem: Yes, I think it’s because I was brought up as a Christian and it’s hard to let that go to an extent
Natasha: Vodou & Catholicism are intertwined so part of learning about the former has meant revisiting the role of the latter in my life 🙂
Has Alternative Spiritual Practices Reconcile Ableism Found in Formal Religions?
The main question I was curious to understand from participants was whether seeking alternative practices was a means to reconcile the ableism found in mainstream religions. The responses shared aligned with some of my own reasoning for exploring outside of my dominant faith:
Witchy Whitney: Yes!!!!!! When I practice hoodoo, I can HEAR my grandma’s voice guiding me in my rituals even when I’m depressed (MDD is my disability). On the other hand, Christianity made me feel as if I was not worthy of even having a religion because Christianity made me feel like living with MDD was an imagination. Christianity made me feel like a nuisance, or that I was imagining my MDD. Christianity made me feel that if I were dealing with depression, it was because I’d sinned and hadn’t prayed it away enough.
Nyx: I feel in gathering spaces of alternative religions that being disabled isn’t a pray it away type thing. It’s more praying and finding ways to have good days and healing
Like it’s not a demon to exorcise but a part of yourself you work with
Loryn: yes! Almost every spiritual working I’ve encountered in ATR/Yoruba traditions have encouraged therapy in a way that my church doesn’t all the time.
Leif: In ways, it has. They weren’t religions that I grew up in, but I did grow up around them, and I witnessed the ableism that my peers faced in their religious communities. A handful of peers + friends have left those communities and religions but seeing the radical work that ones who’ve stayed have done in their communities to approach their religion in ways that dismantle ableist (and other bigoted forms of) thinking has been really helpful in gaining a new perspective on it. It’s also helped me see that there is a really strong need for community and spiritual fulfillment and that there are ways to slowly fight ableism in those areas.
Two participants pointed out something key regarding inclusivity and disability:
LeeAnn: Honestly, I’m not sure anything not built from the ground up with disabled folx in mind can ever truly reconcile ableism and spirituality
Jazi: It has but I do witness ableism in some practitioners of alternative practices.
Finding Ways to Mesh Our Identities Within Our Practices:
In regards to how we mesh our practices with our identities, a good portion have found means to do so.
Leif: …I also find a lot of value in reconnecting with myself, as a disabled person, in a way that doesn’t have to put a lot of value onto my body. My body doesn’t have a whole lot to do with my practice, outside of being the part of me that can hold cards or light things on fire. But even outside of my physical disabilities, my mental illnesses and cognitive disabilities have always been uplifted as another way that I experience the world and are something that helps me connect to the world and myself in ways that some other folks can’t.
Natasha: Yes. This means honoring my Blackness as a mark of the divine, and honoring my disabilities as part of myself and not take aways from it. Listening to messages from my body have been a major part of integrating my practice into my life.
Reaper: The way I interpret tarot is directly linked to my belief in our connection to nature + the cosmos, to my trauma from emotional abuse, + to my experiences living with bipolar disorder as a black woman. I feel that perhaps the childhood injury that caused my severe seizures perhaps granted me some great psycho-spiritual gift. I like to believe that these are possibilities, + my spirituality allows me to transform the way I think about my weird brain.
Dominance of Whiteness In Alternative Practice Spaces
Some have noted the gaps in knowledge sharing due to the dominance of white witches:
Jazi: I’m “new” so I’m still finding my way. I see huge gaps of knowledge missing in what’s shared because much of the writing is done by white witches. I’m studying now about the Orishas so that I draw upon all of those aspects in my practice.
The Impact of Alternative Spiritual Practices on the Exodus from the Black Church (& Other Religious Institutions):
This piece would be remiss if I failed to dive into how gravitating towards alternative practices impacts the influence of the “Black Church” (or other religious institutions) and dwindling membership. My participants had this to say:
Witchy Whitney: I’m hoping that- as black hoodoo practitioners grow in number, it’ll become commonplace for the black church, in such that the black church will grow to incorporate hoodoo beliefs into theirs (something that’s already happening unconsciously as black churches rely on herbs/herbalists/herb growers to assist in physical and mental healing).
Anna: I’m not sure how the Black church will respond. An honest response that may be necessary for it to remain relevant is being honest about how many folks already incorporated alternative practices into their traditional practices but have internalized so much anti-Black sentiment about these practices they dissociate them and in turn sever themselves from the roots and strength of these systems.
Catherine: The Black Church will not go away entirely, but you will be hard pressed to find people under 35 there.
This sentiment resonated with me, as this is the approach I share when I encounter Black women and femmes who are hesitant about researching alternative practices:
Leif: …What I really hope for is that more Black folk can find spiritual + religious communities in ways that feel comfortable and uplifting for us, and in ways that don’t center around white people’s religious experiences.
Words to Black Disabled People Who Are Seeking to Explore Alternative Paths:
And lastly, I asked what would you share with fellow Black disabled people who are considering diving into this world:
LeeAnn: You don’t have to expect magic. You don’t have to fold yourself up to fit in a different but equally uncomfortable box. It’s okay to immerse yourself, absorb, and cut free again to find a better fit. It’s okay to accept what worked for your ancestors may not fit you.
Witchy Whitney: I would say, research. Research….And talk to family about ancestors, because oft-times black families(specially in the south) have a few members that practiced hoodoo, that they’d discover if only they researched their families. I wish I’d have known that my Grandma believed in and practiced hoodoo before she passed, because I would e learned at her feet. And I’m sure I would’ve been more powerful than I am now with all her hidden knowledge.
Reaper: Your journey began a long time ago. You just have to relearn some things. You are used to being patient, to learning, + to being different than the norm. Which means you are more prepared than you think. I wish I had known that. I also wish I had known about how big + sweet the community is.
Leif: I was always raised with “if [a certain aspect of your practice or what you’re looking into] doesn’t feel right, don’t partake in it.” I think a lot of us, especially Black disabled folks, are raised to not believe our own gut feelings/spiritual feelings about what we’re doing or partaking in, but I really feel that it’s important to trust what your feelings are telling you in what feels right or not-so-right for you. When I started my journey on my own terms, I wish I would’ve learned that I don’t need to dilute my practices to fit more with white pagans/witches and that I could have my identity be part of my practice, rather than an afterthought.
The following two responses I felt deeply because they both point to why I started this journey: wanting to get back into myself and learn who I am, and also connect further to those that have transitioned. I have always been a spiritual person, and wanted a way to expand my beliefs outside of Christianity. Christianity is my “bedrock” religion, but learning about my own essence and ancestral bonding are just as important to me, and are aspects that I cannot find within Christianity alone. Being “seen” within these two responses was empowering and affirming – I am not alone.
Janelle: It’s a great way to get back to yourself. To get to know yourself again, to understand and learn about the power within yourself.
Deborah: That my ancestors are always there to help me on my journey and we really are all connected 🙏
For what is left of Black History Month 2019, I want all of us to sit with how spirituality influences us, and why and how we came to believe what we believe. It is okay to explore – curiosity is what make being human exciting. I hope that for Black disabled people who are inquisitive, intuitive, and finding their spiritual path, be open to everything that piques your interest without imposing your own limitations to it.
(Image credit: Courtesy of Pixabay.)