When I was about 7 or 8, I stood at my mother’s hip and watched her calmly explain herself to a shouting man who may as well have smeared dabs of hot sauce across his cheeks. He was yelling at her to speak English. She had just been telling him about her God (in English). She would not shout back. I was scared, but I stood there silently, the way innocent children do when they know loud words are threatening but have never seen them turn to blows. He did not take our literature.
My mom put her magazines back in her bag after the door was shut in our faces, told me to come along, and took us to another house, to another potential rejection or unleashed dog or screeching householder or Bible study. I prayed to Jehovah for the Bible study because it made the whole affair feel less futile. It made even days when we marched up and down McMansioned streets without meeting a single interested person feel like part of a mission to save lives, or at least one.
When I was 18 years old, I sat in a room of men ranging in age from mid-40s to late 70s and told them in detail about my sex life. I was doing this to get right with God after my brother found out I was sleeping with my best friend and told me I either needed to out us or be outed by him. For at least 45 minutes, I answered questions on the level of “Did you have oral sex with her?” and “Did you use toys?” as they took notes and occasionally stopped to muse over a Bible verse or offer counsel. One of them, my neighbor, assured me that they needed this information to judge the degree of sin involved. That night, they determined that I was repentant and allowed me to remain one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Months later, I wrote a letter to the neighbor elder officially declaring that I no longer wished to remain one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They announced it on stage at one of my former congregation’s meetings, a meeting I did not attend. That announcement marked the end of my communications with my friends, mentors, and spiritual community. The only substantial link I still had to the congregation was my mother, who continued to support me through college and a few of the years that followed.
I haven’t spoken to my mother since July of last year. Her decision, not mine.
I was emotional at first, when I realized that the disowning I’d asked for at 18 had finally arrived. In recent months, however, I’ve been scraping my skin against rough life lessons and shedding it like a puff adder.
A skin shed when I came to terms with the fact that my father died before we really knew each other, and my mother may not speak to me again.
A skin shed when I fully realized that my life was not actually for them, but their lives may very well have been for my siblings and me.
A skin shed when I understood that my rejection of the religion I was born into did not require me to stop seeking out divinity.
I’ve shed enough skins that none of the me I was at 18 remains. I’m looking for God and the gods now, the God and gods my mother’s mother’s father worshipped. I think of the story she told me of stealing fruit from her grandfather’s shrine to Ogun. I want to reach past her and my Christian grandparents, pluck that fruit, and make an offering of it.
Now that I’ve abandoned her religion, I want to know the one that she and her parents abandoned, the one untouched by missionaries and colonization, the one I’m too separated from by generations and an ocean to ever really know. I’m not even sure that I want to practice it, or that I’d like it if I knew it. I only know that I’ve lost the foothold to my culture that was my parents’ generation but still dangle from the rest of it, unwilling to loosen my grip. Here’s the little that I’ve learned:
The ancestors that matter most were alive when I was born.
I know this because when I’m standing in my queerness in a way that invites ridicule and contempt, I am merely doing as my parents taught me all those years ago when people were shutting doors in our faces. I blaspheme this way often, repurposing the tools my parents gave me to walk in their truth as Nigerian Jehovah’s Witnesses in a foreign land so that I can walk in my truth as a queer Black American. It’s not what they envisioned for me, but they were not what their parents envisioned either, and I am not something any of my dead ancestors ever imagined. I don’t plan on having children, but maybe this is how it goes—we take the ancestors’ tools, we add to their foundation a bit, and a future generation will always have the blueprints.
In my quest to know who “we” were and what we did before we were colonized, I will become frustrated by how little I was meant to know.
I don’t think our religions were like modern Christianity with its open-door churches and missionaries. From what I gather, we didn’t have preachers, we had secret societies and masquerades. What I gather comes from snatches of things my parents have told me about themselves. My mother’s Ika people had shrines and divination. My father’s Oza people believed in reincarnation and shunned what they called witchcraft and sorcery. Both their people blamed the fall of mankind on a woman who ate too much of the sky and thus forced God to lift it away from the greedy hands of humans. Or so I remember.
I know my mother’s language has many loanwords from Igbo—words like Chukwu or Chineke, mmiri, nne m, and nwa—so I use these as a starting point and dig into Odinani, Igbo religion, because at least I recognize some words and there are books with familiar sounds in them.
Even then, most of my search results and bookstore rummagings direct me to Ifa, Vodun, Kemet, Voodoo, Conjure, Hoodoo. I don’t see Odinani or Omenala or the Alusi being sought after much in the United States, even though Igbo people’s descendants must be all over this country. And why am I even researching the Igbos when I’m not one? And where can I even learn about who Ika and Oza people were two generations ago when I’m an ocean away? And how much more frustrating must this be for those who are three generations, four generations, eight generations, centuries? And how can I be so desperate to learn these things when my own parents, who lived in Nigeria, deliberately shunned them? I will not know what I am looking for.
I will harbor romantic notions about traditional religion that come from a desire to feel less alienated by it than I am by Christianity, and I will have to let them go.
I’ve never seen a pretty religion. They all demand sacrifice, blood or otherwise, and I am so uncompromising that I can’t fathom that kind of obedience. I don’t know that the parts of me that Christianity rejected—my queerness, my nonbinary-ness, my distaste for submission—are things my ancestors’ religions would have named or shamed or celebrated. If I had really bonded with my father’s mother, who fully believed in gods and reincarnation and died when I was a child, I don’t know that I would have taken an interest in her beliefs. I don’t know if I reach for traditional religion authentically or out of a sense of alienation. I don’t know that I need to know.
I accept that my spiritual displacement is permanent.
Learning about my ancestors’ religions will not locate me more soundly in my country or my body. At best, I will still be stitching up a gash that will heal into a keloid scar. A tradition, after all, is passed from parent to child or mentor to mentee, not book to independent researcher. Even if I reclaim ancestral traditions, as I have a right to, I will have arrived at them sideways. It’s a bit like the way I learn to cook my mother’s foods by looking them up on the internet. I can’t ask her directly anymore, and so I must find another way. Being in the diaspora means always finding another way.
I know I’m not alone here. There are other Nigerians in the diaspora grasping, but there are also Black Americans, West Indians, Cubans, and Dominicans holding onto pieces of history, old practices, ancient gods.
We seek out ways of knowing that have survived kidnappings and enslavements and criminalizations by shedding skin and moving belly-to-ground, barely detectable, slithering over saints and Bibles. Among us are priestesses and dibias, witches and shamans, brujas and rootworkers, lost people and healers. These kinds of people don’t preach and rarely announce themselves because they know Becky n’em are watching, waiting to devour the scraps of spiritual sustenance their ancestors saw fit to survive on.
So people like me keep circling the edges of knowledge that is not really lost but not really what it once was, hoping to better understand how we came to be ourselves.
Edited by O.A.O.
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About Jarune Dante Uwujaren:
Jarune is a writer, editor, and savory grits stan currently based in Baltimore, MD. In case you were curious, the name is Nigerian, the person with the name is American, and the e is not silent. Jarune has been editing and writing on the subjects of social justice, race, queer identity, and feminism since the start of their career in 2012. You can check out more of their writing here."
About Isis "Daxy Royal" Johnston:
Isis "Daxy Royal" Johnston is a bisexual Jamaican-Canadian artist from Windsor, ON. She is pursuing a degree in animation at St Clair College. She is currently selling prints and accepting commissions. She can be contacted through her Facebook page.