Responses to Summer Walker’s altar were rife with anti-Black commentary and lacked historical knowledge around Black people’s relationship to witchcraft.
Twitter has been a source of a lot of criticism about singer-songwriter Summer Walker for the last couple of weeks. Some critiques have been valid, and come from a place of good faith; most have not. One of the most absurd criticisms, if we can really call it that, came from a person who took a screenshot of Summer Walker’s altar and tweeted it with the caption: “No more Summer Walker for me. I don’t do witches.”
At first look, this was already deeply anti-Black and misogynoiristic commentary that severely lacked historical knowledge around Black people’s—and Black women’s, more specifically—relationship to witching and witchcraft. From the varying spiritual and traditional practices of the Yoruba—like Santería, Hoodoo, and Vodun, for example—Black women of different ethnicities, nationalities, and creeds have been priestesses and practitioners creating shrines and altars for their (communities’) specific Orishas, or other deity(-ies) for ages. From Nigeria to Haiti; Jamaica to Brazil; Creole people of New Orleans to Lowcountry Voodoo practices of the Gullah-Geechee people of South Carolina, witchcraft has been practiced by Black women for a very long time.
After clicking on the profile, however, I saw that the woman who made the post is a Christian, and an overwhelming amount of Christians took to the post in agreement. This made the post that much more interesting to me because, in spite of the holds of colonialism and its forced religion, these traditions native to West Africa managed to survive the Middle Passage. To me, this speaks only to the power of these practitioners and the strengths of African traditions.
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What also made it interesting, though, is that Christianity is itself an adoption of multiple “pagan” practices and beliefs conjoined into one. It is a religion full of rites and rituals spread through the imperial and colonial forces of European nations who found Africa to be particularly full of necessary resources worthy of exploiting, and thought of Africans as “the White Man’s Burden.” That is Christianity.
To state it more explicitly: many core elements of Christianity are witchcraft. In Walker’s case, the altar she set was reminiscent of the altar a Catholic person would set for the Virgin Mary or the “sacred space” many Protestant Christians have with their Bibles, prayer cloths, and angel statues.
One of the most haunting parts of colonialism is how indoctrinating Christianity is and has been. So much so that anything remotely unfamiliar to Christians is often written off as “satanic” even when it mirrors various practices of the Christian religion. Ghosts and spirits are sacred in the Church, but evil otherwise; altars are sacred prayer spaces in the Church, but are witchcraft otherwise. This is a deep-rooted point of hypocrisy in Christianity only made possible through colonialism.
Many people attempt to refute this fact by naming that Ethiopia was a Christian nation prior to the colonization of African nations. That is partially true. It also does not make a difference.
The difference between Ethiopia’s Christianity and the Christianity forced onto the slave is the operative word: force. While Ethiopia introduced and adopted Christianity as their national religion as a means to strengthen their trading relationship with the Roman Empire, the rest of the western world was introduced to Christianity through force. European colonizers saw us, African people, as no more than uncivilized savages whose purpose was to act as currency and laborers for them; they used Christianity to justify it. Christianity as it’s practiced in the west, today, is only made possible through colonialism; it is not the Christianity that Ethiopia once knew.
This Christianity that acts as one of the world’s largest and most practiced religions today is one that thrives on rituals.
Found in the New Testament of The Bible, Jesus has a conversation and a meal with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion. This conversation is largely understood to be “The Last Supper,” but in churches across the globe you’ll hear the remnants of this supper referred to as “communion.” The conversation is found in 1 Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 24-25. It reads:
“24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Congregations around the world partake in a ceremony where, in an attempt to prove their faithfulness to their god, they break bread and sip on grape juice (and, for some, red wine) as to symbolically eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus. This is one of the biggest rituals in the world.
At the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis, God promises Abraham—one of his most “faithful” servants—and his wife, Sarah, a baby. It was miraculous to them because, according to the text, Sarah and Abraham were both believed to be too old to bear a child. In Genesis, chapter 21, verse 4, Abraham apparently circumcises his son, Isaac, as God had instructed him to.
Later, in chapter 22, God “tests” Abraham—following a treaty he’d just signed—and asks him to take and murder his one and only child, Isaac, as a sacrifice to prove his faithfulness. Abraham obliged. If not for the “angel,” as the story goes, that stopped him from this sacrifice, Abraham would have killed his only son, his miracle baby, as a sacrifice.
Christians follow a god that would ask of one of his disciples to stick a knife through their child as a sacrifice. This is a ritual; inhumane and one not largely accepted and practiced today, but a ritual nonetheless. The other part to that story, however, that is relevant is the circumcision. Circumcisions are one of the largest practices in the western world today, and it is all because of the pact made between God and Abraham—and it is a practice followed by all Abrahamic religions.
In Exodus, chapter 40, God is giving Moses very specific instructions for him to follow. Verses 5-7 read:
“5 And thou shalt set the altar of gold for the incense before the ark of the testimony, and put the hanging of the door to the tabernacle.
6 And thou shalt set the altar of the burnt offering before the door of the tabernacle of the tent of the congregation.
7 And thou shalt set the laver between the tent of the congregation and the altar, and shalt put water therein.”
Further down, verses 12-13 read:
“12 And thou shalt bring Aaron and his sons unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and wash them with water.
13 And thou shalt put upon Aaron the holy garments, and anoint him, and sanctify him; that he may minister unto me in the priest’s office.”
These are particularly significant because, in the first set of verses, an altar is mentioned several times as a necessary part of this rite—most commonly referred to as consecration and ordination—that God is instructing Moses to prepare Aaron and his family for. And then the following verses detail some of what the cleaning ritual looks like prior to the ceremony, as to “sanctify” or cleanse them of all sin before taking on this high order. This is a thing still commonly practiced today, especially in the Black Church.
The references in the Bible around rites, ceremonies, and rituals are endless. In both the Protestant and the Catholic Churches, prayer, baptisms, funerals led by priests, weddings led by priests, and Christenings are all essential parts of their daily practices and part of their core beliefs. Confessionals, Ash Wednesday, and Lent, while more specific to the Catholic Church than the Protestant Church, are also very integral to the Christian Faith. These are literally all rituals/rites/ceremonies.
Whether we are saying asé or amen; setting altars for the Orishas or for a “monotheistic” god; calling on the Ancestors or on Jesus, our spiritual practices don’t vary by much because—even after enslaving us—colonizers could never be original enough to make something without borrowing from us first.