FEEL: Dignity and Power Now

Black Lives Matter chapters and affiliated groups are expressing a type of spiritual practice that makes use of the language of health and wellness to impart meaning, heal grief and trauma, combat burn-out and encourage organizational efficiency.

By Hebah H. Farrag - On Being

As the nation mourned the deaths of nine murdered at Emanuel AME Church, the Black Lives Matter movement held its first national retreat. From around the country, activists came together in Detroit to discuss national strategy and share tools and best practices to affect change. But they were also there to help each other heal.

While the involvement of church groups and traditional religious leaders in various aspects of Black Lives Matter has been noted by news outlets, there is another spirit that animates the Black Lives Matter movement, one that has received little attention but is essential to a new generation of civil rights activists.

When you think of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States, you may think of Ferguson. You may think of Baltimore. You may think of the now-iconic image of Howard University students, hands up in the air, or statements like “I Can’t Breathe.” It may be the list of hashtagged names that grows larger every 28 hours.

But something else has stood out to me. Images of a white-clad black woman burning sage across a militarized police line. Altars using sacred images and symbols from multiple faiths placed to hold space for those murdered. Events ending with prayers for the oppressed. Protests called “ceremonies” in front of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house, with attendees asked to wear all white.

In June, activists posted videos from the retreat hashtagged with #blackjoy as a reprieve from the rage and sadness.

Black Lives Matter chapters and affiliated groups are expressing a type of spiritual practice that makes use of the language of health and wellness to impart meaning, heal grief and trauma, combat burn-out and encourage organizational efficiency.

An embodiment of that spirit is Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac. Recently dubbed one of the nation’s top civil rights leaders by Los Angeles Times, named aNAACP History Maker in 2015 and one of the three founders of #BlackLivesMatter, Cullors is a person dedicated to not only transforming how her community is treated, but how her community organizes and understands itself. She is a queer polyamorous practitioner of Ifà, a religious tradition from Nigeria, and a person many people turn to not only as a political leader but as a spiritual leader.

I sat down (virtually) with Cullors to find out about what the role of spirit is in the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I come at all my work from a deep philosophical place that [asks], what does it take for humans to live in our full humanity and allow for others to live in their full dignity?” she told me. “I don’t believe spirit is this thing that lives outside of us dictating our lives, but rather our ability to be deeply connected to something that is bigger than us. I think that is what makes our work powerful.”

Cullors grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, but left the tradition at an early age. She watched her mother leave the fellowship several times. “At any given moment, the elders, which were all men, could decide if you were going to be disassociated from the fellowship in the Kingdom Hall,” she recalled. Such an environment left her with a deep sense of shame.

“By 12, 13, I knew that this was not the place for me, but I felt very connected to spirit. So the question became, what is the place for me?” she said. She turned to her great-grandmother, who is from the Choctaw and Blackfoot tribes, and talked to her about her great-grandfather, a medicine man. Her interest in indigenous spirituality led to Ifà. READ MORE

Photo: Dream defenders practice smudging and prayers before participating in a solidarity demonstration in Nazareth. Photo Credit: Christopher Hazou