Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Community Then and Now: African Diaspora Religions and the Internet

During the course of a conversation yesterday, an Iyalocha and I got to talking about community and what it means in the African Diaspora traditions.  In the past these communities were defined by blood and geography. You served the spirits because your family and your village served the spirits.  Your participation marked you as a member of the tribe: it created a border which separated and protected you from hostile outsiders.  This aspect became particularly important during the days of the Middle Passage and slavery. 

Today entry into these religions is considerably easier.  A growing number of foreigners have become interested in Vodou, Ifa, Lukumi and other traditionally Afro-Caribbean faiths.  The Internet provides access to a number of blogs, discussion forums and mailing lists.  These online communities serve to distribute information (and no small amount of misinformation) about the traditions and cultures.  For many they serve as an entryway into offline participation: for others they remain the sole link to fellow servants of the Orisha and Lwa.

There are obviously enormous advantages to membership in an active house.  While personal devotions to the spirits are wonderful, they are no substitute for the experience of a group ritual. Honoring the lwa in your home is one thing: talking to the spirits up close and personal is something else altogether. But that's not to say that those online communities and online relationships are without value. There are many sincere practitioners who are not part of a meatspace community thanks to accidents of geography. They may not be practicing within the framework of an organized house but their devotion is real - and so are the rewards they reap from their service. 

African Traditional Religions have never been static: they have always redefined themselves in the face of new opportunities, resources and persecutions.  They have incorporated Christianity, Islam, Freemasonry and a whole host of other traditions and cultures. Undoubtedly they will find a place for the Internet. I would be interested in exploring what that place might be now and in the future.