A few months ago I went to a townhall meeting to discuss issues across the Orisa traditions in NYC. During the discussion someone asked why there weren’t more olorisa visible in public? Why had we yet, after so many years in this city, to build any monuments or make any permanent artistic installations? (I was surprised that more Olorisa weren’t aware of Egbomi Manny Vega’s mosaic installations in the NYC MTA) There was a call for olorisa to “come out” and be seen. Someone mentioned that there was a Iyawo statesperson in NY, but no one knew their name. I was shocked to learn that many people continue to be afraid to let others know that they are olorisa. Then, someone mentioned religious persecution.
I stopped to think about persecution, and whether or not we as North Americans ever truly experienced religious persecution. Sure, there are many who believe that Orisa worship is satanic or evil, but that is hardly persecution. In the US, Iyawos are, for the most part, safe to walk the streets without the fear of being accosted or harassed. Olorisa can perform ceremony without the fear that some Christian extremists will raid the ceremony. Olorisa care for and worship Orisa in their homes without fear of the police barging in and destroying our holy images and icons. These types of acts happen all too often in Brazil, where there is a constant struggle to fight against persecution and discrimination.
Luckily, we don’t know religious persecution in the US. Perhaps many of us are holding onto the memories of elders coming from the caribbean with their own tales of persecution; in remembering their stories we musn’t forget our reality. We are blessed not to be haunted by persecution, and to live in a society where fundamentalist Christians aren’t (yet) bold enough to invade our religious spaces to preach their gospel.
About two years ago I started an Orisa Yellow Pages. I was saddened to receive several replies wishing me good luck, while concommitantly asking whether I truly believed that olorisa would be comfortable connecting their businesses with Orisa worship? Shock. Discomfort? I also received responses saying that they would love to list their business, but were simply afraid to do so. Fear? I was amazed.
Here is a news clip reporting the partial demolition of a Terreiro:
What makes us uncomfortable about practicing an Afro-American religion? What, exactly, are we afraid of? It can’t possibly be the fear of having a drumming raided by the authorities, or having a botanica be the target of arson. Are we in the closet because of the shame that continues to be associated with belonging to anything having to do with Africa? Because it’s certainly not religious persecution that has some folks involved in clandestine worship.