Ms. Kudumu is an independent scholar, published writer, and healer working at the intersection of art and healing with a focus on contemporary art from Africa, South Asia, and their respective diasporas as well as African Diasporic knowledge systems. She holds the title of Yayi Nkisi Malongo in the Brama Con Brama lineage of Palo Mayombe; she is a lay person in the Lukumi Pimienta lineage; a practitioner of Espiritismo Cruzado, and a level II Reiki practitioner. Ms. Kudumu's blog may be accessed here. Homepage here. Both pix are from Ms. Kudumu's website.
As a formally trained social scientist, and a Capricorn with HELLA Virgo in her chart, I am going to start with historical context because clarity is important and I do not condone ahistoricity. I am an active proponent of citationality and so I will foreground this text and this series by mentioning the scholars and scholar-practitioners whose research and lived experience inform my thoughts: Teisha Shaw, Ernesto Mercer, Kimbwandènde Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau, Robert Farris Thomas, Stephan Palmie, Quentin Nolet de Brauwere, and Linda Heywood.
DefinitionsFor the sake of this discussion, the following terms will be used in the following way.
- Las Reglas Bantu: Bantu Rites. A term used synonymously with Palo to refer to all branches of the initiatory rites
- Palo: an umbrella term used to refer generally to all the branches of the initiatory rites also called Las Reglas Bantu, also sometimes referred to as Palo Monte
Palo or Las Reglas Bantu is a spiritual tradition conceived and born on Cuban soil comprised of an amalgam of beliefs contributed by Bantu peoples of various ethnic groups who were enslaved in their African homelands and brought to Cuba. These individuals came from the Kingdom of Ndongo and Matamba (Queen Nzinga’s territories), the Bakongo empire with it’s seat at Sao Salvador in present day northern Angola, the Kingdom of Loango, and various other territories of West Central and Central Africa.
These individuals were members of highly organized and cosmopolitan civilizations who were no strangers to war. Queen Nzinga is an excellent example of this. She is notable among all historical leaders of the African continent, particular for the prowess she exhibited at outsmarting the Portuguese where diplomacy and war games were concerned. She employed the Imbangala, who were known for their thoroughly vicious warfare tactics namely cannibalism, against the Portuguese. Due to slavery, the Imbangala were dispersed throughout the Americas to the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Where you find quilombos, you have traces literal and figurative of the Imbangala. I say all this to say, Bantu people knew warfare and militancy before being enslaved and sent across the Atlantic.
Palo, as we know it, in its more or less contemporary form, developed in Cuba during the latter part of the 19th century around the time of the Ten Years War, 1868-1878; Cuban abolition of slavery, 1886; the Cuban War for Independence, 1895-1898; and the early part of the 20th century during the time of the Negro Rebellion of 1912. A notable group of Black soldiers referred to as the Mambises fought valiantly and aggressively in these wars and are purported, though this information does not seem to be readily accessible, to have been practitioners of Las Reglas Bantu, but also Bantu spiritualist practices such as Bembe de Sao.
Palo was conceived and birthed in a wholly violent social environment that considered and treated African people as non-human and continued to do so even after slavery ended and Cuba won its independence from Spain. Palo is about liberation through and through. In colonial Cuba, it was a tool that Afro-Cubans used to free themselves from physical slavery. In post-colonial Cuba it was used by its adherents to survive in a society that, as exemplified by the Negro Rebellion of 1912, had no regard for Black Cuban life.
I think I shall leave it here for now. The next post is on October 31 and is an art one. I am going to look at some Palo aesthetics but also share with you a few modern and contemporary artists who pushed Palo to the fore through their works.
In an Instagram post I made on Monday of this week, I referenced Glissant’s text The Poetics of Relations where he states,
If we examine the process of "understanding" people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought, we discover that its basis is this requirement for transparency. In order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgments. I have to reduce.
This opacity gets even more interesting when translated into art, particularly African antiquities of Bantu Kongo origin. In the mind of the viewer, who is almost always approaching these from a western perspective, which has normalized treating non-European art (and non-European people for that matter) as primitive, these works translate as horrifying, aggressive, and diabolical. That accompanied with an anthropological assessment (in the form of scholarly books, wall, and label texts in museum contexts) of these works that minimally misunderstands, if not misrepresents the religio-spiritual traditions of which these objects are a part, these works present as something that is a far cry from what they actually are. Interesting aside (in case you weren’t already clear): these works, despite their aesthetic prowess, were not created as works of art. They were created to carry out spiritual acts as determined through divination.
It is extremely exhausting. I refuse to edit myself, to revise for legibility. I prefer the poetic. This is my mind in its best form. Don’t fill in the gaps for me. It is complete.
Las Reglas Bantu remain secret and actively opaque and thus non-legible, because they center healing first and always. When you give some time to that thought, be you an adherent of Palo or not, you begin to think about your healing in an entirely different light. I urge you to consider it.
As with the previous article, Las Reglas Bantu, Palo, and the term Palo Monte, are, for the sake of this article, used interchangeably. When I am referring specifically to the rama (branch) I practice, I will use the term Palo Mayombe and reference my ngao (lineage), Brama Con Brama. Non-english terms will be italicized and defined in parentheticals with the exception of Las Reglas Bantu, Palo, Palo Monte, and Palo Mayombe, which have already been defined above.
I am proud of my spiritual tradition and I will always sing its praises; however, I am not here to prove anything to anyone about Palo. Palo is the proof, the whole proof, and nothing but the proof every time. I am here to bring those proofs to bear in the way I experience them: through the intersection of study and practice. That said, today’s post is my take on a conversation I’ve been hearing over the course of my almost ten years of initiation, and one which I think is necessary to keep having amongst communities of African Diasporic spiritual practitioners, especially those of us who practice Afro-Cuban traditions.
Some of the most ostentatious things of this nature that I have heard of and witnessed fall under the following categories:
- The assertion that Orisha (the deities of the Afro-Cuban Lukumi tradition) or Egun (ancestors in Afro-Cuban Lukumi tradition) are too good/too clean to be sullied by doing works considered dirty or malevolent and thus, defaulting to Palo, which like Haitian Vodou, has long been considered black magic, evil, and malignant. This is a problem precisely because it places Palo in the position of subservience to Lukumi rather than being treated as its own tradition with its own methodologies and solutions. In conversations on this very topic with several Lukumi priests, they told me that any Lukumi initiate upholding this claim, doesn’t know how to work their Orisha.
- Changing long established pacts and agreements concerning Palo ceremony to meet the needs of another tradition, typically Lukumi. This one is particularly contentious as the only people with the license to establish new pacts and agreements in Palo are Palo priests.
- The issuance of taboos through divination in Lukumi that [attempt to] mandate what a person, who is already a Palo priest, can do with Palo. Facenda (Palo Kikongo for bullshit)!
As I have stated numerous times, here and elsewhere, Palo has never purported to be universal. Initiation is not for everyone and the need for initiation isn’t the only measuring stick used to determine if a person will actually get initiated. You won’t find lengthy explications of our divination systems or ceremonies in print or online. Many texts that reference Palo, directly or indirectly, are either inaccurate or only accurate within the confines of the lineage and munanso from which the explications originate.
Where African-diasporic, and specifically Afro-Cuban spiritual traditions are concerned, the aforementioned bulleted examples constitute reductionism. There is no healing where there is reduction. We all benefit, regardless of our chosen tradition, from maintaining the integrity of our traditions. In the instances where that integrity has been compromised, it would behoove us to use the protocols of our tradition to investigate its original practices and where appropriate, re-establish pacts and agreements without concern for the realities of another wholly unrelated tradition. I am aware this is not the popular response; however, it is doable. Our spiritual and blood line ancestors maintained these traditions under conditions far more oppressive than 21st century realities. I urge you to consider it.
Links to parts II and I.
Negarra A. Kudumu
That said… ahem
If you are any kind of practitioner of the spiritual arts, you will at some point be on the receiving end, justly or unjustly, of spiritual attack. Why? Because humans are reactionary and when they decide to act from an emotional place, they often do antisocial things. Often, people want to know why they are on the receiving end of spiritual attack or embroiled in spiritual warfare. Here are a few considerations that I have observed. This is not an exhaustive list.
- sociopathy and psychopathy;
- a need to test another individual’s spiritual skills;
- coercion e.g. one person persuades another, often under duress, to launch a spiritual attack against a third party;
- misplaced emotion;
- in defense of some ideal or person they hold dear;
- mess e.g. let me go drop this in the middle of a room and see who catches it and let me disguise it so no one knows I did it; and
- generations’ old feuds within or between families and social groups
Spiritual attack and warfare reveal to us the areas of our lives where we need to dedicate more attention. These lessons force us to learn how to implement and execute more efficacious spiritual protection through our relationships with our ancestors and the entities we work with. It also illuminates the ebbs and flows of human nature. Humans can be sociable and well-adjusted. Humans can be misanthropic.
Speaking from my experience, we spend the early years of our initiatory lives learning to navigate our priesthood. That navigation includes a major shedding of all the external things that no longer serve us through just simply letting the mpungo and muerto do their work. There is a certain kind of visibility to that work that others see, that perhaps you may not realize, and that may be interpreted as threatening or egotistical. As a result, someone sees fit to put you in your place - insert spiritual attack here.
Negarra A. Kudumu