My mother keeps an image of the Black Madonna by her nightstand and whispers prayers asking her to protect her children from harm. My father hangs her from his dashboard and jokes that he only needs her to protect him while he is on the road. My family is bi-religious, celebrating Catholicism and Haitian Vodou. While we go to mass every Sunday, we also partake in ceremonies created by my priestess Aunt Marie.
The Black Madonna is celebrated not just as an affirming image of the Virgin Mary but also as the Vodou spirit Erzulie Dantor. This spirit, depicted as a scarred dark skinned woman dressed in red, is a fierce protector of women and children. She is also seen as the patron spirit of lesbians. Although my family’s interest in Dantor is rooted in ancestral history, I was intrigued by her and other female spirits due to their queer sexual identities that mirrored my own.
In New York City where there is a plethora of African diasporic communities, more women of all orientations are turning to African- and Creole-based religions due to the sexual fluidity of female and queer spirits and gods. These religions not only offer female leadership roles, but also depict these goddesses and spirits having queer sexual lives and celebrating all facets of Black femininity. Honoring these goddesses and spirits honor the totality of a woman’s sexual identity.
Dantor may be the Haitian patron spirit for lesbian women of color but there are other spirits in religions such as Yoruba, Candomble, and Santeria. Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of the ocean, represents love, wealth, and beauty. A women’s collective called Rivers of Honey pays respect to Oshun before every artistic performance. An altar is maintained with candles, fruits, and flowers dedicated to her so that Oshun will protect them while they celebrate queer talent.
In her literary works, poet and activist Audre Lorde celebrated Afrekete, the multi-lingual trickster goddess in the Dahomean Vodun pantheon. Lorde saw herself in Afrekete, a goddess that communicated to gods that didn’t understand each other. Lorde was an intermediary between white and Black lesbian circles, bridging polarities to create dialectic that spurred change. Afrekete switched gender roles with female and male lovers; Lorde never labeled herself as “butch” or “femme.” Lorde also called to Yemanja, mother of all Yoruba gods, to reflect her role as a single mother in 1970s New York City. She evoked African female goddesses that reflected her identity as a queer woman of color.
Hetero-supremacist language continues to demonize African- and Creole-based religions. Yet women are becoming more aware that sexuality does not have to compromise one’s religion.
– Mohwanah Fetus
Mohwanah Fetus lives in Brooklyn, the soul of New York. Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, and Dany Laferriere are her literary heroes. She’s a manga-geek at heart and loves Afro-futurism. Words she lives by: Fashion is whatever moves you.