Published in the South African magazine Leadership in 1995 — so it’s very dated, but these were some of my earliest explorations of New York’s wondrous secrets
Take a close look at New York, and it will reveal itself as a city more African in character than any metropolis on the African continent–nowhere else in the world is there a comparable concentration of diverse African experience.
At first glance, the city has a feel familiar to anyone who has lived in an African city. In most of it, the overwhelming majority on the bustling streets are people of colour. Rap, reggae and salsa–all music rooted, originally, in Africa–blare out from every direction, and the sidewalks are jammed with tables on which incense burns and Jamaicans, Senegalese, Malians, Ivoirians and Ghanaians sell everything from religious adornments to cheap sunglasses. Homeless people wander by, transporting the means of their improvised urban existence in supermarket trolleys, while sidewalk hustlers and dagga dealers work their angles. The wealthier (and mostly white) elite spend their days in a few upmarket business and residential enclaves, while poorer people of colour survive in ghettos wracked by drugs, despair and violent crime. Besides the few who live downtown, New Yorkers tend to reside tribally, in neighbourhoods that correspond to specific ethnicities–the city is less a melting pot than a salad bowl. But in this urban chaos in which rules and boundaries are constantly defied and redrawn, something beautiful is created by the simple everyday coexistence–in the fractious world of the late 20th century, New York’s very existence is something of a miracle.
Nowhere is the African family more in conversation with itself than in New York City. That dialogue encompasses the full extended family, incorporating long-lost cousins and even branches who might, at first glance, appear to belong to other families. Sometimes their conversation is raucous and celebratory; other times it is mute, reflective and even cryptic. Sometimes it is imbued with the love and solidarity inherent in any family; at other times it is inflected with the squabbles and feuds common to most families. But the conversation never ceases.
In a city whose character has always been shaped by successive waves of immigrants, that intra-African conversation has become the loudest component of New York’s urban hum.
The 1990 population census (the most recent available offering a racial breakdown) puts the city’s white population at 3.1 million, it’s Asian population at 500 000, it’s “Black” population at 2.1 million and it’s “Hispanic” population at 1.8 million. Of course these figures are dated, and the proportion of black and Latino residents is substantially higher, by all accounts. The terms “Black” and “Hispanic” however, are a little confusing: The overwhelming majority of those New Yorkers termed “Hispanic” are from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. And here, of course, is one of the best-kept secrets of the African diaspora–Caribbean Latino cultures have maintained their deep roots in Africa. Demographically and culturally then, New York reveals itself as a substantially African metropolis.
The Africa of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean has long camouflaged its essence in order to survive in the New World. But that African essence is visible to the curious eye. For example, a pumpkin floating in the East River or a slaughtered chicken left by a crossroads could be dismissed as random urban detritus. But they might also be signs that the gods of the Yoruba make their presence felt in Brooklyn.
A neighborhood “botanica”
sells Santeria supplies
The horror of slavery created an African diaspora which, today, consists of over 100 million people. The descendants of those first New World Africans know no African language, instead speaking Spanish, Portuguese, French or English. They live throughout the Americas, from Brazil to Canada–in most of the Caribbean, they are the overwhelming majority. Their skin colour may vary in hue and their customs and traditions may have little surface resemblance to Africa, but Africa is the dominant influence on Caribbean Latino cultures.
Madam Eva, a petite Puerto Rican woman with honey coloured hair and caramel skin, sits behind the counter of her tiny Botanica (stores selling religious artifacts found in all Latino neighbourhoods) on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant area. The shelves of her store are lined with figurines and candles, as well as potions, amulets and oils. All of the artifacts appear to venerate various Catholic saints.
It was that appearance which allowed Yoruba slaves from West Africa to maintain their religion in the new world. Slaves to the Catholic colonies were forced, at gunpoint, to adopt their masters’ religion and forbidden from practicing their own. But the slaves belief system was flexible enough to appear to embrace Catholicism, while actually simply incorporating its symbols into an African cosmology and ritual. The slaves masked their religious practices by choosing a Catholic saint to represent each of the Yoruba gods. So, Shango, the god of thunder and lightning became represented by Santa Barbara; Elegua, the trickster and child god of the path and crossroads became represented (variously) by the Child of Atocha, the Child of Prague and St. Anthony of Padua, Ogun the god of iron became represented by St. Peter and so on. This was not simply a clever subterfuge.
Within the Yoruba belief, the deities of the spirit world manifest themselves on occasion by entering the body (or “riding”) of a believer — this usually occurs during ceremonies involving hours of drumming, chanting and ecstatic dance. Although banned from observing their own religion, the slaves were free to worship the Catholic saints in their own way — with drumming, dance, chanting, singing and other activities designed to maintain the link to the Orishas (Yoruba deities). Raul Canizares, a noted Cuban-American Santeria priest writes: “The Spanish authorities in Cuba tolerated the use of drumming and singing by the slaves without realizing that what the slaves were doing was not entertainment but an extremely powerful religious ritual. Had the Catholic authorities suspected the religious function of the slaves music, they would have forbidden its use and Santeria would never have developed in Cuba.”
Thus the survival of African religion, the heartbeat of African culture, in the Caribbean new world. The practice of Yoruba beliefs under the guise of the veneration of Catholic saints became known as Santeria in Cuba, Voudou in Haiti and Candomble in Brazil.
The drumming of which Canizares writes can still be heard in New York’s parks over weekends–casual passersby may take the drumming for simple revelry by Latinos and Haitians, but it serves as the same channel of communication with the African deities as it did for the first slaves in the New World. Santeria is more than simply a monument to the psychological triumph of the slaves over the brutal arrogance and folly of European “civilization”. It is also the fastest growing religion in the United States today, with New York and Miami its epicentres. A landmark US Supreme Court judgment two years ago confirmed the right of Santeros to practice ritual animal sacrifice, allowing the religion to come out into the open to a greater extent than ever. Salsa music, for example, has always been intimately (but secretly) rooted in the practices of Santeria, but today its lyrics openly celebrate the Orishas. While the numbers of initiated Santeros and Babalawos in New York may number in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of others engage with the system in times of need, visiting the Babalawo for advice and divination of the future, or simply going to the Botanica to buy the candles and potions needed to achieve particular ends.
Madam Eva counts among her customers all strata of the community, from criminals to FBI agents, all seeking the protection and assistance of the Orishas. Her store is in one of the city’s notorious crime neighbourhoods, in which crack addicts desperate for money are constantly engaging in petty thieving. Madam Eva knocks on her wooden counter, and kisses an amulet: “I’ve never been robbed.” It seems that even the most desperate in this pan-African neighbourhood are unwilling to tempt fate.
Madam Eva is a “child” of Ochun, the Yoruba love goddess who, according to Yoruba folklore, lived in the Niger River. Her children wear golden yellow costumes, and make her offerings of various fruits and vegetables. “Sometime I go to the East River and leave a pumpkin for Ochun”, she explains. “If I want to make an offering to Yemaya (the fertility goddess of the sea), I go to the beach. If I must make an offering to Shango, I go to Prospect Park, because for Shango it must be left under a tree…”
Perhaps, 300 years ago, her ancestors were forced from their homes in West Africa, survived the horrors of the middle passage and endured the brutality of slavery in Puerto Rico or Cuba. Though their blood might have mixed with the Boricua Indians native to Puerto Rico or with Spanish slavers, they were sustained through the worst by their links to their culture, by the power they were able to access through their spiritual lives. Today in Brooklyn, Madam Eva speaks Spanish and a little English, eats rice and beans and goat and plantains, watches the cheesy game shows on the Spanish-language Telemundo TV network, dances to salsa and merengue… But, in a quiet moment, this Latina woman reveals her heart: “I want to go to Africa, to go to the river of Ochun”, she sighs.
Every night, amid the swirling neon bustle of Times Square–a truly Blade Runner-esque scenario in which giant neon billboards advertise Suntory whisky (Japan’s finest) and five-story TV plays music videos, while down below steam escapes from under manhole covers and thousands of tourists troop by– the Israeli Church of Universal Practical Knowledge sets up some tables and a makeshift stage, and begins haranguing whoever will listen. Majestically attired in what might pass for courtly-garb in a Cecil B DeMille biblical epic– headscarves and tunics matching trousers tucked into boots, wide leather wristbands adorned with bronze stars of David–they berate white people for the centuries of oppression suffered by black people. Their premise is that black people are the Jews of the bible, the white Jews are impostors who “stole” the religion only 900 years ago. All white people (“white devils”, actually) are the biblical race of Edomites, who will suffer fearsome retribution in the looming apocalypse.
Laced with an Old Testament sensibility, they preach straightforward racial vengeance, and they do it entertainingly (if not always entirely convincingly). “Are white people going to go to heaven? Yes. As slaves. Where they’ll be beaten, and their women will be raped..,” a preacher is telling a crowd.
While the white passersby who stop to listen tend to look uncomfortable, black people in the audience shake their heads and giggle, enjoying the spectacle of white people getting a tongue-lashing, even if they can’t buy into the idea that they’re the lost tribe of Israel and that if they repent and live clean they might be part of the pious one third of the Jews who will be “beamed up” into the UFOs sent by God in the year 2000 to annihilate the armies of man.
The optimism of the Civil Rights era is long-past, and the appearance of apocalyptic religious cults like the Israelites are a symptom of the deep sense of powerlessness and despair prevailing in African American communities — they seek reassurance and comfort by reordering the elements of the reality around them into a narrative which offers them some form of deliverance. Their location in Times Square, their costumes and the bank of video cameras which they take everywhere to record their sermons for the five public access cable television programs they run indicate that they are well aware of themselves as post-modern media icons, almost cartoonish in their representation of themselves and their message. After all, if its not on television, it doesn’t really exist in American public life.
While the Israelites are one of a number of organizations blending apocalyptic theology with conspiracy theory to create a militant paranoia, other African Americans have sought to recover their suppressed African identity by promoting “Afrocentricity”, a highly self-conscious identification with an idealized version of the African past and a geographic sweep so broad as to encompass elements like Swahili and Zulu which were completely bypassed by slavery. This too is a little sad, particularly because it is so open to commercial exploitation — the Ghanaian Kente cloth which a few years ago became the unofficial colors of the Afrocentrism movement has today become something of a mainstream barcode to indicate niche-marketing aimed at African Americans (it is incorporated into the advertising of such worthy purveyors of African identity as MacDonalds and Coca Cola, Disney and Time Warner); the annual “Kwanzaa” festival invented here to promote African values at Christmas has become an opportunity for Hallmark to promote a new line of greeting cards.
It might be particularly paradoxical that African roots seem to run much deeper and stronger in Latino communities than among African Americans, but there are reasons for this: Although well over half a million slaves were brought to the US during the19th century, their experience was quite different from those shipped to the Caribbean–unlike the Cuban and Haitian slaves who were drawn from particular regions in Africa and could reconstitute their communities in the diaspora, the slaves shipped to the US came from all over West and Central Africa and were of diverse language and culture.
The Protestant slave-owners of the US were a lot more thorough and systematic in stripping their slaves of their African culture than those in the Caribbean, with the result that the conscious and ongoing link to African traditions was often broken.
Nonetheless, there are deep rooted African traditions in African American culture: The black churches with their call and response litanies and their “working the spirit” tradition of worship with the body in ecstatic music and movement rituals, or rap music in which the West African griot tradition finds a contemporary incarnation are but two examples.
The original African diaspora was created by force, but the more recent, post-independence influx of Africans to the city has been entirely voluntary. The most notable community within this most recent influx of Africans to New York are the Senegalese Sufi Muslims of the Murid cult.
The legendary Sheikh
Inspired by Ahmadou Bamba, a twice-exiled Muslim revolutionary who fought French colonialism in Senegal, the Murids have incorporated New York into an African culture, making it work to reinforce their community in Senegal. The Murids have spent millions of dollars building the small city of Touba in the Sahel (the birthplace of Bamba) into a holy city, creating the largest mosque in Africa, a mausoleum, museum and archives, and they are presently building a university. Murids have created communities in New York (as well as a number of European capitals) in which they work, earning money to send home to Touba.
Why New York?
“Because New York is the capital of the world,” Abibou Beck, a Murid craft merchant, tells me. “In New York, any group of people and come and show the world what we are doing. Here if you work hard, you can get money. We need that money to build houses and services in Touba. Senegal is a poor country, so to get money we have to go and work wherever we can.”
After listing in detail the things that have been built in Touba by the Murids, Beck concludes: “It was all built with money from poor people like ourselves. So, we are showing the world that even poor people like us can do something.”
Bamba’s followers observe a simple regime of labour, discipline and prayer, even amid the temptations of the big city. They are warm, humble and pious people, who work hard and send money home to family and community. “You have to work hard, be clean, have a clean heart, not steal and not have affairs with other women,” Beck explains. “Of course there are some bad Murids who don’t follow the rules. They smoke or take a drink. But a Murid has to be an example to the world.” Generally they stay for a few years, and then return to their holy city. Beck is nearing the end of his third two-year stint here over the since he first arrived in 1983.
These commuting patriots have accomplished a kind of reverse colonization, turning the citadels of the post-industrial west into cash-cows for a small city in the Sahel. Rather than coming to New York imbued with the “American dream” illusions of traditional immigrants, the Murids have appropriated New York as a means to realise their African dreams: “I can’t stay here forever, I have to go back to pray. Ahmadou Bamba teaches you to love your country. By being here, I am building Toubah, like Bamba was doing his work from exile.”
While on good terms with the black Muslims of America, Beck takes a dim view of the spiritual practices of his Haitian and Latino neighbours in East Harlem: “I don’t have to kill a chicken to get God’s attention,” he scoffs. And yet, being Sufi Muslim, they have more in common than he might care to admit: Sufi are mystics, engaging in meditation and trance ceremonies driven by the drumming and singing of the music called Tabala Wolof in order to “find the spirit”. “When the spirit enters a person,” Beck explains, “whatever you say, God agrees.”
Whether in Harlem’s black churches, among the Latino Santeros and Haitian Voudouisants or even the Sufi Muslim Murids, there is a common, subtle thread running through much of New York’s Africa–acts of worship based on rhythm, chanting, singing, and ecstatic movement to bridge the gap between the body and the spirit. It is a tradition deeply rooted in the Yoruba and Bakongo traditions of West and Central Africa.
The political borders of modern Africa (most of them preposterous) were created, originally, by white men sitting around a conference table with maps and rulers in Berlin in the late 19th century. One hundred years later, in New York, those borders don’t exist: Not only is the city is fast becoming an African outpost in the post-industrial west, it is also offering the African extended family a new look at itself. Africa should watch with interest.