African American Lucumí Devotees’ Adoption and Adaptation of African Diasporic Religious Knowledge in the U.S.

This short piece traces how the Black Power era affected the unfolding of the transmission of African diasporic religious knowledge and how it contributed to the evolution of specifically African American variations of Lucumí in the U.S. Most historical studies examining the influence of the Black Power movement on religious expression in the U.S. focus on Christian or Muslim practices, largely overlooking African diasporic religions like Haitian Vodou or Lucumí, the Cuban variant of the Yoruba religion.1 Yet, these religions began to take root in the U.S. around the time the Black Power movement emerged on the national stage. This omission is all the more surprising in that African American Lucumí practices, in particular, illustrate how Black Power-inspired notions of identity and community found expression in a deeply religious form.2 An examination of the emergence of these religions in the U.S. shows how the expectations and experiences of the early African American devotees, who entered these religions in increasing numbers from the late 1960s onward, shaped the development of these religions in the U.S.

In previous centuries, religious repression in the U.S., especially during the time of slavery, restricted Africans’ (and African Americans’) ability to engage in (and therefore preserve) African religious practices and related knowledge.3 Since then, a strongly racialized discourse about “proper” religion versus supposedly uncivilized, esoteric, and superstitious practices has been central to White American efforts to maintain social control, leading to the oppression and persecution of practitioners of African-based religions. Some African Americans, including Black Power activists, have internalized these ideas of religious racism. Other Black Power activists beginning in the 1960s, challenged these stereotypes and embraced their ancestors’ religious heritage as practiced in other parts of the diaspora and continue to do so today.

There is now widespread access to African diasporic religious knowledge, with an abundance of books addressed to various generations of devotees. However, African Americans who joined the religion in the 1960s and 1970s had to work hard to become fully initiated into a religion that had long been shrouded in protective secrecy. Back then, hardly any literature on orally transmitted religions like Lucumí existed, making it hard for prospective initiates to acquire even basic knowledge. In 1959, Oba Oseijeman Adefunmi was one of the first known African Americans initiated into Lucumí. While he and his friend Christopher Oliana still had to travel to Cuba for their initiation, the influx of Cuban practitioners to the U.S. starting in the late 1950s made it possible for African Americans to be initiated into the religion within the U.S. by 1963.4

Still, devotees initiated in the U.S. did not have an easy time. First, they had to negotiate a language barrier as few of them were fluent in Spanish. Entering a religion like Lucumí has always required significant time and effort because it is passed on through apprenticeship. New devotees are introduced into the praxis of the religion within their godparents’ house or spiritual community.5 As most of this apprenticeship occurs through oral-based practical training, the quality of the relationships between members of the house, particularly the relationship between godparent and godchildren, is critical.

Why did Black Power activists, in particular, seek out these religions? African diasporic religions clearly provided a deeper understanding of African cultures, beyond the more symbolic connections of African attire or the non-religious practice of Kwanzaa, helping them in their search for meaning and in the construction of a positive Black identity.6 Inspired by the revolutionary histories of African diasporic religions, some Black Power activists intentionally sought out these religious traditions to inform their individual and collective action. Among other things, they were looking for ways to address internal conflicts that had begun to debilitate many Black Power organizations during the late 1960s.7 Accordingly, they had certain expectations about how these religions would help them to navigate these relationships and find renewed inspiration for their work toward liberation. However, their quest for a religion that would connect them more deeply to their African ancestral roots was complicated by the fact that many activists received most of their religious instruction through (White) Cuban practitioners, who strongly relied on Catholic iconography to practice the religion.8

Like other religious groups, African American practitioners of Lucumí and related Yoruba-based religions are far from homogeneous. Nevertheless, most accounts of the evolution of specific African American variations of the Yoruba religion in the U.S. focus on Oseijeman Adefunmi’s role and interpretation of the religion. Adefunmi was committed to removing what he considered colonial adaptations of the religious practice and replacing them with more traditional, pre-colonial West African elements. By 1970, Adefunmi had cut ties with most Cuban practitioners in New York City and was in the process of relocating to South Carolina.9

Many of the Black Power activists initiated into Lucumí in the late 1960s and 1970s shared some of Adefunmi’s Black nationalist ideas and were influenced by his interpretation of the religion. However, their engagement with the Black Power movement generated needs that did not align with his conception of Yoruba religious life. For example, these activists did not want to leave the urban communities they had served for years to settle in the rural South. After having put their lives on the line for the right to vote, many were not inclined to embrace the royal system in Oyotunji, the African-style village that Adefunmi established in South Carolina.10

To date, the narratives of these activist-practitioners who stayed in the Lucumí tradition have received little attention. Like Adefunmi, they adjusted aspects of the religion to make it more suitable for African American devotees. By replacing some Spanish with Yoruba terminology and ending the use of Catholic saints to represent the Orishas, they also reintroduced African linguistic and iconographic elements into their practice of the religion.11 While they too took pride in their African roots and sought religious expressions that reflected this consciousness, these devotees were generally less revisionist and continued to embrace the Cuban variant of the religion. As many of them were active in the Black liberation struggle and had made connections to other liberation movements around the globe, their political focus differed from Adefunmi’s more territorial Black nationalist outlook. For them, Cuba’s history of revolutionary resistance served as an inspiration, and, at least initially, some of them saw potential in forming activist alliances with Afro-Cuban practitioners.12

However, like the first African American initiates a decade earlier, the Black Power activists initiated during or after their time in the movement faced challenges in acquiring religious knowledge through apprenticeship with mostly White Cuban practitioners.13 First, they expected the religion to allow them to focus on their African heritage, but this conflicted with the praxis of their Cuban elders, who honored the Orishas by way of the Catholic saints. Having just overcome legal barriers to full citizenship and openly celebrating their Blackness, the activists felt that this practice willfully disguised the African origins of the religion. Another challenge was the Cuban devotees’ ongoing secretiveness due to a long history of religious persecution of African-based religions in the Caribbean.14 Moreover, many Cuban practitioners in exile tied the meaning of Lucumí to their national identity. Using the concept of Cubanidad, they relied on a nationalistic definition of religious belonging that generally glossed over the problematic parts of Cuba’s racialized history. Hence, there was a cultural barrier between African American and Cuban devotees resulting from their rather distinct interpretations of how their practice should meet communal needs and create a sense of belonging.15

The language barrier further complicated the transfer of knowledge and made it difficult for some African Americans to interact with their spiritual families. Racism on the part of some of the predominantly White Cuban devotees and misunderstandings arising from the lack of knowledge of each other’s cultural and historical background created an early and lasting division between African American and Cuban practitioners. The fact that both groups closely tied the historical interpretations of the religion and the current praxis to rather exclusive identity constructions further deepened the schism.16

Like all practitioners of Lucumí, African American devotees had to invest considerable time and effort to obtain deep knowledge of the religion. Once they achieved the level of priesthood, they became less dependent on their Cuban elders, and some of them created their own houses where they could directly pass on most religious knowledge to their godchildren. Although multiethnic houses and relationships between Cuban and African American devotees continued to exist, the separation allowed distinctly African American Lucumí practices to develop, characterized by specific linguistic and iconographic elements and some reinterpretations of the Orishas.17 Still, the important role Black Power activists had in the evolution of Lucumí in the United States is often overlooked, as is the fact that several variants of Yoruba-based worship emerged within African American communities. Examining these variants makes it clear that the Black Power era greatly shaped how African Americans engaged with Lucumí religious knowledge and applied it to their own life circumstances.

Martina Schaefer is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. History and a Graduate Student Fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center for Humanities at Vanderbilt University. Her dissertation project traces the trajectory of Black Power activists and examines how they related to and incorporated African diasporic religious knowledge into their work.

Featured photo by the author: Collection of books on African diasporic religions at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity Library.

  1. Lucumí, the Cuban form of the Yoruba religion, is also known as Regla de Ocha or Santería. The worship of the Orisha, the divine entities of the Yoruba, and ancestor veneration are central to its religious practices. ↩︎
  2. These activists generally looked for a religious alternative more ancestral than Christianity; see Mary Curry, Making the Gods in New York (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), 160. ↩︎
  3. Ras Michael Brown’s longitudinal study, African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), illustrates the critical role African-based spirituality played in the formation of a community of African descendants in South Carolina. For a discussion of Conjure, see Yvonne P. Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), especially chapter 2. ↩︎
  4. Tracey E. Hucks, Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012), 89–90. ↩︎
  5. Curry, Making the Gods in New York, 100. ↩︎
  6. George Ware, Interview by Clayborne Carson, Atlanta, November 7, 1976. Personal Papers Dr. Clayborne Carson. ↩︎
  7. Akissi Britton, “Lucumí and the Children of Cotton: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Mapping of a Black Atlantic Politics of Religion” (PhD diss., City University of New York, 2016), 78–79. ↩︎
  8. Marta Moreno Vega, “Yoruba Philosophy: Multiple Levels of Transformation and Understanding” (PhD diss., Temple University, 1995), 138–39. ↩︎
  9. George Brandon, Santeria from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); Hucks, Yoruba Traditions; Anthony B. Pinn, Varieties of African American Religious Experience (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998). ↩︎
  10. Britton, “Lucumí and the Children of Cotton,” 77–78; Moreno Vega, “Yoruba Philosophy,” 138–39. ↩︎
  11. The amount of adaptation varies among practitioners. John Mason, whose books have influenced many practitioners, describes his work as “Yoruba revisionism”; see Gary Edwards and John Mason, Black Gods – Oriṣa Studies in the New World (Brooklyn: Yoruba Theological Archministry, 1985), vi. John Mason has received wide acclaim for his critical work in making the knowledge widely available; see Hucks, Yoruba Traditions, 296–98. However, some have criticized his efforts to ascertain what the precolonial tradition of the orally transmitted religion looked like and to inscribe dogma into a non-dogmatic religion; see, e.g., Curry, Making the Gods in New York, 121–22. Lisanne C. Norman, in “‘I Worship Black Gods’: Formation of an African American Lucumi Religious Subjectivity” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2015), 11–15, attests to the continuing use of some Spanish terminology in some African American houses. Michael Oshoosi, in African Spirituality versus the African American? (Berkeley: Ibi'Koni Orisha, 1997), 120, calls for any further adjustments to only be made in consultation with Cuban practitioners. ↩︎
  12. Some activists aimed to create lasting Pan-African connections with Afro-Cubans. Norman, “I Worship Black Gods,” 51. ↩︎
  13. Britton, “Lucumí and the Children of Cotton”; Norman, “I Worship Black Gods,” 42–43. ↩︎
  14. Vega, “Yoruba Philosophy,” 138. ↩︎
  15. Curry, Making the Gods in New York, 114–15; Norman, “I Worship Black Gods,” 51. ↩︎
  16. Norman, “I Worship Black Gods,” 30–51. ↩︎
  17. Curry, Making the Gods in New York, 150–51. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Martina Schaefer, “African American Lucumí Devotees’ Adoption and Adaptation of African Diasporic Religious Knowledge in the U.S.,” History of Knowledge, November 5, 2022,