Black Girl Magic
For centuries, blackness in America has been synonymous with belonging to a Christian church. Believing in an omniscient power that offered eternal salvation after a life of obedient suffering and turning the other cheek has provided emotional and spiritual hope to many of us, since our ancestors were snatched from Africa and enslaved on these shores 400 years ago.
After emancipation, African Americans held on to the organized religion that helped form the foundation of our racial resilience and our greatest spiritual strength. Black Christian leaders have spearheaded the most important social-justice movements of our time—most notably the civil rights movement. As of 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, some 79 percent of African Americans identify as Christian.
This might be the reason that I’ve spent the past few decades trying, and failing, to completely abandon the white Catholic God of my youth. It would be like leaving my own family, or myself.
When I was growing up, my mom and I were the only black Catholics we knew in the pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, her favorite church. All my Southern relatives on her side of the family are evangelical Baptist Christians—they believe in spreading the good news about Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior. To them, Catholicism is Christianity lite, with its attention to and depictions of Christ crucified. Baptists, on the other hand, believe in focusing on what comes after Jesus’s sacrifice to save our souls: life everlasting, symbolized by the Resurrection, in exchange for obedience to biblical laws.
Mom, who was born and raised in South Carolina and Philadelphia, never said why she left the family faith and had me baptized Catholic. But I suspect it was her unmedicated bipolar disorder—which encouraged a fixation on the fantastical, and manifested in a quirky collection of calendars featuring a blond Jesus and serene Virgin Mary—that pulled her in this wildly different direction from her kin. She began taking me to Catholic services when I was very young. By her side during the Friday novenas held in a small chapel at the back of the cathedral, I bowed my head and made the sign of the cross as I prepared to pray the dozen Hail Marys assigned to me by a white male priest in order to receive forgiveness, or penance.
Even though I haven’t been to mass in years, reciting the prayers I memorized from those early days—Our Fathers, Nicene Creed, which begins: “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible”—is second nature to me. These familiar rituals, which helped me survive a childhood without a lot of anchors, offer me both comfort and escape, transporting me from panic to peacefulness within moments.
Attending church was another matter. When I hit my teens, the ritual of praying in quiet, white churches began to feel increasingly uncomfortable, a stark contrast to my time spent in the Baptist services I sometimes attended with my older sister. In white churches, I always felt like an outsider in God’s house, a visitor or guest instead of a resident of his kingdom. The white male priests literally talked down to us during their homilies, and I never saw girls who looked like me.
At Baptist services, however, everyone looked familiar. In the black church tradition, your primary place of worship is known as your “church home”; at Christian Stronghold Baptist Church in Philadelphia, the city where a lot of my relatives live, I never felt like a visitor but, rather, like family, invited to join in the shouting and falling out and passion the Holy Spirit offered the black bodies around me, reaching up to the heavens in ecstasy.
But an emphasis on patriarchy, with the Father God and his son, Jesus—both in Catholicism and the Baptist faith—conflicted with my emerging feminism. I didn’t believe God created men to rule over women. I didn’t think fathers were better than mothers. It seemed weird to me that Catholic priests couldn’t marry; that all clergy and pastors, across denominations, seemed required to behave as heterosexuals when there are so many different expressions of sexuality, presumably also created by God.
It would be years before revelations of pedophilia and molestation across Christian denominations exposed institutions and structures controlled by men who looked the other way when priests or pastors raped children. In the Catholic Church in particular, those priests numbered in the thousands, prompting Pope Francis to call a special meeting this past February to address how to stop the epidemic. Bishop Eddie Long, who was at the helm of an Atlanta-area Baptist megachurch for 30 years until his death in 2017, settled out of court in 2011 in five civil lawsuits involving male parishioners who accused Long of coercing them into sex when they were underage.
As I grew older, my inability to reconcile the joy and bliss of those black churches with the silence and mystery of Catholicism hit a fever pitch. The questions I had about what kind of God would allow pedophilia, poverty, and tragedy became more urgent. I began to pull away from Christianity altogether.
Much to my mother’s chagrin, I started sleeping in on Sundays instead of going to church. I stopped going to confession or praying the blue rosary I’d been given. When I was 15, I struck up a close, almost mother-daughter relationship with an older woman named Deborah, whom I met at a party, and began to explore Santeria, an iteration of the traditional West African and Yoruban system of divination and religion. Santeria—“the Way of the Saints,” as roughly translated from Spanish—has its roots in the Yoruba religion Ifa and is mostly practiced in the Americas. Slaves in Cuba syncretized the pantheistic African religion with Catholicism, worshipping orisha—emissaries of God’s will—under the guise of praying to Catholic saints.
Santeria, then, wasn’t so different from Catholicism: we, too, lit candles and left cash offerings and prayers at the feet of saints. The main difference was that I started feeling empowered to take my prayers and petitions to God on my own instead of relying on a priest to do it for me. Deborah said she saw in me a gift for intuitive clairvoyance and taught me to speak directly to the orisha and to my ancestors on my own behalf; I spent as much time as I could with her in her kitchen on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, learning how to create honey offerings for Oshun, the orisha of love, money, and beauty. And though I eventually pulled away from her—I began to believe that she was untrustworthy and taking financial advantage of me—Deborah was the first person I’d ever met who seemed to have something important to teach me: namely, to trust my spiritual instincts as a seeker of knowledge.
My fears and anxieties about leaving Catholicism stem from how bound black women in particular have been to organized religion. (In the United States, black women make up the majority of black Christian churchgoers; by one estimate, they constitute between 66 and 88 percent of that community.) In the context of a hostile white world, having a church home offers all kinds of protective spiritual, emotional, psychological, and political benefits. To leave one’s church home is to wander in an amorphous wilderness, to dare God to bring calamity upon you by breaking with the common wisdom that God is present in community but absent when you go to him on your own.
Still, over the years, I’ve been struck by the increasing numbers of young people like myself who are not only questioning the organized religious traditions they grew up with but moving beyond them—sometimes to what many would describe as New Age, woo-woo, or occult practices. According to the Pew Research Center, the past decade has seen a rise in secularism among millennials between the ages of 22 and 38. And many are using and exploring astrology, tarot, numerology, and witchcraft either instead of, or as a complement to, their belief in a higher power. They’re embracing alternative forms of worship and leaving brick-and-mortar church communities behind, in search of spiritual leaders who look like them.
To understand what nontraditional Christianity looks like for many black millennials, we have to, perhaps unsurprisingly, turn to the internet. There, one can find a robust community of black and Afro Latina women leveraging social media to gain followers and clients—the majority of them also black women—while offering free guidance about how to use the energy of the cosmos to their benefit.
Over the past seven years, I have noted, with some delight, a growing and powerful group of young people, primarily women, preaching messages of self-empowerment, intuitive guidance, and ancestral reverence. They are everywhere, from Twitter and Instagram to YouTube and the crowdfunding platform Patreon.
It makes sense: in a world where young people’s attachment to smartphones has become one of their most intimate relationships, it would follow that divinely inspired messages of empowerment would reach us via our devices, like everything else we think has meaning. (No judgment—I used to sleep with my phone, too.) And because most social media is used predominantly by women and people of color, there’s a natural synchronicity to digital interactions that allows for seemingly disparate groups to connect to alternative forms of faith.
Timil Jones is an Atlanta-based real estate entrepreneur and the founder of Sacred Life Tarot, a brand that shares inspirational messages and spiritual affirmations to an audience of thousands. Over the past two years, Jones, 30, has built up her following—and her community—via Instagram, YouTube, and Patreon accounts, where she features a blend of astrological and tarot-card readings, occasional personal posts, and a monthly in-depth astrological forecast for Patreon subscribers and followers. She’s also a member of a 1,000-person-strong private Facebook group, Brown Girl Tarot Collective, a welcoming and affirming community meant to focus on marginalized groups who are usually ignored in the larger “Eurocentric” tarot community.
Women of color have been included in neither the profits nor the messages promoted in the greater “wellness” movement, which tends to focus its energies, and its funding, a white, upper-class audience—such as that for Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company Goop. The growing embrace of alternative forms of spirituality by black women appears to be as much about an exploration of historical and generational legacies as it is a reflection of trends in the larger culture.
“I would say that yes, being spiritual is popular right now … meditation, crystals, finding a way to connect your spirituality to nature is very buzzy,” says Jones, who estimates that some 95 percent of the people who come to her for readings are black women. “[But] for black women, it translates over to this desire to connect to our ancestors.”
Young people are embracing alternative forms of worship and leaving brick-and-mortar church communities behind, in search of spiritual leaders who look like them.
New Orleans–based Tatianna Morales (@TatiannaTarot), 31, is the proprietor of a spirituality website, My Urban Illumination, and an Instagram account and YouTube channel, where she posts inspirational meditations and offers personal readings and healing using a variety of modalities, including tarot and astrology. Unlike Jones, Morales has been at this sort of work for a while. The Brooklyn-born Afro Latina says she’s always had an affinity for anything related to the metaphysical arts and spent many years working in botanicas, where she was dismayed to discover that most of the spiritual books flying off store shelves consisted of hackneyed “Hoodoo” messages, written largely by white folks interested in conjuring lovers or hexing people.
“[There was] nothing about the historical context, nothing about these African traditions and practices as a means of life, a way of connecting with the divine and a way of really establishing reverence for nature,” Morales says. “When I conceptualized My Urban Illumination, my main focus was to provide an outlet and demystify these practices for women and people of color, who are so used to hearing the taboos about our culture and our spirituality.”
Morales says the primary audience for her work is women of the African diaspora in particular, some of whom (myself included) have been taught by society that indulging in Ifa or divination or Voodoo—which originates from the Haitian Vodoun, systemically aligned with Ifa in its cosmological makeup—is akin to worshipping Satan. (Broadly, Christianity maintains that only Jesus Christ gives life and inspiration and that any tool or person used to portend the future is sacrilegious, with the ultimate cost to those who sin in this way being eternal hell and damnation.)
“They’re so used to hearing that this is the devil’s work—‘Voodoo is demonic’ or ‘Santeria is demonic,’ or ‘You’re dabbling in something that is ultimately very negative,’” says Morales. “But there are a lot of pagan practices that are rooted in a lot of African tradition, and I think a lot of people who come from that background of being told to not venture into these practices that come from the motherland [are] intrigued.”
Timil Jones concurs. “I find [tarot to be] my bridge for helping people reconnect to their spirituality,” she says. “[The black women coming to me] are leaving some shame behind and saying, ‘If this worked for my ancestors, and if it’s worked for my elders, let me find out if it’s working for me.’”
The shame Jones refers to is real and should, of course, go both ways. The growing dissatisfaction among black American women with contemporary Christianity is, in part, I believe, the result of centuries of black women being told that we have to defer to the authority of white men in order to receive God’s blessing. Now, many of us are taking back our power by embracing inspiring women who look like us and who offer the means to become our own authorities on divinity and religion.
“Growing up feeling that being a good, spiritual Christian woman was [the equivalent of] being silent is something I’m very grateful I’ve been liberated from,” says Jones, who grew up in a “legalistic” Church of Christ denomination in Austin that endorsed homophobic messages and believed women were to be seen but not heard. (Black women cannot become ordained leaders in that tradition.) “It’s something I have to walk my clients through in their worthiness—not only spiritually, but in general, when they’re coming out of a congregational experience.”
This isn’t to say that the young women of color embracing things like tarot, astrology, and numerology are leaving everything about Christianity behind completely. Jones, who says she definitely identifies as a Christian mystic, explains that millennial clients come to her loving Jesus but wanting to explore “other forms of consciousness.”
“They grew up in the church, but they aren’t finding that connection to God [there],” she explains.
Jones often uses Scripture in her readings, she says, to help communicate a more positive, empowering way to look at tarot cards and see them as divination tools: a way to connect clients to everything in the universe made by God, not as Satan’s devices to steal their souls.
“I start with the premise that this is God’s creation, this is God’s universe,” she says. “You reading your horoscope, that’s speaking to you? That’s God speaking to you. There’s a power you have access to by understanding that you are a divine creation … and God made you just like he made the sun, moon, and stars.”
In January 2012, six days before my 34th birthday, my mother died from Stage IV cervical cancer. She was 72 years old. Her death was a brutal ending for me in lots of ways, the way I suppose the death of one’s mother has to be. I questioned everything I believed about God and faith I’d learned up until then. But the five months that transpired between my mother’s terminal diagnosis and her physical death offered me a chance to clarify what I would need to replace my old beliefs with, if anything. Though I was very angry with God, I also felt like I’d been given an opportunity, as Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, to go to God for myself. Even in my despair, I came away believing, still, in the God my mother and I shared, and in his omnipresence.
Five years ago, longing for something to tether me to the world again the way my mother had, I joined a gospel choir at a black Catholic church in Washington, D.C., where I lived at the time. It had been decades since I’d been inside such a church, and the prayers—the Nicene Creed, the Hail Marys—poured out of me like the black Christian spirituals I now, finally, had an opportunity to sing, in what felt like my first real church home.
And though, outside of mass and choir rehearsals, the contradictions of the Catholic Church continued to pull me away from it, I found comfort in being held in a community where I felt closest to my mother’s memory, her spirit.
The sounds of those Catholic prayers, the smell of frankincense and myrrh, the feel of rosary beads between my fingers, grounded me by reminding me of the most intimate experiences I shared with my mother in the pews of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I left the church in D.C. when I moved back to New York in 2017. Instead of looking for another church, I decided that it would feel better to try and recreate that feeling at home, in a spiritual practice of my own design.
Now, in addition to a daily practice of meditation and pulling oracle, medicine, or tarot cards, I read a daily Christian devotional that offers short quotes from the Bible for reflection. Last year, on a pilgrimage to the Vatican for my 40th birthday, I purchased an amethyst beaded rosary for myself (and a faux-pearl one for my mother, which I keep on an altar) and a book of novenas for every season of the year, any petition under the sun. I have several tarot and oracle decks of my own, which help me clarify what I believe God is leading me to do each day, each week.
I will always love God and worship God as a divine spirit and force that communicates with me, in the same way I believe my mother did: through symbols that show up in general tarot-card readings and in my own personal divination practice, and through the words that resonate from empowered women like Morales and Jones. Each morning, before I meditate, I also read passages from the Bible in a daily devotional, because every aspect of God—however he speaks to me—still helps me get through the day.
And though I once wrote letters and poems to God asking for a sign that I would still be OK and not be damned to hell for trying to fashion my own understanding of divinity, I now see how vastly my life has improved, coming into an authentic and empowered relationship with a more expansive understanding of God. I am reminded, in particular, of a line in Ntozake Shange’s 1975 choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf:
“i found god in myself
& i loved her / i loved her fiercely”