There is a great deal which I’d like to say on this last day of Black History Month in the U.S., and Crystal Blanton has done an excellent post on this at The Wild Hunt.
“Honoring or Appropriation” panel; left to right, Elena Rose, Crystal Blanton, Tata Nkisi Sima Ngango (Chris Bradford), Chandra Alexandre, and T. Thorn Coyle. Photo by Stephanie Del Kjer.
Further, there have been several good podcasts related to some of these matters recently as well, including the next panel recording from PantheaCon by T. Thorn Coyle at Elemental Castings on “Honoring vs. Appropriation” (which was held during our Lupercalia this year, which is why I couldn’t go and probably a major reason why we had so few attendees…I’m going to request in the future that things we do not be cross-listed, so I can attend them as well!), featuring Crystal Blanton, Chandra Alexandre, Elena Rose, and Tata Nkisi Sima Ngango of Batalla Mayombe Sacara Empeno (Chris Bradford). I cannot emphasize how important and useful this discussion was, and I’ll be returning to a few things that were raised by it below. So, in the meantime, if the lineup listed above is not reason enough to go listen to this, then here’s the link again!!! ;)
A further good podcast I’ve heard recently is on The Jaguar and the Owl with James “Two Snakes” Stovall and Sarenth Odinsson, where they speak at great length with Khi Armand (who is someone I must virtually meet soon!), and while it may not be as “apparently” directly relevant, it does address the issue of ancestors and how some of these matters in recent months and years related to racist violence might be attributable to unresolved ancestral issues. It’s a great interview, in any case, and James and Sarenth are always doing interesting work, and Khi (as I just mentioned!) is someone to keep your eye on as well, and I hope to get to know him further in the months and years to come.
And, before I get into the further meat of this post, I have one more announcement that I have not properly done before, though I have mentioned it several times in passing in other posts: namely, my usual “the new phonebook’s here!”-type of post that I often do when a new publication comes out and I get it in my hands. In the present case, I got the publication concerned while at PantheaCon, and it’s a really important volume in general, but it will also be relevant to what I’m going to be discussing below in various ways, too.
The publication in question is Bringing Race to the Table: Exploring Racism in the Pagan Community, edited by Crystal Blanton, Taylor Ellwood, and Brandy Williams (Stafford: Immanion/Megalithica, 2015), on which there was a panel at PantheaCon that I had a small participatory role in as well. In many respects, this volume follows along in the series already published by Megalithica of Crystal Blanton’s other two anthologies, Shades of Faith: Minority Voices Within Paganism (2011) and Shades of Ritual: Minority Voices in Practice (2014), both of which I highly recommend as well. My piece in Bringing Race to the Table is called “At Least Two Memnons: Anti-Racism Versus Tokenism in the Ancient World and Modern Polytheist Reconstructionism.” Writing this piece has changed my practice, as it inspired and directly lead to my hero-feast of Memnon and its permanent addition to our Calendar last year. This is something over which I’m rather ashamed, to be honest, because the Colossoi of Memnon festival is something we’ve celebrated in the Ekklesía Antínoou since about 2003, and it has loomed large for me because it involves the Empress Diva Sabina Augusta as well as the poetess Julia Balbilla, but our actual honoring of Memnon had not been as explicit or as deliberate before more recent years, so I thank the editors, and Crystal in particular, for prompting me to get in better relationship with this important hero, and he in turn has made it clear to me that there is no longer any sitting on the sidelines where racial issues are concerned, in my spiritual life or elsewhere. So, thank you, Crystal, Taylor, and Brandy, for that; and, go buy the book! ;)
I have posted about Black History Month and the Ekklesía Antínoou before, and there are more Sancta/e/i in our ranks now than there were when I made that post a few years ago who are African or African-American/Black. In my day-job, as a teacher of history, I am very lucky in that I am teaching U.S. History to college students (and some high school students as well), in which we do not ever have the luxury, through my insistence, of ignoring the contributions or struggles of People of Color during the entire course, and not a week goes by when their visibility is not only pushed but (some of my critics might say) forced on my students. The same is true in my World History and Western Civilization (a very problematic notion in itself!) courses. I wish I could do more, but this is a start, and something I have been doing consistently since I’ve been teaching, starting in 2007. The goal that many of the voices in the Wild Hunt article linked to at the beginning of this post mentioned, of having Black history be a part of things all the time, and throughout the year rather than just in February (the shortest month, as several of them noted!), is something I have tried to make possible through the means I have at my disposal. Likewise, honoring Memnon the son of Eos and Tithonos in April and Memnon the Trophimos in March, as well as the festival of the Colossoi of Memnon in November, makes certain that these issues are more visible in our practice than they might be otherwise; and honoring Sancta/e/i like Bayard Rustin, who may be honored with a stamp soon (though it’s long past due!), is another way to keep the important contributions of Black individuals to U.S. history, as well as to the Ekklesía Antínoou’s legacy, in mind as often as possible.
What remains here will be a miscellany of what I had originally planned to be about 3 or 4 (at least) posts, drawing together some matters from PantheaCon as well as other wider concerns I’ve had, but they all have to do with race and racism, and with other matters already touched on above, so get yourself a nice beverage, settle in comfortably to your favorite piece of furniture, and take a deep breath, as this will be somewhat long (and if I’m saying that, you know how bad it really is!).
Is Antinous a Person of Color?
In asking the above question, two thoughts immediately come to mind. One is the notion I’ve said in many contexts (including recently), that the notion that one’s deities must be exactly like, or even in any way related to, what one is oneself, does not necessarily apply and need not cause any confusion or dissonance for anyone. It took me a long time to get comfortable with Antinous because he was young and beautiful, and even though I was relatively young at the time I first properly realized his divine presence (at age 26), I was never as physically beautiful or fit as he was (which I’ve also written/published about). Not all deities have to be–nor can they be!–“all things to all people” in order to be “true” deities.
On the other hand, and the larger one for the moment which prompts the present reflections, is the importance of identity. Having deities that look like or in other ways resemble oneself is empowering and important, and given that most deities do not have a set physical description or appearance–and Antinous especially so, given his promiscuously syncretistic theophanies–there is no reason that there can’t be an African Antinous, a Latino Antinous, a Central, South, or East Asian Antinous, or a native North or South American Antinous, and so forth…and this list of possibilities is not exhaustive nor exclusive.
In “At Least Two Memnons,” toward the end of my essay I mentioned an experience I had several years ago (between 2007 and 2009, as I recall, but I can’t narrow it down much further than that at present) in which I was told Antinous would be appearing in a dream to me in a hitherto-unattested form. He then appeared to me as a young, handsome, African or African-American man; the strangest aspect of this to me was not that he was appearing with dark skin, but that in this form, he was bald! Given that Antinous and his statuary are often known because of his distinctive (and, as scholars often say, “luxurious”) hairstyle, the baldness was the characteristic that you might say troubled me above any other. I suspect that there might have been a kind of syncretism with Antinous and Memnon taking place with that. It is noteworthy that Homer (who also had a character called Antinoös in his Odyssey!) only mentions one thing about Memnon, also in the Odyssey: that none at Troy was more beautiful than him. You can see in this image of Memnon from the 1700s that there is an Antinous-like quality to his hair as well:
“Memnon,” engraving by Bernard Picart
When Egyptian deities combine together (and Memnon, stated to be Ethiopian most often in ancient sources, is kind of Graeco-Egyptian in a great deal of his cultus), often their characteristics shift in interesting ways: they suddenly become mummiform, they become dwarves, and so forth. That Antinous’ distinctiveness in hairstyle might have been altered to allow for this combination seems entirely within the possibilities of the traditions concerned, therefore.
Little did I know, at the time, about this image, now in Venice:
This statue is interpreted by some scholars as Antinous, as its face resembles his closely, but he is being portrayed here as an Egyptian priest of Isis. This, in its own direct way, makes him African in the eyes of the ancient Romans and others, and while I think this is wonderful in terms of what it tells us about ancient possibilities, and how syncretism on a local level can make any deity (including one with an attested human history, and thus an accompanying ethnicity) into whatever race might be appropriate to a given locality.
But, let’s also look at that pre-divine history of Antinous, and see what it might tell us.
In sources both ancient and more modern, Antinous is characterized as an “Asian youth.” Bithynia, his province of birth and among the first places where he was honored as a god with temples, images, athletic games, and even Mysteries, was in Asia Minor, and thus by both ancient and modern geographic reckonings, he would have been Asian in origin. Bithynion-Claudiopolis, his native city, was founded as an Arcadian colony from the city-state of Mantineia, and his Arcadian heritage is also reckoned in a number of ancient sources, as well as alluded to more subtly in several cases. The Arcadians would not have been considered “foreign” to the Greeks or the Romans (the latter of whom, themselves, traced various things to their own Arcadian heritage, including the Lupercalia!), but they were thought to be somewhat backwoods and even backwards in some of their practices and archaic customs by the Greeks of Attica and elsewhere.
Does this make Antinous a Person of Color? It depends.
Something that was pointed out to me, way back when I was not-yet-Antinoan in my practices (this would have been in 1999-2001), is that pretty much all of the so-called “major” world religions (Hindusim, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—even though the latter has far less modern practitioners than Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism, and many of the Afro-Diasporic religions) are all Asian in origin, since the Middle East is actually “Western Asia.” And, in many respects, the same is true of the cultus of Antinous.
While scholars have tended to say Antinous’ cultus is an example of a Greek religious practice, while others characterize it as Roman (under the assumption that it was “founded” by Hadrian, despite a great deal of opposition and problematizing of it in the Roman context). In reality, as I’ve emphasized many times here and elsewhere, it is in origin Egyptian, due to his deification by drowning in the Nile. The first locations in which it took hold don’t seem to have been mainland Greece, but instead the colonies of Asia Minor. Thus, it is Graeco-Egyptian, if anything; and more widely and broadly speaking, it is thus Afro-Asiatic in origin. Even if Antinous himself is not reckoned as a Person of Color, his religion originates in areas that modern people would consider to fall into those where People of Color come from.
[And, then there’s Hadrian: he and his wife were of Hispano-Roman origins, and Hadrian himself was berated for his provincial accent when he spoke Latin. As a result, he can be considered Latino, to an extent, even though that term tends to get used generally for people of Caribbean, Central and South American ancestry–which often also includes Native and African heritage as well–and as falling within that general tradition as well. Though he was an Emperor, that didn’t mean he was exempt from the derision a “central” culture often feels for its peripheral or provincial members. This could be an entire post or series of posts of its own, however!]
What comes to the fore in all of this, of course, is how very differently things are now conceptualized, in a post-imperial, post-colonial, post-capitalist, and post-industrial world. However, this is not remotely to say that the situation now is “lesser” or in any way inferior in importance to our considerations–far from it! As much as we draw inspiration from these earlier cultures, we live now, and what is real is what is going on now; the things of the past are not gone, nor are the people and deities from it (also very far from it!), but they likewise don’t have any problems adapting to modern matters with ease, and viewing modern situations through their own lenses, informed and shaped by the past though they may have been…which is no different than any of us, or any of the historical situations we’re now faced with and with which we must grapple, negotiate, and (hopefully) make peace with in the present and the future.
Is Antinous a Person of Color, thus? He very well can be, in an ancient, modern, or theological context. And based on my own experiences with him, I suspect that he looks forward to the possibility of being so for many people in the future, if doing so will help to bring his cultus more presently into the world.
As the Obelisk of Antinous says, “he takes on every shape of his heart.” I have no doubt that many People of Color, past and present, are in his heart, and thus if there hearts are to be in him, he must likewise take on their shapes and sizes and colors as well, and gladly.
As I mentioned in my PantheaCon posts a short while back, I stayed in the Motel Styx for this year’s PantheaCon, and while it was not much cheaper than the rooms at the con’ hotel, nonetheless one could tell in various ways that it was the “not-as-privileged” version of lodging. There is no complimentary little bottles of shampoo in the bathroom; there are no “Do Not Disturb” signs for the doorknobs outside; there are no closets, nor is there a dresser; there is not carpet on the floor; there is no clock radio; and internet/wi-fi access is not included in the room price…amongst other differences.
When one of our Assistai in the Antinoan Mysteries picked me up from the airport and I checked in, and then helped me carry my bags up to the stairs to my room (no elevator!), and I got to it, I noted that it was room 227, and I said “227 is a comedy / about Marla Gibbs and her family.” Our good Assistai said he remembered the show, which is more than I can say for most people; that line was used in one of the commercials for it before it premiered in 1985, right after The Golden Girls. On its premiere night, we didn’t watch it, because my stepfather didn’t like “black shows,” but we did watch The Golden Girls. My older brother watched 227, however, on his black-and-white television in his room, and told us a few days later that the show was funny, whereas we were initially not that impressed with The Golden Girls, so we began watching it on Thursday nights as well over the coming years. While many queer folks love The Golden Girls, and many of them wanted to be Blanche Devereaux, I’ve not heard very many people I know talk about 227 or wanting to be anyone in it, even though in many ways Sandra Clark (played by Jackée!) was a similarly stylish, sassy, and sexy character. I thought much of the cast (including Alaina Reed Hall, who was Olivia on Sesame Street!) was very cool, and of any of them that I thought I’d like to be at that age, the top of the list was actually Pearl (played by Helen Martin), who was the older neighbor who usually talked to the others through her front window. She was wise, witty, and sang really well…why not?
I think of all this every time I encounter the number “227” in a book’s page number, the price of something I buy in a store, and anywhere else I might hear it. So, thinking of that when I checked in to PantheaCon, and knowing Bringing Race to the Table was just published and I’d be attending the panel about it, I got to thinking about where I first began to be conscious of race and racism in my life. As I have a very continuous and vivid memory back to age 3 (and possibly 2 at one point), I know very much what I thought and saw during those times.
While one cannot grow up in U.S. culture without some degree of racism, I can say that my mother tried as hard as possible not to do anything that would make us racist. She told me that her favorite teacher in grade school was a Black woman, and that not long after I was born and she was visiting her own mother back in Spokane, WA (as you can imagine, those who are familiar with the area, it’s not that liberal a place now, and certainly wouldn’t have been back in the 1950s when my mom was in grade school), she also visited her favorite teacher and made sure that she held me as a baby. I can’t say that I remember this in any conscious fashion, but I think this has had some impact on me, if not in itself than in her having told this to me many times.
In the two towns where I grew up—initially Coupeville, WA, and then Oak Harbor, WA (both small towns, though Oak Harbor, where I currently work, is several times larger than Coupeville)—there were not that many Black people, and I can’t recall having seen any in-person around town in either place much, but when we were in Seattle or Spokane or elsewhere, one might have seen some. Because of this, and the fact that I did watch television–Star Trek, Sanford & Son, Benson, The Jeffersons, What’s Happening, and because it came on at the same time as another show, I never actually saw a full episode of Good Times, though I saw the end credits many times—I got the impression that because I only saw Black people on television–that therefore all Black people must be famous, so if I saw one in public, I thought they were all movie or television stars, even though I knew the ones I was seeing in pubic weren’t those I was seeing on television or in films. I didn’t know where they came from, or what made them different from me, but I knew that all of them seemed to be very smart and cool and funny. On several occasions, I remember trying to pattern my speech after some of them, and wondering why it didn’t sound quite right in my mouth and why certain people didn’t like it when I did so.
When I finally heard of a Black person in my community, it was my older brother’s bus driver when he was in kindergarten. The remarkable thing about this was that his last name was the same as my stepfather’s last name, and even though my stepfather was white and from New York, and the bus driver was Black (though I didn’t know if he was from Oak Harbor or had come there like so many others, often associated with the Navy, as we were), because they had the same last name that they must therefore be related. This didn’t seem impossible or contradictory to reason to me at that age, when I was four and five. Of course, it seemed strange to me that if they were related, the bus driver never came over and we never visited him at his house, but I never really thought the implications of this through.
One of the first Black children I met was a neighbor from down the street in Oak Harbor, who moved away not too long after we moved in. His name was Lionel, he smiled a lot, he had a bike, and he sang the theme songs to shows really well (much better than anyone else I knew at the time could sing). I wasn’t discouraged from playing with him, though because he was more my older brother’s age than mine, I wasn’t exactly encouraged either.
While there were certainly darker-skinned children in my kindergarten and first-grade classes (of Asian, Latino, Pacific Islander, and Native American ancestry certainly, but perhaps some were biracial or lighter-skinned Black), there weren’t any Black kids in my class until second grade: two Black girls, who first liked each other and then ended up not liking each other, and then one moved away. I remember their names, but won’t mention them because both are rather unusual, so even if I were to give their first names, this might expose them needlessly (and put them in association with my queer pagan ass!). I became good friends with the one who stayed, and unfortunately my very racist Southern babysitter at the time disapproved of this, and used a very horrible word to describe my friend. I couldn’t say anything against the babysitter (who, for the record, was also abusive and stole from my mother) because I knew I would be physically punished if I did, but I knew it was bad and wrong. It got me into trouble speaking about it at school, and trying to understand how it was in any way all right for someone to use those words at home, and while I won’t go into further details on the situation, at that age I learned how very horrible and powerful an effect those words have, and pretty much decided to never use them again. I wish I could say that I made good on that decision in all the years that followed; peer pressure and the realities of a racist society absolutely suck, and I am angry with myself that carrying that memory of the pain those words can cause that I learned at that time did not better motivate my actions when I was older but still young and stupid. I hope that in being older (and still often stupid!) now, I do not ever make those mistakes again as I continue to attempt to recover from being brought up in a racist society.
As I got older, and had other Black friends, I began noticing some of these things further. When the topic of slavery was first broached with us in the third grade, and we were told that slaves were taken from Africa, I remember my friend Jimmy saying, barely under his breath, “They didn’t get me!” In the fifth grade, Jimmy and I worked on our “health” project together, which was about diabetes (no coincidence in my case!), and at one point, we were asked to study our subject quietly. Jimmy was not a very good reader, and so rather than read silently or work on the written portion of our project, I came up with a rather unorthodox way of covering the material: there were all sorts of pictures in the book on diabetes that we were studying, and so I said we should take turns tracing the pictures on each other’s backs and see if we could guess which pictures they were from the book. I don’t recall who guessed more correctly, but I will always remember that I decided to really throw him for a loop, and tried to draw “kidney dialysis” on his back, which was a picture of a person lying on a hospital bed with big machines next to him and tubes sticking out of his arm…and Jimmy guessed it correctly! I still laugh about this now, actually. ;)
I was first accused of being a “faggot” in the fifth grade, when I was good friends with another Black student (whose name was rather unique, so I won’t mention it here in case these things get back to him), and an older student took me aside to tell me that I shouldn’t play with him by myself on the playground like I did. I am still not sure if I was a “faggot” for being rather thin, sickly, and smart, and not liking to do what boys did (since I wasn’t one!), or if I was a “faggot” for playing with my Black friend when few other people would or did.
There was a trumpet player named Mike who was in my band class several times over the years in junior high (eighth and ninth grade), who I only usually saw in band class and was always friendly with, and who had the best sweaters and wore them very well, much to my admiration. In the ninth grade, I remember Mike left the office of my band teacher rather angrily one day, and pointed at him very forcefully and said he was a racist, and was then sent out of the room. My immediate sympathies were with Mike—I had my own reasons for not liking the band teacher—and I was also angry that someone in authority would do or say racist things to a student who had no recourse and could not in any way object or fight back; but, I never got to speak with Mike about it, because soon after that, he was no longer at our school. His pointing and his voice on that occasion strike me even now; he was not yelling or screaming, but he used his voice very effectively and powerfully, and I immediately envied and admired his ability to do so. This might have been one of the first times in my life that the reality of the powerful, magical use of gesture and voice ever struck me as I saw it employed before me. The next time I saw him was at a band competition that happened to be at our school later in the ninth grade, and I just happened to see him by himself in the gym where we would all be performing later. When we spotted each other, he yelled out my name, and I yelled out his, and we did this over and over again in turn until we got close enough to give each other hugs. We spoke for a few minutes, and he said he was at school in Coupeville now, and to my present knowledge and recollection, that was the last time I saw him or spoke with him, as we each had to go our separate ways and get ready to play our songs in the competition later in the day. We wished each other luck, and that was that.
I went to a high school with about 1,600 kids; there were just over 300 in my graduating class. That I was in any way more-than-passing friends or acquaintances with a total of four Black students during that time strikes me and makes me rather upset with myself; but that I was friends with any given the circumstances, and that there were only about ten to fifteen in my graduating class at all, still makes me think that even those few interactions I did have were important and significant for me, and I have never forgotten them. I have more stories about the rest of high school, and college, and graduate school, but I think you get the picture; in college, my diversity and social justice activism amped up considerably.
So…all of these memories come flooding back to me when I think of the number “227,” starting with the theme song of it, sung by Marla Gibbs herself:
There’s no place like home
With your family around you you’re never alone
When ya know that your loved
You don’t need to roam
Cause there’s no place like home
Time’s are changing everyday
We won’t get by with those same old ways
Pulling together, we’ll make it right
With help from our friends, I know we’ll get by
Cause there’s no place like home
With your family around you you’re never alone
When you know that your loved
You don’t need to roam
Cause there ain’t no place like
(Better believe it)
There ain’t no place like
(Better believe it)
Cause there ain’t no place like
There’s no place like home
“I mean no place child”
No matter how trite, silly, and inaccurate television sitcom (and ALL other media, especially in the older days of 20+ years ago) portrayals of People of Color, and Black people in particular might happen to be, at the same time, we shouldn’t underestimate the positive messages these can also potentially send, especially to kids in rural communities that are all-white or are almost-all-white, as mine was. It is a reason to be that much more vigilant about what gets put on television, but likewise in absence of anything else, it’s at least something.
Divine Images and People of Color
While this particular matter links back to the earlier discussion of Antinous as a Person of Color, likewise I wanted to write about this soon anyway (even though it’s kind of spoiling a surprise that I was going to save for a few more days!), and hearing about this specific issue in the “Honoring or Appropriation” panel from one of the audience members made it that much more important to mention now, I thought.
The day before PantheaCon, due to some interesting coincidences, I found out someone I’ve known casually and in passing for several months now is an artist, and I suggested that if this individual is interested in commissions, I might have some projects that need art. They agreed, and I’ll say more about them when the time comes, but I was especially afraid that in the process, I might encounter yet another example of the “curse of the Tetrad++ Group.” You probably don’t know what that is, but it’s my little joke term for what has happened several times over the last two years, i.e. that I’ve asked someone to do art for the further Tetrad++ books (which are only being stalled by the lack of art for them!), they’ve agreed to do so, and have often done a few drafts, but then they disappear entirely and I never hear from them again. This has happened twice; a third person I still see and hear from, but she is not going to be doing the art. So now, on this fourth try, I was hopeful but knew what very well might happen if past patterns are at all anything to go by. The day after I returned, I was to meet the latest artist with some drafts, but they were not available that day. Oh no! The curse, the curse! However, as of this last week, I did meet them, and saw the not-quite-drafts (some had been prepared, but a few rougher ones were brought to me because the others were forgotten at home)…and those were amazing and achingly beautiful, and I can’t wait to see them in both color and black-and-white for various things associated with the books in the future!
Interestingly, though, as we were talking about this later on, the issue of race came up. Both I and the artist are white, but both of us are sensitive to the matter of race. Given that the initial members of the Tetrad++ Group have so many and such diversity of ancestors, it made sense to the artist that they might appear racially-diverse as well.
I think this is a very good idea.
Several members of the Tetrad++ Group, due to various things, tend to appear in my own perceptions as having physical characteristics of certain ethnicities anyway. However, I’m somewhat wary of saying that “So-and-so looks Latino” or “Such-and-such looks Asian” or “This member of the Tetrad++ is African.” It’s not that they aren’t or can’t be, it’s that I don’t want that to then limit what each individual member then looks like for everyone forever, because they can appear as any imaginable race or ethnicity or physical type possible.
So, how to convey all of this?
I suggested to the artist that several images of each member of the Tetrad++ Group be produced, and that there will be a “general” one which isn’t that concerned with portraying them as a specific race; these will have a more fantastic and Anime-like quality to them, and their skin colors will be unusual–actual pink, blue, and so forth–and then there will be an additional series that portrays each of them with specific characteristics and attributes of various identifiable (though generalized) ethnicities we now recognize.
The audience member at the “Honoring or Appropriation” panel had an excellent point about not seeing divine images that resembled her or other People of Color all too often in pagan contexts. The Tetrad++ Group do not want to be a part of that continued whitewashing, and thus the art produced for them will be along these lines that are more inclusive and purposefully diversifying. Not only in honor of Leonard Nimoy (who was largely responsible for creating this particular aspect of Vulcan culture) do I think it is appropriate to say, as the Vulcans do, “Infinite Diversity, Infinite Combinations.”
At PantheaCon, one of the most important events I took part in this year was the Roving Hero/ine Cultus Ritual I organized on Friday night amongst several of the hospitality suites, including the Pagans of Color suite. Memnon was honored within the portion of the ritual that took place in that suite, and likewise the Nubian goddess Amesemi. I found this especially moving, especially given her status as a goddess of protection, and the fact that so many young Black people in the U.S. today have been the victims of militarized police violence and the prison-industrial complex, amongst many other injustices due to racism.
This stele, showing Amesemi and Queen Amanishaketo, is one of the only images of Amesemi that is currently known. Though her husband Apedemak was adopted into the Egyptian pantheon, she was not. There are likely all sorts of reasons for this–she was a lunar goddess, whereas the Egyptian deities of the moon were male; there was also a protective goddess associated with vultures, Nekhbet, which they already had–but it seems like a major oversight to me. I don’t say this because I think the ancient Egyptians should be nor need to be “corrected” for such practices, but instead because with polytheism comes an entire series of relationships, and the relationships that deities have in one pantheon that do not then transfer over when they are adopted into a different pantheon don’t necessarily go away simply because of that transfer of geographic or cultural citizenship.
One of the things that has also emerged in my practice with her over the last year is that, as a protective goddess, if non-Black and non-African (or at least not-directly-or-recently-African, since Homo sapiens is ultimately an African species) people want to educate themselves about racism, and (wisely!) don’t want to bother People of Color to educate them–which is something that everyone should avoid and instead should educate themselves!–then various deities and ancestors can help with that, and Amesemi is one that has emerged in my own practice as being capable of assisting with that. However, as I spoke on this with Heathen Chinese recently as well, the importance of relationships is something that cannot be neglected in this understanding, either. Do you have a relationship with Amesemi? If so, then perhaps you can ask for this assistance in your life. If you don’t, though, then don’t just think you can pray to her and ask her for these things on your initial meeting, so to speak (I’m sure we’ve all had experiences of people asking, or even demanding, things of us on our first meetings with them that we’ve felt are inappropriate…the same things hold true for deities!), or that because she is a goddess who has been rather neglected for the past number of millennia, that she’ll be happy to help just because she wants attention. These things take time to develop, so be aware of that.
As Tata Nkisi Sima Ngango said in the “Honoring or Appropriaton” panel, however, it is always important, if a deity or other divine being shows up for someone that is from another culture, to get information and if necessary permission from people of the culture concerned before pursuing the relationship or claiming anything about it. I think this is really good and important advice to follow assiduously.
Unfortunately, not all deities have been honored continuously, and not all modern cultures still have practices that trace back to ancient cultures where some of these divine beings are honored. The Sudan, where the various Nubian cultures once existed, is now a country that is 97% Islamic, and the remaining 3% is mostly different denominations of Christianity; it has been such since the 6th century, when the area was Christianized, and further then in the 7th when it was Islamized. Are there any indigenous people still there who might honor the older deities? I don’t know, and I don’t know how I would go about finding out either…but, I suspect not. Are there any such individuals now in the U.S. that can be interacted with, even in the largest cities and most diverse areas? It’s also not very likely.
While anything is possible (there may be a devotee of Amesemi still out there somewhere!), I find myself at this dead end as far as trying to engage the modern cultures from whose ancestors the worshippers of Amesemi come. I’m white and I know it, and this makes me very uncomfortable, which is one of the reasons that I have not spoken at particularly great length about Amesemi before. I have tried on a few occasions to discuss these things with African or African-American practitioners, but they have not had much to say in response; most Black Americans are from West African cultures ancestrally, where Amesemi would not have been heard of either. And if I were to travel to Sudan and ask about all of this, given that Sharia law is the law of the land there, things would not go well for me.
So, my biggest and most uncomfortable question is: what the hell am I supposed to do with Amesemi?
Different modern polytheists have often suggested that it’s possible not only to say “no” to a deity that shows up, but also to just say “not now.” Doing so in this case, though, would seem an awful lot like racism to me. I am not going to tell a goddess that I won’t look into her and do what I am able for her simply because she’s not Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Celtic, or from any other culture that I more regularly deal with.
Likewise, I know that she isn’t at all *mine* to “give” to other people, and if she hasn’t appeared to them before, then she can’t be “forced” on anyone (nor should one ever attempt to!).
And further, it is a HUGE mistake for me to think that just because someone might be of more directly African ancestry than I am, that they might have all of the answers for me. “Africa” is a huge continent with more countries than any other on the earth at the moment, and even within each country, there is a diversity of tribes, languages, and cultures: any African culture is not a substitute for nor equivalent to any other, and I realize that deeply. I also don’t want to succumb to the temptations of the stereotype of the “magical Negro,” assuming that any and every Black person I might meet will automatically know more about these things and have better insights on them than I will, even though that is a “positive” stereotype to some extent or other, while it is simultaneously exorcizing and can easily shade into far less savory attitudes…
But, who but magically-engaged Black people might otherwise have some insights on these matters, and be more appropriate to speak with on them? I don’t know…
As you can see by this, I have a conundrum: is this a gross and horrific act of appropriation on my part, which should be stopped? (And if it is, I would be especially interested in hearing so from any People of Color who might read this post.) I know that Amesemi will not be the “late$t $hiny!” deity in my practices that I’ll eventually tire of and forget–Memnon will not allow that to happen, for starters!–and yet, I am painfully aware that this is an odd situation and one that I don’t quite know how to pursue. I also know that Sudan is an area now plagued by attempts at ethnic cleansing, slavery, and other human rights abuses (you know Darfur, right? Guess where that is?), and these cannot be forgotten either in my modern cultus to a deity from that region. It is supremely awkward to be even talking about it at all presently. But, the difficult conversations are often the most important ones to have.
I really would like to speak more about this with some people that I know and trust, but I would especially be interested in hearing ideas and feedback from any Pagans of Color, and especially those from the Black/African-American communities, on what might be a way forward that is responsible and respectful on these issues. I will be contacting some of these directly soon, but I am also very interested in hearing from all that I may not yet know via this post in the comments.
And finally, if you have not seen this short documentary film before, GO WATCH IT RIGHT NOW! It is wonderful, and I show it in my history classes because it is so important and touching.
The Language You Cry In
So, LOTS to think about here. I look forward to an engaged and interesting conversation in the comments, as well as via e-mail for those of you who have my contact details already.
Don’t ever forget that Black History is for more times of the year than just February, and that Black Lives Matter.