5 Black Mystics of History
This Black History Month, we've got mystics on the mind! These five movers and shakers (including one actual Shaker!) all made huge contributions to the melting pot of modern witchcraft and spirituality, leaving legacies that reach far beyond the history of magic. Obviously their stories are WAY too big to fit into just one article, so we added lots of links for further study and suggestions for honoring their memories! And if you'd like to purchase any of the books mentioned, please look for them first at your local Black-owned bookstore.
Sun Ra (1914-1993)- Cosmic Composer
It doesn't get more mystic than naming yourself after the Egyptian God of the Sun and claiming to be from Saturn, and that's exactly what Sun Ra did. A musical prodigy, Sun Ra's legacy of innovative jazz music involved synthesizers and elaborate costumes evoking both ancient Egypt and outer space- a theme we may now recognize as "Afrofuturism". In his biography "Space Is The Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra", John F. Szwed introduces Sun Ra as "a Gemini [born] on a day with a doubled number", May 22nd, to be exact... maybe. Sun Ra was notorious for giving whimsical answers to straightforward questions and declined to acknowledge a past that he had no interest in. He preferred to move forward, honoring his fantastical persona as his true self. Szwed records his words:
"Me and time never got along so good-we just sort of ignore each other. . . . I came from somewhere else, but it [the Creator's voice] reached me through the maze and dullness of human existence. But if I hadn't been, it couldn't have reached me and I'd be like the rest of the people on the planet who are dancing in their ignorance. . . . I came from somewhere else, where I was part of something that is so wonderful that there are no words to express it. . . . I never felt like I was part of this planet. I felt that all this was a dream, that it wasn't real. And suffering . . . I just couldn't connect. . . . My mind would never accept the fact that is like it's supposed to be."
Sun Ra was transcendent, untethered to earthly descriptors, and his confidence in his alien-ness mostly revolved around a vision he had in 1937... or the 1940s, or possibly some time after 1950:
"My whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up... I wasn't in human form... I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn... they teleported me and I was down on stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools... the world was going into complete chaos... I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That's what they told me."
The world did listen. Sun Ra's legacy cannot be overstated, and has thankfully been preserved in the biography above, the film of the same name "Space is the Place" (in which Sun Ra, returning from his travels around outer space, is on a mission to transport the Earth's Black population to a new planet), his many experimental videos and recorded live performances, albums, and in Afrofuturism itself.
Honoring Sun Ra: Transcend. No seriously, try to meditate on shedding your mortal limitations and see the future as he saw it. Also, invest in Afrofuturism. We've had enough of whitewashed dystopia stories, right? Time to get honest with the future we've been creating, and the future we COULD be creating. In fact, the Zora! festival hosted an Afrofuturism course which you can find the syllabus for here. As an offering for his extraterrestrial energy, Mercury's Brood is an astrology zine and anthology in its Kickstarter phase, "a Black, queer-led time capsule deconstructing and reconstructing narratives".
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)- Woman In Total Control of Herself
Zora Neale Hurston's electric personality was and is way too big to fit into a blurb in an article- so it's good that amongst her other amazing works she left an autobiography called "Dust Tracks On A Road". In this autobiography she explains some of her feelings on religion and spirituality:
"Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels. The springing of the yellow line of the morning out of the misty deep of dawn is glory enough for me. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is the matter, ever-changing, ever-moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe does not need finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance."
A prolific writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston described herself as a folklorist and published works about Hoodoo practices in the Caribbean ("Tell My Horse") and African-American traditions and songs from the American South ("Mules and Men"). She was a big, loud, wonderful presence, and she knew it. As she said, "I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive."
Honoring Zora Neale Hurston: Every year, Hurston's hometown of Eatonville, Florida (the nation's first incorporated Black township) hosts the Zora! festival of music and culture in her memory. They also offer programming year round on topics like Race and Economic Realities in 21st Century America, and they accept donations here!
Harriet Wilson (1825-1900)- Massachusetts Medium
Another strong voice who left us her own narrative, Harriet Wilson is often credited as the first documented African-American novelist, author of the originally-anonymous "Our N*g: Sketches From The Life Of A Free Black" which pointed out the hypocrisy of the "antislavery" North (Wilson herself was an "indentured servant" as a child, a euphemism to be sure). Her work was uncovered in 1981, and as Nikki Hall says in her article honoring Wilson's legacy: "Wilson’s 123-year erasure from American literary history meant that her role as the first Black woman novelist remained invisible to budding writers for over a century. Had this not been the case, her work would have achieved the word-of-mouth recognition combined with academic rigor that lifts many underrepresented writers from their darkrooms..."
During her time traveling throughout Massachusetts for work, Wilson joined the budding Spiritualist movement, which is often regarded as a thoroughly American and modern religion exploring the mechanical operations of Spirit. She was known as a gifted trance medium, and even opened her own Spiritualist school (called a "lyceum")- a rarity at the time for a Black woman to be teaching white children, even in the "progressive" North. In fact, Wilson's school was decidedly more progressive than most of its peers, allowing children to actively participate in mediumship, which was a big shake-up for the fairly conservative movement. Unfortunately she was eventually ousted and replaced with two white men, but she continued offering her medium services from her home until her death in 1900. This was after, however, she aired her grievances with her treatment within Spiritualist circles in her speech at the "National Mass Meeting of Radicals, Socialists, Infidels, Materialists, Free Religionists and Free Thinkers". A strong voice, indeed.
Honoring Harriet Wilson: Wilson's long-delayed legacy reminds us how important representation is in literature and media. The Hurston/Wright Foundation supports emerging Black writers through workshops, mentorships, and financial assistance and accepts donations here! In Charleston, South Carolina the annual Black Ink Book Festival uplifts Black authors and creators and is looking for corporate sponsors here.
Rebecca Cox Jackson (1795-1871)- Black Girl Magic
Rebecca Cox Jackson also left us an autobiography telling her story the way she lived it, called "Gifts of Power: The Writing of Rebecca Jackson", a remarkable feat especially given that so much of her life story revolved around her determination to learn to read and write. Born to a free family somewhere around 1795, Jackson was tasked with minding her younger siblings and missed out on getting an education herself. Later, she spontaneously earned the divine gift of literacy after discovering that her brother, Joseph, was altering the letters she dictated to him.
During a thunderstorm in 1830 Jackson had a true Tower moment, when the usually terrifying lightning brought on an epiphany of peace, joy, and psychic visions. She understood this as the power of God and threw herself into religious devotion, eventually finding the pretty-cool-for-Christians Shakers. This is what Akasha Gloria Hull (another venerable Black mystic and feminist) says about Jackson's Christianity in her review of "Gifts of Power":
"Jackson's conduit to her power was evangelical religion. However, once awakened, she operated in ways common to all psychics-mystics-witches-whatever. She mind read (called by her the 'gift of discerning') and intuitively 'read' people/situations in general; heard guiding voices; mentally communicated with other women; saw visions; went into trances; healed individuals who were physically hurt or afflicted; experienced séance mediumship and contacted the spirits of dead people. In addition, she had premonitions of the future, could 'bind' persons from speaking, and felt the significance of numerology... From early childhood she was an accomplished dreamer, both waking and sleeping, and interpreted and re-interpreted her dreams according to advanced techniques of personal referencing rather than through dream-book symbolism. One of her most arresting narrative passages recounts an out-of-body, death experience in which she 'passes out at her feet' and journeys to the banks of the Jordan.... One does not doubt that Jackson's Christianity is real. Nevertheless, her functional modes are reminiscent of the way Black/Third World people and women have practiced ancient, outlawed traditions behind more acceptable facades. That she was still called 'crazy' and 'witch' hints at the loneliness and ostracism which keeping her gifts entailed- an outsider status rendered even more acute by her race, sex, and class."
Honoring Rebecca Cox Jackson: Jackson's life's work culminated in "The Philadelphia Family", a Shaker collective of primarily Black women living in a large house and practicing a combination of "Shaker theology and Black female praying band traditions". She and Rebecca Perot, her "companion/protegeé" (and possible lover of over 30 years, though it is always dicey applying modern terms to historic figures) dedicated themselves to creating spiritual spaces for Black women, and similar spaces are alive and in need of support today too. You Good, Sis? is "a collective for Black and Brown women and femmes looking for a mental, spiritual and physical check in" and they accept donations right here!
Miriam (1943-present) and Oswan (1943-1995) Chamani- Voodoo Visionaries
Although Oswan passed away in 1995, 77-year-old Priestess Miriam Chamani reminds us that history is alive and well and happening all around us. Raised in Mississippi, she was training as a nurse in Chicago and was a bishop of the Angel Angel All Nations Spiritual Church when she met Oswan (a practicing Priest of Obeah). After receiving a very specific card reading instructing her to be with this man, the pair relocated to New Orleans and worked in Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo and the Voodoo Museum while they gained popularity (and clients) as practitioners. In her biography "A Brief History of Priestess Miriam and The Voodoo Spiritual Temple", Chamani explains that before opening the Temple, she usually preferred to let Oswan give the readings while she prepared the medicines and Mojo bags (her training as a nurse coming in handy for physical and spiritual healing). But in 1991, a group of women specified that they wanted readings from Miriam, not Oswan:
"I freaked out a little bit... I told the young lady the first thing I saw in the bones. She started screaming and then, she asked me how I knew that. That was the beginning of me taking the seat as a reader. I am very thankful for that day. Everything happens at the right time. Sometimes we do not understand that purpose until later."
Eventually they opened their own temple: The Voodoo Spiritual Temple. After Oswan's passing, Miriam continued growing the temple and is now one of the most well-known Voodoo Priestesses in the world. It's almost impossible to list all of her accolades to date: she's been featured in documentaries and publications about Voodoo, crafted rituals for celebrities, and consulted on Voodoo practices in films. But she takes her responsibility seriously:
"Once you have become a practitioner of Voodoo or spiritualism you become a kind of receiver tuned into universal intelligence. You become more focused when you receive the gift of having many minds and many thoughts, formed throughout the times. Some of them are very ancient and they all flow through you. Each person sitting in a leadership position, like the president, is affected by the many other voices that have sat in the same seat. These voices also work through the present president; he is not acting only on his vision of things. It is the same with the churches or the spiritual order. We are not operating just because we became priests, priestesses, ministers, or preachers, there are mind patterns that came long before us that are the voice of the inspiration that works through each of us."
Honoring Miriam and Oswan: The Voodoo Spiritual Temple accepts donations for their upkeep here
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