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In the photo above, from November 2015, Makota Valdina Pinto — an esteemed elder in the Angola Candomblé tradition — offers popcorn in a rite of cleansing and blessing to participants in an annual march for religious tolerance and respect for Afro-Brazilian human rights. In Candomblé, popcorn is a sacred food of Kavungo/Omolû, the divinity of earth, healing and deep ancestral wisdom. Every year, Makota Valdina joins Iyalorixá Valnizia de Ayrá and hundreds of leaders and devotees of Candomblé, Umbanda and other Afro-Brazilian religions for a day-long celebration/protest in the Engenho Velho da Federação neighborhood of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.
On January 14, at an Evensong service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California, I gave a brief reflection on connections between the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé and the southern freedom movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here is the text:
The Fierce Urgency of Now: A Reflection on Candomblé and King
Good afternoon friends. It is a great pleasure for me to be with you today, in this place, for this Evensong service. I come representing several traditions of action, reflection and worship.
I am the daughter of activist historians. My parents, Vincent and Rosemarie Freeney Harding, were friends and colleagues of Martin and Coretta King, and they were working in the southern freedom movement when I was born. So, I am also a child of the Black South and of the particular religious understandings of that ethos – which include a meaning of compassion, community, justice and discernment at the heart of African American religiosity. Finally, I am also an ebômi (an elder initiate) in the Afro-Brazilian tradition of Candomblé, a practice I have studied and embraced for 25 years.
In the short time I have before you, I would like to say some things about the way I see King and Candomblé connecting in the concept of “the fierce urgency of now.”
Candomblé is one of several dozen religious traditions of the Black Atlantic world, developed by enslaved West and Central Africans and their descendants in the Americas in resistance to slavery and its aftermath.
Like many indigenous religions of the world, Candomblé is a tradition of reciprocity, of balance, of the cultivation of right relationship among human beings; and between humans and all other living things in the universe – the animals, the plants, the forests, the waters, the mountains, the birds, the ancestral energies that guide and protect us, and the sacred life force that inhabits everything.
What Candomblé and the movement that King led have in common is a shared assumption of the fundamental humanity of all people, of Black people — something the modern West has generally not assumed.
And beyond this basic assumption, both Candomblé and the Black American religious orientation that undergirded the civil rights movement are deeply concerned for how people should and can develop and maintain their humanity even under generations of assault.
King spoke of “the fierce urgency of now” on at least two occasions. Once, in the 1963 March on Washington, he used the phrase when he warned that there was no time to be gradual about racial justice in the United States of America; and again in 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, where, exactly a year before he was assassinated, he gave his first major address against US imperialism and the war in Vietnam. My father drafted that sermon for King and it reflects the concerns of both men for the interrelatedness of injustice in our nation – the way white supremacy feeds militarism and violence and how they both sustain the materialism that has created immense and obscene poverty in our country and globally.
For King and the movement he led, “the fierce urgency of now” was a call. That call was related to the religious orientation that guided the movement. And that orientation included and cultivated the ability to see deeply into what is the matter, as the great historian of religion Charles H Long would say. That is, how the refusal to come to terms with Black people as human beings (not as property, not as 3/5 of a person, not as 2nd class citizens, not as redlined, disenfranchised or criminalized communities); the refusal to acknowledge and honor the wisdom and agency of Black folks as human beings is at the heart of the matter of the crisis of the modern world.
Brazilian Candomblé, Vodou in Haiti, Lucumí/Santeria in Cuba, Shango Baptists in Trinidad, Winti in Suriname and the African American religion that nurtured the freedom movement are ritual traditions that start from the assumption of Black people’s inalienable humanity and the familial relationship of that humanity to all creation and to the divine.
For King and the freedom movement, this assumption of Black humanity was embodied in the struggle for the expansion of democracy in the United States, such that the human rights of people of African descent would be fully recognized and acknowledged in the social, political, economic and ritual structures of our society. In other words, the struggle was (and is) for the matter of how human beings should relate to each other. And in many ways, that relationship was modeled by the movement as a meaning of family – which has nothing to do with perfection or liking people all of the time, but is a means of recognizing that we all have a right to be here (in the world), and that we are here as part of a larger whole (a society, a human experience). And all of that right is simply because you, I, we, were born.
For Candomblé practitioners, who include, by the way, an abundance of Black women at the apex of leadership, the recognition of the humanity of devotees happens in the context of ritual communities (called terreiros) which, in many senses, are extended, radically inclusive African families reformulated and re-aggregated in the face of centuries of dispersion and loss.
Not surprisingly, the central rite of Candomblé worship – a circle dance with singing and percussive sound designed to call the natural forces, the divine and the ancestors into the presence of the gathered human community – is related to the African American ring shout tradition that blends spirituals and our own circle dance in a similar communion.
The fierce urgency of now continues as a call for the recognition of Black humanity, of shared humanity. It is also the urgency of re-membering what has been dis-membered. It is the urgency of mothering. The urgency of caring. The urgency of family. It is the urgency of recalling how to be human in the world. The freedom movement models this fierceness, this creativity, this urgency for us. We learn it from King. We learn it too from Candomblé and from all the traditions of deep human interconnection that have sustained the world so far.
by Rachel Elizabeth Harding