"Amen" and "Ashe": African American Protestant Worship and Its West African Ancestor

By Coleman, Will | Cross Currents, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

"Amen" and "Ashe": African American Protestant Worship and Its West African Ancestor


Coleman, Will, Cross Currents


In this essay I am going to explore and reflect on similarities between the expressions of ecstatic African American liturgy and its foundation within West African Yoruba tradition. Initially, it may seem unlikely that there would be much similarity between the two, especially given the difference in geography, history, and the divergent religious symbolism that is expressed in each. On the one hand, African American Protestantism is iconoclastic and places a strong emphasis of Jesus as the exclusive focus of salvation. On the other hand, West African Yoruba religion incorporates what seems to be a pantheon of images and deities into its practices. However, a closer look at the respective liturgies and religious practices reveal a closer kinship that transcends time and space. There is a real ancestral legacy in contemporary African American worship.

In one sense, this should not come as a surprise. Most African Americans in the United States (and. throughout the Americas) are descendants of West African slaves who were taken from ancient nations such as Dahomey, Yoruba and Ibo lands, and the Congo. They brought a sacred cosmology along with them as they traveled through the infamous "Middle Passage." Since the Yoruba belief system is illustrative of most West African belief systems, I shall describe its major features in order to give a better understanding of the sacred cosmos.

This universe is brought into existence and populated by a creator/creatrix. He/She hands its more immediate operations over to intermediate spirits. These are extraordinary personalities or aspects of the creator that are different expressions of a power that permeates the universe and everything within it. In the Yoruba language it is called "Ashe." "Ashe" is something like an all-pervasive spiritual energy. But it is also a term comparable to "Amen." It could be translated as "so be it." But actually, the connotation is more imperative, in the sense of "it definitely shall be so." At any rate, Ashe is the power that animates all of creation; it comes from the source of creation and is available to everything within the universe. In the Yoruba tradition one name for this source is "Olodumare," "the owner of heaven." Olodumare creates the universe and is expressed in a more personal and immanent manner through a variety of other spirits that are known collectively as the "Orisha." Etymologically, orisha mean s "select head" or consciousness. In a sense, therefore, a particular orisha is a specialized form of the consciousness of Olodumare. For example, Eshu Elegbara, the messenger orisha, is the one who "opens the way" between the world of the spirits and that of everyday experience. Eshu is the first to be summoned in religious ceremonies. Sometimes Eshu is called the trickster. It is more accurate, however, to think of Eshu simply as the force of disruption, justice and rectification. Eshu may create challenges in one's life in order to direct one in the proper direction for experiencing the beneficial and interactive will of the creator. There are many other orishas such as Oshun, Yemaya, Shango, Obatala, Ogun, and Oya. Each represents a different aspect of the creative spirit and/or force of nature. Moreover, each is a conveyer of a specific expression of Ashe.

In addition to the creator and the orishas, the West African sacred cosmos includes both familial and tribal spirits of those who no longer live within the physical dimension. These are the ancestors. The ancestors are familial in the sense that they may be the "elevated" spirits of a particular family. They also may become tribal when an entire clan, tribe or nation venerates an extraordinary human being (as for example, the cases of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X within the African American religio-cultural experience). The important observation here is that ancestral spirits are venerated for their great accomplishments in life and out of respect for one's genealogical connection to a past. …

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