KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and Professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and Hebah Ferrag, assistant director of research at USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture about the role of the church, prayer and rituals in the Black Lives Matter movement.
The following excerpts from the interview have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: In our earlier conversation with Dr. Yolanda Pierce, she noted the Black Lives Matter movement, in her mind, started as a secular movement, would you agree?
Melina Abdullah: “I don't know if I would call it a secular movement. I think that we may not have recognized explicitly the spiritual power and groundedness of Black Lives Matter and that may have happened in earnest. The recognition of it may have happened in earnest about six months to a year in. But I think that it was always there. It was always foundational to who we were.”
Do you remember how the movement shifted into a more spiritual direction?
Abdullah: “Absolutely, there was always some component of spirituality. So I think about the first night that we gathered and the summoning of ancestors to space and the very palpable spiritual energy that circulated through the group as we stood in a circle at St. Elmo Village, which is probably one of the most spiritual spaces in the city. It's a Black artist and organizing community in mid-city, and, we stood under the moon and pledged to build a movement.
I think in those moments, there was a spiritual energy and we acknowledged it, but we didn't really acknowledge it as what brought us together. I think that we were also moving in the streets and moving really as a push back to the theft of life, the theft of Black life.
And a few months in, as we began to be more deliberate and thoughtful about what we were doing with our organizing, as we go pour libation at the ocean, we began to recognize the importance of spiritual energy and the fact that it had always been there, but we didn't always recognize it collectively.”
When did you see this movement emerge as a spiritual movement?
Hebah Farrag: “So I'm going to step back and start with this question of BLM as secularizing the civil rights movement. Because I've seen this argument posed several times. And the question is often posed as ‘is BLM a spiritual movement?’
And I really believe when we pose the question that way, we're ignoring what's at the center of many progressive social movements like Black Lives Matter, which is the inherent nature of human dignity, and the duty to fight against injustice, and oppression that threatens that inherent dignity. Those are spiritual values that lie at the heart of almost all faith traditions, and are often formed based on religious, spiritual belief systems.
It's the interplay of our spiritual beliefs and our politics where that's formed. And it reminds me of a quote from civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs; she said something like to make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions, they must make a spiritual leap and to have a deeper connection with their humanity. In order to transform the world, they must transform themselves.
I also believe that questions that point to the lack of faith in BLM movements tend to ignore the violent history of white supremacy embedded within institutions of traditional faith. That for example, stripped Black people of divine salvation. The violence at the hands of traditional institutions, forced conversion, native boarding schools, the vilification of native and indigenous and African belief systems, painting them as demonic, devil worshipping, criminalizing native beliefs to the point that entire Socratic belief systems were created to hide that belief like Santeria, and Voodoo. And to this day, practitioners often refuse to speak openly about those belief systems because of the persecution they've faced.
And in that frame, Black Lives Matter chapters and affiliated groups with the movement the reclamation and expression of Native and African spiritual beliefs and practices. It's not just a spiritual act. It's a radical spiritual act.”
Can you talk about how you begin a protest? Names of ancestors evoked, prayers said for those who haven't had a chance to participate. How do you characterize those moments?
Abdullah: “We generally ask that people not film the openings of our events and demonstrations. And part of that is the demonization of the way in which we acknowledge spiritual energy.
So I have seen some of those articles, some of those critiques of pouring libation, which is a centuries old tradition among African people, acknowledging that when bodies are stolen, spirits still remain. So there was that consciousness but more than that consciousness, as we pour libation, and engage in spiritual work, we actually don't want that disrupted in any way by filming because we believe that the filming actually disrupts some of the spiritual energy. All Black Lives Matter meetings and protests begin with the pouring of libation.”
Can you explain the point of libations?
Abdullah: “So what it looks like is the pouring of water into Earth, the pouring of water into plants, the pouring of water into flowers into something that represents the sanctity of life and Earth.
The way that we choose to pour libation most often recognizes first those whose bodies have been stolen through state sanctioned violence. So we call names like Kenneth Ross Jr., Waukesha Wilson, Kisha Michael, Michelle Shirley...and so many others. In Los Angeles County, we know that there are 610 names that we could call over the last seven years who we fight on behalf of. So we begin by calling those names.
And then we begin calling the names of those who we call our warrior ancestors. So we believe that Black Lives Matter is but one point on a long struggle for Black freedom. And so when we think about the work that people like Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz —Malcolm X — did, we summon them into the work as well. And we offer prayer that we are good heirs, that we honor them with our work that we honor our ancestors with our work.
And then... we ask people to call on a bloodline or spirit line ancestor in their own lives, so your grandmother, great grandmother or grandfather, uncle. And you call those names. We usually have whoever's pouring the libation, say the name and have the entire crowd, repeat the name. And then we say the word ‘ashay’, which is a Yoruba word that means ‘Amen.’ And that's how we open all of our Black Lives Matter demonstrations and gatherings.”
How would you describe the feeling of being in that space?
Abdullah: “Until I just said some of those names, this interview felt off to me. But it is a grounding. It reminds us why we're there, that we're not there for the speeches, or the show of it, or even just to, you know, yell at Jackie Lacey or the police chief. We're there for a reckoning. We're there because spirit commands that we be there.
Black Lives Matter is run through the love of the people. We are not paid organizers. We all have different jobs, but we call this...the conscious reclamation of Black Lives Matter as a spiritual movement. We call this our sacred duty. This is our sacred duty. It's what we're summoned in to do. So once we call the libations, start calling the names and pour the libation, it kind of brings everything into alignment and you can feel the shift in energy among the folks who are gathered.”