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Spiritual Activism: On the Streets, at the Shrines

7-year-old protester, Wynta-Amor Rogers, marches for justice on Long Island at the Black Lives Matter protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The video of her chanting “no justice, no peace” went viral. (Photo from multiple sources.)

The Rally

A little girl marches. Her face contorts. Her little legs struggle to keep up. Her fists raised in the air, she is angry. She wants justice. Her small voice unheard over the crowd. The chants: No justice; no peace. Documented. She becomes iconic.

Be mindful of the children!
Watch them
Listen to them
Seek their wisdom
They are closest to the soul
They are closest to the source
They are closest to GOD

At home, my parents had created a sanctuary, a place where I was free to be myself: reading, creating, laughing as loud as I wanted. Home was our tiny apartment in The Walt Whitman housing projects of Fort Greene Brooklyn—an oasis from the outside world. I was loved. The end. I was over-loved. My mother and father wanted more than just what the public school across the street could offer. My father, who had not long returned from a trip to Africa when I was around three, could not bear the thought of sending his child to a regular “White man’s” school. So he conspired with my then 20-year-old brother to send me to a school founded and run by young Black power militants who were conscious, hopeful, and full of fight and fire. This is one of the two great interventions my brother made in my life at a very young age.

Kateria helping her nieces (Brother Akin’s daughters) with what Sasa called Home Study, instead of homework, 1975

The Uhuru Sasa Shule (Freedom Now School) was African-centered, and their mission of social justice education focused on making sure we loved our Black selves as descendants of the first people. My enrollment in a school that prided themselves on their commitment to “nation building” meant that days were filled with learning about African Kings and Queens before the transatlantic slave trade. While my classmates and I did indeed receive our math lessons using abacuses and manipulative rods, our social studies lessons consisted primarily of the historical plight of Black people in the Americas. We learned about how White supremacy impacted Black people from the moment we were stolen from our homeland. This has been and always will be ingrained in me.

I grew up watching not-so-old footage of Black people resisting, as well as being bitten by police dogs and hosed by cops. Protest comes in many forms. For some of us that have experienced the overwhelming emotional and physical trauma of raised voices, aching pains, and the threat of police brutality, returning to the streets may pose challenges both mentally and spiritually. In my case, I was very young when I first encountered the art of resistance through protests, marches, and demonstrations in 1970s New York City. This introduction was not voluntary; it formed a mandatory part of my early childhood curriculum. While the school’s goal to create revolutionary babies may have been well-intentioned and seemed necessary, for many of us kids who actually experienced it, the environment was unpleasant and even traumatizing.

On the one hand, I’m sure I know more about the role of White supremacy in the oppression of Black people than I would have learned in a typical public school education in North America. On the other hand, this truth does not make any of these childhood experiences less difficult. Would I change any of these experiences if I had the chance? Absolutely. I would erase the trauma of witnessing corporal punishment—when the teachers beat students with belts and electrical cords. I would change the economic conditions that forced us to be served “half rations” when the school didn’t have enough food to feed us for lunch. I would confront the patriarchal standards that shamed my mother for wearing a wig, frowned upon by male teachers for not being Black enough compared to “natural” hair styles.

I cope with the pain of these contradictions by reminding myself that I’d be a totally different person now if I hadn’t experienced much of what I did. I’m not sure I would even be a spiritualist if the harsh teachings during my youth had not impacted me so uniquely. This Black radical schooling—albeit flawed, misogynistic, and overly focused on violent rhetoric—combined with my experiences in the Black church to birth my spiritual practice.

All Praises Due to the Creator

My home life, which couldn’t have been more different from my school life, included attending a Black Baptist church every weekend. Our pastor preached of a White Jesus who would save us poor Black folks from a life of servitude and oppression here on Earth, only to be rewarded one day in Heaven after we died. The lessons I learned at Sasa (the school’s nickname) and the lessons I learned at church always felt contradictory even in my child’s mind. While Sasa taught us that Black liberation could be achieved in the material world, the church told us to pray for salvation in the afterlife. While the school emphasized that Black people were active agents in their own liberation, the church pushed the concept of being “saved” by the outside entity of God and Jesus.

Still, church was a place that I enjoyed immensely once I was allowed to join the junior gospel choir.

THE SONGS!!

In church, I learned to harmonize freely and electively. I learned to play the tambourine. I savored the flavors of the most amazing Black food cooked with love from the hands of Black women with roots embedded in the South. In church, I was fascinated by watching adults “catch” the Holy Spirit. Black folks often called this “getting happy,” a phrase I loved saying. I never dared laugh at the dance, gyrations, and convulsions like most kids my age. Nor was I afraid. I was completely yet secretly enthralled!

The inner child within my child-self was keenly aware of the false narratives of the preacher on his pulpit. The church taught us early on that authoritative men were always right, especially members of the clergy. I experienced childhood as living in two worlds: one of protests, lapas (skirts), and geles (headties) and the other filled with praising the Lord, donning white gloves, and attending first Sunday communion so that we could literally eat the body of Christ.

Ultimately, I learned to adapt to moving between these different places: the church, the school, and the projects where I grew up. Unaware of my gift at a tender age of four or five, I created Dada, an imaginary friend, to help my little brain cope with the duality of my life. Back then being a precocious child was difficult to navigate (and the glasses didn’t help), so Dada acted as both sister and protector.

Black Gods

Artwork by Malik Seneferu. “Mobile Shrine,” mixed media sculpture.

Part of the Black Power curriculum at Sasa were lessons in Black spirituality. The school didn’t separate church and state, and our teachers were vocal about the existence of Black African Gods. We learned the language of our ancestors, poured libations for our ancestors, and prayed over our food to give thanks to the Creator. We also adopted the celebration of Black holidays like Kwanzaa and Black Solidarity Day, rather than Christmas and Thanksgiving.

When we weren’t called by our newly assigned African names at Sasa, we were referred to as “dada,” which means “sister” in Kiswahili.1 I learned much later that Dada is a Yoruba Orisa who rules the head or brain and is believed to be Sango’s older sister, as well as the protector of unborn children. She is also known to live in the heads of all humans and is with you from the time you’re born until the day you die (much like a master teacher).2 After my initiation into the Lukumi tradition as an adult, I cried when I learned about her relevance and how connected I was to spirit at such a very young age. I created Dada to care for me, and she did an amazing job. She watched out for me. She protected me.

People often characterized me as “mature for my age”. Family members told me I spoke at an early age and could read before many of my neighborhood friends. I suspect my development had more to do with Dada and less to do with just being precocious. I believe that my maturity was Dada communing with me and through me to other spirits.

Artwork by William Rhodes. “Gone Mother,” found object, paint, photo and neon.

After my brother’s sudden death in 2008, I’ve often wondered about the role he played in bridging the connections between activism and spirituality in my life. The first pivotal moment occurred when he introduced my parents to Sasa, which he helped build with other former Black Panther comrades, Black student movement members, and Pan African nationalists. The second came when he introduced me to the doctrine of Yoruba Lukumi tradition.

Sasa not only introduced me to the experiences of activism and knowledge of self, but it also introduced me to women who would one day be role models within a matriarchal community of scholars, healers, and spiritualists. These women—my teachers as a child—would soon return to my life as elders and godparents to help form and mentor me. I strongly believe that nothing happens by chance or coincidence—only by the guiding path of God, spirit, Orisa, source, and soul.

Kateria and Brother Akin Bomani in 2006

I loved my brother, and I believe he knew his mission in life—his soul’s work—was to shift the world by promoting resistance and African spirituality. I would like to think that he was here to make me who I am today, a spiritual person with a social justice background.

The universe’s timing is impeccable. Nothing happens by chance;there are no coincidences. Every strategic move I’ve made since my brother’s death has been with the blessing of my ancestral collective and his spirit leading the way. I know it. I feel it. This special communication I have with what the Lukumi tradition calls Egun, our ancestors, has my brother’s flair embodied in it. So with his spiritual leadership, I continue to pick and fight battles from a place not in the actual street, where my memories are saturated with trauma and fear, but in my home, safe and surrounded by spirit.

The pandemic and the necessary uprisings that have occurred of late have bolstered my prayer and spiritual routines. Although the Sasa school sought to indoctrinate me into the Black radical tradition of revolution through protest, my experience in church and with Dada shifted that trajectory. While the teachings at Sasa focused on militant struggles for freedom, I pivoted my energy to a source of power within myself.

When you’re a spiritualist, it’s often difficult to discern the difference between the justified warnings of spirit and the voice of ego, which often keeps one operating from a space of fear. Are Black people ever going to be free from White Supremacy? The ego says no. The ego says stay at home and hide. The ego tells me to try to make my grown children afraid of boogie men. A large part of my journey as a Lukumi priest, spiritualist, and Iya, has led me to face myself, my ego, and thus my fears in order to strike the right balance between my radical social justice upbringing and my instinctual connection to spirit. It might not sit right with certain folks that I have chosen to fight the power through spiritual teachings and wisdom, but I believe there is no right or wrong way to struggle for freedom.

I’ve chosen to use my spiritual practice as my weapon of choice against White supremacy, oppression, and police violence. Through prayer, gratitude practice, and spiritual coaching of those in need of upliftment, my mission is clear: to raise the vibrational frequency of those who seek and need my support. There are people out here just like me; people who have gifts, much like I had Dada, which need to be found and nurtured. There are many of us who were guided to fight for justice with the assistance of our Gods and guides, rather than signs and slogans. At the end of the day, not every front is seen. Some of us work in the background, with the shadows, and with spirit. While some battles may be fought on the street, some are fought at the shrines, and all are essential to attaining freedom.


Kateria Niambi has a professional career spanning over thirty years and within every niche area in the field of marketing; most notably and namely as a subject matter expert in school branding and digital marketing. However at a very young age, Kateria connected with spirit on a different plane than others. A plane that didn’t manifest in huge and amazing ways until she was much older and drawn to the African spiritual tradition of her ancestors as her foundation for worship. As a spiritualist and priest in the Yoruba Lukumi tradition, Kateria eventually found her path to alignment with Source and everything that comes with that: a greater desire to help others on their personal journey as she travels on her own. Now as The Hungry Medium, her goal is sincere; to inspire folks to make a shift. Whether it’s lowering or eliminating the consumption of animal products to fight disease or feeling “lighter” in our everyday lives, she hopes to impart techniques she uses to move in this world with intention and prayer.


Return to table of contents for Spirituality and Survival: Imaginative Freedoms for Abolition Futures.


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Notes

  1. Tok-Pisin.com/Swahili, https://www.tok-pisin.com/swahili-translator/define.php?swahili=dada&id=Nzkz.
  2. Dianne M. Stewart, “The Orisa House that Afro-Catholics Built: Africana Antecedents to Yoruba Religious Formation in Trinidad,” in Afro-Catholic Festivals in the Americas: Performance, Representation, and the Making of Black Atlantic Tradition, ed. Cécile Fromont (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019), 140-162.