At Black History Month Event, Wellesley’s Liseli Fitzpatrick Examines Impact of Slavery on the African Spirit

Liseli Fitzpatrick
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“As we commemorate Black History Month, February 2021, it is crucial for me to state that Black history is everywhere,” said Liseli Fitzpatrick, visiting lecturer in Africana studies at Wellesley, during the opening of her February 18 colloquium, “Slavery and the dis-Orí-entation of the African.” “Black history is infused in our veins, environment, speech, food, songs, dance, musical instruments, healing practices, architectural infrastructure, technological innovations and advancements, fashion, and the arts.”

In her talk—one of several Black History Month events organized by Harambee House and the Office of Intercultural Education (OIE)—Fitzpatrick examined the impact slavery had on the African spirit, as well as offered “redemptive ways of healing and empowerment using African cosmological thought and sacred practices,” drawing on ancestral wisdom and embodied knowledge.

Fitzpatrick explained that in the Yoruba language and cosmology of West Africa, “orí” means spiritual and physical head—the seat of human consciousness. “Without knowledge of orí,” Fitzpatrick said, “we lose our moorings, footing, grounding, and subsequently, our capacity to actualize our true paths and purpose…[To] know orí is to know self.”

During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Africans were uprooted from their homelands, severed from their communities, dehumanized, and enslaved in the Americas by European colonizers, which resulted in what Fitzpatrick theorized as the “dis-orí-entation” of the African in her 2018 dissertation. “Europeans made every attempt to break the spirits and identity of Africans through brutal and terrorizing acts, from physical bondage to psychological torture and manipulation,” Fitzpatrick said.

Communication and connection with spirit is integral within African cosmology, she said, and involves ritual practice that includes divination, ancestor and nature veneration, music, movement, and manifestation. In an effort to exert complete control over the enslaved Africans, enslavers prohibited them from participating in these rituals. “Enslaved and colonized Indigenous people were forced to abandon their sacred cosmologies and adopt colonial religion,” Fitzpatrick said. “I posit that the central problem that has plagued Africans of the continent and throughout the diaspora is not merely the color of skin, but rather the wanton violation and suppression of the African spirit and spiritual practices.”

She said her talk was a continued call “to ‘re-orí-ent’ and realign ourselves with the spiritual wisdom and resilience of our ancestors by honoring and tapping into our generative and creative spirits.” She further stated that it was due to “the indomitable spirit of our ancestors that we are here today—we owe it to them and to ourselves to not only survive but to thrive. All has not been lost.”

After her presentation, Fitzpatrick took questions from the audience. Chipo Dendere, assistant professor of Africana studies, said she had been surprised to find that many of her students from Africa had not learned about any African countries other than their own when they were in high school. “What can we do to increase intra-diaspora knowledge?” she asked.

Adwoa Antwi ’21, who is from Ghana, added: “I remember in my first days at Wellesley being introduced to my own history that I didn’t know much about.”

In response, Fitzpatrick said she thinks they are already doing what they should be doing—teaching and learning the history from an Afrocentric non-hegemonic perspective—and adds that Indigenous and ingenious ways must be explored and employed to deepen and expand the information our children receive, and make a radical departure from “the vestiges of colonial education.” She quoted Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Harambee House and OIE have planned several events for students and the Wellesley community to honor Black History Month, including a conversation with poet and activist Aja Monet; a screening of the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson; and a presentation by Diane C. Fujino, professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, called “Study, Struggle, and Radical Love: Afro-Asian Solidarities Building Towards Liberation.”