shango: from sankofa to stan lee

In the Yoruba belief, “before we are born, we stand before God and choose our own destiny.  We decide before we ever arrive on earth what we will contribute to the world, where we will live, who we will love, and even the day we will die.  However, when we are born into the world, all of our plans and promises are forgotten and so our destiny, in effect, becomes to remember and claim the destiny we mapped out for ourselves before our arrival in this life. [This] reminds us to go back and get it.”* 

If Shango calls, it means that nature and the ancestors are talking. But Shango is an Orisha, a deity. If we are to hear him, we must listen to the beat of the drums, for they are Shango’s symbol. We must listen to the thunder’s clap, the fire’s crackle, the roar of storms and of war, for these are the representations that are synonymous with the red and white Yoruba deity. Shango has announced himself in Jamaica quite a bit lately, and now I cannot help but find his manifestation everywhere. Over twin “Shango” posts, I’ll explore some of my curiosity. Follow me as I explain.

As a Yoruba Orisha, Shango’s worship begins centuries ago in present-day Yorubaland (Nigeria, Benin, Togo) and extends west via the Atlantic slave trade where it survives to this day in Haiti’s Voudou, Brazil’s Candomblé, Cuba’s Santería, and in the Shango Baptists of Trinidad. In all of these religious manifestations, Shango is venerated for his strength and aggression.

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Notably, though, Jamaica is not included on the list of Caribbean countries known for Yoruba practitioners.  Despite the Jamaica Tourist Board’s use of Rastafari culture to sell Jamaica as a vacation pick, very few Jamaicans identify as Rasta (see pie chart). And while +70% of Jamaicans identify as Christian, Jamaica still has citizens who call Shango’s name religiously. And, Shango’s name has been called down a lot in Jamaica as of late.

A couple of months ago, Shango was called to the Jamaican stage not once, but twice. I was unable to experience the amphitheater performance of Shango at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. But at the Philip Sherlock Centre, I did take in ReAshored by the performing arts collective QUILT. “Ignite the blood and set fire to the house that iniquity built” were the words I used to caption an image I uploaded to my IG account (see below). I was so wrapped in the actors’ performances that I failed to focus the lens of my phone’s camera. This blurry red and white image is how I unintentionally recorded a powerful Shango scene. Thinking about it now, it is clear that the Orisha was on my side.

shango quilt red

Portrayed by actor-drummer Donald Mamby, Shango drums at the center of the stage and the center of the photo. Arguably, this stunning Rayon McLean directed show, was a true revolution, with everyone –including the plot– swirling around Shango and his ability to connect to and communicate with his loves, his past, his culture, his people. The QUILT collective never shies from probing the trauma that underlies our identity struggles in this New World. ReAshored explored the big, complex question still plaguing us after all these centuries of living in Jamaica: How can we be reassured, confident, rooted after our forced migration, after our stripped names, after our stolen drums, after our colonial encounter with Europe in the Americas? ReAshored steps in to remind us that our cultural memory is more powerful than Christianity’s punishments. ReAshored reminds us that despite its ban aboard the slave ship, its colonial ban on the plantation, its ban that can be read into the early disdain for Rasta’s nyabinghi, dancehall’s bass, and Jamaica’s Noise Abatement Act, Shango’s drum still beats. Give thanks.

But Shango wasn’t only called to the theater’s stage. Shango can be found in the movie theater too, if you know where to look.  Shango can be seen in the latest and final Avengers installation. Let me explain (and wait for the video at the end). The Marvel superhero known as Thor shares many of Shango’s characteristics. Thor of Norse (Germanic) mythology resembles Shango in just about every way except complexion!

The above left image is the cover of a Marvel comic book. Illustrator Jack Kirby first sketched Thor in 1962. The Thor that graces the comic books and the Thor that has been portrayed by actor Chris Hemsworth on the silver screen are based on the Norse hammer-wielding god of stormy weather and thunder. The image on the right is a Shango/Xango Orisha recreation of Marvel’s Thor done by the Brazilian artist Hugo Canuto (see more here and below). The similarities raise critical questions about the origins of Thor and provoke broader questions about the many other superheroes that are the Avengers.  Are they all modeled after Yoruba Orishas?

It seems quite possible that Africa’s place in Marvel may actually pre-date Black Panther and Wakanda, but we just did not know it.  Are these the risks we run when we do not know our African history? What else don’t we know or remember?

If you haven’t yet seen Avengers: Endgame, see it. Maybe one day (sooner than we think) a full Orisha film will grace movie theater screens world-wide. Imagine that!

Let us give reassurance to the ancestors that we will remember their names. Let us claim our destiny and go back and get their knowledge. Theater and film experiences don’t just offer us entertainment value, they give us opportunities to immerse ourselves in representative past, present, and future realities.  But Shango’s reach powers beyond the theater as well. So even if you missed QUILT’s performance, or if you missed the Edna Manley staging, or even if you do not choose to see the Avengers, Shango still beats a drum in the thunder of the storm and in the red heat of fire. As the saying goes, listen and you shall hear; seek and you shall find. Sankofa, a Twi word from Ghana, reminds us to go back and get it.

*The source for the opening quote comes from this website. You may read more about Yoruba beliefs there.

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