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Your Ancestors Are Your Best Friends: Juju Bae’s LGBTQ-Inclusive Approach to African Traditional Religion

Like many young Black people in the United States, I was raised in the church. Every Sunday I went to a three-hour service full of worship and fellowship at a Baptist mega-church in North City St. Louis. As I grew older, I began to come into my womanhood and questioned if I had a place in the only environment I ever knew as a person of trans experience. Even beyond that, I questioned if Christianity was the proper faith system for any Black American. While scrolling through Tumblr one night, I stumbled across the terms “ancestral veneration” and “Hoodoo.” I wanted to learn more about these peculiar words, so I asked friends if they knew anything about African Traditional Religion (ATR), which includes the practices of Ifa, Santeria, Voodoo/Vodun, and Hoodoo. Some flinched thinking I was getting into “Devil worship” while others were on similar journeys of connecting with their Black indigeneity. One friend recommended “A Little Juju,” a podcast hosted by the Oshun priestess and educator Juju Bae.

Baltimore born and raised spiritual practitioner Juju Bae wants everyone to feel connected to their ancestors as well as themselves. Her podcast began in 2018 and quickly garnered attention from people around the world. What drew me to this podcast was her immediate inclusion of queer and trans folks. In the premiere episode, Juju makes it clear that if one does not support LGBTQ folks, this is not the space for them. As a queer woman herself, she makes it known that bigotry is not accepted around her. Throughout my journey of discoverance in ATR and any modality of faith, I have been met with a decent amount of prejudice, whether it be transphobia or homophobia. It was refreshing to find a leader in this space who was welcoming to everyone.

Growing up Catholic, Juju’s spirituality looked very different than it does today, but when Beyonce dropped Lemonade and embodied the orisha Oshun, Juju had to learn more. This led her to own spiritual journey that led to her becoming an Oshun priestess. In her recently released debut book, The Book of Juju: Africana Spirituality for Healing, Liberation, and Self-Discovery, she invites everyone to connect with their ancestors and with themselves.

The day before the book release, Juju Bae and I connected over Zoom to talk about all things The Book of Juju, spiritual practices, and what community love looks like. Read our conversation below.

The book is about to drop! How are you feeling?

I feel so overwhelmed. I have a lot of excited emotions. I’m also thinking about the tour and everything that I have to do, so I’m still very much working. Today I’ve been sitting a lot with my grandmother’s death anniversary being the day after the book comes out. She passed a year ago, and it’s just so uncanny and unimaginable that it’s the same time. In the book, I write that she left me to join me. So I’m a little bit teary today. I feel her presence a lot now.

I’m so sorry for your loss.

Thank you.

What was the process like writing this book? I’ve never quite seen anything like this that delves into ATRs and is written by us and for us.

I started writing this book in April 2023. Maybe a little bit before. The process was sitting down and compiling all of my experiences into one place. I wanted to create some sort of guide for the new practitioner or someone who just wants to reconnect, who’s been trying to do this for some years, but feeling maybe disconnected from their ancestors.

In the book, you call your ancestors your best friends. I thought that was pretty cool because I know for me and many of my friends, it can be daunting to connect with our ancestors. How did you come to this level of understanding and familiarity with yours?

I say the term best friend because I feel like I can show up to my altar and be my full self, but I didn’t always feel like that with my ancestors. I built my first altar in 2013, but I’ve been actively communicating with my ancestors since about 2017. What I try to uplift in the book is that, ancestral veneration doesn’t come without questioning our ancestors. Sometimes it even means getting into their ass. When you have a best friend or even a good friend, it’s someone you can be honest with. It’s someone that you’re able to see, affirm and lovingly put in their place. So much love is cultivated in our relationship because it’s not like they’re God or they’ve never made any mistakes. We’re both human beings, and we acknowledge each other’s humanity. Even though they’re dead and they’re spirits, they were human. This understanding helps them to better understand me and me with them. It helps me understand the choices of the people around me that were harmful and painful. I’ve worked through a lot of that with them.

What has your practice of Hoodoo and Ifa been like for your family?

I wouldn’t necessarily say my family is “woo-woo,” too much [Laughs]. My mom was very open. She’s always been very open, but I wouldn’t call her woo-woo. She used to have dream parties where people would come over and share their dreams, and everyone would interpret them. She invited a numerologist over when we were kids, and he told me what my life was going to be like. So that part was kind of always cultivated, but for the most part, no, this is very new territory. It took a dream that my grandmother had about me before she passed to help everyone open up more. In the dream, God told her that this work I’m doing is what I’m supposed to do while I’m here, and that she should support and love me.

She shared that dream with other family members. My family can’t deny how this work has healed me or the heights that it’s taken me. So now they are supportive and understanding. And My mom built her own altar now, my father talks about experiences that he’s had and things that he’s felt. I never thought that I would get here. This isn’t something that I thought that my people would be open to at all.

In the book, you talk about growing up Catholic. I also grew up in the church. I was raised Baptist, Catholic and Lutheran. The more I learned about ATRs and listened to your podcast, the more I was able to heal from some of the trauma I endured in those spaces. What is your advice for people coming into an ATR space or even just ancestral veneration while dealing with trauma from other religions? 

It’s about being realistic about what’s possible, and there’s a lot more possible than we think. The trauma will probably never be fully excavated from our bodies. I’m not healed from my Catholic shit at all. It’s a process. My advice is remembering that each day we have an opportunity to become enlightened about something or release a little bit more of the shame. We can’t expect that we’re going to arrive one day completely free of all of the stuff, because it’s a lot to carry. We are also carrying our ancestors’ shit too. It’s not just ours. We’re carrying a lot as people.

How do you define shame?

It’s the internalized thoughts and beliefs about ourselves that are deeply untrue and against God. I don’t mean God like Daddy Christian God but against the things that make us powerful, that connection to nature, the universe, the stars and the moon. That thing that is miraculous. Being human is a really miraculous experience. There are so many things around us that tell us that it’s not. The shame is when we start to believe that it is not, and that we are not connected to Source in the way that we are.

My dear friend Deb mentioned you to me at the start of the pandemic back in 2020. I was trying to set up an altar, but I didn’t really know how. I also found that a lot of people talking about ATRs were super transphobic and homophobic, so I questioned if any of this was even for me. Then I heard your podcast and right off the bat, you said that any sort of bigotry isn’t what you’re about. What do you hope changes in ATR spaces at large when it comes to making space for trans and queer people?

It’s so frustrating and annoying the amount that ATR spaces are like that. You’re absolutely right. A lot are completely queerphobic and transphobic. It’s that bullshit that we’re trying to get away from and be with ancestors. It’s such a shame because that is just not the ancestral way. If we’re talking about us all being miraculous, connected to Source and being in the likeness of our ancestors, how can we deny our queer and trans ancestors? They’re in the ancestral realm too.

Sometimes when we think of ancestors, we may think of our grandma or someone that we knew. And yes, that is an ancestor. She matters. But there are also ancestors who are queer. You descended from one who was trans. They may have or may not have called themselves trans, but they were trans because that is not a new experience. I want to look more to our queer ancestors and uplift our trans ancestors. We need to give them voice and to hear their wisdom. This will reverberate through the experiences of queer and trans people alive today. It can feel such a lonely experience being queer and trans. Ancestral work has simply reminded me that I’m not alone simply. Connecting with those people and that energy can provide a lot of healing, strength and protection.

Being a queer woman yourself, was it hard for you to come out to the people in your spiritual house?

One of the first questions that I asked the elders of the house was, “So what do y’all think about queer people? How do you feel about this? I have a girlfriend. How do you feel about that?” Thankfully, my first spiritual house was like, “You’re good here. You’re fine.” The elder’s daughter was a lesbian and had a girlfriend. I’m not a member there anymore, but it didn’t have anything to do with anything bad, but I just went a different direction.

So I always encourage people to ask questions. Are there other queer people in the house? How did the elders feel? What do they think about it? Are they open? That’s it. So it was not difficult for me because I asked the questions very soon. I’m not going to waste my time.

Some people see all Africana belief systems as inherently evil. How do you respond to that?

The demonization of Africana spiritual systems is deliberate. It wouldn’t have been helpful for Black people — African people — to have a strong belief system and a religion that worked that doesn’t equal colonialism or imperialism. That’s not a good recipe for slavery. We’re still living the repercussions of slavery and colonialism. That’s why people think that this is demonic. But also, I don’t really try to convince people that it’s not demonic. I’m descended from a juju lady who did this full time, and I don’t know all the work she did. She could have harmed some people, but I know that she birthed babies as well. I know that she healed people with herbal medicines in Mathews County, Virginia. I know that. So the magic, the juju, it’s all of it. It’s about having that control and being in the right relationship to the things around you. That’s simply what it is. When it comes to the demonization, I’m like, “Okay, well, if you want to carry out the words of the oppressor, by all means. That’s your business.”

One last question. I adore you so much, and I believe that everything you do is born out of love for our people. So how do you define love?

Oh, wow. Love. I would define love as the deep mutual care and compassion that’s driven by something big. That other thing that something else, that God energy, that creator, that source. It’s like that mutual compassion and care that comes from Source. It doesn’t have ulterior motives. It doesn’t try to offend or harm. It’s really just that deep feeling and connection that’s been put on you by the source. And really a recognition of the spirit that is within all of us. It’s acknowledging, I have it. You have it. They’re the same. I acknowledge the Source within you. I try to pull from that place in my work. I want to wake up that deep love that we all can have for ourselves, for each other, and also for the people that we come from because they have it for us. And so that kind of uninviting love that spirits have for us, I think can be reflected in the real world. And so that’s what I hope that my work does. It wakes up the love and that we have a right to fight for our love and our peace. So if you are messing with that energy, I also have a right to remove you in whatever way I decide to do that. It’s not all love and light over here.

Okay now, period! [Laughs]

[Laughs] It’s not all love and light, but for who is about the love, it’s deep. It can’t be broken.

The Book of Juju: Africana Spirituality for Healing, Liberation, and Self-Discovery by Juju Bae is out now.

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Eva Reign

Eva Reign is a Peabody and GLAAD Award winning Brooklyn-based actress, writer and artist from St. Louis, Missouri. She is the star of Billy Porter’s directorial debut Anything’s Possible from Amazon Studios and MGM’s Orion Pictures. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, Vice, Them, The Cut, Byrdie, PAPER, and Highsnobiety.

Eva has written 4 articles for us.

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