Recovering “Soul”—Another Contribution of Black Spirituality

Unlike modern European philosophers, says Dr. Marimba Ani, the African world view is not ill at ease with the concept of “soul.” Indeed,

“Praying Hands.” Photo by WSilver on Flickr.

soul is the essence of the human in the African view. It is that aspect of the person that expresses her union with the universal order and through it with all Being (Ikra, Ka, Se, Emi). To “touch” our soul is to touch us most deeply.

Leonard Barrett calls soul a “force.” He writes:

Soul-force is that power of the Black man that turns sorrow into joy, crying into laughter, defeat into victory. It is patience while suffering, determination while frustrated and hope while in despair.

Soul combines feeling and intellect—it goes beyond the rationalistic European definition of mind as reason alone.

“I Am a Voice.” photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande, on Unsplash

Soul is that ability of the human being to feel which is, in terms of the African world-view, essentially human. Molette puts it this way:

The Afro-American aesthetic places a very high value upon emotionally motivated behavior; or another term that might be used to describe it would be spiritually motivated behavior.

Interestingly, Meister Eckhart defines soul as “the place where God works compassion.”

In music the human and the Divine meet…. When we see beauty in the world, we sing. When we want to express how much faith we have in spirit, we sing. When the world is ugly and life is hard, we sing.

The late Gospel, blues, funk, and soul musician Naomi Shelton, lead singer of the Gospel Queens, at the 2015 Brooklyn Folk Festival. Photo by Brian Geltner on Flickr.

The result is an extraordinary contribution of creative imagination to culture at large.

Black suffering gave birth to the blues. Just as Black suffering and Black hope gave birth to the spirituals. As Africans, we say everything in music.

Dance, too, along with the drum and music, is part of the spiritual language that is too complex for the verbal expression alone. Furthermore, ancestors and spirits join into into the dance. In dance, the relation of interbeing and cosmology comes alive. As  Richards puts it:

“Breaking Ballet #5: Rain Must Fall” A ritual dance by Kitty Phetla of the Joburg Ballet invoking rain for the drought-stricken Western Cape province of South Africa.

Through dance we experience reality as immediate to us, that is, we are identified with the universe…. We have experienced cosmic interrelationship….Dance, for us, is a religious expression. When we dance, through Rhythm, we express ourselves as cosmic beings.

Ritual is a culminating expression of the community’s joy and suffering, strength and revitalization. It is also a gathering where the ancestors join in so life and death merge. It is about remembering.

If we “remember,” then the physically deceased members of the family continue to be part of the family, and we are assured of immortality…. It is through the ancestors that we keep in touch with our sacred origins.

“Incantation” calling for an awakening in African consciousness. Poem recited by Marimba Ani, uploaded to YouTube by 2000 Black – Topic

Rituals of spiritual union with the ancestors are to be performed daily. Ritual is the art of arts.

Universally, in ritual the African combines life with artistic expression. Ritual is, in a sense, the ultimate philosophical expression of the African world-view, for it is the modality within which the unity of the human and Divine is expressed, in which the unity of spirit and matter is perceived and in which the Eternal Moment is achieved.

 * Dona Marimba Richards, Let the Circle Be Unbroken: The Implications of African Spirituality in The Diaspora  (Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press 1992), pp. 36, 34f., 38f., 8.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, pp. 241-243. 

Banner Image: “Samburu Dance” Traditional dance of the Samburu, a Nilotic people related to the Maasai. Photo by
Carsten ten Brink on Flickr.

How do you define soul?  How do you encounter soul and enlarge your soul?

Recommended Reading

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit


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6 thoughts on “Recovering “Soul”—Another Contribution of Black Spirituality”

  1. Avatar

    Todays DM reminds me of English poet T. S. Eliot who wrote it this way: “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
    Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
    But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
    Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
    Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
    There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

      1. Avatar

        It is interesting that black people expressed ‘ deep soul’ in so many ways in spite of the suffering inflicted on them. Eliot’s poetry points to a lack of soul in the white elite class into which he was born.

  2. Avatar

    Dr. Marimba Ani’s definition of soul captivates me, expressed as active, communal, relational. Of course, in this culture I was taught that soul is something individual, which in the end makes no sense because our lives are not self-sufficient. Rather than debate whether or not we each have an individual soul that will endure after death, we can engage in ritual and activities that create soul now. I like it 🙂

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