Drawing Down Ancestors: Defining Afriscape Through Ground Markings and Street Alters
After the recent brutal killing of an unarmed black man named Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer in Oakland, the common occurrence of death by gun violence in black communities once again came to the forefront of national attention. This presentation explores the manner in which black people in these communities respond to tragic events of this kind: by creating altars to the slain. The altars often reflect iconography and practices related to the ancestor veneration of African diasporic religions.
Umbanda, an Afri-Brazilian religion, is one of the most prominent African diasporic religions. In one of its rituals, called gira, initiates in a trance state manifest a variety of African ancestral spirits known as preto velhos, or “old blacks,” and create drawings on the ground that signal the spirits’ presence. These drawings, or pontos riscados, are a visual event, and one of the many ways in which the evolving ritual practice of ancestor veneration works to reclaim histories. The pontos riscados use a matrix of signs and ideograms influenced by African Kongo cosmology.
In addition to explaining the meanings of some of the signs and symbols in pontos riscados, this presentation will explore the common denominators between the vernacular altars created on the streets of Oakland and the pontos riscados created in Rio de Janeiro. The comparison highlights some of the larger social and cultural commonalities between the black community in the favela or Morro do Jacarezinho of Rio de Janeiro and the black communities of East and West Oakland, including the presence of gun violence and the frequent gun-related deaths of young black men that result from rampant crack and cocaine dealing. The presentation theorizes the role of secular ritual in the creation of urban street altars. The intersection between creative expression and secular ritual provides the victims of traumatic experience with an opportunity to facilitate communal mourning and healing. Agency is reclaimed in these representational spaces, which reveal important insights about African diasporic identity.