Tag Archives: m. jacqui alexander

Rituals of Restoration


Susan James, 2015.

When spirit enters these rituals of restoration a kind of cultural alchemy can temporarily cook what is raw, unite what is divided, give meaning to what is chaotic, and thereby enchant, refresh, and reanimate all participants. It is this experience of negotiated cohesion through dialogue leading to a shared feeling of grace that is sought in a theory of restoration. Knowing how to create such rituals is the special expertise of healers, curanderas, griots.

–Helene Shulman Lorenz, This Bridge We Call Home, 2002.

I arrived at the Tobago Centre after a relatively recent relocation from the east coast to the west coast of the US and a new position in the academy where I wrestle with feelings of estrangement in my navigation of some unfamiliar, and other all too familiar, terrain. To enter the Tobago Centre is to encounter a sense of, and an unspoken commitment to compassion with one another with a “shared feeling of grace.” Within our egbe (group of spiritual companions) one is in the constant company of friends and spirit, organized by Orisha traditions and orchestrated by Iya M. Jacqui Alexander’s meticulous skill and openheartedness in teaching by demonstration, conversation and participation. I had not realized the full meaning of the intimate connections among Land, Waters, Orisha divinities and our ancestors, and the timeliness of my own visit. However, the journey toward that realization began almost immediately. With Iya’s careful attention, I settled into a new country, culture, cuisine, and renewed spiritual practice with such ease that the idea of adjustment is really not applicable. Bay leaf infused coffee, evening bush tea, pommecythere with salt and hot pepper, fresh guava juice and morning papaya, local fish purchased from fisherman, morning bacalao with coconut bread, Tobago style pepper sauce, and an occasional fish pie became joyful and delicious routines. Morning and evening meditation opened and closed the day, yet in one sense time itself was otherwise elusive, and almost irrelevant. Our daily rituals of chores, errands, offerings, tending, planting, swimming, devotion, prayers, song, meals, and always-meaningful inquiry with one another about how we were feeling, uncovered a yearning for these cohesive “rituals of restoration” that Shulman Lorenz speaks of. Nine coins placed in my hand to leave as an offering to Oyá at the marketplace; ocean spray reaching over our heads and soaking our faces on the steps near Swallows beach during an offering to Yemayá; calling mo’juba, the ancestral prayer to request the presense of spirit and ancestors, and regular libations to Eshú, seeking permission to cross the entrance onto the Land; the exquisite mandala of nine grains for Babalu Ayé that greeted me on his feast day, the sunflowers we planted at the riverside and libation of honey for Oshún, with dreams of her revitalization were all lived manifestations of spirit in these “rituals of restoration,” and devotion – rituals of restoring spirituality, ancestry and collectivity, all of which seeped through me in ways that were subtle, raw, acute, and not immediately detectable. My experiences amounted to a process of un-layering, and undoing that eventually revealed a way of dwelling that was the most fulfilling I have ever known.

Also true of the wider Centre life, no matter our location; whether seated on giant leaves at the river bank while a Blue Food festival erupted behind us, or on the rocks along the shoreline at Castara on a day when the ocean was too turbulent to enter; or while assembled around the weighty iron planting table to lift and move it across the yard to everyone’s disbelief (except Iya), or gathered at Ngozi’s to experience Charleston’s hypnotic private piano concert; on a search for the spring water spigot in the rain forest, or a hike to find a particular plant species, or around the dining table after a meal to which we all contributed, we engaged fervently in wide ranging, meaningful dialogue that affirmed our collective experience. Within our egbe, in true oral tradition, or testimonio, we discussed local, US and global politics, the anticipated verdicts from Ferguson and Staten Island, the trauma of eurocentrism, the manipulations of “diversity” efforts in the US, along with spiritual knowledge systems, and of course our families and personal lives, and yes, life in the academy. A series of evenings were devoted to lessons from Odu Ifá that Iya taught over several days. Our discussion of the text extended long into the evenings, and often continued the next morning. I loved the feeling of meshed solidarity in our exchanges, without the need for legitimization that can accompany professional discourse, and will remember them as possibly the most engaging of my lifetime.

It feels as if I have entered a time, perhaps an age where the kind of “cultural alchemy” generated by The Centre is called for, to “enchant, refresh, and reanimate” ways of living that foster ecological sustainability, justice and connectedness to counter pervasive globalization, multi-level violence and devastation increasingly waged against communities and ecosystems worldwide. It was with some sense of my own need for a shift, and deepened learning that I sought residency at the Tobago Centre, carrying with me a recessed thinking about the development of a 21st Century psychological paradigm that acknowledges the theories and practices within the discipline that have reproduced violence and suffering, in order to develop a framework that generates epistemologies that are restorative, reparative and recuperative. I imprecisely imagined that such a paradigm where “spirit enters,” to include ways of knowing that have been marginalized and silenced by systems of domination, yet survived, and carry sophisticated technologies, expressed through ritual, and are highly functional in cultures throughout the world, considering the African diaspora in particular. For those of us who are called in this direction, our challenge is to find those who are willing to teach the intricacies of spiritual practice.

“Knowing how to create such rituals is the special expertise of healers, curanderas, griots.”

Residency at the Centre provided the conditions and support for my ideas to take root, and Iya’s daily teachings organically displayed many of the ingredients for, and tools with which to build this vision, both technically and pedagogically. What I did not anticipate was that they would also evoke an intense unfolding of personal awakening and a profoundly emotional rupture that is still resonant months after my return.

I could not predict the shock and feelings of utter disorientation, heartache, and at times revulsion that would accompany my return to the US after a little over two months. The cold in NY, Christmas holiday consumption, and frenetic pace toward personal satisfactions of all kinds felt like an unmanageable onslaught. At the same time that “feeling of grace” found its way back inside of me, and I would soon uncover benevolent surprises, courageous empathy, allies of legend, unforeseen openings and glimpses of a divinity I thought left behind. What is also true is that I left Tobago not with a feeling of departure from a welcomed experience, but with the feeling of being torn away from a familiar comfort, a remembered home place, perhaps a refuge, and not for the first time.

I have a sustained a commitment to the Centre and Iya’s vision for its development and continue to offer support in any way that is useful. I offer immeasurable gratitude and deep reverence to Iya for her generosity in teaching by example, how to weave the sacred in all aspects of life, and live in spiritual devotion and dedication to a purpose. I also thank you for opening space for reflection, sharing personal insight and correction, and for your consistent inquiry and expressed caring about how I experienced each moment of my time in Tobago.



More reflections from 2014

Friends of the Centre the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands via Suriname got a taste of Centre life and experienced the magic of the Land and of Tobago!!!  Below are their reflections.4Mujeresplants_gloria

. . . When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

We—Maggy, Alta and I—got up in the dark of pre-dawn at 3 a.m., Monday, November 16, in order to catch the red-eye flight, leaving Suriname at 6 in the morning for Trinidad and Tobago. Packed with all kinds of goodies: a heavy, deepfrozen fish-pom dish, Iya’s favorite, made on a charcoal fire by Cieske, Maggy’ sister, tucked deep into our suitcases and Surinamese leaves of sangrafu and bitawiri, we feel happy to be sharing the bounty of Suriname with Tobago. I choose not to pay attention to the impossible hour of the flight, ignoring the colonial arithmetic that positions flights to the former metropole, the Netherlands, at a comfortable 7.30 in the evening. Speeding to Johan Adolf Pengel Airport, dogs howling after us, we pass on the way parties of –what seem to be—Brazilian golddiggers and Indigenous women in the open fields, in the little villages of Lelydorp, Bernarddorp and Wit’ Santi. We arrive in Tobago at 10 a.m. and are to spend the next eleven days at the Tobago Centre.

. . . When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

From the moment of our welcome embraces at the airport, we formed an egbe, a spiritual collective. We started and ended the day with meditation; whether it was working on the land, moving house, taking care of people around us, preparing meals, conversing about spirituality or about our work, readying ourselves for a tour of the island, we were a collective, getting the work at hand done in a most harmonious way. On the first day, we manage to move a heavy iron structure, meant for the planting and sprouting of plants, to a more convenient place, working in call-and-response fashion. Since it is the rainy season, we were anticipating look forward to see the seedlings grow, while we are still here.

Different as we all are, with different skills, interests, knowledges and measures of staying power, it was a rare experience to live what it means when the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. Living in different parts of the world, Amsterdam, Santo Domingo, New York City, Toronto and Tobago, we as Black women have all learned to function with a knife between our teeth. But now, as if by instinct, we know that mode of being would not get us very far in Tobago. Indeed, it would be counterproductive. Almost inadvertently, Audre Lorde’s essay “Black Women Hatred and Anger,” kept presenting itself to me: the various ways in which we as black women have learned to use our sharpest knives against one another. For me putting down my armour was no small thing. The new openness felt awkward at times, too much nakedness as it were, not being able to fall back on the usual defense mechanisms—big mouth, critical remarks, impatience, and lack of generosity. We all, so it felt, were motivated to be open towards each other and to the work that needed to be done for making the Centre a reality. This is why we had come: to help ground the Centre’s vision and to help Iya materialize her dream, which for all of us, too, held out a promise for other, more gratifying, more wholesome, ways of being in the world.

. . .When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

It becomes clear that enormous energy is liberated to be put to creative and expressive use. As Audre says, “there is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in defining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” (Lorde, Sister Outsider). At the heart of it all there is the land. On the land where our ancestors toiled as enslaved, we now find ourselves on a beautiful expanse, weaving its way low down by the roadside, to high on the mountain top. The land, sprinkled with towering bamboo and royal palms, encircled by a forceful river, now swollen by the rains is, and will be, a companion in healing and the envisioning of another way of life. We pour libations and the ancestors give their permission for each of us to enter and to use what is needed to make the place to their liking. I am once again reminded of the strength and tenacity of African religions in the Diaspora, the parallel incantations, gestures, intonations and understandins we use during libations in the Afro-Surinamese Winti religion. These understandings are beautifully described by Senegalese poet Birago Diop in “Le souffle des ancetres” a poem turned song and made popular by Sweet Honey in the Rock: “Those that have died have never, never left; the dead are not under the earth.” They are in the water, in the trees, in the shadows, in us. One day, sunflowers for Oshun will grow by the river, endless streams of them, just as in the South of France, dancing to the breath of the wind, their heads always looking up, full of hope.

. . .When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

For Maggy, the liberation of energy showed up in the intensity with which she painted, whenever she had free time during these days. There is a mystical quality to the painting “Land and Sea,”, her gift to the Centre, which she made in three sittings: a tree laden with symbols and meanings, presiding over a turquoise-greenblue Tobagonian sea. The companion piece, which she painted back in Paramaribo, is “Ceremony,” which depicts Yemoja, on the day we went to the ocean to celebrate the recovery of Ms. Merle and the completion of my book. They both accompany this reflection.

For Alta, it was the first time in seventeen years she had found the courage to bathe in the ocean again. She played in the waves like a little whale, exuding joy, mischief, as if she were the 13-year-old girl she once was. That same joy was present in her creative cooking, sustaining all of us with deliciously wholesome meals every single day: lentils, different kinds of fish, provisions, always with mango, papaya and pineapple as delightful pickle. I loved our egbe.

I was mentally exhausted when I got to Tobago, just having finished writing my book White Innocence and delivering a keynote presentation in Paramaribo. But my spirits were immediately lifted. . Even my pulling a muscle in my left back could not dampen that. Iya is the one who held it all together, by her wisdom, her teachings and nighttime Yoruba stories of Efùwàpé, who kept us up and discussing the twists and turns of her in search of her destiny. Iya who dares to dream big and fearlessly of a centre where indigenous knowledge of the use of plants and herbs is wed to a spiritual practice. As Audre says, “When I dare to put my words into the service of my vision, then it does not matter whether I am afraid.”

. . .When the spiritual is put to work in the everyday. . .

And the seedlings came up gloriously. . .

Gloria Wekker

Paramaribo, December 2014


Maggy, Gloria, Alta


Lobster Dinner



Iya and the heavy planting table








Residency Reflections Summer 2014

A mother and daughter pair teamed up for a three week stay at the Centre in August, 2014.  Their reflections follow.

By Malkah Darshana Félicité Uzima McNeilly-Abdulhamid

I was in Tobago because my mom, Mosa, was studying with Professor Alexander and she did not want to leave me behind in Canada. She wanted me to come so I could learn with her; so that we could both be students.  I am 11 years old and in sixth grade.

August 25th, 2014: I feel so peaceful here in Tobago. The hot weather is divine; up on the land is spiritual; the ocean is exciting and peaceful and beautiful; the biology is extremely fascinating!

The people are so welcoming and friendly. Every time you’re walking on the street, everyone is greeting you and calling you to come and say “Hi.” Most people seem so happy.

I’ve seen a little creature that looks like a baby wombat up on the land. I’ve seen many birds and found two feathers. I’ve helped plant, weed, water, write, pack up, keep the fire going and identify birds, plus much more. I think I’ve been very helpful.

September 20th, 2014: Everything is so connected in Tobago that if something goes wrong then everything would be in a shambles. If one animal dies then there won’t be food for another animal. And if that one dies, it won’t be food for another animal. And on and on. And if there is a forest fire and the animals’ homes are destroyed, then there will be wars between animals for the land and for homes and for food. Everybody needs food. Everything is connected in some way. One animal is food for the next. Even the top of the food chain might be eaten by something even bigger. The nutrients from one animal can give another strength.

All plants are sacred. They provide food and give us life. If there were no plants there would be no people. If there were no bees there would be no food. Bees are going extinct. We must find homes for them. This is one of the insects that is endangered. One that is very important to us.

Ants are strong little things. They can carry something up to one thousand times their weight. When I was up at the land, the ants carried lots of bits of leaves and flowers and sticks back to where they lived. They were all in a line. It was like one big traffic jam. If they were carrying something too big, they would wobble around and look like they had been at the wedding too long.

We met a man in a taxi who had maybe been at a wedding a bit too long, and could barely walk straight, just like the ants carrying something too big.

What I miss most is the ocean and the food. I miss seeing the fish and the sand and the bright blue colour of the water. I liked going way out deep and then coming back in and feeling the sand on my toes, and the smell of the salt water. I miss the salt fish and bake, the ground provision, all the fresh mangoes, the pineapple, watermelon and sugar cane. We used to get coconut water from a nice old man right at the Pigeon Point junction – and the breadfruit! How could I forget the breadfruit? And the fudge that we bought on the beach from a nice Grandma!!


By, Mosa McNeilly.

Mosa is a “celebrant and conjurer of beauty in a thirsty world.”  She is pursuing her MA in Environmental Studies at York University.

. . . The power of the Land makes me vulnerable. I succumb to Her strong presence. My senses heighten and it occurs to me that if I were to surrender, I could accept Her invitation and enter Her realm. With love.  With care.

I marveled at the stillness of vibrant life, the silent sounds of wind, insect and birdsong, the heady fragrance of the forest. In the time it took to climb the winding road up the mountainside, in the distance we covered each day on foot, I came to perceive, in fleeting glimpses, the veils of time parting like the layers and folds in Mama Oya’s skirts, yawning open in the unctuous air, in the caressing motion of the sensuous breeze, then rippling open in the swift dance of the sudden, lively wind. Lizard and hummingbird, caiman and bachac greeted us each day – the gatekeepers, the timekeepers – skittering across the leaf strewn ground; hovering and whizzing through living air; posing motionless in the muck and reed of the river so forlorn; marching relentlessly in the collaborative clockwork of the colony. These totems, they came to greet us, each day, one or the other, or two, or all, at the entrance to the Land, framed by an archway of towering bamboo.  They met us on the curve of the ascending road, deep in this verdant vegetation, at the threshold of timeless time.

They, the timekeepers, time givers away, time tricksters, time masterful makers and we, the welcome visitors, the dutiful stewards, the prayer makers and fire keepers, the laborers of love. Devoted makers of love offered to the Land, to ourselves upon the Land, through the attentive sowing of tiny, robust seeds, gingerly watering tender seedlings, reverently gathering soil, prayerfully weeding, carefully transplanting, singing all the while. We, the celebrants of seed turned to life, of miracles bursting forth, making of our presence on the Land a ceremony each time we came. In this naming and calling in of Spirits who inhabit the Land, in this giving thanks and praises to the Orisas who reign over the elements, in this Sacred communing, this daily honing of Spiritual consciousness, I beheld in Professor Alexander, a vessel of Sacred communion. We, her students, my daughter and myself, were her witnesses. She, Priest, servant, living altar, all at once and over time, at the crossroads of linear and timeless time. . .

Below are the birds which Malkah sighted  at the Center.

Blue-grey Tanager/Blue Jean

Blue-tailed Emerald/Hummingbird



White-Bearded Manakin

Short-Tailed Pygmy

White-Tailed Sabrewing


Smooth-Billed Ani

Amazon Kingfisher

Bran-Coloured Flycatcher










Fork-Tailed Fycatcher

Reflections on “Revelations” Gathering

Revelations with M. Jacqui Alexander

Revelations with M. Jacqui AlexanderThe William Doo Auditorium at the University of Toronto was transformed on the evening of March 23, 2012 from about seven to midnight as we descended, many unknowingly, into the hold of a ship of the kind that would have taken millions captive from the African continent over the course of five centuries.  The evening, called Revelations, featured M. Jacqui Alexander reading three excerpts from an unpublished novel of the same name.   At the center of the story is a woman, Kitsimba, who numbered among the enslaved, captured from the Kôngo and brought to Trinidad via Martinique in the late 1700s, resurrected that evening to tell something that is impossible to tell.

And it is with this that Jacqui began, after being introduced by Alissa Trotz and Lisa Yoneyama, reading from a scant 19th century document—two paragraphs to be exact— describing the imprisonment of  ‘Thisbe’ for “. . . witchcraft, poisoning by means of charms, knowledge of the black arts, . . . and consorting with the devil.”   There was no trial.  Thisbe was tortured, hanged and beheaded, her head paraded through the streets of (then) Port-of-Spain and later exposed on the plantation in Diego Martin, the remainder of her body burnt on a pyre.  That was 1801.  Not coincidentally, all 200 of us were gathered at that auditorium on the heels of an immensely haunting performance of Obeah Opera (written by Nicole Brooks and staged by Theatre Archipelago)— about the life of Tituba, which was similarly shattered by charges of witchcraft in Salem, Masschusetts.  That was 1692.

The evening revealed that the trumped up accusations actually hid Thisbe’s true name, Kitsimba, and hid as well the healing work that she did with medicinal plants, her intimate knowledge of the power of plant medicine and the delicate balance she lived between the poison (of oppression) and the antidote of healing.  These revelations, Jacqui noted, were divulged in ways that are not widely sanctioned in the academy.  As Tituba said in Obeah Opera,  “the Moon call me back ah mi yard; the moon give me visions inna mi mind; dreams in mih sleep.”  Images come through a scent, a split second’s glimpse of an entire life in the flash of the Spirit, a faint shadow lying under a village, the movement of a feather—all the different ways we are made to see and know what we have forgotten.

Jacqui read three excerpts: The Crossing; a reflection from the decapitated head that speaks as it is paraded through the streets of Port-of-Spain into Diego Martin; and Kitsimba’s own ruminations of the body count in the massive trans-Atlantic wreckage that still haunts as its seeks its own archive.

There is an odor that has seeped into the pores of wood that no vinegar or carbon or sulphur can eliminate.  That odor bled into our pores.  We smelled the same.  Even after leaving the ship we would be outdoors and a strong gust would stir up from ground and bring that scent right back to us; we would look around, recognize it, loose our bearings.  A scent of grief and suffering and unspeakable loss so deep it could not be uttered, only issued involuntarily, so strong it could not be contained in one place.  We could not bear any more than we were bearing. We needed Wind and Rain and Moon and Ocean and Sun and River and Love to caress and wash and hold us.  We needed the scent of infinity.

Ras Iville’s corn soup warmed us that night.  It was not cold, but we, too, needed to be held.  Our follow up conversation, magically facilitated by Gail Lewis and Angela Robertson, was probing, deep, tearful, as happens when we allow our Souls to do the searching.

We left the auditorium at fifteen minutes before midnight.  The port of disembarkation was the same as the port of entry five hours earlier.  The Middle Passage is an inheritance of each of us, ALL of us, according to Kitsimba.  For her,  “healing work is the antidote to oppression.”  Among plants, the poison and the antidote are found in the same place; so too oppression and healing work are to be found in the same place. These medicinal plant gardens that are the foundation of the Tobago Center are an ancestral mandate for healing in the present.


Revelations with M. Jacqui Alexander

Revelations with M. Jacqui Alexander

Update: Read about the event on the post Reflections on “Revelations”


The Center’s founder and Board Member, M. Jacqui Alexander will be reading from her new work that speaks to the urgency of healing as an ancestral mandate for the present.  Come join us, and bring a friend on March 23rd at the William Doo Auditorium (45 Willcocks Street) at University of Toronto.

Revelations with M. Jacqui Alexander