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Ochumaré’s Rainbow & The River Maid: Queerness in Black Atlantic Religions

Ochumaré's Rainbow & The River Maid: Queerness in Black Atlantic Religions

On Thursday September 29, 2022, Ahmad Greene-Hayes moderated a discussion with Khytie Brown, author of the forthcoming Afro-Queer Journeys: Transnational Revival Zion Religion in Jamaica and Panama, and Elizabeth Pérez, author of Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions. 

Their conversation explored symbols and traditions in Black Atlantic religions, including Ochumaré--or the rainbow serpent orixá--that is associated with gender-nonconforming and trans experience because it changes gender/sex depending on the time of the year; and the River Maid in Jamaican Revival Zion religion, an afro-queer space in which fluidity of gender, sexuality, and non-normative intimacies is fostered through trance journeys and spirit possession.  

The range of topics these addressed by these historians included: the role of gay men in Afro-Diasporic traditions; their work in the sacred kitchen in Lucumí/Santería; the gendered division of labor in orisha/orixá houses of worship; deities associated with LGBTQ+ identities and practitioners; as well as queerness in spaces and places where folks may not name it explicitly or subscribe to U.S. American "coming out" narratives.

Khytie Brown, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She is an ethnographer and scholar of African diaspora religions and African and African American studies. Khytie holds a Ph.D. in African and African American studies from Harvard University and a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School. She is currently working on her book manuscript, titled Afro-Queer Journeys: Transnational Revival Zion Religion in Jamaica and Panama. The book will be the first of its kind that foregrounds Revival Zion religion and addresses the interrelationship between afrophobia and homophobia, sensory hierarchies of difference in the making of marginalized religions, and practitioners’ subversive world-building responses through their somatic practice of journeying.

Ahmad Greene-Hayes, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of African American Religious Studies at Harvard Divinity School. A social historian and critical theorist, Greene-Hayes’s research interests include critical Black Studies, Black Atlantic Religions in the Americas, and race, queerness, and sexuality in the context of African American and Caribbean religious histories. He is currently working on a book manuscript entitled, Underworld Work: Black Atlantic Religion-Making in Jim Crow New Orleans, which is under advance contract with the University of Chicago Press in the Class 200: New Studies in Religion series. He is a member of the advisory group for LGBTQ-RAN.

Elizabeth Pérez, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is an ethnographer and historian of Afro-Diasporic traditions and LGBTQ religious experience and earned her Ph.D. at University of Chicago Divinity School.  Her first monograph, Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions (New York University Press, 2016) was awarded the 2017 Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion by the Society for the Anthropology of Religion, and received Honorable Mention for the Caribbean Studies Association’s 2019 Barbara T. Christian Literary Award.