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Tarot For The Mother Tongue I’ll Never Know

I felt the call to practice tarot about two years ago. It wasn’t a dramatic spiritual experience with uncanny signs and confirmation from mystics. It was as mundane as love. I simply found, watching others, that I loved it. That love grew and took up so much room in my heart that I gifted myself my first set of cards for my 29th birthday. I’ll impose some magic on the story now by saying in the esoteric study of numbers 29 reduces to 11 – a master number. Eleven for me depicts the two pillars of a doorway; and that year was my spiritual initiation.

My first deck, which I loved, was the very white Witches Tarot. Having spent years studying Black Diasporas and Black Atlantic Culture, I was predictably vocal in saying for images meant to represent the broad archetypes of the human experience, tarot decks were in the majority, ubiquitously white. This did not matter just because I wanted to see characters that looked like me, (which is an independently valid reason), but because the absence feeds the hierarchies of power: race-gender-class-sexuality etc. Caste systems do not belong in our private otherworldly spaces. Not in the deep sensitivity that is our spiritual work with ourselves, and our quest for freedom.

So when The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot came in the post this morning. The box, being at least five times the size of a standard deck, matched perfectly my sense that this was a big moment for me.
Years back, when I’d first seen The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot in the hands of others, I was not ready to engage that belief system, or African spiritual traditions in general. My decolonial work had not quite extended to disabling my fear response about the spirit realm. I’d had enough experiences with the immaterial to know that I did not want to move through that doorway with curiosity alone.

At the time, I was not ready to encounter any darkness, which I knew was inevitable. Not because traditional African religions are inherently malevolent, but because they are credible enough not to feign obliviousness to the nefarious. In my experience, throughout Africa and across her diaspora Black folk have been unabashed in contending with this. From the prayer warriors speaking in tongues and “pleading the blood” in Pentecostal churches, to the quiet movement of medicine women who throw water over doorsteps every morning. In 2016, I was revelling in my newly fear-free post-Christian experience, and so I explored decks I was more comfortable with, like The Vision Quest Tarot or The Afro-Brazilian Tarot.

The more experience I gained as a reader, the more I realised that varied characterisations alone do not perfect a tarot deck. As I chose decks that I valued aesthetically, I found that my connection to them was sometimes sporadic or non-existent. In fact, a popular deck I thought was ugly and avoided, was in fact the most powerful and transformative in my personal practice. I discovered that not all decks vibe with you, not all decks invoke a spirit at all – an issue I discuss in my Tarot Webinar “Intuitive Paths to Freedom: Finding Your Feet with Tarot”.

I took my time in exploring traditional African religions. I matured into knowing every step of my path would present itself at the point of my readiness. I didn’t need to rush ceremonial practices for validation – my own or anyone else’s. I didn’t want to use that in pursuit of more power, or to become better at divination and prophecy. That’s something to be aware of: the pressure to perform when you practice spiritual ritual publicly; the need to be very magical when people are paying for your services.

Instead I waited, and the path opened through my maternal grandmother who had passed. I hadn’t engaged with the ancestral realm before she began to make herself known to me. I was resistant to her, because of the trauma and experiences of abandonment I’d had with my mother, her daughter. I had not expected anyone in my family to choose me over my mum. To understand me. To not demand that I do all the emotional work of having a relationship with her, because she was unable to do any. So I hid for a while. But my grandmother continued to gently call me through signs, and then dreams, and then through an energy healer. She showed me my etheric connection to all the women in my family across generations. It was heavy. But that’s where I began.

Teachers – lovers, enemies and sages – appear and leave according to the lessons you need. Around that time, a new teacher appeared for me. I took to him like a duck to water. He had a very strict no bullshxt energy, and a deeper basis of esoteric knowledge than anyone else I’d encountered. It took me months to go for my first session with him, because it was a mirror I wasn’t quite ready to look in; habits I knew I did not intend to quit. I wasn’t going to waste his time. I went to him when I was over being juvenile. I booked a tarot reading and my ancestors showed up again, this time more of them. Specific knowledge, specific instructions, specific warnings. He gently nudged me towards Ifa divination and initiation. He used The New Orleans Voodoo tarot to speak to me. I knew it was only a matter of time before I would get the deck myself. The whole experience was game changing.

In the months after I went through extreme upheaval in my personal life. Changes that have brought me to where I am. In between. World without end.

Part of the juxtaposition is that as an tarot practitioner and astrologer, I’ve been finding my discussion of planetary influences jarring. Yes, I am the Virgo archetype, but I know the name Virgo is a partial mismatch for me. Yes, I’ve known strictness and non-negotiable boundaries. First through my mother, and then by Saturn; but that is not the name by which I know that energy. And yes, names, language, are important. To quote Fanon, my fave:

“To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilisation.” Fanon – Black Skins, White Masks

Sometimes the language I use doesn’t support the culture or future I am living through. The Greek and Roman Civilisations are not the ones I want to uphold. Yet I’m cynical about the activist trope of rejecting “The West” in general, (see History of the Voice by Edward Kamau Brathwaite).
My decoloniality cannot mean to destroy the knowledge of this moment – Foucault and Scorsese, Sartre or James Blake. We can’t un-know centuries of thought or creativity. I don’t even want to; not in the least, because it would mean to erase myself as a Black British woman.

What is possible, what has become my choice, is to restore rightful place to the multiple paradigms of knowing: Whether this is intuitive knowing, intellectual knowing, emotional knowing, cultural knowing, ancestral knowing etc. This is knowing Elegua as well as Mercury. Mars as Xango. This is knowing Ganesh mantras as well as Kirk Franklin songs. In acknowledging the expression of god in all things I allow myself to live through varying points of perspective; building a multi-purpose structure of wisdom that I can rest my choices on.

If I can be honest, in the past weeks I have felt a plateau point in my spiritual growth. I am seeking new language to reflect and create other realities, but I am also feeling like my well has run dry. I need a new source to draw from. I have taken myself as far as I can alone, through self-study. It is time to be taught in the ways of those who knew before me, who tried before me, who failed before me, who healed or didn’t. I need to know more than I do so I can do more than I am.

The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot came as a conversation opener; so I can root more deeply into the wisdom I am needing. During a session with a tarot client the song a “Bridge Over Troubled Water” came to me. Later that day, after communing with the cards for several nights, I pulled my first message: Agwé – “A ship sailing upon deep waters, the land thousands of feet below its hull. The mercy of safe passage”. This is the beauty of tarot for me. Why I say it is a language. And like touch is different from speech, this is just one of the ways my ancestors come to me.

Leona Nichole Black


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