London Nelson's grave in Evergreen Cemetery in Santa Cruz.
(Via the MAH, City of Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

‘Honoring our ancestors’ by bringing together traditions of Black people from Africa, North America

This weekend’s Beyond the Grave rituals at Santa Cruz’s Evergreen Cemetery will bring ancient African traditions honoring the dead to the area where London Nelson and other Santa Cruz Black pioneers are buried.

The fact that it’s happening in a cemetery might be a clue, but it’s important to note that this weekend’s Beyond the Grave event at Evergreen Cemetery in Santa Cruz is not a performance.

Befitting its solemn context, the event is more a ritual or ceremony. There will be no stage. Attendees won’t be an audience; they’ll be witnesses.

The distinction is crucial, because what the event’s host, healer and spiritualist Luna HighJohn Bey, does is not entertainment, nor even art. In this case, Bey and Congolese dancer Vivien Bassouamina will be engaged in an age-old ritual from the hoodoo tradition at the gravesite of London Nelson, a Black man who went from enslavement in the South to farming and owning land in Santa Cruz in the middle of the 19th century.

The Louden Nelson Center in Santa Cruz is named for him, albeit with the wrong spelling of his first name. (It’s something the city is moving toward rectifying.)

The weekend event will be co-sponsored by the Museum of Art & History and the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center in Santa Cruz.

“We saw it as a really great opportunity to support the work that Luna was already doing,” said Cat Willis, the TWDCC’s executive director. “On her own, she was just doing some research on London Nelson and near the gravesite, it turns out, there are several other Black residents of Santa Cruz buried there in unmarked graves.”

The ceremony will draw on ancient African traditions of honoring the dead that many enslaved Africans kept with them when they were taken from their native land to North America. In the context of today’s times, said Willis, these hoodoo traditions provide a link between the African diaspora and African Americans. “So we’re really drawing parallels between our cultures and connections, to honor our ancestors.”

Spiritual healer Luna HighJohn Bey (center) before a ceremony to honor the dead last fall at the town clock in Santa Cruz.
Spiritual healer Luna HighJohn Bey (center) before a ceremony to honor the dead last fall at the town clock in Santa Cruz.
(Courtesy Luna HighJohn Bey)

“Within our tradition,” said Bey, a Santa Cruz resident, “when someone passes on, there is a set of things that you do to honor their legacy, to elevate them and assist them in their process of moving on to the next phase of life. Because these people were buried here, and they came out of the crime of slavery, it’s very likely that they did not receive this practice.”

Bey comes from the African American tradition forged in the antebellum Deep South. The Santa Cruz-based dancer Bassouamina comes from a strictly African tradition, from the Congo. Though Bey and Bassouamina have never worked together before, it makes sense that they come together in this case, said Bey.

“I am an African American spiritualist, and Vivien is an African spiritualist,” she said. “The funerary practices (of the two traditions) are so close, so that people understand that there was a continuous link in our spiritual practices and that we are the same people who happened to experience genocide in a way that separated us.”


Beyond the Grave: Ancestral Healing Ceremony

WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, 4 p.m.
WHERE: Evergreen Cemetery, 261 Evergreen St., Santa Cruz.
COST: General admission tickets are $20; tickets for MAH members are $12.

Bey said that, to the best of her knowledge, these kinds of hoodoo rituals have never been performed locally. “The way we are framing this is that it’s a thing that needs to happen whether or not other people will be there, and that we are allowing our community to observe the ceremony.

A lot of times, these things happened behind closed doors (historically) because Black people have been forced to hide these sorts of things. So, this is a great opportunity to allow this sacred ceremony to be observed.”

This weekend’s Ancestral Healing Ceremony is the third event this spring to be held at Evergreen Cemetery, near Harvey West Park. The cemetery is administered and maintained by the MAH, which in April hosted musical and spoken-word performances there, as well as volunteer workdays to clean up the gravesites and pay respects to those buried there.

Evergreen Cemetery in Santa Cruz.
(Via the MAH)

Willis said the pairing of Bey and Bassouamina makes sense across the diaspora of Black people in Africa and North America. “For us, in the Black community, making those connections is extremely healing,” she said. “It’s about all of us in our community and understanding who we are. And that starts with honoring those buried there. I think that’s key.”

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