Speaking In Tongues: More Than Gibberish.

I haven’t been in a church in about two years. I haven’t cared about “being saved” in at least 3. But despite my obvious disconnect and disbelief in religion, one thing I haven’t let go of is speaking in tongues. For those who don’t know, speaking in tongues (academically known as glossolalia) is the phenomenon of speaking in an unknown language, especially in religious worship. It is practiced by the Christian religion.

As a person born and raised down south and brought up in a black church — -speaking is tongues is not anything foreign to me. I’ve seen my grandmother, great aunts and uncles, and different elders of the church speak in tongues since I was a child. Where other people may be turned off or even frightened by the shouting, wailing, and possessed-ness of this spiritual practice, for me it is comforting. It is home. And it is also one of the only things I hold on to from my past relationship with religion.

I’ve been wondering for a while why that is. Why I’m able to renounce everything else associated with Christianity except for that one thing. I especially started to wonder about it more as the time neared for me to get on the plane and head to West Africa for three weeks. Leading up to that departure, I had begun to speak in tongues weekly. During random car rides to and from work I would find myself in tears, mumbling and grumbling — speaking in tongues. I even found myself taking the long back roads from the town I worked to the town I lived, passing fields and antebellum style homes.

Now I can see the correlation between that time and what I feel to be true now — -but it wasn’t until I was in Africa that it finally hit me, Tongues is probably directly related to our African ancestry. I remember the day this really clicked for me, I was sitting in the living room of the apartment I was staying in listening to some of the locals speak in their native language, Wolof. As I was listening and not understanding a lick of what they were saying, I began to feel a sort of familiarity. There was something about the heaviness of the tongue, the way the words danced aggressively out of their full lips that resonated deeply with me — and reminded me of a language I knew already myself. Speaking in tongues.

When it hit me — -it hit hard. And everything began to make sense why I was able to connect so deeply with this spiritual practice, and why out of all the other practices, this was the only one that touched deep within me. When I think about slavery, I think about pain and suffering. I think about cruelty and dehumanization. I think about death and separation. But I never think about who those actual slaves were — beyond their shackles. Who were these men and women after they left the fields, or the kitchens of their masters? Who were these human beings who lived, breathed, ate, and loved?

It’s easy to understand the impact that Christianity had on the success of slavery. It was one of the main reasons that white people were able to enslave people of African descent both physically and mentally. But to believe that those slaves — those strong, resilient, intelligent African people — couldn’t find ways to make this foreign, strange land feel like home, is insulting. It’s declaring what those same ignorant white people declared about our people for generations — that we were stupid. That we were incapable of thinking or living for ourselves. (But we here, so what is the truth??)

With that realization came the realization — -intuitive of course, I have no academic research to back this up — -that speaking in tongues is a direct connection to our African ancestors. It’s something that they decided to incorporate into their new religion, to make it feel familiar …to make it more real for them. For me, the similarities between the way tongues sounds and the way many African languages sounds is enough to convince me that there is some truth in what I’m saying. But I know for many others this will not be the case, so maybe I’ll be able to do the proper research to support my claims.

But for now — -the spiritual connection that I feel between me and my ancestors when I am speaking in tongues is an experience I will never give up. I’ll give up everything — -going to church, worshiping Jesus, singing in choirs — -but I will never stop speaking my ancestors language.