A Story of Grace
My Godfather Afolabí’s (iba’ye) childhood bestfriend was an African American trans woman named Grace Foster. He became friends with her when he was around 15, I think, and spent a lot of time with her and her family. He said that this is how he first became aware of Afro-Diasporic spirituality and magic, as her family were all Hoodoo women. In their house, he always saw candles burning over pieces of paper, and strange powders and oils. This prompted him to start looking things up in the library, but that’s a story for another time.
Grace and Afolabí were friends for many years and entered the drag scene together. Grace was, as you might be able to guess by her name, a Grace Jones impersonator, and actually worked as Grace Jones’ body double in the film Vamp (if you believe Afolabí’s story about it — though, he did show me on-set polaroids once, I think). Like many trans women of colour, Grace did sex work, and because this was the late 80s, it is unfortunately unsurprising that she became HIV positive.
Afolabí had been pursuing Lukumi for some time by this point, and had been initiated as a priest of Yemaya (in 1990 or 1991, I believe), though he was a child of Olokun. He read for Grace and she, too, turned out to be a child of Olokun, in a moment of really beautiful symmetry. When he said “You’re Olokun!” she shot back “I’m a low coon?!” She had quite the risque sense of humour.
Olokun is the owner of the depths of the sea. Olokun is an androgynous Orisha, whose gender is debated by practitioners. He or she is very mysterious and closely related to Egun, the spirits of the dead. The waters of Olokun are sacred for their curative powers.
Grace became sick, very, very sick. Her HIV developed into full-blown AIDS. She moved into Afolabí’s apartment with her hospital bed, and he and his Godchildren took care of her as her health deteriorated. Afolabí read for her again, and the reading said that she needed to receive Olokun right away to stop her from dying. Following the etiquette of our religion, he went to his own Godmother and asked for her permission. A gay Latina woman who had seen many, many of her friends die rapidly before her eyes over the past decade of the AIDS epidemic (and probably had some PTSD from it, I think), she forbade him from giving Grace Olokun, saying that she was doomed. He pleaded with her, and eventually she agreed, but under the condition that Grace be initiated to Olokun in a shirt and pants.
Lukumi is a very gendered religion. Women must wear skirts, men must wear pants. To put Grace, a transitioned trans woman, into pants would’ve been to erase who she was as a person. Afolabí refused to make her suffer this indignity, leaving his Godmother’s house over the incident.
Afolabí and his Godchildren went ahead with the ceremony. By this time, Grace was so sick that she couldn’t lift her head up from her pillow. They changed the ceremony so that they could bring everything to her in bed. After several hours, they finished the ceremony with Grace barely conscious, and they all went off to bed. Afolabí told me that they were all so sad, half expecting her to pass away during the night.
He was woken up the next morning by the clatter of pans in the kitchen and went to investigate, expecting to see one of his Godchildren cooking breakfast for everyone. Instead, he found Grace standing at the stove, making pancakes. Grace who had been unable to lift her own head out of bed the night before was now stood in the kitchen, cooking. I am sure that he cried.
Grace recovered and lived for four more years without ever getting sick again. She died of, I believe, a heart attack or stroke in her sleep. Olokun speaks in Irosun, the fourth Odu of the dilogun.
(An oral history written by Odofemi in 2012, as related to me by Afolabí in 2008.)