The Enchanted as Means of Social Control

18 07 2011

“Don’t you know the white man taught them all of that about ghosts. That was a way of keeping them down – keeping them under control.” Then she describes her grandmother’s account of the overseer riding through slave quarters covered with a white sheet, tin cans tied to his horse’s tail, in order to keep the slaves indoors at night…

This is the seminal quote that begins Gladys-Marie Fry’s book, Night Riders in Black Folk History. The premise of Dr. Fry’s book is that ghost stories and other tales of hauntings in the night were employed by slave owners as a means of social control. There is a common prejudice that we may have under which a slave society is seen as relatively closed when it came to the movement of slaves. Fry dispels that particular myth, and proves that slaves were particularly mobile, especially at night. Religious and secular gatherings were often held by slaves in the woods, and their masters feared that such gatherings might be a prelude to another slave revolt like the successful one in Haiti. Because of a sheer lack of manpower, they had to devise other ways to make the slaves stay on the plantations, and one of those ways was to make up ghost stories of the forest being haunted by evil spirits. In this vein, the overseer and others would dress up as ghosts and ride through the slave quarters at night, trying to reinforce the master’s myth.

After the Civil War, similar tactics were used by ex-slave owners to keep their former slaves on the plantation and working. One tactic was to show up late at night dressed as the ghosts of Confederate soldiers. To be more convincing, such antics were employed as putting large bags under the costumes, so when they asked for water, they could “drink” extraordinary amounts of it, giving the guise of being souls returning thirsty from hell. As one could already surmise, such character acting also played a major role in the formation of what would later be known as the Ku Klux Klan. Apparently, these types of ghost stories were central to the ideology of white supremacy in the pre- and post-bellum South. The slaves and ex-slaves were objects of domination because they would “fall for” such obvious acts of costumed bullying.

Fry portrays most slaves as not “falling for it”, but as being afraid of the very real violence of the slave system nonetheless. Often, such disguises were not well done, and it was known that such-and-such a ghost was really the overseer or master in disguise. If these types of subterfuges were effective, it was in that it added a psychological aspect to the threats of violence that hung over these African-Americans in their daily lives. It also added doubts as to whether the slaves should flee north to freedom. One popular story was that the Yankees up north were really horned beasts who kill slaves. Such myths further extended even to cities like Washington D.C., where urban legends of night doctors killing black people for their organs were spread through the streets to keep loiterers inside.

In any case, Fry’s book is an interesting work in the field of American history and merits much reflection in terms of its investigations into racism, folk religion, and social control.





On the arcana

6 06 2011

Or two posts in one

About a year ago, I took a personal field trip to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette to investigate the phenomenon of the treaters, or traiteurs. The more I read or hear about these folk healers, the more I realize that people’s attitudes towards certain things “back in the day” were quite different from our own. For one thing, I cannot find many instances of people actually writing down the prayers used by the folk healers in their cures. These were supposed to be secret, and only to be passed down to a member of the opposite sex. (As I have found out, this passing to the opposite sex was also the case for Appalachian folk healing.) If a healer could not find someone willing to learn the prayers, he or she took them to the grave. My wife’s great-grandfather was a treater, and the prayers died with him.

Why they were so secretive about these prayers is an object of speculation among anthropologists. One researcher has stated that the secrecy comes from the time of slavery. A slave who had managed to bring the healing arts with him from Africa did not want to reveal this to his master, since this would mean that he would be pressed into practicing them, and if unsuccessful, blamed for their failure, or possibly worse, of killing with black magic. This was perhaps to the point that the arts would die with them if for some reason they could not be passed down to someone reliable. The key seems to be that the power to heal was not seen as something belonging to the treater. Unlike curanderos in Latin America, they were not perceived to have el don or a particular power to heal. The prayers were what was important, and they were communal property, in that a treater could never charge for his or her services.
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Notes on Hegel on Africa

21 03 2011

These are some of the infamous passages by G.F.W. Hegel in his Philosophy of History in which he writes the following:

The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality-all that we call feeling-if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mahommedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture…

At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it-that is in its northern part-belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.
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Weekly links 03032011

3 03 2011

A link on “biblical consumerism”:

Beal thinks the current boom in biblical consumerism amounts to a “distress crop,” the last great efflorescence of the old authoritative ideal before people move on and learn to embrace biblical ambiguity. I’m not so sure. Craving the certainty and absolutism of fundamentalism is a fairly common response (across many religious faiths) to the often terrifying flux of modern life. If certitude is the main thing American Christians are seeking when they turn to the Bible, then they’re unlikely to tolerate, let alone embrace, Beal’s “library of questions” model. You can learn a lot about how the Bible was created in the past 2,000 years, and about the many strange forms it has taken in the present, from “The Rise and Fall of the Bible.” But where it’s headed in the future is a mystery much harder to solve.

A Protestant friend of mine once said that the Bible should probably be compared more to a music score than a guide book for living. Americans are notorious for using it as the latter. Even candle shops and botanicas sell books of the Psalms as works of conjure and white magic. The difference between this and using it to justify imperial power is merely a matter of scale. As for me, I never liked reading the Bible, even when forced to do it on my knees in seminary. Oddly enough, it was Luther who would say that the Word of God is expressed best in preaching, not in the written text.

Epistemological distress due to the ripening of late capitalism makes for poor dogma.

This is proof that most people believe in some pretty sloppy history. First off, one must concede that Marx himself called Lincoln a “first rate second rate man”. His subsequent apotheosis should then be seen as unjustified. However, when speaking of the Civil War, Americans are notoriously bad at considering the slaves as entirely passive actors; as poor victims waiting on the plantations to be saved. As W.E.B. DuBois proves in his magisterial work, Black Reconstruction in America, slavery was really ended by a massive general strike on the part of the slaves who left their plantations in droves during the course of the war. Something similar occured in Brazil in 1888: slavery was ended by the slaves themselves a couple of years leading up to the proclamation of the “Golden Law”. To concede that the actual slaves played a vital role in their own liberation would be too much for the bourgeois intellectual, just as the Haitian Revolution proved to be too much for the “world stage” to digest, at least openly.

And, some old news, just to prove that some Latin American “leftist” presidents are not as “left” we think.





More on faith and culture

5 11 2009

viracocha1

Rather than attempting to build Christianity upon the natural virtues of Inca religion in the Andes, the Jesuits in Juli had come to see Andean customs and beliefs as a serious hinderance to the faith of Christ. The sixteenth-century emphasis on the interior experience of Christianity, which created much higher standards for native converts than had existed in preceding centuries, meant that the Jesuit’s disillusionment with the native potential for Christian evangelization would be experienced throughout the Peruvian church. Eventually, the conviction that they native peoples were not truly “Christian” would lead to episcopal campaigns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to extirpate idolatry, as well as to modern notions that Andean peoples are “cryptopagans” even when they profess a belief in Christ.

Dr. Sabine Hyland wrote a book a few years back entitled, The Jesuit and the Incas, on one of the first mestizo clergy in Peru, Fr. Blas Valera. A son of one of the conquistadores and an Inca noblewoman, he was one of the first scholars to do a comparison of ancient Incan civilization with the European classical world, and created a world view quite favorable to the conquered empire. It was Fr. Valera’s contention that Inca religion was quite close to Christianity, down to an almost Christian idea of an incarnate God named Viracocha, and an absolute creator god named Illa Tecce. Valera wanted the Spanish clergy to begin to use these names for the Christian God and Jesus Christ, but to no avail. In the end, Fr. Valera was framed on charges of fornication and imprisoned by the Jesuit order for four years. Scholars now believe that he was really imprisoned for syncretic heresy. Only through the intervention of some influential Jesuits was he finally freed and sent to Spain, where he died in a pirate assault on Cadiz in 1597.
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Saint Marron

17 09 2009

stanthony

St. Marron, a folk saint unique to New Orleans, was the patron of runaway slaves; the name derives from the French word marron, meaning a runaway. He was usually represented by an image of St. Anthony, apparently this saint not only found lost people, he aided those who “got lost” on purpose.

-Carolyn Morrow Long, A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau





Three posts on love – III

4 08 2009

Holy_Family_Nuns

In the first, I discussed the relationship between faith, the Church, and true love.

In the second, I focused on love to the point of damnation and forgiveness.

In the third, posted on Inside Catholic, I tell the story of those who loved to the point of humiliation, but still kept their dignity. That completes the series.





The Death of Amédé Ardoin

24 06 2009




The other side of “otherness”

26 05 2009

watermelon

The racial politics of American folk healing and other notes

Anthony Cavender has a brief section in his book, Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia on the role of African-Americans in the development of American folk healing. (I will do a broader post on the rest of the book later.) As usual, the American black was considered by the white populace of being a practitioner of witchcraft, and able to be manipulated by superstitions. (Gladys-Marie Fry shows some of this in her book, Night Riders in Black Folk History, which is on my reading list.) Even though the black populace was (and to an extent still is) very much Christian, white Christians always suspected them of not having given up their “pagan ways”, and the white press was always keen to talk about the “voodoo” and “hoodoo” of the black minority at every possible turn.
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The Eyes of Escrava Anastacia

26 04 2009

anastacia1

Race, Gender, and Religion in Brazil

For American students of Latin America, the idea of a “racial democracy” in Brazil has long been an intoxicating prospect, especially when compared to our own very polarized racial history. Indeed, it is a myth that the Brazilian intellegentsia has itself been pushing for over sixty years. The myth is basically that since there was far more miscegenation in Brazil than there was in the United States, there is far less racism. The fact that the racial hierarchy is more complex is seen as being indicative of a society where class and not race is important. It was only about twenty years ago that such ideas were challenged by black intellectuals. The reality on the ground turns out to be as ugly, if not uglier, than the American situation.
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