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.





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.
Read the rest of this entry »





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.





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





New World Jihad

28 04 2009

shahada08
You learn somthing new everyday (and somewhat related to yesterday’s post)…

I stumbled across various references to the Revolta dos Malês, an 1835 slave rebellion in Bahia, Brazil, of Muslim slaves. Led by a Luisa Mahin, a snack vendor who could read and write Arabic, it sought to overthrow slavery in Brazil, enslave all non-Muslims, and create a kingdom governed by Islamic law. Mahin was also responsible for spreading the words of the Prophet Mohammed amongst the slaves. The revolt arose at the end of January and was suppressed within two days. The end of its leader Mahin is unknown to history, though she is known to be the mother of the Brazilian abolitionist, Luis Gama.

Related to this, it is said that santeros (priests of an Afro-Cuban religion) often greet each other with a phrase astoundingly close to the Arabic As-Salamu Alaykum, which has been passed on to them from their African rituals.





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.
Read the rest of this entry »





Escrava Anastacia

12 03 2009

anastacia1

…et non aperuit os suum sicut ovis ad occisionem ducetur et quasi agnus coram tondente obmutescet et non aperiet os suum

The above is an image of Brazilian folk saint Escrava Anastacia (Anastacia the Slave), the daughter of an African princess in colonial Brazil who was reputed to work miracles and be a model of virtue in her own lifetime. Renowned for her beauty and her beautiful blue eyes, she is said to have often exclaimed, “eu não sou escrava” (I am not a slave). The popular image is of her muzzled with an iron mask which many believe was a punishment for the refusal of her master’s sexual advances. She more than likely died of gangrene from wearing that mask, and is said to have forgiven her oppressors before her death.
Read the rest of this entry »





New World Slavery was not “Biblical”

2 11 2008

Many things posted on the Internet are ridiculous and merit no response. One should thus not waste one’s time on them. However, there are certain things that come from quarters that are perhaps too important to ignore. One of them is the admittedly right-wing conservative Catholic site, Inside Catholic, which I do read from time to time. Since the Catholic Internet is dominated by the conservative right, and most progressive Catholics on the Internet and elsewhere are too busy questioning the Church to contribute to any constructive conversation, you can think that the majority of Catholics in this country are white, middle class, card-carrying members of the Republican Party. This of course is not the case, but it can mean that any kooky idea right of center is given a hearing, no matter how absurd it is.
Read the rest of this entry »





Back in the Good Ol’ Days…

24 07 2008

When vice was the luxury of those who could afford it.

AG once posted one of the dirty little secrets of American slavery that made the affair even more gruesome and inhumane:

The slave trade was not only an exchange for manual labor but also for sexual goods. In fact, in places it was de rigueur for a young white man to have a black woman as mistress (consensual or not) before marriage to a white woman. An attractive, lighter-skinned, young female slave could auction off for as much if not more money than a young male laborer. There are even records of plantation owners selling their own daughters, conceived with a female slave, to other plantation owners as sex slaves.
Read the rest of this entry »