Zora Neale Hurston: “Mules and Men” (1935): Part Two, Hoodoo

Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a flame in America, with all the intensity of a suppressed religion. It has its thousands of secret adherents. It adapts itself like Christianity to its locale, reclaiming some of its borrowed characteristics to itself. Such as fire-worship as signified in the Christian church by the altar and the candles. And the belief in the power of water to sanctify as in baptism. Belief in magic is older than writing. So nobody knows how it started. (176)

There is a story retold by Zora Neale Hurston at the end of Part One of Mules and Men. It is about a man named High Walker who could raise the bones in the graveyard to life, but only for a moment. He needed only to command the bones to “shake yo’self.” Another man asks the devil to take his soul so he could die. He is sick of the world as it is. He dried up and left only bones behind. High Walker came across these bones and asks them to shake. The bones do not shake but it does talk to High Walker telling him to beware and that he will join them soon. High Walker finds a white man and tells him about the talking skull. When the skull does not reply to High Walker in the presence of a white man, the white man kills High Walker by slicing off his head. Later the skull tells High Walker that he told him that to watch out. The white man runs off when he seen the bones shake on their own. They proclaim victory having seized High Walker’s bones.

This story is sits in the book just before Hurston makes the transition to discussing hoodoo. It suggests a few things about this African-American religion. The struggle over the boundary between life and death, the power of the devil, the unknowability of the nuances of the religion to white people, and its playfulness. Hurston tells us that hoodoo is a part of the suppressed and underground tradition of black people in America, as much a part of their tradition as the folk stories. By including this in Mules and Men she is posing a challenge. You cannot just accept the stories—even incorporate them into mainstream American culture through public education—without taking the entire package. Although I guess she knows few will. Brer Rabbit will always have a place in American folklore. I am less sure about voodoo (at least not as something most people will praise and speak of casually with their children). Perhaps what make is more frightening is that it is not capable of being assimilated. It is part of a culture of resistance in active revolt and as such not possibly co-opted.

Hurston tries to find the origin of hoodoo in general use of magic in all cultures, suggesting its roots even as far back as the mythical figures of the Old Testament. She clearly wants to tell us that the line between Christianity and voodoo is not very far. Moses in her view was a glorified conjure doctor. Yet, she quickly gets to her main point which is the application of hoodoo in the contemporary United States, especially New Orleans, where she experimented in various hoodoo ceremonies and rituals as well as telling stories about practitioners and consumers of hoodoo. People sought out voodoo for dramatic life-changing needs such as finding a mate and for more mundane things like medical treatment. I find it interesting that this religion fills in where Jim Crow segregation likely made access to physicians more difficult. One “member of a disappearing school of folk magic” used hoodoo to provide legal services, including criminal defense.

Image from original edition. Hurston in a hoodoo ritual.

Image from original edition. Hurston in a hoodoo ritual.

Looking at this we are almost forced to go back to this question I looked at in some early posts (“McTeague”) about the role of professionalization in a free society. The question is, by whose standards is this conjure doctor lawyer unsuitable? The law’s standard, of course. But whose interest is served by seeing the formal written law as the only possible standard for resolving conflicts in society. I do not want to aggrandize this practicioner too much. Many of the spells he cast seemed to have the purpose of obstructing justice (silencing witnesses and such), but at a more basic level we understand that the reason lawyers have power to interpret the law and most of the rest of us do not, is that they have a piece of paper backed by the legal authority of the state. I am still not sure how we can find alternatives to professions (even Bakunin seems to accept some professionalization in his theory of authority), but I suppose they should be more free and more reflective of people’s diverse traditions and values.

The end of Mules and Men consists of some fairly extensive appendices, with a glossary, some songs lyrics with musical scores, and methods for casting various hoodoo spells (many of them cures for illnesses, but some are more interesting things like love potions).

In short, Mules and Men is a great book. Hurston did a great service in recording African American folklore traditions at a particular moment in time, but she also gives us good reasons to see this tradition as part of the broader narrative of black working class resistance. Her inclusion of hoodoo is a powerful reminder that we cannot bracket these traditions when we study them.

 

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“The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1831)

The Confessions of Nat Turner cannot be easily separated from the legal proceedings that created it. Unlike the other slave narratives in the collection, Nat Turner’s was not produced by choice. Nat Turner’s anti-slavery work was done in action, not in the written word, but the popularity of The Confession may have had as much of an impact as the rebellion he organized and led.

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Nat Turner’s rebellion was one of only a handful of full-blown slave rebellions in 19th century North American history, alongside the 1811 New Orleans uprising and two failed conspiracies (Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey). As any first year student of American history knows, Nat Turner’s revolt is significant because it convinced the South that slavery was an institution that could no longer be debated and in the last thirty-five years of slavery in the United States, the planting class defended its cruel system with all its legal, political, and intellectual power—leading eventually to a growing sectional divide and the Civil War, which led to the greatest American slave revolt with almost 200,000 armed escaped slaves invading and occupying the lands they once worked.

The document itself is simply Nat Turner’s confessions made in jail over the course of a few days of conversation with Thomas Gray. Soon after this talk he was executed. As the trial transcripts put it: “The judgment of the court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the house of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” (264–265) The confession is bracketed by these official documents, Grays comments, and information on the whites killed in the uprising and the fate of the captured blacks. Some of these were free before the rebellion and for all intents and purposes were free for the duration of their insurrection.

The conspiracy

The conspiracy

There is not that much in The Confessions of Nat Turner in way of autobiography, but what he focuses on is significant for what is tells us about the nature of power in antebellum Southern slavery. Nat Turner wanted the world to know how he taught himself to read and how he was given a mission by God. In this way, he established his intellectual and moral independence from his masters. Several years before the rebellion, he escaped and apparently could have stayed away, but he returned after a month in order to fulfill this mission. Thus, he also wanted to make clear to his accusers that he from that moment on a slave by choice.

Suppression

Suppression

Most of the confession is his description of the various murders he and his group were engaged in. The description of the rebels taking axes to the skulls of children are hard to read, but Nat Turner is brutally honest about the necessity for justice and the divine nature of his mission. To blunt, Nat Turner’s actions was no less shocking than what was done to slaves throughout the nation, everyday, for decades. It was less of a tactical mission than a martyrdom. He makes comparisons to Christ. “Was not Christ crucified. And by signs in the heaves that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work—and until the first sign appeared, I should conceal it from the knowledge of men.” (253) Success was not promised him and apparently it was not expected. His mission was to awaken and shock the conscience of the nation. The response by whites suggests he was successful.

We can also read The Confessions of Nat Turner as yet another example of the state suppression of libertarian movements. Examples of this abound, of course, but this one is particularly clear and well-documented, particularly in the courts refusal to consider the context, their rapid application of lethal justice, and the indiscriminate killing of many of the participants in the rebellion.

Olaudah Equiano: “Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” (1789)

O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men do unto you? Is it not enough that we are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain? Must every tender feeling be likewise sacrificed to your avarice? Are the dearest friends and relations, now rendered more dear by their separation from their kindred, still to be parted from each other, and thus prevented from cheering the gloom of slavery with the small comfort of being together and mingling their sufferings and sorrows? Why are parents to lose their children, brothers their sisters, or husbands their wives? Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty, which, while it has no advantage to atone for it, thus aggravates distress, and adds fresh horrors even to the wretchedness of slavery. (79)

Olaudah Equiano’s narrative of his enslavement and his successful path toward freedom is one of the richest tests of the eighteenth century Atlantic, and by extension colonial America. He manages to describe the various conditions of slaves across the Atlantic at the height of the slave trade, while also putting together a powerful autobiography. Slave narratives are invariably stories of resistance. The very act of writing down their life story when the white ruling class depended on their silence for the sustaining of slavery is resistance enough, but when coupled with learning to write, escaping captivity, or—as many of them document doing—challenging the very assumption of racial slavery in their everyday lives we must look at these documents as evidence of the universal nature of resistance to slavery. These narratives come to us from men and women, plantation slaves and sailors, people who purchased their freedom and people who ran away. These are unique individuals who were part of that small group that could document their stories, but they are also representatives to humanity for the millions who were worked to death and beaten into silence.

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The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was published two years before Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. As any reader of these two texts knows, the West was engaged in a debate about the meaning, limits and political possibilities of freedom in the Atlantic world. Paine and Equiano stand on the same side of that debate. Yes, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, was the first author of a slave narrative in English, but Equiano’s was the first that is clearly part of the libertarian tradition of the anti-slavery movement.

Equiano begins his narrative with a social history of the Igbo people, who he claimed to belong to. (This is controversial point and some have claimed Equiano was an African-American, making up his African birth, but I will set this aside as irrelevant for my reading.) In this chapter he does several things, most importantly establish clear moral differences between European civilization and the culture of his birth. Careful to present it as culturally and economically complex, Equiano also wants to point out that it was relatively egalitarian compared to Europe, despite being—like Europe—a society with slaves. Social distinctions do exist but they are not manifest in grotesque displays and wealth and power. “As our manners are simple, our luxuries are few. . . . Our manner of living is entirely plain.” (52–53) Equiano makes several comparisons between his people and the Jews, even suggesting some commonalities. This will evolve into an important dialog throughout African-American religious history.

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Equiano then describes the process of his enslavement and his arrival in Barbados. Most of the narrative actually focuses on his labor on various ships, both in slavery and freedom. Like Gronniosaw’s narrative, we find that the line between slavery and freedom is very clear. Equiano sees a clear moral line between the two. Yet, he would acknowledge that exploitation existed at many levels. “Masters” means both the commanders of the ships that Equiano worked on as a freeman and the people who owned him. Since he was not a plantation slave, there was not as radical a change for Equiano from slavery to freedom as there would have been for someone escaping from enslavement in the sugar islands. This is part of the reason why Equiano focused so much of his most politically powerful prose for his empathetic descriptions of plantation slavery. Perhaps he knew that his sufferings as an enslaved sailor were not so far from the sufferings of the free sailors. For his work to become an anti-slavery tract, he needed to identity and expose the most brutal aspect of the system. If he did lie about his origins and enduring the Middle Passage, this was why.

There is a passage that clarifies how exploitation and violence was not reserved for enslaved men and women.

While we were at Gibraltar, I saw a soldier hanging by his heels, at one of the moles: I thought this a strange sight, as I had seen a man hanged in London by his neck. At another time I saw the master of a frigate towed to shore on a grating, by several of the men of war’s boats, and discharged the fleet, which I understood was a mark of disgrace for cowardice. On board the same ship there was also a sailor hung up at the yard-arm. (97)

In this fashion, Equiano suggests that being a free man working on a ship contained its own brutalities and degrees of unfreedom. However, at the same time, working first as a slave and then a freedman on various naval and merchant ships provided Equiano with some space to secure his eventual freedom. Most importantly he was able to make money on the side, which he used to purchase his freedom. He was also given a degree of responsibility, to the chagrin of some of the more racist elements on board the ship.

Chapter five is the core of his anti-slavery writings, and the least autobiographical. Here is explores the nature of plantation slavery in the Caribbean sugar islands. There is no need for a full recounting (even Equiano shy away from descriptions after a while to avoid excess), but he does show that the violence of the system was developed in concert with efforts by slaves to secure some liberty. Power also develops and refines itself in the face of resistance. Without resistance power rarely needs to innovate, defend itself, or exert much effort to sustain itself. This alone suggests the moral necessity of resistance, even if futile, for it makes oppression dearly purchased.

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Equiano devotes a chapter to his conversion to Christianity and another to his growing political activities. We suspect that these are connected. Equiano enjoyed framing slaveholders as false Christians (or “nominal Christians”). His conversion was important as well, because although it involved some acceptance of his master’s culture, it is arrived at after through the logic of his life in the international Atlantic world, not forced upon him. Like Gronniosaw, Equiano came to Christianity as a free moral agent. And for Equiano at least, Christianity was a springboard for political action, not a surrender of earthly paradise for a fantastical heavenly one.

Equiano’s book is one of the most important documents speaking to eighteenth century Atlantic slavery and the emergence of commercial capitalism. For those who borrow from the pro-slavery apologists of the Old South the belief that slavery was some projection of feudalism into the modern world, Equaino’s narrative will reveal that in fact slavery and capitalism were joined at the hip. The abolitionist movement that Equiano helped formed after he settled in England was on the first stage in the struggle against the exploitations, violence, and criminality of capitalism. In fact, if you take slavery out of the Equiano’s story, we are left with a long list of abuses inflicted on free people. Equiano’s struggle may have been morally more urgent, but it was only the start.

Herman Melville, “Mardi” Serenia

One of the final and most tempting stops on Taji’s voyage throughout Mardi (the world), is Serenia.  Not only does it tempt Taji, who considers staying there, and Media and Babbalanja, who remain in Serenia, it tempts the reader as a possible alternative to the seemingly endless quest for Yillah.  Serenia is stateless and without evil.  The closest they have to an authority figure is Alma, a philosopher of peace and love.

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Like many people faced with utopia, our voyagers are skeptical at first.  Babbalanja says: “Methinks Sernia is that land of enthusiasts, of which we heard, my lord; where Mardians pretend to the unnatural conjunction of reason with things revealed; where Alma, they say, is restored to his divine original; where, deriving their principles from the same sources whence flow the persecutions of Maramma, — men strive to live together in gentle bonds of peace and charity; — folly! folly!”

Media is just as convinced that Serenia is a fool’s dream. “Much is said of those people of Serenia; but their social fabric must soon fall to pieces; it is based upon the idlest of theories.  Thanks for thy courtesy, old man, but we care not to visit thy island.”  (1284)  How often have we heard these criticisms of anarchism?  Utopian, unnatural, foolish, unsustainable.  And like Media, most of these critics choose not even to visit, face, or study the alternative dreamed up and made real by anarchists.

The first real impression we get of Serenia is its openness and generosity.  They are welcomed with song.  “Hail! voyages, hail! Whence e’er ye come, where’er ye rove, no calmer strand, no sweater land, will e’er ye view than the Land of Love. . . . Hail! voyagers, fail!  Be not deceived; renounce vain things; ye may not find a tranquil mind, thought hence ye sail with swiftest wings.” (1285-1286)  Like many church buildings, the visitor is welcomed in with hymns of praise.

They then learn about Alma, the Jesus-like philosophical leader of Serenia, known throughout Mardi and often poorly emulated.  We are reminded here of Christianity’s application of force and violence, often at odds with Jesus’ teachings.  Alma’s message is of universal love and brotherhood.  Although he proclaims an afterlife, he urges his followers to strive for perfection in this world.  When Media questions Alma’s followers on their postponement of paradise, he is quickly corrected.  “Would that Alma might once more descent!  Brother! were the turf our everlasting pillow, still would the Master’s faith answer a blessed end; — making us more truly happy here.  That is the first and chief result; for holy here, we must be holy elsewhere.  ‘Tis Mardi, to which loved Alma gives his laws; nor Paradise.” (1288-1289)

When they explain their social structure the voyagers learn that Serenia is not a communist utopia of total equality in conditions.  At the same time they “make not the miserable many support the happy few.”  (1289)  Bound by Alma’s philosophy of brotherhood and love, there is no need for a state.

The two skeptics are converted when they face truth.  Babbalanja cries out “Oh, Alma, Alma! prince divine!  in thee, at last, I find repose.” (1292)  Media sacrifices his title and position in becoming a follower: “No more a demigod, but a subject to our common chief.  No more shall dismal cries be heard from Odo’s groves.  Alma, I am thine.”  (1293)

These converts spend some time trying to convince Taji to remain in Serenia, calling Yillah a phantom or suggesting that Yillah (no longer a person but an ideal) can be found in this land.

Melville does not explain Taji’s decision to continue on.  We are not presented with a philosophical argument against Serenia.  It is enough that Yillah is not that that Taji moves on.  “But I was fixed as fate.” (1301)  A few lines later Taji considers abandoning the quest for Yillah and returning to Serenia but “then sweet Yillah called me from the sea.”  (1301)

In the context of the novel, Serenia is clearly an allegory for Christianity, which is often convincing and succeeded in converting many a ruler and philosopher.  If we strip away the religiosity of the followers of Alma, we can do much worse that Serenia, a land organized around principles of brotherhood and love.  Melville seems to doubt if that is possible without religious delusions.  Serenia lacks a state but it has a ruler in Alma’s philosophy.  Is there a place for people in Serenia who doubt Alma’s message?  It does not seem to be true.  Media and Babbalanja can only stay after a full conversion.

Thus as compelling as Serenia is, it is ultimately another failure.  Like Taji we need to keep searching for Yillah, whatever she is.  I admit there is little concrete that we can use in Mardi and this message could have been told with more clarity, ease, and persuasion.  (I tend to think Omoo does a better job.)  It works as a fairy tale without ending.  The lesson of the first three Melville novels is to be dissatisfied because something better is just over the horizon, and that it can be ours if we only have the bravery to venture out there.