CHRISTIO-CONJURE IN A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the

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A Dissertation
Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the
Louisiana State University and
Agricultural and Mechanical College
in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
The Department of English
Laura Sams Haynes
B.A., Florida State University, 1986
M.A., Clark Atlanta University, 1995
May 2002
©Copyright 2002
Laura Sams Haynes
All rights reserved
. 32
. 55
. 80
. 102
. 147
. 160
. 183
. 195
This project examines contemporary African American women’s literature and
the legacy established by literary foremother, Zora Neale Hurston. The discussion is
positioned at the cross-section of three on-going conversations: 1) current discourses on
Conjure in African American women’s literature, 2) analyses of Africanisms in black
culture, and 3) previous scholarship on recurring topics in African American women’s
writing. Here these frames are unified under one thematic: Christio-Conjure—a rubric
borne of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that designates the fusing of Christian and West
African religious tradition in African American culture. Thus, this project establishes a
new literary matrix for analyzing twentieth-century black women’s writing.
Each chapter features a novel viewed through the critical lens of Christio-Conjure.
Zora Neale Hurston’s and Luisah Teish’s research offers a framework for the elements of
Christio-Conjure integrated throughout the novels. Chapter two, “Christio-Conjure as
Historical Fiction,” analyzes Jewel Parker Rhodes’s Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie
Laveau (1993), a work that provides a compelling image of the black woman as a
Christio-Conjure priestess.
Chapter three, “Christio-Conjure and the Ghost Story,”
examines how Tina McElroy Ansa’s Baby of the Family (1988) incorporates the ChristioConjure tenet of matrilineage with the cultural transmission of mother wit as African
American folk wisdom. Chapter four, “Revolutionary Christio-Conjure,” addresses the
revolutionary aspects of Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters (1980), highlighting
African American communal transformation and afrofemcentric female bonding.
Chapter five, “Christio-Conjure Activism,” examines Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass,
Cypress & Indigo (1982) with the title characters as proverbial soul sistahs who employ
Christio-Conjure in self-actualization and communal healing. Chapter six, “ChristioConjure Romance and Magic,” discusses the love story of Cocoa and George against the
backdrop of Gloria Naylor’s revision of the holy trinity in Mama Day (1989). As
liberation tales, these novels depict characters that appropriate Christio-Conjure as a
source of empowerment. In addition, the authors themselves employ Christio-Conjure in
their writing as a reaffirmation of their cultural and literary heritage. As a focal point,
then, Christio-Conjure functions as a centering mechanism in contemporary twentiethcentury black women’s writing, a body of literature historically marginalized.
Design and Scope
This project focuses on select twentieth-century African American women’s
literature in relation to the legacy of writing established by early twentieth-century
literary foremother, Zora Neale Hurston. To this end, the discussion is positioned at the
cross-section of three on-going conversations. First, I situate my project within current
discourses on Conjure in African American women’s literature. In addition, I incorporate
analyses of Africanisms in black American culture. Also, to a lesser, yet still significant
degree, I integrate previous scholarship on recurring topics in African American women’s
writing such as the quest for identity motif and the theme of communal bonding.
Previously, the academic discourse generated by these foci existed, by and large, as
separate and distinct areas of study. Here, these frames are unified under one thematic:
Christio-Conjure—a rubric borne of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that designates the
fusing of Christian and West African religious tradition1 in African American culture.
Thus, I establish a new literary matrix for analyzing twentieth-century black women’s
writing. In this discussion, I approach the subject of Christio-Conjure from two distinct
perspectives: 1) as an ideological belief system that explains black women’s experiences
in life and in literature and 2) as a ritualistic practice that fosters black women’s spiritual
development in real life and in fiction. Applying Christio-Conjure as a critical theory, I
examine its ideology and practice in five contemporary novels: Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams
(1993), an historical fiction; Ansa’s Baby of the Family (1988), a coming of age novel;
Bambara’s The Salt Eaters (1980), a novel about social revolution and unification;
Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982), a novel of social activism; and Naylor’s
Mama Day (1989), a romantic novel. The selection includes both celebrated and obscure
authors and is a survey of contemporary literature featuring Christio-Conjure. As a dual
agent of spiritual liberation and social empowerment, in black women’s writing ChristioConjure narratives facilitate the symbolic re-centering of the historically de-centered
African American female identity. As such, the Christio-Conjure literary movement
represents an afrofemcentric—i.e., black, woman-centered—revision of American
Defining Literary & Cultural Christio-Conjure: Chesnutt, Hurston, & Teish
Christio-Conjure as a literary model represents a matriarchal network designed to
extol the black woman—continental and diasporic—as the life-force and mother of
humanity. A corpus of African American women writers has demonstrated a critical
interest in Christio-Conjure not only because of its cultural link with the past, but also
because it elevates the image of the black woman. Beginning with one-act plays written
by women during the Harlem Renaissance (e.g., May Miller, Georgia Douglas Johnson,
and Zora Neale Hurston) and including a host of contemporary writers (viz. Paule
Marshall, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Tina
McElroy Ansa, and Jewell Parker Rhodes), black women writers function metaphorically
as literary Christio-Conjure women.
Although this form of writing typically exists under the dominion of black women
writers, in some instances, Christio-Conjure characters and/or tales appear in maleproduced texts.2
However, male and female writers appropriate the theme quite
Male novelists, such as Charles Chesnutt, Ishmael Reed (in Flight to
Canada, 1989), and literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., primarily focus on trickster
figures—generally, but not exclusively, self-centered and self-interested—who vie for
personal advancement (economic or otherwise). Conversely, women writers such as
Paule Marshall, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Tina McElroy Ansa, Gloria Naylor,
and Jewell Parker Rhodes feature family and community-oriented figures who promote
psychological survival and spiritual salvation for themselves and others. This literary
chasm is predicated on historically gendered spheres, e.g., the economic (male sphere)
versus the emotional/spiritual (female sphere), as well as the individual (male sphere)
versus the familial/communal (female sphere). There are, however, exceptions to this
rule; Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and playwright August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
(1990) contribute to the literary cultivation of Christio-Conjure in ways I designate as
Granting these rare literary exceptions, there is a conspicuous gendered split in
the treatment of Christio-Conjure in black literature. This split is particularly apparent in
Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales (1899 added emphasis).
Chesnutt’s collection of short stories, despite its illusory title, is a decidedly malecentered text. While the tales feature Conjure women, namely Aun’ Peggy and Tenie,
these women remain marginalized as their stories are appropriated first by John, the white
narrator, and then again by Uncle Julius, the black storyteller and “old trickster” himself
(Ferguson 40).
Throughout the tales, Julius negotiates the economy of the post-
emancipation plantation, symbolized by his interaction with his white employers, John
and Annie. In the “Conjurer’s Revenge,” for example, Julius manipulates John by
employing a language that “plays to the perceptual biases of the white world that John
and Annie symbolize” (Ferguson 41). Their world, as described by Robert Bone, is “a
world of economics [. . .] and a dogged skepticism of anything that smacks of magic or
conjuration. It is the world [. . .] of capitalist enterprise as it invades the Reconstruction
South” (41). As trickster, Julius manipulates the Conjure tradition within the context of
his storytelling as a commodity, which yields profit for himself, e.g., grapes and honey,
and sometimes profit for others, e.g., a group meeting hall.
Similar to Julius who casts spells upon John and Annie with his oral tales,
Chesnutt conducted some spell-casting of his own. At the dawn of the twentieth century
the white demand for African American folklore was great. Like his white characters
John and Annie, Chesnutt’s white audience—if sales are any indication—was also
charmed by his folktales featuring Uncle Julius.
There are compelling theories
concerning how Chesnutt may have charmed his readership. Richard Brodhead contends
that “the persuasion of [Julius’] telling relocates his hearers’ imaginations with this mindmangled world, where he can subject them to the counterforce of his different
understanding” (10). While Julius, as trickster, may have successfully subjected his
hearers “to the counterforce of his different understanding,” Chesnutt’s sway over his
readers, like his position on the subject of Conjure, itself, is dubious.
Chesnutt’s treatment of Conjure renders him a black literary enigma of sorts, an
ambiguous figure at best. His Conjure women are prone to excessive error with hexes
that either go awry or utterly fail; consequently, their craft cannot be analyzed with any
degree of seriousness. Addressing the issue of Conjure in an essay published in 1901,
Chesnutt asserted that “relics of ancestral barbarism are found among all peoples, but
advanced civilization has at least shaken off the more obvious absurdities of superstition”
(qtd. in Sollors 119). His position here is clearly aligned with John rather than Julius, and
in a sense, his statement makes a mockery of Julius’s conjuring tales in the same way
Julius’s tales mock Aun’ Peggy and Tenie’s conjuring capabilities. Additionally, for
Chesnutt’s Conjurers there is dissonance between declaring themselves Christian and
practicing Conjure. Addressing the gendered rift in black literature, Houston A. Baker
maintains that Chesnutt’s Conjure women demonstrate “a specifically male appropriation
of the conjure woman’s work” for “clearly male material benefits” (79).
In his
theoretical analysis of Conjure in African American literature, Baker joins the camp of
Ishmael Reed, August Wilson, and a number of black women writers who work in the
idiom of Christio-Conjure. These writers employ Christio-Conjure as a vehicle for
interpreting and articulating black women’s cultural experiences.
Writing in the 1920s and 1930s, literary foremother4 Zora Neale Hurston laid the
foundation for the fictional treatment of Christio-Conjure with her non-fictional,5
anthropological publications Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938). These
texts delineate Christio-Conjure as it existed in New Orleans, Jamaica, and Haiti in the
early twentieth century. They serve as guidebooks for the fecund body of contemporary
black women’s Christio-Conjure writing, with Hurston as a looming, impressive figure at
the forefront of the literary movement. I propose that Mules and Men and Tell My Horse
function as “mother-texts” for Christio-Conjure novels published throughout the
twentieth century, especially those in the later half.
Using Hurston’s work as a backdrop, I define five contemporary novels as
Christio-Conjure texts: Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams, Ansa’s Baby of the Family, Bambara’s
The Salt Eaters, Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, and Naylor’s Mama Day. Each
novel features at least one archetypal Christio-Conjure character: a matriarchal figure
who offers physical and spiritual healing in the black community, often in her role as a
midwife. These characters, figuratively and literally, preserve and perpetuate various
forms of life in their communities. Highly esteemed for their knowledge and wisdom,
they are well versed in the blended tenets of the spiritual paradigm and serve as mentors
for emerging Christio-Conjure characters. Within this socio-literary framework, the five
novels I discuss possess a unique intertextuality and function as “speakerly texts”
(Signifying, Gates xxv).
That is, they engage in a textual dialogue, responding
thematically not only to one another but also to Hurston’s earlier works. Rhodes, Ansa,
Bambara, Shange, and Naylor represent a continuum of fiction writers who maintain a
literary lineage, drawing upon the cultural lessons of the past while advocating the future
mental, physical, and spiritual empowerment of African diasporic women.
In 1935, the same year she published Mules and Men, Hurston also published an
article based on her New Orleans anthropological research entitled “Hoodoo6 in
America.” Both the article and Mules and Men document her experiences in New
Orleans as a Voodoo practitioner. Hurston, it seems, was fascinated by the “Neo-African
religion” (Reed xi). In Mules and Men, she researches Marie Laveau, the legendary
Voodoo priestess of New Orleans. Luke Turner, claiming to be Laveau’s nephew,
explained to Hurston that “[t]ime went around pointing out what God had already made.
Moses had seen the burning bush. Solomon by magic knowed all wisdom. And Marie
Laveau was a woman in New Orleans” (201). Here, Turner lucidly characterizes Laveau
as a biblical prophet. In the following excerpt, he describes one of the annual rituals over
which Laveau presided and underscores the syncretism of Laveau’s religious practices:
Out on Lake Ponchatrain [. . .] she hold a great feast every
year on the Eve of St. John’s7 partly because she is a
Catholic and partly because of hoodoo. [. . .] Nobody see
Marie Laveau for nine days before the feast. But when the
great crowd of people at the feast call upon her, she would
rise out of the waters of the lake with a great communion
candle burning upon her head and another in each one of
her hands. She walked on the waters of the shore. As a
little boy I saw her myself. When the feast was over, she
went back into the lake, and nobody saw her for nine days
again. (89)
Turner suggests Laveau is invested with Christ-like powers, possessing the ability to
walk on water. This deification of Laveau coincides with the fact that “[blacks] and
women notably predominated in the leadership of [Voodoo].
This set it off from
manifestations of black Christianity that swept through the South” (Genovese 220).
Hurston, having grown up a preacher’s daughter in the South, saw the elevated status of
women in Voodoo as antithetical to women’s inferior status in the Christian church.
Through her research she learned that women in Voodoo were revered, and she became a
Voodoo priestess8 in New Orleans under Turner’s tutelage.
In addition to her work in New Orleans, Hurston’s fascination with the feminine
allure of Voodoo is reflected in her anthropological research in the Caribbean. Although
she highlights the inferior social position of masses of women in the Caribbean, she also
discusses Caribbean women who attain powerful positions9 in the community as
priestesses. Hurston documents Jamaican burial rituals characterized by a “strong flavor
of matriarchal rule” (41). In Tell My Horse she describes a dance ritual: “a woman
breaks through the dancers with a leap like a lioness emerging from cover. Just like that.
She sings with gestures as she challenges the drummers, a lioness defying the tribesmen”
(53). In this ritual, the stereotypical male attributes of strength and power are ascribed to
the female dancer. A symbolic queen without a king, she commands reverence from the
tribesmen. Further, Hurston examines the “Nanas” as local priestesses. Through the
lioness dancer and the Nanas, she presents two afrofemcentric prototypes: the defiant
woman who challenges the male power structure and the revered matriarch esteemed
throughout the community. Images of these women reoccur in Christio-Conjure texts,
underscoring the genre’s debt to Zora Neale Hurston.
In Haiti, as in Jamaica, Hurston focuses on the role of women and describes Haiti
as “the black daughter of France” (93). In Haiti, Erzulie Freida,10 the goddess of love,
possesses even higher cultural status than the lioness dancer and Nanas in Jamaica. Like
the historical figure Marie Laveau who would rather “dance and make love” (Mules,
Hurston 201), Erzulie is sexually charged and unfettered. Hurston explains that unlike
her Greek and Roman counterparts, Erzulie “has no children and her husband is all the
men of Haiti. That is, anyone of them that she chooses for herself [. . .]. As the perfect
woman she must be loved and obeyed” (Tell 121). Hurston establishes a dichotomy
between European and African goddesses, casting the former in a restricted role, confined
to traditional European realms of womanhood. While the European goddess is bound to
serve others as mother and wife, in contrast, the African goddess is unbound, liberated,
and autonomous. In the fictional narratives discussed in this project, the Christio-Conjure
women characters struggle to achieve the autonomy exhibited by Erzulie.
The deification of the goddess11 figure as well as the prominent role of the
priestess in West African religion help shape the afrofemcentric dimensions of ChristioConjure. Vodun12 rituals, for example, feature “the priestess as the central figure—the
person who is the oracle to the spirit of Vodun” (Baker 80). The strikingly womanist13
power of this African practice is captured in the opening anecdote of the Voodoo section
of Tell My Horse. Hurston reports:
“What is truth?” Dr. Holly asked me, and knowing that I
could not answer him he answered himself through a
voodoo ceremony in which the Mambo, that is the
priestess, richly dressed, is asked this question
ritualistically. She replies by throwing back her veil and
revealing her sex organs. The ceremony means that this is
the infinite, the ultimate truth. There is no mystery beyond
the mysterious sources of life. (113)
This sacred ceremony not only personifies ultimate truth as feminine, but it also
highlights feminine deification intrinsic to West African culture.
The Conjure tradition in Haiti has received considerable critical treatment among
contemporary scholars—e.g., Voodoo Heritage (1980) by Michael Laguerre, Passage of
Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie (1988) by Wade Davis, The Voudou
Quantum Leap: Alternate Realities, Power and Mysticism (2000) by Reginald Crosley, et
al. However, earlier in the century, Hurston divided her research by examining Conjure
culture in both Haiti and Jamaica. In the first section of Tell My Horse, she explicates the
duality of religious practice in Jamaica. She says the “tables” emphasize a ritual that
“boils down to a mixture of African obeah and Christianity enlivened by very beautiful
singing” (4). Hurston outlines various features of the Jamaican spiritual belief system,
including the use of candles to attract spirits and the belief that ancestral spirits dwell in
glass bottles kept by living family members.
These Conjure references resurface
throughout the novels I later discuss as well as in Julie Dash’s film script, Daughters of
the Dust14 (1994).
Specifically in Hurston’s discussion of the “Balm Yard,” she exposes the fusing
of Christian and West African religious tradition within Jamaican culture:
[a] “Balm Yard” is a place where they give baths, and the
people who operate these yards are to their followers both
doctor and priest. Sometimes he or she diagnoses a case of
natural ailment, and a bath or a series of baths in infusions
of secret plants is prescribed. More often the diagnosis is
that the patient has been “hurt” by a duppy, and a bath is
given to drive the spirit off. The balm yard with a
reputation is never lacking for business. These anonymous
rulers of the common people have decreed certain rules and
regulations for events in life that are rigidly adhered to. For
instance the customs about birth and death. The childbed
and the person of the newborn baby must be protected from
the dead by marks made with bluing. When [the baby] is
removed from this room, the open Bible must proceed to
keep off the duppies, and so on. (5)
In this passage the Conjure priest/priestess uses the holy Bible15 in a Jamaican birth ritual
designed to keep newborns safe from the invasion of spirits of the deceased. As a
spiritually blended construct, the birth ritual is marked by the integration of the Christian
holy Bible coupled with the West African belief in spirit contact.
As a travel narrative, Tell My Horse details the natural beauty of Haiti’s landscape
and the sacred zones where African gods dwell, the good Rada and the bad Petros.
Hurston gives a comprehensive description of the main gods, including their desires and
their powers (113-31). She identifies the arts of music (mainly drumming) and dance as
intricate elements in Haitian religious rituals. In the title chapter Hurston describes spirit
possession; she says the Guede is an invisible, but powerful loa (ancestral spirit) that
generally serves the oppressed classes of Haiti. A loa:
manifests himself by “mounting” a subject as a rider
mounts a horse, then he speaks and acts through his
mounts. The person mounted does nothing of his own
accord. He is the horse of the loa until the spirit departs.
Under the whip and guidance of the spirit rider, the “horse”
does and says many things that he or she would never have
uttered unridden. (221)
These mountings allow common people to experience divine status first-hand. In Voodoo
Dreams and Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Marie and Sassafrass each reinscribe the West
African cultural tradition of divine spirit possession through such “mountings.”
In addition to spirit possession, Hurston discusses the mysterious existence of
zombies and the retention of African medical practices in Voodoo. She contends that she
and a “physician of very high caliber”
discussed the possibility of a drug being used to produce
this semblance of death. That is his theory on the matter.
He said that he would give much to know the secret of it. It
was his belief that many scientific truths were hidden in
some of these [. . .] practices that have been brought from
Africa. But the knowledge of the plants and formulae are
secret [. . .] nothing will induce the guardians of these
ancient mysteries to divulge them. (204-5)
In Tell My Horse, Hurston extends her discussion beyond supernatural issues and
examines Haitian politics, observing that “the people of Haiti needed a spirit which could
burlesque the society that crushed them” (200).
By challenging the French Catholic power structure, Voodoo openly addressed
issues of inequity within Haitian culture. In her description of the annual waterfall ritual
at Saut d’Eau, Hurston notes the discord between the official Catholic Church of Haiti
and the masses of Haitians who subscribed to Voodoo:
it was a moving sight to see these people turning from
sordid things once each year to go into an ecstasy of the
beautiful in water-forms. Perhaps the [Catholic] priest has
some good reason for attempting to break up this annual
celebration at the waterfalls. I only heard that the church
does not approve and so it must be stopped if possible. I
fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for
them to have been inside a church listening to a man urging
them to “contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,” which is
just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing. It is
[. . .] much better for them to climb the rocks in their clean
bare feet and meet Him face to face in their search for the
eternal in beauty. (234-35)
In Haiti different forms of worship often collided at the intersection of race, culture, and
ethnicity, and this passage demonstrates the French Catholic attempt to dominate and
regulate religious practices in Haiti. Highlighting the inevitability of such conflict,
Hurston asserts, “gods always behave like the people who make them” (219). Indeed,
religion represents a culture’s attempt to explain the source of human existence and life
as the members of that culture experience it. Documenting Hurston’s personal religious
practices, Hemenway, her biographer, believes that she refused to divulge all the
mysteries of Voodoo she discovered in her research. He cites her practice of Voodoo as
a source of conflict between her responsibilities as a researcher/writer and her vows of
secrecy as a Voodoo practitioner.
In both anthropological texts, Hurston presents
Voodoo as potent and mysterious, yet its mysteries are never, to any significant degree,
crystallized in either text. Hurston’s explication of Voodoo, then, like the explication of
any religion, is cloaked in mystery. Nevertheless, in both works, she is a trailblazer in the
serious treatment of what I term Christio-Conjure.
As literary collages, Mules and Men and Tell My Horse are amalgamations of
sociology, topography, history, religion, politics, and poetics. Many of the passages in
these texts are filled with beautiful lyricism, not the “stuff of standard speech” or “formal
[academic] standards” (Dutton 145). Instead, these texts communicate playful, colorful,
yet profoundly meaningful expression. Ishmael Reed characterizes the content and style
of Tell My Horse as postmodern:
with its mixtures of techniques and genres, this book,
originally published in 1938, is bound to be the postmodern
book of the nineties. But her greatest accomplishment is in
revealing the profound beauty and appeal of a faith older
than Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, a faith that has
survived in spite of its horrendously bad reputation and the
persecution of its followers. (xv)
In addition to Hurston’s distinctive form and style, because of her legacy variations in the
treatment of Conjure are widespread in African American literature. As Baker notes,
Hurston’s work demonstrates that “the codes of conjure” define the lives of black folk
and their lore; her work also establishes that “conjure—both historically and in the
narrative frames of her corpus—is most fully defined by women” (94). I contend that in
African American culture, Conjure “survived” and merged with Christianity to create a
new, culturally inclusive form of worship, which captured Hurston’s creative imagination
and spiritual devotion. Unfortunately, critics like Reed, Baker, and Pryse focus only on
Hurston’s treatment of Conjure and neglect her attention to Christianity.
Luisah Teish, distinctly aware of Hurston’s ethnographic attention to both
Christianity and Conjure, counters this neglect in her ritualistic guidebook, Jambalaya:
The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals (1985).
relation to Hurston’s Mules and Men and Tell My Horse as mother texts, Teish’s
Jambalaya represents her ethnographic daughter text and addresses the need for more
cultural research like Hurston’s. Prior to publishing Jambalaya, Teish contemplated
“what it would take to build Zora’s work” and judged herself “too weak for the task”
(168). Despite her modesty, Teish’s work is equally as meaningful and insightful as
Hurston’s. While both Mules and Men and Tell My Horse illuminate the presence of the
Christio-Conjure tradition in African American and Caribbean communities early in the
twentieth century, Jambalaya discusses the late twentieth-century form of this tradition as
it is practiced in New Orleans. Like Hurston’s ethnographic work, Jambalaya is a
literary collage of multiple forms; it includes autobiography, historical biography, social
commentary, political editorial, religious philosophy, and ritualistic instruction.
Jambalaya, however, is significant in its own right, not only because it conjoins and
extends Hurston’s anthropological research, but also because it offers a modern socioliterary context for the analysis of contemporary black women’s Christio-Conjure fiction,
further shaping this tradition both culturally and artistically.
In Jambalaya, Teish discusses the unfavorable characterizations of African
religion in Western culture, noting how “the people who sought to oppress [its] practice”
(109) were often the ones describing and defining it. As a result, African religion has
been maligned as devil worship or superstition, which Teish defines as “a belief or
practice whose origin and context has been lost to us and/or is in conflict with the beliefs
of the dominating culture” (110 original emphasis). Combating the historical denigration
of West African culture,16 Teish describes translocation to America:
on the slave ships, Ibos, Yorubas, Bantus, and Wolofs were
thrown together [. . .]. As many as two million Africans
were exported in the slave trade. And though their eating
habits and manner of dress were different they nevertheless
maintained two important comonalites: (1) they spoke
dialects of the Kwa and Bantu languages, (2) they shared a
belief in nature worship and ancestor reverence and
performed similar magical practices. (104)
While this passage identifies monolithic cultural traits among major groups of Africans
transported to America in the slave trade, it also illustrates West Africa’s cultural
Teish specifically discusses the significance of ancestor worship among these
groups noting that the ancestors function as “guides, warriors and healers” (81). The
guides, she says, “help us make major decisions. The warriors defend us, give us courage
courage/foolhardiness and the healers help us maintain our physical, emotional, and
mental health” (80-81). This description of ancestor reverence speaks to the various roles
of the ancestors in the novels by Rhodes, Ansa, Bambara, Shange, and Naylor featured in
my study.
In addition to discussing ancestor reverence, Teish reveals that “Voudou has
special appeal to women” (xi). Moreover, she says that Voodoo “recognizes spiritual
kinship; encourages spiritual growth; respects the earth; and utilizes the power of
sexuality” (xi).
Teish identifies the modern practitioners of Voudou as “feminist-
spiritualists” (xi) and asserts that “Voudou is a science of the oppressed, a repository of
womanknowledge” (171 original emphasis).
Here, she substantiates my claim that
Christio-Conjure is a woman-centered paradigm operating as a liberatory agent in the
struggle against racio-gendered oppression.
Further defining Voudou as a female
tradition, Teish says “the Voudou queens, the women, have always been the true leaders”
(174). Furthermore, she cites Robert Tallant who reports that “Voodooism seems to have
been a matriarchy almost from its first days in Louisiana;” the King, who was probably
the current lover of the queen, was “a minor figure, Papa didn’t count. Mama was the
entire show” (174).
Teish expressly honors the spirit of Voodoo priestess Marie LaVeau: “[w]e will
reclaim one of our mothers, Mam’zelle17 Marie La Veau, and call her by her proper title.
We will see ourselves in ‘true light’ and extend our hand to other women as equals, as
sisters” (xiii). As well, Teish demonstrates her devotion to LaVeau:
in 1978 I made a pilgrimage to the crypt of Mam’zelle
Marie La Veau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.[. . .] I
know a “two headed woman”18 is the favorite target of
slanderers. But let the record show that Luisah Teish finds
Mam’zelle Marie La Veau to be neither saint nor demon
but a Mother of Spirits, an Amazon, and a Healer. She
was, in my opinion, simply a woman who responded
appropriately to the demands of her time with the resources
available to her. (168)
Teish mediates the discord between the deification and vilification of Marie LaVeau and
surmises that as a “Mother” and “Healer,” LaVeau’s spirit is worth of ancestral
In addition to her treatment of LeVeau, Teish also delineates the historical
formation of what I call Christio-Conjure. Contending that something was missing from
western religion, she says that slaves “hid beneath Mary’s skirts,” worshiping their own
deities as they reshaped Christianity and created “Macumba and Candomble in Brazil,
Lucumi in Cuba, Santeria in Puerto Rico, and Voudou or Hoodoo in Haiti and New
Orleans” (103-08). Geographically dispersed, this spiritual construct is an “integrative
process” (108), synonymous with Christio-Conjure as I define it. Across time and space,
Christio-Conjure has been assigned various labels and “has been mislabeled,
misunderstood, and exploited” (171).
Restoring its reputation, Teish’s work concentrates on the Voudou of New
Orleans, which she says is “like Jambalaya, a spicy dish with many fine ingredients
cooked together. It blends the practices of three continents into one tradition. It contains
African ancestor reverence, Native American earth worship, and European Christian
occultism” (x). She further emphasizes the syncretized nature of this practice:
my altar circle, the House of the Mother, is a rainbow. We
are of African, European, Middle Eastern, Latin, and
Native American traditions. I await the arrival of my
sisters from the East. We are an extended family of freely
organized people who practice nature worship and ancestor
reverence. We are dedicated to praising, protecting, and
serving Mother Earth and Her children [. . .] we prefer such
terms as root woman (herbalist), ju-ju woman (magician),
or two-headed woman (medium). The mother of the spirits
often refers to those whom she teaches as her omos, her
children. (251 original emphasis)
A select group of African American women novelists function as Hurston’s and Teish’s
“omos”—their Christio-Conjure literary progeny.
Hurston’s and Teish’s twentieth-
century ethnographic documentation supplies the cultural frame for a host of
contemporary black women fiction writers who expose Christio-Conjure’s ideological
import as well as further define its spiritual and ritualistic components.
Literary Conjure’s Critical Discourse
Independent of its relationship to Christianity, Conjure’s relationship to West
African culture and tradition has received substantial critical treatment in black literary
criticism. Although David Brown’s article, “Conjure/Doctors: An Exploration of a Black
Discourse in America, Antebellum to 1940” (1990), does not focus on black women’s
writing, it facilitates my argument by situating Conjure within the frame of black folklore
and related Africanisms in black culture. Brown notes that within the United States
Conjure “exhibited a strongly West African character in its method of making charms
and medicines,” while maintaining “an essential, complementary position with respect to
black Christianity” (4). Further, he defines Conjure as “an idiom, an explicit, culturally
specific way of thinking and talking about cause, effect, power, and agency, and as a
practical, creative process of mobilizing spiritual and material resources to address
problems and to affect change” (5). He charts the presence of Conjure characters and
tales in nineteenth-century slave narratives and in post-emancipation black literature
(e.g., Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman) up until the 1940 publication of oral folklore
collected by the Georgia writers’ project. In his unique blend of literary analysis and
cultural studies, Brown argues that “given the frequency and elaborateness of conjure
references in the [slave narratives], African survivals, and folklore literature,” the
“conjure story should be considered a sub-genre of African American oral literature”
While Brown omits the topic of black women’s writing, Trudier Harris, in her
article, “From Exile to Asylum” (1976), excludes the term “Conjure” but addresses
analogous issues—female bonding, spiritual renewal, and self-healing, etc.—at the center
of discourse on Conjure in black women’s writing.
She asserts that black female
characters—including those in Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973) and Song of Soloman (1977),
Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters (1980), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982),
Ann Allen Shockley’s Say Jesus and Come to Me (1982), Paule Marshall’s Praisesong
for the Widow (1983), and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place (1983)—
“reject Christianity with its masculine God and forge for themselves a new kind of
religion, a new kind of communion, with a community of women” (156). She further
posits that a communion with self and with other women is the pattern for most black
female characters appearing in works after the mid-1970s. This communion becomes
devotion, a love that borders upon worship and hence “further recovers the meaning of
religion” (161). Moreover, in her analysis of The Salt Eaters, Harris describes the
community of women in the novel as natural as well as supernatural and says Bambara
draws “upon beliefs more ancient in black and Third World communities than is
Christianity to make her case for a new breed of religious experience” (165). Although
Harris does not identify this alternate path to salvation explicitly as Conjure, she does
acknowledge its impetus as “ancient beliefs in black” diasporic communities. In short,
Harris explains that various black women characters access supreme power and salvation
through acts of self-exploration and self-recreation rather than exclusively through the
traditional Western medium of the Christian God.
Like Harris, Karla Holloway does not specify Conjure as her subject, but the
Conjure ethos is manifest throughout Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and
Gender in Black Women’s Writing (1992). In this work, Holloway explores African
diaspora women’s literature and its connection to West African culture and tradition. She
says that in black women’s writing, both the idea and presence of the ancestor indicate
two important concepts: first, the textual preservation of a primary African culture where
the ancestor and the deity can inhabit the same metaphysical space, and second, the belief
that a spiritual metaphor can center the metaphysics of a creative literature (141). She
notes the image of the goddess as a constant thread in the fabric of black women’s texts.
Further, she describes the goddess as a culturally sustaining and gender-specific creative
figure whose constancy in the literature of African diasporic women indicates her distinct
association with the creative traditions of women’s literature.
Expanding upon Holloway’s work, Gay Wilentz in Healing Narratives: Women
Writers Curing Cultural Dis-Ease (2000), explores the notion of “cultural illness” among
individuals from diverse ethnic groups with histories “full of suffering” (Wilentz 1). She
contends there is a “relationship between individual psychosis and ethnicity,” particularly
in “[historically] despised group[s]” (1). Wilentz engages several issues relevant to my
study of Christio-Conjure.
She investigates women writers’ particular affinity for
creating healing narratives within the novel genre, noting that women from oppressed
social groups within the hegemony of a dominant culture write about the cultural base of
“traditional healing” (3).
Wilentz extends Deena Metzger’s concept of “wellness
narratives” (1) by identifying specific texts as authorial acts of cultural healing.
Like Wilentz, Houston A. Baker, Jr. discusses the theme of healing in black
women’s texts, but he also contextualizes the subject of Conjure within the framework of
black women’s literature. In Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American
Women’s Writing (1991), he draws the following connection: “the power of conjure to
provide guidelines, controls, motivation, and remedies for a black vernacular community
grow out of the ancient, authentic African origins of its practices” (93). While employing
the terms hoodoo, voodoo, and conjure synonymously, Baker, like Marjorie Pryse,
identifies Conjure as a gendered sphere within twentieth-century African American
literature and asserts that it is most clearly defined by black women writers. Furthermore,
he identifies Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935), Moses Man of the Mountain
(1939), and Tell My Horse (1938) as “conjure books of the first magnitude” (82) and
designates Mules and Men as a “locus classicus” (72) for black women’s creativity.
In addition to Baker’s work, Lindsey Tucker explicates the fine nuances of
meaning that often confound researchers of Conjure in her article, “Recovering the
(1994). She discusses the role of ancestry in Conjure studies. She notes that historically,
Conjure women were purported to be closer to their African roots than other, more
acculturated African slaves. Also, she says Conjure abilities appear to run in families in
which expertise in herbal medicine is handed down from generation to generation (176).
She reports that Conjure women, who often carry the name Mother, exercise considerable
power in their communities and almost without exception possess a second sight (i.e., are
gifted with psychic abilities). Further, she specifies the three kinds of illnesses treated by
Conjure: 1) illness for which a knowledge of roots, herbs, barks, and teas is applied; 2)
occult or spiritually connected illness that requires spell-casting and charms; and 3)
illness that includes both personal and collective calamities that are not the result of
malevolent practices (178). Within the context of her Conjure research, Tucker offers an
extensive discussion of Naylor’s title character, Mama Day, in her textual role as Conjure
Similar to Tucker, Valerie Lee, in Granny Midwives and Black Women Writers:
Double-Dutched Readings (1996), makes a connection between Conjure, historical
grannies (i.e., lay midwives, indigenous midwives, traditional birth attendants, or folk or
common midwives), and their literary representations.
She postulates that “in her
multiple roles as midwife, herbalist, and traditional healer, the literary granny is a
character with an eclectic profession and an electric presence” through which black
women writers address the politics of identity, race, and class (9). Moreover, she claims
that African American women writers choose lay midwives and women healers as pivotal
characters in order to engage “the complexities of a socio-literary process” (9). Lee
employs the term “sistah conjurer” in recognition of the multiple roles, versatility, and
African heritage of the grannies and writers who are engaged in a “curative
transformation of reality” (12).
Like Lee, Pryse and Spillers, in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary
Tradition (1985), also discuss the of notion black women writers as literary Conjure
women, and their work is perhaps the most widely recognized undertaking in this regard.
In its introduction, Pryse contends that nineteenth-century women writers “preserved
biological lineage and connection by telling their stories as autobiographies or slave
narratives [and] made fiction writing possible for black women” (3). She traces the
history of African American women’s literature by exploring the contradiction of
“connection within a heritage of separation” (3). Her introduction is useful for its
historical context, identifying a tradition in African American literature founded by
women who achieved literacy despite the restrictions of slavery and recorded their stories
long before emancipation (4). It also underscores the significance of oral translation in
African American literature. Noting the recurring theme of Conjure, Pryse asserts that
black women novelists have become literary conjure
women [. . .] who make it possible for their readers and for
each other to recognize their common literary ancestors
[. . .]. By their combined recognition and mutual naming,
based on magic, oral inheritance, and the need to struggle
against oppression, black women writers enlarge our
assumption about the nature and function of literary
tradition. (5)
Thus, Pryse suggests that black women writers themselves develop the notion of
conjuring as a literary and creative act, offering a framework for the critical assessment
of African American women writers and their literature.
At present, these studies by Brown, Harris, Holloway, Wilentz, Baker, Tucker,
and Lee comprise the bulk of critical discourse featuring the grandnarrative of Conjure in
African American literature. While most reference, as cursory commentary, the blending
of Western and African cultures, none foreground a cultural synthesis as the foundation
of their literary readings. Of all the critical analyses, Tucker’s article offers the most
balanced treatment of Christianity and Conjure as they converge within a text. But her
interpretation, like the others, privileges Conjure over Christianity, as evidenced in the
title itself, “Recovering the Conjure Woman.” In black women’s writing, I submit that
Conjure, in many instances, represents merely half of the thematic equation; the second
factor is Christianity.19 While the literature reflects the conflated heritage of enslaved
Africans forced to revise their religious practices, the critical analysis of the literature
obfuscates this syncretism. Transplanted in America, the worship of Africans contained
not only a vision (interpretation) of the spirit (one’s ethereal self), but it also involved a
(re)vision of the spirit, a second and new vision building upon the first.
Historical Overview
Although a symbiotic relationship exists between literary and historical ChristioConjure, its historical evolution is a separate and distinct subject from its literary
treatment; thus, the critical analysis of historical Christio-Conjure warrants a separate
discussion. In America, Christio-Conjure developed as African religious practices were
introduced to European forms of worship. However, enslaved Africans in America not
only encountered new forms of European culture and religion, they also met new
varieties of African people too:
given the social setting of early New World colonies, the
encounters of Africans from a score or more different
societies with each other, and with their European
overlords, cannot be interpreted in terms of two [. . .]
“bodies” of belief and value, each coherent, functioning
and intact. (Mintz and Price 18)
In this passage, Mintz and Price discourage essentializing African culture and illustrate
the simple point that no all-encompassing, transcontinental African culture exists. The
languages, religions, and politics of the African continent were—and still remain—as
diverse as on any other continent. I, however, categorize various metaphysical principles
(i.e., mind control and spirit contact) and conventions (i.e., natural healing and ancestor
reverence) as “West African” because among the Akan-Ashanti, the Dahomeans, the
Yoruba of western Nigeria, and the Bini of eastern Nigeria—areas of West Africa that
constitute the core of the American slaving belt—such collective beliefs and practices are
especially pervasive (Herskovits 61). The Conjure component of Christio-Conjure—i.e.,
the spiritual Africanisms—of this project exists predominantly as a vestige of these West
African cultures. This is not to suggest, however, that details of worship and religious
practice do not differ among various West African groups.
aforementioned spiritual West Africanisms as Conjure,20 since historically their practice
has been labeled—among other things—Conjure and its practitioners as Conjurers.
According to Robert E. Hemenway, Conjure has “historically produced an access to
power for a powerless people. It is an alternate mode of perceiving reality, contrasting
sharply with what is perceived as the white man’s excessive rationality” (119). Myriad
expressions for Conjure abound, e.g., black folk religion, voodoo, hoodoo, magic,
sorcery, the supernatural, the occult, witchcraft, spell-casting, root-working, trickplaying, charming, goophering, etc. Tucker explains that although “conjure appears
synonymous with witchcraft, rootwork, and voodoo,” the variety of labels is related to the
geographic specificity of the practices; “Haitian voodoo and Cuban Santeria”21 differ
from Jamaican “obeah” (177). The former, she says, are religious systems with rituals
and ceremonies and the latter involves a client and a worker.
True to its mythical identity as a melting pot, the United States is a site of blended
Conjure practices, for enslaved Africans grouped together in the United States gradually
formed a specialized identity, one uniquely African American:
[i]n the new physical and social environment [. . .] African
men and women of various ethnic groups mixed in ways
that did not occur in Africa. Similarly the varied African
cultures were increasingly fused into new combinations
that did not exist in Africa. A new culture, predominantly
African in origin, but different from any particular African
culture, began to take shape. (“Believer,” Joyner 18
original emphasis)
Because vestiges of West African spirituality in American culture have been filtered, to a
significant degree, through the Caribbean islands as well as Central and South America,
Conjure practice in the United States varies and may present itself as either or both
religious practice and/or business exchange between client and practitioner.
Since 1517, when Bishop Bartolomeo de Las Casas sanctioned “immigration to
the New World by permitting Spaniards to import African slaves, the trading of men in
the New World formally began” (Franklin and Moss 32). In America, enslaved Africans
were forced to adapt to a new form of worship—Christianity. Charles Jones, in The
Religious Instruction of Negroes in the United States (1842), urged the master-class to
implement Christianity as a tool of social control and listed these benefits:
(1) better understanding of the relations of master and
servant and of reciprocal duties;
(2) the pecuniary interests of masters will be advanced;
(3) increased safety;
(4) the promotion of morality and religion of the master;
(5) much unpleasant discipline will be saved by the
(6) the souls of our servants will be saved. (qtd. in Simpson 221)
As such, “Christianizing,” to a large extent, was an “issue of domination through
religious influence” (Washington 49), which some believed to be “a more subtle, more
humane, and more effective means of control than the whip” (“Believer,” Joyner 22). In
Suggestions on the Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the Southern States, published
by the Presbyterian Board of Publications in 1847, missionaries were urged to ignore the
civil condition “of the slave and to listen to no complaints against masters or overseers”
(Simpson 221).
While preaching to the bondsmen, missionaries were advised to
condemn “every vice and evil custom,” advocate the “discharge of every duty,” and
“support the peace and order of society” (221). Furthermore, they were asked to teach
the slaves to give “respect and obedience [to] all those whom God in his providence has
placed in authority over them” (221).
Joyner discusses the “slaveholders’ theological dilemma,” noting that the “idea of
equality before God created a problem of role boundaries and emphasized tensions and
anomalies within the institution of slavery that could not be ignored” (“Believer” 24-25).
During the religious instruction of slaves, the slave-holding class emphasized certain
sections of the Bible like the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, but blacks
found other passages more compelling. Often, Christianity was the faith they
turned to for strength in the constant times of need. In the
Old Testament story of the enslavement of the Hebrews by
the Egyptians they found their own story. In the figure of
Jesus Christ, they found someone who had suffered as they
had suffered, someone who had understood, someone who
offered them rest from their suffering. (Connor 25)
Several passages of the Old Testament seemed to address directly the wretched plight of
enslaved African Americans.
The book of Exodus,22 for example, replete with its
inspirational liberation motif was particularly apropos for those worshiping in bondage.
Tracing the course of African American Christianity, George Simpson reports that
evangelical religion developed mass appeal among the untutored masses, both white and
black, on the colonial frontier in North America.
He notes that during the Great
Awakenings (1720-1740 and 1790-1815), Methodists and Baptists converted large
numbers of blacks, and the fervor of the Second Awakening helped bolster a sense of
identity among the slaves (19).
As for the Second Awakening, Rosemary Ruether
asserts that “this new evangelical fervor came at a crucial time in the social life of the
country. The United States was emerging from a period of anticlericalism and into one of
social and cultural disintegration” (156). As well, during the late nineteenth century
African American women fought racial and economic battles vis-à-vis active membership
in religious and social organizations. According to Ruether, nineteenth-century black
women “espoused a profound spirituality forged from the twin hearths of African
cosmology and evangelical piety” (158). Thus, in the hands of African Americans, the
“rich and enduring” Christian faith was fashioned into a distinct new form: “the
cosmology of the slaves during the 1600s and 1700s was a universe crafted from a blend
of West African religions with Christianity” (155).
While white missionaries and ministers prohibited religious dancing and shouting,
nonetheless, slaves participated in these activities privately during clandestine
gatherings.23 Further illuminating the blended religious ideology of black Americans,
Ruether posits,
when left alone, slave worship contained the West African
notion of the forces of the universe, both evil and good.
Both were at hand and available for consultation and for
protection. Also present was the Christian God who would
send a man to set the slaves free as Moses had confronted
Pharaoh to set Hebrew slaves free. This was a God who
was not wholly transcendent but immanent as well. (155)
While illustrating “Africanized” biblical interpretation common among black Christians,
Ruether’s comments also demonstrate the co-existence of West African beliefs in black
Echoing Ruether’s observations, Genovese reports, “Voodoo arose with the
arrival of slaves from Africa and the West Indies,” and it “fuse[d] with Christian beliefs
and probably reached its height in the 1850s” (220). Baker says Conjure combined with
French colonial Catholicism and “became the dominant religion of the masses in Haiti
and a powerful and pervasive force among the African population in New Orleans [. . .].
And voodoo or conjure, has been an active presence since that time until the present”
(80). This blending of European and West African religious tradition by blacks in
America is “neither a dark version of Christianity” nor “a continuation of African religion
disguised as Christianity,” but the “unique creative synthesis of both” (“Believer,” Joyner
19). As a source of strength and endurance, Christio-Conjure enabled blacks “to triumph
over the collective tragedy of enslavement” (37) and has continued to grow, transform,
and serve the spiritual needs of its followers. In addition to its cultural evolution in
America, Christio-Conjure has also evolved within the artistic sphere of African
American literature, wherein the black female subject (the writer as well as her female
characters) emerges from a past of historical oppression into a present of cultural
Contemporary Christio-Conjure Fiction
The following chapters feature select novels viewed through the critical lens of
Christio-Conjure. Hurston and Teish’s research offers a defining framework for the
elements of Christio-Conjure integrated in each. The novels include characters that
participate in various aspects of Christio-Conjure, including the worship of the Christian
God, Christ, Virgin Mary, and/or patron saints and simultaneous belief in goddess
worship, ancestor reverence, divine possession, and natural healing. From chapter to
chapter, my discussion advances spatially following the geographic route of the setting of
each novel.
The southern-most point of the discussion features nineteenth-century
Louisiana in Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams, then shifts northeast to Georgia in 1949 in Ansa’s
Baby of the Family and Georgia in the late 1970s in Bambara’s The Salt Eaters. My
analysis then moves northeast again to South Carolina in the late 1960s in Shange’s
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo. Thereafter, the discussion flows east to the Sea Islands of
South Carolina and Georgia, on the eve of the second millennium in Naylor’s Mama Day.
Ultimately, in the conclusion, although the discussion remains geographically situated in
the Sea Islands, Julie Dash’s film script, Daughters of the Dust’s turn-of-the-century
setting facilitates a cyclical return to the beginning of the century, 1902. The discussion
is deliberately organized to emphasize the fictional representation of Christio-Conjure in
various locales during different periods in American history.
In chapter two, “Christio-Conjure as Historical Fiction,” I discuss Rhodes’
Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau, a novel that offers the most compelling
assessment of the black woman as Christio-Conjure priestess. In chapter three, “ChristioConjure and the Ghost Story,” I examine Ansa’s Baby of the Family, a novel featuring
the Christio-Conjure tenet of matrilineage as well as the ritualistic cultural transmission
of mother wit as African American folk wisdom. Chapter four, “Revolutionary Christio-
Conjure,” addresses the revolutionary aspects of Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, a novel that
highlights African American communal transformation and afrofemcentric bonding.
Chapter five, “Christio-Conjure Activism,” features an examination of Shange’s
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, in which the title characters serve as proverbial soul
sistahs who employ Christio-Conjure as a tool of personal self-actualization and as a
source of communal healing and empowerment.
In chapter six, “Christio-Conjure
Romance and Magic,” I analyze the love story of Cocoa and George against the backdrop
of Naylor’s revision of the holy trinity in Mama Day. All five texts featured in this study
are liberation tales, and the female characters in each appropriate Christio-Conjure as a
liberating force in their lives.
In addition to liberation narratives, these novels are also texts of subversion. In
The Slave Community, historian John Blassingame discusses African cultural retention as
a method of psychological subversion employed by the oppressed class of Africans
enslaved in America; one such element of African retention was the belief in Conjure.
Hence, the Conjurer was able to rend power from the slaveholder and supplant his
Based upon faith in Conjure, many “slaves constructed a psychological
defense against total dependence on and submission to their masters” (Blassingame 45).
Like conjuring during slavery, Christio-Conjure functions as a form of resistance in black
women’s writing.
In addition to the trope of mysticism intrinsic in the Christio-Conjure paradigm,
the matriarchal principles upon which the paradigm is constructed allow female
characters to subvert male authority as well as other forms of racio-gendered oppression.
Furthermore, I submit that the authors, themselves, employ elements of Christio-Conjure
in their texts as a reaffirmation of their cultural and literary heritage. As a focal point,
then, Christio-Conjure functions as a centering mechanism in contemporary twentiethcentury black women’s writing, a body of literature historically marginalized. Pryse
suggests we employ the Conjure paradigm as a method of exploring African American
women writers as literary Conjure women. She asserts that
Black women novelists have become literary conjure women
[. . .] who make it possible for their readers and for each other
to recognize their common literary ancestors (gardeners, quilt
makers, grandmothers, rootworkers, and women who wrote
autobiographies) [. . .]. By their combined recognition and
mutual naming, based on magic, oral inheritance, and the
need to struggle against oppression, black women writers
have enlarged our assumption about the nature and function
of literary tradition. (5)
Expanding Pryse’s idea of literary Conjure women, more specifically, I propose that the
writers fashion themselves as literary Christio-Conjure women.
From Zora Neale
Hurston to Julie Dash, these women writers have inscribed virtually a century-long
tradition of literary Christio-Conjure. Employing the medium of film, Dash, whom I
analyze in the conclusion, places herself within a continuum of metaphorical literary
Christio-Conjure women who, through their art, invoke their African diasporic ancestors—
literary, literal, and otherwise. For almost a century, African American women writers have
relied upon the Christio-Conjure paradigm as a means of communicating and relating their
cultural experiences. Rhodes, Ansa, Bambara, Shange, Naylor, and Dash have reserved
their spaces within the lineage of African American women writers described above by
Pryse. By summoning their creative energies to produce texts that draw upon the cultural
lessons of the past, these artists serve as advocates for the mental, physical, and spiritual
survival/empowerment of women of the African diaspora.
Overview: Mam’zelle Marie
In 1994 Jewell Parker Rhodes responded to Hurston and Teish’s ethnographic
work with her début novel, Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. In the novel,
Rhodes narrates a fictional biography of the title character, the historical, legendary
Voodoo priestess of New Orleans. Unlike the novels by Ansa, Bambara, Shange, and
Naylor, in which some aspects of Christio-Conjure are inconspicuous, in Voodoo Dreams
Christio-Conjure dominates the narrative with each of the main characters practicing
Christio-Conjure (however genuinely or disingenuously). But it is their faith/belief in the
religious ideology, or lack thereof, that ultimately distinguishes them from one another.
Throughout Voodoo Dreams, John and Marie are invariably constrained and enabled by
the sway of Christio-Conjure. John, for example, practices Christio-Conjure without ever
acquiring sincere faith in it; he is a con artist like Chesnutt’s Julius. In contrast, the
generations of Laveau women—particularly the protagonist—practice Christio-Conjure
and constantly sustain an evolving and expanding faith in the blended spiritual construct.
Set in the mid-nineteenth-century, Rhodes’ novel traces the events in the life of
the title character from childhood in Teché, Louisiana to adulthood in New Orleans1
where she is deified by thousands—black and white, wealthy and penniless alike. As in
Naylor’s Mama Day, which I discuss in chapter six, the Voodoo Dreams storyline is
based upon an historical figure2 who “was a free woman of color who flourished and
became a legend and power in a racist, segregated society;” this “substantiates the vitality
and strength of her will,” and “her influence lives on in the religion she helped create and
formalize” (Klein 101-02). I make the connection to Naylor because within the pages of
Mama Day, Sapphira is true-to-life and is given a textual reality. Though Naylor crafts a
fictitious character and Rhodes relies on the lived reality of Marie Laveau, both novels
are fictional biographies. More importantly, the foundations of their stories strike similar
chords and taken together challenge the dichotomy between lived and textual histories in
the same way that Christio-Conjure disrupts the division between superstition and
traditional faith.
Providing “the interplay of history and developing female identities, enlivened by
individual improvisation,” Voodoo Dreams, as historical fiction, explores the “necessity
of knowing and coming to terms with [. . .] history to construct tenable black female
identities” (Kubitschek 7-9). Indeed, Marie Laveau is a striking figure upon which to
graft the historically revised image of the black female.
Teish asserts that Marie
Laveau’s legend “has taken on mythical proportions” (186-87). Laveau and her female
descendants, through word and deed orchestrated a fusion of their African past and their
Christian present, a merger exemplifying the syncretism of Christio-Conjure. Rhodes’
fictional biography pays homage to the legacy of Christio-Conjure that generations of
historical Laveau women inscribed upon the religious practices of their time and beyond.
Although the historical Marie Laveau resided expressly in New Orleans, she is
credited with the popularization and spread of Christio-Conjure throughout Louisiana. In
Jambalaya, Teish discusses Laveau’s great effort to syncretize Voodoo (or Conjure) and
Catholicism; Laveau blended the worship of Voodoo gods with Catholic saints: St. Peter
became Legba, St. Michael was Blanc Dani, St. John became the son of the goddess
Chango; “the Catholic Church ‘cooperated,’3 [and by] 1863 the St. Louis Cathedral, the
French quarter temple, was the most highly integrated church in the state”
Genovese explains that historically West Africans believed in a Supreme God and a body
of specific gods (210). As well, he discusses similarities between West African religious
tradition and Catholicism, noting that one “reached the Supreme God through an appeal”
to a “lesser god, much as Catholics reach God by an appeal for the intercession of the
saints or the Virgin Mary” (210). The ideological similarities between West African
religions and Catholicism made conversion to Catholicism for vast numbers of African
Americans more plausible than conversion to Protestantism. The point here is not to
suggest that when introduced to Protestantism, blacks of West African descent did not
convert, quite the contrary. Instead, the point is to underscore the pre-existing similarities
between West African and Catholic faiths. Laveau’s introduction of the West African
pantheon of gods to the French Catholic saints resulted in a relatively amiable union,
since the two religious constructs maintained similar divine principles.
Unlike Naylor’s Mama Day, who employs her Christio-Conjure powers for
neither profit nor pay, the historical Marie Laveau is famous for commodifying ChristioConjure:
[i]t appears that after emancipation some Conjurers were
keenly preoccupied with the potential commodification of
the occult arts [. . .] which suggests that they were beset
with concerns for economic security. Many of the accounts
indicate that post-bellum Conjurers were ingenious
individuals who had shrewdly pedaled their craft. With the
dramatic shift in the south from a slave system of black
dependence and suppressed initiative to an economy of free
labor and increased opportunity, the Conjurer was subtly
transformed as well, into a sort of self-reliant, sacred
entrepreneur who was able to adapt to the new needs and
interests of the freedperson’s community. (Chireau 58)
Christio-Conjure “was one of the few avenues to power and economic potential for
blacks,” and due to Laveau’s “marketing skills” (Bodin 22) it became increasingly
popular. Frequently, Laveau was seen at public events and capitalized on the public’s
fascination with the Congo Square activities (22).
Moreover, her “talent for the
theatrical, her business acumen, and her personal charisma [. . .] helped propel her to
prominence” (21).
She was “New Orleans’ first prominent businesswoman—who
charged curious whites $10 a head for admittance to mass rituals on the lakefront. She
ran a thriving consulting business, selling potions and gris-gris4 bags to the wealthy”
(Brooks 45). But Laveau was not without competition. In fact, while slaves participated
in legally banned clandestine voodoo gatherings, Laveau’s contemporary, Dr. John,5 a
free man of color, “advertised himself as a voodoo and charged Creoles to make
talismans and place and lift curses [. . .]. He was soon overshadowed by Voodoo queen
Marie Laveau” (45). Drawing upon John and Marie, characters plucked from the pages
of history, Rhodes weaves a tale filled with historical fact and mesmerizing fictional
fantasy in her novel that features a tumultuous liaison between these African American
cultural legends.
In Voodoo Dreams, Rhodes inverts the traditional role of Christianity as a tool of
oppression employed by the master class against subjugated blacks in antebellum
Christianity coupled with Conjure becomes a tool of spiritual and
psychological empowerment for blacks in the novel. First, the black characters must
overcome racist appropriations of Christianity that assert its cultural superiority over
West African religious tradition. Marie, for example, notes the affluence of the Catholic
Church; the cathedral displays its wealth with gold crosses inlaid with pearl, velvet
covered pews, and a marble altar encrusted with gold, rubies, and diamonds. In this
space, Marie feels “intensely the power and wealth of the Catholic Church” (Rhodes
107). Her task is to struggle against the misuse of power in the Catholic Church and to
convert that power, combining it with Conjure, into a healing force for the oppressed
As protagonist, Marie contends with white, patriarchal authority and
condescension from Father Christophe, the Catholic priest who relies upon a racist
interpretation of the of the biblical Hamitic6 curse to maintain that “[s]lavery and
servitude are tools of God” (110). Here, Christianity’s role as a socially oppressive force
is crystalized. Marie not only battles against the overt use of religion as a tool of
oppression, but she also resists more subtle, insidious religious implications like those
promoted by Louis, a white journalist infatuated with Marie. Although he is primarily
portrayed as a Northern liberal, Louis’s belief that Christianity “civilizes people who are
unable to think rationally on their own” (240), aligns him with the elitism espoused by
Father Christophe. Marie employs Christio-Conjure throughout the text to respond to
overt and covert elitism.
Certainly, Catholicism’s role in Voodoo Dreams as an oppressive force is one
example why it alone—without Conjure, the original faith of the oppressed—cannot
sufficiently serve the spiritual needs of its followers. An additional impetus for blending
Catholicism and Conjure in the novel is the need to balance the former’s suffering
motif—conveyed through the image of crucifixion—with the latter’s devotion to
overcoming obstacles, rather than passively suffering through the misfortunes and
injustices. Marie implements the strength and power of the Catholic Church, tempering
the condescending, arrogant nature of its “perfect and remote” (241) deity—e.g., the
Christian God—with the accessible nature of Conjure tradition, featuring gods with
human qualities and character flaws that make “people [feel] less alienated” (212).
Although Voodoo Dreams contains moments of rupture between Christianity and
Conjure, ultimately in the text this conflict is dispelled. This chapter explicitly focuses
on Grandmère, John, and Marie. These characters each demonstrate aspects of ChristioConjure in Rhodes “healing narrative” (Wilentz 1).
Rhodes not only depicts the
individual, psychological healing of the protagonist Marie, but she also depicts the
expansive group healing of Laveau’s patrons who, through Christio-Conjure, transcend a
history “full of suffering” (1 Wlientz).
As the novel opens, Marie’s aging grandmother, Grandmère, struggles to
determine which gods rightfully deserve her worship. Whites and their Christian God
seemingly have dominated her life. Although she transforms into an archetypal ChristioConjure character, ultimately reclaiming the power of Conjure and pairing it with
Christianity, Grandmère’s faith is first tested by the brutality of life in antebellum New
Orleans. As she reminisces about being young and pregnant with Maman, Marie’s
mother, Grandmère reveals: “Master drowned Sachwaw before your Maman was born.
White men and white gods have always been more powerful” (334).
The events
surrounding Maman’s death are inextricably linked to the issue of religion as an
oppressive force. Grandmère recalls the night of Maman’s murder: “‘right in front of the
Roman Catholic church [. . .]. White people, white gods, were—are dangerous [. . .].
They tied her to a tree. Whipped her [. . .]. Damballah 7 wasn’t strong enough to save
her.’ Grandmère sang, ‘Were you there when they crucified my child?’ The melody was
haunting” (336-7 original emphasis). Grandmère connects Maman to Christ, describing
her death as a “crucifixion.” She also describes whites and the Christian religion as
“more powerful” and “dangerous,” as she recounts the savage brutality of the pious
Christian mob. Grandmère associates her personal practice of Voodoo/Conjure with
emotional anguish, presuming the West African gods are weaker than the Christian god
since “Damballah wasn’t strong enough to save” Maman; thus, her resolution to pray “to
white people” ostensibly is based upon fear. Grandmère’s spirit is broken by the tragic
events of her life, and out of sheer defenselessness, “the day her daughter die[s] [she]
convert[s] to Catholicism” (40). Although Membe, Grandmère’s slave mother, taught her
there were “African spirits in wood, iron, and the sea,” Grandmère casts aside the
Voodoo/Conjure faith. She tries to escape the painful memories of her life in New
Orleans by raising her granddaughter, Marie, in the small town of Teché.
Even in Teché, however, Grandmère is filled with remorse because she “managed
the child poorly” (35). Hiding in the bayou, Marie grows restless. Grandmère believes
Marie needs a husband to “calm her” (35). As Grandmère envisions her future, she
speculates that, “If [. . .] lucky, she’d live long enough to see her great-granddaughter
born,” thereafter, she would die “comfortably [. . .] as Jesus stood by” (35). In order to
find “a husband to calm” Marie, Grandmère posits an inevitable return to New Orleans
with “Jesus” standing by. Grandmère’s motive for returning to New Orleans is two-fold:
in addition to finding Marie a suitable mate, she seeks the reassurance of the Christian
God in New Orleans where she originally practiced Voodoo/Conjure. In other words, she
desires Christian protection in the Conjure-based space of New Orleans. There, she
hopes to gain a sense of peace and protection for herself and Marie. Essentially, she
wants the Christian God to reward her earlier privileging of Christianity over Conjure.
Although Grandmère eventually sees her abandonment of Christianity as a foolish
mistake, she believed going to New Orleans would prove “Christ loved her. Prove He’d
defend her in New Orleans as payment for her years of faith. And if Christ wouldn’t save
her, surely His mother, the holy Virgin, would. Surely a woman would understand and
protect her virgin granddaughter” (40).
Emphasizing the shared worship of female
deities, Grandmère’s symbolic appeal to the holy Virgin reiterates Catholicism’s greater
degree of compatibility with West African religion in contrast to Protestantism. As well,
her entreaty to the Virgin Mary intimates Grandmère’s woman-centered predilection and
foreshadows her ultimate conversion to Christio-Conjure.
In New Orleans, despite her Christian posturing, Grandmère’s Voodoo/Conjure
past quickly resurfaces because “everyone reveres [her] like a Goddess [. . .] a Saint [. . .]
a woman of great power” (101). Her former followers in New Orleans remember her as a
grand Voodoo priestess, and her abandonment of Voodoo is viewed by the black
community as neglect of “Damballah [. . .] and the black gods [. . .]. Grandmère had
accepted Ham’s curse and favored white saints. Now she’d cursed Annette’s baby with
her sins, her blasphemies against Voodoo, against dark people” (115). Grandmère’s lack
of faith in Voodoo is identified as the source of the community’s strife. Nattie chastises
her: “I no understand you. You let John lead us” (105). Grandmère recounts the origin
of her painful, tangled history with John explaining that they “fought many a night but he
always backed down [. . .]. John was charming
[. . .] strong, seemingly invincible.
John fell in love with [Maman]. [. . .] He was twenty, she was eight” (333). Grandmère
recalls John’s role in Maman’s demise, and having recently returned to New Orleans, she
continues to counter his menacing presence in the community.
Although Nattie is disturbed by Grandmère’s abandonment of Conjure,
complaining to her: “you no longer give to your people” (105), Grandmère confronts
John and demonstrates that she has not completely abandoned her original spiritual
ideology. She warns John, “tonight I’ll curse you to both God and Damballah. My
power to conjure isn’t gone” (117 original emphasis). In the Conjure space of New
Orleans Grandmère reverts to her original system of belief. Although she previously
advocates staunch Catholicism, during the height of the communal crisis inflicted by
John, she instinctively calls on both her faiths as a source of empowerment. Though she
attempts to sever these faiths, as an archetypal Christio-Conjure character, she eventually
resolves the warring religious tension in her life by fully subscribing to a blended
religious ideology.
Throughout Voodoo Dreams, there is constant negotiation between the concepts
of good and evil, for Christianity and Conjure—both separately and combined—are
employed throughout the novel benevolently and malevolently, with the flux grounded in
the politics of race and gender. As a variation of the gendered politics represented by
Hurston and Chesnutt, the fluctuation here is not intertextual, it is intratextual, between
male and female characters within the text, with the women wielding the true forms of
spiritual power. Since Christio-Conjure, in literary terms, is preeminently created by, for,
and about black women, the powerful image of the Christio-Conjure high priestess in
black women’s literature functions as a metaphorical inversion of the oppression
historically suffered by black women.
John, in Voodoo Dreams, like Dr. Buzzard, the male Conjurer in Mama Day, is a
scam artist who sells various “charms and spells” (189) to his clientele. However, unlike
the ineffectual Dr. Buzzard, John represents a far more diabolical character. He is the
personification of evil, “a dark avenging demon” (149). Yet his abuse of ChristioConjure is contextualized within the frame of his own victimization; he is
psychologically demented and spiritually void because of the brutality he experiences
during his captivity and enslavement. John lacks faith in any god, black or white because
he believes life is too harsh to justify religion. Sailing in a slave ship, “lying in his and
others’ waste, he wondered, “[h]ow could his [. . .] loas, have allowed it?” (206 original
While the other captives called upon Damballah, Legba and Agwé,8
“[n]othing changed. The ship [. . .] sailed on to the auction block and slavery” (207). For
John, sincere faith under these circumstances is incomprehensible, and his experiences
condition him to be a ruthless and faithless manipulator of Christio-Conjure.
When he meets Grandmère and Maman, he devises an iniquitous plan to profit
from Grandmère’s venerable reputation as a Voodooiene9 through the image of her young
daughter. But he “never dreamed the daughter [. . .] would get herself killed” (127).
Since John’s original scheme is thwarted by Maman’s death, “[h]e couldn’t quite forgive
Damballah for favoring women with His powers” (127). Fully cognizant of his moral
deficiency and lack of religious fortitude, John’s only prospect for acquiring prestige and
wealth is to use Marie as his Christio-Conjure spiritual vessel.
He knows his lack of success in Christio-Conjure represents a gender-based
barrier. Wishing he had been “born a woman” (140), John longs for the power only a
woman in this tradition can possess. Like Chesnutt’s Uncle Julius and Naylor’s Dr.
Buzzard, John’s conjuring ability is limited to chicanery/trickery, and is thus invested
with no genuine power.
Building upon Hurston and Teish’s afrofemcentric
characterizations, Rhodes portrays Christio-Conjure as the province of black women.
Highly embittered, John transforms into a desperate and pathetic character and bemoans,
“If Damballah was real, he would’ve come to me” (314). Believing that he should have
felt some spirit or power, John is “bewildered. His palms [. . .] outstretched like a beggar
needing alms” (314).
John symbolically curses the afrofemcentric nature of West
African spirituality, reiterating the text’s ever-present gendered rift and foreshadowing
the inevitable power struggle between he and Marie.
In addition to serving as a recurring theme in black women’s writing, the notion
of the evil Conjurer—personified by John in Voodoo Dreams—is also an historically
documented cultural phenomenon (Chireau 134). As a “harming practitioner,” John uses
his “powers for personal advancement” (Chireau 134). Unlike Grandmère, who employs
her status as priestess in the dedicated and humble capacity of community servant, John
wishes to exploit his spiritual followers. Grandmère recalls that “John wanted to collect
money. He said it didn’t make sense that we were so poor. ‘New World thinking’ I kept
saying ‘Not African.’ Membe never took money” (Rhodes 333). As he gains control
over Marie, he functions as a first-rate capitalist, justifying the collection of money
during Marie’s ceremonies10 by smugly reminding her, “the Catholic Church collects
money” (203). He insists that, “this is a business. It doesn’t matter what Damballah will
or won’t do. Your power is more inside people’s minds than inside you [. . .]. All you
need to do is keep people afraid” (222). Indeed, John’s mode of operation keeps “people
afraid,” and the fear-as-a-mechanism-of-control motif ultimately extends from John’s
business savvy into his personal relationship with Marie.
A cruel and perverted man, John exploits Marie’s reputation as a fourth
generation Voodooiene. He is merciless in his attempt to control all aspects of her
existence, and his abuse is excessive. He slams her head into a headboard and he
threatens her: “Remember—I am the King [. . .] I could kill you [. . .]. You’ll do as I tell
you [. . .]. I’ll kill Grandmère” (158-59). Clearly, John personifies gendered oppression
in the text, and as he malevolently manipulates the power of Christio-Conjure, Marie is
the victim of his sexual and psychological exploitation.
Ironically, John’s tool of
oppression—Christio-Conjure—is Marie’s tool of liberation, and despite his incessant
threats, eventually, “John saw Marie’s defiance” and “realized that the girl, Marie, had
become a Voodoo Queen, but he hadn’t become a King. Before thousands, she was
stealing his triumph, his power” (367). John’s epiphany is critical because it signifies a
turning point in his twisted alliance with Marie and a shift in the balance of power in their
relationship. Finally, he must face the stark reality that Marie is acquiring a following
and force far beyond his control and command. More significantly, Marie is developing
a burgeoning sense of self and an awareness of her latent potential for spiritual wholeness
and fulfillment in the absence of John’s tyrannical rule.
Although Saint Marie, as her followers address her, is worshipped as a deity in
her adult life, her personal evolution is filled with pain and suffering. Similar to Lena in
Baby of the Family, Velma in The Salt Eaters, Sassafrass and Cypress in Sassafrass,
Cypress & Indigo, and Cocoa in Mama Day, Marie is disconnected from her cultural
roots and severed from the spiritual traditions to which she is heir. Throughout the text,
Marie implores her grandmother: “Please. I need to know who I am. I need to know
about Maman [. . .]. Tell me about you” (103). But Grandmère remains silent, rendering
Marie inexplicably motherless. In addition, Marie is plagued by recurring dreams and
cannot decode their cryptic messages. In order for Marie to “uncover herself” (80 added
emphasis) she must discover her spiritual lineage and history.
Nattie is the first person to help Marie in this regard; she recounts the tumultuous
relationship between John and Maman, highlighting John’s incessant infidelity. Out of
spite, she says, Maman has an affair with a white man and becomes pregnant, which only
heightens John’s indiscretions. Distraught over John’s disregard and disrespect, Nattie
says, “Grandmère had to tie [Maman] down to keep her from ripping you out of her
womb” (160). Marie’s despondency worsens as she begins reconstructing her past with
the disturbing account of her conception provided by Nattie. Emotionally vulnerable,
Marie succumbs to John and allows him to “guide her away” (117) on two levels:
physically away from Grandmère and psychologically away from genuine spiritual
growth and development. Though emotionally vulnerable, Marie is never misguided by
the lure of John’s promise of power and fame. As such, she initiates her quest for
identity within the context of a power struggle with John, inherited from her mother who
was also his lover.
In addition to confronting the issue of motherlessness, Marie’s healthy emotional
development is further impeded by a sense of competition with the spirit of Maman.
Possessing her body, Maman, long deceased, lives again through Marie: “two minds in
one body” (123 original emphasis). In this mimetic state, Marie, like Lena in Baby of the
Family, experiences ancestral spirit possession. But for Marie the very spirit of her
mother represents a competitor vying for John’s romantic attention. Therefore, Marie
begins to resist possession altogether, both ancestral and divine: “she wanted to confess
to someone—a woman—why she kept Maman’s spirit at bay and how she didn’t know
any way to ward off Maman without also excluding Damballah” (134). As in Baby of the
Family, spirit possession creates a sense of unrest in the protagonist, but unlike Lena,
Marie’s situation is further complicated by her desire to maintain divine possession, a
sacred and honored element of Christio-Conjure.
Marie panics when she feels Maman’s spirit trying to possess her because she
does not “want to compete with a ghost” (139) for John’s attention.
desperate, she clings to John, but their relationship further disrupts the healthy
construction of her identity. She notes that “John was a distraction from the hard work
of finding” herself (152 original emphasis); as well, she eventually admits, “from the
moment I entered his arms, I started to die.
Just like my Maman” (118 original
Under John’s tyranny she feels like “everything about herself [is] a
nightmare. There [isn’t] any real Marie LaVeau” (131). As Marie continues her quest
for identity, she broadens her search beyond the convoluted relationship she shares with
John and begins a quest for spiritual fulfillment. Since she never achieves spiritual
fulfillment through her separate participation in Christianity and Voodoo, Marie explores
Christio-Conjure the syncretized construct of Christio-Conjure.
In her conscious attempt to reformulate her religious practice, Marie is similar to
Indigo in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo who “made up what she needed” (Shange 5).
Marie ultimately discerns that her religious faith, and that of her followers, requires a
blended form of spirituality. Initially, however, her development and implementation of
Christio-Conjure is neither a blessed nor sacred phenomenon, and despite her popularity,
she is filled with misery.
Relatively ignorant of the tradition into which she is born,
Marie is “an unlikely priestess—unversed in her religion but nonetheless its guide”
(Rhodes 205). Despite her apparent success, Marie struggles for gender-based power and
In her newly acquired role as Christio-Conjure priestess, she indignantly notes
that John wields more power than she. Though she, as a woman, possesses more
visionary power, John is more adept at manipulating the patrons. Even her followers turn
to him for guidance. Marie is incensed by the sexism that threatens her role as a ChristioConjure visionary. Weak and disconnected, her lack of spiritual grounding enables John
to transform her into a charlatan. Irresolute in her personal religious convictions, she
feels powerless against John who insists upon sacrilegious performances.
On her
deathbed, Marie confesses to Louis: “Voodoo and Catholicism merged, and my fame
spread. I blasphemed two faiths” (258 original emphasis). Here, Marie reflects upon an
earlier period in her life when, prior to her Christio-Conjure conversion, she practices
spiritual extortion by religiously manipulating her followers.
At this point in her
emotional development, instead of relying upon faith in herself and her personal sense of
spirituality, Marie is still dependent upon John as the source of her self-definition.
While battling psychological and physical victimization inflicted by John, Marie
also contends with her half-brother, Antoine DeLavier’s attempt to rape her. As a black
woman accusing a white man of rape in this era, Marie has utterly no legal recourse;
consequently, she takes matters into her own hands and kills Antoine in self-defense.
Committing this act initially endows Marie with a sense of power and then a sense of
sorrow as she is convinced “no one, anywhere, knew anything about faith” (252). She
further confides in her house servant that, famous for murder, she is now more revered
than ever. She knows the judge is afraid to convict her of Antoine’s murder because John
has threatened “hideous revenge” (273). Within the context of her new-found power to
intimidate, Marie is disgusted by the grotesque exaggerations of her wrath, which she
believes will live on even after her death.
Furthermore, she is repulsed by the
circumstances that allow her to amass a spiritual following and political power based
upon acts of brutality that inspire fear.
John’s use of fear and intimidation against the political establishment speaks to
the historical role of the Conjurer as the “po’ man’s lawyah” (Chireau 173). Zora Neale
Hurston, for example, describes a Conjurer in Louisiana whose specialty was the law.
This practitioner prepared charms and rituals for clients in order “to keep the court under
his control” (Mules and Men, Houston 231). Clearly, the ability to tap into this political
realm was an extremely useful resource, “a sort of spiritual capital” (Chireau 134) in the
hands of black practitioners who often appropriated their conjuring in politically
subversive ways. In Voodoo Dreams, Marie is dismayed by the immense social inequity
inherent in the nineteenth-century American legal system, and she responds with
vigilantism. Publicly, her murderous act is seen as more than simple self-defense, it is
interpreted as a cry for social justice and reform. Her retaliation against Antoine elevates
her Christio-Conjure status throughout the community, but paradoxically it does very
little to help her personal mission to reconstruct her identity.
While Marie searches for spiritual fulfillment in order to conquer psychological
isolation, she remains under the sexual domination of John who impregnates her. During
her pregnancy, by drawing connections between past and future generations, she begins
to develop a sense of her lineage. Carrying the fifth generation of Maries, the protagonist
recognizes the symbolic power of woman as the giver of life. She perceives childbirth as
an empowering process that privileges female biological capability over male capability
in human reproduction and notes that women birth themselves woman to woman, a chain
as old as creation, back “to Eve [. . .] a never-ending circle” (145-6). The theme of
Christio-Conjure resurfaces in the text as Marie contextualizes her sense of connection
within Christian and Conjure traditions, referencing both Eve and Damballah. Further
engendering Marie’s newly developing sense of connection, Grandmère suggests from
her deathbed that Marie’s labor represents a unified effort among the generations of
Laveau women. In order for baby Marie to thrive under the auspices of four generations
of Voodooienes, the protagonist must ground herself spiritually and pass the ChristioConjure “mantle of power” (212) on to baby Marie.
Through the spirit of Damballah, Marie recognizes the full potential of her
spiritual power. Like Hurston’s account of the historical Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau
descending to the bottom of Lake Ponchatrain and not returning for nine days, Rhodes’
fictional protagonist achieves a similar feat. As she meditates beneath the lake, Marie,
possessed by Damballah, is transformed and experiences joy and elation for the first time
in her adult life. Damballah not only soothes her feelings of motherlessness by offering
her a powerful sense of history/identity as a spiritual priestess within a line of others, but
the serpent god also erases her sense of hopelessness, making her believe “even the stars
above were within her grasp” (310). Throughout the text the symbol of the snake
represents a metaphor for Marie’s burgeoning sense of self and spiritual rebirth. Her
faithful supporters bolster her confidence, including Nattie who encourages her to eschew
She reminds Marie of her spiritual legacy and emphasizes Marie’s ability to
overcome John’s domination.
Marie’s confidence grows, and while John performs
trickery, Marie transforms reality for herself and masses of others who face psychological
oppression. Similar to Cypress’s dance performances in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo,
Marie performs ritualistic Christio-Conjure acts for her followers, and her performances
become cathartic for her and her audiences.
As Marie cultivates her faith in Christio-Conjure, she develops the selfconfidence to challenge John’s tyrannical rule. Possessed by the spirit of Damballah,
Marie wiggles “down from” (156 original emphasis) John’s arms; this represents another
pivotal moment in their relationship. Like Sassafrass, who is healed during divine
possession and inspired to sever her abusive relationship with Mitch, Marie is spiritually
restored through this act. Newly empowered, she develops the will to retaliate against
John. His incestuous interaction with baby Marie is the ultimate factor that motivates
Marie to fully engage in the “fight” (323) for psychological emancipation and physical
liberation from John. On St. John’s Eve, during her most popular and well-attended
ceremony, she allows/causes her python to strangle him. John’s murder is framed within
the context of his incessant abuse. “John, alive” she believes, “would have destroyed
their daughter—the [fifth] Marie—as surely as he’d destroyed all the others” (422). Like
Marie’s first victim, Antoine, John too is depicted as a man who “deserved to die” (254).
Ironically, the brutal acts that end in death for Antoine and John function as metaphors
for Marie’s self-preservation.
Thoroughly liberated and with a fresh, unsullied sense of her history and identity,
she speaks to the spirit of her great-grandmother, Membe, and confesses her murderous
Instead of harshly judging and/or criticizing Marie, Membe consoles her by
reflecting upon the harshness of life. Membe defines the role of a Voodooeine as one
who helps herself and others “to live as much goodness as possible” (426 original
emphasis). Like Lena in Baby of the Family, Marie too is born with a caul and is
therefore blessed with the privilege of “second sight” (400). Not only does she benefit
personally from second sight, but she also employs this psychic gift to help her patrons
uncover the mysteries shrouding their own existence. Furthermore, the caul serves as a
point of connection between Marie and her newborn namesake, also born with a caul.
The caul is a semiotic link between Marie and five generations of Laveau women who
“hand down sight through the generations. Mother to daughter” (12).
Finally free from John’s vile influence, Marie purges the main source of spiritual
poison from her life.
Following her divine possession, she is fully converted into
Christio-Conjure, and her faith crystallizes into a pure form. Shedding the role of
charlatan, she becomes remarkably sincere in her ministry. She consoles not only the
dying but also those imprisoned who turn to her in their desperate search for salvation.
She says a rosary, “Hail Mary, full of grace” (263) for those who ask and also shares how
it feels to be possessed by the spirit of Damballah. Most significantly, she recites her
own prayers to Damballah and the holy Virgin, demonstrating her personal belief in and
practice of Christio-Conjure.
In her spiritual role as community servant, while
imprisoned, Marie comforts a fellow inmate with the “Flying African”11 folk myth. The
“Flying African” motif is further enacted during Marie’s burial service. When she dies,
the blended aspects of her burial ceremony poignantly speak to the fused tradition of
Christio-Conjure, which exemplify not only her religious philosophy but also her spiritual
Louis describes her burial service as “a spectacular blend of Catholic ritual and
Voodoo drums and dancing” (433 original emphasis). Following her death, a woman
reports Marie walking east across the Gulf toward Africa. Marie’s spirit is deified as she
is characterized as one of the legendary “flying Africans.” In four of the five novels
featured in my discussion, a variation of this myth exists. In Sassafrass, Cypress &
Indigo, the spirit of Blue Sunday is reported to have flown east across the Atlantic toward
Africa; in Baby of the Family, the story of the spirit of Rachel functions as a modification
of this myth; in Mama Day, the spirit of Sapphira Wade is said to have flown east across
the Atlantic; and finally in Voodoo Dreams, the spirit of Marie Laveau is rumored to have
taken the same course. The folk figure of the flying African, fleeing the degradation of
American slavery, is a powerfully triumphant image of black resistance and rebellion.
During her lifetime, despite tremendous pain and suffering, the protagonist in Voodoo
Dreams transforms into a true Christio-Conjure priestess. She employs her faith as a
vehicle of psychological liberation and aids the masses of oppressed by offering them an
image of defiance against the white, male-dominated social structure.
Christio-Conjure as a Spiritual Mechanism of Liberation and Connection
Like the historical Marie Laveau, the protagonist in Voodoo Dreams is
responsible for fusing the two dominant religions in nineteenth-century New Orleans. In
the novel, Marie knows no other Voodooiene who “placed the Christian God beside the
snake;” she is convinced that “Voodoo could be a ‘mixed blood’ stew transformed” as
“the slave trade transformed Africans in color and language” (297). As a result of
Marie’s widespread influence, faith in Christio-Conjure spreads throughout New Orleans
and the surrounding areas, broadening Marie’s core following and attracting a
demographically diverse patronage. In Voodoo Dreams, Christio-Conjure addresses the
spiritual needs of members of the privileged and oppressed classes, and the composition
of her congregation blurs both racial and class lines, as the white elite and the black
underclass both subscribe to Christio-Conjure.
Marie’s individual spiritual evolution represents a bridge between individual and
communal concerns. Although Marie’s quest for identity is the device that motivates the
plot of the novel, her individual transformation ultimately functions as a transgenerational, communal healing for others too, both living and deceased. The connection
between the past and present severed by slavery is mended and reconnected through
Christio-Conjure. During a private ceremony, Marie places the images of the Virgin
Mary and the baby Jesus next to drawings of Erzulie and Damballah. She communicates
with her immediate ancestors, lighting a candle for each generation of Maries. Marie’s
vision of herself is illuminated as she finally recognizes the critical role Christio-Conjure
serves in connecting her spiritually with her loved ones.
Woman’s power is reiterated throughout this work, and as an afrofemcentric text,
the black women in this novel possess the vision and the wisdom that accompanies the
power to see. However, despite being born with a caul and inheriting the “gift of sight,”
the gifted in Christio-Conjure narratives often undergo a painful process of evolution in
order to fully master their spiritual potential and perform as visionaries. The effect of the
evolutionary process is both individual and communal, since the visionaries ultimately
serve the greater community with their spiritual gifts. In addition to the gift of vision, the
act of divine possession also functions within individual and communal contexts.
Possessed by Damballah who only enters priestesses, Marie glimpses human existence in
its infancy, millions of years ago. She is filled with a sense of harmony as she witnesses
the cycle of life in its earliest days. In this mentally transported state, Marie achieves the
wholeness and sense of connection she has long sought.
Not only is Marie healed, but she also heals others through the act of divine
possession. Like Sassafrass in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Marie’s divine possession
serves as a vital link with her ancestral past. It also offers her a sense of identity within a
lineage of other female healers, which enables her to fulfill her role as Christio-Conjure
spiritual priestess. In the novel, not only does Marie contend with various forms of
oppression inherent in Western culture including racism and sexism, but she also
contends with physical, sexual, and psychological abuse from John and with internal,
personal inadequacies. For Marie, Christio-Conjure constitutes a triple mechanism of
liberation and connection. It enables her to combat racist and economic oppression
imposed by the dominant culture, it liberates her from John’s psychological reign of
terror, and it re-connects her with a compelling spiritual/familial legacy.
The Laveau women represent five consecutive generations of Christio-Conjure
priestesses, indicating the longevity of Christio-Conjure as a sustained tradition in black
America. The image of the five generations of priestesses bears additional significance
since the historical legend of the immortal Marie Laveau was perpetuated by the real-life
generations of Laveau women in New Orleans. Through the act of spirit possession the
generations of textual Laveau women literally exist as one. This sense of connection is
conveyed in the words of Grandmère as she addresses a pregnant Marie: “blood ties bind
[. . .]. We’re all inside you [. . .]. We live forever” (329 added emphasis). Thus, baby
Marie’s birth signifies the extension of the fifth generation of Maries as well as the
preservation of the myth of Marie Laveau as immortal.
As well, it promotes the
uninterrupted continuation of the Christio-Conjure legacy.
As a literary Christio-Conjure woman, Rhodes reinscribes the subversive power
of the black female, a figure historically marginalized.
Featuring the resounding
principle that “blood ties bind” (329), this text—of all those discussed—most obviously
illustrates “the blending of religions and blood” (135) that is the quintessential quality of
Within the tradition of historical fiction, Kubitschek contends that
“the African-American woman’s novel consistently asserts the necessity of recognizing [.
. .] both intellectually and emotionally [. . .] the history of blacks in order to become and
remain a fully-functional African American woman” (5). From this perspective, it is
Rhodes’ responsibility to her audience to reconstruct a socially and politically accurate
portrait of the Laveau era, replete with the racist, sexist, economic and religious issues
prevalent at that time. While the historical Marie Laveau made history, Voodoo Dreams
revises history by presenting the poignant image of a vulnerable Marie, an image
unavailable through history.
The novel not only illustrates Marie’s spiritual
transformation, but it also portrays the transformative power of Christio-Conjure as an
historical agent of black women’s liberation and empowerment.
Overview: The Spirit of Rachel as Cultural Foremother
Like Marie in Voodoo Dreams, for Lena, Ansa’s protagonist in Baby of the
Family, spirit contact is her most transformative Christio-Conjure experience. Though
she experiences various forms of spirit contact throughout the novel, one of her most
significant encounters occurs when she is seven-years old, foreshadowing the life-altering
exchange she eventually has with the spirit of her grandmother.
During summer
vacation, while she and her family visit the Georgia coast, Lena meets Rachel, the spirit
of a slave woman. As they sit on the shore, Rachel shares a disconcerting story, which
becomes a valuable lesson. Rachel recounts the brutalities of slavery and explains how she
took her freedom by drowning herself in the ocean. Lena is baffled by Rachel’s story
because her grandmother, Miss Lizzie, relentlessly insists that “colored folks don’t belong
on the beach” (167). While Miss Lizzie’s comments mirror the racist sentiments of the midtwentieth century that prohibited African Americans from enjoying the beaches reserved for
whites only, Rachel offers an alternative perspective on the relationship between place/space
and self-empowerment; she explains:
[t]here was something about the ocean that just kept drawing
me chere [. . .]. It sung songs of what I coulda been if I
warn’t no slave [. . .] to be a slave on the ocean, I could not
bear it [. . .]. I was glad to be going. I was going to the ocean
and couldn’t nobody ever stop me from going there again
[. . .]. I’m always here [ . . ]. This is where I wanted to be,
this is where I choose to be, and this is where I is [. . .].
Black folk belong here. You belong here. Don’t believe
black folks don’t belong on the beach, Lena. Don’t never
forgit that. You belong anywhere on this earth you want to.
Rachel’s spirit functions as a storyteller and symbolic griot.1 As well, Rachel’s narrative,
like Marie’s in Voodoo Dreams, embodies the Ibo myth of captured West Africans who,
upon arriving in the “New World,” envision the horror and misery of American slavery and
subsequently turn and walk back across the Atlantic Ocean to their native land in West
In African American folklore, myriad variations of this liberation tale exist,
including enslaved Africans flying or swimming across the Atlantic to freedom in Africa.
In Baby of the Family, the spirit of Rachel, like Miss Lizzie and Nurse Bloom,
represents a critical link with the past. In African American women’s history and in
Christio-Conjure, maintaining a sense of connection by linking the past to the present is
crucial since both are dependent upon oral transmission. Abena P. Busia explains that
through writing and oral storytelling, African American women reclaim “their stories” as
“part of a larger project of self-revalidation” (196). The oral tradition, as represented in
Rachel’s narrative, is also significant within the context of Christio-Conjure. With no single
holy text, the Christio-Conjure spiritual paradigm, like Rachel’s narrative, is primarily
conveyed through oral transmission.
Rachel’s storytelling reflects the element of Christio-Conjure represented by the
power of the spoken word. She insists that Lena cognitively absorb the tale of her suffering
and ultimate liberation. Through her interaction with the spirit of Rachel, Lena gleans a
portion of her cultural past. From the message transmitted by her cultural foremother, she is
offered an alternate ideology that rejects the dominant culture’s racism. Rachel contends
that Lena, and the entire African American collective, is free to exist wherever they choose,
on the seashore or elsewhere. As a narrative of resistance against cultural domination,
Rachel’s story functions in the same manner that Christio-Conjure functions in black
women’s writing. In black women’s literature, Christio-Conjure serves as a subversive
device employed by the black female subject in her struggle against religious, racial,
patriarchal oppression and sexual exploitation which frames her American experience.
(Un)Veiling the Ritual of “Caul & Response”
With declarations like “Voodoo and Catholicism merged” (258) resonating
throughout Voodoo Dreams, Rhodes explicitly depicts the blended construct of ChristioConjure in her novel. But Ansa’s Baby of the Family contains no grand declarations of
spiritual merging.
In Ansa’s novel, Christio-Conjure is (un)veiled far more subtly,
focusing, as it were, on the subject of the veil or “caul” with which Lena, the protagonist,
is born. In an interview, Ansa provides a cultural framework for the concept, explaining
that the veil has supernatural significance; it is a “thin membrane, or piece of skin, that
some babies are born with over their faces, some over their heads, or their whole bodies”
(qtd. in Carroll 20). For “African American, Native American, Welsh, Caribbean, South
American” people, this veil “means that the child is special in some way, or connected
with the supernatural” (20). Moreover, babies born with a veil are not only special
themselves but are thought to possess “special power” (120-21). The culturally inscribed
value of the caul in black America is linked to traditional West African beliefs, for exslaves often identified African born slaves in late antebellum times “as natural conjurers;”
blacks believed that those born with a caul had secret power and that “it was somehow a gift
of their African heritage” (218). In addition, self-identified Conjurers claimed “to have
been born with a caul, or a double caul. Ritually preserved for later magical use, the
single caul enabled one to see spirits, a double caul to converse with them” (Brown 8).
Set in 1949, in the fictitious town of Mulberry, Georgia2 the character of Nurse
Bloom functions as a cultural icon and is the one who preserves Lena’s caul. In Baby of
the Family, “the figure of the [black lay] midwife/woman healer provides a pivotal
structural and thematic framework” (Lee 20). With the exception of Nellie, who opposes
Christio-Conjure because she doesn’t realize “[t]here’s wisdom outside of our day-to-day
reality” (Jordan 22), the stories of the other characters serve as liberation narratives.
Rachel is liberated from literal, legal bondage; Nurse Bloom is liberated from the sexist
and racist strictures of modern science; Miss Lizzie is liberated from cultural and spiritual
ignorance; and Lena is liberated from a haunted existence. Each plays a unique role in
Lena’s rite of passage and Christio-Conjure conversion.
Lena’s caul serves as a point of departure and return for action and dialogue in the
text, generating a back and forth textual negotiation. Geneva Smitherman discusses this
back and forth negotiation as an African diasporic cultural construct known as callresponse. She contends that this “African-derived communication process” prevalent in
the black church is characterized by “spontaneous verbal and non-verbal interaction
between speaker and listener in which all of the speaker’s statements (‘calls’) are
punctuated by expressions (‘responses’) from the listener”3 (Talkin and Testifyin 104).
The call-response performance impinges upon virtually every aspect of African American
culture including speech, religion, music, and literature. Within the African American
literary canon, call-response shapes the concept of talking texts wherein “black texts
‘talk’ to other black texts” thematically (Signifying, Gates xxvi).
Baby of the Family dialogues with other black women’s texts featuring the
Christio-Conjure topos. More specifically, Baby of the Family presents the trope of “caul
and response” as the mystery of Lena’s birth is (un)veiled in the text through the
discourse of Christio-Conjure.
The novel depicts Christio-Conjure through the
simultaneous presentation of belief in the Christian God,4 accepting “callings” from the
Christian God, calling upon the Christian God/Jesus Christ in moments of crisis, paying
homage to the Christian God via the ritual of prayer, combined with ancestor reverence,
faith in the power of the veil, spirit possession, interpreting signs from nature to predict
future events, and conversing with spirits.
In the novel, Nurse Bloom symbolizes a cultural reservoir of medical folk
wisdom, and as she preserves Lena’s birth caul, she demonstrates her medical expertise.
In the country Nurse Bloom was an unlicensed lay midwife who learned the craft through
“self-instruction and apprenticeship” (Reid 219-20). In Baby of the Family, the theme of
divine “calling” is linked to the image of the midwife, for historically black lay
midwives5 believed their roles as community servants were predicated not upon personal
career decisions but upon a calling from God. As such, the role of the midwife in the
African American community parallels the role of the preacher; Smitherman contends
[m]uch of what is accomplished by call-response can be
witnessed by moving through the hierarchy of the
traditional black church [. . .]. God must send the man who
is to lead [. . .] it is the beginning of the process, that is, the
call by God and the man’s response by taking up the
ministry [. . .] you don’t go to [. . .] school to be [a]
preacher [. . .] God must “call” you. (Talkin and Testifyin
Despite the Christian ministry’s fundamental exclusion of women, African American
women who occupied the black, woman-governed arena of midwifery,6 nonetheless
envisioned themselves as spiritual conduits of the Lord and created an autonomous space
for themselves within the male-dominated sphere of Christianity. Like black preachers,
they too believed God called upon them as community servants. In the black community,
midwife conjuring (treatment and healing with a natural pharmacopoeia of herbs, barks,
and roots and such) was, itself, regarded as divinely ordained. Herron and Bacon note
that an “old woman who was a conjure doctor [said] she had a special revelation from
God, as do all conjure doctors” (360). Highlighting the quintessential nature of the
midwife’s dual role in the African American community, Lee describes the traditional
black lay midwife as “God’s servant and woman’s agent” (1); thus, her role is at once
spiritual and political.
During slavery, the black lay midwife maintained a position of respect, reverence,
and medical authority on American plantations while the masses of enslaved blacks were
routinely brutalized and demeaned:
[w]hen slave ships brought black women to America, these
women came with attitudes about health care that were
African-based rather than European.7 They came with a
knowledge of midwifery and botanic roots [. . .]. In eras
when many older slaves were expendable commodities,
elderly black midwives were thought of as assets in their
slave communities. They were fertility specialists, moral
counselors and root workers [. . .]. There is much evidence
that black midwives were central to the structure of a slave
economy wherein black women were breeders. (Bogdan
In many ways, Nurse Bloom fits the traditional mold of the black lay midwife. Her
medical repository is African-based, she possesses a keen knowledge of midwifery, and
she is also a counselor and root worker. But like traditional black lay midwives who
were so well anchored in southern American culture, in the novel Nurse Bloom, too,
loses her “high cultural status”8 (Lee 24). With the rise of the medicalization process in
the United States during the 1800s, white males took an avid interest in the matter of
childbirth. After existing for centuries as a woman-dominated socio-medical sphere, a
merciless campaign to discredit midwives. The dominant culture usurped the midwives’
medical authority and degraded their expertise, in Foucault’s terms, as “subjugated
knowledge,” i.e., knowledge “disqualified as inadequate to [the] task or insufficiently
elaborated; naïve knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required
level of cognition or scientificity” (Power/Knowledge 82). But despite professional
displacement, the cultural eminence of the black lay midwife was too deeply embedded
in the African American collective psyche to fade from cultural prominence.
Honoring the black lay midwife, “African American history calls and African
American literature responds” (Lee 18). The black lay midwife re-emerges within the
Christio-Conjure genre of contemporary black women’s writing, and her literary image
functions as a dissonant, subversive counter-force to racio-gendered systems of
oppression in American culture. Because the practice of midwifery is established by a
divine mandate from the Christian God and is based upon a medical tradition of West
African healing, the literary black lay midwife functions as an archetypal ChristioConjure character in various novels by black women. Specifically in Baby of the Family,
the midwife, epitomized by Nurse Bloom, serves as a metaphorical lifeline for Lena.
Lena is the point of intersection through which all the women in the novel (Nurse Bloom,
Nellie, Rachel, and Miss Lizzie) “re-claim and pass on their cultural heritage” (Jordan 1).
Nurse Bloom
In black women’s texts, midwives are accorded cultural prestige,9 and they
transform the narratives of a significant number of black women writers. Despite efforts
to destroy them, “the literary [black lay midwife] is a character with an eclectic
profession and [. . .] presence” (Lee 8-9). Representing this tradition, prior to working as
a nurse in the local hospital, Nurse Bloom, is called “Mother Bloom” as “a midwife in the
country” (Ansa 17 and 19). As a black nurse in 1949, Nurse Bloom functions within the
cultural matrix of black lay midwives historically displaced during the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries. Respected throughout the community, “[e]verybody knows how
much everyone looks up to [her]” (Ansa 28). Within a lineage of women who serve as
spiritual conduits of the Christian Lord and as practitioners of West African-influenced
customs of healthcare, Nurse Bloom is an archetypal Christio-Conjure character.
Possessing the title Mother, she functions as the symbolic community matriarch10 and is
responsible for the medical and spiritual well-being of the black collective. As Mother
“Bloom,” her name is associated with organic richness and natural abundance; she
participates in a metaphorical fertility ritual when she wonders what Lena’s newborn
“bath water can do for Mrs. Williams’ poor little roses [. . .] she sprinkle[s] the base of
the plants with the pinkish water,” and she won’t “be surprised if those things are
flourishing next spring” (20). Her role in the novel is to nurture both people and things
and to help them flourish, especially Lena, the special newborn.
In the delivery room on the day of Lena’s birth everyone, including Nurse Bloom
and Dr. Williams, is fascinated by the newborn who “arriving with a veil over her face
[. . .] brought with her a touch of the supernatural to a place that owed so much to the
scientific” (3). Throughout the opening scene there is a distinct dichotomy between the
Western scientific space of the hospital delivery room, governed by Dr. Williams, and the
ritualistic Christio-Conjure activity performed in that space by Nurse Bloom.
explains the dissonance between midwives and medical doctors:
[h]istorically, conjuring has been a pejorative label used to
explain the inexplicable power of the Other, most notably
the racial other who was thought to be steeped in African
superstitions [. . .] the magic and power of black women
who mix concoctions for childbirth and general healing will
always be reduced to a narrow, outsider’s definition of
conjuring [. . .]. Despite the fact that most [midwives], as
Christians, eschewed any alliances with the devil, many
doctors nevertheless reductively labeled their activities as
witchcraft. (12-13)
In Baby of the Family, however, Dr. Williams symbolically erases the historical tension
between midwives and doctors by discarding his privileged position in the hospital as a
medical expert. Following Lena’s delivery, he “gave no thought to the techniques he had
learned at Meharry,”11 and “he turned the next two minutes into a ritualized dance that
had nothing to do with modern medicine” (Ansa 5). Dr. Williams relinquishes his
Western, professional medical demeanor and surrenders to West African cultural
influence, signified by his “ritualized dance.”
Likewise, “he cannot shake off the
mythology and the rituals that are a part of such a birth. Folk culture erupts” (Lee 122).
As “the nurse [Dr. Williams] most trusts” (Ansa 122) and as the one who is the
“[m]ost delighted” (122) with Lena’s birth, Nurse Bloom supplies Lena the necessary
medical attention required at birth.
The injustices suffered by historical black lay
midwives are inverted as Nurse Bloom transforms the hospital into a Christio-Conjure
space: she “once again [becomes] Mother Bloom, enacting the necessary rituals” (122) to
properly preserve Lena’s caul. As Nurse Bloom surreptitiously “gives Lena’s caul the
right attention” (30), she assumes the role of ritual specialist. Like historical black lay
midwives who were forced to resituate their crafts(wo)manship within the context of
Western medical protocol by sitting for medical exams and becoming licensed by state
medical boards, Nurse Bloom, too, demonstrates the same level of dexterity and
adaptability, adjusting “her ritual to fit the modern mode” (17). Undaunted by the
Westernized space of the urban hospital, Nurse Bloom performs the identical rituals in
the hospital that she conducted as Mother Bloom in the country: “acting as if the gods
were watching her every move” she “pulled the caul from the baby’s face” and beneath
her mask “her wrinkled lips moved to a chant she spoke in her head” (5). Additionally,
dropped the drying membrane into the still-warm bloody
water in the [. . .] metal pan [. . .] swiftly cut a piece [. . .]
rolled the stiff section of skin up, and dropped it in the
teapot. Then she [. . .] poured a stream of hot water into the
teapot [. . .] took a glass baby bottle [. . .] and poured the
warm caul tea into it [. . .]. I’ll let her mother give it to her.
That’s the way it should be. (18-23)
As Nurse Bloom steeps Lena’s caul in boiling water, preparing the tea, this passage of the
text is steeped in the caul-and-response thematic. The physical manifestation of the caul
at Lena’s birth serves as the metaphorical call for Nurse Bloom to enact her time-honored
Christio-Conjure preservation rituals; the textual response entails her actual performance
of the rituals.
The specific nature of Nurse Bloom’s activities are blurred within the text, for
they are at once medical/scientific as well as spiritual/ritualistic. She reveals that the caul
is more than a piece of skin and describes it as a sign indicating that Lena has unique
powers. Nurse Bloom believes Lena will be “very wise in ways we don’t always
appreciate [. . .] she has got a link to that other world that most [. . .] pretend don’t exist”
(27-28). Nurse Bloom conveys to Nellie, Lena’s mother, the relevance of this ChristioConjure cultural belief and explains that for Lena to be properly indoctrinated into
Christio-Conjure culture, a series of caul rituals must be performed. Because the caul can
serve as either a blessing or a curse, its preservation and the preparation of the caul tea
ensure its blessing status. As a blessing, the caul functions as a metaphysical asset
empowering Lena to commune in positive, productive, life-affirming ways with spirits of
the deceased. Conversely, without appropriate ritualistic attention, the caul produces
menacing effects such as unwanted interaction with random, malcontent spirits. Nurse
Bloom advises Nellie:
this isn’t superstitions [. . .] I’m talking about what really is
[. . .]. There’s all kinds of things in this world that people
call superstitions because they don’t understand them or
because they don’t neatly fit into their way of thinking
nowadays, but that doesn’t mean that these things are some
crazy mumbo-jumbo of ignorant country people [. . .] you
must keep this caul for your child until she is grown [. . .].
If it’s lost or misplaced, it will make the child forgetful.
With this advice, Nurse Bloom warns of the undesirable repercussions Lena may suffer if
Nellie does not adhere to the ritualistic procedures.
But the exchange with Nellie
proceeds nothing “like the nurse had thought it would” (27). Nellie’s disinterest signals
her dismissal of Nurse Bloom’s advice, which she view as subjugated knowledge. Nurse
Bloom is dismayed by Nellie’s apparent inability to relate to the instructions she provides
and attributes this to Nellie’s lack of “commonsense” (31).
In the African American community, common sense is often referred to as
“mother wit” which, according to Dundes, is “the collective wisdom acquired by the
experience of living” (xiv). Furthermore, mother wit represents “intuition [and] wisdom
not taught in school or found in books” (Black Talk, Smitherman 163). Nurse Bloom
posits, “I am country” but “I sho’ ain’t ignorant. I brought more babies into this world as
a midwife than you can shake a stick at, and I learned a thing or two in the process”
(Ansa 28 original emphasis). The proverbial “thing or two” Nurse Blooms learns over
the course of her life and career as a midwife constitute her acquisition of mother wit, a
type of knowledge traditionally associated with black lay midwifery. Although it is
viewed as subjugated knowledge by the dominant culture (exemplified by Nellie), the
novel privileges it as an afrofemcentric construct. Nurse Bloom, not Nellie, possesses the
wisdom to remedy Lena’s disturbing experiences. In the African American community,
mother wit serves as a repository of critical, life-sustaining knowledge and functions as a
tool of empowerment fashioned in the hands of black women, specifically black lay
Nellie cannot appreciate Nurse Bloom’s wisdom and ignores her advice about
Lena’s caul. Though they outwardly function as ideological opposites, below the surface,
Nellie, like Nurse Bloom, also functions as a Christio-Conjure character.
As a member
of the black middle-class, Nellie espouses middle-class sensibilities that serve as counterintelligence to the storehouse of mother wit dispensed by Nurse Bloom.
characteristics reveal the level of social status Nellie has attained. She is a homemaker,
her husband is an entrepreneur, her children attend private school, and her home is
adorned with fine furnishings. Often in the black middle-class, “any peculiar beliefs or
habits among blacks [. . .] tended to be looked down upon as all bad, and to be forgotten
as quickly as possible” (Chireau 233). Nellie’s objective, then, is to abandon “all those
old-timey ideas” (Ansa 27) and “old-fashioned foolishness” (32). In order to achieve
this, she attempts to disassociate herself from any vestige of black folk culture, including
the cultural icon of the black lay midwife.
As a “modern new mother” (34), Nellie dismisses Nurse Bloom’s admonition; she
burns Lena’s caul and throws out the protective tea. On one hand, Nellie regards Nurse
Bloom as “a sweet woman, going to all this trouble [her] my baby,” but on the other
hand, she berates her as “a grown intelligent woman” who believes in ghosts (33). Lee
addresses Nellie and Nurse Bloom’s ideological conflict in terms of the “campaign to
discredit” black lay midwives:
black women tried to distance themselves from [. . .] [black
lay midwives] [. . .]. To go to the doctor or hospital
became a test of modernity for many black maternity
patients [. . .] to prove their new world sophistication [. . .].
The patients were being pulled in various directions.
Should they elect the aid of the women who serviced their
mothers and grandmothers? Or should they upon
recognizing that there have been advances in the field of
obstetrics, go to a hospital? (46)
Unlike the women described above, Nellie does not seem conflicted about choosing
between old world West African principles and new world Western thought. As a
member of the black bourgeoisie, her dismissal of Nurse Bloom’s advice clearly marks
her loyalty to the ideals of the dominant culture:
African American folk practices were subjected to an
extensive process of redefinition that resulted in their
devaluation [. . . ]. [F]ollowing the Civil War missionaries
and clergy attempted to alter the morals of black
freedpersons by their disavowal of customs and practices
which were associated with slavery. In the 1870s black
colleges endeavored to “uplift” the ex-slaves and their
children, censuring traditions [. . .] they believed reflected
uncivilized or uncultivated behavior. Finally within the
popular sphere folk beliefs and occult practices [. . .] were
consigned to the domain of superstition [. . .]. [P]ractices
like Conjure were downgraded and eventually distanced
from their religious roots. (Chireau 239)
Representing this quality of patronizing disdain, Nellie dismisses various forms of black
folk culture, including spiritual beliefs, as ignorant and superstitious.
Like other aspects of her life, the manner in which Nellie and her family worship
denotes their assimilation into the mainstream, dominant culture. Instead of subscribing
to the Christio-Conjure form of religious worship widespread in the southern black
church, Nellie is a staunch Catholic. The influence of traditional Catholicism in the
McPherson home is clear and apparent. According to the narrator, the family at the
dinner table reminds Lena of the “priest, altar boys, and communicants at Mass,” even
“the fabric her mother had chosen to cover the chairs [. . .] alternating stripes of maroon
satin and beige satin separated by ridges of gold—reminded Lena of the priest’s
vestments of gold, purple, green, red, and white” (Ansa 102). Also, before each meal,
everyone made the sign of the cross and said “In the name of the Father and of the Son
and of the Holy Ghost, Amen. [. . .] Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are
about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen” (106). This scene
suggests the McPherson’s brand of worship is extremely whitewashed, in particular, the
diction of the prayer they recite as they “bless” their meal echoes a highly formalized
version of standard American speech in contrast to their day-to-day Black English.
Nellie’s commitment to Catholicism reflects Leroi Jones’s characterization of “house
Negroes” (33) who sought to replicate as many facets of white culture as possible,
including their form of Christian worship. Nellie’s character functions as a metaphor for
both “house Negroes” as well as American mainstream culture at large, which has
historically demeaned and discounted Christio-Conjure and its practitioners.
As Nellie assimilates into American mainstream culture, Lena’s Christio-Conjureinfluenced actions and experiences leave “no room for Nellie to respond in a sensible
way;” she considers taking Lena by the hospital to see if Nurse Bloom can “tell her
something about the girl’s strange ways,” but “she dismisse[s] the idea” (Ansa 60).
Despite Nellie’s attempts to ignore the influence of Christio-Conjure upon her family life,
she remains bewildered, perplexed, and astounded by Lena’s behavior.
demonstrating her confusion, Nellie at once rejects and considers Nurse Bloom’s
assessment of Lena as a “special” child. Nellie wonders, “who does she think she is,
saying that about Lena as if my baby was some kind of crazy voodoo woman?” (255).
But “at the same time Nellie couldn’t shake the eerie feeling that somehow the nurse
really knew what she was talking about” (255). As the most avid challenger of ChristioConjure in the text, Nellie finds it impossible to utterly discount the tangible ways the
spiritual construct influences her family life. Despite her effort to maintain a strictly antiConjure position, she routinely acknowledges Christio-Conjure in her daily activities.
Lena’s ability to “put the magic” on things, for example, is an activity her family finds
her family took it seriously. If a stranger was present [. . .]
someone in the family would explain casually, “You know
Lena was born with a veil over her face.” If the car didn’t
start after two or three tries, everyone in the car would turn
to Lena. “Come on baby,” her mother would say, “put the
magic on this car for us so I can get the boys to school in
this rain” [. . .]. She could put the magic on just about
anything: a radio, the television, a stuck door, a rusty ice
cream churn. Her magic [. . .] nearly always worked for a
time. (52)
Nellie’s devotion to Catholicism coupled with her simultaneous reverence of Lena’s
Conjure-based, metaphysical abilities marks her as an unwitting Christio-Conjure
character, though she consciously rejects the paradigm. Christio-Conjure is presented as
a compelling force in the novel with the power to sway the thoughts of even a
This central theme parallels the faith’s historical tenaciousness and
illustrates the essence of its enduring character, despite incessant attempts to discredit it.
From her first moment of life, Lena casts a “spell” (3) upon the delivery room,
born with a caul “[o]ver her entire head, as if draped there by a band of angels” (3). She
is a child whom God touched “in the womb” (17). Following her birth, the hospital staff
discusses the significance of her birth caul. She is supposed to be lucky, have special
powers, and “be able to tell you things. But the biggest power is [her ability] to see
ghosts [. . .]. The caul is a gift from God” (16). Noteworthy in these passages is the
amalgamation of Conjure subject matter (e.g., reading the future and seeing ghosts) and
Christian subject matter (e.g., a child chosen and expressly blessed by God).
Although Lena is lucidly characterized as a Christio-Conjure character from birth,
it is nonetheless impossible for her to believe in and practice the spiritual construct
genuinely, because she doesn’t understand it. As devout Catholics, Lena’s parents enroll
her in a private Catholic school; thus, at home, church, and school she is inundated with
solely Christian ideals. Though she participates in various aspects of Christio-Conjure,
not only is she confounded by her experiences, but worse, with the exception of “putting
the magic” on random objects, she finds her Christio-Conjure experiences intensely
frightening. Her family “talked of her being born with a veil over her face and of seeing
ghosts over her shoulder and of putting the magic on things, but they did not really
believe in half the stuff they talked about” (87). Although they occasionally tease her
about her uncommon abilities, often her family members are unaware of her supernatural
The first time Lena tells her family she has seen a ghost, she suffers convulsions
and, recalling the “the sickness, the vomiting, the fits that had struck her when she told
her family about the ghost” (41), she learns to keep her ghostly visions a secret. This
experience creates in Lena a sense of terror, and rather than a visit from a “helpful” (29)
spirit, her experience seems more like a visit from a demon. The inclination to demonize
unfamiliar religious practices/beliefs is a more insidious problem than Nellie’s
characterization of Christio-Conjure as superstitious yet innocent—i.e., ignorant yet
Citing the Puritan settlers’ early encounters with indigenous Americans,
historian, Ronald Takaki, documents Christian demonization of Native American
religion. He notes the Puritan’s urge to reduce the religious practices of indigenous
Americans to devil worship and the characterization of Indian religious beliefs as
“diabolical” as if “framed and devised by the devil himself” (40). Takaki discusses
Reverend Thomas Mayhew who in 1652 wrote that the Wampanoags of Martha’s
Vineyard were “zealous and earnest in the Worship of False gods and Devils [. . .] [and
were under the influence of a multitude of Heathen Traditions [. . .] and abounding with
sins” (40). As well, in his article, “Conjure/Doctors: A Black Discourse,” David Brown
explains that “[c]onjure and conjurers” were “regarded as evil instruments of the Devil by
white society” (10). Moreover, he discusses Minister C.C. Jones who viewed Conjure as
an “irresistible Satanic influence,” and P.A. Bruce who concluded that Conjure served as
a vent for the Negro’s “evil passions” (10).
Similarly, in Baby of the Family, alternate systems of belief (Voodoo/Conjure,
American Indian forms of worship, etc.) are misrepresented by some characters as
devil/demon worship and as antithetical to Christianity. The nuns at St. Martin de Porres,
the Catholic school Lena attends,
terrorized their students by telling stories they represented
as factual about their adventures in the western United
States, where they taught American Indian children. “I saw
[. . .] people [. . .] possessed by the devil [. . .]. It was the
devil in those poor people, the very devil that I saw with
my own eyes. But the church in her infinite wisdom knows
the power of Satan and has holy implements like holy water
[. . .] to drive the demons of hell out.” (Ansa 219-20)
Disparaging characterizations like these reinforce Lena’s existing sense of fear and
At school in the principal’s office, Lena is frightened by another facet of ChristioConjure, spirit possession. Spirit possession is one of the most significant features in
African religion and, interpreted in Christian terms, it became “a central feature in
expressive behavior in African American Christianity” (“Believer,” Joyner 30). Lena’s
tendency to view her experience as “demon” possession rather than “spirit” possession
represents the previously discussed tendency to classify foreign or unfamiliar
religious/spiritual concepts as evil/demonic. When Lena experiences possession in the
principal’s office, she employs “the opposed concepts of good and evil, God and Satan,
in Christian thinking” (Brown 10).
Ignorant of Christio-Conjure’s designation of spirit possession as a sacred and
divine gift, Lena classifies her experience as a “demon [taking] possession of her body”
(Ansa 219). Reinscribing her complete and utter horror, the “strange unsummoned voice
coming out of her mouth stunned” her and made her realize that “there was something
wrong [. . .] [s]he might say or do or see anything” (216-17). Following her possession,
her classmates ostracize her. Snubbed by her peers at school, this period represents a
particularly difficult episode in Lena’s life. As she attempts to figure out what transpired
in the principal’s office, Lena recognizes that unlike her previous encounters with spirits,
in this instance she is actually possessed by a spirit. Terrified by this realization, she
turns to her Christian faith and exclaims, “Jesus, keep me near the cross!” (219). As
Lena analyzes her latest and most frightening experience, her thought process functions
within a Christio-Conjure frame of reference.
Her thoughts advance through three phases.
encounters with apparitions/spirits.
First, she recalls her previous
She then contemplates the possibility of spirit
possession. Finally, she appeals to the Christian savior, Jesus Christ for strength and
comfort during this moment of crisis and fear. As Lena reflects upon her experience in
the principal’s office, each phase of her three-part analytical process represents a
different aspect of Christio-Conjure. Like Nellie, however, Lena is cognitively unaware
of her participation in Christio-Conjure and other than repairing inoperative objects by
“putting the magic on them,” she has no control over her metaphysical/paranormal
experiences. While her bewildering experiences are understood and valued by informed
practitioners of Christio-Conjure, because Lena is only formally exposed to Christianity,
she is burdened with confusion, fear, and a fractured sense of self.
Not until she
experiences spiritual/psychological transformation through spirit contact with her
grandmother is she able to recognize and appreciate her personal participation in
Miss Lizzie
Miss Lizzie, Lena’s grandmother, is the most complicated character in the novel.
Like Nellie, her position on Christianity is clear, but her stance on Christio-Conjure is
convoluted. For example, as she reminisces about her late husband’s affinity for New
Orleans, “the city of Voudoun” (Teish 4), she discredits the Christio-Conjure tradition as
“voodoo stuff” (Ansa 104), similar to Nellie’s characterization of Nurse Bloom’s ChristioConjure practices as “hocus pocus” (60). Like Nellie, Miss Lizzie also relegates the belief
and practice to a subjugated form of knowledge. Ironically, however, Nellie describes Miss
Lizzie in precisely the same manner as she characterizes Nurse Bloom: “you know how
she is about all this old-timey stuff, she’s almost as bad as Nurse Bloom” (34).
Not only does Miss Lizzie tell stories about “haunts of all kinds” (42-43), but while
discussing her late husband, she actually reveals her belief in the notion of being haunted;
she admits waiting for the spirit of her husband to “haunt” her (104). Moreover, Miss
Lizzie says that since Lena was born with a veil over her face that “others could see
ghosts when looking over her shoulder” (56). When a baby owl enters the house through
the chimney, she tells Lena that “a bird in the house is a sure sign that there’s gonna be a
death in the family” (243). In this passage she interprets a sign from nature as an omen of a
future event, further exposing her latent Christio-Conjure beliefs. Following much mayhem,
the owl crashes though the dining room window. Miss Lizzie insists upon quickly clearing
up the mess and calculates she can have the window replaced before anyone notices the
damage. That night, however, she dies in her sleep and Lena is grief-stricken, believing that
if she had told someone about the evil omen of the owl, she could have prevented her
grandmother’s death.
After her death, Miss Lizzie appears to Lena to offer a sense of comfort and
consolation, for in Christio-Conjure “the process of dying” is not “complete for up to five
years. The spirits of the ancestors—the living dead—[are] the closest link between the
world of the living and the world of the spirits, because they [straddle] both worlds”
(“Believer,” Joyner 34). As a spirit, Miss Lizzie encourages Lena to discuss her life-long
hidden feelings of insecurity and insanity. With this guidance, Lena dispels the negative
stigma associated with insanity and realizes that “our personalities are fragmented—
disorganized team efforts trying to cope with the past—rather than the sane, unified
wholes we anticipate in ourselves and in other people” (Stout 3-4).
In the novel, the visit from Miss Lizzie’s spirit represents a turning-point in
Lena’s Christio-Conjure evolution. As such, Lena, in her world of apparitions and
uncertainties, for once “felt lucky to be able to see ghosts” (Ansa 98 and 261). Like
Rachel’s spirit, Miss Lizzie’s serves as Lena’s Christio-Conjure mentor. Moreover, Miss
Lizzie’s spirit validates Christio-Conjure as a source of protection and preservation for
the black female collective, and the historically denigrated aspects of Christio-Conjure,
like spirit contact and spirit possession, are recovered, reclaimed, and extolled.
Miss Lizzie contextualizes Lena’s experiences in such a way that they make
sense. Instead of focusing on sanity, Miss Lizzie embraces the notion of insanity and
inverts the mainstream definition of it. She identifies insanity as a common characteristic
among black women and says the struggles of life “made us that way” (262). She assures
Lena that “[c]razy ain’t all bad [. . .]. Sometimes it’s the only thing that protects you”
(262). Miss Lizzie suggests madness, for African American women, functions as a defense
mechanism against historical forms of racio-gendered oppression. Additionally, in Baby of
the Family, Christio-Conjure symbolically eradicates Lena’s sense of madness.
employs its tenets to reappropriate her frightening memories within the glorified legacy of
her birth caul, a divine “gift from God” (16).
Miss Lizzie’s spirit assumes the role of Lena’s Christio-Conjuring mentor,
guiding her toward a new understanding of her metaphysical powers. As a member of the
spirit world Miss Lizzie recognizes and appreciates, in a manner she previously did not, the
special, spiritual privileges bestowed upon her granddaughter and encourages Lena to
develop her spirituality as a tool of self-empowerment. Furthermore, she denounces
Nellie for ignoring Nurse Bloom’s instructions and inhibiting Lena from becoming a
“spiritually healthy being” (Teish 209). In short, as a spirit Miss Lizzie conveys the dire
consequences of abandoning ritualistic acts.
At last, the mystery of Lena’s birth caul is (un)veiled and the fragmented
experiences of her life are recast as a sensible, seamless reality. As the story closes, the
significance of Christio-Conjure is most apparent as Miss Lizzie explains to Lena, “what
you are, baby, it’s a gift. It’s like in the Bible. It’s your birthright. There’s gifts that
you’re given in this world that you just can’t throw away” (265). In this passage, not
only does Miss Lizzie suggest that Lena is blessed with supernatural “gifts,” but she
further highlights the construct of Christio-Conjure by referencing the holy Bible while
discussing Lena’s “birthright,” the caul. In death Miss Lizzie is wiser. Although she
functions consciously as a Christian throughout most of the text, as a spirit, she discerns
and affirms the validity of Christio-Conjure—not only as a general source of social
resistance12 exemplified by the spirit of Rachel—but more specifically as a mechanism
for Lena’s psychological decontamination and spiritual empowerment.
Cross-generational Christio-Conjure
Two significant figures in Lena’s spiritual network, Rachel and Miss Lizzie, are
ghosts, spirits whom Lena respects and reveres. The notion of ancestor reverence in
Christio-Conjure is rooted in the ancient West African “conviction that the spirit world
[is] an integral part of the life force;” the dead are “believed to be concerned with and
involved in the affairs of the living. The reverence for ancestral spirits is one facet of
[. . .] a host of spirit beings [. . .] that monitor the activities of the living” (Smith-Wright
144-45). In the dominant culture this spiritual vestige of West African religious tradition
has been appropriated within a secular frame, as ghost stories served “to discourage
Blacks from moving around at night, unsupervised” (142). But black folklorists “altered
these ghost stories” in ways that “extended the rich African oral tradition” (142),
subverting the original intent of the dominant class. The ghost story in black women’s
literature also functions as a tool of subversion, preserving historically maligned West
African beliefs.
As the novel concludes, the spirit of Miss Lizzie fosters a sense of connection,
urging Lena to visit Nurse Bloom, whose former status as Mother Bloom is symbolically
restored. Indeed, Nurse Bloom’s “life-affirming powers” rise out of her “folklore past”
(Lee 9), and what Nellie (the embodiment of Western ideology) discounts as Nurse
Bloom’s subjugated knowledge, serves as the vital wisdom that helps Lena conquer her
literal and figurative demons.
Nurse Bloom’s “hocus-pocus” and “mumbo-jumbo”
ultimately represent first-rate common sense, usurping Western thought in the novel. In
the Christio-Conjure sub-genre of African American literature, the legacy of black lay
midwives is commemorated. Texts featuring black lay midwives are “healing narratives”
(Wilentz 1) mending not only the ruptured legacy of black lay midwives in America but
also spiritually/psychologically restoring the entire African American female collective.
The midwife in African American women’s literature13 is a healing figure; she
functions as a metaphor for black women’s collective recovery from racio-gendered
historical oppression, for “[s]ometimes a whole people need healing work. Not a tribe,
not a nation. Tribes and nations are just signs that the whole is diseased. The healing
work that cures a whole people is the highest work, far higher than the cure of single
individuals” (Armah 100 added emphasis). The black lay midwife is the central healer in
black women’s Christio-Conjure writing. In Baby of the Family, in addition to Nurse
Bloom, other women too represent healing figures, namely Rachel and Miss Lizzie.
While Lena never verbally cries for help, these three women intuit her psychological
distress and respond to her emotional anguish and proffer hope and healing.
As the cultural phenomenon of call-response reflects the “soul” of African
American culture, the trope of “caul and response” in Baby of the Family represents the
“soul” of the narrative. The novel’s emphasis on “group cohesiveness, cooperation, and
the collective common good” validates the belief that “spiritual regeneration depends on
the visitation of the Spirit, but the efforts of the total group are needed to bring that
about” (Talkin and Testifyin, Smitherman 109).
Likewise, Lena’s “spiritual
regeneration” is also contingent upon the nurturing efforts of all the women in novel.
The entire text is grounded in the importance of female bonding and the significance of
cultural ties among African American women, despite the torn relations and disjointed past
fostered by a heritage rooted in American slavery. Throughout the novel Ansa weaves
connections between the female characters and, via Lena, all the women in the narrative—
Nellie, Nurse Bloom, Lizzie, and Rachel—are interconnected with and influenced by the
power of Christio-Conjure.
In Baby of the Family, Ansa, as a literary Christio-Conjure woman, attempts to
subvert disparaging cultural characterizations suffered by African Americans. She seeks
to recover elements of African American culture derived “from Africanisms that tell us to
respect” our ancestors and to make a connection between those “living and those who
have passed on” (Carroll 21). In Baby of the Family, the apparitions/ghosts represent
cultural ancestors who impart wisdom and promote spiritual/psychological healing. As
well, Ansa fuses the Christio-Conjure element of spirit contact with the traditional notion
of the ghost story, centralizing the image of the ghost in her narrative. Her presentation
of the ghost story situates Baby of the Family within a lineage of Christio-Conjure
women writers who also feature this device, including Rhodes, Bambara, Shange, Naylor,
and Dash.
As a community activist and writer, Bambara, who lost her struggle with cancer
in 1995, forged an inseparable bond between social consciousness and social criticism in
the production of her art. In her work she skillfully exposes how social ills such as
racism, sexism, and elitism impinge upon multiple aspects of humanity including art,
religion, education, foreign policy, economics, medicine, ecology, psychology, sociology,
and technology. Her first novel, The Salt Eaters, integrates an array of these themes.
Like Ansa in Baby of the Family, in this work Bambara depicts madness as a form of
spiritual crisis, and like Rhodes in Voodoo Dreams, she also highlights the African
American cultural significance of communal bonding. The core of the narrative focuses
on individual mental instability, personified by the mental collapse of Velma, the
protagonist. Expanding the novel’s thematic scope, Bambara depicts tensions within the
sphere of the black community represented by conflict in the 7 Arts Academy, an
organization in the novel that promotes “performing arts, the martial arts, the medical
arts, the scientific arts, and the arts and humanities” (Salt 120). Finally, through the
novel’s broadest theme, Bambara exposes the dissonant element disrupting the entire
town of Claybourne: a “split between employees of Transchemical and activists who
oppose its presence (Velma is employed by both camps)” (Kelley 285).
Issues in The Salt Eaters range from the profoundly private to the overtly public;
despite this range, however, the issues are interconnected and affect every character.
Recognizing this extensive interconnection helps the reader decode Campbell’s cryptic
epiphany that “everything is everything” (Salt, Bambara 249). Further developing the
theme of interconnection, like Rhodes who moves beyond black and white racial issues in
Voodoo Dreams, Bambara explores multiethnic intersections in The Salt Eaters, most
evident in the presentation of the multicultural feminist group, the Seven Sisters.2 But
despite instances of multiethnic inclusion and broad cross-cultural analyses, like Rhodes
in Voodoo Dreams and Ansa in Baby of the Family, Bambara integrates African “spiritual
and healing traditions with those from Western religion” (Andrews 641) in The Salt
Eaters, foregrounding the cultural/religious hybrid of Christio-Conjure.
The title of the novel evokes the Christio-Conjure component of natural healing,
specifically the traditional healing properties associated with the substance of salt.3
Identifying salt as a matter used “to neutralize poisons” (“What Is It” 166), Bambara
metaphorically transforms the function of this substance in the novel by presenting
characters in search of a saline solution from the earth, a symbolic agent that supplies
psychological healing and communal restoration.
Further extending the theme of
healing, in addition to the novel’s focus on the healing aspects of salt, Velma, the novel’s
protagonist, is bestowed with the “calling” (Salt, Bambara 243) to heal others through
Christio-Conjure. Though there is no evidence of Velma being born with a birth caul as a
physical sign of her metaphysical power, she, like Lena in Baby of the Family, is
nonetheless unwittingly “bless[ed]” (Salt, Bambara 219) with a Christio-Conjure “gift”
In The Salt Eaters, Christio-Conjure is presented as both practice and belief. The
three archetypal Christio-Conjure characters in the novel—Old Wife, Minnie, and
Sophie—worship the Christian God as well as West African deities, including
Damballah,4 Oshun,5 Oye,6 and Ogun.7
They profess Christian ideals, while
simultaneously demonstrating deference to ancestral spirits or loa. They participate in
Christian prayer groups and/or attend services held in Christian chapels and interface
directly with the spirit world. In addition, these women possess supernatural curative
powers, which they use throughout the community offering services such as midwifery
and psychic healing. Old Wife, Minnie, and Sophie are elderly female figures who not
only perform physical healing but also impart spiritual and secular wisdom. As well,
they acculturate newly converted African American women into Christio-Conjure and
mentor them as their cultural heirs.
Although Gay Wilentz asserts that Bambara “places her wellness narrative in the
Sea Islands” (56), the text does not support this assertion. Instead, like Baby of the
Family, the novel is set in a fictitious Georgia town. The town’s name, Claybourne, is
emblematic of the distinctive red-colored clay that blankets the earth throughout the
Georgia mainland—a conspicuous contrast with the white, dusty soil of the neighboring
Sea Islands. The action of the novel spans two hours during the “the annual spring
festival of celebration and rebirth” (Hull 221). Due to the dual threats posed by a local
group of militant blacks and the locally stored nuclear chemicals, the black community in
Claybourne is mired in turmoil. The “confusion, chaos, and social inversion of carnival”
(227) provide a symbolic backdrop for the individual and communal calamities featured
in the novel. According to Bakhtin, carnival represents the “social consciousness of all
the people” as members “of a continually growing and renewed people,” and it also
represents “an element of victory” over “all that oppresses and restricts” (92). Thus, the
carnival setting is particularly appropriate given the novel’s social liberation and spiritual
renewal motif.
With Velma’s Christio-Conjure healing underway, the narrative opens in the
Southwest Community Infirmary in medias res. The Infirmary is where Dr. Meadows,
trained at Meharry medical school like Dr. Williams in Baby of the Family, practices
traditional Western medicine in the space he shares with his colleague Miz Minnie
Ransom, community midwife and “fabled healer of the district” (Salt, Bambara 4). In the
Infirmary “conventional medical treatments are integrated into the traditional healings”
(Wilentz 69). Over the years, the spirit of the institution has been shaped and informed
by grannies, midwives, root men, and conjure women (Salt, Bambara 107). Like the
hospital in Baby of the Family, the black-founded and operated Infirmary is the physical
site of Christio-Conjure service and expertise. With the maxim “HEALTH IS YOUR
RIGHT” inscribed above its entrance, the Infirmary’s establishment represents the
unified effort of the “Free Coloreds of Claybourne” (120), reinforcing the text’s theme of
individual health and wholeness within the context of communal bonding.8
Velma’s Dilemma
Unlike Voodoo Dreams and Baby of the Family, The Salt Eaters is not a coming
of age story; Velma, the protagonist is a fully mature adult. Within the framework of
Christio-Conjure, however, she languishes in spiritual infancy. In her youth, Velma is
baptized as a Christian, and prior to her Christio-Conjure conversion in the Infirmary,
Christianity is her sole source of spiritual sustenance. Demonstrating her Christian
orientation, in order to restore a sense of calmness during a moment of nervousness and
uncertainty, she “recites a Sunday school lesson” (104). But, as a child she reveals her
latent Christio-Conjure orientation by questioning, “why is God called the alpha and
omega?” (275). Since “God” in the Christio-Conjure idiom is a Christian referent,
Velma’s query metaphorically challenges Christianity’s monotheistic image of a one
single, omniscient, omnipotent God responsible for the beginning and end of all human
existence. Velma’s youthful, inquisitive disposition signifies her unconscious desire to
build upon and expand—not abandon—her Christian faith.
Velma’s spiritual transformation is a central theme in the text. Like Lena in Baby
of the Family, who ultimately eradicates her sense of madness by employing ChristioConjure as a tool of spiritual empowerment, Velma too is forced to address and resolve
issues of mental instability. The immediate source of her psychological instability is
twofold: anguish at home and anxiety at work.
At home she is subconsciously
traumatized by her husband’s prior infidelity; at work, as a computer programmer, she
accesses classified information revealing a pending nuclear threat to Claybourne.
Velma’s concerns are both personal and political. She complains about her husband and
son “driving her nuts [. . .] sexual harassment on the job [. . .] supervisors trying to do the
shakedown [ . . .] a migraine or nightmare or some ill-defined bad feeling she could not
shake” (139-40). Within the context of “home, family, [and] marriage,” she tries “to
maintain the right balance” (241), but she is overwhelmed by conscious and subconscious
sources of anxiety. Unable to effectively manage her life, she attempts suicide in an
effort to “make herself unavailable to pain” (19).
In the midst of a nervous breakdown with her “essential self gone” (57), Velma
experiences recurring visions of “mud mothers”9 (38). Her visions of these women
include West African cultural markers such as calabashes, yams, and tribal facial
markings. Their images lucidly convey a West African cultural connection. But instead
of embracing the images of the mud mothers, which “reflect, on some level, [a]
primordial women-centered world [. . .] originating in Africa” (Wilentz 64), Velma is
frightened by them. Similar to Lena’s reaction to her early encounters with spirits in
Baby of the Family, Velma perceives these encounters as disturbing hallucinations. This
reaction demonstrates her ostensible ignorance of the West African spiritual tradition, i.e.
Conjure, and like the protagonist in Voodoo Dreams, she is culturally disconnected,
psychologically fragmented, and spiritually underdeveloped.
In order for Velma to
recover from cultural “amnesia” (Salt, Bambara 258), she must “dig below the barriers
organized [Christian] religion erected” (170) and explore new spiritual possibilities.
As in Baby of the Family, in The Salt Eaters too, traditional definitions of
madness are redefined. Velma’s suicide attempt, for example, is an act commonly
designated as a sign of madness in Western culture. Although no West African religion
promotes suicide, several, however, assert that spirits of the deceased are active
participants in the realm of the living. This belief provides the context for Velma to
question whether “suicides reincarnate right away or have to wait around full term”
(215). Velma’s appropriation of suicide as reincarnation, i.e. a new life, a new beginning,
rather than a sinful act as defined by Christianity, signifies her spiritual dexterity and her
willingness to consider new spiritual philosophies that can be incorporated into her
practice of Christianity.
But despite the attempt to restore herself through the act of suicide, within the
context of Christio-Conjure, she is unsuccessful because her effort is not a
collective/communal act. Sophie censures Velma with a series of scathing questions:
“did you think your life is yours alone to do with as you please? That I, your folks, your
family, and all who care for you have no say in the matter?” (148). But rather than an
ending, the event paradoxically serves as a catalyst for Velma’s Christio-Conjure
spiritual/emotional rebirth. Old Wife, Minnie, and M’Dear Sophie rally around her and
help birth a spiritually renewed, healthy and whole Velma who “learns a new way to be
in the world” (104).
From Ancestors to the Unborn: Cross-generational Christio-Conjure
Old Wife is an ancestral spirit present at Velma’s healing. Although deceased,
like Membe in Voodoo Dreams and Rachel and Miss Lizzie in Baby of the Family, she
communes with the living—yet she never interacts directly with Velma.
Her role,
instead, is as Minnie’s guide during Velma’s healing, and her relationship with Minnie
reinscribes the Christio-Conjure role of ancestors in the affairs of the living. Minnie
recalls that Old Wife “had a way of teaching us kids things” (57), and Old Wife serves as
Minnie’s mentor “one way and then another” (51) throughout the novel, both as a living
being and as a spirit. Known as “Old Karen, the Old One, Wilder’s woman, Wilder’s
Wife” (52), and indiscriminately characterized as a witch or haint,10 Old Wife represents
the West African trickster figure. Though she is “the teller of tales no one would sit still
to hear anymore” (52), Old Wife continues to dispense wisdom, mainly through
“messages” (45) to Minnie. She defends against Minnie’s playful assertion that she is a
witch by countering, “that’s how I chose to manifest myself this time” (295). Her
response conveys a message of self-determination similar to that espoused by the spirit of
Rachel in Baby of the Family. Old Wife’s message, however, not only evinces her
mastery of self-determination, but it also encourages Minnie and others in Claybourne to
pursue the principle of self-empowerment. Old Wife’s message supplies an example of
how they too can consciously choose to “manifest” themselves.
In addition to this lesson of self-determination and empowerment, Old Wife
substantiates Velma’s re-conceptualization of suicide in terms of spiritual renewal rather
than physical death by confirming “there is no [. . .] death in spirit” (56). Old Wife
preaches “in our extremity is God’s opportunity” (47), asserting that in moments of crisis,
such as attempted suicide, God receives an opportunity to demonstrate His glory by
rescuing the “spiritually impoverished” (133) from emotional despair. This revises the
Christian view of suicide as an act of faithlessness against God, and converts it to an act
of “extremity” providing the Lord with an “opportunity” to demonstrate the holy power
of redemption. A dynamic character, Old Wife is honored and revered by Minnie as the
“wisest woman in these parts” (45). A self-identified “good Christian” (43) and “servant
of the Lord” (62), Old Wife encourages Minnie to attend chapel service, yet she also
carries a gris gris sack. Most significantly, though, as a spirit incarnate, a living ancestor,
Old Wife represents the synergy of Christianity and African-based religion.
As Old Wife’s protégé, Minnie is a Christio-Conjure exemplar. Similar to Nurse
Bloom in Baby of the Family, “Minnie represents a triumph of folk wisdom over
scientific knowledge, of woman’s culture over patriarchal dominance. She symbolizes
the valorization of a specific black women’s culture” (Butler-Evens 182). Possibly 100
years old (Salt, Bambara 41), she is the good woman with the gift, the mojo lady, and the
swamphag. She, like Old Wife, is a timeless, ageless shape shifter, and her most relevant
role in the novel is as Claybourne’s Christio-Conjure high priestess. As a young woman,
early in her spiritual development, Minnie attends Bible College (47) in nearby Barnwell,
Georgia. This experience is ungratifying, and like Velma, she finds Christian doctrine
only partially fulfilling. Upon her return to Claybourne, Old Wife sends Minnie a
message “about a gift unfolding” (53), and despite her studies at the Bible College,
Minnie effectively “learns to pray” (54) only after she develops a rapport with Old Wife.
On the verge of her Christio-Conjure conversion, Minnie is seen “down on her
knees eating dirt” (51). Although publicly interpreted as a sign of madness, her ingestion
of the red Georgia clay symbolizes her access to “Clay”bourne’s healing saline solution.
In the midst of her transformation, “squatting in the dirt” listening, “Minnie was told to
clear the path that led up to the cliffs” and “fix the rainbow” and “build the chapel in The
Mind;” there “she saw the gift and knew” the “telling” came from “the Source” (53-4
added emphasis). Through her transformation, Minnie is endowed with superhuman
powers, a “gift” from “the Source” (54). In The Salt Eaters, the Source, which both
science and religion attempt to clarify and define, represents the original agent of human
existence that “no habit of language” (89) can accurately depict. Fixed within an endless
string of signifiers, the precise image of the Source is impossible to capture. Multiple
references both within and among cultures highlight the degree to which the Source is
extra-linguistic, i.e. beyond language. In terms of religion, the Source is variously
identified as Damballah, Yahweh, Jehovah, Christ, Allah, God, et al.
As the one God “groomed” (109), Minnie learns to read auras in addition to
biblical scriptures. She also displays reverence for Oshun and the loa that inhabit the tree
outside the Infirmary. Locally, Minnie is famous for physical, psychological, emotional,
and spiritual healing, and those who observe her healing sessions are “forced to
acknowledge something more powerful than skepticism” (86). The public’s opinion of
Minnie’s private work is critical since public and private boundaries are blurred within
the text. As Wilentz notes, in The Salt Eaters “the source of health” is “both inside and
outside, particularly in terms of the relationship of the individual to the community and
the individual’s role in helping her community” (75). During Velma’s healing session,
Minnie urges her to release and “[f]orgive everyone, everything. Free them. Free self”
(Salt, Bambara 18), thereby reinforcing the Christio-Conjure precept that individual and
communal wellness are intimately and inextricably bound.
Like Minnie, Sophie too is “serious about her role, her calling” (293) as a
Christio-Conjure mentor. A local midwife with “baby catching hands” (11), Sophie, as
Velma’s godmother, not only physically delivers Velma but also participates in her
spiritual rebirth in the Infirmary. She is an archetypal Christio-Conjure character who
cannot resist “praying for her goddaughter” (146) during the healing session. Sophie’s
proficiency in Conjure includes “out of body experiences” (Page 93) and dream
interpretation. Displaying her Christian background, “she almost broke the spell” of
Velma’s healing with the “threat of an old gospel or line of scripture quivering under her
tongue” (Salt, Bambara 149). Sophie temporarily exits the Infirmary during Velma’s
healing and embarks upon a symbolic journey “in search of a saline solution” (149); the
journey is a metaphor for the desperate measures Sophie is willing to undertake in order
to help restore her goddaughter’s spiritual/emotional sense of “balance” (241). Like
Minnie who values the restorative power of salt, Sophie also recognizes its capacity to
heal and cure; moreover, she believes “you never really know a person until you’ve eaten
salt together” (147).
Wilentz contends that prior to the healing, Sophie attempted to introduce Velma
to ancestor reverence, but Velma was “too distracted to learn” (65). Sophie is baffled by
Velma’s refusal to accept her “role as potential healer of the community” (65). Even
during Velma’s youth, Sophie attempts to instill in her the Christio-Conjure wisdom
ingrained in the Infirmary’s five pillars: God is; God is all and all is one; there are spirits;
there are prophets; there’ll be a day of Restoration (Salt, Bambara 263). Characterized as
a Christ-like figure by Susan Willis, Velma’s early Christio-Conjure lesson not only
foreshadows Claybourne’s eminent revolutionary “day of Restoration,” but also speaks to
Velma’s seminal role in the event.
Velma plays a central role in Claybourne’s transformation, and her healing is a
transformative event for those who witness it.
Nadeen, a pregnant Claybourne
adolescent, experiences her rite of passage vicariously through Velma’s healing. As one
of the Infirmary spectators, Nadeen senses “a kinship with the woman she did not even
know” (106) and symbolically establishes a connection with the mature, supportive
African American women’s collective in Claybourne headed by Old Wife, Minnie, and
Sophie. This new sense of connection allows Nadeen to “transcend her devalued status
and affirm an identity” (Butler-Evens 183). While observing Velma’s healing, Nadeen
instantaneously recognizes “she [is] a woman” (Salt, Bambara 106). She sheds her sense
of fear and analyzes her personal dilemma with new insight: “[h]ow come she was old
enough to sign the papers giving consent for the baby to be taken care of when it came,
but wasn’t old enough to sign for herself?” (106). Nadeen is inspired by the ChristioConjure activity in the Infirmary; newly empowered and self-directed, she now rejects
the duplicitous and once intimidating policies imposed upon her.
In addition to helping highlight the numerous transformations engendered by
Velma’s Christio-Conjure conversion, Nadeen’s narrative also reinscribes the vital
Christio-Conjure principle of cross-generational bonding. While communal bonding
promotes wide-range current community cohesiveness, cross-generational bonding
speaks to the “shape, scope, thrust” (37) and future progress of the African American
community. In this vein, the image of Nadeen, Buster and their unborn child “powerfully
intertwines the private romantic relationship and the larger organic community” (Alwes
359). Nadeen bears a dual significance as she symbolizes the future generation and
literally embodies the one beyond. Identifying Velma’s Christio-Conjure conversion as
“the real thing” (Salt, Bambara 111), Nadeen’s cognitive transformation in the Infirmary
metaphorically extends the transmission of Christio-Conjure to future generations.
Similar to the five generations of Maries in Voodoo Dreams, this collection of women—
Nadeen, Velma, Sophie, Minnie, and Old Wife—represents four generations of ChristioConjure practitioners in Claybourne, ensuring the future survival of the spiritual
Velma’s Private Healing as a Public Act
It is not mere happenstance that Velma’s private transformation occurs within the
public space of the Infirmary’s lobby. Nor is it coincidental that Velma cannot heal
herself, but must rely upon the aid and support of others.
In Christio-Conjure,
transformation is only achieved through communal effort. While the onlookers in the
Infirmary anxiously await Velma’s conversion, metaphysically she flees that space on a
“hunt for balance and kinship” and runs “to the park and hunt[s] for self” (267). In a
narrative twist, Velma’s spirit abandons the Infirmary, the communal space where her
healing transpires. Yet her private quest for self continues in yet another public setting—
the park—where she “hunts” for balance.
While Velma is mentally transported to the park, onlookers in the Infirmary
continue their physical observation: “Nadeen saw it happen, saw something drop away
from [Velma’s] face [. . .]. Whatever it was that had fallen away was showing her
another way to be in the world” (101).
Sophie enthusiastically speculates, “[o]nce
Minnie brought Velma through perhaps the girl at last would be ready for training” (293).
Additionally, Doc Serge, director of the Infirmary, is eager to participate in Velma’s
Christio-Conjure mentoring; the narrator notes that “[h]e would work with this one. He
[. . .] waited for Minnie [. . .] to bring the woman through this first phase, to release her,
hand her over” (268).
During the healing session, the prayer group participants assume an active role,
offering a host of prayers on Velma’s behalf. Consequently, “the collective mind grew
[. . .] promising the perfect fruit of communal actions” (146). But in Christio-Conjure,
the promise of “the perfect fruit” cannot be fulfilled without the aid of the ancestors. The
loa who reside in the tree outside the Infirmary are presumably present at Velma’s
healing. The loa are weary with neglect and bad press, “weary with so little to perform”
But despite being disregarded, they “attended each generation—messenger,
teacher, healer, clairvoyant, clairaudient, clairfeelant, clairdoent” (146). The diminished
cultural status of the loa illustrates the neglect of Conjure beliefs in Claybourne. As such,
Velma’s transformation not only signals a synthesis of Christian and West African
religious philosophy, but it also signifies the vindication of the formerly neglected
Conjure tradition and the denigrated status of the loa in particular.
Further extending the ancestral theme, Sophie connects Velma’s suicidal behavior
with ancestral reverence in the following analogy: “[m]aybe the act of trying to sever a
vein” was “like going to the caves, a beginning” (147-48). Velma’s spiritual rebirth is
explicitly linked to the mud mothers who dwell in caves. Velma must recall her “roots in
the sacred” (166) and embrace the image of the mud mothers as cultural markers of the
African past, “the best of her people’s traditions” (258). Like Lena in Baby of the
Family, Velma’s Christio-Conjure conversion will expose her to West African religious
“roots [. . .] driven far underground” (294). With her “Swahili11 wailing-whistle” (149),
Velma attempts to reconnect at last with her African spiritual roots. In The Salt Eaters,
“it is the meeting with the ancestors that brings both the individual and, indirectly, the
community back to health” (Wilentz 75). Finally, Velma “begins to accept the mud
mothers” and her personal role in passing on cultural traditions (75).
At one point during her healing Velma declares that “[h]ealth is my right” (119),
which prompts Minnie to discuss “the burdens of the healthy” (119). Minnie warns,
“wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well” (10); in addition, she
queries, “[w]hat will you do when you are well [. . .] decide what you want to do with
wholeness” (220).
For Velma, health is more than her “right,” it is also her
responsibility. Minnie’s remarks remind Velma of Sophie’s credo: “always give back,
always take care” (229). With these messages from her mentors, Velma finally stops
“trying to resist” (248) her Christio-Conjure calling.
Sophie, having “waited a long time for her godchild’s gift to unfold,” believes
“Velma would begin to see what she’d been blind to” (293). As Wilentz observes,
“[t]hrough her acceptance of her gift, Velma takes on the role for which she has been
chosen: a potential healer” she “moves toward wellness, away from the affliction of
disconnectedness, knowing that being well has its responsibilities” (75).
psychic scars are symbolically healed when the “red and black bracelets of flaking flesh”
(Salt, Bambara 111)—physical wounds from her attempted suicide—are inexplicably
healed by Minnie in the presence of the Infirmary witnesses. Restored by the public act
of her private healing, Velma comes “alive in a new way [. . .] ready for training” (269).
She is now prepared to assume her role in perpetuating Christio-Conjure’s legacy in
Claybourne’s Spiritual Revolution
Reflecting Bambara’s perception of the black community as “at war” against
oppression and self “ambush” (“Salvation” 47), The Salt Eaters contains integral themes
of revolution and activism. Bambara incorporates violent images of guns, bombs and
ammunition into the novel’s festival scene. But despite the images of violence, the
characters in the novel are actually preparing for an ideological revolution. As such, the
aim of the Claybourne’s revolution replicates the objectives of the novel’s communitybased groups like Women for Action and the 7 Arts Academy, which seek to “develop,
de-mystify, build, consolidate and escalate” (Salt, Bambara 93) both the spiritual and
technological consciousness of black community in Claybourne. Moreover, the ominous
storm brewing on Claybourne’s “Day of Restoration” (263) reflects Bambara’s focus on
activism. The storm ushers in the “thunderous beginning of the new humanism, the new
spiritism” (248). Sophie theorizes that “[n]ot all wars have casualties,” some “struggles
between old and new ideas, some battles between ways of seeing have only victors. Not
all dying is the physical self” (219). Therefore, though a part of Velma may have “died”
(273) in the Infirmary, she is now equipped to revolutionize Claybourne through
Christio-Conjure. In The Salt Eaters, in order to achieve revolutionary restoration, the
fractured self must become whole and the divided community consciousness must be
In the absence of such cohesion, however, Bambara situates much of her narrative
within the cultural chasm of science and religion, technology and spirituality. This
cultural debate—like some of the characters in The Salt Eaters—seems ageless, and its
critical treatment is extensive. Newman provides a general framework for the debate,
highlighting the Western tendency to privilege science over religion. He asserts that even
though “religion is one of the primary forms of human experience and culture [. . .]
technology has gained more cultural importance than religion” (1-2). Analyses that
promote the privileged status of science over religion argue that “religion is no longer a
vital concern of most contemporary thinkers” (Muller 317). According to Barbour,
“Secular man trusts science, not God, to fulfill his needs” (3). Moreover, Ladrière
contends that “at the same time of this disappearance of the sacred, there is also a sort of
devaluation of certain types of language, which are not those of technology: symbolic
language for example” (67). These perspectives chronicle the devaluation of sacred
paradigms at the expense of the elevated cultural status of science and technology.
A vast number of critics, however, oppose the scientific hierarchy espoused by
Western culture. Berdyaev protests that “the chief cosmic force which is now at work” is
“technics” (80). Man, he says, “has become a slave to his own marvelous invention, the
machine;” although “he has ceased to believe in miracles, man still believes in the
miracle of technics” (Berdyaev 80-81). Equally as scathing, Newman posits that “human
fascination with human powers and human creations has become so excessive that people
believe that they can now do without the spiritual context in which human activity has
hitherto been rendered meaningful” (119). Velma faces this dilemma in The Salt Eaters
as she struggles to “balance” her technical and spiritual selves (Salt, Bambara 267).
Such balance, however, is evident in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture:
“the temple school, which provided the only institutional form of education, taught
mathematics along with religious mysteries” (Forbes 45). As well, the craftsmen and
technologists were members of guilds that “were first of all religious organizations
devoted to worship of the patron-god. Hence technical operations were still accompanied
by religious rites and ceremonies” (Forbes 44). In the novel, not only Velma, but all of
Claybourne lacks the technical and spiritual balance promoted in the Old Testament;
Spengler notes that
the awesome God of the Old Testament has instilled in men
creative skills so that they can build his holy kingdom on
earth [. . .]. The engineering impulse comes to man as a
gift from God. Material enterprise is [. . .] to be pursued
energetically with the service of God always kept
uppermost in mind. The most worth work is [. . .] the
building of tabernacles and temples and the bringing of
offerings to the Lord. But technological effort directed
toward prosperity for society is also considered worthy
[. . .]. Moses made it clear to the Israelites that they were
being given a land of abundance. (9)
Like Spengler who reconciles religion and technology, Chauchard concludes that both are
different methods of approaching the same end: “[r]eligion’s task [is to] explain
everything. It is to give the highest, ontological explanation, not to make up the scientific
one. The task of science is to explain things at the level of phenomena, not to give a
metaphysical explanation” while “[s]cientific and religious explanations are both
concerned with the whole of the material world” (75-80). Through the Salt Eaters,
Bambara contributes to this cultural debate and substantiates Chauchard’s premise that
science and religion are, at bottom, disparate cultural devices used to decipher the same
Velma personifies the cultural rupture between the technical and the spiritual, and
throughout the novel she seeks balance.
On one level, she faces the challenge of
integrating ancestral West African religious beliefs with her Christian faith in her quest
for spiritual balance; beyond that challenge, she must reconcile her technical and spiritual
personas in order to “be whole to see whole” (Salt, Bambara 92). She must be immersed
in Christio-Conjure and must also achieve a harmonious union of the spiritual and
technical aspects of her life.
Since Velma’s conditions and concerns represent a
microcosm of the conditions and concerns of Claybourne’s entire African American
community, the quest to unify this cultural chasm permeates the entire novel.
In order to overcome “[t]he struggle against industrial arrogance and heedless
technology” (281), Claybourne must enact a collective battle. Several in Claybourne are
cognizant of the disruptive Western divide between technology and spirituality and
articulate their concerns from a number of platforms.
It is Campbell, however,
Claybourne’s former child-prodigy and current resident reporter/waiter, who, through a
series of cognitive revelations, discovers that “all the systems were the same at base—
voodoo, thermodynamics, I Ching, astrology, numerology, alchemy, metaphysics,
everybody’s ancient myths—they were all interchangeable” (210).
Moreover, he is
excited by “the idea taking shape, so simple a connection [. . .]. Of course, everything
was everything [. . .]. Damballah is the first law of thermodynamics and is the Biblical
wisdom and is the law of time” (210 added emphasis). Campbell situates the Dahomean
serpent deity, thermodynamics, and Christian philosophy within the framework of “the
law of time.” Since time is a universal concept in human experience, through “the law of
time” Campbell symbolically unifies a series of culturally fragmented bodies of
knowledge. His sudden epiphany reveals that seemingly disconnected systems of belief
simply represent a variety of cultural approaches used to decipher and define a single,
seamless human reality.
Sophie posits that the cultural rupture identified and symbolically unified by
Campbell “had been developing for centuries [. . .] beginning with the move toward the
material and away from the natural” (92). Doc Serge insists that the key to unifying
science and technology is a matter of understanding “simple laws.” He asserts, “[s]imple
laws is all [. . .] [but] [. . .] they don’t teach basic principles in the schools. So people
have no discipline about living. They have no religion [. . .] And what is religion [. . .].
It’s a technology of living. And what do I mean by technology? The study and the
application of the laws that govern the events in our lives”13 (126-127).
emphasizing the cultural significance of “the law,” Doc Serge professes, “I love myself
as I love The Law” as “I love the Master’s Mind [. . .] self-love produces the gods and the
gods are genius” (136-37). By equating the gods with genius, Doc Serge metaphorically
bridges the cleft between the emotional and the intellectual, the spiritual and the
Advocating new alliances and characterizing Bambara’s commitment to
community activism, a tall man “with a bow tie” (125) announces to a crowd of listeners:
“I’m here to jolt you back into your original right minds [. . .]. History is calling us to
rule again and you lost” souls never recognize “the teachers come among you to prepare
you for the transformation, never recognizing the synthesizers come to forge the new
alliances, or the guides who throw open the new footpaths” (125-126 added emphasis).
This activist’s message of synthesizing new alliances is explicitly analogous to the
messages of unification espoused by Sophie and Doc Serge. However, as an activist, this
unnamed speaker employs a public venue in order to disperse his message to
Claybourne’s masses.
Both as a synthesizer and guide, Velma reconciles her technological self, as a
computer programmer, with her spiritual self, newly converted in Christio-Conjure. As
Claybourne’s messiah she balances her scientific and spiritual training and serves as “a
model” for “fools whose faith resided in a science that only filled people’s heads with
useless structures, senseless clutter” (147). Her ideological transformation facilitates the
metaphorical union between technology and spirituality in the novel.
The merger
represents a revolutionary act because it unifies fractured and disjointed public issues and
private personalities in Claybourne. Indeed, this narrative illustrates that Christianity and
Conjure are “not at all separate, much less conflicting” (210). Rather than a violent coup
d’ etat, Bambara promotes balance and cultural unification based upon an overthrow of
all socially divisive concepts. Previously, “Claybourne hadn’t settled on its identity” 14
(181), but following its spiritual revolution, its emergent Christio-Conjure identity is
Christio-Conjure as The Real Thing
In Claybourne where “all the systems [are] the same at base” and “everything is
everything” (210), Christio-Conjure is privileged as “the real thing” (111).
significantly, it is featured as an African American women’s thing. The Salt Eaters
cogently operates within a womanist framework as a black feminist work “committed to
survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female” (Walker xi original emphasis).
Fragmented male characters in the novel like Campbell, Obie, Dr. Meadows, Fred, and
Porter are spiritually healed and renewed. Nonetheless, Bambara unmistakably privileges
the experiences of black women throughout this work. Principally, the image of the
black woman, historically disparaged, is exonerated and glorified in The Salt Eaters. The
Infirmary is “the real place” and Minnie is “the real thing” (113). Her abilities seem
boundless. She can calm fretful infants, treat nervous disorders, cure gynecological
aliments, and dissolve cancerous lumps (113). Her curative powers far exceed the level
of care offered by the Western medical establishment, and her extraordinary capabilities
mark her as superhuman. In the novel, both she and Old Wife are reincarnated in flesh;
thus, their cultural status is elevated beyond the characteristic reverence granted to the
ancestors. Unlike ancestral spirits who are reincarnated in spirit only, Minnie and Old
Wife are deified as physically immortal.
In a particularly telling scene during Velma’s healing session, Minnie coaches
Velma, “[g]rowl all you want, sweetheart” (41). Minnie hasn’t heard “a good ole deep
kneebend from-the-source growl such as that in some nineteen million years” (41). She
tells Velma, “[y]ou gonna be alright,” it’s all “a matter of time. The Law of Time. And
soon, sweetheart” this “will all be yours” (41). By alluding to “the law of time,” Minnie
aligns herself with the other enlightened characters in the novel that honor this law as the
perpetual unifying force of human experience. Moreover, though Velma and Minnie are
characterized as “cut from the same cloth” (62), in this passage, Minnie not only
distinguishes herself as immortal, older than even the “primordial” (Wilentz 64) mud
mothers, but she also solidifies her bond with Velma by bequeathing to her a legacy of
immortality, intimating that soon “this will all be yours” (Salt, Bambara 41).
Lastly, during the healing, Minnie identifies Velma’s growl as “from-thesource”—the same Source, presumably, that granted Minnie the divine “gift” of
superhuman power.
The growl situates Velma within a framework of divinity.
Interestingly, Velma offers her community something Minnie cannot: reconciliation of
the sacred and the scientific. Velma, “divinely healthy [and] whole” (148), ultimately
earns elevated status in the novel as Minnie’s successor and as the future ChristioConjure high priestess of Claybourne. In addition to its thematic content, The Salt Eaters
also features Christio-Conjure as narrative style.
Through stream-of-consciousness
monologue and seemingly random dialogue, the narrative structure of the novel, like the
Christio-Conjure paradigm itself, illustrates that all issues—individual and communal—
are on some level related and interconnected. The notion of the collective resonates
throughout the novel, and the narrative strategy highlights a bilateral exchange between
the protagonist and the Claybourne community at large, culminating in a revolutionary
restoration of balance.
Overview: Sistahs in the Struggle
While Bambara portrays revolutionary Christio-Conjure in The Salt Eaters,
Shange offers the image of three emerging Christio-Conjure activists in Sassafrass,
Cypress & Indigo. Shange is best known for her “performance pieces that blend poetry,
music, and dance” (Valade 331). In her performance pieces as well as in her novels and
poetry, she examines “the metaphysical dilemma of being alive, female, and black”
(331). In this chapter I analyze the title characters in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo
within the context of their Christio-Conjure spiritual evolution. Throughout this novel,
Christio-Conjure is represented by belief in the Christian God, demonstration of Christian
faith through song, participation in Christian faith through prayer, spirit contact, divine
spirit possession, ancestral reverence, and goddess worship. Additionally, in the text
Christio-Conjure involves the praxis of thought/belief coupled with action/experience.
The protagonists are multidimensional, and their experiences include both Christianity
(instilled by their mother) and Conjure (practiced in their daily lives).
Each sister
believes in Christianity—from the perspective of faith—but participates in Conjure—
from the perspective of practice; the two spiritual paradigms fuse in the novel, providing
the sisters with a balanced worldview.
Partially set in Charleston, South Carolina1 during the Civil Rights movement,
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo is based upon the mystery, enchantment, and empowerment
associated with Christio-Conjure. In the novel, the title characters function as “sisters”
on multiple levels. In the black vernacular, Smitherman identifies the term soul sistah as
“a generic reference to an African American woman” (Black Talk 211). But in 1966,
during the Black Liberation movement, the term assumed a radical connotation when
Stokley Carmichael unleashed the resounding cry for “black power” (Talkin and
Testifyin, Smitherman 40); at that time, the soul in soul sistah became “the essence of
life; feeling, passion, emotional depth” believed to be “derived from struggle, suffering,
and having participated in the Black experience” (Black Talk, Smitherman 211). Within
this context, Shange’s protagonists represent not only biological sisters, but soul sistahs
too, for in addition to the inexorable struggle associated with their personal, evolving
sense of womanhood, they also participate in the collective political struggle of African
diasporic women.
Hilda Effania—a weaver—names each of the girls after a tree used in the process
of dying cloth: Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo (Strandness 12). As a weaver, Hilda
Effania has a special affinity for the various colored cloths she produces, and her
daughters’ names symbolize a distinct bond between the three sisters and their mother
The cloth for each girl represents something both “useful and esthetic,” and
symbolizes her connection with the rest of the world (12). Moreover, the roots and the
barks of the three trees after which the sisters are named serve as traditional medicinal
ingredients in various healing remedies, so their names also signify the latent curative
powers each sister possesses (12). Ultimately, through Christio-Conjure they spiritually
transform themselves and become healing forces in their own lives and in the lives of
Like Lena in Baby of the Family, Shange’s protagonists are inundated with
Christian ideals in their home. Hilda Effania, who provides her daughters with a solid
Christian foundation, finds it difficult to accept the non-traditional, non-Christian, often
African-centered beliefs her daughters espouse.
She reflects upon Sassafrass’s
celebration of Kwanzaa,2 for example, and wonders “where [she] had failed” (Shange
132 original emphasis). On the other hand, she is excited about Cypress’s civil rights
activism and shows her support within a Christian context by noting that “the Lord will
look kindly on the benefits you’re going to do for Negro Christians” (209). She uses
correspondence, too, as a platform to promote her Christian beliefs, preaching to Indigo
in a letter: “The Lord will set you upon a path of decent pleasures, sure as He makes a
way for honest toil. Saints be praised” (75 original emphasis). While Hilda Effania
professes and overtly practices Christianity, her daughters only occasionally demonstrate
a Christian frame of reference. Instead, from the standpoint of praxis, various aspects of
Conjure, discussed in detail in following sections, ultimately shape the formation of each
sister’s identity. Yet they never abandon or dismiss their Christian faith. In fact,
elements of Christianity, though subliminal, are omnipresent in each sister’s life, as she
stores her Christian beliefs in a psychological reservoir and reflexively draws upon
Christian beliefs as a coping mechanism for challenges and obstacles encountered in life.
As Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo chart their individual courses of womanhood,
they experience distinct forms of physical and/or psychological dislocation. Eventually,
however, they come full-circle, reconnect with their cultural roots, and employ a unique
variation of Christio-Conjure as a vehicle for healing and liberation. In Los Angeles,
Sassafrass, the oldest daughter, is physically disconnected from her southern home and
cultural roots in Charleston.
She becomes entwined in an emotionally abusive
relationship with Mitch, a musician and fellow artist. To assuage her sense of alienation,
she continues to practice the art of weaving she learned from her mother. Following a
brief separation, Sassafrass and Mitch reunite and move to Baton Rouge to join the New
World Found Collective, which offers its members “spiritual redemption” (213). There,
in the Christio-Conjure tradition of Luisah Teish, Zora Neale Hurston, and Marie Laveau,
Sassafrass joins the Collective and becomes a “priestess of Oshun”3 (215). Finally, after
a “mounting” (a form of spirit possession documented by Hurston in Tell My Horse),
Sassafrass summons the strength to purge her body and mind of Mitch and returns to her
mother in Charleston, the site of her Christian home.
Cypress, Hilda Effania’s second daughter, is also physically dislocated as she
pursues a dance career in San Francisco and New York. Exemplified by the lioness
dancer in Hurston’s Tell My Horse, the art of dance4 in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo
represents an integral element in Christio-Conjure. For Cypress, “dancing is a sensual
experience that links her with the rest of the world” as she uses her “body [to] interpret
the world” (Shange 185). Additionally, Cypress discerns that dancing connects her and
her African American viewing audience with their ancestral past. As an artist, all of
Cypress’s healing is achieved though dance; the dance restores her personal spirit and
functions as a therapeutic device for her viewing audience.
While her sisters, Sassafrass and Indigo, summon their female ancestors for
revitalization, Cypress initially turns to her peers. She falls in love with Idrina, a fellow
dancer, but when the lesbian affair ends in betrayal, she spirals into despondency and
abandons her art. She experiences a series of painful lesbian affairs and is only able to
purge her melancholia when she stumbles across the soothing music of an old friend from
home. Reunited, she and Leroy share a loving, harmonious relationship. Like Cypress,
Leroy also wishes to blend the best of European and African art forms; he is a musician
trained in the jazz milieu, yet he has also mastered Western concert music. Clearly,
Leroy and Cypress, as artists, share a culturally integrated frame of reference. Like
Cypress’s dance, Leroy’s music5 is also an integral element in Christio-Conjure. This
common bond highlights their degree of compatibility and foreshadows their imminent
Like Sassafrass and Cypress, Indigo too struggles to create a comfortable and
meaningful sense of self. However, unlike her older sisters, Indigo never departs from
the South. Instead of geographical/cultural dislocation, she experiences psychological
dislocation. Raised as a staunch Christian, Indigo has no means of interpreting the
Conjure-related phenomena she experiences and creates. Like Lena in Baby of the
Family and Velma in The Salt Eaters, she too lacks exposure to Conjure principles and
practices. But by the time she is pre-pubescent, various members of the community,
including Sister Mary Louise, Uncle John, and Aunt Haydee, help assign meaning to her
experiences by introducing her to the blended Christio-Conjure ideology that shapes her
life in Charleston and on Difuskie Island.
In Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Christio-Conjure specifically functions as a
method of organizing knowledge. Davis and Schiefer identify knowledge as “part of a
discourse, as having a sender and receiver—in other words, as having agency” (600). For
the characters in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Christio-Conjure, as both discourse and
agency, is a device used to make sense of the world. As discourse, Christio-Conjure also
functions as a form of power. Power, according to Paul A. Bové, opens “specific fields
of possibility; it constitutes entire domains of action, knowledge, and social being by
shaping the institutions and disciplines” in which we “make ourselves” (58). The title
characters in Shange’s novel, as they struggle with various issues of black womanhood,
employ Christio-Conjure as a vehicle for psychological liberation and spiritual
empowerment in the process of self-creation.
Sassafrass as Priestess
Since Hilda Effania rears her daughters as devout Christians—it is no surprise that
during times of sorrow, Sassafrass, like Abigail in Mama Day, finds comfort and solace
in cherished Christian hymns like
“His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watchin’
Me” or “Jesus is Just Awright with Me, Jesus is Just
Awright with Me” and “I Come to the Garden Alone” [. . .].
Sassafrass would sing her old time praises to the Lord
louder, until everyone got quiet, and she shushed too,
eventually, or maybe cried or sat among all her wools and
stared at the fading floral-pattern floor. (Shange 102-03)
Christian hymns function as a coping mechanism for Sassafrass. But in addition to the
Christian-based consciousness instilled by her mother, Sassafrass is also exposed to an
African diasporic perspective during her formative years. As a child, she longs for her
father who has died at sea and visits the wharf where she listens to diasporic tales:
after school she watched the men tyin knots / fixin nets &
she figured her daddy knew all that / & he could sing too
like the sailors & dance like the west indians / who was
crew on a lotta boats in the seamy port of Charleston [. . .]
sassafrass wd [. . .] listen to the tales of other colored folks’
lives in the islands & as far off as new guinea. she tried to
imagine [. . .] the cloth & the dance & who were their
spirits / did they believe in jesus or were there other gods /
& other heavens [. . .] sassafrass decided [. . .] she shd go
every where there were dark folks [. . .] & she wd write it
all down so other children wdnt feel lost & think they were
stupid ninnies / like miz fitzhugh told her / “it’s too bad you
a lil ninny, sassafrass, or i’d take you with me on this
cruise” / & to the surprise of the spry seafarers / sassafrass
announced / “i’ma be a conjah”6 they laughed
incredulously / saying / “you awready a geechee7 / how
much more magic you want?” (108-9 original emphasis)
Her childhood curiosity regarding blended forms of worship is illustrated in the above
passage as she considers belief in both “jesus” and “other gods/& other heavens.” In
addition, she proclaims her future role as “a conjah,” vowing to vindicate African and
Indian deities. While this is indeed a prophetic proclamation, as Sassafrass develops a set
of Conjure-based sensibilities, she never eschews her fundamental Christian beliefs.
Inevitably, she fashions a syncretized religious worldview.
In the process of self-transformation, before vindicating deities, Sassafrass must
first achieve self-vindication. In Los Angeles, however, when she becomes involved
with Mitch, her “cosmic lover and wonder of wonders” (78), instead of focusing on her
writing, she directs her creative energy toward satisfying Mitch’s physical/emotional
needs as well as his ego. Devoted to Mitch, she becomes increasingly dislocated from
the vital traditions of her past.
When she designs a vagina-shaped wall-hanging
decorated with sequin and feather in honor of Josephine Baker,8 he criticizes her work as
inappropriate and challenges Sassafrass’s self-identity as she defines it through her art.
He not only attempts to repress Sassafrass’s sexuality, but he also dismisses the symbolic
significance of her wall hanging, created in honor of a black female symbol of sexual
liberation and social activism. Mitch’s criticism metaphorically nullifies Sassafrass’s
tribute to Baker.
As she becomes consumed with pleasing Mitch, Sassafrass is simultaneously
consumed with despair. Mitch designates Sassafrass as his woman, his possession and
insists that she listen to his friend, Otis, recite a poem entitled “Ebony Cunt.”
Sassafrass’s rage finally erupts, and she refuses to listen to them “talk about black
women” and “celebrate [her] inherited right to be raped” (89).
Sassafrass silences
Mitch’s chauvinistic friends and retaliates against his incessant attempts to restrict her
artistically and dominate her sexually.
Here, she takes her first step toward
transformation and self-healing and initiates the symbolic journey that reconnects her
with her ancestral past.
In addition to verbal retaliation against Mitch, during her
psychological transformation, Sassafrass reflects upon and reclaims her inherited craft as
a weaver—through which she taps her creativity as a writer. In doing so, Sassafrass
reclaims and reaffirms her artistic inheritance from previous generations of women
weavers. Sassafrass’s reclamation and affirmation signals a turning point in her selftransformation. Despite Mitch’s devaluation of her art, she reaches back toward her
artistic foremothers in an effort to liberate herself from Mitch’s oppression. Declaring, “I
am sassafrass / a weaver’s daughter” (91 original emphasis), Sassafrass creates a sense
of connection and contact by practicing this art form passed through generations of
women in her family. The art provides a haven where Sassafrass retreats to reconnect
with the familiar.
Sassafrass temporarily leaves Mitch because of his drug abuse and visits Cypress
in San Francisco. There, she experiences contact with the spirit of the legendary blues
singer and cultural icon, Billie Holiday.9 Sassafrass’s connection with the generations of
women weavers and with the spirit of Billie Holiday reflects the matrilineal aspect of
Christio-Conjure. In addition, the significance of song10 presented in the excerpt below
includes the act of singing, which is an integral element in Christio-Conjure. In Blues
People, LeRoi Jones discusses song and its powerful role in “Afro-Christian religion”
In Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, the spirit of the blues singer encourages
Sassafrass to return to the writing projects she has abandoned:
from out of the closet came Billie, The Lady [. . .]. “It’s the
blues Sassafrass, that’s keepin’ you from your writing, and
the spirits sent me because I know all about the blues [. . .]
that’s who I am [. . .]. Don’t ya know we is all sad ladies
because we got the blues, and joyful women because we got
our songs? Make you a song, Sassafrass, and bring it out
so high all us spirits can hold it and be in your tune [. . .]
we need you to sing as best you can; that’s our
nourishment, that’s how we live [. . .]. So make us some
poems and stories, so we can sing a liberation song. Free
us form all these blues and sorry ways”. (Shange 80-81
original emphasis)
Sassafrass’s encounter with Billie Holiday is significant on three levels.
First, it
represents Sassafrass’s contact with the spirit world, which signifies her actual
participation in the practice of Christio-Conjure.
Secondly, it situates her within a
community of black women—specifically along a continuum of black women artists.
Finally, it elevates her beyond the realm of self-healer to communal healer and also
illustrates her ability to heal the spirits of her artistic ancestors. In short, through contact
with the spirit of Billie Holiday, Sassafrass, newly introduced to Christio-Conjure, is
empowered to heal the broken spirit of the entire black female collective. Sassafrass
summons her creative energy and declares, “i am yr fruit / i shall create new altars / new
praises & be ancient among you” (110 original emphasis). She flatly rejects her previous
perceptions of reality that have allowed her to tolerate physical, psychological, and
emotional abuse from Mitch. As a Christio-Conjure practitioner, Sassafrass seeks to
establish a new aesthetic, one based upon a set of shared cultural experiences designed to
foster a healthy existence, both physically and spiritually, for the black female diaspora.
But at this point in her narrative, Sassafrass’s spiritual/psychological ChristioConjure transformation is incomplete and despite the encouragement offered by her
spiritual ancestors, and the comforting environment provided by Cypress, she returns to
Together they seek “spiritual redemption” (213) in the New World Found
Collective in Baton Rouge.
The Collective is an afrofemcentric haven that offers
Sassafrass a safe, nurturing space to fully transform into a Christio-“Conjah” (109).
During a ritualistic ceremony held by the Collective, the spirit of the goddess Oshun
possesses Sassafrass. Though she has prayed for a child, she is unwittingly pregnant.
During her “mounting” 11 however, the spirit of Oshun reveals her pregnant state, and
under possession, Sassafrass berates Mitch for his arrogance and blatant insolence toward
her, the spirits, and the gods.
The possession scene represents a critical moment in Sassafrass’s spiritual
evolution. Empowered by the spirit of Oshun, Sassafrass finally spurns Mitch and
liberates herself from his dominance and degradation. As such, “aberrant male forms
really look aberrant” in the novel (Massachusetts Review, Shange 687). Despite Mitch’s
efforts to control and manipulate her artistic expression, Sassafrass simultaneously frees
herself from his oppression and achieves creative reconnection and artistic autonomy.
Sassafrass’s final break with Mitch satisfies the goddess’s requirement that she abandon
him in order to properly receive her blessing, the newborn baby. In addition to her
Christian-based awareness cultivated throughout her childhood, following the visit from
her artistic ancestor, Billie Holliday, Sassafrass’s desire to “create new altars/new
praises” symbolizes her cognizant acceptance of and participation in Christio-Conjure.
The Christio-Conjure paradigm, as Sassafrass experiences it, functions as a form of
praxis. The discourse of Christio-Conjure serves as a powerful vehicle through which
she transforms her life and becomes a priestess and, like Cypress, a “crusader” (109
original emphasis) dedicated to liberating women of the African diaspora from “blues
and sorry ways” (81).
Cypress, the Dancer
Unlike Sassafrass who sings Christian spirituals, Cypress does not overtly display
her Christian beliefs, yet in no way does she ever demonstrate a disavowal of the
Christian faith instilled in her by Hilda Effania. In fact, like Lena in Baby of the Family,
raised by a mother well-anchored in Christianity, Cypress cannot escape her Christian
cultivation. While Sassafrass accesses Christio-Conjure through the art of weaving and
through the creation of poetry and song, Cypress employs the medium of dance.
Interestingly, Cypress’s ambition regarding dance is structured like the Christio-Conjure
paradigm itself. That is, she draws upon both European and African dance traditions in
the creation of a new convention that addresses the socio-emotional needs of the African
American collective. Her objective is “to dance as good as white folks and find out the
truth about colored people’s movements” (135). She wants to master the aesthetics of
Western ballet and convert that into a unique form of black dance (Baker 190). With the
syncretism of Christio-Conjure as a model, I read Cypress’s endeavor as an attempt to
blend culturally disparate forms of dance. She struggles with issues of artistic form and
rejects the ideology of the dominant culture, which devalues the black appropriation of
dance. For Cypress, dance is “how we remember what cannot be said / that’s why white
folks say it ain’t got no form” (Shange 168 original emphasis). Art, then, like spirituality
in the text, possesses political agency; Cypress delineates the meaning/function of dance
and its therapeutic role as a recording device for the unspeakable historical horrors
experienced by African Americans.
Like Sassafrass, Cypress too is physically displaced, yet she never loses an
awareness, appreciation, and respect for various forms of black culture, e.g., language,
art, religion, etc. In her San Francisco home, she keeps an altar for the Orishas, Yoruba
deities (Teish 56). She also creates “hieroglyphs in needlepoint to ease her mind and
soothe her ancestors” (Shange 179). Moreover, honoring the Haitian Voodoo goddess of
love, Cypress subscribes to the Erzulie Freida philosophy of love: attention from a variety
of lovers is better than attention from one. As Teish explains, Erzulie is the “sacred
harlot, beauty, love, sensuality, Queen of the performing arts,” she is “the African
Venus—Afrodite!” (121). Making the connection between Cypress and Erzulie clear, the
narrator references Cypress as the embodiment of the Haitian black goddess of love
(Shange 165).
In light of her woman-centered proclivity, in New York Cypress sees Idrina, an
ex-lover, and they share a brief sexual encounter during which Cypress undergoes a
process of self-evaluation and re-creation. Prior to her impending Christio-Conjure
transformation, Cypress’s lesbian encounter with Idrina serves as a catalyst for the
development of a broader, more inclusive human vision, as she dreams of social
transformation. The physical aspect of her vision features her body, blood, and muscle
formed as a weapon of protection, while psychologically her vision reveals her will to
change the world. In her vision, Cypress honors the martriarchal element of ChristioConjure by assuming personal responsibility for the diasporic collective, those “of her
own blood” (208).
While in New York, Cypress remains physically disjointed from her roots and the
“notion of [southern] asethetics” (93 original emphasis).
But, following her
transformative vision, she is now prepared to accept men into “her woman space” (141).
While visiting a tavern, she hears Leroy’s music and instantly feels connected to “home,”
her southern roots in Charleston. As she absorbs the sound of the music, she recalls her
ability to dance, and her dancing produces emotional exhilaration as she journeys toward
psychological liberation. Cypress’s entire essence is, in fact, associated with dance.
After their tavern reunion, Cypress and Leroy begin dating, and in vividly lyrical terms,
their lovemaking is described as a sensual dance:
the original aboriginal dance of all time / challenge the
contradiction of perfected pirouette with the sly knowin of
hips that do-right / stretch till all the stars n sands of all
our lands abandoned / mingle in the wet heat / sweat and
grow warm / must be she the original aboriginal dancin
girl. (158 original emphasis)
As the “aboriginal dancin girl,” Cypress also channels the energy of her ancestors; “her
dance, like her people before her, [is] adapted to the contours of her new land. She
choreograph[s] for the wilderness”(196) and dances to achieve emotional and spiritual
rebirth and renewal for herself and others. Employing her body and spirit as a vessel, she
commits herself to nurturing and inspiring transformation in others and “decide[s] to
dance for the Civil Rights Movement” (LeSeur 176). By linking herself with historical
dance troops and ancient African dance societies as well as with her modern viewing
audience, she bridges past and present generations. Not only does she link generations,
but she also connects cultural ideologies, employing an artistic variation of ChristioConjure through her dance.
Although Cypress enters into a heterosexual union, she does not abandon the
Christio-Conjure precept of the matriarch, for she still dreams (literally and figuratively)
of black women’s solidarity. The notion of matriarchy is an intrinsic element in the
Christio-Conjure paradigm, embodied in Hurston’s anthropological presentation of the
Nanas in Tell My Horse. As well, it is a recurring theme throughout Sassafrass, Cypress
& Indigo, which features “Mama was there” (Shange 225) as its closing phrase. But for
Cypress, the matrilineal terms Mama and Mother are not synonymous. On the contrary,
the concept of Mama—i.e. Hilda Effania—carries clearly Christian connotations, while
the concept of Mother—i.e. matriarch—is associated with Conjure. The notions of
Mama and Mother, though distinctly different—like the Christian and Conjure traditions
they represent—are equally powerful; Cypress honors and reveres both, as she honors
and reveres the blended tenets of Christianity and Conjure. As Cypress completes her
Christio-Conjure transformation, she agrees to marry Leroy in her “mama’s house” (211),
metaphorically returning to her Christian roots. Encouraging Cypress’s participation in
the national tour, which symbolizes her community activism affected through dance,
Hilda Effania notes, “the Lord will look kindly on the benefits you’re going to do for
Negro Christians; bless your souls, for taking time from a full season for the race. I’m
mighty proud” (209). Cypress assumes the role of artistic Christio-Conjure woman as
she dances for human justice.
Indigo, the Midwife
Like Sassafrass and Cypress who administer healing through art, Indigo too
promotes healing through the medium of music. When she is a young girl, Uncle John
gives her a “talking” fiddle and explains the origins of Christio-Conjure among African
He describes how the slave-owning class of Americans “took off wit
[African] spirits left us wit they Son” (27). Moreover, he notes the fiddle’s unique
function: “the fiddle be callin’ our gods what left us [. . .] talkin’ wit the unreal” (27).
Captivated by Uncle John’s narrative, Indigo graciously accepts his talking fiddle. When
she is threatened by two young boys, members of the Junior Geechee Captains, instead of
fleeing, she stands before them and chants, “falcon come in this fiddle. Leopard come in
this fiddle. I’m on the prey. I’m on the prey” (37). Here, Indigo demonstrates her ability
to invoke spirits for self-protection, calling upon the powers of guardian spirits, or loa
(Strandess 15). The boys are impressed by Indigo’s lack of intimidation and initiate her
into their club. By joining the Geechees, Indigo symbolically connects with the history
of her father, born on the Sea Islands.
While Indigo communes with nature and the “unreal” via her fiddle, she also
disperses healing through the instrument. As an extension of her curative power, in her
hands her fiddle is literally transformed into an instrument of healing. Indigo’s “sound is
a spiritual bridgework akin” to “voodoo,” and it is a “connective between the everyday
life of Charleston and ‘unreal’ repositories of ancestral voices, spells, and curative
wisdom” (Baker 177-78). By intensely focusing on her audience (individual or group),
Indigo intimately connects with them; for those with weary and fatigued souls, she
proffers hope and revitalization.
Functioning as a healing force throughout the text, Indigo, like her sisters,
employs all of her resources for the purposes of healing and/or protection. As the novel
opens, readers are introduced to Indigo’s enchanted world, saturated with different
aspects of Christio-Conjure including female empowerment and spirit contact:
where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon
falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her
magic, who can share or not share her powers. A woman
with a moon falling from her mouth, roses between her
legs, and tiaras of Spanish moss, this woman is a consort of
the spirits. Indigo seldom spoke. There was a moon in her
mouth [. . .]. Sometimes [. . .] Indigo excused herself—her
dolls were calling for her [. . .]. There wasn’t enough for
Indigo in the world she’d been born to, so she made up
what she needed.
Access to the moon.
The power to heal.
Daily visits with the spirits. (Shange 3-5)
As the passage suggests, Indigo assumes the role of Christio-Conjure woman by creating
rituals designed to promote a healthy black existence in a Western-based culture.
Through her rituals, Indigo is linked to the moon and its mysterious astrological powers;
she, in fact, creates ritualistic journeys to the moon. Additionally, she creates dolls who
speak to her, symbolizing “her latent potential for becoming a mid-wife” (Strandness 14)
in the tradition of Aunt Haydee, archetypal Christio-Conjure character.
Like her sisters, Indigo’s vision of the world is informed by Christio-Conjure, and
her experiences are saturated with ritualistic activity. When Indigo experiences her first
menstrual cycle, Sister Mary Louise contextualizes the event as a blessing from God and
instructs Indigo to take a rose bath. She explains that the bath will simulate Indigo’s
presence in a garden. Metaphorically, Sister Mary Louise’s ritual re-establishes women’s
place in Eden, and revokes Eve’s curse through the celebration of Indigo’s maturation.
Baker suggests that the “curse” of Eve is literally washed and spoken away by Sister
Mary Louise (174). For Indigo, the beginning of her menstruation is indeed a moment
“filled with grace” (Shange 19). While she participates in Sister Mary Louise’s ritualistic
rite of passage, honoring her new potential to create children and other forms of symbolic
beauty, as an emerging Christio-Conjure woman, she also acknowledges her ability to
nurture and heal. Sister Mary Louise conducts Indigo’s ritualistic indoctrination into
Christio-Conjure, and her mentoring role in the novel marks her as an archetypal
Christio-Conjure character. Moreover, Sister Mary Louise’s mentoring relationship with
Indigo foreshadows Indigo’s future relationship with Aunt Haydee.
Although a pre-teen, Indigo is portrayed as wise and insightful, for “Shange
[blurs] the line between reality and a child’s imagination to illustrate that Indigo’s
wisdom goes far beyond her years” (LeSuer 170). Her mother is lucidly aware of her
exceptional abilities and recognizes “this last one made more sense out of the world than
either of the other two” (Shange 64). Similar to Lena in Baby of the Family, Indigo
perplexes her mother. Unable to conceptualize the blended ideology of Christio-Conjure,
Hilda Effania erroneously believes Indigo’s uncanny behavior “has nothing to do with
Jesus. Nothing at all [. . .]. She’s got too much South in her” (4), i.e., too much Conjure
influence. In black women’s fiction, the American South is often depicted as a fecund
setting permeating with Christio-Conjure ideology and activity, and all three title
characters in Shange’s novel are “steeped in the South and southern culture” (LeSeur
173). Indigo, like Sassafrass and Cypress, is physically displaced outside of Charleston,
but unlike them, with too much of the “South in her,” she remains physically situated in
the South on Difuskie Island, the site of her ancestral home where her father was raised.
On the island, Aunt Haydee is a Gullah midwife similar to the title character in
Naylor’s Mama Day. Like Uncle John, Aunt Haydee functions within a dual frame of
cultural reference.
While she espouses fundamental Christian sentiments, she also
invokes the aid of cultural ancestors, like the island legend Blue Sunday who assists her
with newborn deliveries. According to island folklore, Blue Sunday is an invincible slave
woman who, unlike many female victims of slavery, manages to spurn unwanted sexual
advances. When Master Fitzhugh attempts to rape her, she transforms into a crocodile
and he loses a leg. Thereafter, she is never again seen by white people.12 Black island
women, however, often hear her soothing songs when in labor. As Aunt Haydee’s
assistant, Indigo’s fiddling mimics Blue Sunday’s singing; she connects with the women
in the community to ease pain and foster healing.
The bond Indigo shares with Aunt Haydee is indestructible, like the bond they
form with the women they serve. Indigo
concentrated on learning what Aunt Haydee knew. Giving
birth, curing women folks and their loved ones. At first
Aunt Haydee only allowed Indigo to play her fiddle to
soothe the women in labor, but soon the mothers, the
children sought Indigo for relief from elusive disquiet,
hungers of the soul. Aunt Haydee was no fool. She
watched Indigo playing the fiddle one evening as the tide
came in. It’d been a long time since a colored woman on
Difuskie moved the sea. Some say it was back in slavery
time. Blue Sunday, that was her name [. . .] (Shange 222)
While clearly Indigo’s connection to Blue Sunday, the island icon, bears cultural
significance, it is through her association with Aunt Haydee that she inherits the
responsibility of island griot. When Aunt Haydee dies, her role in the novel as an
archetypal Christio-Conjure character is highlighted as she goes “to Our Lord on a
melody only Indigo or Blue Sunday could know” (223). In order to call upon Aunt
Haydee’s loa13 for future guidance, Indigo ritualistically preserves her cremated ashes.
After Aunt Haydee’s death, Indigo realizes that Difuskie Island is now her home.
Yet her temporary return to Charleston is imperative, since Sassafrass is coming home to
have a baby. As she prepares to leave the island, she holds the jar of Aunt Haydee’s
ashes in her arms, and an island myth arises:
somebody said that the day Indigo left Difuskie, 2,000 Blue
Sundays came out dancing [. . .] drinking moonshine, &
showing their legs. Indigo never denied this, but she kept a
drawer fulla silk stockings that had not a run, & she’d never
been one to miss a dance, when the aqua blue men strode
up from the sea, the slaves who were ourselves. (224)
This neo-legend/folktale, featuring Indigo as subject rather than in her usual role as
narrator/griot, contains the recurring theme of ancestral reverence. Prior to her departure
from Difuskie, Indigo communes with a collective group of once enslaved ancestors.
This passage reinscribes the significance of spirit contact and ancestral reverence in
Christio-Conjure. Following in the tradition of Aunt Haydee—a Nana figure as defined
by Hurston in Tell My Horse—Indigo relates to various forms of physical and spiritual
life: she connects with the previous generation (the spirit of Aunt Haydee), the current
generation (the pregnant women she serves), and the future generation (newborns she
delivers). Employing Christio-Conjure in her role as midwife, Indigo serves the unique
spiritual needs of her island community and simultaneously pays homage to the
esteemed, but historically displaced, black lay midwife of the American South.
Contemporary Christio-Conjure Activists
Indigo, Sassafrass, and Cypress transform themselves by subscribing to “a
particular interest from which [they derive] power, be that interest music, dancing, or
weaving cloth” (LeSuer 167).
All three protagonists function as quintessential
contemporary Christio-Conjure characters. Discussing the conflated heritage of African
American culture, Chezia Thompson-Cager contends that “understanding the cultural
legacy of Europe is only part of deciphering an Afro-centric world view” (37). Clearly,
the other “part of deciphering an Afro-centric world view” is recognizing African cultural
influence and contribution.
The afrofemcentric perspective features black women’s
issues, agendas, histories, and legacies as the center of discussion and analysis. Shange
explains the woman-centered approach she employs in her art:
i try to deal with black situations and i deal with the lives i
am most familiar with / which are women’s lives / through
women’s lives you can see the whole world. we raised all
these people. these people pass by us from birth til death.
If you look at a woman’s life / you can get an incredible
panorama. (“Live From St. Louis” 114)
Shange consciously privileges black women’s existence, which in history and literature
has often been devalued, ignored, excluded, and erased. However, within the matrix of
African American women’s writing, Shange’s novel functions as a cultural looking-glass.
Furthermore, Hilda Effania and Indigo share
a special mother-daughter bonding, and we suspect that the
two older daughters have had the same experience and
teaching about life and black woman’s history from her.
Ultimately, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo are wise
women. Like their mother, they find out how to live and
how to express themelves in a nice/mean world. (LeSeur
In the end, the three sisters return home to Hilda Effania, signifying a return to
Christianity but, by no means, suggesting a rejection of Conjure. Although Hilda Effania
is unwavering in her Christian principles, she learns to respect the diverse beliefs her
daughters have independently developed. She explains to Cypress, for example, “Maybe
this holiday, Kwanza, is not as bad as I thought [. . .] as long as it’s a religious ceremony
with feasts and gifts like Christmas, I guess it’ll be okay” (Shange 132 original emphasis).
As well, when Sassafrass decides to pursue initiation as a West African high priestess,
Hilda Effania expresses her unconditional love and acceptance, while she simultaneously
maintains a Christian posture. She affectionately and supportively says, “sweetheart,
whoever you are is all we have & I swear for Jesus, you my child” (225).
The closing scene features Hilda Effania and her three daughters, with her first
grandchild literally en route. Indigo, as midwife, coaches Sassafrass through the birth of
her child. The family has come full circle and is no longer dispersed across space. The
daughters return home to usher in a new generation, and in order to continue the narrative
of their lives, it is imperative that “Mama [is] there” (225). Thus, the novel, based upon
the tenets of matrilineage, represents a body of black women’s writing which—
responding to Hurston and Teish’s work—features black women tapping their cultural
heritage and constructing their female futures. Shange “has created a new medium for
expression. This medium is magical in quality and distinctly feminine” (LeSeur 170). In
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo she has produced a novel that speaks to and illuminates
struggles, setbacks, and accomplishments experienced by sistahs—both biological and
diasporic. Incorporating aspects of Christio-Conjure in her work, as a literary ChristioConjure woman, Shange, like her protagonists, is transformed into an activist through her
art, which is shaped by the dual frame of reference and conflated spiritual heritage that is
African American culture.
Overview: Naylor’s Holy Trinity
Like Shange in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Gloria Naylor, in Mama Day, crafts
a narrative imbued with Gullah and Christio-Conjure traditions.1
Naylor is a
contemporary African American writer known for characters who “are free to determine
the course of their lives, building upon self-actualizing tradition” (Valade 271). Like
Rhodes, Ansa, Bambara, and Shange, Naylor employs Christio-Conjure in her novel to
accentuate the significance of contemporary and historical bonds between black women.
Mama Day features Cocoa (Ophelia) and George, a newly married couple, as well as
Cocoa’s grandmother and great-aunt, Abigail and Mama Day (Miranda). While Cocoa
and George reside in New York City, Mama Day and Abigail live in Willow Springs
where they raised Cocoa. As a fictional island off the coast of Georgia and South
Carolina, the inhabitants of Willow Springs are Gullah,2 products of a sea island culture
lucidly infused with Christio-Conjure.
Cocoa, Mama Day, and Abigail are direct descendants of Sapphira Wade, the
island’s original matriarch; of all the island inhabitants, they are the most closely
connected to her legacy.
The two sisters, Mama Day and Abigail, are the great-
granddaughters of Sapphira, the granddaughters of Sapphira’s seventh son (Jonah Day),
and daughters of Jonah’s seventh son (John-Paul Day).3 The “seventh son” motif within
Conjure is especially pervasive because “Conjure doctors often claimed to be a seventh
son (of a seventh son)” (Brown 8). Yet the “seventh son” motif is reappropriated in
Mama Day, casting the title character as a “Conjure doctor” and Sapphira as a “true
conjure woman” (Naylor 3). Christianity, however, tempers aspects of Conjure in the
novel, and vice versa. In Mama Day, Naylor transforms the Christian notion of the
“Father, Son, and holy Spirit” into the Christio-Conjure holy trinity featuring Mama Day,
George, and Sapphira, respectively as the “Mother, Son, and holy Spirit.” Many of the
blended spiritual elements Hurston and Teish outline in their work appear in Mama Day.
In particular, this novel is marked as a Christio-Conjure text by its afrofemcentrism,
ancestor reverence, natural healing, human manipulation of nature, goddess worship,
worship of the Christian God, participation in Christian faith through reading the Bible,
expression of Christian faith through prayer, and demonstration of Christian faith through
Similar to the characters in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, the characters in Mama
Day demonstrate their Christio-Conjure orientation in different ways. Mama Day and
Sapphira believe in and practice Christio-Conjure, while George, subsequent to his
ideological transformation, accepts/believes in certain elements of Christio-Conjure but
never truly practices it. Within the fictional space of Willow Springs, Christio-Conjure
functions as a discourse, a body of “knowledge” or more specifically, as a “relatively
well-bounded area of social knowledge” (McHoul and Grace 26-31). As a discourse,
Christio-Conjure determines the manner in which the inhabitants of the island shape and
define their existence; it is the funnel through which they interpret the world and create
change by reversing oppressive racio-gendered systems of power. In the novel, ChristioConjure governs more than the spiritual practices of Willow Springs, it also informs local
social custom, medical practice, scientific research and investigation, criminal justice,
and the documentation of the island’s history.
While Mama Day, George, and Sapphira form the Christio-Conjure holy trinity,
Cocoa serves as the point of intersection between the members of the trinity, for she is
the character with whom each member is linked either by matrimony or blood. With an
ethos grounded in the legacy of Sapphira and Mama Day, Cocoa finds it extremely difficult
to “enact the conjuror role of Sapphira Wade’s heir” (Simon 17) while away from her sea
island home in the urban setting of New York City. In New York, she fears possible
amalgamation with Western/white culture and is determined to maintain the black cultural
values engrained in her on her island home. Following an unimpressive first date with
George, who has hired her as a clerk in his engineering firm, Cocoa contemplates his request
for a second date thinking, “Surely he jests” (Naylor 64). Cocoa finds her practically
unconscious use of Shakespeare disconcerting and wonders to what extent she has
assimilated into Euro-American culture while away from Willow Springs.
Like many of her transplanted African ancestors who struggled to keep their cultural
identity intact, Cocoa follows their example by rejecting the Western literary ideal set by
Shakespeare. She believes that Shakespeare does not affirm her black cultural heritage:
“Shakespeare didn’t have a bit of soul—I don’t care if he did write about Othello and
Cleopatra, and some slave on a Caribbean island” (64). Cocoa critiques Shakespeare and
draws the conclusion that he was not in touch with black culture. Judging Shakespeare’s
cultural contribution according to her personal standards, solidly rooted in Gullah, she
summarily dismisses the significance of his work.
In this sense, Cocoa succeeds in
metaphorically “enact[ing] the conjuror role of Sapphira Wade’s heir” (Simon 17), by
performing the parallel task of dismantling white, male patriarchy. Although Cocoa, as an
adult, displays an unwavering Christio-Conjure frame of reference, during her childhood in
Willow Springs, non-believers challenge her faith in the spiritual construct. She tells
George, as
a little girl I had been taught that you don’t waste your time
telling people things you know they won’t believe. I had
seen Mama Day do a lot of things out at the other place,
and when I told the kids at school they called me a liar. I
got into some awful fights that way, coming home crying
[. . .]. But if I could just bring them here and let them see,
I’d say. Folks see what they want to see, she told me. And
for them to see what’s really happening here, they gotta be
ready to believe. (Naylor 97 original emphasis)
With faith/belief as a central theme in the novel, this exchange foreshadows George’s
impending struggle and metamorphosis as an island outsider and Christio-Conjure nonbeliever.
Mama Day functions as the vessel through which George transforms within
Christio-Conjure. Like Nurse Bloom in Baby of the Family, Mama Day is the communal
mother of everyone on the island. Mama Day and Abigail, however, function as Cocoa’s
combined surrogate mother, and “together they [are] the perfect mother” (58). Mama
Day and Abigail are so unified in their role as Cocoa’s mother that although they bicker
about what information to include and exclude in their correspondence to Cocoa, it never
occurs to them to write her separately. In fact, the novel suggests that Abigail and Mama
Day are absolutely inseparable. Their uncanny affinity dates back to their childhood
when they “[n]estled under the quilt [. . .] four arms and legs, two heads, one heartbeat”
(36). But their childhood is saturated with emotional pain and anguish, largely due to the
death of their younger sister, Peace, who “was not supposed to die in their home;” there
was Miranda and Abigail but “there will be no Peace” (166). Because their mother goes
mad as a consequence of her youngest daughter’s death, literally and figuratively there is
“no Peace” in their home (at least not until George symbolically restores it via his selfsacrifice).
Thus, Cocoa is not only heir to the great, liberating legacy of the island matriarch,
Sapphira, but she is also heir to a convoluted and burdensome legacy of suffering and
heartache. While multiple passages in the text are imbued with the grandnarrative of
suffering,4 the suffering is not restricted to individual characters; it includes the physical
space of Willow Springs, which has suffered from “malaria. Union soldiers. Sandy soil.
Two big depressions. Hurricanes. Not to mention these new real estate developers” (4)
who wish to exploit the island’s geography and natural resources. Despite various forms
of suffering, nevertheless, the community is grateful that “thanks to the conjuring of
Sapphira Wade” (5) they own the island. Sapphira’s conjuring in this instance is merely one
example of how Christio-Conjure, throughout the novel, functions as a catalyst of
emotional recovery, psychological healing, and spiritual triumph.
As owners of the island, the inhabitants of Willow Springs create a world that pays
homage to their faith in Christio-Conjure. This is clearly illustrated in the Candle Walk
every December 22 folks take to the road [. . .]. Since
everybody said “Come my way,” [. . .] them that needed it
got it quiet like [. . .] it all got accepted with the [. . .] lift of
the candle [. . .]. In [Miranda’s] young days [. . .]. [a]fter
[. . .] leaving what was needed [. . .]. They’d hum some [. . .]
ancient song [. . .]. They’d all raise them candles [. . .].
John-Paul says in his time [. . .] people kinda worshiped his
grandmother, a slave woman who took her freedom [. . . ].
Folks [. . .] would line the main road with candles [. . .] and
slivers of ginger to help her spirit along [. . .] (108-111)
In this passage, Sapphira is characterized in the same context as Rachel in Baby of the
Family, as another slave woman who “took her freedom.” Also in this passage, the narrator
reveals that outsiders in Willow Springs often presume Candle Walk is solely a
Christmas/Christian celebration, while it actually epitomizes the blended tradition of
Held on December twenty-second, Candle Walk draws upon the
Christian holiday of Christmas, during which gifts are exchanged in the spirit of giving and
in celebration of the birth of Christ. Additionally, Candle Walk is a Christio-Conjure
celebration that incorporates the practice of ancestral reverence. The holiday honors the
legacy of Sapphira, worshiped by previous generations as a goddess.
reinscribes her symbolic position in the novel as the holy Spirit.
Candle Walk
With customs and
traditions such as Candle Walk codified over time in Willow Springs, the island operates as
a cultural metaphor of Christio-Conjure, with the inhabitants employing different facets
of the paradigm as resistance against social oppression.
The presence of Christio-Conjure on the island symbolizes the community’s will
to construct and maintain its unique cultural identity. Within the isolated space of
Willow Springs, the inhabitants refuse to abandon their folk culture and succumb to
external forces and/or cultural influences from the mainland like Western technology. As
a hurricane approaches, for example, Mama Day, Abigail, and all of Willow Springs
prepare for the disaster. Mama Day calls Abigail to warn her of the impending storm,
and during their telephone conversation, the novel’s Christio-Conjure framework is
further exposed. Simultaneously discussing “blasphemy,” “the Scriptures,” and fitting
punishments administered by God (228-29), Mama Day also suggests that “the signs
don’t lie” (228). Like Miss Lizzie, her position here speaks to the Christio-Conjure
method of decoding natural “signs” as a procedure for predicting future events. Mama
Day believes that the natural reactions of animals furnish far more rapid and dependable
feedback than scientific meters and graphs. Mama Day “has authority because she lives
in a community where science is an act of faith with even less power than communal
faith acts” (Lee 65). Like Nurse Bloom in Baby of the Family, Mama Day “undermin[es]
scientific knowledge by emphasizing [a] subjugated form of knowledge” (65). Contrary
to The Salt Eaters, in Mama Day, Western technology as an external force on the island
is rendered impotent and worthless.
Instead of focusing on technology, the inhabitants of Willow Springs focus on
faith and spirituality. Cocoa’s grandmother, Abigail, for example, turns to her faith when
distressed. Cocoa remembers that her grandmother “sang spirituals all morning” and
“started going to the Cross and waiting by the Jordan and then on to six choruses of ‘No
Ways Tired’” (Naylor 275). Likewise, while Cocoa is deathly ill, George recalls Abigail
standing at the sink repeating, “Oh, I don’t feel no ways tired” and confessing a Christian
faith that God had not “brought me this far to leave me” (288). Abigail is faithful and
prayerful as she implores God’s divine intervention on Cocoa’s behalf. Both Abigail and
Mama Day employ their faith during moments of crisis:
Abigail is reading her Bible in the light of the burning fire
[. . .]. Miranda can’t get rid of the heaviness way down in
her center [. . .]. And it ain’t them winds building up
outside [. . .]. Naw, this was other trouble [. . .]. Too much
else going on around her to call up what it might be [. . .]. I
cried unto God with my voice [. . .]. Thou holdest mine
eyes waking; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I have
considered the days of old, the years of ancient times [. . .].
I call to remembrance my song in the night. I commune
with mine own heart [. . .]. And my spirit made diligent
search [. . .]. I will meditate also all thy work, and talk of
thy doings [. . .]. O God, the waters saw thee; they were
afraid. The depths also were troubled. The clouds poured
out water. The skies sent out a sound. Thine arrows also
went abroad. The voice of thy thunder was in heaven. The
lightings lightened the world. The earth trembled and
shook [. . .]. Thy way was in the sea, and thy path in the
great waters, and thy footsteps are not known [. . .] the
prayers went up in Willow Springs to be spared from what
could only be the workings of Woman. And She has no
name. (249-51 original emphasis)
Christio-Conjure imagery fills the above passage, including a reference to the Christian
Bible, calling upon the Christian God, and offering prayers to a Woman who “has no
name.” Essentially, this passage demonstrates how the inhabitants of Willow Springs
interpret the magnitude of natural disaster within a woman-centered context.
As a
reflection of its female creator, the impending storm represents a potent and compelling
force and serves as a metaphor for the power wielded by women throughout the novel.
Though in Mama Day the patriarchal holy trinity is transformed, Naylor does not utterly
demasculinize the Christian version of the trinity. Instead, she balances it by including
the male figure of George as the holy Son. Like the Christian holy trinity, all three
characters (Mama Day as holy Mother, George as holy Son, and Sapphira as holy Spirit)
form a matrix for Cocoa’s literal and spiritual sustenance and salvation.
Sapphira, as Holy Spirit
With predecessors like Sapphira, a “true conjure woman: satin black, biscuit
cream, red as Georgia clay” (3), in the Sea Islands, black “[Christio]-Conjure women5
dominated the cultural scene” (Chireau 54). Sapphira could “grab a bolt of lightning in
the palm of her hand; use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her
medicine pot” (3). As a “true conjure woman” Sapphira is endowed with superhuman
capabilities, including her ability to manipulate the forces of nature.
As well, she
functions in the traditional role of communal healer with the aid of “her medicine pot,”
serving “on occasion in the capacity of midwife6 and nurse” (2 original emphasis).
Sapphira is the most complex character in Mama Day. Functioning as the matriarchal
deity of Willow Springs, her presence informs the entire context of the novel and
encapsulates multiple themes of Christio-Conjure.
Sapphira is the embodiment of the island’s history. According to local legend,
Willow Springs was once owned by a Norwegian, Bascombe Wade, who “fell under the
spell of a woman he owned” (206).7 The character of the island is eternally shaped by the
connection between Bascombe and Sapphira and reflects the conflated heritage upon
which the island community is established:
It ain’t about right or wrong, truth or lies [. . .] [Sapphira]
married Bascombe Wade, bore him seven sons [. . .] put a
dagger through his kidney and escaped the hangman’s
noose [. . .] persuaded Bascombe Wade in a thousand days
to deed all his slaves every inch of land in Willow Springs,
poisoned him for his trouble, to go on and bear seven
sons—by person or persons unknown. Mixing it all
together [. . .] you end up with the death of Bascombe
Wade [. . .] the deeds to our land [. . .] and seven sons (ain’t
Miss Abigail and Mama Day the granddaughters of that
seventh boy?) (3)
In Willow Springs, patriarchy is displaced with matriarchy, as Sapphira leads the
community. By convincing Bascombe to deed the land to his slaves, Sapphira enacts
independence for the black community of Willow Springs.
Edith Deen explains that in early Hebrew records the name Sapphira means “a
beautiful woman” who “tames her savage mate” (214).
With the atrocities of the
American slave system historically documented, it is easy to envision slave-holding
Bascombe as “savage.”
However, in Naylor’s narrative, Sapphira—having perhaps
stabbed or poisoned Bascombe—is depicted as ruthless and malicious8 in her struggle
against oppression. Despite her enslavement, she engineers and executes a plan for her
sons to live “as free men” (150). Moreover, she elects her family’s surname: “God rested
on the seventh day” and “she would too” (150), hence her descendants’ last name—Day.
Sapphira further subverts patriarchal tradition by neither allowing her family’s surname
to be assigned by a white, male plantation owner, nor permitting it to be delegated by the
legal process of a free-will marriage. In the act of self-naming she defines herself and
establishes her legal status as a free, autonomous black woman.
As the founding matriarch of Willow Springs, she is revered and deified by
successive generations of islanders as a goddess. While the element of goddess worship
in Christio-Conjure largely the result of Conjure influence, Christianity too contains a
history of goddess worship—albeit trampled and discarded. According to Jean Shinoda
Bolen, “there appears to be a goddess in the Old Testament’s Book of Proverbs [. . .].
Chokmah in Hebrew, became Sophia in Greek, and then the abstract and neuter word
‘wisdom’ in English” (37 original emphasis). Sophia “appears in almost every culture
and society” distinguishable by “the fact that she is a Black Goddess” (C. Matthews 11).
In addition, “Black Virgin Statues” of Sophia are found throughout Europe with “the
question of their blackness” at times “rationalized as [. . .] Negroid origin” (194). In the
Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the Black Virgin, Sophia, is demoted from
goddess status and reinterpreted as the personification of wisdom. Speaking as wisdom,
she delineates her distinctive relationship with God: “The Lord created me [. . .] before
all else [. . .]. When he set the heavens in their place I was there [. . .] when he knit
together the earth’s foundations [. . .]. I was at his side [. . .] I was his darling and
delight, rejoicing with him always [. . .] in his inhabited world and delighting in
mankind” (The Holy Bible, RSV, Proverbs 8:14, 8:22-31, 9:1 original emphasis). Since
Judeo-Christian tradition “officially maintains that there is but one God,” Sophia could
not be reconciled with Christian monotheism, so scribes of the religious doctrine opted
“to deny the existence of feminine divinity9 and consider references to her as poetic
expression[s]” (Bolen 38) of wisdom. However, black female divinity is reclaimed in
Mama Day.
Sapphira not only assumes the secular role of community leader in Willow
Springs, but like the biblical character Sophia, she also leads the community spiritually in
partnership with the Christian Lord:
the island got spit out of the mouth of God, and when it fell
to earth it brought along an army of stars. He tried to reach
down and scoop them back up, and found himself shaking
hands with the greatest conjure woman on earth.
“Leave’em here, Lord,” she said. “I ain’t got nothing but
these poor black hands to guide my people, but I can lead
on with light [. . .]” (Naylor 108)
The people of Willow Springs carry lit candles during the Candle Walk celebration,
symbolizing the light with which their Moses10 figure, Sapphira, led them out of the
darkness of slavery into the light of freedom. In Mama Day, Sapphira is like Moses, the
“greatest [biblical] conjurer” (Mules and Men, Hurston 287). Sapphira’s extraordinary
achievements coupled with her superhuman capabilities contribute to her elevated status
as Willow Springs’ quintessential “holy Spirit.”
Mama Day, Holy Mother
Because her mother functioned strictly in a titular capacity after the death of her
youngest daughter, Peace, Mama Day, is a self-sacrificing character forced into the role
of family caretaker. For Mama Day there was “no time to be young,” being there “for
mama and child. For sister and child,” they needed “Little Mama. Gifted hands” that
“caught babies11 til it was too late to have [her] own [. . .] Lord, can’t count’em—into the
hundreds. Everybody’s mama now”12 (Naylor 88-9). Mama Day functions in the classic
role of matriarchal midwife, exemplified by Nurse Bloom in Baby of the Family, Old
Wife, Minnie, and Sophie in The Salt Eaters, and Aunt Haydee in Sassafrass, Cypress &
Like her ancestor, Sapphira, as “everybody’s mama,” Mama Day is the
community midwife and medical expert, and she symbolically serves as the “giver of
life” for the inhabitants of the island. Indeed, “when we turn to the black American
conjurer we find not only a magician” but also a “doctor” (Smith 5). Mama Day’s role as
medicine woman illustrates the historical relationship between medicine and religion in
African American culture, for despite the erosion of several indigenous African religious
traditions, some influences remained; “[t]he chief remaining institution was the Priest or
Medicine [Wo]Man13 [. . .] healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter
of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong” (DuBois 144). Without question, as
Willow Springs’ medicine woman, Mama Day serves in the capacities outlined here.
Although medically untrained and uncertified, like historical black lay midwives,
Mama Day is exceptionally skilled and highly sought-after. As a midwife, she manifests
the natural healing component of Christio-Conjure. In fact, Dr. Smithfield from the
mainland—trained at Meharry medical school like Dr. Williams in Baby of the Family
and Dr. Meadows in The Salt Eaters—“couldn’t be expected to believe” the “things
Miranda could do. But being a good doctor, he knew another one when he saw her”
(Naylor 84).
Unlike the traditional medical doctor, Mama Day—and the entire
community—considers her medical skill and expertise a “gift” (88) or calling from God
rather than a trade/profession acquired through academic training. Unlike traditional
medical doctors, she shares her gift communally without financial compensation.
Mama Day’s role as communal midwife is particularly apparent in the passages
that feature her helping Bernice cure her infertility. After using fertility drugs prescribed
by Dr. Smithfield, Bernice and her husband, Ambush, are still unable to conceive and
consequently seek Mama Day’s medical counsel. Ambush says, “[n]o offense, Mama
Day, but I told her since she got them pills from Dr. Smithfield we oughta call him, but
she said no—go get you” (72). Bernice’s sentiments reinforce Mama Day’s elevated
status on the island as a medical expert. Employing natural ingredients to cure Bernice’s
infertility, Mama Day instructs her: “[w]hen you take the vines from them gold seeds out
into the garden, you’re really taking the lifeline between you and the baby. And the way
you watch that grow—round and full—the life will sure to be growing inside of you”
The most significant aspect of Bernice’s infertility dilemma hinges upon her
belief/faith in the advice Mama Day offers, for according to Mama Day, “the mind is a
funny thing” and “a powerful thing at that. Bernice is gonna believe they are what I tell
her they are—magic seeds. And the only magic is that what she believes they are, they’re
gonna become” (96).
As instructed, “Bernice quietly moves about the business of
preparing for her miracle” (135), and she and Ambush are delighted with the birth of their
newborn son, Chick. Since Chick’s human existence is the result of Mama Day’s
medical acumen, her position in the Christio-Conjure trinity as the “giver of life” is
further solidified.
Although the treatment of Christio-Conjure characters in contemporary black
women’s fiction is often presented in a positive—even glorified—light, through the
interaction between Mama Day and Ruby, Naylor balances her narrative with both
benevolent and malevolent renderings of Christio-Conjure. As with any source of power,
Christio-Conjure can be used virtuously or be abused, and life in Willow Springs
substantiates the traditional West African notion that “there was really no absolute evil” and
that “both good and evil resided in everything. Nothing was so good that it could not cause
inconvenience to someone; nothing was so bad that someone somewhere could not benefit
from it” (Haskins 12-21). In Mama Day, Ruby clearly personifies an evil ChristioConjure character, serving as a foil for Mama Day. Like Ruby who specializes in curses
and hexes, evil Christio-Conjurers “gained and held their influence” by various methods
“especially fear” and “were considered the source of most misfortunes” (“Believer,”
Joyner 35). Ruby has earned a sinister reputation on the island, and when she becomes
concerned that her love interest, Jr. Lee, is attracted to Cocoa, she employs spells to
eliminate Cocoa as potential competition.
As Ruby’s victim, Cocoa not only experiences a rapid decline in health, but, in
addition, she almost dies. She says, “it was no illusion that the welts had left the surface
of my skin,” they “had begun to crawl within my body” feeding on me, “the putrid odor
of decaying matter that I could taste” and “smell with every breath” the “flecks of lining
from my bladder left on the toilet tissue” (Naylor 287). As well, George notes: “you
were asleep again,” and your face was still that “of a cadaver [. . .]. Your cheekbones
pressing hard against the sunken flesh that was turning a sickly pale, the purplish black
circles blending” with “your closed eyelashes. My throat tightened at the thickness and
beauty of those lashes, the one remaining feature that I could recognize” (288). Ruby’s
plot to eliminate Cocoa as possible competition is quite effective. Mama Day, however,
is stupefied by Ruby’s sheer gall and unmitigated malice toward Cocoa, who is entirely
innocent of Ruby’s paranoid accusations.
In Willow Springs, the islanders “take care of their own, if there is a rare crime,
there’s speedy judgment. And it ain’t like the law beyond the bridge that’s dished out
according to likes and dislikes, and can change with the times” (79). Despite Ruby’s
fear-inspiring reputation, she is no exception to Willow Springs’ code of conduct. Mama
Day contemplates what kind of retaliation Ruby deserves and concludes that “Ruby don’t
know me,” she “can’t know me or she wouldna done this” (265 original emphasis).
Christio-Conjure as a “Gullah religion” serves “spiritual needs, but it also [builds]
internal community regulation” (Washington 49), and, within the text, Mama Day is the
dispenser of justice. Ruby sees Mama Day
coming up the main road and goes inside and bolts her door
shut [. . .] Miranda thinks, that’s just where I want you
[. . .]. “Are you in there, Ruby?” [. . .] three times is all that
she’s required. That’ll be her defense at Judgment: Lord, I
called out three times [. . .] she brings that cane shoulder
level and slams it into the left side of the house [. . .]. The
silvery powder is thrown into the bushes. She strikes the
house in the back. Powder. She strikes it on the left.
Powder. She [. . .] strikes it [. . .] hard against the front
door [. . .] and the winds don’t stir the circle of silvery
powder [. . .] lightning is flashing in the clouds [. . .]. It hits
Ruby’s house twice, and the second time the house
explodes. (269-73)
This scene demonstrates balance within Christio-Conjure and the tempering of each
individual spiritual tradition by the other.
Mama Day simultaneously casts a Conjure
spell while calling upon the Christian God. She manipulates nature and causes lightning
to strike Ruby’s house, and both owner and property are destroyed. Mama Day acts with
caution and deliberation, considering the religious/moral ramifications of her actions.
She, in fact, considers her “defense at the Judgment” and gets “down on her knees to pray
to the Father and the Son” (273). Although Mama Day destroys Ruby, the culprit of
Cocoa’s plight, nevertheless, Cocoa lingers on devastatingly ill. Despite Mama Day’s
power and resourcefulness, she does not over-estimate her ability to remedy the situation.
She posits, “I can do more things with these hands than most folks dream of” but “this
time they ain’t no good alone” (294). Just as God needed Jesus’s sacrifice to save
Christians, Mama Day needs George’s help to save Cocoa.
George, Holy Son
George is raised in a homeless shelter for boys, abandoned as an infant by his
mother, a teenaged prostitute. Like Christ, he is a man with a humble beginning. In the
boys’ home, George develops self-reliance and rational thinking: “there were only rules
and facts [. . .] you grew up with absolutely no illusions about yourself or the world” (246). Yet when he meets Cocoa he senses “a confrontation with fate” (28). He and Cocoa
subscribe to strikingly dissimilar worldviews; as an urbanite, George is faithful to
Western perceptions of rational, logical, and analytical thought, while Cocoa’s
perceptions are rooted in spiritual aspects of faith and belief.
In Cocoa’s hometown, George is introduced to a new and foreign way of “being”
in the world. He describes Willow Springs as edenic, “more than pure, it was primal”
(185). Despite his adoration, paradoxically, George feels a sense of physical and ideological
displacement in “Naylor’s problematized paradise” (Lee 130). As a visitor, the ChristioConjure rituals practiced by Cocoa and her family mystify George. The significance of
these rituals becomes evident when Cocoa and Mama Day enter their family plot and
place moss in their shoes, which allows them to communicate with their ancestral spirits.
Cocoa is frustrated by George who queries, “what would happen if I didn’t? Why be a
pain in the butt, George? Nothing would happen if you didn’t. But it shows respect. I
was just asking—every tradition has some kind of background to it” (Naylor 217-18).
Although the island customs are unfamiliar to George, he perceptively realizes that the
moss ritual, like all customs, has evolved within a larger context of cultural meaning and
Ironically, the moss ritual is a matter that greatly affects George and Cocoa’s
relationship. In addition to ancestral reverence, spirit contact is also a part of the moss
ritual. In a moment of reflection, Cocoa confesses to George that, “it would have been too
much to ask for you to understand those whispers as we passed through my family plot.
As soon as I put the moss in my shoes, I could hear them all [. . .] you’ll break his heart”
(223-24 original emphasis). Grace, the spirit of Cocoa’s deceased mother, explains that
she, like Sapphira, aimed to subvert gendered oppression:
I gave [. . .] [Cocoa] [. . .] my grandmother’s name,
Ophelia. I did it out of vengeance. Let this be another one,
I told God, who could break a man’s heart. Didn’t women
suffer enough? [. . .] If I had known then what I was
knowing all along, I would have named her something else.
Sapphira. My grandmother only softly broke a heart. My
great-grand mother tore one wide open. (151)
The moss ritual facilitates communication between Cocoa and her deceased ancestors
who predict an unpromising outcome for George, and despite his role as cultural outsider,
George’s interest in and curiosity about the ritual symbolically reinforces his prior
premonition that Cocoa represents, for him, a confrontation with fate.
The exchange between Cocoa and her ancestors emphasizes the Christio-Conjure
belief in the “mystical power in words, especially those of a senior person to a junior
one;” the “words of parents, for example, carry power when spoken to children: they
cause good fortune, curse, success, peace, sorrows or blessings, especially when spoken
in moments of crisis” (Mbiti 275-78). Likewise, “the mystical power of words” is
apparent in George’s dream when he envisions himself drowning off the coast of the
island. He sees “Mama Day leaning over the bridge” (Naylor 184). She instructs him in
a “voice [that] came like thunder” to “Get Up and Walk” (184). Though angry that
Mama Day does not rescue him, he gathers his strength and raises himself “in the middle
of the sound” (184). Through the dream, George subconsciously begins to subscribe to
the power of the spoken word. Preparing for his role in the Christio-Conjure trinity, in
his dream George performs the Christ-like feat of walking on water. Heeding Mama
Day’s command, he walks by faith and is motivated by the power of her resounding
Since Cocoa is victimized by Ruby’s evil conjuring, George, the rational thinker,
is asked to believe in and act upon Mama Day’s metaphysical power as the only viable
means of saving Cocoa’s life. Because Cocoa “tied up her mind and her flesh with
George” (265), Mama Day posits that his intercession is essential to Cocoa’s recovery.
He reminisces with Cocoa, recalling Mama Day’s abilities: “your great–aunt [. . .] made
the cologne you were wearing. God bless her, because you filled the air with lavender
every time you moved [. . .]. I’d never tasted mint that sweet and strong [. . .]. It was
amazing what your great-aunt could do with herbs and plants” (105-6). The narrator
outlines the natural methods Mama Day employs in creating healing remedies:
“differences in the leaves of trees, barks of trees, roots. The tonics she makes up, the
poultices, the healing teas,” in “her hands she could make the medicine he uses for his
heart” (207). Slowly, George is forced to accept the value of Mama Day’s folk wisdom,
although it challenges his own Western analytical logic.
As Cocoa withers on her deathbed, a hurricane has destroyed the bridge to the
mainland, severing access to and from Dr. Smithfield. Like the “local doctor [who] has
to admit that her herbal cures are just as good as what he himself can accomplish with
years of medical training” (Saunders 9), George must learn to value and respect Mama
Day as a healer and living folk legend. His growing faith in Mama Day co-exists with his
developing faith in God, and the magnitude of the storm forces George to reconcile his
skepticism with the phenomenal force of the hurricane. He says, “the wind coming
around the corners of that house was God. I hadn’t thought about God much before then
[. . .]. I saw the Bible as a literary masterpiece, but literature all the same,” but “the
winds coming around the corner of that tiny house on that tiny island was God” (Naylor
The striking intensity of the storm causes him to acknowledge and declare his
acceptance of and belief in the existence of God, which represents a pivotal moment in
George’s impending ideological transformation. He must also accept Mama Day’s godlike powers, while he simultaneously struggles to “hold on to what was real” (291). Dr.
Buzzard attempts to help George decipher his role in Cocoa’s salvation. He insists that
George reappropriate his ideological position and transfer his unwavering belief in
himself to an unwavering belief in Mama Day who “needs his hands in hers—so she can
connect up with all the believing that had gone before” so “together they could be the
bridge for Baby Girl to walk over” (285).
As Cocoa’s condition worsens, George becomes desperate and finally seeks
Mama Day’s assistance. In the back of her chicken coop, she tells George: “there’s an
old red hen that’s setting her last batch of eggs. You gotta take this book and cane in
there with you, search good in the back of her nest, and come straight back here with
whatever you find” (295). Despite his anger and disgust for Mama Day’s “mumbo
jumbo” (295), he musters enough faith to act upon her request and goes to the chicken
coop as directed. However, he discovers that her request is more complex than it sounds.
As he searches the chicken coop, he finds nothing recognizably significant. He finds
only himself and his hands “covered with feathers, straw, manure, and blood” (301). As
he departs the chicken coop, he thinks:
[a]ll this wasted effort when these were my hands, and there
was no way I was going to let you go [. . .]. It was
impossible to cross over, make it up those porch steps, and
into your room. I did it [. . .]. That’s why I gripped your
shoulder so tightly [. . .]. I didn’t feel anything after my
heart burst. As my bleeding hand slid gently down your
arm, there was total peace. (301-02 original emphasis)
George’s role as holy Son is illuminated as his broken body becomes the source of
Cocoa’s ultimate salvation. George finally experiences the “confrontation with fate” (28)
he sensed when he initially met Cocoa. As her ancestors predict, Cocoa “break[s] his
heart” (224 original emphasis)—literally; George, who suffers from a heart condition,
dies of heart failure.
Throughout the novel, the dialogue between Cocoa and George is actually
between Cocoa and the spirit of George. The relationship they share throughout the text
transpires after his death; thus, the entire novel is a reflection piece.
Through death,
George discovers a lesson in faith: it is foolish and unwise to dismiss the inexplicable as
As the novel closes, George’s role as a Christio-Conjure character is
complete. Significantly, he is the only male in the text accorded such status within the
predominately afrofemcentric realm of Christio-Conjure. As a spirit, he listens to Mama
Day with an open mind while she
holds her candle in the direction of the waters that carry his
ashes: I can tell you now about this here night. You done
opened that memory for us [. . .]. I can’t tell you her name,
‘cause it was never opened to me. That’s a door for the
child of Grace [Cocoa] to walk through. And how many, if
any, of them sons were his? Well, that’s also left for her to
find. And you’ll help her, won’t you? [. . .] One day she’ll
hear you, like you’re hearing me. And there’ll be another
time—that I won’t be here—when she’ll learn about the
beginning of the Days. But she’s gotta go away to come
back to that kind of knowledge. And I came to tell you not
to worry: whatever roads take her from here, they’ll always
lead her back to you. (308)
Rather than separation in death, Mama Day ensures George’s spiritual unification with
Cocoa. His ultimate sacrifice not only enables him, but others in the text as well, to claim
a sense of tranquility in a family that previously had “no Peace” (36). Since he is initially
cast in the multi-dimensional role of man displaced geographically, ideologically, and
sexually within the woman-centered, rural space of Willow Springs, these factors make
George an unlikely candidate for Christio-Conjure, and as the quintessential non-believer,
his conversion demonstrates the potency of the spiritual paradigm.
In order to save Cocoa, Mama Day must seek the aid of her ancestors by
connecting “with all the believing that had gone before” (285). The effort to save Cocoa
must be communal, an individual effort would fail miserably.
Finally, Mama Day
observes in Cocoa “a face that’s been given the meaning of peace. A face ready to go in
search of answers” (312). Cocoa’s recovery is not an individual healing, it is communal
since Mama Day has connected with the spirits of various family members, identifying
the hurt, pain, and disappointment throughout the generations of the Day family that
represent the universal human experience of suffering and sorrow. The serenity that
George offers only as a consequence of his death is a peace that permeates previous
generations with whom Cocoa is connected via the discourse of Christio-Conjure.
Securing his place in the Christio-Conjure trinity, George gives his life so that Cocoa
may not only live but also attain peace and enlightenment. As well, George serves as
spiritual guide for Cocoa to learn her “Genesis” in the words and deeds of Willow
Springs’ mysterious original matriarch, Sapphira.
Restructuring the Christio-Conjure Holy Trinity
Like Ansa’s Baby of the Family which highlights Lena’s magical abilities, in Mama
Day, Naylor intersects magic and Christio-Conjure.
Luisah Teish, Christio-Conjure
priestess, personifies Naylor’s notion of magic and its place within the framework of
spiritual empowerment. Teish’s sense of magic involves manipulating nature and natural
symbols to “manifest desired change in people and things” (207). She postulates that
magic is a conscious and directed expenditure of energy, which aligns humans with
nature and creates a space of dual existence. Magic, she says, “induces us to be fluid and
solid at the same time” (244). This sense of magic epitomizes Christio-Conjure’s fusing
of nature and spirituality into a cultural paradigm of faith.
Specifically in Sea Island culture, magic and spirituality are interconnected, for
Gullah people took their physical and personal problems to local Christio-Conjurers,
among whom no “feat” of “magic” was considered beyond their ability to perform
(“Believer,” Joyner 35). Examples of such magical feats include curing illness, killing
enemies, or securing the love of another (34). In the novel, Mama Day employs ChristioConjure to perform magical feats. She cures Bernice’s infertility with “magic seeds”
(Naylor 96), conjures Ruby’s death, and secures George’s romantic interest in Cocoa
with a lavender love potion mixed in dusting powder and cologne. Like these ChristioConjure acts performed by Mama Day, Sapphira performs magically in the text too by
turning “the moon into a slave, the stars into a swaddling cloth, and heal[ing] the wounds
of every creature walking up on two or down on four” (3). Indeed, no “feat” of “magic”
is considered beyond the Christio-Conjure abilities of the two textual matriarchs, Mama
Day and Sapphira.
During the novel’s dénouement, the closing scene features Cocoa, Mama Day, and
Abigail “bunched together, so it’s hard to say who’s holding who up [. . .]. It’s the three
of them under two umbrellas with Cocoa in the middle [. . .]. Not much talk between
‘em, and the echoes of ‘Lead on with light’ from the passing figures in the dense night”
(Naylor 307). In a dynamic twist, the closing scene of the novel offers the image of Cocoa,
Mama Day, and Abigail restructuring the Christio-Conjure trinity disrupted by George’s
death. Further emphasizing the theme of matriarchy, Cocoa and her two surrogate mothers
form the black female holy trinity; they walk in a fortifying embrace as the survivors of
bouts of natural disaster, physical malady, and generations of emotional distress. Worship
of the female deity comes full-circle in the text, beginning with Sapphira, the family’s first
traceable descendant and closing with Cocoa, the family’s youngest descendant, as part of a
symbolic holy trinity.
Naylor relies on magic in the construction of her narrative. For her, the narrative’s
magic is complex and is manifested through acts of reading, falling in love, working with
nature, and also through creative acts (Naylor qtd. in Perry 233). Naylor assigns women the
particular purview of using magic to “create things” (233), linking her to Teish who defines
magic as an art “by which we can create everything we need” (Teish 207). These elements
of magic bespeak the discourse of Christio-Conjure and make it a useful and familiar tool
for contemporary black women writers. As a literary Christio-Conjure woman, in Mama
Day Naylor demonstrates the intrinsic cultural value of blended systems of belief in African
American culture that characterize Christio-Conjure; in this novel, black life simply does not
make sense when taken out of syncretized, communal contexts. Throughout Mama Day,
Naylor subscribes to Christio-Conjure on multiple levels. In addition to employing it as a
literary motif, she also performs a magical act during the creative process of producing the
literary text.
An Array of Contemporary Christio-Conjure Literature
Without question, Christio-Conjure in black women’s writing extends well beyond
the five texts examined in this study, with writers like Paule Marshall and Toni Morrison
contributing to the discourse of Christio-Conjure through their fiction narratives. Since selfaffirmation through spiritual renewal and transcendence functions as a core theme in
Christio-Conjure literature, these afrofemcentric texts often contain tales of spiritual
liberation. The central character in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, Avey
Johnson, is a middle-aged, middle class African American woman. Born with a birth caul,
Avey is destined to possess “special powers of seeing and knowing” (Marshall 218). In
the urban North, Avey, like Cocoa in Mama Day, is physically disconnected from her
Gullah roots on the island of Tatum.
More significantly, however, she is mentally
disconnected from the Africanized spirituality that her great-Aunt Cuney helped sustain on
the Sea Island. As such, Avey’s mission throughout the text is one of spiritual awakening
and reconnection.
While on vacation in the Caribbean Avey is given an opportunity to re-connect
with her cultural and spiritual past. Aunt Cuney assumes the role of a Holiness preacher,
imploring Avey to reach back, bridge the gulf, and reconnect with her spiritual past. As an
archetypal Christio-Conjure character, Aunt Cuney’s blended spiritual beliefs typify the
Christio-Conjure religious paradigm. Her culturally diverse system of beliefs substantiates
Genovese’s theory of “Conjuring, voodoo, and Obeah” (217) as compatible with
Although a male figure, Lebert, presides over Avey’s Christio-Conjure
conversion in Carriacou, the power of the black female is nevertheless privileged in this
Avey undergoes her rite of passage on the Caribbean island of Carriacou where she
is introduced to Christio-Conjure. Embracing the traditions passed down by her ancestors
Lebert, Rosalie, and Aunt Cuney, Avey finally begins to make sense of her life. Like Indigo
who assumes the cultural role of Aunt Haydee in Shange’s novel, Avey inherits Aunt
Cuney’s role as family storyteller. Her sense of spiritual renewal also foreshadows a closer
connection with her grandchildren as well as mended relations with her estranged daughter,
Marion. In order for Avey to locate her missing self, she must reconnect with the ChristioConjure tradition. After achieving this reconnection in Carriacou, her concerns are no
longer temporal/material; instead, they become spiritual/familial, and via Christio-Conjure,
Avey serves as a spiritual bridge between familial generations.
In Marshall’s Praisesong as well as in Morrison’s Beloved, Christio-Conjure serves
as “mythical/spiritual” (Sojourner 277) realm of black women’s existence. Like Baby of the
Family, Beloved, featuring the spirit of the deceased title character, is often described as a
ghost story. Angry that her mother, Sethe, murdered her as an infant, the character of
Beloved is a menacing presence in the novel. Like Rachel, in Baby of the Family, who
chooses death over enslavement, Sethe employs analogous logic to justify her murder of
Beloved; as an act of mercy, she kills Beloved to spare her from enslavement.
In the novel, though Amy, Paul D., Denver, and Ella possess the power to restore
others, Baby Suggs, holy, Beloved’s grandmother, is endowed with a mythical form of
restorative power. Similar to Minnie in The Salt Eaters and Sapphira in Mama Day, Baby
Suggs, as her name indicates, possesses a “holy” healing power and functions in the text as
an archetypal Christio-Conjure character. She is infused with superhuman qualities as she—
like Christ—magically multiplies food at field gathering in order to feed all present. Her
ability to help others, however, like Rachel and Miss Lizzie in Baby of the Family, is more
potent after death. From beyond the grave, Baby Suggs administers “healing strength to
her loved ones” (Morrison 95). Additionally, Baby Suggs, in spirit form, prods her
granddaughter, Denver, to overcome her sense of isolation and step beyond the gate of
124 Bluestone Road.
But, the intervention of the local citizenry is required to rescue Sethe’s home from
the threat of Beloved. A community of Christio-Conjuring women finally come to the
aid of Sethe and Denver, determined to exorcise Beloved’s harrowing presence from their
home. Some brought Conjure ingredients “stuffed in apron pockets, strung around their
necks,” while others brought their “Christian faith” (257). But according to the narrator,
“[m]ost brought a little of both” (257). Drawing upon a scycretized faith, “the voices of
the women searched for the right combination” as “a wave of sound [. . .] broke over
Sethe [. . .] she trembled like the baptized in its wash” (257). In this scene, the local
women “brought a little of both” Christian and Conjure faith on their spiritual rescue
mission. Sethe is figuratively absolved of her murderous sin, and she and Denver are
cleansed of Beloved’s agonizing presence.
Cinematic Christio-Conjure
The Christio-Conjure thematic is so artistically embedded in African American
culture that its presence extends beyond the realm of black women’s literature into the
genre of film. Like the novels I’ve discussed, in many ways, Julie Dash’s film script,
Daughters of the Dust, is also a Christio-Conjure text. While the cinematic version of the
film includes Christio-Conjure images, like Nana’s “Hand” in the closing scene featuring
a Conjure gris-gris bag symbolically placed on top of the holy Bible, Dash’s script notes
convey more profoundly the influence of Christio-Conjure in Dash’s artistic project.
Set in 1902, the “dust” in the script’s title references the Peazant family’s survival
on the dusty, sandy, seemingly non-life-sustaining soil that characterizes their island home.
Contrasting the Western-based, eurocentric perceptions of reality espoused by characters
such as Viola and Haagar,1 Nana Peazant, Belial, Eula, and the spirit of the unborn
ancestor/child2 offer alternate, afrocentric perceptions. Specifically, Dash, like the novelists
discussed, incorporates the commanding tale of “Ibo Landing”3 in her text. Like Naylor’s
Willow Springs, Dash’s Ibo Landing is a fictitious Gullah island. The placement of these
narratives in the Sea Islands marks this space, like the spaces of Haiti and Louisiana, as a
fertile site of Chrisito-Conjure spiritual preservation.
One scene features “a procession of Gullah men, women and children wearing
white robes [. . .] following a Baptist minister to their baptismal waters,” as the minister
beckons the island’s Muslim inhabitant “Bilial! Bilial Muhammed. Come join us. Come
wash away your sins in the blood of the lamb of Jesus” (144). The script include a
Muslim and a Native American, who each represent alternate systems of religious belief.
As well, some members of the Peazant family practice Christianity while others subscribe
to Conjure—that is, until the Peazants collectively undergo their Christio-Conjure
Dash incorporates the Christio-Conjure element of spirit possession in the script
and indicates that Iona and Myown are “taken into a spiritual possession” (97) like Marie
in Voodoo Dreams and Sassafrass in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo. In addition to spirit
possession, Daughters of the Dust also includes the theme of ancestral reverence. Like
Aunt Haydee’s protective spirit residing in Indigo’s blue jar in Shange’s novel, Dash’s
script features “Nana Peazant’s Bottle Tree, perched in front of their house for
protection” (97). Nana admonishes her grandson Eli to “keep in touch with the dead,”
since “[m]an’s power doesn’t end with death. We just move on to a new place” where
“we watch over our living family” (93). Although the inhabitants of Ibo Landing share a
rich and diverse spiritual legacy, Christio-Conjure themes saturate the script.
A dichotomy exists in the script between the physical spaces of the North
(mainland) and the South (island).
The ideals of Christianity from the mainland
symbolize cultural progress and Conjure symbolizes cultural tradition. In the script, the
spiritual challenge hinges upon the adaptability of Christio-Conjure to meet the Peazants’
spiritual needs on both the island and the mainland. In relation to the physical space of
Ibo Landing, the spirit of the Unborn Child says, “[i]n this quiet place, years ago, my
family knelt down and caught a glimpse of the eternal. We were the children of those
who chose to survive” (133 added emphasis). Moreover, Nana contends that “[t]his was
the worst place to have been born during slavery” (105 added emphasis). The script
contains the paradox of a physical space that embodies both the tragedy and triumph of
the island people immersed in Christio-Conjure.
Nana, the matriarch of the Peazant family who was born in slavery, will remain
on the island, but she is distressed about her family’s migration North.
As the
personification of the Conjure tradition, Nana participates in various activities that
represent vestiges of West African spirituality. For example, she makes a “charm bag”
(150) to help protect herself and her loved ones from various forms of calamity. She
feels particularly compelled to counsel her grandson, Eli, since his wife, Eula, has been
raped and is now pregnant.
Eli’s sense of uncertainty about the child’s paternity
deteriorates his loving relationship with Eula and places his marriage in shambles.
Feeling bitterness and despair, Eli reminisces about his childhood and recalls his
reverence for Nana as a goddess and as a constant source of protection; but as an adult he
feels vulnerable and believes his ancestors are “too deep in their graves to” (95) protect
his family from tragedy.
Nana attempts to instill in Eli ancient forms of West African wisdom to help him
cope with and overcome his sense of dispair. She explains, “I’m trying to teach you how
to touch your own spirit. [. . .] I’m trying to give you something to take North with you,
along with all your great big dreams” (96). She further instructs him to “[c]all on those
old Africans [. . .]. Let those old souls come into your heart [. . .]. Let them feed your
head with wisdom that ain’t from this day and time. Because when you leave this island
[. . .] you ain’t going to no land of milk and honey” (97). Moreover, she is concerned that
the young family members will abandon the rich cultural traditions that have sustained
past generations of Peazants. Nana places upon Eli the responsibility of keeping “the
family together up North. That’s the challenge facing all you free Negroes,” and she
urges him to “celebrate our ways” (97).
Sensing the urgency of the matter and resolute in her Conjure beliefs, Nana calls
upon the ancestors to intercede. The ancestors summon forth the spirit of Eli’s unborn
daughter to help dispel the turmoil that casts a grim shadow over the entire Peazant
family. The spirit of the Unborn Child indicates she is “traveling on a spiritual mission”
(134) to “convince [her] daddy that [she is] his child” (124). Her mission is successful as
she leads Eli to his family’s graveyard where he is “mounted” (142) and experiences a
vision that verifies his paternity.
The Peazants, however, are unaware that Nana’s
Conjure-based intervention ultimately facilitates the psychic healing of Eli and Eula, as
they anticipate the birth of the Unborn Child.
As the “fruit of an ancient tree” (154), Nana functions in the script as the
archetypal Conjure character, while her granddaughter, Yellow Mary, in many ways
serves as her modern, mainland counterpart. Unlike Nana who has remained on Ibo
Landing her entire life, Yellow Mary has lived abroad on the American mainland and in
Cuba. Ironically, she returns to the island on the eve of the rest of the family’s departure.
For individual members of the Peazants, she represents an enigma. Nana, for example, is
especially interested in the St. Christopher’s charm Yellow Mary wears as a testament to
her Catholic conversion. Nana has never been introduced to the Catholic saints, since the
Christians on Ibo Landing are Baptists. Yellow Mary explains that her necklace is a “St.
Christopher’s charm for travelers on a journey;” in turn Nana asks, “What kind of belief
is that? Does he protect you?” (117). Nana seems neither judgmental nor disapproving
and she is satisfied that her granddaughter is humble enough to appeal to a higher source
for divine protection. The specific source of the protection, while certainly a curiosity, is
otherwise immaterial to Nana.
Focusing on Yellow Mary’s charm, the script notes indicate a “[s]yncretism of
religion—Yoruba god ‘Basoco’ founder of destiny has been replaced by St. Christopher”
(116), demonstrating religious compatibility rather than polarization. Yellow Mary’s
worship of the Catholic saint as a transformed African deity is the first indication that
despite her “new world” Christian packaging, that inside she, like Nana, is the “fruit of
[the] ancient” (154) Conjure tradition. Unlike her family members on Ibo Landing,
Yellow Mary has broad cultural exposure and has acquired wealth. Also contrasting
some of her family members, Yellow Mary does not cloak her fear of social oppression
and sexual victimization within the guise of Christian piety. Instead, she openly combats
her feelings of defenselessness and victimization (for she too, like Eula, has endured
rape). Eschewing social conformity, she deliberately chooses her professional role as
prostitute and consciously defines herself as a lesbian.
Viola, however, masks many of her insecurities in the name of Christianity and
rebukes the Conjure tradition instilled in her by Nana. She proudly professes, “[w]hen I
left these islands, I was a sinner and I didn’t even know it. But” I “touched that
mainland, and fell into the arms of the Lord” (114). She suffers from internalized racism
and discounts the traditional African customs and beliefs espoused by Nana in favor of
the dominant culture’s Western ideology.
She demonstrates her level of Western
refinement by stating, “I’ve commissioned Mr. Snead to document our family’s crossing
over to the mainland.[. . .] ‘What’s past is prologue’ [. . .] I see this day as their first steps
towards progress” (79). Unlike Cocoa in Mama Day who is disconcerted by the degree
of Western acculturation illustrated in her unconscious quote of Shakespeare, in contrast,
Viola’s use of a Shakespearean quote marks her pride in her level of Western
acculturation. She thinks many of the islanders “believe everything is caused by conjure,
magic or their ancestors,” leaving “nothing to God” (149). Thus, she perpetuates a false
division between Christianity and Conjure. Moreover, she attempts to sway Nana away
from her traditional Conjure beliefs and practices. With the lure of Christian salvation,
she pleads, “[t]he Lord will carry us through, Nana. Trust in Jesus [. . .] [we] don’t need
any charms of dried roots and flowers” (150).
Like Viola, Haagar also glorifies Western culture at the expense of disparaging
West African tradition.4
But in contrast to Viola, whose attitude toward Nana is
patronizing, Haagar is unabashedly disrespectful.
She refers to Nana’s practice of
Conjure as “an old woman’s magic” (131), and declares that she is tired of Nana’s old
stories, root potions, and Hoodoo (130). Moreover, she is determined that her daughters
not “be like those old Africans fresh off the boat” (130). In the “new world” where they
are moving, she wants them to “grow up to be decent ‘somebodies’” (130-31). Haagar’s
self-righteousness is more insidious than Viola’s, for she has internalized the dominant
property/possessions—reflected in their names, Myown and Iona (I own her)—rather
than as individual, independent persons (131). Displaying her Christian arrogance and
“defying the ancestors” Haagar announces: “[a]s God’s my witness,” when “I leave this
place, never again will I live in [the ancestral] domain” (102). She is eager to escape Ibo
Landing and anxious to abandon the rich Conjure tradition embedded in the island
While Haagar’s goal is to disconnect culturally from Ibo Landing, Nana is
determined to foster a sense of unity and connection among the members of the family
moving North. She tries to enlighten Haagar, the self-proclaimed “educated person”
(130), who refuses to recognize the spiritual virtue of Conjure.
But Nana grows
impatient with Haagar’s arrogance and impudence and exclaims, “[y]ou’re a natural fool,
Haagar Peazant. Nobody” said “old souls were living inside those glass jars. The bottle
tree reminds us of who was here and who’s gone on. You study on the colors and shapes.
You appreciate the bottle tree” as “you appreciate your loved ones” (148).
Haagar, however, is obstinate and unyielding in her Christian ignorance and
condescension. In contrast, Nana is the embodiment of wisdom, resilience, and fortitude.
Unlike Haagar, she is perceptive and intelligent enough to “change with the times” (117)
and accept the efficacy of Christianity without abandoning her spiritual principles rooted
in Conjure. Her spiritual position represents the antithesis of the eurocentric/Christian
position initially assumed by Avey in Praisesong. But in order to bridge past and future
generations, Nana, like Avey in Praisesong, must acknowledge Christio-Conjure as an
avenue for spiritual renewal, affirmation, and empowerment.
Ultimately, Nana Peazant transforms into an archetypal Christio-Conjure character.
As the script concludes, we see Nana embracing Yellow Mary’s St. Christopher’s charm
and the Holy Bible with her “charm bag”—also known as a “Hand” (150)—placed on top of
it. No other cinematic image more lucidly conveys the merging ideologies of the ChristioConjure religious tradition. During the closing ceremony Nana has all of the departing
family members kiss her “Hand” which rests upon the bible as a symbolic gesture. She
beckons her family members: “[t]ake my ‘Hand.’ I’m the one that can give you strength.[. .
.] Take me wherever you go. I’m your strength” (160). Haagar, however, destined “to
remain unenlightened and disenfranchised forever” (161), is the only one who refuses
Nana’s entreaty. As a result, Haagar pays a “transit fee” to “the old souls” when her
daughter, Iona, defying her pleas and demands, remains on the island with her Native
American lover, Julian St. Last Child.
With the exception of Haagar, the other Peazants (including Viola, Yellow Mary,
Eli, Eula, Myown and Iona) are humble and sensible enough to accept Nana’s symbolic
invitation into a new, blended form of spirituality. The closing scene with the procession of
Peazants bowing before Nana and kissing her “Hand,” signifies the family’s metaphorical
conversion. In this scene, Dash is not only a pioneer in the cinematic treatment of ChristioConjure but is also the first artist to offer the image of a group rather than an individual
conversion. Throughout this scene, Nana functions as the salvation of the Peazant family.
She implores her descendants to retain their cultural past in their new lives on the mainland.
The characters that stay on Ibo Landing with Nana—Iona and St. Julian Lastchild,
Belial, Eula, Eli, the Unborn child, and Yellow Mary—remain “behind growing old, wiser,
stronger” (164).
They ensure that the sense of self-identity and spiritual affirmation
associated with Christio-Conjure will be passed down to future generations on the Sea
Island, while those departing the island carry it abroad. The final scene conveys a sense of
balance, as the notion of cultural progression is coupled with the concept of historical
retention: “the whole film,” in fact, “is about retention, the saving of tradition, and the
persistence of vision” (Dash 46). The closing scene in the script serves as a metaphor for
the geographical dispersion and proliferation of Christio-Conjure.
The Theoretical Appeal of Christio-Conjure
Within the genre of Christio-Conjure, black woman artists view their work as
didactic.5 For example, through her writing Ntozake Shange assumes the responsibility
of instilling in young black girls the belief that no one “can tend to their emotional health
other than themselves” (qtd. in Collins 99). Since black women have struggled against
racio-gendered oppression from their introduction to America until the present, for black
women artists, Christio-Conjure is a creative tool employed to “heal the psychic scars
inflicted on African people since the slave trade began” (Tate 70). Thus, ChristioConjure represents a crucial component in the conscious politicization of black women’s
The relationship between art and activism among African American women
illustrates an embrace of communal values and a rejection of the West’s emphasis on
individual progress and prosperity.6 Many black women writers envision themselves as
active participants in their communities rather than disconnected artists. All the artists
featured in this discussion consciously create therapeutic works that advocate the
development and transformation of black women’s consciousness, and transformed
through Christio-Conjure, their protagonists actualize a black, women-centered
Because “discourses always function in relation to power” (McHoul and Grace
39), Christio-Conjure functions as a means of subversion in black women’s lives and in
their texts, and the multifarious nature of Christio-Conjure bolsters its theoretical appeal.
Ideologically, for example, Christio-Conjure shapes, defines, and instills a healthy selfperception in its followers by accentuating a powerful, blended construct of healing and
resiliency. Religiously, Christio-Conjure’s ritualistic ceremonies and rites crafted by
African Americans defy repressive forms of Christianity imposed by the dominant
culture. Creatively, Christio-Conjure is an artistic medium that conveys the unique
experiences and concerns of African Americans, particularly black women.
Theoretically, Christio-Conjure is a critical lens useful in interpreting and exploring
recurring themes in black women’s art. While the oppressive forces of racism and
sexism are ideologically, religiously, artistically, and theoretically manifest in American
culture, so are forms of resistance against it.7 From ideology to practice, ChristioConjure serves expressly as black women’s multi-edged weapon of defense and defiance
against racio-sexual oppression.8
Although my focus here has been contemporary black women’s fiction set in the
South, the application of Christio-Conjure within other literary genres is potentially vast.
The analysis of fictional Christio-Conjure written by black women and set in the urban
North—like Gayl Jones’ The Healing (1999)—is an untreated area of study. Also, black
women’s drama—like the one act plays written by Georgia Douglas Johnson and Zora
Neale Hurston in the early twentieth century—contains aspects Christio-Conjure that
have yet to be critically explored. Furthermore, beyond the exclusive realm of black
women’s writing, slave narratives (male and female) as well as novels, short stories, and
plays by black men feature Christio-Conjure characters and themes that are ripe for
analysis. The study of Christio-Conjure in these areas can provide further critical insight
into issues of race, gender, and religion at the intersection of art and politics in American
Chapter One
For specific and detailed documentation of the “fusing” of religious cultures in
America consult John Blassingame, The Slave Community (New York: Oxford UP,
1972); Eugene D. Geneovese, Roll Jordan Roll (New York: Vintage Books, 1976); James
Haskins, Witchcraft, Mysticism, and Magic in the Black World (New York: Doubleday,
1974); Paul Johnson, African American Christianity: Essays in History. (Berkley, U
California P, 1994); LeRoi Jones, Blues People (New York: William and Morrow, 1963);
Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk
Thought From Slavery to Freedom. (New York: Oxford UP, 1977); Benjamin E. Mays,
The Negro’s Church (New York: Institute of Social and Religious Research, 1933);
Sidney Mintz and Richard Price. The Birth of African American Culture: An
Anthropological Perspective. (Boston: Beacon, 1976); Harry V. Richardson, Dark Glory:
A Picture of the Church among Negroes in the Rural South (New York: Friendship P,
1947); Theophus Smith, Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America. (New
York: Oxford UP, 1994); Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the
Foundations of Black America. (New York: Oxford UP, 1987); Norman E. Whitten Jr.
and John F. Szwed, Afro-American Anthropology: Contemporary Perspectives (New
York: Free P, 1970); Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church (Washington,
D.C.: Associated P, 1921).
Some examples include the “old advisor,” Sandy Jenkins, in Frederick
Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), the
Conjure man in Henry Bibb’s Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an
American Slave (1849), the Maroon Conjure men inhabiting the backwoods of North
Carolina in Martin Delaney’s Blake (1859-62), Dinkie, the African Conjure man in
William Wells Brown’s autobiography, My Southern Home, or the South and Its People
(1880), Aun’ Peggy and Tenie in Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure
Tales (1899), as well as the protagonist in Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure Man Dies, a
Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem (1932). However, the representations of Conjure by black
male authors sharply contrasts its treatment by black women. Black male writers
traditionally address issues of individualism, including psychological and economic
survival in a capitalist and racist America.
In other words, in Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
alternative West African-based systems of belief represent credible, viable options for
solving various dilemmas and, moreover, represent ways to create positive change in life.
Confirming my characterization here, Gates contextualizes Hurston’s role as
literary foremother as follows: “Hurston has been ‘rediscovered’ in a manner
unprecedented in the black tradition: several black women writers [. . .] have openly
turned to her works [. . .] in acts of textual bonding [. . .] this is a major development, one
that heralds our refinement of the notion of tradition [. . .]. Hurston and her daughters are
a tradition within a tradition, a black woman’s voice.” (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,
Afterword. “Zora Neale Hurston: A Negro Way of Saying,’” Tell My Horse: Voodoo
and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. 294)
It is worth noting that Hurston treats the amalgamation of Christian and West
African religion in her fiction as well. See Katie Cannon’s Katie’s Canon: Womanism
and the Soul of the Black Community (1996). Here, Cannon identifies “Moses, Man of
the Mountain (Hurston, 1939) [as] an allegorical satire concerning the affinities between
Voodoo and Christianity.” (86)
Zora Neale Hurston, among others, employs the terms voodoo and hoodoo
synonymously: “Hoodoo, or Voodoo, as pronounced by the whites, is burning with a
flame in America” (Mules and Men 193). Also, regarding the term Vodou Michael
Laguerre notes “the name voodoo derives from Vodun, the name of the principal deity of
[. . .] Yoruba rites” (qtd. in Baker 80). Editors Olmos and Paravisini-Gerbert in
“Religious Syncretism and Caribbean Culture,” the introduction to Sacred Possessions:
Vodou, Santeria, Obeah, and the Caribbean (1997), contend that the spelling of Voodoo
(known as Voodoo, Vodoun, Voudoun, and Vaudon) and many other terms of African
origin used to describe various practices and beliefs is a constant source of debate among
scholars and practitioners. Rather than “arbitrarily impose [a] preferred spelling” the
editors respect “individual preferences” (3). As well, variations in capitalization
frequenty occur as seen not only in Hurston’s work but also in contemporary writing too,
e.g., Luisah Teish’s Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and
Practical Rituals (1985).
Explicating the historical significance of St. John’s Eve, Bodin asserts that,
“especially notable was the increased participation by whites [. . .] in an 1896 Voodoo
festival on St. John’s Eve held on Bayou St. John near New Orleans. St. John’s Eve has
been a special date since ancient times in Europe when pagan sun worshipers rolled
blazing wheels down hills to celebrate the sun’s descent. The Louisiana mixture of
African Animism, Haitian Voodoo, and European influences is seen in the adoption of
this date as the highpoint in the Louisiana Voodoo calendar.” (Ron Bodin. Voodoo Past
and Present. Lafayette: U Southwestern Louisiana, 1990. 22)
Hemenway, Hurston’s biographer, broaches the issue of Hurston’s personal ties
with Voodoo in New Orleans (123) and notes that “toward the end of her Voodoo study
in Haiti she became quite ill and was convinced that her illness was related to her Voodoo
research” (258). Portions of Mules and Men and Tell My Horse contain the tension and
anxiety Hurston most certainly experienced as both a researcher and practitioner of
I submit that African diasporic women are heirs to a symbolic legacy of female
power and authority perpetuated in African culture. Na’im Akbar substantiates my claim
through his discussion of the “Mother Principle.” He not only highlights the privileged
position of the female in West African culture, but he also suggests this position of
authority is a divine mandate from God. He notes that among “[t]he Ashante of Ghana,
the Queen Mother is so exalted, the King cannot exercise/execute any power/authority
without consulting his mother first. The symbol of the Mother is the most powerful in
creation [. . .] you can’t get here unless you come through your mother. The Mother
provides food, nourishment, protection. Bacteria and toxins are filtered in the womb. All
this is imprinted into one’s unconscious life. God uses ‘Mother’ as a way to teach the
lesson that one is protected by a divine process. ‘Mother’ is the symbol for the reality,
certainty, bounty, prosperity, and protection of God. Humans learn the lesson of bounty
and prosperity of God through their Mothers. God works to manifest His presence
through the principle of the Mother.” (Akbar, Na’im. Public Speech. Hillside Chapel
and Truth Center, Atlanta, GA. 30 May 1999)
For an in-depth discussion of Erzulie, consult Dyan’s article “Erzulie: A
Women’s History of Haiti,” Research in African Literatures 25.2 (1994): 5-31.
For further reading on the cultural significance of the goddess figure in African
culture see Judith Gleason’s, Oya: In Praise of an African Goddess (San Francisco:
Harper, 1987); Sabrina Sojourner, “From the House of Yemanja: The Goddess Heritage
of Black Women,” My Soul is a Witness, Ed. Gloria Wade Gayles (Boston: Beacon P,
1995) 272-78; Luisah Teish, Jambalaya:The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms
and Practical Rituals (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).
While Vodun is recognized as a religion originating in Benin (Dahomey),
Africa, Rod Davis says, “Vodun, voudoun, vaudou, vaudoux, and vo-do” are some of the
numerous variations of the term voodoo. He prefers “Voudou,” which he says is a
Creole-based spelling of the term common in eighteenth and nineteenth-century
Louisiana. (American Voudou: A Journey into a Hidden World. Denton, TX: U of North
Texan P, 1999. 9)
The term “womanist,” coined by Alice Walker is partially defined as follows:
“a black feminist or feminist of color.” (Alice Walker. In Search of Our Mothers’
Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt, 1983. xi)
In the conclusion, Dash’s film is treated extensively as a Christio-Conjure text.
Further reinforcing the syncretized relationship between Christianity and
Conjure, Hurston describes the holy Bible as “the great[est] conjure book in the world.”
(Mules and Men 287)
Similarly, Hurston, in correspondence addressed to her anthropological
mentor, Frantz Boas, attempts to invert the mainstream disparaging characterization of
African-based religion as primitive; she writes, “Is it safe for me to say that baptism is an
extension of water worship as a part of pantheism just as the sacrament is an extension of
cannibalism. Isn[’]t the use of candles in the Catholic chu[r]ch a relic of fire worship?
Are not all the uses of fire upon the altars the same thing? Is not the Christian ritual
rather one of attenuated nature-worship, in the fire, water, and blood. Might not the
frequently mentioned fire of the Holy Ghost be an unconscious fire worship. May it not
be a deification of fire?” (Charles Joyner. “Believer I Know.” Ed. Paul Johnson.
African American Christianity: Essays in History. Berkley: U of California P, 1994. 36)
Mam’zelle is the Louisiana Creole translation for the French word
Mademoiselle, a form of polite address for a girl or young woman in a French-speaking
According to Teish, a two-headed person is a medium, i.e. a person thought to
have the power to communicate with the spirits of the dead or with agents of another
world or another dimension. (250)
For further study on Christianity in black women’s writing, consult Katie
Cannon’s Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (New York:
Continuum, 1985) and Kimberly Rae Connor’s Conversions and Visions in the Writings
of Afro-American Women (Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services, 1995).
I also employ the term Conjure because of its association with creativity,
especially regarding the manipulation of words, images, and various other art forms as
creative acts. Definitions of conjure include “evoke; imagine; picture”—among others
that associate the term with magical acts and spirit contact.
Discussing the current proliferation of “neo-African religions, Chireau says that
the “late twentieth-century growth of Neo-African religions such as Santeria and Vodun
thrive within urban centers, attracting individuals from all races and religious
backgrounds and reinforcing the internationalization of black sacred traditions.”
(Yvonne Chireau. Conjuring: An Analysis of African American Folk Beliefs and
Practices. 1994. Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of Princeton University in
Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Recommended for Acceptance by
the Department of Religion. 290-91)
In African American literature the book of Exodus remains a biblical allusion
from slave narratives (e.g., Harriet Tubman as a Moses figure) to contemporary writing
(e.g., Sapphira in Mama Day as a Moses figure).
Examples of such clandestine gatherings in black women’s fiction include the
passage in Sassafrass, Cypress, & Indigo in which Sassafrass, as a member of the New
World Found Collective, experiences a “mounting,” as well as Marie in Voodoo Dreams,
who orchestrates massive gatherings at Lake Ponchatrain and Bayou St. John. Beloved,
too, includes one such scene featuring song and dance with Baby Suggs, Holy
multiplying food, like the biblical image of Christ multiplying the fish and bread.
Chapter Two
Bodin details the historical emergence of Christio-Conjure in Louisiana, while
documenting the Haitian influence: “Columbus discovered the West Indies island of
Hispañola and claimed it for Spain in 1492. Spain recognized French rule of the western
part of the island in 1697 under the terms of the treaty of Ryswick and the French called
this western half of the island Saint-Domingue. Beginning in 1769 a series of slave
revolts rocked the island leading to a general slave revolt and freedom in 1791, winning
independence for Haiti in 1804. Prior to independence, slave ships destined for Haiti
housed all classes of Dahomey society and the ‘Vodu’ religion was transported to the
New World by believers and by priests on board who knew the religion’s rites. The
Dahomey “Vodu” religion took root and flourished in Haiti as slaves met clandestinely
under the cover of religious assemblages designed by masters to introduce the slave to
Christianity. For some years there had been a movement of slaveowners and slaves
between Haiti and New Orleans, but in 1809 a large number of Haitian planters who had
refugeed in Cuba during Touissant L’Ouverture’s Haitian revolution, were expelled from
Cuba and, with their slaves, made their way to New Orleans. Many of these slaves were
worshippers and devotees of “Vodu.” With the United States purchase of Louisiana in
1803 owners continued to press for the importation of slaves and increased numbers of
West Indies slaves entered Louisiana from Haiti. So a considerable Haitian slave
presence was felt in Louisiana, and these slaves were known to practice various African
and Haitian “Vodu” rites. Louisiana possessed a unique culture, a unique environment.
In this very different world emerged a unique brand of Voodoo—less organized than the
Haitian model, influenced by the mysteries of Catholicism and the basic beliefs of
European superstition, it was business-oriented.” (Bodin 7-13)
According to Victor Klein, “Marie Laveau was born either in New Orleans or
Santo Domingo sometime around 1794. Her father was probably Caucasian. From all
accounts, and from the faded portrait hanging in the Cabildo Museum in New Orleans,
she was an attractive, fair complexioned mulatto. Her vocation was that of a hairdresser,
a trade she used to her monetary betterment. It is recorded that she married on 4 August
1819, to one Jacques Paris, a free black. In 1826 her marriage was dissolved by death. In
that same year she began a life-long relationship with Christophe Glapion, also a free
black. February 1827 marked the birth of her daughter, namesake and heir to her occult
empire. It is not known if her father was Paris or Glapion. Laveau’s pregnancy
overlapped Paris’s death and her relationship with Glapion. During her long life (17941881) she gave birth to fifteen children her interest in Voodoo dates from the year 1826,
the year her legal husband died. Marie departed this life 15 June 1881. Her daughter,
namesake and successor followed her several decades later. It is from the silent, secret
dark abyss of death that Marie and her daughter allegedly still reign as ghost queens in
the ancient St. Louis Cemetery #1. Both Maries are entombed in this cemetery which is
the oldest existing kirkyard in the city.” (Victor Klein. New Orleans Ghosts. Chapel
Hill, NC: Professional P, 1993. 97-102)
While a preponderance of scholarship focuses attention on the African influence
on the transformation of Christianity in African American culture (e.g. John Blassingame,
Eugene D. Geneovese, James Haskins, LeRoi Jones, Benjamin E. Mays, Harry V.
Richardson, Carter G. Woodson, et al), on the contrary, Ron Bodin highlights the
European influence upon African religious customs and beliefs noting that “elements of
late nineteenth-century Louisiana Voodoo are quite medieval and very European. The
European influence on the constantly evolving Voodoo experience is better understood
when one considers that in medieval Europe a fine line separated religion and magic.
Even the Christian “faithful” were known to seek remedies for their earthly problems by
“worshipping” saints who had performed miracles, by reciting prayers, and venerating
the holy alter. Paralleling the religious life of the church in medieval Europe was another
belief system rooted in ancient paganism and characterized by wizards, sorcerers,
charmers, conjurers, prophets, and practitioners who combined their rites with the
recitation of prayers and the use of Christian charms. With the increased participation of
whites in Voodoo and with the influence of New World Catholicism on practitioners, it is
no surprise that in the late nineteenth-century Lafcadio Hearn, a literary figure and a keen
observer of cultures, claimed that the European influence had succeeded in considerably
modifying African Voodoo in Louisiana.” (Bodin 25-27)
According to Gay Wilentz, “gris gris” is a Senegalese term for a charm bag or
talisman. (72)
According to Touissant Desossiers, “it is not clear how Marie Laveau actually
became involved in Voodoo. An active society existed before Laveau and it is evident
that the society was influenced by natives of Haiti such as the heavily tattooed Dr. John,
John Montenet, who some claim first blended Haitian Voodoo, Catholicism, the snake
oracle, and ‘flim-flam’—enticing white women to his ‘advice parlor’ with his listening
skills, sure demeanor, and ‘magical cures’” (Touissant Desossiers. “Haitian Voodoo.”
Americas. XX (1970): 35-39). Luisah Teish also discusses an historical Dr. John,
reporting that, “Jean Montaigne—also known as Bayou John and Doctor John—was an
impressive Senegalese man bearing the tribal marks of a royal family. He had been the
slave of a Cuban seaman and had traveled with his master back to Africa. He purchased
his freedom, bought and married fourteen female slaves, and acquired a fifteenth wife, a
white woman. This man owned his own home and dressed in elaborate Spanish
costumes. Bayou John was widely sought by Blacks and whites alike for his herbal
remedies and fortune telling.” (174)
The Hamitic curse refers to the biblical character, Ham, who witnesses his
father, Noah, unclothed and intoxicated, and deserts him. In retaliation for Ham’s
neglect, God—upon Noah’s request—curses Ham’s descendants to perpetual servitude in
Genesis 9:22-25. Historically there has been widespread manipulation of this biblical
passage to justify the enslavement and subjugation of blacks throughout the diaspora,.
Yet, there is no reference in this passage to the black race or culture, and thus no textual
evidence to substantiate this racist interpretation.
According to Teish, Damballah is the Dahomean snake deity. (Teish 31). In
Voodoo Dreams Damballah, is the favored and most powerful of the spirits and supreme
god of Conjure/Voodoo.
In addition to Damballah, the serpent god, in the West African pantheon, Legba
represents the “remover of barriers and the protector of homes, and Agwé presides over
seas and ships.” (Bodin 97)
Voodooiene is the French-influenced label for a female practitioner of Voodoo;
the term is synonymous with Voodoo priestess and/or Voodoo queen.
Folklorist Niles Puckett provides historical documentation of such a ceremony;
he says “secret Voodoo meetings were held at night and were presided over by a king and
queen. The queen was the dominant figure and was elected to her position for life (the
king was often her husband). The meetings were started with the adoration of a snake.
So powerful an influence was the queen that believers were reminded that to break with
her was to break with the gods themselves. Individual members came up to implore the
Voodoo god, to invoke blessings on loved ones, and curses on enemies. The king
listened until the “spirit” moved him. He would place the queen on the ornate box
containing the snake oracle. The queen convulsed and spoke through “split lips” in an
unknown tongue. An offering was taken up. Throughout the ritual, tafia, an intoxicating
mixture akin to rum, was consumed to heighten the effects of the ceremony. This often
feared Voodoo society may have been the most open under the “reign” of the last great
Voodoo queen, Marie Laveau.” (Niles Puckett. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro.
Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1926. 181-185)
Virginia Hamilton says “there are numerous accounts of flying Africans and
flying slaves in the black folktale literature. Such accounts are often combined with tales
of slaves disappearing. A plausible explanation might be the slaves running away from
slavery. In code language murmured from one slave to another, ‘Come fly away!’ might
have been the words used. Another explanation is the wish-fulfillment motif, a detailed
fantasy tale of suffering, of magic power exerted against the so-called Master, it was first
told and retold by those who had only their imaginations to set them free.” (Virginia
Hamilton. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. New York: Alfred Knopf,
1985. 172-73)
Chapter Three
According to Branch, griot is the European word for the African word “gewel,”
a storyteller and historian. In the African tradition, “the griot is the most important
storyteller in the community, a revered person who is entrusted with passing down the
cultural history of a people through stories and songs” (Muriel Branch. The Water
Brought Us: The Story of the Gullah-Speaking People. Cobblehill Books/Dutton: New
York, 1995. 7). Tilford Brooks defines griot as “a French term for a professional
musician of West Africa” (Tilford Brooks. America’s Black Heritage: Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice Hall, 1984. 8). In addition, Francis Bebey says “griot is the term used
throughout West Africa to designate a professional musician. They usually specialize in
the art of invoking super natural beings of all kinds and sing their praises in order to
ensure their pardon, protection or goodwill. He is concerned with not only the history of
his people—its kings and ancestors, and the genealogy of the great men—but also, the
wisdom of its philosophers and its thought-provoking riddles, and the ancestral proverbs.
He is a living archive of his people’s traditions. But he is above all a musician, without
whom no celebration or ritual would be complete; the profession is by no means a male
prerogative. There are many women griots whose talents as singers and musicians are
equally remarkable.” (Francis Bebey qtd. in Muriel Branch. The Water Brought Us: The
Story of the Gullah-Speaking People. Cobblehill Books/Dutton: New York, 1995. 22-23)
Although Mulberry is fictitious, Ansa situates the narrative within her personal
birth state, Georgia. Detailing the history of the state, Brooks reports that “After resisting
the pressure for twenty years, the trustees finally yielded, and slavery was introduced in
1751. The seaboard counties had black majorities by 1790. At the close of the
antebellum period, the coast was the region of largest slave holdings in the state. The
average was twenty per owner” (Robert Brooks. Georgia Studies: Selected Writings.
Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries P, 118). In addition, Bartley contends that the
“coming of cotton revitalized slavery in Georgia. [. . .] In 1800, 36.5 percent of
Georgians were slaves, and by 1820 the ratio of slaves to free population had climbed to
44 percent. [. . .] Cotton and slavery brought great wealth to Georgia, and Georgians paid
dearly for it. [. . .] ‘When Southern statesmen count up the gains of slavery,’ a British
traveler wrote, ‘let them not forget to count its cost. They may depend upon it, there is a
heavy ‘per contra’ to the profits of niggerdom.’” (Numan Bartley. The Creation of
Modern Georgia. Athens: U Georgia P, 1983. 14-16). This represents the historical
context of the physical space in which Baby of the Family is set, providing fertile ground
for the eminent rise of Christio-Conjure in the area.
In the traditional black church, call-response is often referred to as “talking
back” to the preacher. (Geneva Smiterman. Talkin and Testifyin The Language of Black
American. Detroit: Wayne State U P, 1977. 104)
In contemporary black women’s texts featuring the discourse of ChristioConjure, the use of terms such as God, Lord, Father, Savior, Jesus, and Christ imply a
Christian sensibility, while references to West African deities such as Oya, Oshun,
Erzulie, Damballah, and Shango suggest a Conjure frame of reference.
Sharon Robinson, critic and professor of midwifery and black healthcare
systems, argues in her 1984 study for the Journal of Nurse-Midwifery that “the first lay
midwife came to America in 1619, bringing with her a knowledge of health and healing
based on her African background. With the growth of slave communities in America and
slavery’s emphasis on the breeding of human chattel, black lay midwives performed
important roles. They were everything from herbal to ritual specialists. Delivering
babies was respectable, ancient work, and African American lay midwives, as well as the
early midwives of most cultures, earned respect for their skills. From Reconstruction to
the end of the nineteenth century, black lay midwives continued to deliver babies of both
black and white women, particularly in rural, southern communities.” (Valerie Lee.
Granny Midwives and Black Women Writers: Double-Dutched Readings. New York:
Routledge, 1996, 5-6)
Because the “passing on of the tradition to either a female relative or a young
woman who had received a special calling from God was a matter of grave importance,
the lines of authority and transmission of midwifery skills and lore were tightly
controlled” (Holly Matthews. “Killing the Medical Self-Help Tradition Among African
Americans: The Case of Lay Midwifery in North Carolina.” Eds. Hans Baer and Yvonne
Jones. African Americans in the South: Issues of Race, Class, and Gender. Athens: U of
Georgia P, 1992. 63)
In Europe, Valerie Lee says, “midwifery was a less-than-honorable profession.
Birthing was regarded as an objectionable, private, and nasty business. The act of giving
birth itself defiled the mother, who could be readmitted to the Church only after rites of
purification, called “churching.” Whereas such countries as Germany, Italy, France, and
England burned thousands of women healers, African American women healers come
from a tradition more respectful of indigenous medical systems. In many African
societies, midwives and women healers have used a pharmacopoeia of herbs to maintain
balance in the lives of their patients. Midwives and healers have enjoyed their
community role as facilitators of harmony, wholeness, and order. As such they continue
to command respect. Such an attitude has given women healers vocational prestige.”
(Lee 119 and 33)
Valerie Lee documents “other contributory explanations for the decline of
midwifery including: 1) weakly organized midwifery organizations compared to
aggressively organized professional medical organizations, such as the coalitions that the
American Medical Association built; 2) establishment of all-male medical schools,
barring women from access to medical knowledge; 3) increasing infant mortality rates,
which were always a locus for scapegoating midwives and grannies in particular; 4) new
surgical childbirth instruments which only doctors could use; 5) doctors’ alliances with
upper-class white women; and 6) the growing presence of the black woman as the
prototypical midwife.” (Lee 27)
Regarding the history of the figure of the black lay midwife in black women’s
writing, Lee contends that “[a]lthough feminist health workers and women patients in
general have been able to effect a renewed interest in midwifery in general, it has taken a
long list of womanist writers to come to the aid of the [black lay midwives]. Literature
written by black women as early as the Harlem Renaissance subverts notions of
patriarchal authority by reinscribing power to the [black lay midwives] and the other
black women healers in the community.” (Lee 8)
Community “Mother” or matriarch in the African American community is
parallel to the Jamaican concept of the Nanas outlined by Hurston in Tell My Horse.
Both Dr. Smithfield in Mama Day and Dr. Williams in Baby of the Family
earned their medical degrees at Meharry Medical School. Located in Nashville,
Tennessee, Meharry served as the premier medical school for African Americans from
the early part of the twentieth century until the 1970s.
Resistance was often a basis for black participation in supernatural activity in
the eighteenth century, as it was in the nineteenth century. (Chireau 33)
At the intersection of medicine, religion, and literary theory Lee describes black
lay midwives “as women committed as much to a spiritual tradition as to a medical one.
Propelled by their sense of a divine mandate, both the fictional and historical [black lay
midwives’] voice and ethic of caring and activism that is anchored in their self-defined
spirituality.” Noting the many spiritual frameworks that black critics have suggested for
analysis, she contends that “the grannies testify theory and as such are womanist
theologians.” (Lee 18)
Chapter Four
The issue of revolution in The Salt Eaters is a controversial subject among
critics. Susan Willis criticizes the revolutionary aspect of The Salt Eaters, suggesting
that: “For all its yearning and insight, the novel fails to culminate in revolution, fails to
suggest even how social change might be produced” (Susan Willis. “Problematizing the
Individual: Toni Cade Bambara’s Stories for the Revolution.” Specifying: Black Women
Writing the American Experience. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987. 129). I, however,
support Derek Alwes’s analysis; he discounts Willis’s interpretation, asserting that
“Bambara’s sense of the possibility of political revolution is not represented by the naïve
belief in one single, radical revolutionary transformation after which everything is
changed forever; it is a recognition that change occurs over time in the hearts and minds
of individuals who create, participate in, and identify with a strong, unified community.”
(Alwes, Derek. “The Burden of Liberty: Choice in Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Toni Cade
Bambara’s The Salt Eaters. African American Review. 30.3 (Fall 1996): 360)
The fictionalized feminist group, The Seven Sisters, which performs concerts
and presents plays at various political and cultural events across the country in The Salt
Eaters is suggestive of Luisah Teish’s altar circle, characterized in Jambalaya as “a
rainbow.” In the group, Teish says, “we are dedicated to praising, protecting, and serving
Mother Earth and Her children. We seek to create a tradition that will assure a good
world for our descendants. A demonstrated effort to respect the ancestral culture of your
altar sisters will de-fang the demon racism and inspire a level of trust. Let us enrich our
individual lives by celebrating our collective diversity. All flowers are not roses.”
(Teish 250-54)
Although Bambara’s depiction of salt emphasizes its healing/medicinal qualities,
Gay Wilentz discusses both its positive and negative associations: “[s]alt and its effects is
a common theme in the literature of many cultures, from its cautionary tale and the
biblical story of Lot’s wife to the salutary use of salt in reviving the zombified. Like
other images associated with oppression, salt has both a metaphorical and biological
duality: Salt keeps us alive, but too much salt can also kill us.” (Wilentz 176)
Damballah is the Dahomean serpent deity who is the representative of all
unknown ancestors, and is given access to the knowledge and experience of all the people
who have lived before. (Teish 77)
Oshun is the Yoruba goddess of love, art, and sensuality. (Teish 40)
Oye is the Yoruba goddess of wind, water, fire and rainbows. (Teish 40)
Ogun is the Yoruba god of war and iron. (Robert Farris Thompson. Flash of
the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy. New York: Vintage Books,
1984. 52)
Gay Wilentz discusses the connection between the individual and the communal
in The Salt Eaters positing that the novel “explores the necessary relationship between
personal health, cultural affliction, political activism, and spiritual growth; moreover, it
opens a door for the scientists to commune with the healers to fight for a healthy planet.”
Alwes further connects the image of the mud mothers to the formation of racial
identity in the text. He says, “the spiritual powers for healing available as an ancient
aspect of racial identity are not treated as a metaphor in the novel; they are genuine
powers that represent the most reliable source of cultural identity and, consequently,
political power. The dominant image of these forces in the novel is the recurring vision
of the mud mothers painting the walls of their cave; the women haunt Velma with a
strong and urgent sense of primitive interiority. The cave of the mud mothers operates,
of course, as a symbol of the cultural or racial womb [. . .].” (Alwes 359)
Haint, which means ghost, is an older term in the African American vernacular.
(Geneva Smitherman. Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen
Corner. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000. 157)
Though East, rather than West African, Swahili is the official Bantu language
of Tanzania and is widely used as a lingua franca in eastern and east-central Africa.
Further inscribing the notion of science and technology as analogous endeavors,
Newman characterizes both fields as modes of production: “[t]echnology—the field of
productive technique, skill, method, procedure, and the like—can be helpfully regarded
as the context of every aspect of religion, for every aspect of religion is, at least when
considered from a certain perspective, concerned with some form of production. If this
production is not something physical or material, then it may be a condition, a state of
affairs, or a way of understanding.” (Jay Newman. Religion and Technology: A Study in
the Philosophy of Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997. 146)
Margo Anne Kelley says, out of all the novels they read in her class, The Salt
Eaters was the only one that her students found inaccessible. After she provided a brief
introduction to chemical dissipative systems (thermodynamics and the law of time) her
students made connections to the text that gave them access to Bambara’s ideas. When
she offered them tools derived from science—the dominant legitimating discourse of
modern Western culture—they were able to see the role of science in the text as one of
many knowledge systems being presented. (Kelley 480-91)
Discussing even further the unstable nature of Claybourne’s identity, ButlerEvens asserts, “in The Salt Eaters [. . .] community is the site of uncertainty and
disintegration where heterogeneous, as well as dissonant and contradictory, desires
surface” (Elliot Butler-Evens. “Rewriting and Revising in the 1980s: Tar Baby, The
Color Purple, and The Salt Eaters.” Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in
the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia:
Temple U P, 1989. 177)
Chapter Five
In an historical overview of South Carolina, McCurry says, “The colony’s first
settlers, Barbadian planters and their slaves combined to lend a plantation cast even to the
Low Country’s earliest years. From 1725 to 1775 the Low Country was the richest
region in British North America. South Carolina had a black majority population. By the
Revolution, 80 percent of the lowcountry population was black and enslaved. The Low
Country was not simply North America’s richest colony, it was also the most
inegalitarian. Social inequality was most visibly racial. Virtually all of the black
population—the lowcountry majority—that is, was enslaved and propertiless and, indeed,
constituted the property of the wealthier others” (Stephanie McCurry. Masters of Small
Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the
Antebellum South Carolina Low Country. New York: Oxford U P, 1995. 28-32).
Further discussing the history of blacks in the state of South Carolina, Joyner notes that
the “first generation of slaves in South Carolina came mostly from the Caribbean. But the
great expansion of rice culture in the early eighteenth century brought about an enormous
increase in the young colony’s slave trade. The rice planters preferred Africans from the
Senegal-Gambia region and from the Congo-Angola region. Nearly 40 percent of the
Africans enslaved and brought to South Carolina between 1730 and the end of the legal
slave trade came from Angola. Another 20 percent came from Senegambia, and the other
40 percent variously from the Windward and Gold coasts, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere”
(Charles Joyner. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: U
Illinois P, 1984. 205-06). In addition, Frazier says, “Charleston streets swarmed with
blacks as slave-traders brought in cargo after cargo. Fabulous fortunes were reaped from
black cargoes. The nonimportation agreement of 1769 specifically outlawed the
importation of slaves. Lowcountry planters and would-be slave traders mindful of the
enormous profits made before the Revolution, demanded that the state reopen the slave
trade. The legislature voted to reopen the foreign traffic in slaves, which resumed on
December 17, 1803. Over the next several years nearly 40,000 slaves were brought into
Charleston, merchants profited handsomely, planters mortgaged their estates for more
land, slaves and luxuries. The influx of new Africans made Charlestonians increasingly
sensitive to any criticism of the institution. Violent responses represented a historic
continuum to wall off the city from people and ideas perceived as threatening to slavery.”
(Walter J. Frazier. Charleston! Charleston!: The History of a Southern City. Columbia,
SC: U South Carolina P, 1989. 110-88)
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of
the Department of Black Studies at California State University. The name Kwanzaa is
derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, a
Pan-African language which is the most widely spoken in Africa. It is a cultural holiday,
not a religious one, thus available to and practiced by Africans of all religious faiths who
come together based on the rich, ancient and varied common ground of their African
heritage. Kwanzaa was established in 1966 in the midst of the Black Freedom
Movement. It was created to reaffirm and restore a rootedness in African culture and
emphasizes the importance of family, community and culture. It is celebrated from
December 26th through January 1 st and focuses on seven African principles. (Nguzo
Oshun is the Yoruba goddess of love, art, and sensuality. (Teish 122)
According to Blackman, “Dance is a part of all developed religions. In divine
services dance had an important ritual significance. Christianity had its main inheritance
from the Jews and based itself on the Old Testament as support for its own ritual dances
and ceremonies of divine service and even as direct command to praise God in dance.
Similarly, certain passages in the New Testament have been adduced as partial motives
for the introduction and preservation of religious dance. The dance in the Christian
Church began in the latter part of the third century and continued throughout the centuries
into our own time” (Louis Backman. Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in
Popular Medicine. London: Ruskin House, 1952. 328). Primus asserts that “[i]n
emotional impact, group reaction, rhythms, tempos, actual steps and the exact precision
with which they are done, dance in the Southern Baptist Churches so closely resembles
the dance in Africa as to leave no doubt in the mind that the American form emerged
from the African” (Pearl Primus. “Primitive African Dance and its Influences on
Churches in the South.” In The Dance Encyclopedia. Ed. Anatole Chujoy. New York:
A.S. Barnes, 1949. 389). Oliver reports that “[d]uring the late 1920s and early 1930s,
the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) preachers forcefully proclaimed the texts of the
Psalms as justification for their belief in music and dance as vehicles for praise” (Paul
Oliver. Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records. New York: Cambridge
U P, 1984. 174). Thorpe contends that “religious beliefs of the West African tribes
varied from kingdom to kingdom, village to village but three basic principles affected the
distribution of ritual: one, religion was part of everyday life two, the religious practices
included elaborate ritual; and three, these rituals involved much dancing” (Edward
Thorpe. Black Dance. Woodstock, NY: Overlook P, 1990. 13). Hanna asserts that in
West African religious tradition, “the spirit of the deceased exists in limbo between living
and ancestral states until the performance of final mortuary rites which feature danceplays. These physical and spiritual forms are similar to the dances in the Christian church
to enable one to enter heaven.” (Judith Lynne Hanna. To Dance is Human: A Theory of
Nov-Verbal Communication. Austin: U Texas P, 1979. 112)
Warren says, “[w]hen the African was brought to the United States as a slave, he
brought with him his music and dance, his history and his religion. The music, the dance,
and the drums were an integral part of African religion and the African way of life.”
(Fred Warren. The Music of Africa. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970. 52)
Conjurers in the Gullah/Geechee culture, according to Joyner, “often enjoyed
considerable influence and power among the slave community. The position of the
conjurer was sometimes inherited, but more often was the result of peculiar
circumstances of birth, such as being born feet-foremost or with a caul over the face.
Such children were considered to have special powers. They would be able to see spirits
and other supernatural phenomena and were often taught the special lore of the conjurers.
Conjurers in the Gullah/Geechee culture were highly regarded as healers. Africans had
brought their highly esteemed pharmacopoeia with them to South Carolina as a part of
their oral traditions.” (Down by the Riverside, Joyner 146-48)
African Americans “on the Sea Islands are known as Gullah in South Carolina
and Geechee in Georgia, but the term Gullah is frequently used to include both groups”
(William Bascom. “Gullah Folk Beliefs Concerning Childbirth.” Sea Island Roots:
African Presence in the Carolinas and Georgia. Eds. Mary Twining and Keith Baird.
Trenton, NJ: Africa World P, 1982, 27). Jackson reports that “the origin of the term
Gullah is uncertain. It is generally believed to be a derivation of the African Gola or
Gora, names of African tribes from Liberia or a derivation of the African Angola, since
many slaves were brought to the Sea Islands from Angola. ‘Geechee’ often used by
blacks comes from the Ogeechee River, one of the prominent waterways in the area”
(Juanita Jackson, et al. “The Sea Islands as a Research Area.” Sea Island Roots: African
Presence in the Carolinas and Georgia. Eds. Mary Twining and Keith Baird. Trenton,
NJ: Africa World P, 1982, 163). Furthermore, Branch believes that “Gullah (or Geechee
as it is called in Georgia) is both language and people, according to Muriel Miller
Branch. African Americans who live on the Sea Islands (a string of about thirty-five
islands extending from Prawleys Island near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to Amelia
Island on the Georgia-Florida border) are the descendants of enslaved Africans. The
isolation of one Sea Island from another and from the mainland has enabled the Gullahspeaking people to preserve their language, and maintain many of their ancestral customs
in a manner that makes them the most ‘authentic’ Americans of African descent.” (Muriel
Branch. The Water Brought Us: The Story of the Gullah-Speaking People, New York:
Cobblehill Books/Dutton, 1995, 8-9)
For further reading on Josephine Baker consult Phyllis Rose’s Jazz Cleopatra:
Josephine Baker in Her Time. Vintage Books: New York, 1991.
Billie Holiday was “one of the most important and influential singers in the
evolving traditions of blues and jazz. At the age of fifteen she made her singing debut at
Pod and Jerry’s, a Harlem speakeasy. For the next fifteen years, she sang to loyal
audiences in the jazz clubs of Manhattan. In later years, she performed in New York City
at the Apollo Theater, the Metropolitan Opera House, Town Hall, and Carnegie Hall; she
appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and toured extensively in Europe and Scandinavia.
Holiday made her film debut in Symphony in Black (1935) with Duke Ellington’s
orchestra and later appeared with Louis Armstrong in New Orleans (1947).” (Rudolph
Byrd, Genreations in Black and White: Photographs by Carl Van Vetchen from the
James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1993)
In African religion, LeRoi Jones cites an old African dictum that states, “the
spirit will not descend without song” (Jones, LeRoi. Blues People. New York: William
Morrow, 1963. 81). As well, in Christio-Conjure, “through the text of a song, a
performer communicates personal knowledge of the meaning of Black survival in
America, and the contribution that religion has made to that survival.” (Mellonee Burnim.
“Biblical Inspiration, Cultural Affirmation: The African American Gift of Song” Ed.
Vincent L. Wimbish. African Americans and the Bible: Sacred Texts and Social
Textures. New York: Continuum, 2000. 614)
As noted in the introduction, according to Hurston, a “mounting” entails
possession by a divinity as experienced by Sassafrass, as opposed to possession by the
spirit of a deceased person, as experienced by Lena in Baby of the Family.
Blue Sunday, Rachel in Baby of the Family, and Sapphira in Mama Day all
function as “disappearing Africans,” a recurring “escape from slavery” motif in African
American folklore. In addition, since all three characters are represented as deceased,
they also function as spirits of subversive slave women.
Strandness further explains: “since the loa is not viewed as the spirit of an
individual, but as an ancestral spirit which can pass from generation to generation, it is
also conceivable that Aunt Haydee’s loa would transfer to Indigo, that Indigo would then
manifest the spirit of the wise woman who had been her mentor.” (Jean Strandness.
“Reclaiming Women’s Language, Imagery, and Experience: Ntozake Shange’s
Sassafrass, Cypress, & Indigo.” Journal of American Culture 10 (1987): 11-17. 15)
Chapter Six
Regarding the formation of Christio-Conjure in Gullah culture, Charles Joyner
contends that “the missionary efforts were an important source of Afro-Christianity
among slaves on the sea island of All Saints Parish. But the slaves did not simply adopt
the Christian God and his faith. In their efforts to establish a spiritual life for themselves,
they interpreted the elements of Christianity in terms of deep-rooted African cognitive
orientations. In stressing the significance of the African contribution to slave
Christianity, it would be a mistake to leave the impression that Africa was culturally
homogenous or that it bequeathed to its exiles in the New World a legacy of static
survivals. On the contrary, African religious expression was so diverse that borrowings
were common among various ethnic groups. Since slaves could no longer find anything
approximating the African context of their sacred cosmos, they worshipped their new
Christian God with the kind of expressive behavior their cultural heritage taught them
was appropriate for an important deity.” (Down by the Riverside, Joyner 159-60)
Jackson reports that “Sea island blacks have frequently owned their land since
the years before reconstruction. The people were very isolated from the mainstream
culture until recently, and they survived by developing a posture of self-sufficiency and
independence. The presence of black majority, the ownership of fertile lands since their
first awareness, and the isolation and independence have created a unique psyche for
blacks in the sea island area. Many of them have a fierce kind of pride and a lack of fear
which is seldom seen in other places.” (Jackson 160)
Loudell Snow argues that the “seventh son” legacy is a universal theme: “there
is a widespread belief that the seventh son sibling of the same sex, Seventh Sister or
Seventh Son (especially of a Seventh Son of a Seventh Son), has unusual abilities. This
idea seems to have appeared in Europe in the sixteenth century and is now found
worldwide. The most powerful West African gods were seven in number as well, and
appear in the New World as the Seven African Powers, or Spirits” (Loudell F. Snow
“Con Men and Conjure Men: A Ghetto Image.” Literature and Medicine (Fall 1983):
52). Examining “seventh son” legacy in Mama Day, Valerie Lee contends that “for
Mama Day to be the daughter of a seventh son of a seventh son is to acknowledge the
specialty of her family genealogy. Descended from the African, Sapphira, and fourteen
men with biblical names covering the Old and New Testaments, Mama Day’s stock is
solid.” (Lee 131-33)
The grand narrative of suffering—coupled with the presentation of ChristioConjure as a catalyst for emotional, psychological, and spiritual healing—is a more
striking theme in Voodoo Dreams and is treated extensively in chapter five.
[Christio]-Conjurers “were religious leaders in black communities, sacred
practitioners who personified discrete African religious practices in the New World,
passed on to succeeding generations with new meaning and significance. Mysterious,
marginal individuals, they possessed charismatic qualities that enabled them to divine the
future, heal by ritual means, and offer supernatural assurance and protection to those who
requested it.” (Chireau 51)
Valerie Lee critiques larger-than-life literary midwives like Shappira while
discussing the relationship between historical and literary black lay midwives; she notes,
“Before I began my own ethnographic work, I thought that African American women
writers were romanticizing the historical [black lay midwives] and folk healers. After all,
in [black women’s literature] the [black lay midwives] and women healers have
tremendous powers.[. . .] The literary women seem limited only by their authors’
creative imaginations. Yet after listening to the historical [black lay midwives] tell their
stories, I learned they have been complicit in the shaping of themselves as larger than
life, albeit unwittingly so. That is, however fabulous we read the writers’ fables, there
are equally extraordinary folk beliefs in the histories of the grannies. The granny’s
beliefs and her community’s beliefs helped shape her grandeur.” (Lee 101)
Clearly Naylor’s treatment of Sapphira can be classified as a neo-slave narrative.
Drawing a connection between the historical narratives and the literary narratives of
black lay midwives, Lee views the relationship through the lens of the neo-slave
narrative by observing that “the historical black lay midwives constructed and reconstructed their identities in ways that made it easy for their communities and the
literary writers to see them as larger than life.” She says “the black lay midwives’ stories
are formulaic enough to be neo-slave narratives.” (Lee 19)
The presentation of Sapphira in the novel as ruthless coincides with the biblical
character Sapphira who, in the Book of Acts, is punished for her hypocrisy: “This woman
and her husband withhold money for themselves that has been dedicated to the common
good. When Peter confronts her with her falsehood, she lies to him” and “falls down
dead.” (Edith Deen. All the Women of the Bible. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955,
213, original emphasis). An additional unsavory characterization linked to Naylor’s
Sapphira is the stereotype of the Sapphire, a term that not only denotes black color, but
also signals “the denigrating racial prototype of the emasculating black woman.” (Geneva
Smitherman. Talkin’ and Testifyin’: The Language of Black America. Detroit: Wayne
State U P, 1977, 68). In Mama Day, however, these disparaging characterizations are
ultimately redeemed as Sapphira, island liberator, is transformed into a deified goddess.
Further exposing the sexist and patriarchal facets of the Judeo-Christian tradition
and its culpability in the historical subjugation of women, Bolen asserts that “the
promised land of the Old Testament already belonged to goddess worshipping people.
The biblical prophets railed against the abominations of Asherah, Anath, and Ashtoreth,
these were goddesses and/or shrines to them.” Bolen also discusses contemptuous
depictions of the Judeo-Christian God who was considered “ignorant of his own mother,
in others. Yahweh is castigated for his arrogance and jealousy.” (Jean Shinoda Bolen.
Goddesses in Older Women: Archetypes in Women Over Fifty. New York: Harper
Collins, 2001, 39 & 43)
Honoring lay midwives, Lee outlines a distinction between biblical prophet
Moses—as an archetypal savior in African American folk culture—and the midwives
who served both the Israeli and Egyptian women in the Bible. She says, “in African
American culture preachers and politicians envisioned themselves as a type of Black
Moses leading their people from bondage to freedom, the black lay midwives rested
securely in the knowledge that Moses would not have lived had it not been for subversive
Hebrew midwives and a mother who refused to follow the laws of the land when those
laws conflicted with their spiritual beliefs. Because the Israelites were rapidly
multiplying, Pharaoh instructed senior midwives Shiphrah and Puah: ‘When ye do the
office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son,
then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter then she shall live.’ (Exodus 1:16). The
Egyptians needed the daughters as house servants, whereas the sons were potential
soldiers, fighting from within enemy territory. As threatening as a command from
Pharoah was, Shiphrah and Puah showed remarkable courage by defying the order.
Fearing God more than they feared Pharoah, the midwives did not kill the newborns,
claiming that pregnant Hebrew women, unlike Egyptian women, delivered quickly, so
quickly that the midwives, walking very slowly undoubtedly, could not get there on time.
God blessed the midwives, and stories of their courage helped many women, including
the mother of Moses, to resist when Pharoah issued a second command—that all boy
babies be thrown in the river ([Exodus 11:17-22] qtd. in Lee 80-81). Thus, “the
contribution of the midwives overshadows that of Moses, since without their fortitude he
would have been killed as an infant.” (Lee 81)
Regarding the historical role of black lay midwives in black women’s literature,
Lee says, “this history takes a distinctive twist when black women began to dominate
rural southern midwifery. This was a time when the black lay midwife’s phrase ‘catching
babies’ became ‘studying obstetrics,’ erupting cultural conflicts, the historical and
cultural contexts of the black lay midwives’ lives inform African American women’s
literature. Whereas feminist social scientists and medical persons have reclaimed nurse
midwifery, it has been left to African American women novelists to preserve the
language, lore, and learning of the black lay midwives.” (Lee 24)
Lee says Mama Day is “everybody’s mama” in the novel, and she assesses
Mama Day within the context of historical black lay midwives, asserting that “in their
respective communities” these “women were known for their social and political
activism. Perhaps the ordinary lives of [black lay midwives] become extraordinary in
fictional narratives because they have always been such in their communities. For her
Willow Springs community, Mama Day’s Miranda is both grandmother and grand
mother.” (Lee 19-20)
Further defining the relationship between conjure & medicine, Eugene
Genovese suggests that “the deeper meaning of the widespread use of folk medicine by
the slaves lay in its function as an agency for the transmission of black religious
sensibility into a defense against the psychological assaults of slavery and racial
oppression.” (Eugene Genovese. Roll Jordan Roll. New York: Vintage, 1976. 113)
Chapter Seven
According to Savina Teubal, “the biblical matriarch Hagar, like her biblical
counterpart Sarah, played a significant role in the genesis of Hebrew culture. Yet she has
been doomed to remain as simply an adjunct to the patriarch Abraham. According to the
biblical text Hagar, was Sarah’s handmaid, but most references describe her as
Abraham’s concubine. In Muslim tradition, Hagar is the mother of the Arabs, yet the
matriarch Hagar is never mentioned by name in the Qur’an, the Holy Book of Islam. She
is represented simply as the wife of the patriarch Abraham and the mother of Ishmael,
from whom the Arab peoples trace their descent. In her role as concubine, which is
tantamount to slave, Hagar’s raison d’être is the same as Sarah’s: to give sexual service
and provide offspring to Abraham. Both women were presumably capable of the former,
but Sarah was incapable of the latter. In effect then, and for a period of time, both
women enjoy comparable status—Sarah as the honored first wife, Hagar as the future
provider of a son and heir. The story of the ensuing relationship between the two women
is meant to reflect the powerlessness of a childless woman, the ascent in rank of a
pregnant one, and both women’s need for male approval of their status. The stories also
portray the two women as dependent on the male (god or man) to resolve their conflicts.
In Hagar the Egyptian, Teubal compares the life of Hagar as presented in the Genesis
narratives with the life of Sarah. She demonstrates that the matriarch Hagar was no more
a slave or concubine than Sarah was a conventional wife. Both the women have the
elevated status of being regarded as the ancestress of a people: Hagar as the mother of
Islam, Sarah as mother of the Hebrews.” (Savina Teubal. Hagar the Egyptian: The Lost
Tradition of the Matriarchs. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990. xiv-xv)
By introducing the character of the Unborn Child, Dash complicates the notion
of ancestor reverence by presenting the spirit of a family member who is yet born. Like
the spirits of the ancestors, the spirit of the Unborn Child also intercedes on behalf of the
living from the spiritual realm, and in this sense, functions in the same capacity as
deceased ancestors. In the film script Nana testifies, “[t]he ancestors and the womb [. . .]
they’re one, they’re the same.” The spirit of the Unborn Child confirms her greatgrandmother’s testimony by recalling Nana’s appeal to the spirit world; she concludes,
“Nana prayed for help. I got there just in time.” (Julie Dash. Daughters of the Dust: The
Making of an African American Woman’s Film. New York: The New Press, 1992. 94
and 99)
Dash identifies the significance of “the myth of the Ibo Landing, which helped
sustain the slaves, the people who were living in that region [. . .] Ibo captives, African
captives of the Ibo tribe, when brought to the New World, refused to live in slavery.
There are accounts of them having walked into the water, flown all the way back to
Africa. And then there is the story—the truth or the myth—of them walking into the
water and drowning themselves in front of the captors. I was able, in my research, to
read some of the accounts from the sailors who were on the ship when supposedly it
happened, and a lot of the shipmates, the sailor or other crew members, had nervous
breakdowns watching this. Watching the Ibo men and women and children in shackles,
walking into the water and holding themselves under the water until they in fact drowned.
And then interestingly enough, in my research, I found that almost every Sea Island has a
little inlet, or a little area where the people say, ‘This is Ibo Landing. This is where it
happened. This is where this thing really happened.’ And so, why is it that on every
little island—and there are so many places—people say, ‘This is actually Ibo Landing?’
It’s because that message is so strong, so powerful, so sustaining to the tradition of
resistance, by any means possible, that every Gullah community embraces this myth. So
I learned that myth is very important in the struggle to maintain a sense of self and to
move forward into the future.” (Dash 29-30)
bell hooks contends that history for Viola begins not with what has happened in
the slave past or what is happening on the islands, but at that moment of crossover. And
in that sense, she represents a kind of premodern figure for me, because she’s the one that
says, essentially: “When we cross over to the mainland we are going to have culture.”
That’s capital-C culture, if she had her way, she would strip the past of all memory and
would replace it only with markers of what she takes to be the new civilization. In this
way Christianity became the hidden force of colonialism. The film really touched upon
the question of domestic colonization and how black people, like Haagar and like Viola
internalized a sense of what culture is.” (Dash 37-38)
For black female writers who envision their work as didactic, the merger of
activism and scholarship operates in contrast to structuralism’s attempt to derive meaning
from form as well as post-structuralism’s assertion that the author is dead. Patricia Hill
Collins discusses the merger of activism and scholarship in black women’s writing,
noting that contemporary black women intellectuals continue to draw on the tradition of
using everyday actions and experiences in their theoretical work. She discusses bell
hooks’ experience working as an operator at the telephone company while writing Ain’t I
a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981). The women she worked with wanted her
to “write a book that would make [their] lives better, one that would make other people
understand the hardships of being black and female” (1989, 152). To hooks, “it was
different [. . .] writing in a context where [her] ideas were not seen as separate from real
people and real lives.” (qtd. in Patricia Hill Collins. Black Feminist Thought:
Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge,
1991. 152)
By being accountable to others, African-American women develop more fully
human, less objectified selves. Sonia Sanchez points to this version of self by stating,
“we must move past always focusing on the ‘personal self’ because there’s a larger self.
There’s a ‘self’ of black people. Rather than defining self in opposition to others, the
connectedness among individuals provides black women deeper, more meaningful selfdefinition.” (Collins 105-06)
The legacy of struggle is a core theme in black women’s writing. Katie Cannon
observes that “throughout the history of the United States, the interrelationship of white
supremacy and male superiority has characterized the black woman’s reality as a
situation of struggle—struggle to survive in two contradictory worlds simultaneously,
one white, privileged, and oppressive, the other black, exploited, and oppressed.” In spite
of differences created by historical era, age, social class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity,
the legacy of struggle against racism and sexism is a common thread binding AfricanAmerican women” (Collins 22). The roles of artist, scholar, and critic do not offer
protection against such forms of oppression. In fact, on a personal and professional level,
black female artists and scholars share these same concerns.
According to Collins, “[t]hrough the process of rearticulation, black women
intellectuals offer African-American women a different view of themselves and their
world from that forwarded by the dominant group. By taking the core themes of a black
women’s standpoint and infusing them with new meaning, Black women intellectuals can
stimulate a new consciousness that utilizes Black women’s everyday, taken-for-granted
knowledge. Rather than raising consciousness, black feminist thought affirms and
rearticulates consciousness that already exists. More important, this rearticulated
consciousness empowers African-American women and stimulates resistance.” (Collins
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Laura Sams Haynes is a native of Jacksonville, Florida.
She received her
Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Florida State University in 1990, Master of Arts
degree in English from Clark Atlanta University in 1995, and defended her dissertation
for a doctorate in English from Louisiana State University in March 2002. She lives in
Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and one-year-old daughter and teaches humanities at
Clark Atlanta University.

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