Matter, Magic, and Spirit

Matter, Magic, and Spirit explores the ways religious and magical beliefs of Native Americans and African Americans have been represented in a range of discourses including anthropology, comparative religion, and literature.

Matter, Magic, and Spirit
Representing Indian and African American Belief

David Murray

2007 | 224 pages | Cloth $59.95
Religion | Anthropology | Literature
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Hierarchies of Race and Religion: Fetish, Totemism, Manitou, and Conjure
Chapter 2. Superstition and Progress
Chapter 3. Primitivism, Modernism, and Magic
Chapter 4. Black Arts: Conjure and Spirit
Chapter 5. The Return of the Fetish


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


This book is about material objects and the belief in their nonmaterial powers. It is also about race, and the ways in which the discourses and hierarchies of race have intersected with those of magic and religion. In particular, it is concerned with those distinctive conjunctions of racial and religious categories that have linked and divided Native Americans, African Americans, and whites in America. In the first part of the book I trace in some detail the ways in which certain forms of belief were ascribed to particular races prior to the twentieth century, and what this reflected about the changing beliefs of white Americans. In the second half, I move into the twentieth century and focus on the ways in which some African American and Native American writers and artists have dealt with traditional beliefs in the context of these prevailing discourses, and the implicit hierarchies of matter and spirit that come with them. So the book is addressing several large and rather separate bodies of scholarship on Native Americans and African Americans, but with two distinctive and unusual angles of approach, which are closely related throughout the book. The first angle is an attempt to deal comparatively with Indians and African Americans, and specifically their beliefs, and the second challenges the very common invocation of spirituality as an unexamined and privileged concept in relation to these groups.

While there is a huge range of materials on Native American and African American beliefs, there are remarkably few attempts to deal with them together or comparatively. Their very different histories and cultures do militate against this, and there are real methodological difficulties in trying to do so. One difficulty is knowing how far we are comparing like with like in dealing with religious or magical practices, given not only the different contexts but also the different methodological and ideological lenses through which the practices have been seen and represented. Another is trying to locate examples of the interaction and mixing of practices and beliefs when racial terminologies obscure the degree of actual mixing and blending of the races. There are also political implications in assuming a position from which to make the comparison at all. Recent postcolonial critical accounts of the comparativist method in general have sometimes viewed it as a totalizing gesture that organizes similarities and differences within an overall framework or overview that is available only to the supposedly objective outsider. To the degree that this overview relies on knowledge gained, for instance, by colonial structures of power, it replicates that political situation of inequality. The claims that are implicit within many comparativist enterprises for the existence of universal or underlying values could then also be seen as suspect, in the same ways that some larger Enlightenment claims for universality may be suspect—namely that they may incorporate ethnocentric Western values, which are simply assumed to be universal. According to this critique, the comparativist impulse, rather than decentering the West, always comes back to reconfirming a center, or an overall intellectual structure established by that center.

I hope what follows avoids this pitfall, if only because one fundamental theme of the book is the way that the dominant American culture has used other groups to understand and justify its own place and changing beliefs. My aim is to show a triangulation of beliefs, or rather of representations of those beliefs, that undermines the position of privileged observer claimed by whites, even while my own skeptical approach could perhaps be said ultimately to reinscribe an overall Enlightenment authority—a point to which I shall inevitably return. My argument is that at key points in the past the assumption that different races had very different capacities and qualities has meant that they have been conceptualized and treated differently, in what might be called a differential racism in America, and that this remains a real issue. The different political and legal status of Indians and African Americans was often reflected, or paralleled, in the assertion of a clear distinction between the mental and spiritual capacities of the two races. This distinction was not always explicit but operated differentially, and I want to argue that, for instance, much of the theorization of the so-called primitive, which tends to concentrate on Indians in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, needs to be seen in relation to African Americans, even when—and perhaps especially when—they are absent from the discussion.

It is instructive, though, to look at the way earlier theorizations and representations of the spiritual capacities of different races developed in the particular circumstances of America. The existence in America of successive generations of newly arrived Africans and a wide range of Native American societies presented white observers with the opportunity for comparative observation of both racial difference and the processes of cultural change and adaptation, but what is noticeable is how little of this we find recorded. Thus, while we have masses of contemporary accounts of Indian religions (and considerably fewer of African American practices and beliefs), we have very few that either bring them together for discussion or record any cultural interchange or borrowing. This lack of contemporary observations is perhaps one of the reasons for a corresponding shortage of later critical commentary that brings together Indian and African Americans comparatively or deals with the mixing of cultures and races. For a long time, where it was to be found at all, academic interest in the mixing of races was more likely to be in folklore studies, or in work on African Americans, as in the Journal of Negro History, than in works on Native Americans, though this has certainly begun to change quite radically.

Jon Butler, who has traced the stages in the development of African American Christianity, has noted the scarcity of comment on slave religion from colonists, in contrast to the interest shown in Indian religion. Writing of Jefferson he points out that "the philosopher who otherwise took an interest in 'natural' religion and mined both the classics and the New Testament to uncover universal religious precepts wrote nothing about slave religion." One reason for this, which I will be developing in the first chapter, is the early characterization of Africans as a sort of zero point in the development of religion, so that there seemed to be simply nothing to write about, whereas Indians were seen as having recognizable and distinct beliefs that corresponded in varying degrees with what was recognized by Europeans as religion.

One of the very few early instances where Indian and African spiritual capacities are explicitly dealt with together is from William Knox, in his advice to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in 1768. This is a plea for more action in America to convert both groups, but Knox is unusually explicit about how the Christian teaching should be tailored to match the capacities and situations of the target group. He characterizes the Indians as "vagrant in their manner of life, without social intercourse," and stresses their individualist and war-like character. One of the obstacles to their conversion is that they already have well-defined beliefs. "[W]ere they only ignorant of our religion, their natural good sense would give hopes of their imbibing its doctrines, so soon as they were properly explained and set before them; but the misfortune is, that they are not only ignorant of it, but what they do know, and are taught, is diametrically opposite to the doctrines of christianity."

With unusual clarity, Knox distinguishes between the Protestant missionaries who confronted the Indians head-on, ridiculing their "talismans, and at once exhort[ing] them to cease to be Indians," and the Roman Catholics, who used their medical knowledge and would "soon get the Indians to trust more in their talismans for their cure, than in their own." Thus the Catholic missionary "becomes the Indian conjurer, before he discloses his purpose," which is to show "Christ Jesus the great conjurer." Knox is in fact unimpressed by this tactic, because he sees it as producing people who see Christ as just a benefactor to mankind, rather than as "their redeemer." In other words, he sees this as catering to a pragmatic belief in magic and its efficacy, rather than in religion. Indians, in his view, have a set of beliefs, and the question is how to supplant them. By contrast, the Africans are for him simply a blank, a tabula rasa.

The quick sagacity of the Indian keeps him aloof from every effort to convert
him. The dull stupidity of the Negroe [sic] leaves him without any desire for
instruction. Whether the creator originally formed these black people a little
lower than other men, or that they have lost their intellectual powers through
disuse I will not assume the province of determining; but certain it is, that
a new Negroe [i.e., newly imported] is a complete definition of indolent stupidity,
nor could a more forcible means be employed for the conversion of a deist,
than setting one of these creatures before him as an example of a man in a
state of nature unbiassed by revelation or education.
For Knox this does not justify giving up on missionary work, but it does reflect the wider refusal to see anything that took place in Africa as falling within the category of religion. In general, commentators on African Americans, unless they comment on their Christianity, either assume a complete spiritual absence, as we find in Knox, or more commonly give a disgusted recital of the elements of what they call fetish worship, a topic I deal with extensively in the first chapter. We can also find this pattern expressed in popular fiction by the nineteenth century. For example, in Joseph Holt Ingraham's Lafitte, the Pirate of the Gulf, which is set in the Caribbean and in New Orleans, we find in successive chapters differing characterizations of primitive religion along racial lines. A party of white sailors encounters an Indian mound locally known as "The Temple," and they are moved to speculate on the sun worship that they believe the Indians of the past practiced. "Next to the invisible God—whom they knew not—in their child-like ignorance, and with the touching poetry, which seems to have been the soul of the Indian's nature, they sought out that, alone of all His works, which most gloriously manifested Himself to his created intelligences. How infinitely is this pure emblem above the stocks and stones of the civilized idolaters of old Greece and Rome."

The Indians worship something beyond the earthly, and their nature worship here seems closer to Christianity than to much other idol worship and fetishism. In contrast are the Africans in the book. The captain has a slave, Cudjoe, who has a pocket, or bag, that is a sort of "Pandora's box" containing "a heterogeneous display of broken pipes, chicken breast-bones, beads, ebony hearts, broken dirk-knobs, charmed relicks, and spells against obeahs, fetahs, and melay men." We also hear of an old African woman practicing Obeah using the beak of a parrot that had been "taught to speak the three magic names of Fetish" and "a little red bag filled with grave dirt, and tied up with the hair of a murdered woman." The Indians, in addition to being firmly in the past, are presented as well on their way to religion, whereas the Africans and African Americans are strictly limited to superstition and magic—and are also, of course, very much still present.

Clearly these are isolated instances, which can offer only a snapshot of attitudes, but my point is that we are in fact restricted to such glimpses if we want to find comparisons actually being made. White missionaries and preachers, who might be counted on to be interested in the beliefs that they are contesting, offer very little help, since the missionaries are largely focused on Indians, and in general preachers and missionaries have little to say on African American beliefs, beyond dismissing them as superstition. One intriguing area of potential interest is the few instances of cross-racial encounters between Indians and African American preachers. John Stewart of Virginia, for instance, was the child of free blacks who were Baptists. Having met Delaware and Wyandott Indians, he preached to them via another African American, Jonathan Pointer, who had been taken prisoner by them and spoke the language. He encountered problems from whites, who thought he was a runaway slave, and from Indians, who rejected his message, saying they had their system of religion given by their own God, or "Great Spirit." One of his opponents, Mononcue, or Two Logs, "would sometimes tell the people that it was really derogatory to their character, to have it said, that they had a Negro for their preacher, as that race of people was always considered inferior to Indians. 'The Great Spirit,' said he, 'never created Negroes, they were created by the Evil Spirit.'" Stewart's response is that there is only one God, who created all races, and there is only one true religion for them all. His response reflects the hope that religion would supersede race, and in fact being Christian does seem to have been seen by some African American converts as an identity that enabled mobility and transcended race—though whether their white fellow Christians or the Indians shared their view is less clear.

Certainly many Indian converts remained intensely aware that Christianity in practice hardly disturbed racial categories, but there is little evidence about how the different groups viewed each others' beliefs or made common cause. The Pequot William Apess does represent a particularly complex but rare instance. Married to a woman of African as well as Native American descent whom he describes simply as "a woman of nearly the same colour as myself," he performs a brilliant extended play upon the idea of whiteness and color in his writings. Though recent research such as that on Apess has continued to suggest the many forms of creative adaptation by and between Indians and African Americans that were actually taking place, these changes were rendered pretty much invisible to contemporary white observers, because of the restricted and reductive categories available to them. They recognized only religion or paganism and superstition, and while Indian practices might have been visible as something comparable to religion—and by the end of the nineteenth century even Africans could be seen as having a spiritual system underlying and informing their material practices—there could be no question of extending this to African American beliefs other than Christianity.

The case of Apess and his political activism does point, though, to a developing theme in this book, which is the relation between spiritual/magical belief and political consciousness and action. Here again there are marked imbalances in the material available to us. The importance of Christian spiritual beliefs in inhibiting or empowering black liberation movements has been extensively discussed, and more recently attention has been paid to the role of conjure and voodoo in slave rebellions. On the Indian side there has been extensive work on the Ghost Dance and revitalization movements, and more recently on the political resonances of the various adaptations of Christianity. I will be dealing with all these elements, but what is much more difficult is to find ways of talking about these often- contemporaneous phenomena in any meaningful relation to each other. What would happen, for instance, if we tried to adapt the language of anthropology and talked of African American beliefs and actions in terms of revitalization movements, or Ghost Dances? Or if we tried to compare or assess just what sort of claims for practical as opposed to symbolic efficacy are being made for conjure bags or medicine bundles? The general dangers of a comparative approach outlined above are compounded by the inevitable Native American suspicion that such an approach would seem to deny their unique legal and political position, which makes their politics incommensurable with that of other groups, and a more widespread suspicion that such an approach might trivialize the specificities of each group's historical situation. As the book develops, these themes gradually develop, to come to some sort of focus in the final chapter.

If one distinctive point of focus in the book is on the conjunction of races, another is on objects and their power. What would it mean to believe that an object had nonmaterial power? I begin the book by focusing on this issue in Chapter 1 because in many ways it has long been at the uncomfortable intersection between magic and religion. According to James G. Frazer's eventual codification of what was becoming an accepted, if implicit, narrative of human progress by the end of the nineteenth century, human beings began with magic and progressed to religion and science, as they developed their ability to explain the world. Different races and their beliefs were charted across this schema, in which worshipping an object was seen as the lowest form of ignorance and superstition and was diametrically opposed both to the "higher" religions, like Christianity, and to scientific reason. Whereas a magical view confused material and nonmaterial causes, religion and science in their different ways gradually divided the realms of matter and spirit and found a modus vivendi. This was the theory, but the problem, as I will show, was that Frazer's convenient categories persistently failed to hold, and what was being dismissed as magic simply refused to go away.

The idea that "primitive" people believed in magic and superstition, as opposed to either the more elevated belief in spiritual power represented by Christianity or the scientific belief in strictly material causality, played an important part in maintaining the hierarchies of race, and one key idea in early theorizations of what came to be called primitive belief was that of fetishism. In Chapter 1 I begin by tracing the complex history and changing uses of this term before focusing on North America and the nature and treatment of Indian and African American beliefs. What were seen as irrational or superstitious beliefs (in fetishes, charms, medicine bundles, ghosts, and the occult) were systematically disowned and consigned to the primitive, and usually racially categorized, mind—and yet such neat categories were consistently breaking down, as the persistence of the idea of the fetish, and its changing associations suggests. Not only did irrational beliefs continue to haunt the white society that had supposedly moved beyond them, but such beliefs often involved an intimate and ambivalent or unresolved relation to Indians and African Americans, those racial groups to whom these practices were dismissively consigned. In Chapter 2, therefore, I focus on the importance of superstition and magic, even as it was being disowned and identified with "lower" races, in the writings of late nineteenth-century America.

The fascination with primitivism in the early twentieth century provided ways in which a whole range of exotic objects and beliefs could become grist to white artists' mills. In Chapter 3 I outline some Modernist treatments of African American and Indian belief, and Modernism's relation to anthropology, before moving on to a detailed account of Zora Neale Hurston's work on conjure and Voodoo, as a key instance of the conjunction of many different discourses of magic, aesthetics, and ethnography.

In the final two chapters I continue with this emphasis, exploring how some contemporary Native American and African American writers and artists have dealt with questions of magic, spiritual power, and belief. This involves looking both at what they are drawing upon from their own cultures and histories and at the wider discursive fields of literature and art in which their work also inevitably circulates and takes on meaning. The degree of reevaluation and celebration of previously discredited and ignored traditional practices is striking, and it provides a rich vein for contemporary artists and writers. But any use of conjure or traditional ceremonies and spiritual practices also operates in a complex and potentially uncomfortable area, which overlaps with the widespread and popular discourses of spirituality often lumped together as New Age. The universalizing assumptions implicit in New Age appeals to a common and translatable spirituality sit uncomfortably, for instance, with Native American writers' and artists' sense of cultural and spiritual property, so that the various invocations of spirituality need to be disentangled.

Those Enlightenment thinkers who looked forward to an era of rational thought and secular values and saw irrational beliefs as something to be outgrown would no doubt be surprised and disappointed at the strong persistence of belief in magic and religion in America. They would perhaps be even more disappointed at the popularity not just of organized religions but of a whole range of objects claiming to have magical or spiritual power, such as New Age crystals and charms, which they might call fetishes. Furthermore, their hope that what they saw as the superstitious and backward beliefs of the African American and Indian peoples of the time would give way to more rational ones as they became more like the civilized whites would be dashed by the widespread and positive use made of traditional religious and spiritual beliefs in much of the most ambitious and powerful African American and Indian literature and art.

With hindsight it is perhaps easy enough to see the limitations of the Enlightenment trust in reason, and the ways in which the universal values that it asserted were underpinned by ethnocentric and Eurocentric assumptions. Similarly, we can now see the pitfalls of categorizing other races and their mental and moral capacities according to European standards and values, which were falsely assumed to be universal. As a result, any questioning of belief, or any skepticism about the claims made for magico-religious practices, can run up against the charge of using inappropriate Western models of causality or efficacy. Nevertheless, in what follows I want to take the risk of approaching contemporary as well as past discourses of spirituality with something of this skepticism. My approach throughout the book is to question the oppositions of matter and spirit and in particular to challenge the hierarchies of value that accompany these ideas. This entails maintaining a skeptical approach to many of the terms, regardless of who is using them. It means, for instance, exploring whether the word "spiritual" could in many instances be replaced with a different term from another register altogether, such as the psychological or aesthetic. To put it another way, I have tried to maintain a materialist approach to claims for supernatural or spiritual power, and I use the complex reevaluations of such ideas by writers like Nathaniel Mackey and Leslie Silko to help me to do so. In the later sections, where I deal with Native American and African American writers and artists, such a radically skeptical approach may be seen as an act of dismissal coming from a position of implicit (white) critical superiority—the return of an Enlightenment superiority, with all its Eurocentric limitations. My assumption, though, is that in order to take a fresh look at what is too often taken on trust under the protected category of the spiritual, this is a risk worth taking.