We at the Academic Hoodoo are inspired by arts and technologies that revalue Africana Religions, whether they are in Africa, the U.S., Haiti, Brazil, or anywhere else in the world. Black religion is a global phenomenon. We redeem our venerable traditions from the degrading and contemptible tropes of Voodoo that once demonized and insulted Africana faiths. The genius of black spiritual traditions are only comprehended by those who come without prejudice and judgment. Here we recall the past in a different way from how it has been given to us. Time is a loop. Everything old is new again. What goes around comes around. What follows are a series of pictures from a speculative history of Conjure. These are enhanced photographs that are just as magical as the precognitive speculations of those ancestor beings who saw deeply and fully into past, present, and future, scanning the roads upon which all Souls travel, at the threshold of the Kalunga Line. Again and again, we recall, recollect, and reimagine black lives on the eternal spiral, returning back to our Divine Selves.
Noted Conjure Women from the 19th and 21st centuries
We aren’t sure whether it was Shakespeare or Mark Twain who coined the phrase “the clothes make the man” but it is true that clothing makes an obvious declaration of one’s status in Africana religions. I see the relationship between head covering and spirituality as demonstrative of how people articulate inner commitments, using outward forms. In a world that casts them as ugly ignoble and nonhuman, black men and women have crafted beauty, dignity, and self-respect according to their own aesthetic ideals. Now normally, we hear religion and head covering and think of the classic women’s clothing artifact in African American Christianity, the Sunday church hat. Extravagant, elegant, the grand custom of wearing Sunday go-to-meeting hats is acknowledged in a curated collection from the Philadelphia milliner Mae Reeves at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This magnificent homage bears witness to female ministers, mothers, saints, and other woman exemplars in black faith traditions whose dress practices emphasize finery as a unique devotional expression.
Of course, it is not only within Christian churches that we find such crowning glory. Traditions of hat-wearing encompass diverse religions, from Islam and Judaism to the many African-derived spiritualities that black people favor. So, to be clear, this not about your Mama’s church hats. In fact, looking at the ways that black men have donned hats as markers of religious virtue permits us to shift the focus away from sartorial practices that we ordinarily associate with women. And why not? Black men have always been connoisseurs in the realms of fashion. In contemporary spaces we note the rise of the Dandy Lion – framed as a masculine street aesthetic and vibrant ghetto cosmopolitanism – a move that showcases men of color as eminently dapper and proudly diasporic. I would argue that the black Dandy’s self-conscious internationalizing of local style counters the notion of “the cosmopolitan” as belonging solely to a global aristocratic elite.
And so what if we situate male fashion within a matrix that incorporates African, Asian, European, and American design, hip hop sensibilities, and queer identities? While black men have historically sported wraps, kuffias, fezzes, and turbans without comment, I want to argue that the hat says something more. The hat is where spirituality joins together, in novel articulations, with identity and performance. But what does it mean?
Viewed in a larger context, it is readily apparent that men’s fashion tastes can be as fancy as women’s. Consider the sheer variety of clothing embraced by black male leaders in their public roles. From the fabulous uniforms worn by Marcus Garvey in parades and majestic pageants celebrating pan-African greatness, to the impeccable regalia of the Fruit of Islam, the men’s society of the African American Muslims, male headwear denotes martial discipline and nationalist pride. Again, the handsome apparel of the Nation of Islam is exquisitely preserved in the collections of the African American Museum, highlighting the resonances between costuming and religion. Of course, in some African-based sacred traditions we see that dressing the head literally clothes the embodied Spirit, as with this possession ceremony with the Nago captain and military general Ogou, a venerated loa from the religion of Haitian Vodou. Less well known are the ways that headwear has historically served vital purposes in cultivating racial affect for black American male religious leaders and teachers. Take the fez, for example, a dress accoutrement originally associated with fraternal orders. Although it typified a costume vogue in lodges and secret societies during the early twentieth century, eventually the fez would be visually linked to black Islam. An accessory worn by “dark skinned people” as a sign of nobility, its geometrically conical shape was said to resemble a unfinished pyramid, the signifying mystical figure of Freemasonry. So black Muslims gloss the fez in a saying that goes: “as a pyramid houses wisdom, so the fez houses wisdom in the brain.” Seen here, Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple, wore a fez in accordance with his own interpretations of Islamic theology, with which he integrated ideas from Freemasonry, New Thought, and Hermeticism.
Dressing the head in alignment with their values and beliefs appealed to black men who found meaning in racialized understandings of religion promoted by leaders like Noble Drew Ali. Hats became powerful emblems for male religious during the period of the Great Migration, when millions of black Americans from the southern states, as well as Africans, Caribbean immigrants, and others, entered the cities of the North and Midwest and discovered alternatives to the theological and social norms of Protestant Christianity. In so doing they asserted declarations of selfhood and citizenship that repudiated conventional racial classifications; they professed identities that challenged the denigration of their bodies and souls; they adopted mythologies that they believed revealed their true, divinely established origins; and they declared themselves to be Moors instead of blacks, Muslims instead of Negroes, and Hebrews and Hindus instead of coloreds and niggers – no longer bereft of God’s favor, without claim to history or spiritual lineage. Later, as leader of the largest African American Muslim organization in the United States, the Honorable Elijah Muhummad carried the tradition of fashioning the head with the fez as a signature style (also seen here with his inestimable jewel-studded kofia). When worn by the prophet, the hat displays regal power and prestige and authorizes prosperity for the entire community. Such themes would translate broadly into the ideologies of economic self-determination for which the Nation of Islam was well known.
Much like the fez, the turban became an inspiration for black men who sought access to sacred truths while reimagining their religious associations within the global community. In contrast with the fez, the turban was associated with the dress of adepts of initiatory religions like Theosophy, Occult Science, or, in the case of Rabbi Arnold Ford – a prominent linguist, poet, and musician for the UNIA – African American Judaism and its complementary strains in the black Israelite and Hebrew traditions. The turn to the turban draws our attention to the profound theological conduits by which Africana mystics affirmed transnational identities, be they Moorish, Ethiopian, or Egyptian. To be sure, this kind of synthesis was a feature of black religious pluralism in the early twentieth century. Turbans also became more visible as Americans looked to Eastern-inspired sacred traditions for new avenues of cultural consumption. But African American Orientalism was conceived with different intentions. In the first half of the twentieth century, black political and social thought was imbued with international currents, with turban-wearing race men like Ford, Sufi Abdul Hamid, and Robert T. Browne reshaping dominant religious discourses to suit their own activist ambitions. Their deployment of Orientalist tropes cohered with a fascination with the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, seen by most Americans as distant, exotic geographies that overflowed with precious raw materials for acquisition and plunder by the imperial west. Yet for Africana religious thinkers, these were the lands and ancient sites which provided the mythic sources and intellectual traditions by which aspirants probed esoteric mysteries, delved into holy texts, and evoked the hidden knowledge that would illuminate the past glory and greatness of a people. The black encounter with Orientalism was also linked to formations of nationalism and the emergence of fledgling independence movements that championed solidarity and pride amongst the darker races of the world. Drawing from disparate sources, black male religious circulated esoteric ideas they believed were accessible only to those righteous seekers who divined the occult secrets that would provide viable blueprints for racial ascension. In time the turban would be deftly coopted by a new variety of cultural innovators, many of whom sported decorative turbans in order to dismantle normative perceptions of African American manhood. Immaculate and exotic, the turbaned male provided a striking contrast to racist and stereotypical images of black men in the United States. With its lavish foreignness, the turban was also a useful tool of cultural dissimulation. The celebrity keyboardist and 1950s Hollywood lounge star Korla Pandit, for example, who successfully posed as an India-born virtuoso, was discovered only after his death in fact to have been black/American-born. It was not uncommon for stage entertainers to reinvent themselves after fictive conceptions of Indian mysticism, assuming flamboyant guises as “Hindoos” and religious fakirs, swamis, and yogis, while others repurposed Oriental styles in strategic acts of passing, appropriating the turban as a subversive symbol of racial hybridity and ethnic boundary-crossing. The audacious pretense of racial and religious imposters was an open secret among early twentieth century storefront Voodoo spiritualists and fortunetellers; and for many others, the allure of the turban was too good to pass up. Imaginary figurations of East Indian costumes and rituals, spurious as they were, impressed African American Conjure merchants, who blurred the lines between spectacle and subterfuge in their promotion of magical products and supernatural commodities, like so many fabulous fakes. Yet and still, flagrant borrowing, plagiarism, and outright theft was considered de rigueur, consistent with the ways of trickery and illusion that became part and parcel of the commercial branding of African American occultism, including what Katrina Hazzard-Donald calls “marketeered Hoodoo.” Nevertheless, as a preferred mode of adornment for black males in vernacular sacred traditions, the popularity of the turban underscores the flexibility with which presentations of race, identity, and culture were defined and redefined by those who were seemingly unbothered by mundane questions of doctrinal purity.
The vitality of the fez and the turban as meaningful attire reminds us of how religion can be embodied in ways that render theologies legible for those who are able to see and comprehend them. As African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century forged collective agendas for their advancement by engaging in vigorous political and social debate, we should never forget that their perspectives were embedded within a wide spectrum of spiritual views and visions. Their ways of dressing the head may be rightly understood as inspiredacts of self-expression. By the end of the century, many of these black male leaders and performers would be consigned to obscurity, and African Americans would continue to wrestle with the implications of nationalism, masculinity, and the meanings of blackness in an emerging post-colonial age, in which romantic racial mythologies and religious parochialism were often at odds with the norms of secular discourse and the subjective ethics of identity. Earnest participants in conversations about the future, black males often donned hats to make individual statements of personal conscience. And so, in the wearing, their hats were talismanic, evocative, emphatic. They invite us to consider other sartorial trends within black religion, not only from the familiar realms of the Christian faith, but also in Islam, Judaism, occultism, and the myriad branches of African tradition in the diaspora and beyond. Well, then. Hats off to both the fez and the turban, and the depiction of these fine accessories enjoyed by so many black men, worn in relentless service to their race, their religions, and their implacable devotion to the elevation of a people.
Special thanks to Philip Deslippe and Jake Dorman for their brilliant work uncovering this field of inquiry for me.
Some remarkable images made their way around the digital space this week. Aficionados of black religion will immediately recognize these extraordinary renderings of the popular divinities in Brazil that are known as orixas. Worshipped throughout the Americas but especially beloved in Bahia, the orixas (called òrìsàs in Yoruba) first arrived in the western hemisphere during the 16th century, having secreted themselves in the hearts of enslaved black people, hidden but everlasting passengers in the long transatlantic crossing of Africans into the New World. Brilliantly conceived by artist Hugo Canuto, here the orixas are envisioned as fantastic avatars whose extravagant force and primordial energy are represented in images that pay homage to the kinesthetic stylings of legendary comics artist Jack Kirby. Similar to the rishis of India, it is said that these beings first appeared to humanity during the eternal time before written history. Distant emissaries of Light, the orisas brought knowledge to gods and kings, descended from heaven and deigned to reside in splendid fluorescent cities. Otherworldly yet eminently cosmopolitan, they took up earthly residence in locations that brought forth the great civilizations of West Africa. Ile-Ife! Oyo! Eligibo! Fluorescent cities indeed. Clothed in matter, these majestic entities dwelled in resplendence, bearing royal emblems and sigils by which they enacted the elemental principles of divine presence on this planet: Creation, Water, Wisdom, Justice, Thunder, War, Fire, Air. There are twelve orixas in Canuto’s dazzling recasting of these cosmic luminaries, but unlike the inhabitants of Kirby’s own Fourth World series of The New Gods, these gods are not new at all. The orisas show themselves right here, right now, through an essential energy called àse, the power-to-make-things-happen. As personifications of the One, the orisas appear continuously in hierophanies and ritual performances, and they are embraced by millions of adherents, even as they efface boundaries between liminal and profane space-time to become some of the most fabulous religious celebrities in contemporary Brazil, Cuba, Nigeria, and even the United States. How is it possible? To better understand we look to an ancient technology that scholars have euphemistically termed spirit possession. The phrase refers to an arcane process of manifestation, mysterious to outsiders, that utilizes sound and color to instill complex vibrational patterns by which these intelligent and benevolent powers activate within physical form. Spirit possession is something of a science that requires the artist’s imagination, the dancer’s stamina, and the individual’s selfless integrity in order to enable an orisa to occupy a human body. And while only committed adepts and priests are deemed worthy of this sublime blessing, it exists primarily for the benefit of the greater community. Look at this video of orixa trance possessions in a Candomble ceremony, in which the deities “mount” human vessels in a magnificent spectacle of drumming and movement. True virtuosi, religious initiates and mediums privilege the act of embodying Spirit as their service to humanity. And as we see throughout the black Atlantic world, whether in Afro-Christian Spiritual Churches or with Haitian Vodouisants, Africana religions elevate their celebration of embodiment to the status of a sacrament. This is to say that the incarnation of Spirit may be considered a kind of sacred magic, an action of profound significance, and not to be trifled with by dilettantes, those who are selfish, or those who are insincere.
In his graphic novel American Gods Neil Gaiman creates the United States as a place where forgotten and abandoned deities subsist in the desolate shadows of a darkened spiritual landscape, hungry for reverence and the satisfaction of human devotion. Not so in African America, where one needs only to look to the resplendent cities at the center of the world where the orisas return time and again to grace the earth and its people. For it is true that every sacred center is transformed into a microcosmic city when divine consciousness organizes physical and temporal space according to its unique vision. Where a pageant of black gods dances into the present – kings, queens, warriors, sages, storytellers, and doctors – each is welcomed with song and salutation appropriate to their purpose. And though it may be a mystery to those who will not enter these realms, for others it is a prerogative of magic and faith. The familiar Christian saga tells how God took on the burden of flesh in order to save humans from their own perishable existence. But what of gods who take form so as to make the human body divine? Such is the inspiration and power of the sacred life, where the deities come to earth to be with us, and to be us, at least for a little while. Inhabiting the body of the devotee, the orisas become as human and as divine as we are, in a brief moment. It is often stated that orisas are “mythological,” and that they only exist in made-up worlds that are not “real.” Still, we see that their real meaning is more than a fairy tale, a fantasy, or a legend; it is an expression of celestial sensibilites in earthly awareness; it is grounding and anchoring a certainty that skepticism and doubt can’t erode; it is the hope and the dream of the slave, and it is the recollection and memory of ancestral Africa. And it is not only through literature and art that we can experience narratives of celestial visitation, for such great spiritual wealth rewards our understanding through living teachings of morality and healing. May Spirit bring us to the shared pathway to eternity, by the recapitulation of constant creation that joins heaven and earth in our divine residence, orun aiye.
I am grateful to the artist for permission to reproduce these images. For more Orixa-inspired comics available for purchase go to HugoCanuto.com
Content warning: this post is illustrated with offensive images from an unusual Golden-Age comic book that may disturb.
When I turned back to writing about comics, I couldn’t stop thinking of magic, religion, and race, three interconnected topics I can’t seem to get enough of. It’s all so very fraught, but it is very interesting, too. I have spent the past few years tracking down every Voodoo-themed plot and image in every Voodoo-themed comic that I can get my hands on. Why? I wanted to deconstruct the mythology of Voodoo, and it meant going after comics. These include multiple genres – crime comics, detective comics, romances, westerns, jungle adventure, weird comics, fantasy, horror, and even AfroFuturistic superhero comics like Black Panther, god help me. Most of these seem to have trafficked in little bit of Graphic Voodoo, sometimes even more than a little. The further back one goes into the twentieth century archive, the more outrageously and un-self consciously racist the comics are. Especially when it comes to mainstream depictions of Africana spiritual traditions. And I don’t mean the kind of racism that makes you want to laugh at how stupid and contrived it all is. I refer to the hateful trifecta of white supremacy, denigrating anti-black stereotype, and malignant caricature that might give the most seasoned ethnographer pause. Illustrations that are so repulsive that they even run the risk of offending their own creators and constituents. But I keep returning, fascinated, you know, like Professor Shrewsbury in pursuit of the atrocity Cthulhu, because it is too horrible not to understand. I have come to the conclusion that whiteness is endemic to the comics form, and race, like religion, was metabolized out of the same fetid, primordial ooze that constituted some of the ontological features of thought in the modern West. Comics, as much as I love them, can be really fucked up in how they can create new worlds wholesale out of lies and fabulations and then persuade readers to enjoy them. But I am not ready to give up yet.
I have been inspired by Professor Jeffrey Kripal’s book MUTANTS AND MYSTICS, in which he argues that comics can function as a mythic template for world-creating that one can actively engage for oneself in a kind of consciousness-expansion. Superhero comics, in particular, are scripted, but they are scripts. They are meant to be consumed, experienced, visualized, and performed as an of enactment of the self. And it is true that when accessing these stories of the fantastic and the impossible, one experiences time as non-linear and unitary. In fact, Kripal might say that comics can project the reader beyond his or her present-time constructed reality into the fertile realm of the imagination, the inner world of dreams, the astral zone, the portal of visionary initiations, illumination, and inner self realization. The book provides examples of the ways that some comics creators have catalyzed spiritual experiences for their readers and allowed them to tap the dynamic structures of consciousness, providing access to a deeper, more meaningful lived reality (Or, as any psychic worth a damn knows, they may also bring you face to face with spectacular nightmares and madness).
Now, some of us are impressed with celebrity comics creators like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison who are practitioners of ceremonial occult traditions and chaos magic, respectively – but that’s not the kind of magic I am wondering about today. Nope. I want to talk about stage performers in the comics, grown-ass white men with ridiculous-sounding names like Merzah, Sargah, Yarko, Kardak, Zanzibar, and Zatara. Stylishly flamboyant, these tuxedo-, cape-wearing (and sometimes turbaned) showmen used their prestidigitation skills as superpowers in the service of fighting crime and solving mysteries. Like all good comics heroes, they were hell bent on bringing justice to defeat the bad guys and crooks. And that is why it is supremely ironic that with such cosmopolitan affect, we find some of the most xenophobic storylines ever published in these Golden Age oldies. And yet, there was one comic book that in 1941 took it to a whole ‘nother level: Super Magician. I was nervous about whether rare racist graphica such as this would be eventually censored and locked away from public viewing, so I snagged a few issues at auction and I was surprised to find that this title had once been a popular genre comic. The superhero magician. He was typically a professional ghost-busting stage performer, different from the usual mystical characters and adepts that were initiated into the esoteric and spiritual arts of occultism. Heroes like Doctor Strange and Brother-turned-Doctor Voodoo, whose stories we still enjoy today, as we should, while magician superheroes like Super Magician fester on the comics history dungheap, where they belong. Although I have to say I quite enjoy the depiction of magic and sorcery in these narratives, which always begin with a smug asshole psychologist or secular scientist who gains special abilities after being mutated by some extraordinary trial or tragedy, thereafter emerging out of the ordeal with newfound powers. This is a classic Hero’s Journey trope, with a little bit of the shaman as trickster archetype. This magician is a being who learns to efface material reality and bridge the physical and spiritual realms, bringing forth a palpable otherworldliness to the grimy and profane spaces that most of us inhabit in our waking lives. It is this kind of psychedelic escapism that makes comics magic so much fun – and a bit uncanny – perhaps because of the “realness” of the experience that is implied. Magician Comics of the Golden Age were highly skeptical of this sort of psychism, by the way, viewing it as illicit, since the power of the stage magician lies in his ability to show and tell the secrets of legerdemain with a trick and a wink and a bow for the spectator, who agrees to suspend disbelief, even just for a little bit. Here the line between legitimate spiritual adept and religious fakir is constantly drawn and policed by the upstanding white magician superhero. Comic book magicians were seriously self-righteous about which side they were on, possessing an unquestioned devotion to conservative American values and patriotic allegiance that sometimes bordered on the fanatical. After all, so many of these comics were riding the wave of the World War II publishing boom, brief as it was, before television came along and ruined everything. So while it was a period of intense global conflict, and it was also a time of resurgence that called for vigilance in defending the good fight both at home and abroad. And that brings me back to Super Magician. I wanted to look at this lesser-known comics character (who happened to be based on a rather ambitious real-life stage artist named Harry Blackstone, stage name: The Great Blackstone to see what all the fighting over magic was about, from another angle.
The Great Blackstone character only later became Super Magician, after originating as the protagonist Super Magic Comics, with the somewhat puffy and aggrandizing sidebar, THE WORLD’S GREATEST LIVING MAGICIAN, which, having read the thing more than a few times already, I know is not true. Comics like these, by the way, help me to better understand how religion and magic came to be distinguished as opposites in western culture, since they both depict imaginary enemies and foes at odds with each other, placing the superior technological traditions and weapons of rationality in the hands of the heroes, against the antagonists, who wield dumbness and superstition, and worst of all, foreignness, which makes them out to be the most perverse and immoral villains of all. Because the worst magical criminals in these comics are the cynical ones, the frauds who do not believe in anything anyway. They include sinister, Soul-stealing charlatans who seem to always end up as High Priests or Gurus in the religions they purport to represent. You know the type, loathsome and deceptive con artists who perpetually defraud their beguiled and superstitious followers into giving them attention, money, or power. Here, Super Magician stands apart as a classic icon of justice against these kinds of warring dualisms between true and false gods, only here the battle is between magic as skill and intelligence, against all of the non-Christian non-western sacred traditions in the world, which are deceptive, un-American in every respect, rendered here as sort of a rogues gallery of comparative religions. This is where I get some clues about how this obscure Golden Age comic that was based very loosely on the activities of Blackstone, “the only living comic book character,” came to provide a window on the inner world of Christian whiteness and racial anxiety that gripped America in the 1940 and 50s. As with so many of these four-color treasures at the time, the comic book covers are sublime for their pulpy, ham-fisted surrealism, even as their nauseating illustrations match the sub-par writing on the inside. But what really gets me is the perspective they provide on the tenuous relationship between rationality and mysticism, which sits at the nexus of showmanship and trickery that the sincere magician, Blackstone, enacts against his foes and nemeses in the world. And what a world it is! Super Magician is a one-man wrecking ball, the Punisher of bad religions. Judging by the sheer variety of these covers, he traveled the globe each month in search of new and exotic forms of Religion crimes to hate on, battling intransigent spiritual reprobates, idol worshippers, Communists, cannibals, Buddhists, and of course, Voodoo priests. Interesting thing about these comics of the Golden Age, they seem to be utilized as graphic cudgels for white supremacy and Christian nationalism, even when they don’t have to. Just take a look. Here Super Magician fights evil Hindus, who are drawn, true to the stereotyped form, as crude, enrobed simian pandits who live only to lust and grab after any skimpily attired caucasian woman who comes their way. So why even use this cliché if the religions themselves are already awful? In another episode, he thwarts the nasty acts of scrawny Aztec warriors in a stunning takedown of their golden snake deity who basks, terrifying and ravenous, minding his business and bothering no one inside of a hidden city, deep within a private chamber in an uncharted Temple of DOOM. But Super Magician comes as a colonizer does, from the outside in, spontaneously and without prompting, a missionary and culture usurper who ransacks faraway places that are probably best left alone. Interestingly, Super Magician seems particularly focused on indigenous people and their sacred traditions, and since their primitive tribal deficiencies and their strange ritual exotica make for thrilling comics fantasy source material, readers probably didn’t care.And so these adventures are amply illustrated with disfigured Orientals, blackface Hoodoos, grotesque American Indians, swarthy Muhammadans, and we are even treated to an epic staging of magical warfare against the imposing yet misshapen figure of the god Baal himself – the human-eating Canaanite monster mentioned no less than ninety times in the Old Testament, which, in Christian terms, means he is extra extra evil. Still, even as a powerful vanquisher of degenerate religions, Super Magician is always accompanied by his delicate pink flower lady assistant, who consistently finds herself shirtless and in perilous situations at the wrong time and place, thereby adding to the transgressive hints of sexual menace and miscegenation. Check out the cover at the top of the page with the white woman cooly resting in the cooking pot, ashen black cannibals scurrying around her. The message is clear that there is no need to fear since Blackstone is on the job! With Arab Marabouts, Buddhist Devils, Hindu Spooks, so much more this colorful super-magical hero offers the reader a veritable orgy of pagan depravity and then some. The stunning ugliness with which racial phenotype is caricatured is probably the worst aspect of these comics, which were published in a series of fifty-five issues, from 1941 to 1947. So isn’t this just a different kind of Graphic Voodoo? My point is that the comics don’t have to have primitive black magic witch doctors or blood sacrificing Africans; Super Magician comics pulled no punches with its equal-opportunity brand of visual troping and blatant racist caricature of the spiritual Other. And since this comic treats all non-Christian religions the same way, with its unapologetic take-no-prisoners style of graphic insult, no faith is left unscathed, even the hooded white Klansman ends up at odds with bikini girl on the cover of issue number forty one. And to that I say, more, please. We want comic book fans and historians to interrogate whiteness in all of its implicit and explicit expressions, including its vilest, most pathological projections. Then, perhaps one day the racist religion and race comics will collapse under the weight of their own burdens of representation, and someone else besides me can take the job of talking about them.
As you probably know, the purpose of this blog is to disseminate stories of Voodoo memes, whether they are about colorful Voodoo paper dolls, horrible Voodoo movies, or cool Voodoo comics. We are intrigued by the sheer variety of topics that index Africana spirituality and magic, strange powers, and racial otherness. Still, we wonder, given its recombinations in popular culture, whether there is any substance to the thing that bears the name, Voodoo?
Well then, read on.
Let’s go back to a period in America when the words “big government spending” and “Voodoo thespians” went hand in hand. How could this be? Even today the Trump administration has threatened to defund our nation’s Arts and Humanities Endowments (*they failed). But it is also a time when the Academy of Motion Pictures awards the Best Picture honors to an all-black film, albeit under awkward and unlikely circumstances. And it was not long ago that three eminent New York Times movie critics bemoaned the persistent color-divide and the dearth of black actors and directors in the field, deploring the “overwhelming whiteness” of the US film industry. One critic went so far as to suggest that a sure way to achieve racial justice might be to investigate studio hiring practices for violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I don’t know. If we support government funding for the arts, do we support regulation of the same?
Consider the previous century, when black people and theatre may have been last on anyone’s mind, given that racial segregation was broadly entrenched at all levels of society, that physical violence directed against African American citizens was a widespread occurrence, and that the United States was struggling to get back on its feet in the wake of the devastating national economic emergency known as the Great Depression (1929-1939).
So it is noteworthy that in 1936 on a balmy April evening, an impeccable 65-piece brass band from the Monarch Lodge of the Fraternal Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks marshaled a jubilant crowd of 10,000 fans into the streets outside of a Harlem theater to celebrate the opening of a new production of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, MacBeth. Billed as a musical, the story of this MacBeth reminds us of how reliably blackness can be deployed to breathe new life into old forms, even to great critical acclaim and box office success.
(Can you say Hamilton?)
What became known as the Voodoo MacBeth premiered with an unusual cast of artists and performers, including a real African “witch doctor” and a magnificent drumming ensemble from Sierra Leone. The play, which ran for 64 weeks, showcased an elaborate set that replicated the “rank and fever stricken jungles of Haiti” with special effects that drew upon the atmospheric valences of the Caribbean. Relocating the original story from Scotland in the Middle Ages to the 19th-century court of Henri Christophe, the revolutionary slave leader and Haitian king, this new version of MacBeth was steered to completion by an unknown, energetic 20-year old radio actor named Orson Welles.
Some critics proclaimed the performance a resounding success, hailing Voodoo MacBeth as a unique “triumph of theatre art” that “rocked” the Lafayette, the Harlem venue where the play was staged. Some were more muted in their praise, calling the event an “experiment in Afro-American showmanship,” while others worried that the production was little more than “blackface Shakespeare.” As black communists in Harlem picketed the show’s problematic racial politics, white conservatives complained about the wasteful squandering of taxpayer dollars on a boondoggle “vanity production” at the height of an economic crisis. To be sure, the Federal Theatre Project was the largest and most ambitious effort ever mounted by the government to support arts and theatre events for public consumption. It was all part of a “stimulus package” put together by the Roosevelt administration for the newly formed Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the years following the stock market crash. The idea was to provide jobs for former vaudevillians and unemployed theatre workers, because, to paraphrase the WPA director, “artists gotta eat too!” So the Negro Theater Unit of New York City was born. And what did they do? They remade Shakespeare’s tragedy in the black image by foregrounding spectacular elements from the original play and mapping them onto figurations of something called Voodoo – and they paid for it with federal dollars! What! So appalling was this blatant act of socialist excess that the head of the Federal Theater Project was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities for her role as a subversive propagandist of Elizabethan drama. (This really happened)
All joking aside, it is important to underscore that out of work Americans found relief in the form of an ambitious $4.8 billion earmark called Number One, a federal intervention that helped writers, artists, actors, musicians, and chorus dancers of all races, classes, and backgrounds get through some very hard times. Because of this government stimulus, some 137 employees of the Negro Unit – many of whom had been shut out of the racially segregated theatre unions and trade shops in Harlem – would earn a weekly wage for their work on the production. Thus Voodoo MacBeth should be remembered as a great example of the viability of government-public arts partnerships, and certainly for its role in securing a legacy for the Federal Theatre Project, which promoted the talent and teamwork of its black cast, orchestra, stage hands, and others, as fledgling theatre industry professionals.
A good deal has been written about Voodoo MacBeth, not only because it marked the debut of Orson Welles as a Broadway director, but also because of its explicit advancement of the arts for working class Americans at a time when opportunities for exploring theatre vocations were negligible. You know, sort of like, today. So how did it come to pass that in an era of Jim Crow and virulent racial discrimination, a remarkable display of black excellence emerged out of a performance that staged African-based spirituality at the center of its exposition? Reflecting back on the extraordinary events of the play’s production more than 40 years later, Orson Welles would claim that it was one of the great successes of his life. Nevertheless, the true heroes of this story remain unsung and largely unknown, including two arts advocates who held space for the dream of African American theatre: the great doyenne of black actors, Rose McClendon, and John Houseman, the British actor and managing producer, who stubbornly insisted on the use of local labor for the technical aspects of the show’s production, such as set-building and design, costumes, and lighting.
Yet and still, we wonder about the “Voodoo” in Voodoo MacBeth. With white folks steadfast in their denial of black peoples’ talent at synthesizing Europe’s cherished cultural artifacts, the idea that a Shakespearean drama could be performed with an African-inspired-Voodoo aesthetic – well, it seems improbable. It appears that Voodoo MacBeth promoted the ingenuity of black cultural production while exploiting Americans’ fascination with African diasporic spirituality, with its curses, witches, and spooky supernaturalism. To be sure, Voodoo MacBeth recapitulated lame and tired stereotypes of Haiti’s indigenous religion, while it also appropriated its most resonant symbols. But was it Voodoo, or Vodou? Like other religions, the rich artistic and theological traditions of Haitian Vodou arise from the concept of the sacredness of the human encounter with divinity. Proficient in ancient ritual technologies of intercession, speech, song, action, and material elements, the Vodou priest is an artist, and the artist is also an actor. Since seremoni Vodou provides a public context for the reenactment of mythic drama, it does much of the same work as theatre. In both religion and theatre, participants bear witness to a kind of alchemical transformation of the human performer – the manifestation of spirit into the flesh – since masterful character creation is a high achievement on the sacred space of the stage. Of course, in both cases “possession” occurs by the mediation of a personality that exists beyond time and place, who comes to life via the performed word or the embodied text. On the set or in the peristyle, each performance comprises the role of a lifetime. No matter if a character is a restless and hungry ancestor or a strong and valiant General of War, the dramatis personae of Vodou are offered to the community by the devoted virtuoso. This is not to say that the whole of the religion is interchangeable with the technical and artistic elements of the theatre, but Vodou and theatre inspire meaningful self-creation for all who witness its beauty and truth, as history collapses into myth and imagination converges with memory as old narratives are re-enacted with each new performance. Still, this is not Voodoo. How do we reconcile this sacred theatre with the depraved stereotypes and terrible visions from those outside of the faith? For its part, Voodoo MacBeth rendered Vodou as exotic source material, transforming Africana spirituality into a culminating projection of racial fantasies, the dark mirror in which the West perennially locates its own fears. The sacred theatre of Vodou is reduced to a useful spectacle to be consumed by others; but it is not didactic.
Note: if you have come this far and want to know even more about what went into the making of this historic play, it is now possible to examine the entire record in present time. Available for public review and appreciation, the documented history of Voodoo Macbeth reflects the efficiency of our government bureaucracies at their very best. At the Library of Congress, for example, you can find written details of the play’s development, from its conception to its realization. Here’s a look at an inside view, a trove of meticulous records-keeping and accounting of every penny and requisition, courtesy of the American taxpayer, chronicled with precision and fine administrative detail. You can explore Voodoo MacBeth’s production notes, costume designs, sheet music, photographic negatives, and Welles’ fussy, marked up script of the original play, as well as rare film footage of the opening night performance. And so we offer our thanks for the system, whatever its flaws, so long as it remains accountable to those who promote its continuity. So please support government investment in culture and the arts through the National Endowments. Although Congress defunded the Federal Theatre Project in 1939 when the institutional apparatus of the New Deal was set firmly in place, Voodoo MacBeth reminds us that sometimes big government spending yields lasting, if unexpected, returns.
“In partnership with Direct Relief, The Vaseline® Healing Project is an aid effort to provide dermatological care, Vaseline® Jelly & medical supplies needed to help heal the skin of people affected by poverty or emergencies around the world.”
What do we think of a religion that helped to bring nearly a half a million enslaved black people into freedom during the Age of Independence when the US was still emerging out of its own colonial rule? Do we demonize it? Do we celebrate? As I am very interested in the representation of black spirituality in popular media these days, this virtual-reality documentary on Haitian Vodou caught my eye because it is produced by a corporation. I honestly don’t know what to make of it, so I could use some help. Is it a commercial? Is it the promotion of a dedicated religious community and their widely misunderstood tradition? Is it a strategic business initiative designed to address some of the pressing medical and health needs in one of the most impoverished countries in the western hemisphere? One could try to view this video using an historical perspective or through a contemporary critical lens. You could, as I did, scan it warily for signs of product placement. It might be that I am too cynical to see a real public good coming from one of the largest and oldest multinational corporations whose ostensible purpose in this world is to sell more of its fantastically popular petrochemical consumer items and add to its bottom line. Still, I was struck by the sensitivity of this piece, and especially use of the term healing with respect to practitioners of Haitian Vodou in the video, and how ideas of physical care and spiritual care are conjoined in a conversation about Religion, ceremony, and the ethics of community care.
photo by Stephanie Mei-Ling
The notion that ritual practice in Africana religions can be boiled down to the idea of healing was a position most emphatically taken by the late Karen McCarthy Brown in her prize-winning book on Haitian practitioners in New York City. “There is no Vodou ritual, small or large, individual or communal,” she argued, “which is not a healing rite.” So it is a hopeful sign to me when academic analysis is affirmed in popular discourse, whether by a non-academic authority or a large advertising company. On the other hand, the video may be little more than a glossy example of the commodification of religion for different purposes that goes on in our culture, or simply a good-will public relations gesture that endorses the progressive agenda of corporate social responsibility and sustainable practices. It may also be that the lovely and sincere Mambo featured above has done more in this brief and sympathetic video to humanize the religious traditions of serving the spirits in Haiti than any of our many written sources and academic textbooks on the subject could ever do. So, if you please, watch the film and decide. One thing that is certain, I don’t know if we will ever see something comparable to this for Africana religions in the United States, particularly with the ritual traditions of the Black church. I think African American Christians tend to resist being exoticized when it comes to their practices, especially by outsiders. It can be dangerously offensive, and also has the potential for too many awful memes and jokes about black folks and ashy skin.
As some of you know, my current project is a book-length study of Africana religions and comics, where I consider how graphic formats are utilized for representing the spiritual traditions of black people. I keep getting sidetracked, though, because the sources are so diverse, and there are a million different stories that need to be told. So from time to time I want to post some of the more interesting themes that have emerged out of my research. Today’s topic has to do with my favorite subject, imagining Voodoo in popular discourses, which may or may not have anything to do with actual Africana religions. Recently, I submitted a piece to the serious and sagacious cohort of scholars at the African American Intellectual History Society blog in which I argue that the rise and fall of Voodoo in comics has been contingent upon myriad social and cultural forces that have historically shaped how we see black religious ideas and beliefs. Much like Hollywood Voodoo, Graphic Voodoo possesses a life of its own, with its own world views, plots, and personalities; but as I have suggested elsewhere, the prominence of the black superhero sets this genre apart by its fascinating use of religion as as a source of identity, empowerment, and self-creation, even with the mythical transformations that are typical of divine god figures. So what is it about these comics characters and Voodoo?
First, they are mostly male. Of course, black women do appear in leading roles in Graphic Voodoo narratives. For example, there’s the sexy exotic dancer alien who is inconceivably named “Voodoo” from the 1992 DC WildC.A.T.s comic. Back in the day, there was a Sister Voodoo. There are also numerous female Voodoo-inspired antagonists that seem to be drawn from true religious sources, such as the supernatural Marinette Bwa Chech, or the indomitable Marie LaVeau. Still, the presence of these female characters is subsumed by the more prominent male figures that we tend to think of, such as the famous Brother Voodoo, who would become the ultimate personification of African diaspora religiosity in the comics. Brother Voodoo, who was later transformed into Doctor Voodoo Sorcerer Supreme, enjoyed a brief but extraordinary run in the Marvel comics universe in the 1970s. Other characters such as D.C.’s Papa Midnite (1988), originating out of storylines from Constantine and the Hellblazer series, and Jim Crow (1995) from Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, united black masculinity and moral ambiguity into powerful personalities drawn from the liminal realm of New Orleans’ figurations of Voodoo supernaturalism. Rounding out the cast of these Voodoo brothers are villains and anti-heroes like Baron Samedi – not the Haitian loa but an actual nemesis of Captain America, an operative in a corollary organization to the secret criminal group HYDRA. We do not include the assortment of supernatural monsters, entities and Africanized deities that have come to be associated with Voodoo in the comics, beings that are generally constructed along an axis of good and evil, which doesn’t really work for us, since Africana religions tend to conceptualize ethics in pragmatic terms governing individual character rather than as fixed and rigid systems of moral concerns. So, what to do with a discourse that seems intent on replicating categories of stark dualism that also insist upon their effacement? The issue of the left and right hand, right and wrong, is something that plays out in again and again with narrative and visual forms in Africana religious thought. In most cases, graphic Voodoo and its characters are conceived within the category of instrumental magic – not religion – and deployed as a kind of powerful radioactive substance. In the comics realm, Voodoo heroes, whether houngan priests or sorcerers, are dangerous, unstable, and potentially violent.
Still curious, digging deeper into the archives, I continued to search for the earliest Voodoo comics characters that I could find. I was briefly diverted by a confusing jungle hero called Voodah, a brother who starts out as a muscular dark skinned Tarzan figure but who gradually and inexplicably turns colorless, then pink, by the fourth issue of the 1945 Crown Comics series in which he briefly appeared. Then, I came up short again with a somewhat lame white Doctor Voodoo by the name of Hal Carey who popped up in Whiz Comics for several episodes in 1953 as a square jawed missionary physician. But then, I surely struck gold when I located that which I believe to be the first recurring black character in the Graphic Voodoo genre – and where else would he be found, but deep within the AfricanHaitianindeterminate jungle, storming through the bush with magic and fury, none other than Boanga, The Voodoo Man! crazed, loincloth clad, howling “Gamba Shema Lana” and deploying his Voodooism for murder, revenge, and general mayhem. It’s hilarious stuff, except that The Voodoo Man was pretty hardcore for 1937 when he appeared, pre-code, in a title role – a black criminal foil to the bland white leading men, and in the company of other comics luminaries such as Dr. Mortal, Sorceress Zoom, and Bird Man. What’s remarkable here is that even though The Voodoo Man is typecast as a black miscreant, his character is exciting enough to merit at least seven more appearances, and in each he terrorizes friends and foes alike with his astonishing tricks of sorcery, which include scheming for international crime rings, jumping through fire, necromancy, more howling, and hypnotizing white women to do stuff for him (but not the stuff that one might expect from a tall bare chested African savage with a fancy plumed headdress). Amazingly, clever Voodoo Man always escapes to live another day, probably due less to his indestructible nature than to his thrill appeal for the readers of Weird comics. I will return to this early black super-criminal at a later date; but I note that he does remind us that from the start, comics Voodoo in America has always been about race and power, with the problem of religion remaining the third rail of representation, as it is in most graphic productions involving black folk. This is why we want to know and understand this history. Africana
religions in the comics have historically found their expression in parody, stereotype, and caricature, with spectacular presentations that are perceived as visually arresting, violently racist, or ridiculously comical. As a discursive formation, Voodoo has come to represent an essential Africana spirituality and the locus of individual empowerment, while also imbuing notions of cultural identity with themes of (super)heroism and black agency. There is so much more that I want to say about Africana religions in the comics; but in the meantime, let us celebrate a true original, the notorious Boanga, one of the comics’ first but forgotten Voodoo Brothers. Gamba Shema Lana!
In this blog I want to note the continuing relevance of Voodoo as a trope in media and entertainment cultures by highlighting the historical significance of horror films. But I already covered this topic somewhat in an earlier period with reference to jungle Voodoo, and anyway, I find this sort of material to be kind of dumb and uninteresting. To be honest, I see so many of the “Voodoo” memes as tiresome and unworthy of my time. So why am I writing about this today?
While is is rare that a popular film will make explicit connections to Africana religions that are in any way accurate or appropriate, I had recently found a 1974 title that caught my eye. The film is called Abby, and it was an uncommon horror genre movie in that it featured an African American actress in a lead role. But what is most interesting is the part that religion plays in this film. And not just Christianity, either! Abby is about a woman who is possessed by a deity that apparently originated with with West African cultures, an orisa, from the Yoruba religion. Only in this movie, the thing is also conceived as a sex demon, discovered in Nigeria, trapped among a trove of relics inside of a phallus-shaped genie bottle that somehow makes its way back to America and into the hands of Abby’s father-in-law, a black Christian minister with a Ph.D (hell yeah! he’s an archeologist!). Eventually the naughty spirit winds up wreaking havoc in the pious and conservative household of which our heroine Abby is a part. There are some wonderful scenes with gospel singing in an African American church, along with all of the violence and inappropriate content that one would expect – this horror film was a low-budget production from the 20th century era in the style of “Blaxploitation” movies – but I want to suggest that there is also some educational value here too. Abby’s father in-law, played with incomparable dignity by the veteran black actor William Marshall (Star Trek fanatics like me recall him as the legendary scientist Richard Daystrom), is not only a theologian in this movie, but also a scholar of Africana religions. Before throwing down on the demon-possessed Abby in the grand finale with a ritual of spirit removal worthy of an adept, he provides a short lecture on the orisha Eshu, the divinity who is most notably associated with sexuality, tricksterism, and chaos, according to the metaphysics of Africana philosophy and religion.
I have written about this extraordinary being in his various forms in the diasporic imagination. In Abby, Eshu is presented not only as a powerful spiritual entity with a divine pedigree, but we get a little bit of academic background about him too. All this in a film that depicts both black Christianity and African Yoruba religion with an unusual level of respect and intelligence. Still, no matter because in the end the Christian side wins! yay! Nevertheless, in her starring role as Abby, Carol Speed makes a good run of it, displaying remarkable range as an actress performing the role of a talented gospel singer and a sexually transgressive black woman who must struggles with her own psychic displacement by a sinister masculine spirit (with the ugly, distorted, croaking voice that was a common effect in 1970s horror). By the way, Abby was later sued by Warner Brothers for copyright infringement as a ripoff of their hit The Exorcist, but in the end the big studio lost, so there. You can still find this cult film on dvd today, but more significantly, there is an excellent documentary on the history of black women in the American horror film industry, called My Final Girl, if scary movies are your thing. I hope you continue to engage the study of Africana cultures, because black religions are my thing.
Are you a comics fan? My latest project deals with religion in comic books and graphic novels from the Golden Age to the present, where I look for characters who possess what might be seen as god-like powers, supernatural abilities, and fantastic technologies. Perhaps we might think of them as modern-day deities. Being obsessed with religion I wonder if there is a way to fit these characters into a comparative religious studies framework. It’s new to me, but here’s the thing. I want to look at Africana religions and black female super-heroes (and maybe, just maybe, squeeze a little Voodoo out of it). Why not? There are comics and graphic novel characters for every religion you could possibly think of. And yes, some are practitioners of Africana religions, and others are spiritual beings of African or African-American origin. Unfortunately, women tend to be created as decorative add-ons and uninspiring sidekicks in this world, for comics have been traditionally dominated by males and male interests. Nevertheless, black female characters fare slightly better than their white female counterparts, perhaps because they occupy discursive space as women and they play supporting roles to black males who also navigate the perilous mazes of gender and race in the comics universe. This is not to say that black female characters only stand by (or behind) their men. At best, they emerge as autonomous beings with their own stories. At worst they languish at the margins, neglected and waiting to develop into fullbuxomphysically idealized figures instead of flat, non distinct ones. It is all too easy to find black female characters who lack depth, nuance, and agency. Believe it or not, even Africana goddesses can be conventional. They are beautiful, black, and female – but that’s about it. Although they have super powers their unique characteristics are scripted according to phenotype, just a stone’s throw away from stereotype. But there are some notable exceptions. See for example, Frank Miller’s graphic series featuring Martha Washington, a brilliant one-woman freedom-fighting machine who rocks a futuristic version of Atlas Shrugged, the libertarian manifesto. There’s also Monica Rambeau, a rare black superheroine who crosses universes, picks up the mantle of Captain Marvel, becomes a leader of the Avengers, and cycles through multiple identities as Photon, Pulsar, and Spectrum. Unusual for a woman, Rambeau survives extended transmutations of her character yet remains as multilayered and complex a figure as any. Finally, there is Storm, probably the best known of the current black female action figures, of X-Men fame and African American queen of the nation of Wakanda, whose mutant powers remind us of the orisha Oya, deity of fierce winds and tornadoes from the Yoruba religious traditions. So while black leading ladies in the comics are relatively scarce, they certainly aren’t absent. In fact I think we one argue that NOW is the moment for the rise of the black female superhero worldwide. Happily, one can find an array of African and African-American women superheroes that push against – and beyond – the boundaries of what it means to be black, female, and even human. But why should there be black female super-heroines? Allow me to suggest that if superheroes are simply beings whose powers enable them to challenge the most formidable of opponents while surpassing the limitations of ordinary humanness – then black women are more than able to stand shoulder to shoulder with legends like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther. (In fact they do.) But what becomes a hero and a god? The idea of superheroes as deities is not something new; it is actually a theme that is currently discussed in numerous venues of academic writing. Some have argued that comic books are a unique literature that brings the reader into direct contact with images of living beings from the vast fields of the imagination. Much like spirits, these timeless astral personages are able to enter the planes of physical existence. Put another way: we theorize that comic book characters are envisioned and created thought-forms that one may literally draw into reality with the power of the will. We might also consider these beings as archetypes from the unconscious mind that are clothed with our attention, the psychic force that brings them to life. However one thinks about this, when we engage comics as virtuous possibilities they become grounded in our reality – and they inspire us. Fans and readers may experience this as a kind of stirring devotion to their favorite themes and characters. Others may lose themselves in an intensely moving and powerful story arc. More often, the imagined beings come to life on film, and now and again we allow them to possess our bodies in cos-plays, rpgs and scripted simulations. It behooves us to consider these characters as inhabiting a collective mythology, for myth is a special kind of story that compels the reader out of his/her mundane time and place. And like myths, comics offer us entertaining tales and deeds of extraordinary persons and provide historical substance to these eternally resilient beings. And of course everyone loves an idol, a rock star who shines ever so brightly, a hero who moves through the world in a different way. It makes sense that comics become the guidebooks for dreamers and adventurers who long to tap into those vivid, otherworldly realms where the action is. Where one can meet superheroes and gods. How else do you start a religion? In any event, we still wonder how black women and religion will fit into this conversation. Religion usually shows up in the comics as flair, as an identity marker, as a way of adding cultural or ethnic flavor to a character – or better yet, as a story device that registers anxieties around difference and power. For my part, I see a fabulous cross-section of race, gender, and religion themes on display when I read the comics. So it’s the same thing. Usually attention to religious topics in the comics goes hand in hand with preachy, heavy handed and predictable stories that enact “faith crises” of some sort or another, that are stuck within conventional theological frameworks. But when I turn to black female characters, I find Africana spiritualities presented in ways that belie the conventional wisdom that most black folk are good church-going Baptists, or, at the other extreme, insurgent/angry/crazy/fanatical in their rejection of any form of Christian piety. In many cases, religion provides the essential framework for understanding a (super)hero’s source of empowerment, be it through an African-styled ancestral orientation (e.g. Vixen, Empress), or the onset of extraordinary abilities delivered by a curse, supernatural forces, or through some ritual process of ordeal or initiation (Nubia, Dominique Laveau, Priscilla Kitaen). In my next post, I will examine the representations of Voodoo and Vodou in the comics, two of my favorite subjects, and see how our black heroes and heroines fare. Hint: It’s not just the characters that are dark and mysterious.
In between working on serious stuff that takes up my time, I look at images. Some of these images may seem as though they are not related – but they actually are – like these African circus “freak” posters from the early twentieth century and their counterparts from contemporary body mod subcultures in the United States. So who is the savage? I like colorful illustrations and advertisements of shows, performances, and other attractions that people pay good money to see. In a society that thrives on viewing images for entertainment and education, we have reached a point of no return with the commodification of visual things. But you don’t always have to pay.
Today’s post has something vaguely to do with race and religion, as I muse about the ways that the meanings of images are transformed as other images come into play. It is a variation on how the viewer constitutes the subject. We followed this process in an earlier article on the transformation of a legendary European circus performer into one of today’s most revered African goddesses. How did it happen? Look, it’s all in the seeing. Consider the case of an international stage magician from the 1930s with the fabulous name of Koringa. I enjoy the defiant certainty with which the poster screams that Koringa is the only woman-fakir of the world! because even though the real Koringa begins her career as an unknown French actress/dancer named Renee, her professional identity maps easily onto other sensational visions of race and gender, in particular, parodies of Africana spiritualities. One of these is what I call the “white Voodoo princess.” Never mind that Koringa is promoted as a yogini or adept of the ancient Indian arts of hypnosis and mind-over-body practices. Watch as her visual presentation conjoins with versions of the female Tarzan and jungle girl memes that were popular in American cinema in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. These were films that featured grown white women in leopard-print swimwear, throbbing tom-toms, hairy deciduous vines, and dangerous set locations in the darkest regions of Africa. The Voodoo component was deployed as a mystical essence that endowed the white maiden with athletic prowess and a telepathic affinity with ferocious animals. With broken English she speaks. She is a crocodile whisperer. But how did she become such a prodigy? Jungle princess Voodoo is not an innate ability, nor is it a religion. It is acquired collaboratively from multiple sources. The white woman attains her powers pursuant to an encounter with a spooky fetish or juju charm, or after being schooled by indigenous masters – for she is always an orphan, an island castaway, raised by witch doctors, gorillas etc. And yet, we are suspicious. We perceive this Voodoo as inauthentic, and somehow deracinated. Watch as genuine blackface Voodoo is presented as the real alternative, a terrible and duplicitous power that even threatens to overwhelm the white female protagonist, as in this clumsy and hapless sequel to the Sheena Queen of the Jungle film:
Did you catch the dreadful secret of Voodoo at the end, especially the part about the image which seems as though it was written for this blog? I will give you a clue: there is great power in the image. And with forty-odd films of this genre, it is clear that the American film industry found great power in the white Voodoo woman theme as well. Her curious display of whiteness, sexuality, and strange African mysticism designates her as an anomaly, a “freak,” as much as any circus spectacle. Let’s look at Koringa again. What’s most surprising about her visual transition from Hindu snake charmer to Jungle princess is how seamlessly her physical characteristics transmute into distinct racial elements. Take her amazing bushy cloud of hair. This style was popularized by P.T. Barnum in the 1800s as part of his exhibition series of freak performers and human oddities known as circassian women. Barnum’s professional staging of what was considered to be the epitome of female beauty may strike us as bizarre for its miscegenated aspects, but make no mistake, mythic ideals of white womanhood charged the popular imagination in this period. Barnum’s contrived displays would hold great promise for the future staging of race and gender themes in American theatre, photography, and film. We understand these images to be evocations of Orientalism, reflecting the West’s preoccupation with fantasies of the exotic, the barbaric, the sexual, and the mystical aspects of the Other, all rolled into one ethnocentric vision against which white identity was measured. How else could white people appropriate desirable physical features from the non-white darker races of the world except by embodying them in performance, thus recreating their “essence” in transfigured and consumable visual forms? The virtuoso who assumed an Indian identity as a Hindu “fakir” or adopted an Afro hairstyle befitting a Voodoo princess took part in the age-old performance of cultural masquerade, played for amusement and profit. And although subsequent jungle queens rejected the Afro style in favor of the long, smooth locks associated with “white” hair, a sartorial transition had occurred that bears noting. As in other contexts we must acknowledge that a brazen plundering of the cultural resources of black and brown people has taken place, and whether it is with hairstyles, music, or spiritual practices, there is great value in those stolen borrowed forms. And so, one hundred years later the popular circassian hair style would become detached from white femininity, and black women of the Soul consciousness era of the 1960s would claim it for a different kind of identity, and for their own purposes.
Here the natural hair was also linked to performance. With this display, ethnic pride and racial heritage were visibly marked by her hair as the domain of the “authentic” black woman. (This period was also associated with creative appropriations of Africana spiritualities as well – and not just specious and fake “Voodoo.”) It is interesting to see that as with the circassian beauties and the jungle princesses, “black” hair was adopted by women as a signifier for a kind of primitive beauty. The Afro became a gendered, racialized style that celebrated and displayed black women’s taming, if I may, of what had been uncivilized – sort of like the wild beasts that accompanied the Voodoo princess on her daring adventures. Does Koringa, in all of her guises, perform the part of the blackwhiteIndian woman who ably wields spiritual/supernatural power to civilize and tame the Other, or that which is wild? Why not? she is, herself, a liminal creature.
Embedded within these images are fascinating discourses of race, gender, and sexuality, all warped by the contradictions and the failed logic of colonialism, which pitted the savage Other against the forces of civilization. With the Voodoo element as the mystical link between savagery and civilization, the virtuoso performs a capable mimesis of the black or brown body, but it is one that we recognize as false, confusing, and ultimately inadequate to that which only the “real” primitive can deliver. The self-presentation of Koringa and other circus performers as racial Others reinforced long-established ideas of white supremacy, but also tantalized audiences with hints of the transgressive pleasures of racial imitation. Oh and what a spectacular presentation of hair, and not just for women, either! We delight in this image of a Hindu gator-hypnotist in the 1920s who went by the supremely ironic name of Blacaman. And although the poster claims that it is his first time in America, the joke is on us, as he turns out to be one Pietro “Black Man” Blacaman of Calabria, Italy, of African descent, and not an Indian fakir at all. So everyone is happy so long as he gets to play the role of a hairy Voodoo prince, a captivating performance with its mystical delights and goofy jungle drama. I am interested in the Voodoo trope as it is replayed in various presentations of blackness, whiteness, and gender in American culture. Next time we will turn to the dark and lovely maidens of our recent and most venerated form of popular literature – the comic book. I will be posting more images, so please stay tuned. The seeing is free.