Saturday, October 01, 2005

Zora, Oprah, and the zombies

1. I tend to bite off a little more than I can immediately chew sometimes, although I do eventually chew through it all--it just takes me a while. For example, although I haven't yet investigated and written up the beaver cloaca I promised back in May? June? it will eventually get done and posted ("Curiouser and curiouser" and "Cloaca: The Prediction"). Same with books--back when Zora Neale Hurston was enjoying renewed popularity as a result of Alice Walker turning Oprah on to her, and Oprah publicizing her on her Book Club, I saw the cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and really liked the art on it. I bought it with the promise of reading it one day, and it is still on my shelf, gently calling out "read me...". One of these days, after I finish my dissertation, I will.

Remember, I deal in mathematics and evolutionary time frames, so I am a patient woman. Everything gets done eventually.

2) Despite her talent and education, Hurston was never fully accepted by the other writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She died in what used to be known as "genteel poverty". Coincidentally, I am currently working a day job in Philadelphia to avoid just such a fate.

Oooooh, gotta go for now--my landlady made chocolate macadamia pancakes, and they're done! I'll finish this post after breakfast.

Ok, I'm back now. Damn, those pancakes were good! I'm going to be on a sugar high all morning from them. Though how an outside observer can distinguish "sugar high" from my baseline mania, I really wouldn't know.

3) My bus route to and from said job is undertraveled--sometimes, it's a little too uncomfortably close to "Driving Miss Raven" for either my personal, my sociological, or my environmental tastes--but on the other hand, it does give me an unparalled chance to get to know my driver, who is from Haiti, and to practice my embryonic krèyol.

4) Even as a (Parisian) French major way back in the day, I was aware that--despite the best efforts of the colonial French to turn every place they were into little Parises--there is a big gap between the French culture I studied at UAB, and the Francophone culture of the French colonies. A lot of syncretism, or synthesis between the pre-existing cultures and the Jeanny-come-lately French colonial culture occurred--enough so that even though my driver (let's call him François) was probably raised Catholic, what he recognizes as Catholicism and what I used to practice (again, way back in the day) probably vary significantly.

5) Given that fact, and given the recent explosion in evangelical religion worldwide, I was dismayed, but not especially surprised, to be subjected to religious radio on the morning ride (afternoon ride, by contrast, is music, whether smooth jazz, classic rock, or one of F.'s favorite mix tapes). F. is a really nice guy, and if I asked him to change the station, I have no doubt he would, but I actually find it more interesting to see what other people listen to and how they react than to interject my personal preferences into it. Plus, PZ and the gang over at the Panda's Thumb do such a great job of documenting creationist abuse of science that maybe it's my turn to start to pay it forward by listening to and reporting on some of the primary sources--we shall see (in my copious spare time, no doubt!).

6) Creationist radio is non-sequitur radio--everything proves creation, as would its inverse. Animals in nature use medicine? Goddidit. But what if their using medicine validates Native American creation stories? Doesn't matter; Goddidit. How about if animals didn't use medicine; would finding examples of animals that didn't therefore invalidate creationism? Still doesn't matter; Goddidit. Even the students in my beginning logic classes can connect the dots better than that, enough to see that a hypothesis that explains everything actually explains nothing.

(got to go deal with laundry now; back soon.)

Ok, I'm back. I really miss The Housework Fairy Mr. Raven back in Seattle.

7) So given our AM radio choices, the pump is all primed for me to expect F. to do a little proselytizing if and when the conversation turns metaphysical, as it inevitably did. But what I wasn't expecting was the bounces that it took.

F. explained to me that after death, when the body goes into the ground, the soul doesn't go to Heaven; it hangs around here looking for another body to go into. He called that "reincarnation", although the way he explained it didn't sound particularly Buddhist, which is the only model of reincarnation I am even remotely familiar with (although I am careful to stipulate that when it comes to Buddhism, I am less a role model and more an object lesson, if you know what I mean). But having been Catholic as recently as 25 years ago, I am fairly certain that that particular interpretation of life after death is not in the Catechism. Nor did he get it from the good people of Family Radio, who would no doubt have an aneurysm at that teaching of F's.

Lacking any other conceptual hook to hang it on, I attributed F's interpretation to his growing up syncretically Catholic, and then coming here long enough ago to acquire not only an overlay of evangelical Protestantism, but also some vague American New Age concepts of reincarnation as part of the puzzle. It didn't seem to quite match the way he explained it, but it was the best hypothesis I was able to form in the moment. Later that evening, my landlady supplied some information which I think may be the missing piece of the puzzle.

Having spent a lot of time in Haiti between them, my landlady and her daughter know far more about the culture there than the other 99.9% of white Americans know--and even at that, they are well aware that there are many personal and cultural things that will never be shared with them. The practice of the Vodou (or "voodoo") religion is one of those things. Racial, class, national, religious/supernatural, legal, and other barriers all ensure that they--no matter how much they extend themselves to meet people on their own terms--will get only so close and no closer to this particular topic. Based on the little bit she has heard whispered about, and not knowing F personally, this is a very shaky hypothesis to extend, but tentatively, she thinks that maybe what F calls "reincarnation" is his attempt to hang a word he learned here on a nameless yet ubiquitous Vodou concept he absorbed all through his childhood and early life there.

As said, although it seems quite plausible, we'll never know the answer to that particular question, because as outsiders, we will only ever get so close and no closer to that concept of religion. But one American woman did get closer, and because of her willingness to extend herself, and her grace and talent at doing so, we know far more about Haitian culture and religion than we otherwise would have.

(last laundry break :)

Ok, back again, and in the home stretch.

Zora Neale Hurston, born in Alabama 5 years before my granny was, (1891 vs. 1896), studied anthropology and folkore, and went to Haiti and Jamaica on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Being black, and being willing to extend herself into the culture to a degree that remains controversial among ethnographers, she was able to make connections within the culture to an unprecendented degree, and one that allowed her to participate in aspects that normally would have remained closed to outsiders, especially female outsiders.

Her book Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica is an account of her experiences. My landlady (LL), who has read it, tells me it starts out with an account of a wild boar hunt that Hurston insisted on going on, despite the attempts to discourage her from going, and despite the rigors that she endured. Apparently, it is written in the form of short stories, although the short stories are not fiction, but rather autobiographical accounts. LL tells me that it gets progressively more disturbing, and the account of the zombies (which are real! who knew?) is not the final chapter--in other words, there are things even more disturbing than true accounts of zombies!

I will post on the chemical aspects of zombification that I learned about later this weekend, as LL and I are just about to leave for a birthday party, and this post is already dangerously screed-like in length. Meanwhile, sorry, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but you just got pushed down one tier on the to-read list in favor of your sister book, Tell My Horse. But I promise I will get to you eventually.


At 7:56 AM, Blogger starbender said...

Mmmmmm...... Those pancakes sound fantastic... Now I have 2 go eat breakfast... I'll have 2 settle for eggs!

At 10:00 PM, Blogger George V. Reilly said...

You're not going to leave us hanging waiting for that post on the chemical aspects of zombiefication indefinitely, are you?

At 6:11 PM, Blogger Raven Travillian said...

you're right, George--I've been far too much of a tease. Intermittent Net access, 3 hours/day commuting, blah blah blah--but enough with the excuses; I'll write it tonight.

hope it's worth the wait :)


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