Summer is the season of abundance, even in our hyper-globalized world. Farmer's markets bloom with fresh local produce. Vegetable gardens burst at their seams with everything from tomatoes and corn to okra and watermelon, and tabasco peppers. Local pick-your-own blueberry farms and peach orchards do a booming business. If one stops to notice all this bounty amidst the heat and humidity, who could not give thanks to some God, some higher power, some Spirit (or to the spirits, the gods, the universe)?
Here in the deep South, summer is also the season most directly reminding us that the region of America's "third coast" is a littoral of the Caribbean. With the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina capping this summer of the Gulf oil spill, we offer a special issue on communing with the spirits, or "dialogues of the dead." The essays range widely, from contemporary Los Angeles and New Orleans and Haiti and Cuba, and from historical South Carolina to Mark Twain's imaginary Mississippi River. They all reflect encounters with spirits, and with the Spirits, and register attempts to understand these experiences. How do we think about the ineffable? How may we make sense of the essentially irrational? What are the logics of the illogical? Especially in worlds where nothing happens by chance and everything happens for a reason, people seem to think that they can control the Spirits; ironically all evidence, however, suggests the obverse (to those so inclined to stop and notice, amidst the heat and humidity).
Southerners generally have long had a reputation for being particularly religious, or depending on one's view, have long been seen as peculiarly superstitious. We fetishize "the dead" through traditions of family graveyards, of faith healing, of root-doctoring. Scratch many of these folk strategies and vernacular technologies of accessing spiritual power, and they will point to Africa and Africans. This is as true for, say, Charleston and Memphis and New Orleans as for Havana and Port-auPrince and Kingston. …