African-American Funeral Rites on America's Stages

By Hall, Ardencie | Black Masks, October 31, 2000 | Go to article overview
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African-American Funeral Rites on America's Stages

Hall, Ardencie, Black Masks

African-American Funeral Rites on America's Stages

Human beings transmit their cultural traditions though behavioral patterns such as the arts, religious (spiritual) beliefs, social institutions, and other products of human work. African refugees,(1) or slaves, as they were called, were no different. African refugees recognized their humanity through their cultural traditions and rites of passage, including the powerful rites of death, maintaining as much as they could through slavery. Through the continuation of cultural traditions and rites of passage, African descendants see themselves as reflections in the eyes of their Nanas (grandmothers) -- strong, whole, and beautiful.


The continuing elements of African cultural traditions and rites of passage demonstrated outside of Africa are called Africanisms. Africanisms prevailed for three main reasons:

1. In isolated areas throughout the Americas, African refugees often outnumbered the Europeans allowing them to uphold characteristics of their beliefs.

2. European traders chose African refugees from similar cultural regions such as the Senegambian or the Kongo regions because of their agrarian or artisan skills.

3. The religion of the slave owner often influenced the treatment of the African refugee. Protestant owners frequently had no concern for the slaves' spiritual well-being in this life or the next. On the other hand, the Catholic Church encouraged slaveowners to convert their subjects to the religion and to then practice tolerance toward the converted. This attitude provided a more hospitable environment for the retention of African cultural traditions.

For these reasons, enslaved Africans were able to unite their similar cultural traditions and rites of passage forming new cultures based on their shared memories of Africa and their experiences in the Americas.

Africanisms on Stage

Recent discoveries of early African-American graveyards have brought a renewed interest in how early African Americans commemorated and viewed the nature of death. This curiosity has not only been in the halls of academe but has found its way onto the American stage with recent plays like George C. Wolfe's Jelly's Last Jam (1992) and Celeste Bedford-Walker's Distant Voices (1998). These plays have similar characteristics. First, all the characters are dead, either recently or dated, and have returned to tell their stories. Weaving their tales, the ancestors speak to the audience in order to secure some form of empathy or action. Secondly, they illustrate different forms of African-American funerals at different periods in cultural history. In Jelly's Last Jam, Wolfe gives Jelly Roll Morton the jazz funeral he never got at the time of his death, while in Distant Voices, Walker portrays the funeral of an African refugee, who still remembers and practices the African ways.

In this article, each play and funerary style is briefly discussed in order to determine how African-American playwrights remember and memorialize rites of passage, historical ancestors, and cultural traditions. These plays not only widen the discussion on African-American funeral traditions but also reinforce the notion that funerals are initiation rites for the deceased that reveal to the living the transcendental realities of human existence. The audiences do not witness funerals that are solemn but ones that are joyful, celebrating the life of the deceased characters and their new place in the afterlife.

Jelly's Last Jam

Amid its bluesy songs and dance/tap numbers, Jelly's Last Jam deals with the complexities of Jelly Roll Morton, a jazz genius who denied his and jazz's African heritage. George C. Wolfe is a griot telling a historical tale laced with jazz. The musical builds to a jazz funeral climax, which is theatrical but, also, has a social/cultural meaning about African-American life in America. After reviewing the tragic and joyful events of his life, Jelly faces his final judgment.

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