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

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

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

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


The spiritual and religious beliefs and practices of Native Americans and African Americans have long been sources of fascination and curiosity, owing to their marked difference from the religious traditions of white writers and researchers. 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. Though these beliefs were widely dismissed as primitive superstition and inferior to "higher" religions like Christianity, distinctions were still made between the supposed spiritual capacities of the different groups.

David Murray's analysis is unique in bringing together Indian and African beliefs and their representations. First tracing the development of European ideas about both African fetishism and Native American "primitive belief," he goes on to explore the ways in which the hierarchies of race created by white Europeans coincided with hierarchies of religion as expressed in the developing study of comparative religion and folklore through the nineteenth century. Crucially this comparative approach to practices that were dismissed as conjure or black magic or Indian "medicine" points as well to the importance of their cultural and political roles in their own communities at times of destructive change.

Murray also explores the ways in which Indian and African writers later reformulated the models developed by white observers, as demonstrated through the work of Charles Chesnutt and Simon Pokagon and then in the later conjunctions of modernism and ethnography in the 1920s and 1930s, through the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Zitkala Sa, and others. Later sections demonstrate how contemporary writers including Ishmael Reed and Leslie Silko deal with the revaluation of traditional beliefs as spiritual resources against a background of New Age spirituality and postmodern conceptions of racial and ethnic identity.


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 . . .

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