Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Traditional Folklore and the Question of History in Erna Brodber's Louisiana

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Traditional Folklore and the Question of History in Erna Brodber's Louisiana

Article excerpt

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Introduction

Born on April 20, 1940 in Louisiana, a small town located in the parish of St Mary in Jamaica, Erna Brodber grew up in a family who took an active part in the community affairs of their small town. As a brilliant scholar, she gained a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Science and a Ph.D. from the University of the West Indies (UWI), located in Mona, Jamaica. Before focusing on writing, Erna Brodber held different positions such as teacher, sociology lecturer and staff member of the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER). While at the ISER, she worked to collect elders' oral stories in rural Jamaica, which partly inspired her third novel entitled Louisiana (1).

Like Brodber's previous works, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come (2) and Myal (3), Louisiana explores the various facets of the Caribbean and African-American experiences.

In the 1930s, the protagonist of the novel, Ella Townsend, a graduate African-American student of anthropology whose roots are Jamaican, is sent to the American state of Louisiana by President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) program to research Louisiana folk life through a series of interviews.

Thus, she intends to tape record the memories and cultural habits of African-American elders. But, her primary informant, an old matriarch named Mammy King, dies only two weeks after the beginning of the project. However, from the hereafter, Mammy King still continues to convey messages via the tape recorder, seeing the student as the medium that would enable her to be released from her life. At first, the academically minded Ella Townsend finds it hard to believe in this mystical connection of the living and the dead. But as time elapses, she gradually changes her mind, discovering enriching mysteries about the past lives of Mammy and of her dead Jamaican friend Lowly, including stories of migrations between people coming from the African Diaspora as well as political anecdotes dealing with Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). From this supernatural experience, Ella Townsend also learns a lot about herself and her own history.

Thus, Louisiana not only pays a tribute to the folk life and the Afro-Caribbean cults of Voodoo, Obeah (witchcraft) and Myal (an Afro-Caribbean religion in which music, nature and the mystical connection of the living and the dead play a significant role), but it also tackles the question of history, including the themes of displacement and of Marcus Garvey's Pan-African ideology. Brodber positions her fiction on cultural, anthropological and historical parallels. Indeed, like most of her counterparts, the Caribbean writer has recourse to what Linda Hutcheon calls "historiographic metafiction." (4)

This paper is aimed at studying these particular points, namely traditional folklore and the question of history in Erna Brodber's Louisiana.

Traditional Folklore

Like a number of Caribbean writers, Erna Brodber draws her inspiration from the rural black folklore when writing her novels. In Louisiana, like in her two previous works, Brodber examines numerous aspects of the Caribbean and African-American folk life, among which the oral tradition, the rural southern black dialect, Jamaican Patois, the world of mysticism, Voodoo and traditional folk music.

From the very beginning of the novel, in the Editor's Note, the Jamaican author puts forward the notion of orality, stating that Ella Townsend "was to retrieve the history of the Blacks of South West Louisiana using oral sources." (5) Indeed, as an anthropologist, Ella Townsend is sent to Louisiana to collect oral stories from elders (6). Before going any further, it is important to mention that two main reasons enable us to understand this notion of orality within the African Diaspora. It is both a historical and social phenomenon. First of all, in African societies, oral tradition has been the primary means of conveying culture--history, stories, folktales and religious beliefs--for thousands of years. …

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