Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Uses of Dead Africans: A Field Report from the 4th Dimension

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

The Uses of Dead Africans: A Field Report from the 4th Dimension

Article excerpt

And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen. - John, 21:25 (KJV)

How to dialog with dead Africans? Particularly the old-timers so full of folksy wisdom and elevated levels of testosterone: all those Manuels and Franciscos, those Toms and Bens and Big Dicks whose guidance has been sought by mediums over three continents ever since the Fox sisters made communicating with dead entities the central practice of Spiritism.1 Remarkably, few mediums or scholars have bothered to query the living progeny of these defunctos on proper procedures for establishing and maintaining such contacts with their ancestors. So let's begin where those dead Africans did, on the slaving coasts of West Africa.

A serious inquiry could do worse than start with a survey of mottoes painted over the windshields on mammy wagons, those baroquely reconditioned lorries that have kept West African travelers well-acquainted with mortality since the end of the Second World War.2 Such mottoes, collected over time, have reflected popular attitudes on matters metaphysical, political and practical. Two of the most common I recorded during a long hot Ghanaian spring in 1977 proclaimed, "Six Feet Under at Last," and "When Will My Operation Safely End?" - all barometers no doubt of the desperate economic and political conditions that had befallen the country after the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972), and the regimes of incompetent kleptocrats that followed in his wake. Reflecting an Anti-Romanticism persistent in pan- African aesthetics, these mottoes lament our common fate: we are brothers and sisters banded together in the face of Death. But their mordant tone has more of the Jester than of Jeremiah. They are more in tune with those fantasy coffins of Ghanaian designer Kane Kwei, fabricated to look like Mercedes Benzes ready to swing you low into the 4th Dimension.3 Theirs was the spirit of Laughing Death I would not find again until I encountered Gede, the Vodou divinity of Death and Sexuality, cavorting in Haiti, and Manuel, King of the Congo, manifesting during Friday night séances at his botanica in East Hollywood, L.A.

There was a yet more common motto which I saw painted on mammy wagon mast-heads all over Ghana and Nigeria at this same time. It simply proclaimed, "No Telephone to Heaven,"4 - a devious motto, since it proclaimed its message a contrario. For while indeed telephones to heaven are mostly out of order, more traditional modes of communication with the Other Side have a venerable history in Africa. Masquerades, for instance. While we cannot dial up the Dead, they may return to check on us, as they do in Southwest Nigeria, where the lavishly costumed Egungun (Spirits of the Dead) dance in Yoruba towns and villages during New Year festivities. Each family has its own egun, and strives mightily to keep them actively engaged in the welfare of the living. "You do me, I do you," is the operative principle for relations in the material world (ile aiye) and in orun, the invisible time/space dimension of the egun. We know of similar interactions from the powerful descriptions of Igbo and Yoruba writers (cf. Chinua Achebe's chilling description of the ancestral Igbo Egwugwu with their smoking head masks arriving from the Forest to judge village miscreants in Things Fall Apart, or the hapless "Professor" trying to interrogate the mute spirit of the ancestral Yoruba agemo masquerader in WoIe Soyinka's The Road).

Such performed interactions did not survive the middle passage. While egun persist as the divinized dead in Santería and Candomblé, they no longer bear the identity of individualized ancestors. Nor do the Gedes of Vodou, who indeed represent categories of the dead (idiot lawyers, corrupt politicians, mincing pastors, wanton whores, and others), but do so as principles rather than persons. …

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