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When I read Zora Neale Hurtson’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first time last year, I approached it with caution. Much had been made about her use of African American dialect—I did not assume that being a Jamaican reader of African descent would render it any more legible to me than any other non-African American reader. Yet even as I had created distance, there was a countercurrent. Learning Hurston was from Florida made her family to me. National borders do not hinder many from considering that state a part of our region. For some of us, the Caribbean isn’t a geographical region at all.

It’s an issue that I bring up and that no one wants to pay attention to, but the Caribbean isn’t a geographical area, but rather a cultural one. It doesn’t only cover the Caribbean Sea. For me, it begins in the south of the United States—everything that is Louisiana and Florida—and extends to northern Brazil. That is, it’s not a geographical territory, but a cultural territory.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, El País, 1994, unpublished interview

The language further anchored me in that territory: beautiful and intimately familiar. How Hurston wrote the dialect and how it influenced the English on the page reminded me of what Anglo-Caribbean authors had done for decades—those who shared her approach and others who did it differently. Could the language be a node to a reading supported wholly by my Jamaican/Caribbean knowledge, due to our cultures’ shared African origins and creolized realities, alive in a text Hurston wrote while she was in Haiti? Across time and space, reader and writer, in conversation sprung from and rooted in a shared intercultural space not fixed to a physical location.

The Black God’s Drums (Tordotcom, 2018) and Ring Shout (Tordotcom, 2020) by P. Djèlí Clark, novellas set in what is known as the United States of America, are of the same virtual ground/cultural soil. What I found magnetic in both stories was not the conflict between the different peoples of African descent on the mainland and white supremacists, compelling and relevant as it was, but the histories and cultural forms, the cosmologies and epistemologies, the ways of being Clark depicted that spoke directly to me as an Afro-Caribbean being. Using Myriam J. A. Chancy’s autochthonomy reading practice or process, which takes place in Lakou or Yard Consciousness, I will show how Clark’s worldbuilding in the two novellas emphasizes, indeed embodies, not a rupture from Africa, but “a violence that gave birth to re-articulations of what it meant to be African on new ground.”

Chancy is a Haitian-Canadian/American writer of fiction and nonfiction, as well as the HBA Chair of Humanities at Scripps College, who authored the text Autochthonomies: Transnationalism, Testimony, and Transmission in the African Diaspora. It is a highly academic text, so for this essay’s purpose, I’ll simply define autochthonomy, Chancy’s neologism, as a process, a reading practice that offers a reorientation, a way for us to read African and African diaspora artists with and through each other—our cultures, philosophies, epistemologies—without the need to reference European ones. To do this, we need an understanding of ourselves that does not rely on race, a European fiction. There are ways to read their work that aren’t rooted in dynamics of marginalization, of being in opposition to. The neologism is a combination of two words: autochthone and autonomy. Autochthone can mean “native,” but also “of the earth, ground or soil,” which is less tethered to the idea of “first” that the word “indigenous” carries, as well as its definition of being a marginalized population seeking sovereignty. [1] “Autonomy” is there to emphasize an African/African Diasporic subjectivity.

The concept of the Lakou or Yard goes beyond definitions of building or garden plots. As Chancy explains, “It goes back to villages in Africa [that] were organized in rounded formations, and everything took place in that middle space.” As a Jamaican, I can speak to our communal and spiritual yard spaces, where art, music, and spiritual practices are created and regenerated. As consciousness, it reflects the reality that this space exists for the wider diaspora as a virtual space where our artists are in dialogue with each other—it is no longer tied to the physical. [2]

The emphasis on connection rather than disruption is not meant to present us as a monolith. Too often, this perspective to perceive and understand the African Diaspora along difference rather than similarity has led me to approach books by African and African American writers as an outsider, only to have the work upend my position. There is some art that renders such a position untenable.

Unlike the books and films Chancy examined in her book, Clark’s speculative fabulations chart a unique pathway into the space. His fantastical narratives renew generative ways of seeing what forces and peoples shape the Americas with implications for the wider world. What gives his worldbuilding that power is what Bahamian writer Alexia Tolas asserted on a virtual panel about Caribbean Fantasy Fiction hosted by Tanya Batson-Savage of Blue Banyan Books, a Jamaican publisher. [3]

Caribbean fantasy authenticates our reality. […] We don’t write for that audience that was looking for an adventure or an escape away from their reality. We are exploring our realities. That’s what makes Caribbean fantasy very unique—it’s taking what we already know and making it real.

That reality is formed through African diasporas’ histories, philosophies, and cultures that “began with, but also precede, the colonial enterprise and invasion” (and is therefore applicable to more than Caribbean fiction). [4] This Yard Consciousness is present in many of Clark’s works, including the short fiction, but is, thus far, most fully realized in the two novellas covered here.

The Black God’s Drums is an alternate history steampunk set in the neutral city of New Orleans in the midst of a truce between the Northern and Southern states in civil war. Haiti, Britain, and France helped to broker a truce, as Haiti is a major regional power after its successful revolution. But one compromise is that the South maintains its plantation slavery system. Creeper, a hyper competent thirteen-year-old New Orleans native, born with a part of Oya within her, overhears part of a white terrorist plot that bodes ill for the city. She teams up with Trinidadian airship captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine, with the support of other allies, to save the city from destruction.

For me, the steampunk genre calls to mind Britain’s industrial revolution funded by its colonial wealth, made possible by its involvement with the transatlantic slave trade. But in the world of the Black Gods, the Haitian Revolution is the axis on which the world turns, leading an alliance of the Free Isles (which readers recognize as the Caribbean) and trafficking weapons and other resources to General Tubman’s guerrilla war. In contrast to a US imperialist narrative that presents Haiti as an isolated, ongoing catastrophe, Clark pulls on the known history of the Haitian government’s support of revolutions and emancipatory movements throughout the region, emancipating Santo Domingo (now known as the Dominican Republic) and unifying the two sides of the island for a time, [5] as well as offering refuge to Simón Bolívar, providing arms and soldiers to Brazil on the condition that slavery abolition was a part of his revolutionary agenda.

Clark’s worldbuilding affirmed not only what I knew, but led me to what I did not know. In one scene, as Creeper passes time on Chartres Street in Emancipation Square, waiting for Ann-Marie to make further plans, she reads a newspaper full of news on Maddi grá, set to start the next day, and thinks of how all await King Kwamena and King Deslondes to “lead the Night March, honoring the slave uprising of Afrikins and Creoles way back in 1811.” Further searching confirmed that I had learned for the first time about the largest slave revolt ever to happen on US soil, directly inspired by the Haitian revolution and co-led by Saint-Domingue-born Charles Deslondes (though some sources claim he was perhaps of Haitian descent but born in Louisiana).

Creeper’s birth occurred under Haiti’s sway. In this history, it’s the inventions of Ducongue, a mulatto Haitian scientist, which were key to Haiti’s victories over France. The first was Shango’s Thunder: something of a meteorological weapon of mass destruction, like hurricanes but much worse. It too had a world-altering impact, permanently altering the weather with its remnants, known in the book as tempêtes noires, forcing New Orleans to build great walls for protection. As told to Creeper by her mother, it was during one of these tempêtes noires that Creeper was born. Hurricanes themselves count as world-altering events in this timeline, and form another connection between Africa and the Americas.

Throughout all this are the gods, and here too, Haiti is a passageway. In more of the knowledge Creeper’s mother handed down to her, “the magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of the city … only we forgot the names that went with that power we brought over here. Since Haiti got free … those gods were coming back, across the waters.” It is both New Orleans-born Creeper and Trinidad-born Captain Ann-Marie, and their empowering bonds with Oya and Oshun, who are pivotal to saving New Orleans and the rest of the world.

The quotes I have shared thus far hint at the language diversity replete in the text. From the opening epigraph, Dessalines’s first name is presented as Jean-Jacques and JanJak. As well as English, French, and Spanish, there is Cajun, as well as the Creoles of Louisiana (“Afrikin” and “Maddi grá”), Haiti, and Trinidad. Through Ann-Marie’s explanation, Creeper and the reader learn that though Haiti had its own name for the weapon named after other gods, it was Trinidad’s that became popular. This read to me as layering in Trinidad’s own syncretic Orisa religion, underscoring both the spread of the Yoruba deities and the complex interplay of diaspora cultures that are never merely one way.

Clark’s creation of and writing for the fabulously bisexual, disabled Trinidadian airship captain was another waymarking. Clark himself is a descendant of people from multiple parts of the Caribbean and the United States. As Chancy noted in her text that there are multiple African diasporas within, not just outside, the continent, Clark noted in his 2019 interview for Locus Magazine that there was a diverse range of Afro-Caribbean people who migrated to Trinidad. This informed his creation of Ann-Marie, which Clark described in a 2018 Lightspeed Magazine interview as “a composite of women in my Afro-Caribbean family,” as well as inspired by “Sanité Bélair, a heroine of the Haitian Revolution.” Clark’s placement of Orisa deities with a girl and woman born in the Americas, with Haiti’s Revolution as the spiritual portal that enabled the reconnection, is a powerful imaginary, which, as Chancy states about Yard Consciousness, “does not assume a lost home ground or origin(s) but argues for a constant reconceptualization of ‘home.’”

Perhaps Ring Shout may seem an unlikely candidate for an autochthonomous reading, set as it is in the early twentieth century Prohibition era in Georgia, USA, under Jim Crow. The re-release of the Birth of a Nation film is at the center of an otherworldly plot to metastasize racial hate in Macon, Georgia. With that high impact opening line, “You ever seen a Klan march?”, it all might seem to pull from a distinct US-American experience. It is. Distinction never hinders kinship.

I had never heard of the ring shout before I read Clark’s novella. A Jamaican friend who had read an early copy linked the shout to Jamaican-African retentive spiritualities. But it could not resonate for me until I read the scene in which Maryse, Chef, and Sadie, the novella’s fighting friendship trio, enter the home of Nana Jean, a Gullah root worker and resistance leader. The description of the men and women moving in a counterclockwise direction, feet never lifting from the floor, as others clap and a Stick Man rhythmically pounds the floor, the call and response song of “Blow Gabriel! At the Judgment,” invoked for me the autochthonous Afro-Jamaican performative and spiritual traditions of Kumina and Revivalism. Nana Jean’s Gullah language confirmed the connection. Gullah was the African-American language closest to Jamaica’s Patwa that I had ever encountered, so much so that I would unconsciously slip into Patwa when I read her dialogue out loud. Friends from the Bahamas to Guyana who read the book said the same. Even Nana Jean’s working of root magic during the shout was recognizable. Although I myself have not come across any writing that linked root workers with the shout, it is common for Revivalists to also be members of mainline Christian churches, as one example.

Practitioners of all three understand it as a predominantly African practice, with the shout and Revivalism the most syncretized with European Christianity and, in Revivialism’s case, Indo- and Chinese-Caribbean traditions (although I will complicate that shortly). In Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia by Art Rosenbaum, Lawrence McKiver, one of the shout group leaders, said:

Every bit of it is an African act. The old people, that’s what they tell me. Nobody does it but our kind of people. The shout … it’s just an African act. You can tell by the singing, tell by the song, tell by the beat, it’s actually an African beat.

For the article “Kumina in Rural Southeastern Jamaica: Beyond Resistance to Antithetical-Hegemonic-Subsumption,” Bandele Agyemang Davy interviewed Kumina practitioners from her community, including her own relatives, who referred to themselves as Bongo, Bongo nation, and Kongo people. They call themselves African.

In his writings on Revivalism as a scholar and practitioner himself, Kirt Henry consistently asserts that “Revival dress and its complex belief system is an indigenous aesthetic expression that proudly celebrates our African identity,” even as he is careful to note the influence of other cultures. This understanding reflects Chancy’s elucidation of Lakou/Yard Consciousness:

… not as in a space of assimilation, but as one of reconfiguration, in which African cultural antecedents are guiding principles and aspirations, alongside, rather than in spite of concepts adopted and adapted from dominant culture within hegemonic colonial systems that remain formative whether in postcolonial (in the Americas or Europe) or post colony (in Africa, after Mbembe) systems.

The shout families Rosenbaum interviewed traced their family roots from West Africa via the Bahamas. The more robust records map movement the other way. As early as the eighteenth century, African American Baptist ministers like George Lisle came to Jamaica and laid the foundation of what H. E. S. Woods, also known as Shakespeare, and another African American preacher founded as the nineteenth century Native Baptist Movement, a Revivalist group. Alexander Bedward, his Jamaican successor, “transformed it from just another revivalist church to its final position as a mass movement, the prototype of nationalist movement, and as such a forerunner to the Pan-Caribbean nationalist movement of the early twentieth century.” To Trinidad and Tobago went the Merikins, runaway slaves who the British recruited for the War of 1812 with promises of freedom and sixteen acres of land in their territories. The companies that migrated to Trinidad helped to form the Shouter or Spiritual Baptist faith. Other origin stories trace the group’s lineage through St. Vincent. Colonial authorities sought to violently oppress the faith for the “crime” of being African, going so far as to ban it from 1917 to 1951, during which time the faith was linked to the Grenada-born Uriah “Buzz” Butler, Trinidad and Tobago’s transformational labor leader. [6]

These cultural forms are able to fuel resistance movements because they are essential ways to maintain community ties with the ancestors in the body movements, in the melodies, in the songs, and in the stories. One of my favorite elements of Ring Shout is the excerpts of transcribed interviews Emma Kraus, a German-Jewish member of the resistance fighters, conducted with the shouters. They offer insightful analysis of actual shout songs that foreground the ancestors as clever, complex, powerful “grand thinkers,” who the current shouters carry in memory, ritual, song, and language, and in ways of seeing that are vital. The finishing blow against the Ku Kluxes in the novella’s climax is not by the sword, but by the shout.

Oh, but what a sword. Maryse wields a haint-gifted weapon I first met not on the page but as the most artfully created wood mark. Kaymara Barrett, founder and curator of Decentred Lit, a book box company in Jamaica (sadly closed), collaborated with Clark on putting together a limited edition Ring Shout box. Sounds frivolous? Not with Barrett’s curation. Here is the description: “Inspired by Maryse’s leaf-shaped sword, this wood mark pays homage to ancestral voices. The design is loosely inspired by ceremonial swords used within the Kingdom of Benin.” Here is an excerpt from its first moment in the book with Maryse (US-born, like Creeper) wielding the sword inside a cotton warehouse, facing monsters in 1920s Macon, Georgia.

It comes to me at a thought and a half-whispered prayer, pulled from nothingness into my waiting grip—a silver hilt joined to smoke that moves like black oil before dripping away. The flat, leaf-shaped blade it leaves behind is almost half my height, with designs cut into the dark iron. Visions dance in my head as they always do when the sword comes: a man pounding out silver with raw, cut-up feet in a mine in Peru; a woman screaming and pushing out birth blood in the bowels of a slave ship; a boy, wading to his chest in a rice field in the Carolinas … the visions always different. People dead now for Lord knows how long. Their spirits are drawn to the sword, and I can hear them chanting—different tongues mixing into a harmony that washes over me, settling onto my skin. It’s them that compel the ones bound to the blade—the chiefs and kings who sold them away—to call on Old African gods to rise up, and dance in time to the song.

There is perhaps no better symbol of Clark’s worldbuilding in this particular vein of his writings. Every element of its composition is heavy with meaning for us.

Sandra T. Barnes wrote of the “sacred iron complex” in Africa and the African Diaspora. West and Central Africa had a significant history of ironworking technology for centuries. By the fifteenth century, iron had profound spiritual, political, and increasingly economical significance for societies like the Kingdom of Benin, Igboland, and the Asante Empire, with many who shared the belief that “iron materials could embody both principles of the sacred and the profane.” Metallurgists were revered and feared for their ability to separate the two, which was instrumental to making both sacred objects like altars, shrines, and machetes, as well as mundane agricultural tools, and with the rise of the transatlantic slave trade, the shackles and chains, and iron bars as currency. In the Americas, sugar plantations ran on iron and enslaved African labor. In Jamaica, Maroon metallurgists “remanufactured” those shackles, chains, and agricultural tools into ritual objects with the most powerful practical purpose. The knives and cutlasses that the observer reported were afana, the Maroon word for a machete that is both the most mundane tool and mediator of the most dangerous sacred rites. Afana directly recalls the Akan word for sword, “afena.”

Sacred swords were of particular importance to Asante rulers. When Opoku Ware I succeeded Osei Tutu, a founder of the Asante Empire, Opoku Ware inherited Bosomuru, Osei Tutu’s sword, but gained a sword of his own. Mpɔnpɔnsɔn was forged when he was a baby, at the height of the region’s trade with Europe, and Komfo Anokye, his priest advisor, had it made of an “assembly of materials,” including European iron. “To bring grief to presence without putting it into words, Komfo Anokye made Opoku address Bosomuru and Mpɔnpɔnsɔn, invoking the status of the iron sword’s material embodiment and bringing to presence the heterogeneous political and material relations articulated in the legend of its forging.” And it was Mpɔnpɔnsɔn Opoku Ware used when his vassals pledged their allegiance to the ruler, and he pledged his allegiance to the kingdom in turn, as “the iron of the blade that connected Mpɔnpɔnsɔn to the polity.” [7]

Much of this is rearticulated through Maryse’s narrative in Ring Shout, representative of our African and African Diasporan realities. Meanings may change, but the violent dislocation did not sever bonds. The repurposed sacred iron connects to her “polity”—both the ancestors called in the vision, from Benin to Peru, Cuba to South Carolina, and to the living she fights alongside. And she best wields the sword after she remanufactures the grief, anger, and fear of her traumatic past—reforms them so that they no longer block, but are instead realigned with, the ancestral voices that seek a justice and a freedom still becoming.

My attempt at an autochthonomous reading of The Black God’s Drums and Ring Shout was not done to suggest that it is the only or best way to examine these titles, or any other writing by a writer of African descent. When applicable, it can provide what for some may be a critical reorientation that enables readers of whatever background to co-create a rich engagement with the intricate journeys and conversations embedded in such fiction. Too often, readers, even those of groups to whom such narratives are directly addressed, dismiss them out of hand if racism is a discernible theme. These lamentations about “Black trauma books” seem to reflect a white reduction of such books rather than any substantial reckoning with the work. Certainly, there is a need for publishers to acquire and support a wider range of writing by authors of African descent, but readers also need to cultivate reading practices that reject simplistic binaries in favor of those that allow them entrance into the joy-giving multidimensionality of the speculative past, present, future, and other dimensions alive in the books we have right now.

 

 

Endnotes:

  1. Chancy acknowledges that “autochthonous” has its own complicated history. “Without, then, denying that the use of the term autochthone is also rooted in colonial mechanisms, and currently deployed within African context to levy power and political position, I nonetheless borrow from this common usage in the elaboration of my own neologism in order to accentuate the concept … of ‘first coming,’ ‘spiritual bonds with the land,’ and political supremacy (with the latter understood not in the terms of conquest but in terms of political viability in a variety of national contexts both African and Diasporic in which the ‘native’ can also be part of a dominant group in power.” The definition of “indigenous” as a group that “does not control the national government of the countries in which they live” that was codified at the UN seems … off to me. [return]
  2. It can be difficult to find quality online resources about African retentive culture, but this blog post from the National Gallery of Jamaica on its “Spiritual Yards” exhibition is a good read, if a little long. It is especially relevant because it references Revivalism, which I mention further down in the essay, and to “Black Yard art” by African American artists. I avoid any elaboration of “Lakou” because it is a Haitian term with its own layered meanings, including within Vodun, which I am not in a position to explain. [return]
  3. The video starts from the question Tolas answers. Her response starts at 15:12. [return]
  4. Mignolo, Walter D., and Catherine E. Walsh. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Duke University Press, 2018. [return]
  5. The shared history of Haiti and the Dominican Republic is a much contested one. No doubt some will take issue with my framing. Anne Eller’s We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom, published in 2016 from Duke University Press, is a well-written text on the subject. [return]
  6. Henry, Frances. “Reclaiming African religions in Trinidad: the socio-political legitimation of the Orisha and spiritual Baptist faith.” University of the West Indies Press, 2003. Accessed 9 October 2023. [return]
  7. All quotes and the bulk of information shared on the “sacred iron complex” are from Jenny Bulstrode’s fantastic “Black metallurgists and the making of the industrial revolution,” in which she proves that it was Black metallurgists in Jamaica who created a process a white British thief named Henry Cort stole, patented in England, and got credited with—a transformative role in the industrial revolution. The article is open access! [return]


Akilah White is a Jamaican freelance media critic and beta reader living a Yard. Her writing is in several places including The Bad Form Review and the anthology Divergent Terror: At the Crossroads of Queerness and Horror edited by W. Dale Jordan (Off Limits Press). For regular book musings and Don’t Cyare Gyal radiance, follow her on Instagram at ifthisisparadise.
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26 Feb 2024

I can’t say any of this to the man next to me because he is wearing a tie
Language blasts through the malicious intentions and blows them to ash. Language rises triumphant over fangs and claws. Language, in other words, is presented as something more than a medium for communication. Language, regardless of how it is purposed, must be recognized as a weapon.
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