Current Issue / DU Alumni

The Spirit in Words

Illustration of the "corn goddess" with dancing figures

The Corn Goddess, by Mari Hall

Readers make a bargain when reading fiction: We agree to suspend disbelief so as to enter the author’s world and experience its inherent tension — that of walking the line between truth and make-believe.

Although recent scandals involving best-selling memoirs have exposed authors for fabricating events in nonfiction, the converse, co-opting reality for fictional purposes, is standard in creative writing classes, where nascent writers are enjoined to “write what you know.”

That fiction opens readers’ eyes to universal truths is beyond question. But what can literature reveal to us about human behavior across time and cultures? Can it serve as an anthropological record of sorts, uncovering how people ate, loved and worshipped? More to the point, how are we to know what’s true, embellished or fabricated when it’s housed in a fantastical art form?

These are the overarching questions currently occupying the mind and work of Barbara Wilcots, an associate professor of English and associate dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

As a student and teacher of African, African-American and Afro-Caribbean literature, Wilcots has long been interested in the mystical and sacred elements swirling through the black literary canon. What she didn’t know was whether these depictions of sacred rites were authentic, fictional or some combination thereof.

Seeking cultural continuity

In 2002, a church mission trip took Wilcots and her family to Tanzania, where they worked with local families to lay water pipe and install solar panels in schools and small medical dispensaries. At the clinics, Wilcots noticed promotional posters — written in both Swahili and English — urging women to bring their children for vaccinations while also warning them against using local healers.

Alarmed by the cultural bias — the clear repudiation of traditional healing practices — Wilcots wondered how much the Tanzanians accepted or rejected this kind of propaganda. Was Tanzanian folklore and culture being lost in the effort to modernize systems and health care? Could people retain their root practices even in the face of such well-meaning “colonization”? And what about the forced immigration of previous centuries? How did slavery and the imposition of Christianity affect the sacred rites of Africans?

“Is there cultural continuity among new world communities of the African diaspora?” she asks. “What is the cultural continuity, and how are the rites and practices retained and represented in fiction?”

To answer these questions, Wilcots (PhD English ’95) began a journey of literary anthropology, examining the literary record and reading widely in the fields of anthropology and theology. To amass additional expertise in the religious and sacred practices of 18th and 19th century Africa and the Caribbean, she enlisted the advice of colleagues, including DU Professor Emeritus and African-American religion expert Will Gravely, and followed leads in an attempt to match and compare literary descriptions of sacred rites with historical practices.

In her paper “Literary Archaeology: Reclaiming Afro-Caribbean Sacred Rites in Praisesong for the Widow and Tell My Horse,” Wilcots traces the similarities between the Haitian rites described by anthropologists and those recounted by Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica and Paule Marshall in Praisesong for the Widow. The canzo — a Voodoo initiation that Hurston personally experienced (and that Marshall’s heroine goes through in a slightly different form) — involves dances, ritual bathing, food offerings and song designed to bring the initiate to a new level of awareness, or konesans. The ceremony, Wilcots writes, “breaks the stranglehold of psychic and cultural enslavement of the formerly colonized and reestablishes the cultural connections between Africa and the children of the African diaspora.”

Drawing on an examination the work of writers such as Toni Morrison, Marshall, Gayl Jones, Erna Brodber and Opal Palmer Adisa, among others, Wilcots is planning two books — one on sacred rites in African-American and Afro-Caribbean literature and the other on the role of female healers in fiction.

Barbara Wilcots recommends the following works of African- American and Afro-Caribbean women’s fiction, which depict African-derived sacred rites:

It Begins with Tears by Opal Palmer Adisa

The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara

Myal by Erna Brodber

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

The Living Blood by Tananareve Due

Devil’s Dance by Gisèle Pineau

Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange

The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart

The Healing by Gayle Jones

Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall

Paradise by Toni Morrison

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

Although Wilcots’ research in this area continues, her early conclusions indicate that these novelists didn’t invent this stuff. Rather, the sacred rites described in the fiction derive from family stories, rituals and writers’ research and experiences.

Wilcots seeks to determine whether sacred practices evidenced in fiction are retentions or reclamations. A “retention,” she explains, is a tradition that was brought to the New World and retained, though not necessarily in its original form. “Reclamation” refers to practices that have been more recently imported from the African continent and embraced for reasons of cultural identity.

Understanding the spiritual and religious context out of which a novel springs gives readers additional insight into the texts as well as provides a kind of documentary account of how African and Caribbean people held the practices of their homelands dear, even when forced to adopt Christianity.

The work Wilcots is doing offers “another way to open the text and explore it, knowing that it isn’t just written out of how white people see the world,” observes DU English Professor Margaret Whitt, author of Understanding Gloria Naylor and editor of the anthology Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement. “Barbara’s reclaiming; she’s putting the pieces of the puzzle together so those of us who don’t know about the puzzle can see it.”

Wilcots’ interest in religion and spiritual practice takes her beyond the bounds of English as a discipline. That she isn’t an anthropologist or scholar of religion doesn’t deter her from using her research skills to find the points of connection between literature and other areas that fascinate her. She is the author of a forthcoming book about race and representation, and her teaching repertoire includes courses in African-American literature and criticism, the jazz age, American writers, and literature and social justice.

In addition to the sacred rites work, she’s also interested in religious elements — particularly Christ images — in hip-hop music, film and science fiction. For Wilcots, it all intersects. “Everything is connected,” she says. “In my own African-American tradition, we don’t always separate the sacred from the secular. Religion, life, learning — it’s all connected.”

The writers Wilcots studies commonly draw upon a theme of alienation from the community — and cultural disconnection from the African home continent — as tantamount to death. By teasing out the religious and spiritual rituals embedded in African-American and Afro-Caribbean literature, Wilcots is helping readers of all ethnicities go “home” — wherever that might be.

In her paper, Wilcots writes that Hurston and Marshall “reclaim and preserve West African spiritual values and offer them as tools of cultural and spiritual liberation for the children of the African diaspora.”

“We might follow their examples to traverse the distance and diligently work to keep alive the ceremonies that sustain us.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *