Reclaiming the Yin: Liberation of Black Female Artists Through Voodoo and Literature

Without any knowledge of African diasporic spiritual practices, much Black literature, particularly Black female literature cannot be read properly or be thoroughly understood.  These “religions which developed during the era of slavery in nations where Catholicism [or other modes of Christianity were] the official religion have historically, to a greater or lesser extent, embraced an informal syncretism between the African pantheons and locally popular Catholic Church Saints [and Folk Saints]... the beliefs associated with African traditions of ancestor veneration exist in distinctly African-American forms” (  References and subtle mentions to the African pantheons, nature worship, and ancestor reverence within various texts can be easily overlooked by the untrained eye. However, with awareness, the readers of New Negro, 20th century and contemporary Black writers can quickly receive the coded messages of ancient entities and beliefs. Because the indigenous African cosmology, or belief of the nature of creation and existence, provides much of the foundation for Afro-Caribbean and African American writing, studying the black literary canon without any sensitivity to the importance of Black spirituality is of little consequence.  And further, by connecting the ways in which other traditional cosmologies, particularly Chinese philosophies, understand the fluctuation between masculine and feminine, hidden and public, blackness and whiteness, as it relates to creation, greater insights can be formed about the nature of power.

Making Power

According to author and voodoo priestess, Luisah Teish, “Patriarchal education has led us to believe that Africa is “the Dark Continent,” void of any noteworthy contributions to civilization” (Jambalaya ix).  Extending this statement, nearly all indigenous traditions, at some point, became defined as darker, “less enlightened” forms of society by patriarchal, imperialist, and racist societies.   As a package of oppression - patriarchy, imperialism, and racism on a systemic level is meant to completely disrupt and disempower whole populations for the benefit of a few. Patriarchy disrupts feminine balance by institutionalizing hierarchic systems of power headed by men and systematically abusing or raping the female body.  Imperialism disrupts natural and commercial ecosystems by depleting resources and enslaving populations. Racist systems alienate all peoples disconnected from the ideal state of being as it is defined by the oppressor resulting in shortened lives.  The foreground for this possibility of oppression could be attributed to an imbalanced ideology of duality - the oppressor always believing in its superiority without recognition of its dependence on the oppressed.  

The normative lacks definition without the abnormal as the ruling class lacks foundation without the working class, whiteness lacks existence without darkness.  Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man is soaked with evidence of these ideas, particularly in regard to the main character’s work Liberty Paints.  Firstly, when the main character receives his first assignment at the paint production plant, he is given the instruction to add “glistening black drops” into paint buckets to make the “White!... the purest white that can be found” (202).  Ironic that it is the black that creates the white. Even further, when we meet the paint creator himself, a black man, who is also named Lucius, which means light, holds the very foundation for which the company can stand, saying, “Liberty Paints wouldn’t be worth a plugged nickel if they didn’t have me here to see that it got a good strong base” (215).  The lay people, and oftentimes the melanated people serve as the foundation for which capitalism and racism can stand while being forced to endure disempowerment and exploitation.  

Even though many in the Afro community have reclaimed the term “Black” as a means to gain strength through identity, as a concept, blackness or darkness is institutionally taught as a state that challenges or antagonizes the light or “whiteness”.  However, with consciousness on the nature of darkness as understood by Yin/Yang duality, blackness or Yin is nothing less than the receptive, feminine quality of creation and the unforeseen forces which directly affect all things, seen and unseen, and stands as the foreground for which whiteness can emerge.  Whiteness stands for what is seen, what is active, and what penetrates or occupies - the active quality of creation ie. the phallus. The wombyn’s (cis or trans), as described by the Yin quality of nature, “place of power… is neither white or surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep” (Poetry is not a Luxury).  But because of the current state of the world, with a far larger emphasis on masculine, white, penetrative elements, the Yin, the ancient, the black energy remains subjugated.   Being Black and female then holds an even stronger bond to Yin qualities because of its intersectional nature, and therefore, is strewn to invisibility with even more aggression.   So, when the black female reclaims “the word Voudou (which means Life-Principle, Genius, and Spirit in the Fon and Ewe language of West Africa) and empowers herself, then the mystic, ancient feminine at large can be called from the abyss (Jambalaya x). 

How Voodoo Got its Groove Back

African spirituality’s ability to survive so strongly in the Americas can be attributed largely to Catholic dominance in the Caribbean colonies and the strong Black female presence in plantation households. Because of spiritual oppression in the Americas, African traditions were cultivated underground by those who strove to maintain it.  Loosely aligning the Yoruba pantheon (deities) with Catholic folk saints and figures, practitioners perceivably adopted the oppressor’s spirituality while at the same time maintaining their own; this alignment evolved into its own subset, Santeria.  The method of becoming invisible, or occult, ensured the survival of some of the traditions. For example, Yemaya, mother of the ocean in the Yoruba tradition becomes aligned with Lady of Regla (who is black) or Mary, Star of the Sea who both hold significant symbols of ocean flow, children, full moons, blue and white, shore birds, and conch shells.  When these images are invoked in text, she is brought attention to. Another example would be the Yoruba deity Oshun, who becomes aligned with Lady of Caridad del Cobre, Mother of Charity, who connect to an iconography rich with yellow, green, mirrors, peacocks, honey, oranges, the New crescent moon, and Venus. One of the last female deities in the Seven African Powers is Oya, the bringer of the storm, who connects to Lady of Candelaria, St. Theresa, and St. Catherine.  She connects to Red wine, eggplant, purple, brown, burnt orange, sheep, locust, copper, and the dark moon (Jambalaya 114-115). Because of the connection that these deities make in the third dimensional realm, with household items, colors, days of the week, and cycles of the season or of the moon, their presence is very tangible in everyday occurrences. This idea, that the daily is affected by the divine is pinnacle to the rooted, melanated cosmology and the reading of any Negro writer who is conscious and connected to their traditional spiritual essence.  

Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Tell My Horse, Mules and Men, and various other books rich with the rooted spiritual practices, can be more deeply understood by acknowledging her status as a voodoo priestess and her curiosity in the practice of voodoo and magic, particularly as it existed in Haiti while she was compiling her works.  Zora summons goddesses in the Yoruba pantheon through rich imagery in Their Eyes Were Watching God.  In the second chapter, Janie Crawford, the protagonist of the novel, “[stretches] on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun… and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch [creamed] in every blossom… Then [she] felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid” (13).   Clearly, this crescendo is one of orgasmic proportion, but the bees, the gold of the sun and the nature of orgasm are all elements closely associated with Oshun, a playful and youthful goddess who connects to bees, honey, and springtime trees and life. Janie is a younger woman at this point in the story and the goddess she invokes is particularly suited for the sexual explorations she experiences during this time in her life.  And while these deities are called upon for help and guidance, they can wield the very destructive powers that are necessary to the balance of life. By the end of the novel, however, Zora expresses this darker more destructive power in the form of a powerful storm that nearly takes Janie’s life. In chapter 18, Janie’s partner, Tea Cake, foolishly ignores the warnings of nature, for he is disconnected from the whisperings of its messages and believes “de money’s too good on the muck” and stays to fight through the storm.  Captured by capitalism, ignorant of the indigenous ways and goes as far as to say “Indians don’t know much uh nothin’... De white folks ain’t gone nowhere. Dey oughta know if it’s dangerous” (182-183). But the power of nature, of the forces unseen still came, “Through the screaming wind they heard things crashing… with unbelievable velocity… with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time… The sea was walking the earth” (186 - 187). The coming hurricane, a direct reference to the power of Oya, who brings the sudden change of weather for the followers of Voodoo, as she gathers with Yemaya, the mother of the ocean who is bringing the sea onto shore.  Hurston is increasingly aware of this interaction of natural forces as it connects to the deities:

Hurston, in fact, worked on her voodoo material side by side with her fiction, often doing both kinds of writing in the same day. In 1937, while visiting the Isle de la Gonave outside Port-au-Prince, Hurston wrote her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in an astonishing seven weeks. It was inspired by the five-day hurricane she endured at Nassau, the first place she went on her Caribbean odyssey. Often she worked on the novel late at night after a long day of collecting voodoo material for Tell My Horse.  (The Problem of Invisibility: Voodoo and Zora Neale Hurston p. 146)

She places nature’s power in a far higher position than that of men: black or white, the structures of capitalism and man: buildings, and reveres its power as God itself.  Anticipating the coming storm, “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes with watching God” (187). Here is where the true power lies from Hurston’s viewpoint in this novel; the darkness which carries the energy that affects all things, that looks as darkness because it is not perceived with the eye, this power is felt, and it is with sensitivity to this feeling, the feminine, that brings communion with unseen forces.

Yin in the Home

The yin, the feminine, recessive, who remembers the traditions and is forced to keep its secrets in secluded darkness has insured the survival of ancient cosmologies.  In the novel I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem, a story reclaiming the historical image of Tituba and giving her voice in a world that attempted to drown her out, Tituba’s mother, Abena, was to “entertain [her master’s mistress] with songs, possibly dances, and those devices he thought the slaves to be particularly fond of” (3).  The two women became friends and even slept together, [Abena] would tell her stories that her mother told her in the village of Akwapim, where she was born. She would conjure up all the dark forces of nature at their bedside in order to appease the darkness” (4). For many young enslaved women, the home of the master became a secret haven where every day actions could become divinated.  These small crafts would then be passed onto mothers and onto the children they were forced to care for. The survival of the rooted system from which melanated peoples can draw from was fostered by female strongholds in plantation homes, in the land, the music, and other domestic arts. Domestic superstitions that come from the Black mother figure are recounted in Teish’s poem, Hoodoo Mama, “Wooden stairs scrubbed with red brick/ Holy water sprinkled on the floor… ‘Dont cross yo’ legs at de table.  ‘Beware the cook dat don’t eat… Common sense is what de Lawd give ya. There’s prophecy in the bark of a dog.” (2).  In the small nuances and the everyday wisdom is where the power lies for Black mothers and home keepers. 

Owning the Body

While the yin qualities does align itself with that of the feminine, it does not lend itself only to females as a gender expression, it is the Yin quality of receptivity, the understanding of the darkness as it is valuable and how absorption as a practice is healthy in its doses.  The centuries-long refusal of the feminine quality of individual personality and community, and the promotion of female bodies in the population at large has eventually produced its opposite: hyper-masculinity and a world where men slightly outnumber women, according to The World Factbook.  For example, possession as a common belief in most traditional spiritualities produces the consciousness that the physical vessel does not belong indefinitely to the present user or ego. That it, much like a vehicle can be inhabited and used by different entities. The Orishas or deities in the Yoruba and Voodoo traditions are openly welcomed and are even enticed to enter the human host body  - the human then becoming one with the deity while in the trance state. The personal practice of merging with godhood could not possibly stand in a patriarchal and hierarchical society. It breaks down the very structures of control pressed on by colonialism: we can own you by owning the corporeal body and you are less than your captures. Systematic brainwashing had to be implemented in order to strip the power from the individual and the group at large. 

Trying to study black literature without any consciousness on the African spirit is an equally fruitless pursuit as attempting to fathom modern Native American literature without knowing about Christopher Columbus.  Black authorship is in itself an act of rebellion. Throughout the history of imperialism, language has been used as a means of control, ie. if enslaved people be disconnected from their native tongues, they can be more easily controlled.  In taking away a human’s ability to express, the oppressor can take away their ability to define themselves, create, and therefor, be free. But the furthest oppressed, the Black female is autonomous, is vocal, is expressive, and can regain power, by reclaiming the deep and ancient magic that lay within her.