Destination: Jamaica and Haiti
“Jamaica, British West Indies, has something else besides its mountains of majesty and its quick, green valleys. Jamaica has its moments when the land, as in St. Mary’s, thrusts out its sensuous bosom to the sea.”
This nice bit of travel writing comes at the very beginning of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, a book written in 1938 by the masterful gatherer of tales and describer of what was then called Negro culture. Hurston, better known for her short stories, also wrote well researched and insightful ethnography. She focused on the absorption of African and Caribbean cultures into the culture of the African Americans of the Southern United States. Who better to read during Black History Month?
If that sounds too scholarly, don’t worry, Hurston is above all, a terrific story teller–lively and a terrific mimic of dialects, she takes the reader into situations and places that a white face could never enter–and some that I would be far too timid to even try.
In this book, she explores the beliefs and practices of Jamaica before moving on to a Haiti that seems to have learned little in the past 70 years. As she reviews the history of Haiti she says, “Haiti has always been two places. First it was the Haiti of the masters and slaves. Now it is the Haiti of the wealthy and educated mulattoes and the Haiti of the blacks.” She does not romanticize the problems of the people, pointing out “their enormous and unconscious cruelty.” She points out that the people prefer to blame problems on somebody outside, particularly the United States.
She tries to look into the future, and is hopeful that the young intellectuals of the day (1930′s) will see a continued growth in pride in their own country. Unfortunately, that is not the direction that Haiti took. (The following video takes about 5 1/2 minutes to watch and gives a look at current day voodoo practice in Haiti).
Because the majority religion is voodoo, rather than the official Catholicism, she writes about voodoo, hounforts and houngans and zombies. She refused just to ask people to tell her about voodoo–she made contacts that let her visit voodoo rites. The book includes her black and white photos, including some taken during ceremonies, and one of a “zombie.”
I find her detailed descriptions of voodoo fascinating, not because I’m going to Haiti, but because of the persistence of voodoo in Louisiana (brought there by Haitians, of course). In New Orleans, as Hurston reports in Haiti, the upper classes brush off the idea of voodoo as just a myth.
The complexity of voodoo rivals the intricacies of Hinduism, and Hurston makes it understandable, with sympathy, but a scientific detachment.
If you have never read Hurston, you may want to start instead on her short stories and articles during Black History Month. They are gathered in a separate volume by the Library of America series. And I may revisit Hurston when we stop in Florida on the Great American Road Trip, since she wrote with homespun elegance about the African-American life in her home state.
As one of the members of The Harlem Renaissance, along with Langston Hughes, Hurston is now recognized as a powerful force in American literature. When she died in 1960, however, she had been forgotten and was broke. It is bitter sweet to read her collected works in this elegant book, with a proud portrait on the cover and a classy ribbon marker.
Have you read Zora Neale Hurston before? Did you know about her investigations into Voodoo?
If you agree that this is an important writer, please pass on this story by clicking on one of the buttons below, and tell your friends what you read at A Traveler’s Library today.