zora neale hurston, zombies, and haiti --12/27/23

Today's encore selection -- from Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King. In 1936, Zora Neale Hurston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship following the success of her book on folklore, Mules and Men. With this money she went to Haiti. While she was there she contributed significantly to the field of cultural anthropology and laid the foundation for her seminal work, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She also met a zombie:

"Hurston had read The Magic Island in preparation for her journey, but she was already well acquainted with 'hoodoo' or 'voodoo,' as she called it in her own writings, the popular religion of certain black communities in the South. During her time in New Orleans, she had been initiated into secret rites by several expert practitioners. ... Now in Haiti, Hurston fell in easily with priests whom she met casually through local friends and colleagues. In Arachaie, her connection with Dieu Donnez provided ready passage into this veiled society. She met some of the country's foremost houngans and mambos and watched as late-night ceremonies summoned an entire pantheon of gods -- a conclave of Jesus and the saints, standing alongside unfamiliar deities such as Damballah Ouedo and Erzulie Freida. She saw people writhe and cry as they were mounted by a loa [spirit]. She felt the urgency of grasping at another plane of reality -- seeing wickedness and purity, the most venal things and the most exalted, all braided together, all making sense, no more bizarre or unreal, or less ecstatic, than a Baptist prayer meeting in Eatonville [where she grew up]. ... 

"In Manhattan, there were only two boxes, the living and the dead. But haitians had added a third, a way of being neither one nor the other, or perhaps both at the same time. ... Haitians knew as zonbi, or ... zombie [a] special type of creature [that] haunted the Haitian landscape ... 'a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life.' ... In Haiti, talk of zombies 'seeps over the country like a ground current of cold air,' Hurston recalled. She encountered zombie legends nearly everywhere she went, from Port-au-Prince to Arcahaie and beyond. People would talk of zombies the way one might mention the weather or an upcoming wedding, if perhaps in a quieter tone. Everyone Hurston knew had met one, or knew someone who had met one. But for all that was talk. Nothing could quite prepare her for coming face-to-face with such a creature. ...

"At one point during her stay, Hurston visited a Haitian hospital. In the yard near the fence, she found a woman who had just been served dinner. Huddled in the defensive position, the woman had barely touched her food. When she saw Hurston approach, she pulled a branch from a nearby shrub and began to sweep the ground. ... Her name, Hurston learned, was Felicia Felix-Mentor. ... The stunning thing about this woman was that medical records showed that she had died in 1907. Hurston snapped several photographs of Felix-Mentor, at least one of which was later published. It remains the first known depiction of a person whom her Haitian neighbors knew as a zombie. ... 

"Twenty-nine years earlier, [Felicia Felix-Mentor's] funeral had taken place. She had been mourned, but her family quickly moved on with life. Her husband took a new wife. Her son grew into a man. But then, the autumn before Hurston visited, gendarmes had encountered a woman walking naked along a country road. She had turned up at a local farm and pointed it out as property that had once been hers, an inheritance from her father. The farmhands tried to shoo her away, but the owner soon arrived and, flabbergasted, declared that this was in fact his sister. Her former husband was sent for, and he also confirmed that it was indeed his dead wife, Felicia. 

"There was no going back to the way things were before, however. In her absence, everyone, including Felix-Mentor herself, had become someone else. The brother was a prosperous farmer, with control over the old family property that might otherwise have been shared with her. The husband was a minor official in the post occupation government, with a new family of his own. There was little to be done except seal her up again, this time behind the walls of the hospital where Hurston found her. 

"Doctors told Hurston that Felix-Mentor was likely the victim of poisoning. A practitioner of dark magic, a bocor, might have given her a drug that simulated death, concocted from a secret formula passed down from priest to priest. The bocor could then summon her back to life, brain-damaged and only a shell of the person she had been before. ... Hurston toyed with the idea of tracking down the formula for the poison and uncovering the secret of the zombie phenomenon. ... But when Hurston suddenly came down with stomach problems that summer, she backed off. ...

"The key to understanding zombies, Hurston concluded, lay not in finding a secret potion or in debunking another's mythology. It was actually believing in them. Felix-Mentor wasn't a person who was said to be a zombie. She wasn't a make-believe one .. She really was one. If you could twist your brain into seeing that fact, then you had taken a giant step toward seeing Haiti -- and the most important, its spirituality -- from the inside. At base, zombies were an object lesson in native categories. They were a way of dividing up reality that spoke volumes about how people in the Haitian countryside inhabited the world. In New York, people thought about death as a finality, the end of everything; reality came in two flavors, now and nothingness. Haitians, however, lived in a society that had opened up a condition not quite here but not quite on the other side of death either, a middle ground between being alive and not." 

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Charles King


Gods of the Upper Air


Anchor Books, a division of Random House


Copyright 2019 by Charles King


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