Issue 20: How Are You?

Holly Bynoe

Reading time: 14 minutes

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21.06.2021

Mothering an Archipelago of Hope

Curator and spiritist Holly Bynoe reflects on the expansion of Obeah, a belief system of the Caribbean Black communities, and its relationship with women and their ancestral heritage to continue exercising care in the face of colonial extermination.

For Charlotte, Bessie, Audre, and for all of our grandmothers who fought in silence
“This is the urgency: Live!
and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.
Salve salvage in the spin.
Endorse the splendor splashes;
stylize the flawed utility;
prop a malign or failing light–
but know the whirlwind is our commonwealth.”
— Gwendolyn Brooks, The Second Sermon on the Warpland

I.

Recently, I have been thinking more than usual about care. About that cunning thing we in the Anglophone Caribbean call “uprising” or Obeah[1] and how it has provided us with a backbone to know and to develop a system of care for ourselves. By “know” I am referring to an internal dexterity, a subterranean and ancestral acknowledgment of how we have been able to survive centuries of slavery, indentureship, the upheaval of migrations, miscegenation, the multitude of rapes on the plantation, and the birthing of capitalism’s mutation within the belly of the Americas.[2]
This archipelago was for centuries a primordial site of Atlantic modernity,[3] genocide, exhaustion, oppression of spirit, and depletion of the landscape. The collective land beneath our feet ached, and Pachamama[4] trembled as we forged visible and invisible lines of dependency to the empire and mother colonies. The arrival of extractive industries and economies like sugar, tobacco, cacao, coffee, rum, energy, minerals, and bioprospecting solidified the power and privilege of the colonial agenda strengthened by capitalism’s global rampage.

With the arrival of a new epoch, the Anthropocene,[5] the stage is set for horror, but the will, memory, gifts, and agency of our ancestors give us an opportunity to chart a new course and a path to the willingness of life.[6]

II.

“No action in the present is
an action planned with a view of its effect on the future.”
— Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place

Our ancestors were revolutionaries, philosophers, creatives, Nobel laureates, activists, scientists, world-class professionals, and politicians with slippery tongues who called for truth, justice, protest, and equanimity during the dawning of our postcoloniality.[7] They comprise the Indigenous, bush doctors, witches, grandmothers and grandfathers full to the brim with lore and story, healers, magicians, sages, alchemists, ethnobotanists, and curanderos and curanderas making medicine from the land to help their communities heal. Others make medicine to cripple the inner workings of the plantation and its doctrines of white supremacy, racism, violence, and oppression.

In this milieu, there are hybridizations and rhizomatic offshoots of spiritual and cultural syncretism, too many to fix the Caribbean into a monolithic space. The following mythmaking centers itself around the earth-honoring, animist,[8] ancestor-venerating, “magical art of resistance”⁹ Obeah. Obeah is an Indigenous African spiritual shamanic system that crossed the Black Atlantic, entering into the imagination of the enslaved and evolving to become a political and cultural tool of defiance.

As historian Diana Paton examines in her work, “Obeah allowed for the people of the Caribbean to push back against colonial rule and incited fear among the colonizers.”[10] Decades later, as we collectively examine and dig through the dull ache and underdevelopment in the wake of colonial trauma, what does it mean to care and move beyond extinction across an archipelago that is still reeling from cognitive dissonance and the vestiges of colonial pathologies?
In the Caribbean we grew up with Obeah under the foundation of our houses, whispered in jumbie stories and Christianity on the hill, blaring through crusade megaphones. Across the Anglophone Caribbean in particular, it is a dirty word and commonly seen as witchcraft, “black magic”; oftentimes it is a scapegoat for bad times, and the thing that you summon when someone has done you wrong. It is also easily dismissed as occult, of the devil and sorcery.

In its mercurial vitality, Obeah provides us with ritualistic magic around the renegotiation of care; it provides tools of visualization and discipline to see beyond the remnants of empire and helps us envision the damage of Western dominance and indoctrination.

Its technology provides access to the sacred feminine energies of Mother Earth and is a tool through which we can heal generational and, in particular, colonial traumas. One of the most important aspects of Obeah is the acknowledgment of the ancestors and ancestral veneration. Another is the fact that at times, it can be so large and undefinable that it can encompass anything involving spirit and supernatural phenomena. However, it anchors the self within a lineage of ancestral energies—energies that are intangible, albeit powerful if one believes.

When summoned, fortification is provided through conjuring, casting, warding, divining, incantation, exorcism, and the taboo subject of animal sacrifice. These actions are a dance and a cacophony with ase, the divine force, energy, and power incarnate in the world. Obeah’s action is the interplay of fear and freedom. The evolution of our culture and artistic sensibilities suggests there is a resurgence of the unearthing of stories around Spirit and an indelible reclamation of Obeah and, at its core, the role of the woman in forging nurturing space to undo and remediate traumas.
Under a patriarchal framework of Western dominance, the Great Mother and the women who have shaped our region through revolution, dreaming, and building safe spaces continue to fight for their voices and work to be valued. It is important to anchor “woman” or “women” as framed in this discourse in an Indigenous epistemology that acknowledges that Mother is all-encompassing, and within the archetypes of Mother and Woman, there are feminine and masculine energies and the fluidity of gender. It is also important to highlight that as we cross the threshold of the Age of Aquarius,[11] we elevate the Great Mother and Woman to a position that allows us to undo the brokenness and separateness of centuries of patriarchal rule and domination. In polytheistic and Indigenous religious systems of knowledge, in which Obeah is included, there are a bounty of deities—symbols of forces of nature, of the sacred and the divine—imagined as both male and female, and sometimes both.[12] In this cosmology, epistemology, and social order, the anchoring of both archetypes, Mother and Woman, is acknowledged beyond prescriptive binaries and hierarchies. The emotional hinterland that women have excavated for decades is now much softer because of the sacrifices made. Our grandmothers kept stories, codices, and folklore alive in synchronicity with Mother Earth; they kept traditions wet on their tongues and deep in their wounds.

Each medicinal field of wild botanicals, every elixir, potion, and earthy concoction or rub contained that energy and that of all grandmothers before them. Despite lands being razed, partitioned, and controlled, the experience of the medicine lives on within blood; within the memory of our very beings. This is where Obeah, even if abstract, becomes very real. Despite the centuries of attack, extraction, and depletion, the Great Mother is all-powerful and able to heal herself through divine will and communication to continue the proliferation of medicines and healing.

Grandmothers have access to this regenerative power and have wielded it for centuries to survive and to thrive. Women artists are wielding that power to bring to life grandmothers of the past, some of which have crossed the watery grave in suspension, under pressure from the weight of history, unable to breathe. Yet they are still present through the remnants of stacked clay; their bones and marrow evidence of the survival and the trickery. Their wombs were places for negotiation, reason for which Obeah became an agent in the colonial construction of gender that positioned women within an evolving system of biopolitical control specifically targeting Black mothers.[13] It is worth highlighting that Obeah gave enslaved women the opportunity to control their reproductive capacities using the knowledge within African traditions, thereby giving them power to resist the theft of women’s reproductive labor and all-around productivity on the plantation.

Across the Caribbean, and globally, the call for reparations[14] and for the reclamation of our tangible and intangible heritage has never been as loud. The cis-heteropatriarchal framework which has led to depletion of the land, resources, and people has been judged and found wanting. Through the lens of Obeah we see Western thought and action as the antithesis to the evolution of our human bodies/spirit. While these actions deplete nature and perpetuate existential dread, what do they do to Spirit?
Obeah is also alive in the works made by women in the region who are consistently drawing on the tensions of colonial histories and the fraught landscape, fiction, mythos, alternative futures and timelines, and the politicized nature of the Black body. That which was disavowed,[15] condemned, and controlled due to colonial propaganda[16] is now finding more currency and is anchoring itself as a system allowing for decolonial thought. Its intentionality, reverence, and disruptive nature turned from a silent protest into medicine and ritual for survival.

III.
“Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle, and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds, deeds which crystallize our actualities. And the maps of spring always have to be redrawn again, in undared forms.”
— Sylvia Wynter

Spirit evolved to give us new ways to consider our freedom and the breadth of unconditional love in its unknown parts. Obeah places nature and its apothecary at the epicenter for healing. Within its cosmology the Great Mother is seen as a protector and guide, provisioning us with rituals and medicines from an abundant natural pharmacy. Healers since time immemorial practiced alchemy to transmute intention into care, bringing hardship to those out of balance. These animist practices, given their numerous historical applications across converging lineages—African, pagan, and Indigenous—show us that these ancestral technologies at the core had more similarities than differences, and that they are always revolving, intermingling, and evolving.
Seeds, potions, recipes, and concoctions survived forced erasure, inquisition, the Protestant Reformation, and the witch hunt while contributing to the weakening of slavery and the plantation systems across the New World. The Hoodoo, Vodou, Orisha, Santería, Espiritismo, Lucumí, Candomblé, Palo Mayombe, and Shango Baptist traditions became accomplice, brethren sitting at the consecrated table with Obeah, readying, learning, divining, bathing, cleansing, vibrating, conjuring, and imagining new futures of instinct, possibility, and survival.

Today, medicine continues to thrive despite bioprospecting and through a global war against climate collapse,[17] where we are seeing the swallowing and reclamation of low-lying territories and heritages by the sea. The vulnerabilities of Small lsland Developing States are exposed on a global stage[18] and the struggle to become medicine-secure is occurring in parallel with the advent of carbon credit markets[19] in a time where biodiversity losses are at a peak.[20] We are entering into what media theorist Joanna Zylinska calls a moment of messianic-apocalyptic undertones and masculinist-solutionist ambitions,[21] evolutionary traits, and habitual colonial tactics.

Women—or any body feminized by the aforementioned colonial tactic—have always been able to see these maneuvers, and have used their divine feminine intuition and mystery when new legislation comes into place affecting families, body politics, and freedoms.

Women weaponize and strategize against the onslaught using second sight, speculation, and maternal instinct. This second sight isn’t suspicious, as it involves listening into the quiet parts of living; it is experiential, personal, and collective. It comes across in the medium of intuition, within the arms of Spirit, and across the love of sisterhood to give us warning.

The malevolence of attempting to colonize nature is something that we live with. We saw it in the erudite fortress of the plantation and its current ruin. We see it reoccur in the birth of the all-inclusive resort through the one-track tourism industry, and through this extended pause with ghost ships dumping poison across our archipelago’s horizons and becoming fragile emotional homes for Caribbean citizens during the pandemic.

IV.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
— Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light: and Other Essays
As servants, stewards, and tenants of Mother Earth, peoples of the Caribbean have monumental tasks before them to make new pathways and lines to survival. The threats have never been as large and our voices, while a lull, are growing more powerful daily. As Senegalese philosopher, Souleymane Bachir Diagne reminds us: “To meet the challenge that the global ecological crisis presents today, there is an urgent need to draw on humanity’s philosophical and spiritual repertoire—because it teaches us valuable lessons on the importance of taking care of life in all its forms.”[22]

The medicines learned from our ancestors through the system of Obeah can inform a new, intangible arsenal, and provide us with a cartography as new properties, lines of knowledge, life force, traditions, and rituals are dreamt, imagined, and recovered.

I suggest that the discipline and knowledge within Obeah might help us to bypass this dark territory, analogous to igniting our collective dream space and visioning very much in the same way as the spiritual technologies that thrived during the watery passages across the Black Atlantic, and the sentience that moves through the graveyards that we forge passage through daily.

The global resurgence towards ancestral acknowledgement and spiritual practices in light of the COVID-19 pandemic has created many opportunities for the creative Spirit to align with the cunning of Obeah. Practitioners are calling into deeper truths, protesting, reclaiming, regenerating, and actively battling cultural amnesia and inertia throughout the region in spite of generational traumas and inherited insecurities. Creatives and instigators are holding compassion, empathy, community, fellowship, sisterhood, and brotherhood more closely, and challenging the nature of imperialism and capitalism from a personal, social, and political perspective.
Women are building allyship publicly within the sanctuary of safe space and clandestinely around the forced forgetting of the magic passed on by our ancestors. They are fostering interconnectedness across time and space and igniting a fire in their bowels and wombs, leading to a watery discharge of language nourishing the communities in a battle to emancipate and recuperate the self.[23]

They are contorting, inventing new words and mythologies, and elevating beyond the trickster to accomplish entry into places previously malevolent. They are infecting institutions, making them sick with the promise of diversity, racial equity, and social justice. They are stretching seams with provocations around Black Lives Matter and using their imaginations to configure alternative futures where the corporeal and imaginative space can align. These strategies can be likened to Obeah.

And while all of this may seem like business as usual in a space that is predominantly matrifocal and Black, with remnants and presences of Indigeneity and those not allowed to be called into being, institutions are still employing and propping up racist leaders and the legacy of toxic masculinity and its repercussions to “evolve” their spaces. They continue to silence, bypass, discriminate, and gaslight, without the knowledge that this behavior is held in check and always brought into the world of Spirit with breath, thought, and intention.

This ritual healing via plant medicine, divining, and being in service to Spirit and the ancestors has forged alternative platforms and pathways that resist the energetic exhaustion and extortion that our region faces. It does not come as any surprise that after centuries of colonization and, afterward, decades of negligence and corrupt governance, we’ve developed phenomenological resiliencies for our survival.

I grew up on Bequia, the largest Grenadine island belonging to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Famed feminist, womanist, mother, conjurer of words and elegy, and civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s mother came from Carriacou, a Grenadine island belonging to Grenada, a mere 40 miles south of Bequia. Her father, hailing from Barbados, 114 miles to the east, migrated to New York in 1924 at the peak of the century when Afro-Caribbean people were leaving the region in droves.[24]

Lorde, who died in 1992 of breast cancer, understood what it meant to wield the language of resilience with equal parts love and affirmation. She embodied the power of witnessing, conjuring, and provoking. She understood the importance of spiritual anchoring and self-determination and fought to help change the way in which queer people of color were being essentialized and instrumentalized. She understood how anger could be transmuted to agency and she made us aware of how her complaints in the afterlife would return to provide alternative tools for survival for our futures.[25]
Throughout her work, there is a swimming feeling of the subliminality of Obeah, an undercurrent of negotiation to return to equilibrium despite the continued oppression and resistance faced. Lorde created movements and disturbances with her verbs, nouns, and their citizenry, where the normal flow of events and energy moved beyond convention—dismantling, disrupting—insomuch that she knew that somewhere, somehow, and sometimes, balance was being sought and called for. This technique can also be seen as a type of divination, forecasting and bringing to light scales of justice.

Grandmother Audre’s practice was shamanic and prophetic. As an ancestor looking over us, I know that somewhere, somehow, she is crafting words of affirmation to deepen our survival, balm to care for our weary hearts, and salves to call in the tenacity and essence of resistance.

Notes

  1. Alexander Giraldo, Obeah: The Ultimate Resistance in Slave Resistance, A Caribbean Study, Miami: Miami University, 2014. Disponible en: https://scholar.library.miami.edu/slaves/Religion/religion.html (Consultado el 26 de marzo de 2021).

  2. Don Rojas, “Capitalism—A System Born of Slavery” en Caricom Reparations Commission, Sección Essays and Speaches, 18 de octubre de 2018. Disponible en: https://caricomreparations.org/capitalism-a-system-born-of-slavery/ (Consultado el 26 de marzo de 2021).

  3. Hilary McD. Beckles, “Capitalism, Slavery and Caribbean Modernity”, en Callaloo – Eric Williams and the Postcolonial Caribbean: A Special Issue, vol. 20, no. 4, otoño, 1997, pp. 777-789. Disponible en: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3299407?seq=1 (Consultado el 26 de marzo de 2021).

  4. Pachamama es la diosa madre en los sistemas de creencias indígenas de la Cordillera de los Andes. Su nombre literalmente significa “Madre Mundo” y está asociada con la tierra y la fertilidad.

  5. Simon Lewis y Mark Maslin, Defining the Anthropocene, Nature Press, no. 519, 2015, pp. 171-180.

  6. Term penned by Guatemalan sociologist Gladys Tzul Tzul.

  7. The following former British Caribbean island colonies achieved independence during a more than 20 year period starting in the early ’60s and ending in the early ’80s: Jamaica (1962), Trinidad and Tobago (1962), Barbados (1966), Guyana (1966), The Bahamas (1973), Grenada (1974), Dominica (1978), St. Lucia (1979), St. Vincent and the Grenadines (1979), Antigua and Barbuda (1981), Belize (1981), and St. Kitts and Nevis (1983).

  8. Animism is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Potentially, animism perceives all things—animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork, and perhaps even words—as animated and alive.

  9. “What is Obeah?” Early Caribbean Digital Archive (ECDA), Northwestern University. Available in: https://ecda.northeastern.edu/home/about-exhibits/obeah-narratives-exhibit/what-is-obeah (Accessed on March 16, 2021)

  10. Diana Paton, The Cultural Politics of Obeah: Religion, Colonialism and Modernity in the Caribbean World. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  11. “A common position expressed by many astrologers sees the Age of Aquarius as that time when humanity takes control of the Earth and its own destiny as its rightful heritage, with the destiny of humanity being the revelation of truth and the expansion of consciousness, and that some people will experience mental enlightenment in advance of others and therefore be recognized as the new leaders in the world.” More information: Vera W. Reid, Towards Aquarius, (Arco Publishing Company, 1971), 97–116.

  12. Grounded in Bahamian writer, healer, and shaman Helen Klonaris’ Soul Healing Way mystery school philosophy. https://soulhealingway.com/the-soul-healing-way/

  13. Jeffrey Cottrell, “At the end of the trade: obeah and black women in the colonial imaginary,” Atlantic Studies 12, no. 2 (2015): 200-218.

  14. Jascene Dunkley-Malcolm, “Beckles calls for High Level International Reparations Summit,” Caricom Today, July 14, 2020, Available in: https://today.caricom.org/2020/07/09/beckles-calls-for-high-level-international-reparations-summit (Accessed on March 26, 2021)

  15. The Obeah Act of Jamaica, June 2, 1898. Available in: https://moj.gov.jm/sites/default/files/laws/The%20Obeah%20Act.pdf (Accessed on March 26, 2021)

  16. “Obeah was decriminalized in Anguilla in 1980, Barbados in 1998, Trinidad and Tobago in 2000, and St Lucia in 2004. In Guyana, the government last year announced its intention to remove the crime of obeah from the criminal code. In Jamaica, the last conviction for obeah was that of Cindy Brooks, in 1964. The last arrest for obeah I located was in 1977.” Diana Paton, The Racist History of Jamaica’s Obeah Laws, History Workshop, July 4, 2019, Available in: https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/the-racist-history-of-jamaicas-obeah-laws/.

  17. Bernard Ferguson “Hurricane Dorian was a Climate Injustice,” The New Yorker, September 12, 2019. Available in: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/hurricane-dorian-was-a-climate-injustice (Accessed on March 26, 2021)

  18. “Dominica – Prime Minister Addresses General Debate, 72nd Session,” UN Web TV, September 23, 2017, Available in: http://webtv.un.org/watch/dominica-prime-minister-addresses-general-debate-72nd-session/5584856254001 (Accessed on March 26, 2021)

  19. This market-based mechanism aims at incentivizing emitters to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by directly assigning a cost to carbon-emitting operations.

  20. “Caribbean Islands – Threats,” Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. Available in: https://www.cepf.net/our-work/biodiversity-hotspots/caribbean-islands/threats#:~:text=The%20loss%2C%20fragmentation%20and%20degradation,populations%20(many%20threatened%20species)%20and (Accessed on March 26, 2021)

  21. Joanna Zylinska, The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2018)

  22. Souleymane Bachir Diagne, “We, the servants and tenants of Earth,” The Unesco Courier, 2018. Available in: https://en.unesco.org/courier/2018-2/we-servants-and-tenants-earth. (Accessed on March 26, 2021)

  23. “The Fresh Milk Art Platform supports excellence in the visual arts through residencies and programmes that provide Caribbean artists with opportunities for development and foster a thriving art community. By offering a safe space for people to innovate, gather, and create, Fresh Milk moves against the Caribbean’s traumatic history as a platform of excellence and diversity.” “About,” Fresh Milk Barbados, https://freshmilkbarbados.com.

  24. “The number of black people, and especially Caribbeans, who migrated to the United States increased dramatically in the first three decades of the twentieth century, peaking in 1924 and falling off during the Depression. From a trickle of 412 in 1899 black migration to the U.S. reached 12,243 per year by 1924.” Vía Winston James, “The History of Afro-Caribbean Migration to the United States” in The Schomburg Center, ed., In Motion: The African American Migration Experience (The New York Public Library, 2005) & “The History of Afro-Caribbean Migration to the United States,” In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, The Schomburg Center, http://www.inmotionaame.org/print.cfm?migration=10.

  25. “I realize that if I wait until I am no longer afraid to act, write, speak, be, I’ll be sending messages on a Ouija board, cryptic complaints from the other side.” — Audre Lorde

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