Matter, Magic, and Spirit

Matter, Magic, and Spirit: Representing Indian and African American Belief

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 224
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    Matter, Magic, and Spirit
    Book Description:

    The spiritual and religious beliefs and practices of Native Americans and African Americans have long been sources of fascination and curiosity, owing to their marked difference from the religious traditions of white writers and researchers. Matter, Magic, and Spirit explores the ways religious and magical beliefs of Native Americans and African Americans have been represented in a range of discourses including anthropology, comparative religion, and literature. Though these beliefs were widely dismissed as primitive superstition and inferior to "higher" religions like Christianity, distinctions were still made between the supposed spiritual capacities of the different groups. David Murray's analysis is unique in bringing together Indian and African beliefs and their representations. First tracing the development of European ideas about both African fetishism and Native American "primitive belief," he goes on to explore the ways in which the hierarchies of race created by white Europeans coincided with hierarchies of religion as expressed in the developing study of comparative religion and folklore through the nineteenth century. Crucially this comparative approach to practices that were dismissed as conjure or black magic or Indian "medicine" points as well to the importance of their cultural and political roles in their own communities at times of destructive change. Murray also explores the ways in which Indian and African writers later reformulated the models developed by white observers, as demonstrated through the work of Charles Chesnutt and Simon Pokagon and then in the later conjunctions of modernism and ethnography in the 1920s and 1930s, through the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Zitkala Sa, and others. Later sections demonstrate how contemporary writers including Ishmael Reed and Leslie Silko deal with the revaluation of traditional beliefs as spiritual resources against a background of New Age spirituality and postmodern conceptions of racial and ethnic identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0287-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    This book is about material objects and the belief in their nonmaterial powers. It is also about race, and the ways in which the discourses and hierarchies of race have intersected with those of magic and religion. In particular, it is concerned with those distinctive conjunctions of racial and religious categories that have linked and divided Native Americans, African Americans, and whites in America.¹ In the first part of the book I trace in some detail the ways in which certain forms of belief were ascribed to particular races prior to the twentieth century, and what this reflected about the...

  4. Chapter 1 Hierarchies of Race and Religion: Fetishism, Totemism, Manitou, and Conjure
    (pp. 9-38)

    This chapter explores the ways in which ideas of what came to be called primitive religion were informed by underlying assumptions about established hierarchies of religion and race. The increasing systematization of race and of religion through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that the ability to describe and understand not just what but how other races believed became an important concern. This was important not only to the larger classificatory enterprises of anthropology and comparative religion but also to the more widespread fixing of inferior races on a political and religious scale, which reflected the existing social and racial...

  5. Chapter 2 Superstition and Progress
    (pp. 39-70)

    In Chapter 1 I outlined how questions about materiality and spirit were rehearsed in racialized terms in debates over fetishism, and various forms of animist belief. By the last decades of the nineteenth century different ways of categorizing these beliefs were emerging, with James Frazer’s tripartite division of magic, religion, and science reflecting a diverse but widespread set of evolutionary and hierarchical assumptions. One of the most interesting things about these debates is the way in which there was a constant return, as a point of reference, to the state of mind that “we” (the educated white writers) were supposed...

  6. Chapter 3 Primitivism, Modernism, and Magic
    (pp. 71-101)

    In the last chapter, I looked at the ways in which calls for a rational progression beyond superstition and toward a clearer division between material and spiritual powers were racially nuanced. I argued that there was an attempt to consign irrational beliefs to primitive people, and to assume that these superstitions would evaporate, but that such optimistic claims to progress were consistently belied by various returns and persisting traces in American society of what had supposedly been left behind. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Modernist engagement with primitivism represented a different approach, which was partly a...

  7. Chapter 4 Black Arts: Conjure and Spirit
    (pp. 102-126)

    In moving from the 1920s and 1930s up to recent times, we find a much wider range of representations of Indian and African American magic and religion. Native American and African American artists themselves have reformulated the terms in which they are represented, and anthropological approaches have become more reflexive and dialogical. But even if the power to define “others” and the terms in which their beliefs and practices are represented may have partly moved away from white anthropologists and collectors, to be replaced by greater self-representation and a greater openness to cultural and racial hybridities and impurities, the increased...

  8. Chapter 5 The Return of the Fetish
    (pp. 127-148)

    In the last chapter I dealt with some uses of the legacy of conjure and music by African American artists and writers, and the claims made for that legacy as a continuing resource for their community. The question of the wider relevance or applicability of these forms was not my main focus, but I want to begin this chapter by making a bridge with Native American concerns with spiritual and cultural continuity through the figure of Robert Johnson, as used by Renée Stout and Sherman Alexie, before moving on to show how the concern with spiritual legacy takes rather different...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 149-188)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 189-206)
  11. Index
    (pp. 207-214)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 215-215)