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
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.
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