Wendy C Allen
LITR 245 Literature & Environment
Prof. Robert Vettese
Prof. Chris Hoffmann
October 18, 2012
Reading Response: A Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes
Not sure. This is one of those poems that grabs my attention and makes me think it gets right to the point, but then I’m not certain what that point really is. At first it seems to be telling of his own travels, seeing rivers around the world, but then it seems deeper than that and feels to me like he’s trying to say how humanity has changed, evolved, and grown over the generations, yet the river flows the same through it all. Like: we can go and see the river, but the river has seen all of us, knows what was here before us and will see what is here after us.
I think however, that he speaks of the ancestors. I think to truly understand this piece one must have some “inside knowledge” of African Traditional Religions. In order to understand ATRs one needs to understand Voodoo, which is the tap root belief system which all other ATRs build upon. Problem is most folks are too scared of anything “Voodoo” to even consider finding out what it is. I think the biggest problem I see is that people use Voodoo when they mean Vodou or even Vuvu, or sometimes Hoodoo. Voodoo IS NOT Vodou, neither are Hoodoo, and none of them is Vuvu. What you are dealing with is FOUR very distinct AND SEPARATE religions, which thanks to Hollywood get lumped together under the umbrella term "voodoo" (not capitalized). The shortest/quickest way I can put it is this:
Vudu (also Vuvu) [which means "the circle of life" or "to draw water" or "to let life flow as water"] is an ancient African belief system dated to about 10,000BC. It is the world's oldest known "organized" religion. It is based on the theory that all life was created by The One God, and that he had many wives, each wife being the mother of a tribe (race, country, or culture) on the Earth. Out of respect for a heavenly parentage, detailed records of lineages are kept, so that no one who ever lived is ever forgotten. Bones of the dead a carefully preserved in shrines, where on the persons "day" (either birth day or death day) gifts are left to let the spirits of the dead know they have not been forgotten. Death is seen as a joyful reunion with the ancestors. No gods or idols are ever worshiped. Over the many centuries, each tribe developed it's own set of "rituals" for use to help remember the centuries long lists of the names of the dead. The religion of The One God scattered into many (hundreds) of variations.
Meanwhile, in Europe the Celts were busy invading and forcing Paganism, Druidism, and Heathenism on the Picts. The Picts practiced Hoodoo, which is also known as Welsh Faerie Faith. Hoodoo (which means "haunted place" or "place where spirit dwell) was a heavily magic based religion, which called on the assistants of "The People of the Mists", "The Wee Folk", "The Good People", (Leprechauns, Gnomes, Pixies, Boogals, Selkies, Kelpies, etc, collectively known as The Fae). The Romans would soon follow and attack the Celts forcing Christianity on them, with the infamous evil bigot St Patrick in the head, decreeing death to all who did not convert to Catholicism. Picts, were now being called Scots, and to avoid death, began to call Hoodooing "Intercessory Prayer" claiming that they were calling on Angels not Faeries. Catholics thought this was a good thing, so soon created the concept of Saints, and started demanding Christians pray to Saints. By the 1300s many Scots were still refusing to convert to Christianity, and were forced to flee Scotland to avoid the massive holocaust of all non-Christians. They became known as "The Scottish Travellers" or "The Scottish Gypsies" (and are in no way related to the Rom or Romany Gypsies who are of India descent. The Scotts are descendants of the Vikings, and came to Scotland from Siberia, thus why Scottish Gypsy magic traditions mirror so closely to those of Siberian and Mongolian shaman.). They settled in Germany where they were referred to as "The Pied Pipers" for their plaid tartan clothing and their playing of "magical pipes". They used Hoodoo magic without persecution, until 1458 when Heinrich Kramer wrote "The Witch's Hammer" a book which detailed the hows and whys of witchcraft, how to spot a witch, and more importantly how to kill a witch. He gave copies of his book to every church leader he could and as a result 20,000 men, women, and children were slaughtered in the first German Holocaust.
Vodou (also Vodu, or Vodun) is an African based religion started in the 1600s in Haiti by the slaves who combined elements of many African tribal religions. They could not communicate because they each spoke different languages, but they all shared very similar religious rituals to remember their lineages and reverence their dead, and used this as a way to unify themselves. The many hundreds of variations of Vudu once again became united, now under the name of Vodou. However, plantation owners saw unity between slaves as a threat (which was the very reason they never owned slaves who could speak the same language with one another) and set out to punish and kill any slave found practicing Vodou.
Meanwhile, in New England the Scottish Traveller Gypsies had fled Germany and were now living in a little town called Salem, where the German and Dutch Christians had followed them to, and was continuing to kill them. At the same time African plantation slaves were escaping North to the Ozark mountains, Scottish Gypsies were likewise escaping South, also into the safety of the Ozark mountains. Here Haitian Vodou and Scottish Hoodoo meet up and joined forces, creating both The Underground Railroad and a totally new religion called Voodoo. The Scottish Hoodooers taught the Haitian Vodunists about the use of poppets (Hoodoo Dolls, later renamed Voodoo Dolls in the 1920s by Hollywood directors) to heal their sick and to put curses on the slave owners. They also taught the Vodunists how to hide their ancestral worship, by using Catholic Saint Icons. By the late 1700s Voodoo had taken hold in the southern United States.
Vudu (also Vodo or Vuvu) is an African ancestor ritual religion. It is estimated to be 25,000 to 30,000 years old. It contains no worship practices, has no church buildings, no dogmas to follow, and contains no magic practice. There are no clergy and thus no "formal" initiations. It is NOT recognized by federal (USA) government organized 501 non-profit tax exempt religion. Vudu focuses on ancestors.
Vodou (Vodu or Vodun) is an African based Haitian religion, which incorporated ancestor rituals, with God worship, and Catholic Saint rituals. It is about 700 years old. It contains minimal magic, if any at all. There are temples, clergy, church meetings, congregational worship services, and a lengthy and highly detailed list of dogmas and rules. To become a member requires 21 baptisms and to become clergy requires initiation. It IS an official recognized by federal government organized 501 non-profit tax exempt religion. Vodou focuses on ancestors, worship, church attendance, and service to the spirits (lwa) of The One God.
Hoodoo is a Scottish based magic practice which involved reverence to nature spirits, with spirits granting requests in exchange for gifts and often, though not always, incorporates Catholic Saint rituals. (It is about 8,000 years old.) There are no clergy and thus no initiations. It is NOT recognized by federal government organized 501 non-profit tax exempt religion. Hoodoo focuses on magic, spell casting, divination, hexes, curses, and exorcisms.
Voodoo is an American New Age Magic Based Religion that takes Scottish Hoodoo Magic, Italian Catholic Saint Rituals, and some but not all practices of the Haitian Vodou religion and throws them all together into a totally random mixed bag. (It is a little over 200 years old). Normally Voodoo is NOT recognized by federal government organized 501 non-profit tax exempt religion. Voodoo is ONLY an officially recognized by federal government organized 501 non-profit tax exempt religion, IF the Houngan or Mambo of the individual house was INITIATED through the Haitian Vodou religion, in which case it is considered by the government to be a Vodou priest who ALSO practices Voodoo in addition to Vodou, thus explaining why many Voodoo priests and priestess seek out Vodou initiation even though Voodoo itself is not a religion and does not require initiation. Voodoo focuses on service to the spirits (lwa) of The One God as a way to do magic, spell casting, divination, hexes, curses, and exorcisms.
It is wrong a disrespectful to interchange the names Vodo, Vodou, Voodoo, and Hoodoo and make false and misinformed attempts at claiming each word is simply another way of saying the same thing. Yes they are all similar. Yes they share the same roots. But no, they are NOT the same and the words/titles of each are not interchangeable with any of the others. It seems to be common for American culture to think all sorts of wild imaginations about both Gypsies and Voodoo, including such ludacris beliefs as “Satan worship”, “casting curses”, “animal sacrifices”, and other wild misconceptions that are pure fantasy created by movie directors and scriptwriters and have absolutely no basis in fact whatsoever!
I wanted to clear this out of the way, because most folks I have met thus far have no idea there a difference between Vodo, Vodou, Hoodoo, and Voodoo and a lot of misinformed (often well intentioned) folks go around saying they are all the same thing and just different spellings of all one thing, when in fact, they are not! This always irritates me. What irritates me most of all, though is when folks write books saying these words are interchangeable, and people pick up the book and read it assuming that the author had any idea what they were talking about, when in fact the author was simply spreading ill-researched misinformation. Sad fact is, I can't say I know of any book out there about either Voodoo, Vodou, or Hoodoo that doesn't promote this misinformation, which is terrible because most folks start out seeking info on Voodoo through those books and so start off on the wrong foot right from the very beginning, which then leads to people practicing Voodoo/Vodou/Hoodoo wrong (without realizing it) and teaching others thus spreading the misinformation even farther! The worse one of all is Lucky Mojo's school of Hoodoo that goes around promoting Hoodoo as an African invention, when Hoodoo is Scottish and has its roots in Siberian Shamanism. This is a great disrespect to both the Scots and the Africans, and makes a mockery of both cultures!
Okay, so maybe that wasn’t so quick. I could go on for hours on this. But the thing of it is, is that my family are Scottish Traveller Gypsies, and much of that info I just gave you about the Scotts and Hoodoo, came out of family journals. My family has a deep generations long connection to ATRs and so this poem touches on family history. I’ll explain more in the quotes section.
This poem is so short! How do I quote it without quoting the entire thing?
“My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
In many African Traditional Religions, it is taught that we are all one soul. To understand the meaning of this quote one must understand the ruling God of the ATRs: Damballa Weddo.
Damballa is an ancient creator god, with an origin age unknown, but verified to be no less than 20,000 years old. Damballa's story is unique among creation stories. Most tell of the creation of one group of people. The god is black, his people are black, white people are evil, or the god is white, his people are white, black people are evil. Many of the world’s creation stories are racist and proclaim “I look like god, you do not, I am chosen, you are not”. You do not find this with Damballa's story. Damballa has no true solid form, and no (skin) color. He is a formless shapeshifter. He can appear as a man (or animal) of any color, and has multiple human wives, one each of every color. The story states that, we all are children of the One God. The One God (Damballah Weddo) had 3 (original) wives (each of different skin color - white, black, and red/brown). Each wife had many children.
Each of these children needed a place to live, so the Earth was created out of a serpent egg, and each child was given a country to rule over. Each child created a unique language of their own. Many cultures came from this, as the children's children's children grew up and multiplied and spread across the Earth. The One God, though a great magician, shapeshifter, and creator of life, was not perfect, his ability to speak was badly impaired, his language slurred by a snake like hissing stutter, sadly found it difficult to communicate with his beloved children and grandchildren. Not being a physical being, when the One God did appear on the Earth, no one could look at him in his true form without being blinded and so he would appear in the form of a rainbow serpent in the sky over waterfalls. Because it was so difficult for him to be seen or heard, by those living in physical bodies, that he appointed the dead spirits of his wives and their children (called the loa) to act as mediators to speak to the living children on his behalf. Each wife looked over the children of her lineage, and over the centuries as each living person dies, they become loa and watch over their children's children. Every few generations, the loa return to the physical body, being reborn into the same family from which they descended.
The cycle of birth, death, guardianship, and rebirth continues in an ever flowing circle of life, thus the name Vodu (vuvu means "to draw water" or "to give birth", thus vodu means "to give new life to the spirits"). Vodunists keep long and careful records of their ancestors, knowing by name sometimes dozens of generations back. The bones of the dead and kept carefully preserved in family shrines, with offerings left to the loa to let them know you have not forgotten them and are thankful that they are watching over your family. Death is not feared, but rather celebrated as it means going home live with your ancestors at a great big happy family reunion. It is believed that all of the souls of your family's past, live with in your body, connecting you to everyone before you and everyone after you. This is the OLDEST known creation story and forms the basis for the ATRs, and is pivotal to understanding the meaning of this poem, which is rife with hidden meaning.
You have the river representing the One God, the snake who comes in the form of water. You have the line “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” which tells that this man is not just his own soul, but the soul of all his ancestors as well. How do we know this?
“I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.”
So why does he say these things? Because this is the way of the ATRs. If your parents did it, then that memory is in your blood, and is passed down to your children and their children and so on, connecting everyone, and so, yes he has grown deep like the river, deep with the same memories, because though the water of the river has changed, it is still the same river, and like the river, though he is a different man, it is still the same blood line.
It seems that we are looking at how man interacts with nature on a pure primal level.
I love this poem (as you probably guessed by now). The first time I heard it was last summer at a poetry reading here at SMCC. I had brought my Lit&Envir class journal with me to the reading and wrote down a list of all the poems read. A couple of the poems I wrote the whole poem down, this was one of them. I was glad to see it included in the readings as it is quite beautiful. I wonder if it is odd that the shortest piece was the one that had the longest response?