The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
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.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers. 1
August 2015 marks ten years since the levees of New Orleans broke, flooding the city with sea water and ecological despair. For African Americans, it also brought what could not be denied, the recollection of not only the sacredness of water as healing element, but also the painful remembrance of water as cultural symbol of slavery within cultural collective consciousness. Disaster by water was not an unknown nor unbelievable possibility, but the impact of Katrina was more far-reaching than anyone would have anticipated. The spiritual and secular relationship of African Americans with water as symbol, the cultural mores of racism and the collective trauma of environmental disaster were all evidenced from the Katrina floods. In this interweaving, runs the sacredness of not only rites in terms of spirituality, but also those collective rights that are basic to us as human beings. These are the collective rights we encounter when as Americans we consider skin color and race.
The effects of slavery and issues of contemporary racism, continue to concern many Americans, particularly African Americans and especially those who live in the southern part of the United States. But the rites and rituals of West Africa, especially those of the Yoruba people who came to the new world, and were practitioners of Santeria and Vodun, were believed to mitigate some of the effects of slavery. Centuries later, the sacred rites of Vodun were still alive, as the earth of New Orleans was covered by the sea.
The flooding of New Orleans captured America’s attention partly because of the encompassing nature of the environmental disaster. Weather reports prepared residents for one of the projected biggest storms of American history, and they were still wrong. It was far worse. This is not only because of the deaths and loss of homes, jobs, and the practical rituals that represented the essence of life. It was also the loss of faith for African Americans in the very fact of being Americans. The government agencies that were supposed to take care of the citizens of New Orleans had failed them: from the levee building Corp of Engineers to the Oval Office. The proof of this failure could be seen in the faces of those who took shelter in the Superdome, on the roofs of their homes, and those traveling the roads leading out of New Orleans.
Faith lives in the space doubt has relinquished. The residents of the city expected and believed in the politics of government to protect and save them in an environmental disaster. They woke to realize and later acknowledge, with the devastation brought by Katrina and duplicated by man, that this had not happened. An African American collective cultural trauma followed the hurricane, tornadoes and flooding. It could not be denied that the hurricane of Katrina which begun as a natural disaster, became a man-made one by the time it reached New Orleans.2 Most of the collective misery which followed were then also man-made. When an occurrence of nature, a hurricane, is allowed to develop into an environmental disaster caused by man, what does it mean for the psychology of those who are effected by such disasters?
We are steeped in rites and rituals of the Judeo Christian tradition. Most of what we learn as American children includes the artifacts of knowledge from this heritage. New Orleans is still considered to be a Catholic city based on its founding and the early establishment of this religion by the colonial Spaniards and French. It is a city that eventually embraced the rituals of Catholicism, joined with the early slavery rites of African traditional ancestor and spiritual practices. The sea waters which flowed over the city on the week of August 30th, 2005 might have been considered by some to belong to Yemonja, Yoruba goddess of the sea, the mother and protector of children, The Mother whose children are the Fish. 3
What does it mean on a psychic level to be closely bound to the goddess of the sea in a situation like Katrina? The Africanist tradition is to look for the blessing, the grace of the waters. Is there a way of understanding Katrina’s sea waters as part of an initiation into a deeper questioning of African American life and race relations?
Barbara Bush, mother of then president George W. Bush called the victims of Katrina refugees. How did she and others like her come to this belief that African American citizens were refugees as if from a foreign country? Is this the perception of only non-African Americans or does it also belong to African Americans themselves?
These questions and others in this writing are important because they ask us to inquire into ideas and opinions regarding economic, social and political differences which exists due to race in America and the interplay of these differences in environmental disasters. These differences were important factors in pre- and post Katrina
New Orleans. Racial inequality is frequently the reason given by some as to why the levees were allowed to fall into disrepair, and therefore cause flooding destruction. Most of the geographical sections of New Orleans negatively affected by flooding were African American.
Flooding and the images of death could not escape our American vision. We were caught by the stories of storm waters falling and surging past the levees into the homes and lives of the city’s residents. We bore witness: some of us watching television from our dry, far away homes, others who witnessed it more closely from boats passing lifeless, bloated bodies, and, finally those who were swimming in the same waters as the previously consecrated dead and buried.
It was as if the sacred rites of birth, death and baptism had been desecrated by Katrina.
The sea’s own children
Do not understand.
But that the sea is strong
Like God’s hand.
But that sea wind is sweet
Like God’s breath,
And that the sea holds
A wide, deep death.
As the West African Disapora arrived to the water-edged land of what was to become southern Louisiana, they brought with them the culture and spiritual rituals of their ancestors. These spiritual practices especially for the Yoruba of Nigeria, included the wisdom of Ifa. Gods and goddesses of this religion became the transformed saints of Roman Catholicism in attempts at reconciling the old spiritual beliefs with a survival religion within the context of slavery. Yemoja, was honored as the Yoruba goddess of the seas and maternity.
One of the symbols of African American spirituality following Africanist sacred water rites has been that of baptism. The belief in immersion baptism has survived its passage from the waters of the Osun River in Nigeria when it was believed that this immersion allowed divine spirits to enter the human body. This in turn created the idea of spiritual salvation proceeding from birth rituals using water in the New World.
However, even before this adult experience of re-birth, Africanist individuals had for centuries undergone the sacred birth rites of passage. John S. Mbiti tells us of the birth ritual of the Wolof people of Senegal and Gambia. The birth day of a child, family and neighbors gather and perform rites using blessed water for protecting mother and child.
Before suckling, the child is made to drink a charm made from washing off a Koranic verse which has been written on a wooden slate. Then a goat is killed on the day of birth….A fire is kept burning night and day in the house where birth has taken place. Beside this fire stands an iron rod which is used for pressing seeds out of cotton wool, and a pot with pieces of a water plant (rat) which have been boiled. The woman drinks the water from this pot. 4
A part of the ritual includes placing the rat plant with other tree leaves at the door of the birth house. These same leaves are put at the entrance of the compound. Every aspect of the birthing is a part of the rites performed. The knife used to cut the umbilical card is placed under the pillow of the child. During the immediate period following the birth, the new mother and child remain indoors. Even if she goes outside, she must bring the knife with her as protection for her newborn child against spirits who might cause harm. Plant leaves are left in place of the borrowed knife.
The children are named one week after their birth. Parents and family gather to participate in the rites and rituals by sacred water. It is most often mixed with plant leaves or roots to create a tonic specific to the protection and wisdom of the mother and child as with the rat plant. Every aspect of the new life of the child is marked with rites which have been passed on for generations. These birth and naming rites are sacred as each name has meaning based on many possibilities: the day of the week, noted child’s personality or a grandparent whom the child resembles in affect.
On the appointed day, the child’s mother extinguishes the fire and sweeps the house, takes a bath and the baby is washed with the medicinal water. These are symbolic acts marking the end of one phase of life, and the beginning of a new one….In the centre of the compound a mat is spread where an old woman, usually the midwife, sits with the child on her lap. The child is shaved, starting on the right side. Nearby stands a clay bowl with red and white kola nuts, cotton and millet. The red kola nuts symbolize long life, and the white ones symbolize good luck. An elderly person rubs hands over the child’s head, prays and spits in its ears to implant the name in the baby’s head. After that the name is then announced loudly to the crowd, and prayers are offered for long life and prosperity. The child and mother are hidden away, if it is the first born, in case someone with an evil eye should see them. 5
It seems important to show a lineage of sacred rites and rituals which were practiced amongst Africanist people before their arrival as slaves to America. The history of racism in America has insisted until recent times, on disavowing many valued Africanist cultures(customs) which preceded colonial slavery. These cultures included rites not only of birthing but also marriage and death. All of the important human passages were marked by rites and these most often included the use of water.
Amongst the Batoro of Uganda, there is a marital ritual which speaks to not only new life but also death as a transformative experience. The following quote, once again from John Mbiti is an indication of this symbol of marriage in an Africanist tradition from a central African country. It is a rite performed after the wedding day.
The following morning the guests who had been invited to the party return to their own homes. The bride and her husband wash themselves in very cold water which has been placed in the courtyard enclosure and which is guarded by the bride’s sister. When they come to this water they undress themselves, and each splashes the other with water. This is the rite of binding themselves to each other and of cleansing themselves from the former state of unmarried life. Symbolically these ritual ablutions are partly the death of the former life of unproductivity, and partly
The resurrection of the new life of procreation.6
The “river cults” as they were identified by non-Africanists, participated in sacred water rituals in order to obtain the healing and psychic energy of a named or followed god or ancestor. The immersion into water by Africanist people was to induce the visit of the gods. This taking over of ego consciousness caused the excitement which we can note in present day spiritual and religious rituals. They include ‘speaking in tongue’ and the rhythmic dance of being taken over by the spirit. African American religious practice is noted for its expectation of a baptism, oftentimes full-body, which mimics the collective spiritual practices of Africanist groups. In Myth of the Negro Past, Melvin Herskovits says, “ Among the Ashanti, pilgrimages to Lake Bosumtwe and other sacred bodies of water regularly occur. It is on such occasions that the spirit of the river or lake or sea manifest itself, by “entering the head” of the devotees and causing him to fling himself, possessed, into the water.”
The water of the ocean, lakes and streams were designated as sacred. Oftentimes spiritual healers made pilgrimages to these locations in order to obtain such water for performing rituals. The importance of such rituals can by seen by Herskovits’s noting the following:
In the process of conquest which accompanied the spread of the Dahomean kingdom…. the intransigence of the priests of the river cult was so marked that more than any other group of holy men, they were sold into slavery to rid the conquerors of troublesome leaders. In all those parts of the New World where African religious beliefs have persisted, moreover, the river cult or, in broader terms, the cult of water spirits, holds an important place.
It was these same holy men who traveled to South America, the Caribbean and eventually the southern United States. Their influence can be seen in current Vodou and Santeria practices. One of the most sacred rites of Santeria is discussed by Migene Gonzalez-Wippler in Santeria The Religion. In the chapter describing Santeria Gonzalez-Wippler says of the sacred water:
The omiero is the sacred liquid used by the santero during initiation.
It is prepared in large receptacles where a certain number of the plants sacred to each orisha are crushed in fresh water….After the ritual crushing of the leaves, the resulting liquid, tinted green with the plants’ chlorophyll, is gathered together and mixed with other sacred ingredients, among which are rainwater, holy water, and some of the some of the blood of the sacrificial animals. The omiero is used for many ritual purposes….
So wonderful are the properties of this liquid that the santeros often drink it as a cure for many illnesses, especially stomach complaints.
The collective historical Africanist perspective views water as a sacred element. Gonzalez-Wippler says that water is one of the four essential aspects of Santeria. The others are herbs, seashells (cowries) and stones. This consideration of water in such an important role in the rituals of the spiritual practice lends credence and a rich vitality to African American religious experiences. The sacred traditions of rites of passage and rituals of daily life of both East Africa and especially West Africa have clearly survived in the Protestant and Catholic practices of African Americans. This can be seen in baptism immersion rites, spiritual bath practices of Santeria and Vodou, and the use of water as a sacred entity amongst all African American spiritual practitioners for healing.
Between us, always, loved one,
There lies this troubled water.
You are my sky, my shining sun
Over troubled water.
I journey far to touch your hand.
The trip is troubled water.
We see yet cannot understand
This fateful troubled water.
Deep hearts, dear, dream of happiness
Balked by troubled water.
Between us always—love, and this—
This sea of troubled water.
How do we consider increasing our conscious awareness for healing of racial differences when accompanied with natural or environmental disasters? Can we influence the archetypal and integrate its support in this type of heroic ego endeavor? The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s brought us to another stage of consciousness. Segregation in public places ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
Everyone was now able to drink from the same water fountain. However, the resentments and anger over racial differences has lasted until this twenty-first century. Between blacks and whites still lay a sea of troubled water which can erupt like an underwater volcano, occurring without warning.
James Hillman in his essay “Haiti or the psychology of black” says:
Negro is not nigredo….especially in a racist society we must keep very distinct the epithets that arbitrarily and viciously color human beings on the one hand and, on the other cosmic forces that shape the soul apart from human beings. What we fear is black magic: the magical pull of black attraction, the soul’s desire to descent into darkness….We fear what we most desire and desire what we most fear.12
On the shoals of Nowhere,
Cast up—my boat,
Bow all broken,
No longer afloat.
On the shoals of Nowhere,
Yet taken by the sea wind
And blown along.
We hope that we can prepare for archetypal events that flood us. We want to believe that we can ride out the negative racial elements of our American lives.
Sometimes we are able to prove to ourselves as a collective that we can surpass our differences and choose what we think will add to the on-going healing of our American racial wound. This is how I viewed the election of Barack Obama, as a shift in consciousness that made it possible for him to become the first African American president.
The African American Diaspora are not refugees, they never have been in the truest sense of this word. They were initially brought as slaves. The other women, children, and men who have followed since, may be refugees, but most are immigrants. When faced with a physical disaster like Katrina, we are forced to acknowledge the tension between the ego’s needs and those of what appear as overwhelming collective, archetypal challenges, reflected in the environment. Our egos can be overcome by emotional flooding which eliminates our reasoning ability. We revert to old patterns
of tribal survival, like the white vigilantes who were defending their property against perceived intruders, all who happened to be African Americans. At these times, some of us fall into the tribal war rituals of ancestors wherein 21st century tribal differences can include skin color. It takes an equally powerful energy to counteract impulsive, human actions of personal destruction when confronted with the archetypal losses of an environmental disaster. Yet, this is our responsibility, to move even deeper beneath fear and hate to that which speaks to consciousness and the inner compass of morality. This keeps us afloat as we reach out to save a fellow human being, not just in that moment of disaster, but as a re-occurring aspect of conscious living.
Dr. Fanny Brewster is a Jungian member analyst with PAJA, Professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and the author of The Racial Complex: A Jungian Perspective on Culture and Race. (Routledge 2019). Dr. Brewster is available through her website, www.fannybrewster.allyou.net/
- Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Random House, 1994), 23. All poems are from this text, pages, 23, 44, 48 and 577.
- A.C. Thompson, “Katrina’s Hidden Race War,” The Nation (2009)
- Migene Gonzalez-Wippler, Santeria the Religion: A Legacy of Faith, Rites, and Magic (New York: Harmony Books, 1989), 57.
- John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, 1990), 111.
- Ibid., 116.
- Ibid., 136.
- Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (Boston: Beacon Press Books, 1958), 233
- Ibid., 232.
- Elizabeth Abel, “Bathroom Doors and Drinking Fountains: Jim Crow’s Racial Symbolic,” Critical Inquiry (1999), 435-481.
- Joe R. Feagin, Melvin P. Sikes, Living with Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 37-77.
- Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, Ronald Hall, The Politics of Skin Color among African Americans (New York: Doubleday Books, 1992), 17.
- James Hillman, “Haiti or the psychology of black,” Spring 61 (1997): 1-15.