Valorie Thomas, English and Black Studies, Pomona College
"Sacred But Not Reverent: African Diaspora Spirituality and Underground(s)"
On March 29, 2007, Valorie Thomas, a professor of English and Black Studies at Pomona College as well as an adjunct in Cultural Studies at CGU, spoke about a new project in which she will consider the spiritual dimensions of underground spaces, and she plans to reconsider what “underground” even means in the contemporary world and whether it is time to move some of what is underground into public light.
Thomas begins her discussion by describing the Western tendency to assume a linkage between voodoo, as pre-Christian pre-Islamic west and central African religious cosmology, and the Hollywood spectacle of a primitive and depraved religious practice that defies reason. Her students’ minds begin to change, though, when they learn of the pivotal role that African indigenous religious systems have played in African survival and resistance in the New World. Yet Thomas believes “such discourses have survived by going underground, by surrendering their public vocabularies if not their intimate practices.” She has grown wary, however, of diaspora framing that silences indigenous systems. Following Ed Pavlić, she believes it is time to pick up where Ellison’s Invisible Man left off, and that decolonization now requires the bringing of “certain aspects of the underground into the light of day.”
Thomas turns first to Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Initially, she points to Douglass’ description of his own relationship as critic to “wild songs”: “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.” Thomas reads this circle as underground space where Douglass is surrounded by “spiritual texts” as well as “Ifa-derived sound-medicine.”
She then considers the moment Douglass first truly recognizes himself to be a free man. Douglass places a root in his left pocket for protection from Covey the “slave-breaker.” When Covey tries to beat him, Douglass does the unthinkable and fights back. In this story, Thomas recognizes that a kind of Christian redemption that “hinges on voodoo” as well as the creation of “coded knowledge,” “sacred concealments,” and “resistant public action.” Those few square inches of pocket serve as a reservoir of private knowledge escaping the constant surveillance of the slavocracy, and they are analogous to the much larger underground railroad.
Thomas moves closer to the contemporary moment by examining Toni Morrison’s Jazz. In a 1981 interview, Morrison notes the significance of the recovery and protection of black vernacular language, and how the interplay of this language works like jazz: it is accessible for some on the one hand but appreciated on another level, on the other hand, by those who have been initiated into “the context of the language.”
Morrison begins Jazz with an epigraph from “Thunder, Perfect Mind” (Nag Hammadi). Thomas reads Morrison as problematizing “the space of urban black America and time by asserting a relationship between black Gnosticism, black migration from rural to urban settings, and contemporary readers.” Morrison’s narrative voice in Jazz is consistently informed by an Ifa-derived “sacred landscape.” In this text, Morrison is exhuming “black female marginalization” while also “excavating and affirming a radically open reverence toward ancient African spiritual systems.” It is African spirituality that ultimately provides for Violet’s (Jazz’s main character) spiritual evolution following the death of the “other woman,” even if this evolution is not “explicitly voiced.” While Thomas believes that Morrison is laying the groundwork for explicit articulation of “underground space or underground sensibilities,” Morrison does not herself ever name an orisha or name the Odu Ifa outright.
Thomas believes that the texts she considers here, like Morrison’s work, move us in a direction of creating space for an open claiming of African spiritual traditions. What motivates Thomas here is a meditation on what resistance can be accomplished by pushing back against mainstream/dominant culture’s work to force African spiritualities underground and to “limit” the vocabulary with which one speaks of indigenous systems. She thinks that making African spiritualities explicit may in part be necessary because their undergrounding has hindered some African Americans from a full sense of this component of their cultural heritage. Thomas returns to Invisible Man and remembers that Ellison’s protagonist only took a temporary retreat. She believes now may be the time for a strategic return to the surface, a reclamation of public space and public voice.
Questions for consideration:
What is the role of “underground” knowledge and coded language in the constructions and deployments of what we term “scriptures”?
What is the significance of “decoding” underground knowledges and languages for communities? When, how, and why is it appropriate to make explicit more “hidden” scriptures and the coded language?
What are the possibilities for decolonization and resistance in this kind of work? Are there possibilities of further empowering mainstream/dominant cultures through the “above-grounding” of underground codes?