Patrick Polk, ISS Visiting Scholar

"The Lives of the Dead: Botánicas, Spiritism, and the Ghosts of Slavery"

On Thursday, November 2, 2006, ISS Visiting Scholar, Patrick A. Polk, a folklorist at UCLA, discussed his research into the images and performance of black spirits in botánicas from Los Angeles to Brazil to Grenada. Polk assessed botánicas as “sacred shops,” mercantile spaces generally supporting santería or related traditions, but botánicas may also support a host of traditions of espiritismo (spiritism). Rooted in the thought of Allan Kardec, spiritism is an ultimately European-derived process for communicating with the spirits of the dead. The African spirits represented and communicated with in these botánicas are almost always enslaved and believed to be all the wiser for having lived through such a hellish experience. Polk then investigated the relationship between the imagery and performances of these enslaved African spirits and portrayals of enslaved African Americans in USA stereotypical imagery and minstrelsy shows of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Drawing attention to a statue of a black spirit guide from a botánica in Huntington Park in 2003 (see figure on left), Polk pointed out how this image portrayed the spirit guide both as wizened elder and as infantilized child holding a Winnie the Pooh doll. While Polk viewed this portrayal as part of the process of endearment between the channel and the spirit guide, he also wanted to query some of the terms on which these representations draw on negative American stereotypes of enslaved Africans. The visual representations alone draw on common stereotypical images found in many different types of popular representations, including minstrelsy album covers. For one example, Polk tied a statue from Brazil (see center figure) into the imagery from the Georgia Minstrels’ sheet music cover (see figure on right). In both cases, the viewer can see how an enslaved African is sitting hunched over on a log with his hands on his legs.

Polk connected the ritualistic performance of these spirits to the stereotypical performances of nineteenth-century minstrelsy. While American spiritualist practices of the nineteenth century often contained possessions by black spirits, such possessions also had unique ties to minstrelsy. These ties are found not only in the types of performances of spirit possession described in these ceremonies; they are also found in the various ways that spiritualist ceremonies often incorporated actual minstrel performers. For example, a minstrel performer would play behind a curtain when a black spirit was channeled. One example of the crossover between minstrelsy and American spiritualism is Little Justin Hulburd, a transgender minstrel performer who was also a spiritualist medium in San Diego. He would not only channel black spirits as a medium; he would also channel minstrels who would at times perform black spirits. In reading his autobiography, one cannot differentiate Hulburd’s performance style of a channeled black spirit from a channeled minstrel’s spirit who is performing a black character. Polk then made a concluding link between American minstrelsy shows touring Cuba in the 1850s and 1860s and the rise of espiritismo in Cuba at that time.
Some questions raised for consideration were:
How is the performance of “American” (from Brazil to New York) identity deeply and intimately informed by the inventions of stereotypes of African presences in these continents?

What can a study of the standardized performance of black spirits throughout the Americas tell us about all performances of identities more broadly in both the local and transnational contexts?

What accounts for the striking similarities in how spiritualists and spiritists throughout the Americas perform a variety of black spirits? Polk also drew attention to how this goes beyond African spirits, but includes other groups like Chinese spirits and Amerindian spirits, all often performed in various traditionally stereotypical manners. What accounts for these similarities in performance from Rio de Janeiro to Los Angeles?

What are some of the multivalent scripted levels of encoding that have informed such performances?

What does the recent increased prominence of black spirits in different botánicas in Los Angeles signify?

How do racial stereotypes serve as a hermeneutical lens through which “America” is conceived and understood?

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