Anancy: Sins of Omission
During the late seventies, Dennis Brown, "The Crown Prince of Reggae," released "What About the Half (That's Never Been Told?), and it was an instant hit in Jamaica. The song's immediate popularity was due in part to not only Brown’s singing, but also his ability to convey the disenfranchisement of many Afro-Jamaicans from the story of their homelands--both physical and mythical. Intuitively, Dennis Brown had joined a long line of writers and artists from the Caribbean such as C.L. R. James, Rex Nettleford, Ivan van Sertima, Martin Carter, and Kamau Brathwaite who have sought to give a more complete picture of Africans in the New World and the damning effects of what one of my teachers, who loved to correct my grammatical mistakes by references to Greek or Latin, would have deemed “sins of omission."
Bongo Jerry, who coined the term "Mabrak," would not have been so kind. He, like the dub poet Mutabaruka, would have called it the "white-washing" of history. Of course, the first time I heard about this so-called "white-washing" I didn't believe him or Muta. In fact, during my evangelical days, I had a spirited discussion with an old dread who said something like this: "The white man say 'The west is best,' but InI say, 'The west is a beast that is out to kill black people." I didn't believe him and thought he was barking mad. Our conversation ended with the old dread using a proverb that Bob Marley would later turn into song, "Time will Tell."
Well, time has told and the old dread was right. For the more I kept exploring our mythological/cultural heritage through Anancy stories--which along with "Big Boy" stories were staples of the "other half" of my imagination--the more I've seen how these "sins of omission" have affected my work as a writer of literary fiction and children's literature. For if the twin aims of my children's stories are to teach somebodyness and that every seeming obstacle can be overcome with the imagination, then I had to solve certain inconsistencies that were readily apparent in the trickster tales of Anancy.
And that was the first problem. Anancy was a trickster and tricksters rarely fit our neat moral categories. Anancy came to Jamaica via the Middle Passage and contrary to Derek Walcott's assertions about a "deep amnesiac blow," the spider god survived the Atlantic holocaust. Of course, depending on the dominant religion, the degree of religious/cultural syncretization differed from island to island. Despite the conflation of the legends of Anansi and Eshu into Anancy stories in Protestant Jamaica, Anancy laughed at our human silliness from the ceilings of our homes. In Catholic Cuba, Eshu was transformed into St. Anthony of Padua, but in Haiti, home of the Jacobin revolution, Papa Legba was allowed to roam the hills and valleys. What's important to note, however, is that in all three manifestations the trickster figure, a symbol of the imagination and according to Yoruba legend, possessor of `ashe, was a highly revered.
In fact, in all Voudoun and Lukumi (Santeria) ceremonies Eleggua or Papa Legba is the first orisha that is acknowledged and the last to be praised for he is the intermediary between the Supreme Being Olódùmarè and humans. And like all tricksters, he is fickle, childlike, and has an enormous appetite. For example, among the Winnebago, the trickster Coyote is renown for his lustful appetite and enormous phallus.
Thankfully, I didn't have to confront the issue of sexuality with Anancy and only had to deal with his gluttony. But how do you "tame" a trickster like Anancy for a children's book, especially when they are amoral figures? How do you justify Anancy's waxing off crocodile's children in "Anancy and Crocodile"? Crocodiles are nasty creatures and we should fear them, but in a child's imagination crocodiles have feelings too.
The only rationalization that I could give was that Anancy's gluttony was the shadow aspect of the archetypal trickster in the same way that the thuggish behavior of dancehall is the shadow of Xango.
Still, the question bothered me as continued the process of what Walcott could have called a “pathetic African phase." I re-discovered Anancy in my readings of James George Frazer, Carl Jung, Carol Pearson, Lewis Hyde and Joseph Campbell. Slowly, the riddle of the trickster’s gluttony was solved when I read Flash of the Spirit by Robert Farris Thompson: "His [Eshu's] terrifying gluttony had therefore concealed an abundant generosity…the fact that he can take anything away--or give it back" (22).
The answer had been staring me in the face all along. But I couldn't decipher the meaning--much in the same way that I had to come to America to recognize the significance of Kamau Brathwaite's poem, "Legba":
Today god came to church
like a lame old man on a crutch.
He had fought in the last war
and has ribbons to show for
it; knows Burma, Malaya and has been
to Singapore; gets a small pension
but apart form that
not very much attention.
I had been in the same condition of the congregants and the children in Brathwaite's poem: blind to the spider god’s creative divinity. In the many stories that I had read about Anancy, the spiritual/mystical dimension of Anancy's appetite had never been explained. I was seeing only one side of Eshu's hat.
Diminishment is the first step in the process of controlling either a person or a nation. Whether by omission or commission only one "half" of the Anancy story has been told. The mystical aspects of the archetype, imagination and creativity, have been lost. We are the worse for it even as we continue to privilege western philosophies, many of which have their roots in Greek mythologies. We ignore the simple fact that all mythologies and religions (Latin religio: to link) seek to answer the basic questions about our relationship with each other and our place in the universe. Our preferences define us.
It is also interesting to note that in the Greek tradition, Hermes (a trickster), is linked to commerce. This indicates that the Greek genius discerned the connection between material wealth and the imagination. And the gods, as Joseph Campbell has argued, are the many facets ("masks') of what Carl Jung has dubbeds humanity’s archetypal "collective unconscious.”. In other words, the more we diminish these "divine" abilities expressed in culture, the more we lessen our ability to celebrate ourselves. And in the case of Anancy, our imagination and creativity.
Saturday, June 26th, 2010
Time: 1.00 pm – 4.00 pm
South Regional/Broward College Library
7300 Pines Boulevard,
Pembroke Pines, FL 33024