September 7, 2007

In My Own Words: Joseph McNair

O Şe Şango, which means in Yorùbá, “Thank you, Shango,” is my first novel and has been three years in the making. It began as a series of short stories developed around the idea of the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form. As this is by no means a unique idea, my particular twist on the subject was to select an Òrìşà (Òrìshà) from the pantheon of Yorùbá deities and charge him with the task of opening up a newer, straighter spiritual path to oneness or unity, the ultimate aim of all spiritual journeys, with “All there is,” Olódùmaré, the Great Mystery.

Olódùmaré is described by the faithful as the source of Odu (the entire corpus of two‑hundred and fifty‑six sections of Ifá scripture), the source of form in the universe, the “creator, cause, and origin of all things.” Olódùmaré is All There Is, and is believed to be the most powerful force in the universe for whom “nothing is too great or too small, below or beyond to accomplish.” The powers of Ọbas (kings or chiefs), ancestors, elders, witches, sorcerers, herbalists, medicine men, spirit beings, demons, etc., are all derived from Olódùmaré and are limited and limitable by the Great Mystery. The Yorùbá believe that all good and bad take their origin from Olódùmaré. Olódùmaré’s knowledge is incomparable and has no equal.

The Òrìşà Şango (Shango) also known as the Spirit of Lightning and the Òrìshà of thunder and lightning is an elevated ancestor of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. One of the most prominent Òrìshàs in Yoruba culture, especially in the African Diaspora, he is the original owner of the tablets of Ifa (the Odu) and traded them to the Òrìşà Ọrúnmìlà, the Witness of destiny, for the gift of dance. He is Olódùmaré’s prosecutor and dispenser of justice. Şango is seen as one of the most powerful of all Yoruba Òrìshàs. A former Oyo (Nigeria) Ọba (king) and warrior, Şango was a powerful, successful, and perhaps capricious and unreliable ruler who had the amazing ability to throw lightning bolts during battle. On one occasion, while practicing his magic, Şango accidentally hit his own palace and killed many of his own people, including several wives and children. In his remorse, he committed suicide and descended into the realm of Death. He became an Òrìshà after seducing and impregnating the eternal virgin daughter of the original ancestor of the Yoruba people in the domain of death, thus, it was said, bringing life from death.

It is this Shango, who by legend was a profligate debaucher, wife-stealer, and abuser of magic, who incarnates as Olódùmaré’s avatar in a little village in a parallel universe that bears a remarkable resemblance to north central Louisiana in the mid 19th century. He is born aware of who he is, but requires time to complete the merger of his human and Òrìshà natures. He is raised by the village wise woman, Maggie, who brought him into the world. His mother did not survive his birth and his grieving father disowned him. Maggie, who was the leader of an African wisdom teaching community and a “child” (a devotee) of the Òrìshà Eshu Elegbara, becomes aware that this child is much more than he seems.

Thus begins a “coming of age” drama of sorts, where this precocious child grows up and in the process, starting with his foster mother, begins to “awaken” the human beings around him to their Òrìshà natures and put them in touch with the powers of the Òrìshà within them. This it turns out is the new path. Humans are no longer the steeds of elemental forces that “take their heads,” but become one with the Òrìshà within them and their powers and memories in the process of returning to oneness with Olódùmaré.

I have written in the book’s preface:

"This is a work of fiction. Its intent is to entertain. It makes no pretense of orthodoxy and, in fact, liberally draws from the many African-derived religions migrating from the African continent to the so-called New World. The author, wary of the hypocrisy of “defining” truth, has tried to knit together a story that pays respect to the religious sensibilities of the myriad communities of faith and nonbelievers alike, without wholly endorsing a particular worldview. To paraphrase one contemporary blogger, make an attempt to define truth and before long you will be in error yourself.

The word orthodoxy, derives from the Greek words ortho (“right”, “correct”) and doxa (“thought”, “teaching”), and is typically used to refer to the correct theological or doctrinal observance of religion, as determined by some overseeing body.

This writer believes that there is no such thing as “correct theological or doctrinal observance of religion” especially as determined by some overseeing body, person, or persons, present company included. All religious knowledge and truth is influenced by and “strained” through the structures of individual selfhood.

The writer did draw upon the many oral and written traditions e.g. Patakis, myths, folklore, to ground this story within the universe of African Cosmogony, generally, and particularly in and around the seminal worldviews of the Yorùbá people of Southwestern Nigeria, the Fon of Benin-Togo and the Bakongo, Lare and Lingala speaking people of the modern-day Republic of Congo and Zaire. Modern and postmodern interpretations of practitioners in the African Diaspora communities of faith representing such diverse expressions as Ifá, Vodou, Lukumi/Santeria, Candomble, Umbanda, and Obeah were also examined and consulted, and when creatively appropriate, woven into the story line. As such, in the strange and delightful capacity of fiction to teach and explain, one can come away from this reading with a general exposure and syncretic understanding of Òrìshà-based African wisdom traditions. It is hoped that the mix of Pataki, myth and folklore with imaginative characterizations have combined to create a believable and entertaining tale."

I consider myself, first and foremost to be a poet/teacher. I glory in the music of language, intricate rhyme schemes, profound blank verse, narrative stories, elegant phrases, and vivid imagery. I want in my writing to push emotional buttons, flip sensory switches, close tactile circuits, and watch what happens. That is my joy. But I also have a larger commitment to personal transformation and the fulfillment of human potentiality. This informs the under girding structure of my poetry and stories. I t has taking quite a while for me to get this right -- as manifest in my creative works. But I think I’ve at long last, got it write.

Joseph D. McNair is an African American educator, poet/writer, journalist, and musician. He is currently an Associate Professor, Senior in the School of Education at Miami Dade College, North Campus in Miami-Florida. He is the founder/editor of Asili: The Journal of Multicultural Heartspeak, an on-line literary magazine ten years old this year. He is a recipient of two of Miami Dade College's endowed teaching chairs. His published works include two volumes (Earthbook in 1971 and An Odyssey 1976) and one chapbook of poetry (Juba Girl in 1973). A collection of Selected Works is scheduled for release in early 2008. He has written three books for adolescent readers published by The Child's World Journey to Freedom: The African American Library series. These are Leontyne Price (2000), Barbara Jordan: African American Politician (2000), and Ralph Bunche (2001). His latest release, O Şe Şango, a novel, will be published by The Asili Press October/November 2007. As a journalist, he is the author of sixty-five feature articles and commentary written under his own name and several pseudonyms between 1986 and 1989 for Hotline Newsmagazine, a popular and influential Northern Nigerian weekly. In 1996 he authored a college textbook entitled Multicultural Awareness/Consciousness: Toward a Process of Personal Transformation. In 1997 he coauthored Individuals In Transition with three Social Science Colleagues. In 1998 he revised his first text under a new title: Personal Transformations: The Process of Multicultural Awareness/Consciousness. He is a prolific on-line author and manages several websites.



Anonymous said...

I can't begin to tell you how proud I am to have had both Philp and McNair as my professors. You both are awesome and have taught me so much. It was wonderful to see my two favorite professors on the same web page...the only one missing is Ruz Allonce. I admire both and wish you the best always!
Lisette Lorenzo
MDCC alumni

Geoffrey Philp said...

Great to hear from you, Lisette & welcome!