What exactly is "Damballah" by John Edgar Wideman about? I must have read the entire story a thousand times and can still not tell you what it's about. I mean what is going on?

"Damballah" is the name of an African-American slave who refuses to work on Sunday. He was brought over from Africa as a child and was raised to be a Christian but has now turned back to traditional African religions. His new religion has caused him to no longer want to work on Sundays.

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Damballah is one of the most important spirits in the Haitian and Louisiana Voodoo traditions. He is the creator of life and is referred to as the Sky Father. The deity takes a serpent form and created the cosmos by using his coils to form all the planets and stars and then shed his ski to create water. He also serves as the cosmic equilibrium, ruling both the mind and intellect.

“Damballah” by John Edgar Wideman tells the story of the slave Orion who openly rejects his white master. This disobedience ultimately ends in Orion’s death at the hands of his master, which a young boy on the plantation witnesses.

The title refers to the idea that slaves have their ancient traditions destroyed by their slavery as Christian culture is imposed on them by their slaveowners. As such, slaveowners and white Americans have robbed Africans not only of their bodies and physical agency but also of their spiritual and intellectual traditions. "Damballah" is a call back to that ancient tradition. Ultimately, the story is about the vast divide between the identity of a slave, and by extension, all African Americans who have had their heritage, beliefs, and traditions replaced by white culture.

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Wideman's story is a parable of the dichotomy between the indigenous culture of African Americans and the culture imposed upon them by the slaveowners. The word Damballah refers to a life-giving force, a god of the sky in Voodoo belief. In the story it symbolizes the native culture and by extension the freedom of spirit the enslaved people yearn to be returned to.

This wish for a return is enacted in an enslaved man named Orion (or Ryan). Orion is openly defiant, refusing to do the work he is charged with, attacking the overseer and appearing naked in front of the "Mistress." A young boy on the plantation silently observes Orion and idolizes him. When Orion is castrated and beheaded by the slaveowners, his body is left in a barn, to which the young boy goes alone and then experiences a transmission of wisdom from the dead Orion, as a symbol of reconnection with the ancestral culture.

Orion himself is an archetype of those who resist the culture of domination and oppression imposed upon them. Within the story Wideman counterposes the belief system symbolized by Damballah to the Christianity the enslaved people have been made to adopt. The word Damballah carries a powerful enough legacy with it that when Orion's young protege repeats it to his Aunt Lissy, she slaps him harder than ever before. The enslaved people as a whole recognize, of course, the danger to them inherent in even a symbolically spiritual resistance to the culture imposed upon them by the whites.

An additional layer of symbolism built into the story is the knowledge Orion has telepathically transferred to the boy. In traditional African cultures, people commune with nature and feel no division between themselves and the outside, the animal and vegetable realm. Orion had an ability to speak to fish, to subliminally achieve contact with them, that the new culture does not permit:

But here in this blood-soaked land everything was different. Though he felt their slick bodies and saw the sudden dimples in the water where they were feeding, he understood that he would never speak the language of these fish. No more than he would ever speak again the language of these white people who had decided to kill him.

But at the story's close, the young boy's epiphany, granted to him by Damballah through the severed head of the murdered Orion, is that he can now commune with fish as in the culture of their homeland:

Late afternoon and the river slept at its dark edges as it did in the mornings. The boy threw the head as far as he could and he knew the fish would hear it and swim to it and welcome it. He knew they had been waiting.

In other words, through his self-sacrifice, Orion has passed on to another the spirit of restoration and freedom.

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A slave named Orion (Ryan) completely resists the ways of the white masters and has a mystical connection to the ancient African god Damballah which is emphasized through the Classical allusion to the god Orion, who became a constellation after having had his sight taken from him and being shot with an arrow while swimming. Orion's fates foretell of Ryan's final fates.

Ryan garners nothing but displeasure from both masters and fellow slaves because he attempts to keep the traditions, beliefs and stories of Africa alive. He finally rebels so completely as to be rewarded with death. The boy who admires his mysterious ways and shadows him whenever he can and sees where Ryan meditates in the river, is the one to whom the soul of Ryan speaks--in keeping with the association to the power of the ancient gods--after his life is taken from him. Ryan tells the boy the stories he honors.

The really confusing part is that there are various narrators for the various stories that are told by Ryan's spirit to the boy before Ryan passes from this world. The stories cover many generations and tell many tales of ancestors and other times and other ways. Once Ryan has told all his stories to the boy, while stopped at the border between the dead and the living, he is free to rise out of his skull and transcend the bonds of earthly life.

Wideman develops analogous traits between Ryan and the boy to create a sense of metaphysical inevitability in the supernatural union between the slain Ryan and the shocked and mourning boy who has been sent as Orion's guide, his present day Kedalion to help him navigate on his journey to reclamation. [Kedalion sat on the blinded Orion's shoulders and directed him on his journey to the Sun god whose beams restored his sight.]

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