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John Edgar Wideman's short story "Damballah" (it’s also a chapter from a book-length collection, of course) is one of my favorite pieces in African American literature, even though (or perhaps because) I have a difficult time making complete sense of it.
To me, the interrelated themes around which the piece is organized are: history, knowledge, identity, and religion. As I read it, the story is all about what has been gained and what has been lost by enslaved Africans who have been brought to live and work in the New World. The Americanized slaves have rejected most of their African past (including their languages, religions, and foodways); this rejection was no doubt brutally enforced by the white slaveholders, but as the character of Aunt Lissy demonstrates, the black slaves themselves are also involved in enforcing some belief systems and rejecting others among themselves.
The character Orion/Ryan represents this rejected past (he is a slave who continues to speak one of the old languages and to worship in the old ways, to give only two examples), and his connections to the past that the others have rejected gives him power even as it leads to his brutal murder. The young black male slave, bordering on manhood and searching for a father figure, seems to find his spiritual father in Orion/Ryan and learns from him, through a mystical communion, the stories that the other enslaved black people have long forgotten.
Does the slave master try to convert Orion to Christianity?
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