Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

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As John Edgar Wideman indicates in an epigraph to the collection of short stories commencing with “Damballah,” the paternal sky deity of this name—“himself unchanged by life, and . . . at once the ancient past and the assurance of the future”—embodies the concepts of unity and history. Ryan’s invocation to this god, then, belies how he and other slaves are scattered in strange lands, severed from their families, tribes, and cultures. In addition to this physical displacement, Wideman suggests how, brainwashed to view the gods of “wild African niggers” as inauthentic, the plantation-born blacks are estranged from real powers such as Damballah and in turn have embraced the bogus Christianity taught them by whites.

Aunt Lissy, for example, is appalled when Ryan shouts Damballah’s name during a black preacher’s sermon on “Sweet Jesus the Son of God.” Her horror at what he has done reflects the typical longtime slave’s attitude that anyone, black or white, who is not a Christian is hedonistic, savage, and insane. However, she is the crazy one for accepting a Christianity that condones rather than condemns her enslavers’ harsh treatments.

In fact, in his behavior Master himself is unchristian. He justifies as “my Christianizing project” his bondage of blacks, of which Ryan’s in particular culminates with a murder by “ax and tongs, branding iron and other tools” wielded by several able-bodied whites. Though Master brags, “I concern myself with the spiritual as well as the temporal needs of my slaves,” he actually is preoccupied with neither. He fornicates with slave women at random despite the full cognizance of his anguished wife, and he worries about his slaves’ market values instead of providing them with properly sized clothes and undergarments. To these hypocrisies neither God nor Christ, as if nonexistent, replies.

On the other hand, when Orion alerts Damballah in the spirit world, power emanates. This response undercuts the religion of the slaves’ owners even more because as part of his ritual Ryan ironically traces a cross, a symbol associated with the triumph and might of Christianity. During one such rite “over the cross the air seemed to shimmer like it does above a flame or like it does when the sun so hot you can see waves of heat rising off the fields.” Similarly, the boy has heard that the crossed cuts on a whipped slave have attracted vengeful spirits who “had everything in they hands, even the white folks.” Thus, stressing the impotence of the Christian Father and Son, only spirits and gods connected to the slaves are active and responsive.