Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 431 words.)