A Blues Ecology Gospel of Black American History?–Chapter 3: A Deep River Crossing?

Prior to discussing the emergence of Blackamerican music, Samuel Floyd seems to have well-captured the impact of modern Western road-building on Africa’s human ecology. To do so, he drew upon the previous scholarship of Basil Davidson:

Between 1498 on the East Coast and 1652 in the far south, amid destruction and conquest by Moroccan and European invaders, Africa was irrevocably damaged. This ruin and devastation led to societal insecurities, power conflicts, isolation, and a resulting economic, technological, and political dependency on the outside world (Davidson, 1991, 226-27). Over the course of the sixteenth century, as the Portuguese, well-armed and ruthless, took over the Indian Ocean ports, “they cut savagely across those many complex strands of commerce which centuries had woven between these myriad ports and peoples of the east; and they wrecked the whole fabric of the trade, leaving behind them when their force was spent little but ruin and disruption” (Davidson 1987, 198). “Ruin of the Indian trade and eclipse of its African terminals, overseas slaving, colonial conquest and many things besides, would obscure and hide the African past.” (202)

(Floyd 2017:12-3)

The competing religious empires that devastated Africa also brought about what Gerald Horne described as an “apocalypse” in the lands that were to become the Americas. It has also been suggested that such an apocalypse may provide the most appropriate marker for the beginning of Anthropocene (Lewis 2018).

In a sense, as the Ottomans pressed westward, Madrid and Lisbon began to cross the Atlantic as a countermove by way of retreat or even as a way to gain leverage. But with the “discovery” of the Americas, leading to the ravages of the African slave trade, the Iberians, especially Spain, accumulated sufficient wealth and resources to confront their Islamic foes more effectively….
The deadliness of the resultant apocalypse commenced virtually from the day Columbus reached terra firma in October 1492. In the decades immediately following, an estimated 650,000 indigenes were enslaved and by 1580, in Algiers, enslaved indigenes from the Americas were to be found. In other words, it was not just European microbes that devastated indigenes, it was also a conscious strategy of naked profiteering from enslaving combined with a maniacal desire to remove the existing population, with enslaved Africans then arriving to develop the land. Thus, by 1530, 69 percent of the enslaved in Puerto Rico—now a U.S. “possession”—were African. Simultaneously, a market in Europe quickly developed involving indigenous American women and children deployed as domestic or household slaves.

(Horne 2020: 11-16)

In spite of all of this, upon initially arriving in the Americas, enslaved Africans still somehow managed to maintain their ethnic cultural traditions, including drum speech, in part through what Fisher described as secret meetings for passing on community values from generation to generation (Fisher 1998: Kindle locations 110-251). Kola Abimbola related a Yoruba story of sacred human ecology flowing into the sea from a West African river that seems particularly relevant.

According to the Yoruba Ifa tradition, a woman with a child strapped to her back and a pot of herbs on her head for feeding the child, was running from a dispute with her husband, who also happened to be a hunter and a diviner. The woman fell while running and disappeared in a river of healing that flowed miraculously out of the pot of herbs, which also fell from her head. The woman’s name Yemoja, became associated with the sacred ecology of that particular river, which was also thus associated with motherhood and healing (Abimbola 2005: 128-9).

While it is certainly possible to understand this story from a perspective of Western theism and think of Yemoja as a god or goddess, it seems much more appropriate in this context of ecological spacetime to understand the Yemoja story as a vehicle through which listeners became conscious of one aspect or attribute of the Ashe or perhaps ecology of the Creator. Egyptologist Jan Assmann has also characterized modern European thought, particularly concerning theism, as an innovation that departed from traditional thought throughout most of the rest of the world (Assmann 1998).

In the quote below, Egyptologist Erik Hornung contrasts modern Western thought with ancient Egyptian thought. So, the issue is not so much a matter of any specific religion as it is a way of referring to religious experience. Hornung wrote:

Any application of a two-valued logic, which is based on a/not-a distinctions and on the law of the excluded middle, to Egyptian philosophical and theological thought leads at once to insoluble contradictions. We cannot avoid this fact, and “common sense” is no help here. We must choose between two alternatives. Either we can equate truly logical thought with two-valued logic, in which case Egyptian thought is undeniably “illogical” or “prelogical”; or we admit the possibility of a different type of logic which is not self-contradictory, which can only be a many-valued logic.

(Hornung 1982: 239)

Enslaved Africans from this Yoruba tradition looked back across the ocean from the port city of San Salvador, Bahia—where more Africans were enslaved than anywhere else in the Americas. They somehow managed to bring the consciousness of Yemoja’s healing and life-giving river across the Atlantic Ocean along with them.

So in the Candomble continuation of Yoruba tradition in the Portuguese language of Bahia, Yemoja became Iemanja as a mothering ecology of life in oceans and rivers throughout the world. The enslaved thus celebrated and expressed the consciousness of balanced (river and path) human ecology they brought with them through an ecological spacetime of drum, dance, and song that continues to reverberate globally even today.

I’ve embedded a link below to the website for an award-winning documentary movie produced in 2016 by Donna C. Reed and Donna Roberts Yemanjá: Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil. Watching it provided a large part of my inspiration for the hypothesis, I am developing here. I recommend checking it out. Even if you draw different perspectives from it, it is definitely worth watching.

Yemanjá:Wisdom from the African Heart of Brazil

In the language of the spirituals and the blues, Yemoja’s transatlantic pilgrimage seems to correspond with the message of the spiritual “Deep River“: both the mystical interpretation of the spiritual (Thurman 1975: 63-76) and the actual writing (Fisher 1998: Kindle locations 986-1576) of the song. It also seems to resonate in the Langston Hughes poem “Crossing Jordan”, which has been interpreted musically in the Taj Mahal song “Crossing“.

In the language of Biblical scripture, however, this Yemojah story seems to play an analogous role in the genesis of Blackamericans to the “light that shines on through the darkness” in the fifth verse of the prologue to John, and to the verse of light in Islamic scripture. It might also be imagined in the “gleam of our bright star” lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and as well in the seasonal daylight that begins to return every year after the winter solstice.

I’ve embedded a link below to a You-Tube video presentation of Omar Sosa’s Afro-Cuban jazz composition “Light in the Sky.” I happened upon it while writing this, and it seemed to express what I’m imagining as well. Check it out and see what you think. Even if you don’t agree with the hypothesis that I’m building here, I think you’ll find the music and imagery absolutely beautiful and inspirational. I did.

Embedded from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhUbzvc33x4
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