ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
African American men learned embalming procedures by working on
bodies of Civil War soldiers, an early school for African American
morticians opened in 1920s Nashville, the drive-through funeral parlor
debuted in 1960s Atlanta, a legal challenge to funeral homes that were not
providing equal services to blacks and whites prevailed in 1970s Louisiana
Other Books by Karla FC Holloway
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By Karla FC Holloway
Mourning in African American Life
A Review by John Saillant
Passed On examines the life of death in African American culture and society. Karla F.C. Holloway argues that the vulnerability of African American to early death, particularly after the end of Reconstruction, has imbued African American life with the beliefs and practices of mourning and commemoration, including expressive funerals and a sense of the presence of haunts and spirits. “Black death is a cultural haunting,” she writes (p.3). “Your whole life is a funeral,” she records Joe Louis as having said (p.205). At the same time, she notes, African Americans have often thought of death as liberation. Mourning practices have been both humanizing and sacralizing in circumstances that have dehumanized and desecrated African American life. the book is a memorial for her son, Bem Kaylin Holoway, who died in his early twenties while attempting with two companions to flee from prison. His funeral sermon, ‘The promise of Hope in a Season of despair,” by maurice O. Williams, author, minister, and teacher, appears as the last chapter of Passed On.
Holloway studied mourning rituals, visited graveyards, and interviewed morticians and directors of funeral homes throughout the United States as well as absorbing evidence from Richard Wright’s death in Paris in 1960 and black cult members’ deaths in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. The South, where she lives and where her son died, looms large in her argument. Violent deaths–therefore early ones–came for victims of Jim Crow. Lynching and the execution of convicts between 1882 and 1930 meant that one African American was put to death on an average of every four days in the South. The migration of African American southerners to northern cities caused an increased mortality among the children of the migrants, who were placed in new disease environments as well as in crowded urban conditions, but it also meant that many journeyed in a reverse migration to the South to participate in the funeral of a loved one. Some African Americans, like Booker T. Washington in New York in his last illness, possibly in search of treatment, determined to pass on and be buried in the South. He died in Alabama the morning after completing the long train ride from New York.
Resistance to the Civil Rights movement brought its own violent deaths, including those of young people, even children. Southern African Americans have long been on the funerary cutting edge: African American men learned embalming procedures by working on bodies of Civil War soldiers, an early school for African American morticians opened in 1920s Nashville, the drive-through funeral parlor debuted in 1960s Atlanta, a legal challenge to funeral homes that were not providing equal services to blacks and whites prevailed in 1970s Louisiana, and a black-owned company markets embalming fluids particularly for use in children’s bodies in contemporary Arkansas.
James Baldwin appears, in his commentary on the serial killing of young men in Atlanta a quarter-century ago, to articulate the premise of many works in African American letters, including Passed On. this is a survivor’s tale. John Marrant, Olaudah Equiano, Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Malcolm X all crafted narratives from this premise. It informs Phillis Wheatley’s poetry. It also operates in landmark modern works like Sterling Brown’s “Odyssey of Big Boy,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Jacob Lawrence’s migration paintings, Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage,” Archie Shepp’s Fire Music, Michael Harper’s “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” Albert Murray’s The Hero and the Blues, and Toni Morrison’s Sula.
Holloway’s book is a survivor’s tale, itself built on remembrances of survivors as various as Mamie Till Bradley (Emmett Till’s mother) and Flukey the Gambler, who interred his son, gunned down in 1983 in his young manhood, in a Cadillac-shaped coffin, complete with a steering wheel and whitewall tires. Flukey himself was later buried in a glass-topped casket with a telephone in his hands to symbolize his business. “Seven thousand people came to see his body,” Holloway reports, “some wearing T-shirts sporting the slogan ‘Flukey the Gambler Lives Forever'” (p. 185). A mordant humor, often one of the survivor’s tools, surfaces occasionally in the book. Holloway records the common preference for black cosmeticians for funerals, since white ones tend to make the deceased “look dead.” Probably no other academic book discusses the “dead Jheri-Kurl” (pp. 30-31).
Passed On is a Mules and Men for the early twenty-first century. Higher praise is hard to express. Zora Neale Hurston at once set a high standard for authors dealing with African American folklore and offered for her times–as Holloway does for our times–a metaphor for the folklorist. Born in 1891 in Florida, Hurston studied at Howard University and Barnard College in the 1920s. She traveled from New York to the South several times in the late 1920s to collect folklore, publishing Mules and Men in 1935. Apparently unsentimental to the core, Hurston recorded the life-giving and the death-dealing practices of African American Floridians and Louisianans. Some of these, like folk cures for gonorrhea and syphilis, Hurston knew, entailed death when life was desired.
Much like Kabnis, of Jean Toomer’s Cane, she understood the differences between herself and the people she studied even as she interacted intimately with them. And she was impatient with fakelore and dismissive of it. Those of us who enjoy the resonances of the song “John Henry” can at best find it bracing that she dismissed it as without roots in black life. The metaphor for the folklorist given in Mules and Men is an independent, educated, and sexually adventurous woman. As a character in the book, she travels independently, even into dangerous situations, in search of material. Her possession of an automobile makes some of her male informants dependent on her. New Orleans Hoodoo men propose her assumption of their duties after they retire, but she knows that she will return to New York and compose a book.
he life of the folklorist is not the life of the folk. The sexual dimensions of the book are obscure — almost certainly purposely so — but some women in Florida suspected her of intimacies with their men, several of the Hoodoo rituals required her nudity in the company of men, and one of the rites in particular obligated her to abstain from sexual intercourse for a set time. One of the illustrations of Mules and Men is an erotic ink drawing of Hurston’s character prone on a bed–a depiction of one of the ceremonies in which she participated.
Holloway matches Hurston’s unswerving faithfulness to folklore and her Kabnis-like awareness of being both part of those she studies and separate from them. If Hurston’s demonstration that African Americans had a vibrant culture of their own was needed in the early twentieth century, then Holloway’s contact with the funeral and mourning practices of ordinary people is needed in our own time. For we are awash in fakelores of the nation at large as well as of its racial and ethnic groups. Nostalgia pays and plays in our time. Our sense of folk heritages is often cartoonish. One of our challenges is to face and, in some instances, commit ourselves to traditions that have not been sentimentalized and commodified.
Holloway offers an evocative example of the traditional and the possibilities of her own relationship to it in the funeral of her mother, who, as Holloway was to do after her, had in Alabama joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority while at Talladega College. The chapter members planned an AKA ritual at the funeral–a reading of the name of the deceased and a placing of fronds of ivy (the AKA symbol) in her coffin, all performed by sorors in white dresses. Attending her own mother’s funeral, but without the requisite white dress, Holloway was rebuffed in her request to share in the ritual.
She continues: “Although I was mightily chagrined at the imposition of this regulating ritualistic symbolism, which loomed larger for the membership than did the fact that this was my mother for whom they were performing the ritual, my irritation did dissipate during the actual ceremony, which was quite beautiful and moving. I sat with my family in the church pews while my mother’s sorors filled the aisles of the church and surrounded her coffin. Just as their ceremony came to its conclusion, one of the members came to me with the last ivy vine and asked me to place it in the casket. By that time, I was overcome with grief and memory, as well as the not-insignificant impact of the impressive presence of nearly a hundred women (all wearing white) and of the ivy that, in its abundance, was nearly spilling from the coffin where my dearest and beloved mother lay. And I walked forward, and tucked the last leaf into the soft folds of the fabric where she lay” (p. 172).
One wonders whether the pseudo-traditions marketed around us could elicit such a deep response or so much loyalty. Indeed, the pseudo-traditional reverses the relationship between the individual and ritual that Holloway describes so well, subordinating a tradition to us instead of, as in the AKA rite, us to a tradition.
But when we move from Mules and Men to Passed On the metaphor for the folklorist changes, although each is true to its time. Hurston depicted herself as an independent woman and sexual adventurer: she was both distant from the folk and intimate with them. Holloway depicts herself as a woman in mourning, mother of an emotionally-disturbed son who had fallen from minor crimes against property, to imprisonment by officials unresponsive to his need for therapy, to capital crimes against persons, and to a last offense as he fled on foot before an armed, mounted prison guard.
She is a mother who visits cemeteries, funeral homes, and mortuary schools (and sometimes listens to Prince as she does so–“I Would Die 4 U?” or “Sign o the Times?”). A degree of intimacy is created by the common experience of mourning for one’s children. Holloway’s metaphor is just as central for our time as Hurston’s was for hers. Most of us should know this because we know about the circumstances of many contemporary parents and children.
If we forget this, Passed On reminds us, with its accounts of parents burying a child, congregations commemorating the innocent, youngsters murdering other young people, and children planning their own funerals. One boy, for instance, wants to be buried with his hands posed in “peace signs,” while a girl leaves a letter with directives for her funeral, including, for her mother, “what to wear” (p. 148). African American culture has given the world figures through which we can understand America–the runaway slave, the migrant, the blues singer, the invisible man, the jazz player, to mention a few. The mourning mother is a figure in this line and is, unfortunately, likely destined for the same relevance and longevity.
Copyright (c) 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved.
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Karla Holloway is the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and Dean of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Duke University. Her research and teaching interests focus on literary and cultural studies, twentieth century African and African-American literature and linguistics and the association between literature and linguistics. She is the author of four books, most recently Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character and has recently completed her fifth book, Passed on: African American Mourning Stories — A Memorial. This project is a cultural and historic look at bereavement, death, dying, and burial in twentieth century African America. firstname.lastname@example.org
Karla FC Holloway is a distinguished scholar, writer, and public figure. She began researching African American death and dying over a decade ago. During the course of her research she attended funeral directors’ conventions, interviewed ministers, casket makers, and grieving relatives, and visited the gravesites of dozens of prominent African Americans. While she was writing Passed On, she experienced the deaths of her son and her mother in 2000, both of which touch the narrative in moving and personal ways.
She was Director of Duke’s African American Studies Program from 1995 to 1999. She has taught at Duke since 1992 and has also taught at North Carolina State University, Western Michigan University, and Old Dominion University. She has received numerous rewards for her teaching and research.
Holloway has appeared on PBS and NPR and has written for various publications, including Emerge and Belles Lettres. She is also the author of Mooring and Metaphors: Culture and Gender in Black Women’s Literature. She is currently speaking around the country to audiences ranging from doctors to ministers to writers on death and dying, end-of-life and palliative care, and the African American experience.
Passed on: African American Mourning Stories — A Memorial.. Duke University Press $24.95
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By Wole Soyinka
Aké: The Years of Childhood is a memoir of stunning beauty, humor, and perception
a lyrical account of one boy’s attempt to grasp the often irrational and hypocritical world of adults that equally repels and seduces him. Soyinka elevates brief anecdotes into history lessons, conversations into morality plays, memories into awakenings. Various cultures, religions, and languages mingled freely in the Aké of his youth, fostering endless contradictions and personalized hybrids, particularly when it comes to religion. Christian teachings, the wisdom of the ogboni, or ruling elders, and the power of ancestral spirits
who alternately terrify and inspire him
all carried equal metaphysical weight. Surrounded by such a collage, he notes that “God had a habit of either not answering one’s prayers at all, or answering them in a way that was not straightforward.” In writing from a child’s perspective, Soyinka expresses youthful idealism and unfiltered honesty while escaping the adult snares of cynicism and intolerance. His stinging indictment of colonialism takes on added power owing to the elegance of his attack.
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By Derrick Bell
In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school’s hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell’s fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard’s president and all of the school’s black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination.
Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of Bell’s And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back in some of these ominous allegories, which speak from the depths of anger and despair. Bell now teaches at New York University Law School.Publishers Weekly
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By Peter Edelman
If the nations gross national incomeover $14 trillionwere divided evenly across the entire U.S. population, every household could call itself middle class. Yet the income-level disparity in this country is now wider than at any point since the Great Depression. In 2010 the average salary for CEOs on the S&P 500 was over $1 millionclimbing to over $11 million when all forms of compensation are accounted forwhile the current median household income for African Americans is just over $32,000. How can some be so rich, while others are so poor? In this provocative book, Peter Edelman, a former top aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and a lifelong antipoverty advocate, offers an informed analysis of how this country can be so wealthy yet have a steadily growing number of unemployed and working poor. According to Edelman, we have taken important positive steps without which 25 to 30 million more people would be poor, but poverty fluctuates with the business cycle.
The structure of todays economy has stultified wage growth for half of Americas workerswith even worse results at the bottom and for people of colorwhile bestowing billions on those at the top. So Rich, So Poor delves into what is happening to the people behind the statistics and takes a particular look at the continuing crisis of young people of color, whose possibility of a productive life too often is lost on their way to adulthood.
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By Bart D. Ehrman
The evocative title tells it all and hints at the tone of sensationalism that pervades this book. Those familiar with the earlier work of Ehrman, a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of more than 20 books including Misquoting Jesus, will not be surprised at the content of this one. Written in a manner accessible to nonspecialists, Ehrman argues that many books of the New Testament are not simply written by people other than the ones to whom they are attributed, but that they are deliberate forgeries. The word itself connotes scandal and crime, and it appears on nearly every page. Indeed, this book takes on an idea widely accepted by biblical scholars: that writing in someone else’s name was common practice and perfectly okay in ancient times. Ehrman argues that it was not even then considered acceptablehence, a forgery.
While many readers may wish for more evidence of the charge, Ehrman’s introduction to the arguments and debates among different religious communities during the first few centuries and among the early Christians themselves, though not the book’s main point, is especially valuable.Publishers Weekly / Forged Bart Ehrmans New Salvo (
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of a Growing Religion in America
By Miguel A. De La Torre
This book by Miguel De la Torre offers a fascinating guide to the history, beliefs, rituals, and culture of Santeria — a religious tradition that, despite persecution, suppression, and its own secretive nature, has close to a million adherents in the United States alone. Santeria is a religion with Afro-Cuban roots, rising out of the cultural clash between the Yoruba people of West Africa and the Spanish Catholics who brought them to the Americas as slaves. As a faith of the marginalized and persecuted, it gave oppressed men and women strength and the will to survive. With the exile of thousands of Cubans in the wake of Castro’s revolution in 1959, Santeria came to the United States, where it is gradually coming to be recognized as a legitimate faith tradition.
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By Irshad Manji
In Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji paves a path for Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop so many of us from living with honest-to-God integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities. Since publishing her international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has moved from anger to aspiration. She shows how any of us can reconcile faith with freedom and thus discover the Allah of liberty and lovethe universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them. Among the most visible Muslim reformers of our era, Manji draws on her experience in the trenches to share stories that are deeply poignant, frequently funny and always revealing about these morally confused times.
What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from expressing their need for religious reinterpretation? What scares non-Muslims about openly supporting liberal voices within Islam? How did we get into the mess of tolerating intolerable customs, such as honor killings, and how do we change that noxious status quo?
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 23 June 2008