Obeah and the West Indian Short Story by Janelle Rodriques

I checked out this lecture a while back.

Janelle Rodriques is currently working on her doctorate degree at Bremen University, with a focus on Postcolonial Literature. She is presenting, in her lecture, the findings of her research for part of her dissertation, which is focussed on short stories written in and around 1939 – 1950 in the West Indies in the Caribbean, specifically detailing the history and significance of Obeah spiritual belief in literature of that time.

First of all, Rodriques describes the West Indies as an Anglophone Caribbean region which was colonialised in the late 16th century. Obeah is defined as an umbrella term for a number of different syncretic African-inspired Anglo-Caribbean spiritual and faith practices developed by West- Africans in response to their dislocation and enslavement. Furthermore, Rodriques describes it as a ‘way of life’ more than simply a religious practice. Common symbolism includes feathers, candles and roots, which all hold a specific spiritual meaning. Contrary to other spiritual practices such as Santeria, for example, Obeah does not have deities. However, there are similarities as well, as both reject the views supported by the Western philosophical framework of ‘Enlightenment’, meaning that Obeah does not support the idea that scientific facts are of higher value than spiritual belief. Obeah is a belief system based on a type of fluidity which transgresses materialism and spirituality. The social significance of Obeah is primarily based on the fact that it is part of a political counter-movement against Western colonial powers and hierarchical structures prevalent in the Caribbean.  Finding its beginnings in the horrors of slavery, with the term first being established after a slave-revolt in Jamaica in 1760, Obeah was a way of life and a way of separation from western culture. It was outlawed in the 18th century and has only recently been decriminalised. Rodriques describes Obeah as “pure potential” and “spiritual energy” and explains that its fluidity makes it difficult to narrate in prose fiction.

After defining and detailing Obeah and its social significance, Rodriques explores the topic of the short story. She illustrates that the 1930s were an important time for the short story, as a new consciousness was emerging which promoted a disconnect from western ideals and the establishment of unity among the colonised, regardless of political perspective and religion, with fiction being an important tool in counteracting the political structures prevalent at the time. This time marked the beginning of anti-colonialist literature as a political statement and although the focus lay on a regional audience, the message was to be conveyed internationally to create an even greater common consciousness of anti-colonialist sympathies. Rodriques exemplifies this by introducing the audience to a short story called A Case in Court which was written by a writer with the pseudonym ‘Pennib’ and published in The Gleaner magazine in 1939, with its language being Patoa, a mash-up of different African languages turned into a creolised English. She describes that short stories are a commonly utilized and relate to African traditions, one of the types of short stories being the Anansi story, which is also used in A Case in Court, with the protagonist being a poor, illiterate trickster who manages to outsmart the judge after being accused of practicing Obeah.

In brief, Obeah holds much significance as it is more than just a spiritual practice: it symbolises not only anti-colonialist ideals but also the liberation of the oppressed and is therefore subject to constant rejection and dismantlement by the colonial powers which it seeks to be liberated from.

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About AnekaB

Literature, Philosophy, Culture
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