A Way of See(k)ing: Feature Address at the launch of Fr. J. Lambert St. Rose’s ‘In Turbulent Waters’

I was asked to give the feature address at the launch of Fr. J. Lambert St. Rose’s new book, ‘In Turbulent Waters’, not as many believe, on the merit of my superlative conduct as a Catholic, but on the merit of the work I had done exploring the spirit world that Fr. St. Rose is clearly well acquainted with. My research on Obeah for an Mphil dissertation has been ongoing for about three years and of course my confusion concerning what to do with the Catholic Christian tradition that I still have links to. Some friends asked for the feature address, and I did promise to post it on my blog so below is the feature address i delivered. I alert the reader to a few additions I have made:

Concerning the state of their knowledge about Obeah the Barbados Council in 1789 admitted: “Of their arts, we know nothing.”(Palmie, 316) Despite this early proclamation, Obeah continued to be virulently and violently policed in the Caribbean, in one form or another, for a century and a half more.  Or was this an early proclamation at all? The first obeah law was passed after Tacky’s rebellion in Jamaica in 1760, a law meant “to Remedy the Evils Arising from Irregular Assemblies of Slaves” (Paton, 5) Institutions of power for a long time have shown a reluctance to know what Obeah is, and have vacillated between spiritual and secular conceptions of it—- both aimed at justifying its obliteration. At one point they were inclined to believe that these Obeah men were in league with the Devil, (the Devil who would aid and abet somehow in the overthrow of the plantation system) and others who thought that these Obeah men and women were rationalists, who were merely swindling people of their money. Diana Paton’s paper Obeah acts charts this evolution of British-colonial belief or some may say, superstition, through the British-colonial law-making concerning this practice.

In other cases, persons who have suffered from that certain kind of cultural dislocation that Father St. Rose speaks about constantly in his book, and are seeking to respond to agents and mechanisms that foster this dislocation have sought to ingratiate or to conceive of Obeah differently. Most immediately in my mind, is Trinidadian Master Artist LeRoi Clarke’s assertion that in his art, he is wukkin Obeah, and Jamaican poet Kei Miller’s poem that speaks of Obeah as “mostly” an anti-colonial force, a point of view he shares ironically with the British law-makers back in the day, although he of course views this anti-colonial spiritual assault as positive, as liberating as perhaps the famous Bois Caiman ceremony that preceded and brought about the Haitian revolution. Yet even closer to home, we have the poet John Robert Lee, in his poem ‘Lusca’ who bemoans his lack of direct connection with the local lore, and/or perhaps distantly admires the connection Derek Walcott seemed to have with these. But even Walcott, in his poem ‘White Magic’ seems to be dealing with these spiritual beings in the same way in which he deals with Greek myth, as something that is useful and worthy, not something that is to be feared or truly encountered, nor is he a participant in a moral community that does not deny these spirits their complexity. These approaches through art therefore has ironically, in trying to assert the worth of these beliefs and survivals have denied them their true size and magnitude, and participation in the world to some degree or other. But like Emile Durkheim, I’ve always believed that “the most barbarous and most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of life either individual or social.” (2-3) (Addition: In the Anglophone Caribbean poetry I have come across engaging with that world, the best are Kwame Dawes’ ‘Eat’; Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Into Darkness’ and Christian Campbell’s ‘Legba’)

in turb 2in turb 3

I talk about all these black/ Afro/Indo-descended artists, primarily because of the delightful surprise of the starting point of Fr. St. Rose’s book. It started off repeatedly speaking of the ancestors, the ancestors, the ancestors. And I was indeed, at first confused. For Catholicism is a faith that does place a certain premium on tradition and ancestors. With its assertion of not being strictly ‘sola scriptura’ it does seem to have accepted other sources for its traditions and beliefs and doctrines other than the Bible(scribal). It may even carry latent within it, the deposits of an oral tradition dating far back and deep down into the spiritual history of the Middle East or as some scholars have asserted, Africa. It became clearer however, as I read about Listwa time (Story time) and as I read the vignettes or short stories that build Fr. St. Rose’s journey toward accepting and understanding the unique character of his Ministry, his calling. Now who, in my mind are Fr. Lambert’s ancestors in the faith, in this region. We can start perhaps with Barthelomew de Las Casas who made that earthshaking decision to enslave Africans; or Pere Labat over in Martinique who devised many techniques concerning sugar production but also techniques of punishing fugitive or insubordinate slave; or Father Charles Jesse who seemingly put an end to Kèlè, the religious tradition brought by indentured Africans who came after Emancipation, and worshipped African deities Shango and Ogoun in the hills of Babonneau. Or, perhaps Paba, Father Patrick Anthony, who decided that these ‘things’, these people (whose money had helped build many of these Catholic church buildings) poor as they were, these people who were so devoted to the faith, who made it a part of their La Rose or Maguerite Festivities, those people who purchased the front seats that the church auctioned off once upon a time, were worthy of proper study, were worthy of understanding, were worthy in fact of respect and admiration. This is the tradition or the shift in tradition that I see In Turbulent Waters following from. It takes Catholicism from being a marker of class, as it has been for many, as a safety valve from the world of the folk, and brings them into direct contact with their society. And perhaps similar efforts can set in motion the stilted process of creolisation, of inner spirituo-cultural integration, that poet Kamau Brathwaite insists remained unfinished, and has left us half-creole, half-colonial.

redemption-song-001_high-res_0 Bois Caiman

However, the nature of the interaction this time is even more important, even more pertinent. Fr. St. Rose, establishes us as a people, establishes Listwa time, and aligns evil with a disavowal of what our traditions taught us. He is able now to see good and evil in a more complex way. The history of good and evil is interesting in the Caribbean. Obeah laws reveal a racial bias, that they were race-making instruments that sought to draw a line between not a true cognition or belief in the sacred and profane, but between one race and another. Goodness, for the post-emancipation Christian black persons therefore did understandably have curious connections to class, to advantageous position, to cultural identification with those who were seemingly eternally ‘good’: Europeans. From the point of view of the enslaved, many of them saw the master’s various punishments and their power as coming from High Science, or a greater Obeah than any of them ever would have practiced. Not only that, but the post-emancipation Christian also had/has to deal with the fact that the instruments of some Obeah men (of a particular strain) were indeed imported from Europe and America: the Delaurence, the Albertus Magus, or the book that was found after that famous 1905 murder of a young Barbadian boy in St. Lucia for evil purposes, the Petit Albert, which is an heirloom from our French ancestors. I am even inclined to believe that persons may have believed that the Black Mass had something somehow to do with black skin or black people, when the first (and I am sure the second, third etc.) recorded Black Mas(s) was “celebrated”, if that is the correct term for it, in France. I am tempted to echo Fr. St. Rose’s claim that Evil has no ethnicity—- but I am not sure that I trust, civilized Caribbean man, hundreds of years after Las Casas, after the first Obeah law which was brought about by the enslaved Tacky and others seeking their freedom, (their FREEDOM)— I am not sure I trust many or any of us to recognize that evil has no ethnicity, and neither does good.

in turb 5

This is the challenge that Fr. St. Rose’s premise presents before today’s faithful. This is the greatest challenge that the book provides. That evil IS in fact a deviation from something GOOD that exists among these people, the folk. At times he vacillates, and his position is aligned to perhaps the more sympathetic of the colonial administrators or liberation theologians: “For effective priestly ministry and in an effort to win souls back to the Lord, it was imperative that a priest be familiar with those fragments of African culture that still linger within the people’s consciousness and influence their faith and patterns of judgment.” (14) Was it African culture that made these three men, with their Petit Albert book, with precise instructions for the removal of the boy’s heart and genitals, do what they did? Was it African culture that provided that opportunity? Let us look at some African culture, some healing Obeah in the Caribbean. Matyé from Chassin, a nèg Djinè (Negro from Guinea who came during Post-Emancipation era) started a hospital for those in the community who at the time, we are sure, could not afford the high prices and indifference of medical practitioners on the island. (We know that not much has changed there.) Matyé and company, gave free care to those in the community. And their reason for it, their— dare I say Yoruba—reasons for it, were that what was freely given to them should not be given to another for pay or compensation. That was the principle. Maybe this validates the high prices doctors charge now—- they paid a high price for this so they charge big money for it, till death do us part. Or what about the local pansè or the local Gadè who does in fact practice, for free, and chooses sometimes, based on their Catholic conception of sin, not to serve adulterers, people carrying guns, people living in sin? What about their claim that their powers have been given by God? Can God find among the African-descended, prophets and healers in this depraved time? What about the fact that they claim their abilities (or GIFTS as they insist it be called as opposed to power) recede when they are living in sin, or drink too much rum etc? These are complex questions that all Catholics have to answer when they throw around the term ‘evil’. How much have we all progressed from associating evil with the poor, the old and frail, the black or African (or the Indian bogeyman myths) when by now we should gotten it into our heads that evil (anachronous as this sounds) has never had a colour.

in turb 6

Here and there we see the forward thinking, where in one Catholic parish the church had given a plaque to one of those healers for his assistance to members of the parish. Now certainly not all of these ‘healers’ are indeed healers. But more and more in my own research I had to be able to discern evil through the man or woman, through their intentions and their level of restraint. I had to remove from my mind that a people or culture or faith was somehow embedded with evil.  More and more I had to look for external emanations of/from their hearts and not their skin, or the materials they used or the places where they lived.

We have a bit of a beginning in Fr. St. Rose’s book, an opportunity to start from a more complex place. He puts us in a place that reaffirms some of the things I felt the Catholic Church was losing. We start off from the folk culture as something valid, as something which evil perpetrated by man is not a part of, but a deviation from the tradition we have gotten from our ancestors, whoever or wherever these ancestors are or are from. He has authorized the world of the living (and as they say/said in Montserrat of Jombies, the loving dead), and the fact that the dead need to be peacefully put to rest sometimes, that not all such manifestations require vehemence or putting down, but require mercy, understanding, grace and sympathy. (cf. The Voudou ceremony of Retirer d’en bas d’leau) A perfect example within the book takes place in the semi-fictional Solfatara town, in a section called the Tip of the Ice Berg. Why I deem this authorizing of the spiritual world in this way, in such detail, to be important, is because of the domineering influence of the secular and the scientific empiricists who require material proof to validate everything. It has now become a marker of social class to say that you don’t believe in these things, that these things come from the stirrings of inferior minds, or as one friend said to me, these things do not appeal to the ‘old time Catholics’ when ironically I thought, these were those to whom it mattered and was most real. Fr. St. Rose breaks apart this myth that civilized behaviour requires a rejection of such a spirit world, that belief in the spirit world is a kind of shibboleth for the barbarous and backward. (It is important to note that this is the pervading influence among St. Lucia’s growing mis-educated population)

I have many quarrels with the book, but I am no less grateful for its advent. It for instance reconciles the worlds that I have seen a close relative battle with. He lives with the repeating and compelling vision of seeing his grandfather running through the rain after his death, into his hut, seeking shelter. This relative has had immense trouble reconciling this with his more secular and empiricist belief (yes, belief) that the dead are dead, and the spirit world is largely mythical.

Let this book in any way (and for the discerning reader it should not) steer you toward old generalizations based on race and class. Go to it honestly, faithfully, and mercifully. See with eyes for the hearts of men, not for their ‘quaint’ rituals, their ethnicity, their socio-economic background, their age. For St. Lucians, and our exploration of the spirit world and our own belief in the spirit world that Fr. St. Rose has resuscitated, the challenge is that we develop more complex and more honest eyes in looking for evil, and justly rejecting it. Can we reject therefore the many priests who used grimoires to find treasure, just as we reject the false prophets and the evil doers? Can we reject the actions of St. Luce Leon, Edgar St. Hill, Montoute Edmunds, who were convicted of slaying Rupert Mapp in 1905 without diagnosing evil dermatologically— in their skin or their class? Can we see the goodness of a man, as that one parish in this island has done, who heals his brother, poor as he is, without seeking profit or compensation, who freely freely gives, as he has received what God has freely given? For this time of the indefinite, the erasure of important boundaries, the every disfigured shape of our now oblong cosmos, the post-modern love of indefinition, the church must recalibrate, must reintegrate itself on its principles, must start from where it is, must grow roots, and with these roots, see with new, unbiased, undiscriminating eyes. For such a quest, this book is a wonderful beginning.

Thank you.

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